The Fourth of the Four: Caliph Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 40H)


One of the least explained events in history is the conversion of the Middle-east to Islam. At the cost of three earliest heads of state, and around 30,000 lives in 30 years’ time, 30 million people, spread over 6.5 million square kilometers, discarded their ancestral religions (Judaism, Christianity, with all its dozens of sects, Magi, Zoroastrian, Mithraism, Mardukianism, Ashurianism, Coptism, atheism and paganism of all kinds) and embraced a foreign religion, brought by foreigners, speaking a foreign language who came in as hateful conquerors. How did it happen, nobody knows. It was a miracle.The conflicts within the tough 30 years of transformation, were indeed, no more than hiccups, in view of the vast changes brought over a vast area involving a vast number of peoples and their culture. One of the state and stately heads that rolled during the hiccup was that of `Ali ibn abiTalib, the fourth Caliph of Islam.

The story of Ali b. abiTalibis the story of a pauper who rose up to be the head of a vast empire, and the undisputed intellectual and spiritual head of a vaster empire: both positions that he did not aspire for, choosing to remain an unknown pauper to the end. His death at the hands of (an already identified) assassin, who danced before him for days and weeks, was as remarkable as his life. He looked at the coarse, ruffian louts, who enforced their company on him during the last days of his life, and begged God to send death upon him. But, perhaps, little did he realize that these obscene followers of obscene sects will disperse after his head had rolled in the sand, and give birth to, within a generation or two, some of the most remarkable personalities the Middle-east ever produced. No blood flows in the cause of Truth, but coming generations pick fruits from the blood sunk into the fields by the great souls of the past.

He was one of the four sons of the remarkable, but poverty-stricken, Grand Old Man of Makkah: Abu Talib, leader of the BanuHashim, holder of the honored pagan religious positions. A true man of a true character, he stood by the Prophet, without declaring faith in him, but bore, what sworn friends and protectors cannot normally bear. That happened at the extreme end of his life, when the unbelieving Quraysh decided to boycott the entire BanuHashim clan and lay a three-year siege around Abu Talib’s quarters, for not handing his nephew, Muhammad, to them, so that they could kill him and kill the new rising religion. Abu Talib stood firm, stood the starvation, and died soon after the siege was lifted. But his wife, Fatimah, a daughter of Asad, had turned Muslim and migrated to Madinah.

`Ali was Abu Talib’s last son, (born ten years before Muhammad was raised as a Prophet). Talib was the first and the other two were Aqeel and Ja`far. His two daughters were Umm Hani and Jumanah. Pitying his poverty, the future Prophet and his another uncle, `Abbas b. `Abd al-Muttalib, offered to take a son each into their financial care. The Prophet adopted `Ali, while `Abbas took Ja`far who was among the earliest Muslims, although `Ali preceded him in faith. Some would give him the honor of the first male to believe, although, in correct opinion, Abu Bakr has that distinction.

Talib never embraced Islam (at least, not openly) and so was forced into traveling with the Quraysh to Badr to face the Prophet, but where he ran into altercation with one of them remarking that he lacked the zeal of a committed Kafir. He returned to Makkah in a huff without participating in the battle, but disappeared shortly after and was never seen again. No one knows what happened to him. Ja`far embraced Islam, and, having migrated to Abyssinia, was the one who delivered the historical speech that converted the Christian king to Islam. He died a martyr at Mu`ta in 5 H. Aqeel, the second son of Abu Talib, became Muslim in the year Makkah fell. Posthumously, he contributed nine of his twelve sons as martyrs to Hussain’s cause at Karbala.

The first time a historian notices `Ali is when a guest of `Abbas notices him praying with the Prophet at the Makkan Grand Mosque, with the companion-in-faith, the ever faithful companion of life, Khadija behind. Said the man amazed at the sight, “God! This is something great. Who could these be?” “Ah,” answered `Abbas, “That’s my nephew Muhammad who says he is addressed by my Lord and your Lord, his wife Khadijah and `Ali, another nephew of mine.” He added, “Let me tell you. Under the heaven there is none else but these three who follow this religion.”

`Ali is next sighted when the Prophet invited a select group of his clan, served them dinner, and inquired who would be his associate in the spread of his Call. `Ali, big-stomached, thin-legged lad, who had helped in the preparation of the dinner for 30, volunteers with an “I,” while others watch with fallen jaws. `Ali is also on the history-pages as he accompanies the Prophet, in the stillness of night, to the Ka`ba. He tries to support the Prophet on his shoulders so he could climb to the roof. But the lad cannot take the load. So the Prophet offers his shoulders. `Ali climbs and topples down the idols on the roof. The two leave hurriedly before the noise wakes up someone in the neighboring houses. That wasn’t the last time `Ali was breaking the idols. When Makkah fell in 8 H., the Prophet sent him with a contingent of 150 riders to destroy the idols and deities of the Tayy tribe. In Madinah too, once `Ali was sent to a certain tribal dwellings to find not an idol but break it, and not a (raised grave) but level it to the ground.

Thereafter, and but for one or two incidents, Makkan history pages are silent about `Ali until he is encountered by the Quraysh stalwarts as they enter into the Prophet’s house early morning, having stood night-long waiting for him to emerge and their swords to fall. They find `Ali snoring in the Prophet’s bed. The deep sleep was perhaps justified by the Prophet’s instruction to hand over things in his trust, to their owners before he too left Makkah. If he was entrusted to do so, `Ali must have told himself, “Surely, the Quraysh will not be able to kill me.” The Prophet was, at all events, on his way to Madinah. The Quraysh roughed him up a little, detained him in the Grand Mosque for a while, but had to release him for want of any proof of involvement in the Prophet’s escape. A couple of days later, `Ali was trekking the same road on foot, to arrive with swollen feet that brought tears into the Prophet’s eyes.

At the function for organizing brotherhood, `Ali was declared brother unto Suhayl b. Hunayf; an Ansari. In later years, he would become a Governor of Madinah while `Ali was in Iraq as a Caliph. He was with `Ali in the Siffin battle. Both were there almost in every battle after emigration; but `Ali played rather more important roles.

Having not been brought up on stomach-fulls of meals, indeed, on many meals missed,thatdid not, somehow, come in the way of `Ali growing into a man of exemplary courage. At Badr, the Prophet let him loose on the three renowned Quraysh fighters who challenged duals. `Ali – the least inexperienced of war – took on Walid b. `Utbah and beheaded him in no time. After the battle, he received an old camel as his share of the booty. But he lost it as quickly he had gained it. The detail will be here in a moment.

Sometime after the Badr battle, `Ali, then 21, requested the Prophet for Fatimah’s hand. He agreed to a paltry sum as mahr: it was 400 Dirham that `Ali raised by converting his coat of mail into cash. He decided to cut the camel that he had received after Badr, and another that the Prophet had gifted him lately, but the plan was foiled by Hamza. He had parked them in front of the house of an Ansari, wherein a song and drinks party was going on in full swing. Hamza was there too. So, when the singer coaxed him to an act of gallantry, he went out and slaughtered the two camels. `Ali was crest-fallen. He brought down the Prophet, but red-eyed Hamza was too drunk. The Prophet retraced his steps and a verse disapproving wine was revealed. But `Ali had lost his camels and perhaps borrowed money for the marriage feast. However, he seems to have learnt how to read and write. He was the one to write the Treaty at Hudaybiyyah in the 6th H., refusing to erase the words, “Messenger of Allah” from the document, when the Makkans insisted on grounds that if they accepted that, what is it they were fighting for? That was one reason, and the other was the humiliating conditions on which the Treaty was signed that `Ali, along with the rest, refused to terminate his pilgrimage, then and there, and return to Madinah, having achieved, so to say, nothing.

A strict follower of the Prophetic ways, `Ali even tried to imitate `Umar. When suggested that he alight into the “White Palaces” of the former Persian rulers of Iraq, he refused on grounds that earlier to him, `Umar had rejected the suggestion to alight therein. How closely he followed the Prophet’s ways can be judged from a single incident. At Khayber, when one of the forts could not be conqured, the Prophet promised to give the command to someone who will return as a conqueror. Next day, he gave it to `Ali and instructed him (apart from saying other things), “march forward and do not turn you back.” As `Ali took the banner from him and started to leave, the Prophet said, “And listen…” `Ali stopped, with his back to the Prophet. He did not turn back, because the Prophet had said, “March forward and do not turn your back!”

To `Ali, Islam came first, and before anything else. When his sister, Umm Hani, gave refuge to two of the Makkan pagans at the time Makkah fell, he all but beheaded them if not for the Prophet’s intervention upon Umm Hani’s complaint against her brother.

The pair – Ali and Fatimah – negotiated their honeymoon as best as they could. They slept on a goat-skin that was used for spreading cattle-feed during the day. Their hut had little or no furniture, and the pair went hungry quite often. `Ali had no money for trade, nor was he trained in any particular craft. But he knew how to cut grass, to which he resorted whenever hunger became unbearable. As grass was available only sparingly, he sold it as fodder in the markets. The Prophet might as well have seen him selling grass, yet, when hardships turned beyond endurance, husband and wife went to the Prophet seeking a slave or a servant. Fatimah complained that the skin of her hand was torn from running the mill-stone round and round, grindings floor; and `Ali added that he suffered chest-pain from working as a bucket-puller irrigating (Jewish) orchards. But they were shown no mercy because of the no-mercy load that the Makkans had off-loaded upon the budding community of believers in Madinah. Also, they had to be trained as soldiers of Allah who would inherit the Next world.

“By Allah,” the Prophet told them, “I cannot give you anything while the (dozens of) people on the rock (Ahl al-Suffah) fold their legs on their stomachs at night from hunger.” Later, he visited the two a bit late at night, and kneeling besides the two in bed, gave them a ritualistic formula in place of monetary help. He told them, “Sing the praises of your Lord, a hundred times (by this formula), before you go to bed,” and added, (salt to injury in our contemporary times), “This is better than what you have asked for.” Nonetheless, `Ali never gave up saying these words ever in his life. “Not even the night of the Siffin battle?” he was asked. He answered, “Not even that night.”

The Prophet visited the two quite often, and oftener when Fatimah gave birth to Hasan and Hussain. He visited them at pre-dawn hours too, to wake them up for the (non-obligatory) Tahajjud Prayers. At least once did `Ali betray irritation. After waking them the Prophet returned home, did some more Prayers and returned to see why wasn’t there any movement in `Ali’s house. He found them sleeping. He woke them up again. `Ali sat up, rubbed his eyes and said, “We Pray as much as Allah has destined for us. Our souls are in His hands. When He wishes to raise us up (from sleep), He raises us up.” The Prophet returned, slapping his thighs, repeating a Qur’anic revelation (18: 54), “But man is ever contentious in most things.”

A minor skirmish led `Ali to storm out of the house. When the Prophet inquired about his whereabouts, he was told that he was in the mosque. He found him sleeping there, half on a shroud, half on dust which covered his back. He said, in the unbelieving tender words, “Up, O Abu Turab (O, covered in dust)!” That became `Ali’s nick-name.

When `Ali intended to marry the daughter of Abu Jahl, an arch enemy of the Prophet, now dead, the Prophet remarked, “I am not declaring the lawful as unlawful; but the daughter of Allah’s enemy and my daughter will not be brought together under one roof.” So, he never married so long as Fatimah was alive. After her death, six months after the Prophet, he married several women, who altogether gave him over thirty children, of whom Hasan, Husain and Umm Kulthum were from Fatimah. None of the males survived after the massacre at Karbala in 61H, except Zayn al-`Abidin.

At Uhud (3H), the pagan flag was held by Talha b. `Uthman. Several times, the man challenged someone to meet him in duel. Finally, `Ali went down. Talha fell down as `Ali severed his leg. His underpants came off and the man of honor pleaded that he be spared until he could dress himself up. `Ali abandoned him. When fighting broke, he fought so hard as to receive sixteen injuries. But they could not have been severe for we find him answering the challenge of `Amr b. `AbdWudd, during the Battle of the Trench in 5H. `Amr was considered equivalent of a thousand men and initially refused to fight `Ali, since he did not wish to kill him. But it was `Ali who dispatched him to Hell. The man was so valuable to the Quraysh that they offered 10,000 for his corpse. The Prophet said (although his soldiers were starving), that he was in no need of either the odious corpse, or their money; they could have it free.

(To be completed)

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