Hassan Abbas’s new book is a concise biography of Ali Ibne Abi Talib (with whom Allah was pleased), extensively describing his life and legacy
The fourth caliph of Sunni Islam and first imam of the Shias, Hazrat Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) is the fountainhead of most sufi orders, and after Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), is considered to be a model Muslim. From his childhood, right up to his martyrdom on Ramazan 21, 40 AH, his life exemplified the core values of Islam. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a top Islamic jurist and founder of one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, concluded after decades of deep study and research focusing on historical sources and hadith literature: “No companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him) has had attributes and characteristics ascribed to him as those which have been ascribed to Ali ibn Abi Talib.”
Orientalist Reynold A Nicholson, in his book A Literary History of the Arabs, sums up his virtues and influence in the following words: “Ali was a gallant warrior, a wise counsellor, a true friend and a generous foe. He excelled in poetry and in eloquence. His verses and sayings are famous throughout the Muhammadan East… he has exerted down to the present-day a posthumous influence second only to that of Muhammad [peace be upon him] himself. Within a century of his death, he came to be regarded as the Prophet’s successor jure divine; as a blessed martyr, sinless and infallible.”
From the time of his birth at Kaaba in Makkah, as narrated by various highly regarded Islamic scholars, till the departure of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) from this world, Ali’s life was spent in his company. He grew up in the household of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and although he was just ten years old at that time, was among the first people to embrace Islam. He married Hazrat Fatima (with whom Allah was pleased), the beloved daughter of the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Holy Prophet described his sons, Imam Hassan (with whom Allah was pleased) and Imam Hussain (with whom Allah was pleased), as “the leaders of the youth in paradise”. A number of verses in the Holy Quran glorify the ahl al bayt (people of the prophet’s household).
In a recently published biography by US-based Pakistani scholar Dr Hassan Abbas, titled The Prophet’s Heir - The Life of Ali ibne Abi Talib, says prominent commentators and exegetes of the Holy Quran - such as Fakhar ud din Razi, Al-Thalabi and Ibne Abbas opine that verses in Sura Al-Baqrah (2:207) and Sura Al-Maidah (5:55) extoll Ali’s valour and munificence respectively.
Abbas teaches international relations at National Defence University’s Near East, South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies in Washington DC. A former police officer in Pakistan turned academic, Dr Abbas is a prolific writer on national security issues, policing challenges and terrorist outfits in Pakistan. A distinguished academic, he has previously authored The Taliban Revival and Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism.
Abbas’s new book is a concise and well-researched biography of Ali Ibne Abi Talib (with whom Allah was pleased), describing his life and legacy, extensively. For its content, the book relies on highly-respected traditional Sunni and Shia sources as well as the scholarship of Western writers. In addition, the author has benefited from his conversations with various well-reputed scholars in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, United Kingdom and the United States.
The book posits that the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) who brought him up and tutored him had a singular influence on Ali (with whom Allah was pleased). After migrating to Medina, he declared Ali as his brother both in this world and the hereafter. He dictated the treaty of Hudaybya to Ali who wrote it and got it signed by the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). His role in the battles of Khyber, Uhad, Badr, Hunain, Khandaq speaks of his gallantry and heroism - earning him the title of Asadullah (the lion of Allah). His sword, Zulfiqar, has immortal fame. After the conquest of Makkah, Ali helped the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) remove the idols placed in Kaaba. In Islam’s history, Ali is the paragon of bravery, chivalry, generosity, austerity, piety, honesty, integrity, eloquence, knowledge, wisdom, justice and fairplay.
As the title of the book suggests, the issue of succession, both spiritual and political, to the Prophet (peace be upon him) has been discussed in detail. The author shows that there is no doubt among Sunni, Shia and sufi sources that Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) is the spiritual successor of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) who had declared: “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate, thus whoever seeks knowledge has to enter the gate”. On the matter of political succession there is a difference of opinion between the Shias and Sunnis. At least on two occasions, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) compared his position/relationship with Ali Ibne Abi Talib to that of Moses (peace be upon him) and Aaron (peace be upon him).
A few days after the final pilgrimage to Makkah, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) stopping at Ghadeer-i-Khum declared thrice in front of the assembled Muslims while clasping Ali’s hand in his own hand: “If I am a person’s maula, Ali is also his maula”. This hadith has been narrated by numerous highly respected sources although it seems that Shias and Sunnis differ over their interpretation of the word maula.
As for his conduct during the first three caliphates - the author’s argument is that Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) found it beneath his spiritual status to compete with for or defy the caliphate. His actions - isolation or advising the caliphs before him – were motivated by the desire to preserve the unity of Islam and to serve the religion. After the death of the third Caliph, he initially refused the caliphate when offered but later agreed when he was elected at the mosque in Medina. Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal has famously written that it was “Ali who adorned the caliphate not the caliphate which elevated Ali (with whom Allah was pleased)”.
As a ruler, he applied the highest standards of justice and fair play to all matters of governance and administration, led an austere life himself, dismissed corrupt officials, protected the minorities and told his governors to be very particular about helping the meek, the vulnerable and the poor, and took strict action against those who did not fully implement these orders. He also led his troops in the battles of Jamel and Siffin and crushed the rebels known as Kharijites. He nourished Islam through his leadership and teachings.
Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) has inspired both Muslims and non-Muslims with his eloquence and pious life. Two famed Lebanese Christians, Khalil Gibran and George Jordac, stand out for their devotion to him. Khalil Jibran’s comment on his martyrdom in a Kufa mosque and influence is quite profound: “He died a martyr of his greatness; he died while prayer was between his two lips. The Arabs did not realise his value until there appeared among their Persian neighbours, some who knew the difference between gems and gravel”.
Allama Masoodi, one of the foremost historians of Islam, has summarised his life in the following words: “In Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) we find the glorious first Muslim, a faithful companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in his struggle for the faith, with a true knowledge of the book and a pre-eminent manifestation of self-abnegation, justice, honesty and purity.”
His legacy lives on in his teachings, sermons and sayings, compiled in the form of a book titled Nahjul Balagha (The way of eloquence). It is the best explanation of Islamic principles and commentary on Quranic concepts. The study of his glorious and pure life, in the form of a scholarly biography such as the one written by Hassan Abbas, is a wonderful course for the youth in a world beset with deceit, defeatism and corruption.
The Prophet’s Heir
The Life of Ali
Ibne Abi Talib
Author: Hassan Abbas
Publisher: Yale University Press, 2021
Pages: 239 (Hardback)
The writer is an independent researcher and consultant based in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets