The Fourth of the Four: Caliph Ali b. Abi Talib (Part-2)


The story of Ali b. abiTalib is 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. The first installment of this series on this fourth caliph of Islam was published in the December 2015 issue of Young Muslim Digest. Presented hereunder now is the second part of this brief biography of Ali b, abiTalib.

y now `Ali seemed to have gotten good skill at the kill. In the 6th year after Hijrah, when the Prophet laid siege to Jewish forts in Khayber, Marhab came out of one of the forts, singing poetry, challenging a dual. He was a powerful man, a proven fighter. `Ali volunteered and finished him off. Not surprisingly, `Ali had been chosen as one of the men to behead the treacherous men of BanuQuraizah, who had betrayed the Muslims when 20,000 pagan army came on against Madinah resulting in the battle of the Trench.

The only Prophetic campaign from which `Ali abstained was when he was placed in charge of Madinah, while the Prophet marched to Tabuk. The hypocrites made such taunting remarks that `Ali had to run his beast behind the Prophet to catch up and say that he had no wish to be branded a hypocrite. The Prophet told him, “Is it not enough that you be to me like Harun was to Musa, except that there will be no Prophet after me?” Thus reassured, `Ali returned. By placing `Ali in his stead at Madinah, and marching out with a force of 10,000, to a destination a thousand kilometers away, leaving behind hundreds of hypocrites, the Prophet perhaps left the message to them that if they misbehaved, they would find the person left in charge no easy man to deal with.

In the ninth year after Hijrah, and after Abu Bakr had left Madinah, leading the pilgrims to Makkah by the order of the Prophet, he received revelation serving notice to the pagans that they will not be able to perform pilgrimage in the coming year, if they remained pagans. It further said that all previous treaties stood annulled. Now, since the tradition among the Arabs was that treaties had to be annulled by the signatory himself or one of his own clan-men, the Prophet sent `Ali to join Abu Bakr to announce the annulment throughout Hajj days.

Then came the final assignment. In the tenth year after Hijrah, `Ali was sent to Yemen as a Judge and a caller to Faith. Khalid b. al-Waleed, Mu`adh ibn Jabal and Musa al-Ash`ari had preceded him demonstrating the Prophet’s eagerness to win the Yemenis to Islam without any military confrontation. Success came up smiling and the Prophet was extremely pleased to receive their delegates arriving at Madinah to enter into allegiance and receive religious instructions.

It is from Yemen that Àli arrived at Makkah to perform Hajj with the Prophet. He had brought with him 100 camels of sacrifice. He let his companions camped just outside Makkah so that they could ready themselves. But when he appeared after some sundry work, he found them dressed in embroidered clothes. He was upset and made them remove the fashionable apparels and wear ordinary clothes. They were quite displeased. All the way from Yemen too, he had been rather tight on them, enforcing the kind of discipline he followed: that of complete self-denial. When his colleagues met with the Prophet, they complained against his strict code of conduct and harsh rules of discipline. The Prophet made no comments then, after all, they were in Hajj. After the pilgrimage, and way outside Makkah, when they camped at a spring (ghadeer) called Khumm, he assembled the men around him and asked, “Am I not a friend of the believers?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “Then, whoever is my friend, should hold `Ali as his friend.” (This is the famous Ghadeer-e-Khumm incident, the basis of Shi`ah claim that only `Ali was the rightful Caliph after the Prophet.

`Ali remained close by during the Prophet’s final illness. One of those days the Prophet recovered a little and said, “Bring me writing material so that I can dictate that after which you will not be misguided.” But those around him thought that after all he was human, at that moment under the pressure of illness; was he in full presence of mind to dictate? Do we not have the Book of Allah in our possession? Some others thought that the writing material should be brought after all.

The Prophet was not pleased by the disagreement and ordered them all out. After that, he lived for five more days, but all that he had to say as his last words, and final testament were, “Dislodge the pagans out of the Peninsula,” or “Be mindful of the Prayers, pay Zakah and take care of the slaves,” or, “May Allah curse the Jews and Christians who converted the graves of their Prophets to objects of worship. Let not two religions coexist in the Peninsula.” Neither did he ask for writing material, nor made any testament other than the above. Indeed, he made a public address, too, one of those days, in which he mentioned nothing about who would succeed him. Did he have faith in his Companions? Perhaps the Shi`ah may ask themselves this question. However, his public sermon refutes the Shi`ah claim that he wished to nominate `Ali for Khilafah, but was prevented by the Companions, who would not supply him: as if Khilafah of this or that person can transform this world and the Hereafter. There never was a more fantastic idea to break away from for anyone who trusts his brain.

Abu Bakr was quickly nominated for Khilafah. None of the Companions ever uttered a word of dissent. But there seems to be some confusion about `Ali’s allegiance: did he enter into allegiance immediately, along with everyone else, or did he do it only after Fatimah’s death, whose prolonged illness engaged all his attention, or yet, did he do it twice to dispel doubts about his loyalty to Abu Bakr? One is tempted to think that some narratives were planted by mischievous elements to confute the issue, especially when we find `Ali, a couple of weeks after the Prophet’s death, tenaciously preventing Abu Bakr from going out to Dhu al-Qissah, where the apostates had gathered for onslaught on Madinah, on grounds that the Ummah would be headless without him. Bukhari reports that `Ali’s son Muhammad b. Hanafiyyah asked `Ali about who was the best of men after the Prophet. He answered, “Abu Bar.” He asked, “Who after him?” He answered, “`Umar.” Muhammad added that if he asked “Who thereafter,” `Ali would have said, “`Uthman,” and so he desisted.

One of those days, Fatimah met Abu Bakr to demand a share from the Prophet’s inheritance. Abu Bakr told her that he shall continue with grants to her from the state exchequer, but, as far as the Prophetic inheritance was concerned, it could not be given because the Prophet had said, “We Messengers are not inherited. Whatever we leave behind goes to charity.” According to some reports, she was satisfied with the answer, while other reports say she was not. The Shi`ah say that the report is untrustworthy, or Abu Bakr fabricated the content to deprive Fatimah of her share. But do they not understand that by reporting it Abu Bakr was depriving his daughter `A’isha also? And not only Abu Bakr, but `Umar is another narrator of the hadith and that by narrating the hadith `Umar was depriving his daughter Hafsa also of her share from the Prophet’s inheritance.

Fanaticism apart, the story goes that when the `Abbasids took over from the Umayyads, someone complained to al-Saffah, “O leader of the faithful. We are the progeny of `Ali. Help us against him who wronged us.” Saffah asked, “Who wronged you?” He answered, “Abu Bakr when he deprived Fatimah a share in the Fadak property.” Saffah asked, “Who came after Abu Bakr, and did he continue to deprive you?” The man replied, “Yes, it was `Umar.” Saffah asked, “Who came after him, and did he continue to deprive you?” He replied, “Yes. `Uthman came after him and he continued to deprive us.” Saffah asked, “And who came after him?” With that the mischievous man started looking sideward for a way out; (because, `Ali too had refused to allot a share from the Fadak property to Fatimah’s children Hassan and Hussain). But some people keep moaning and mourning to this day.

`Ali’s relationship with Abu Bakr did not remain cordial. They were never cordial. But rather, the relationship was that of love and respect. And it was mutual. When Ja`far, `Ali’s brother died, Abu Bakr married his widow. `Ali used to wear a certain apparel quite often in winters. When someone asked the reason, he said, “Why not? It was gifted to me by my friend `Umar.” Indeed more. `Ali gave his daughter Umm Kulthum to `Umar in marriage on request because `Umar wished to be counted among those related to the Prophet. She gave him a daughter who was named Ruqayyah and a son named Zayd. The Shi`ah have some unconvincing reasons for the marriage. `Ali, who said that none were nearer to the Prophet than Abu Bakr and `Umar, named one of his own sons as Abu Bakr and another as `Umar, as also his sons Hassan, Hussain and Zayn al-`Abideen each named their sons `Umar. Indeed, the trend of naming their offspring as `Umar carried on; long through the line of `Ali’s progeny who also named their sons and daughters as Talha, `Abd al-Rahman, `A’isha: names that are despicable to the non-Arab Shiàh, the self-acclaimed followers of the Hashemites; while, on the other hand, history reports of several examples of the Hashemites freely intermarrying with the BanuUmayyah, of whom `Uthman was one and of adopting the names `Umar and `A’isha.

`Umar had nominated a committee of six who were to nominate one of the six to Khilafah. Three opted out. There remained `Uthman and `Ali, with `Abdul Rahman the sixth as the arbiter. He consulted almost everyone of any importance in town and then asked the people to gather together in the Prophet’s mosque where the Khalifah would be named. After the Prayers, led by Suhayb al-Rumi, `Abd al-Rahman announced that he did not find as many people in favor of `Ali as in favor of `Uthman, hence, he was nominating him. `Ali was in the first row, while `Uthman, having arrived late, was lost somewhere in the last rows, in the jam-packed mosque. `Abd al-Rahman asked him to come forward and then pledged his own hand first. Next to pledge fealty was `Ali, and then the commoners began to mob `Uthman. That was about ten years after the Prophet’s death, i.e., in around 22 H.

Although things were going smooth on the surface in the newly founded Islamic Empire, they were not so at the bottom. The conversion of millions of people who had succumbed to the irresistible force of Islam and the moral force of those who had brought it to their lands was far from complete. Mere belief in our Lord’s oneness and Muhammad’s prophethoodhad not meant much for their practical lives, far from washing away the rotten ideas embedded in their minds for centuries. At best, their Islam was the Islam of a few rituals.

Two new elements proved fatal for some: civil rights and political freedom. For centuries they had lived under tyrannous kings and rulers, who treated them, their property, and their women and children as their personal property. While describing the Yarmuk battle of the 16th H., Gibbon wrote (who unwittingly draws the picture of the Americans and allies in Iraq in 2003 A.C.): “From the provinces of Europe and Asia, fourscore thousand soldiers were transported by sea and land to Antioch…” And, how they behaved with the locals can be gauged from the following footnote: “Some Greek officers ravished the wife, and murdered the child, of their Syrian landlord; and Manuel (the Roman commander) smiled at his undutiful complaint.” (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, v.5).

The Islamic laws granting rights – exactly as those of any Muslim – that these new-comers into Islam had never experienced in their entire history completely bowled them over. It was something too much, too sudden, and too exhilarating. Many lost their balance and began to imagine a lot, expect a lot and demand a lot. The realization of being equal to any Muslim, in word and spirit (which had in fact led them to Islam), encouraged them to demand not just simply political rights but the rights enjoyed by the chosen few of the Advisory Council, who, if they would not yield, could be, according to these ignorant adherents of Islam, coerced into yielding.

A second were the disgruntled elements, who are never happy under any government. They join every cause, and lend hand to every movement promising change, even if the change is not clearly defined, nor definitely promised, and likely to be worse.

A third element was of the extremist dogmatist, ignorant fanatics, a wholly headless group, whose entire philosophy can be summed up in a line or two. They are die-hard maniacs, little schooled in anything but the worst of everything, ever ready to cut away from the rest, on the basis that they are the only rightly guided ones, and the mainstream is the most misguided party. Finally, there were the hypocrites who lie low in ordinary times, but who would all but turn the world upside down, to reverse the order: from Islamic to non-Islamic.

The hearts of the last two groups were ignited by a mysterious man called `Abdullah b. Saba’, a former Jew. It is believed that he traveled from Iraq to Syria to Egypt to recruit men for his movement demanding change. But of course, all came in the most convenient garb: religious. Their slogans were the usual Allahu Akbar, Jihad, Reformation, and their oft-quoted sources of argument were Qur’an and Sunnah.

This led to upsurge of political disturbances that lasted for quite a few years until these elements armed themselves with knowledge, learnt to balance their acts, until the mischievous among them either reformed or died out, some violently, and until the head of our hero rolled in the dust: a heroic death of a heroic man.

By the last years of `Uthman’s caliphate, these elements became active. A delegation arrived from Kufah somewhere in the 33 H., demanding that their Governor be replaced; which `Uthman did. But that did not placate the rebellious moods. Political troubles kept simmering until a month and a half or so before `Uthman’s demise, a large group (around 3-4,000) arrived from Egypt, Basrah and Kufah, disguised as `Umrah visitors, met `Uthman and demanded explanations for his policies. After having spoken to them, `Uthman sent `Ali to work out a deal. He did that skillfully and was able to turn them back to their destinations. But, on the way back, perhaps realizing that they had not achieved much, they returned. According to them they had captured a messenger who was carrying a letter from `Uthman addressed to the Governor of Egypt ordering him to behead these rebels. The letter was forged. But the Egyptian rebels turned back to Madinah. Mysteriously, the Kufan and Basran rebels, who could not have known about the letter seized on the way to Egypt, also turned back and arrived at Madinah more or less at the same time as the Egyptians. They laid siege to `Uthman’s house demanding that he abdicate.

No Companion or any of `Uthman’s advisors, viz., `Ali, Zubayr, Talha, `Abd al-Rahman b. `Awf, Sa`d b. abiWaqqas or others would advise him to quit. But rather, they sent their sons to protect him. `Ali sent his sons Hasan and Hussain. But `Uthman returned them all. He also rejected `Ali’s offer to send 500 chosen men to fight off the Egyptian and Iraqi rebels. When `Uthman ran out of water, `Ali sent water bags through some men of BanuHashim and BanuUmayyah. They struggled their way through to reach `Uthman, some getting injured. `Uthman’s stubborn refusal to defend himself or let others defend him resulted in his murder. Everyone was stunned. No one had imagined that the rebels would go to this extent. `Ali slapped Hasan, thumped on Hussain’s breast, cursed the sons of Talha and Zubayr and left the mosque in a rage.

The murder of `Uthman left `Ali shatteringly dismayed, devastatingly traumatized. He might as well be feeling guilty, being a stalwart from the Prophet’s times, a fearless warrior, yet the third caliph was murdered right under his nose and he couldn’t prevent it. He went into his house and locked himself in. But soon Companions of the Prophet were knocking at his door with Talha and Zubayr among them. They suggested he take over immediately. He refused. But they persisted and ultimately he had go give in. They wished him to accept their fealty then and there, but he refused except that it should take place in the Grand Mosque. They were afraid of trouble in the Prophet’s mosque, but he was disagreeable to any secret oath. Ultimately, they agreed and `Ali was sworn as the next Khalifah in the mosque first by the Muhajirun and Ansar, and then by the commoners. Notably present from among the Companions were Talha, Zubayr, Sa`d b. abiWaqqas, Sa`eed b. Zayd, `Ammar b. Yasir, Usama b. Zayd, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu Musa al-Ash`ari, Zayd b. Thabit and many others. That was early in 36 H.

Restoring law and order in the town was `Ali’s first challenging task. The rebels were freely roaming about in the town in thousands, evincing no signs of withdrawal. `Uthman’s murderers were among them; but `Uthman’s wife, who lost her fingers trying to save her husband, could not identify them. `Uthman had himself bluntly refused guards and so, it was an all-rebel story with no witnesses. They being from far off lands made identification all the more difficult. Food and lodging of the rebels was a strain on the town. Madinans were scared. What if they started looting and violence spread? The Prophet’s wives, Mothers of the Believers, lived in the same town. There was enough to dispirit, dispirited `Ali. On the other hand, after the initial shock waves subsided, pressure began to mount on him to apprehend, try, and punish `Uthman’s murderers and their accomplices. But how could it be done?

Those were not the days of a police force or a standing army. The difficulty was best understood by he who was in charge overall, but not by the masses. They could not understand that it was not `Ali who had won over the rebels to his side, it is they who now claimed themselves as supporters of `Ali, while `Ali loathed them. Their sight was odious to him. His disapproval of them was spoken out in every public address he made, with they in the first rows of audience before him, and the noticeable bitterness of his speeches was at the unfortunate fact that they were there at all, before him as his audience, while the great majority of Madinans had gone back to their normal lives in which there was no place for politics and political opportunists. Once `Ali took Kumayl b. Ziyad by his hand and walked on until they were out of town. While the pure wind of the desert breezed past their faces, `Ali told him: “Remember, people are three kinds: The Godly scholar, the student on the path of salvation, and the riffraff, who respond to every call, turn in the direction of every wind, unenlightened of the light of knowledge, and, therefore, are not tied to any anchor.”

On their part, the rebels had let loose the rumor that `Ali was implicated in the murder (in order to come to power). Although the majority rejected the idea as outright nonsense, the acceptance by some, even if hypocrites, and even if small in numbers, was enough to plant the seed of doubt that was to grow into a tree in coming days. Why is `Ali shielding the murderers, was a question that they first asked, to be repeated by the commoners. Gradually, with `Ali’s failure to send back the rebellious to their homelands, to give the capital a sense of security and normalcy, the voices became thicker and a core group of `A’isha, Talha and Zubayr arose demanding the arrest and trial of the murderers of `Uthman. On other hand, the Syrian governor Mu`awiyyah refused to accept `Ali’s leadership if he could not book the murderers of the previous caliph. Chaos was raising its head.

It was not that `Ali was not fit for chaotic conditions. It was that he was not ready for the bursting forth of chaotic conditions which gave birth to a new problem, a new complication, every new day. `Ali’s world was the world of love and fear of Allah, devotion to Him (like `Uthman’s devotion under the striking swords), little regard for the world, preoccupation with the Hereafter, the company of, and trust in a people who were similarly predisposed. The new world order unfolding itself, the world of political ambitions, false sense of piety, a deep lacuna in the understanding of the basics of Islam (the five pillars of Islam of the newcomers against the spiritual and moral pillars of the Companions), which, if not very well understood by `Ali, then, no blame, because it was not very well understood by many Companions and their followers until their death. The coming few years were, actually, pangs of the birth of a new civilization in the Middle East, and the death cries of the old Jahiliyy order.

In the meanwhile, the daily chore had to go on, the business of running the state had to go on. He placed `Ubaydullah b. `Abbas as the Governor of Yemen, (since, moved by the murder of `Uthman, the governor had left and joined Talha and Zubayr, and were helping them in raising an army of supporters seeking justice for `Uthman’s murder). `Ubaydullah briefly lost the governorship of Yemen when Mu`awiyyah’s supporters in Yemen were able to overcome him, but regained it to remain the governor until `Ali’s death. When Mu`awiyyah delayed swearing his allegiance to him on grounds that `Ali was not doing anything about punishing the murderers of `Uthman, `Ali asked `Abdullah ibn `Umar to take over as the new governor of Syria, but he refused. When `Ali insisted, Ibn `Umar fled to Makkah at night.However, several years later, at the time of his own death, Ibn `Umar regretted at not having fought on the side of `Ali.At all events, when Ibn `Umar fled, `Ali sent Sahl b. Hunayf (his brother in Islam under the Brotherhood pact) to Syria to replace Mu`awiyyah.But, before he could enter he encountered patrollers of Mu`awiyyah. When they learnt that he was a representative of `Ali, they ordered him to return, which he did.

Syria then was boiling in anger. `Uthman’s bloodied shirt had reached them, which was hung in the mosque, as also the fingers of his wife Na’ilah. They had also received the news of the rebels more or less having taken over Madinah. Mu`awiyyah saw that, as the next of kin to `Uthman, he had the right to demand retribution for his murder, and could not understand why `Ali could not do a simple thing like that – until then, no fealty of obedience; and the position could only harden with the passing of time, and with the disheartening news of `Ali’s clash with `A’isha, Talha and Zubayr.

A few reports from the Prophet would have also led Mu`awiyyah to harden his position. One was through `A’isha: “Patting him on his shoulder the Prophet said, ‘`Uthman, it is possible that Allah will place on you a shirt. But if the hypocrites want you to remove it, do not remove it until you have met me.'” When reported, Mu`awiyyah was not satisfied. He asked her to write it to him, which she did.

Accordingly, when Mu`awiyyah was told, “Are you contending with `Ali! Do you think you are his equal?” He replied, “By Allah, I know very well that he is better than me and is more deserving than me for the rule. But, are you not aware that `Uthman was killed unjustly? I am his cousin and am demanding retribution. So, go to him and tell him to handover `Uthman’s murderers to me and I’ll submit to him.” So they went to `Ali but he refused except that Mu`awiyyah should first submit. `Ali of course, had no power to arrest the killers who had not been identified, who remain unidentified to this day.

In any case, Mu`awiyyah remained with his hold on Syria which he extended through military incursions to cover a province between northern Iraq and Syria, (then known as Al-Jazirah) and on the Western flank, Egypt whose people, after remaining split between `Ali and Mu`awiyyah for a while, ultimately opted for Mu`awiyyah’s rule. That happened when `Ali replaced Qays b. Sa`d b. with Muhammad b. abi Bakr (who had been wrongly implicated in the murder of `Uthman). But, unable to keep the Egyptians happy, he lost it to Mu`awiyyah’s forces headed by Mu`awiyyah b. Khudayj, who, after a battle killed him and burnt his body.

On Basrah `Ali appointed Sahl b. Hunayf as its governor. Abu Musa al-Ash`arih remained heading Kufa until he differed with `Ali over his battle against his opponents. A little after the battle, `Ali himself took over, since he had made it the central town of his governance to avoid any violence in Madinah. Persia, Khurasan, Azerbaijan also remained under `Ali’s governance.

All in all, `Ali used some 36 men as governors (at one time or the other) out of whom eleven were from the Ansar, seven from the Quraysh, and the rest from others, while `Uthman had used five from BanuUmayyah in a total of eighteen governors. The talks about any of the two preferring men of his tribe, has no historical evidence.

(To be completed)

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