Encyclopaedia Iranica Online

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(b. ca. 600, d. 40/661), cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Moḥammad, first Shiʿite Imam, father of the Imams Ḥasan and Ḥosayn by Fāṭema, and fourth caliph (35-40/656-61).

A version of this article is available in print

Volume I, Fascicle 8, pp. 838-848

i. Life

ʿAlī’s life falls into three distinct phases: 1. from his birth until the death of the Prophet in 11/632; 2. until the murder of ʿOṯmān in 35/656; 3. from his election to the caliphate to his death. When ʿAlī’s father Abū Ṭāleb, chief of the Banū Hāšem clan, became impoverished, ʿAlī was adopted by Moḥammad, who himself had been cared for by Abū Ṭāleb as a child. When Moḥammad was called by God to be a prophet, ʿAlī, though only ten years old, became one of his first followers (in al-Sīrat al-nabawīya I, ed. M. Saqqā, Cairo, 1936, pp. 262-64, Ebn Hešām states that ʿAlī was the first male to accept Islam; see also Ṭabarī, Cairo2, II, pp. 309ff.; Ebn Saʿd, III/I, pp. 12ff.). The night Moḥammad fled from Mecca to Medina, ʿAlī risked his life by sleeping in his bed; he also carried out the Prophet’s request to restore all the properties that had been entrusted to him as a merchant to their owners in Mecca. Only then did ʿAlī leave for Medina; there he married Moḥammad’s daughter Fāṭema.

ʿAlī’s courage during the military expeditions became legendary. Along with Ḥamza, Abū Doǰāna, and Zobayr, he was renowned for his charges against the enemy; at Badr he is said to have killed more than one third of the enemy army single-handedly. He stood firm and stoutly defended the Prophet at Oḥod and Ḥonayn, while the Muslim victory at Ḵaybar, where he used a heavy iron door as a shield, is attributed to his valor (Ebn Hešām, al-Sīra II, pp. 298, 365ff., III, pp. 77f., 306, 349-50; Wāqedī, Ketāb al-maḡāzī, ed. M. Jones, London, 1966, I, pp. 68-69, 76, 145-52, 225-26, 228, 240, 244, 255-56, 259, 307-9, II, pp. 470-71, 496, 653-57, III, pp. 900-902). He was one of Moḥammad’s scribes and was chosen to lead several important missions. After the Hijra when the Prophet instituted brotherhood between the emigrants (Mohāǰerūn) and the helpers (Anṣār), he chose ʿAlī as his own brother. The treaty of Ḥodaybīa was written down by ʿAlī. In 9/631 when Abū Bakr led the pilgrimage, ʿAlī was delegated by the Prophet to proclaim the sūrat al-barāʾa (Koran 9) to the pilgrims assembled at Menā. He was chosen to destroy the idols worshiped by the Aws, Ḵazraǰ, and Ṭayy, and those in the Kaʿba.

According to the Shiʿites, the Prophet unequivocally nominated ʿAlī as his successor at Ḡadīr Ḵomm while returning from his “farewell pilgrimage” to Mecca (the earliest historian to report the Ḡadīr tradition seems to be Yaʿqūbī, II, Naǰaf, 1964, p. 102; see also Masʿūdī, Eṯbāt al-waṣīya le-ʿAlī, Naǰaf, 1955; Kolaynī, al-Kāfī I, Tehran, 1388/ 1968, pp. 292ff.; Qāżī Noʿmān, Daʿāʾem al-Eslām I, ed. Fyzee, Cairo, 1963, pp. 14ff.; Shaikh Mofīd, al-Eršād, Naǰaf, 1962, pp. 91ff.; in al-Ḡadīr fi’l-ketāb wa’l-sonna wa’l-adab, Tehran, 1372/1952-53, ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Amīnī has listed all the available sources and references to Ḡadīr). The Sunnis reject this claim, maintaining that the Prophet died without naming a successor. All the early sources present the Medinan Muslim community behaving as if they had not learned about ʿAlī’s alleged designation.

At the Prophet’s death the community split into groups contending for political succession. The Anṣār were about to proclaim Saʿd b. ʿObāda caliph, but this was not acceptable to the Mohāǰerūn, who considered themselves closer to the Prophet in kinship. Among them was a group led by ʿAlī and his supporters, i.e., Zobayr, Ṭalḥa, ʿAbbās b. ʿAbd-al-Moṭṭaleb, Meqdād, Salmān Fāresī, Abū Ḏarr Ḡefārī, and ʿAmmār b. Yāser, who viewed ʿAlī as the Prophet’s legitimate heir. Muslim historians agree that a crisis was averted by three prominent Mohāǰerūn: Abū Bakr, ʿOmar, and Abū ʿObayda, who rushed to the gathering of the Anṣār and imposed Abū Bakr as caliph. Their success was facilitated by the jealousy between the Aws and the Ḵazraǰ, the two main tribal factions of the Anṣār, and the inactivity of the Prophet’s kinsmen in promoting their own cause (M. Shaban, Islamic History A.D. 600-750: A New Interpretation, Cambridge, 1971, pp. 16ff.; E. Shoufani, Al-Ridda and the Muslim Conquests of Arabia, Toronto, 1973, pp. 48ff.). When Abū Bakr’s selection to the caliphate was presented as a fait accompli, ʿAlī and the Hashimites withheld their oaths of allegiance until after the death of Fāṭema. ʿAlī did not actively assert his own right because he did not want to throw the nascent Muslim community into strife (Menqarī, Waqʿa Ṣeffīn, ed. ʿA. Hārūn, Cairo, 1382/1962, p. 91). He retired to a life in which religious works became his chief occupation; the first chronologically arranged version of the Koran is attributed to him, and his knowledge of the Koran and the Sunna aided the caliphs in various legal problems (Balāḏorī, Ansāb I, ed. M. Ḥamīdallāh, Cairo, 1959, pp. 586-87; Yaʿqūbī, II, pp. 125-26; Ebn Saʿd, II/2, pp. 100-102; Shaikh Mofīd, al-Eršād, pp. 107ff.). He did not participate in the wars of redda and conquest; his actions after becoming caliph seem to indicate that he did not approve of the policies of his predecessors. In contrast to ʿOmar he recommended that the entire revenue of the dīvān be distributed without keeping anything in reserve (Balāḏorī, Fotūḥ III, ed. Ṣ. Monaǰǰed, Cairo, 1956, p. 549. Disagreement with policies of Abū Bakr and ʿOmar can be inferred from an evasive answer he gave to ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān b. ʿAwf at the šūrā when he was asked whether he would follow the Koran, the Sunna of the Prophet, and the sīrat al-šayḵayn or the policies of Abū Bakr and ʿOmar; Ṭabarī, IV, p. 233; Balāḏorī, Ansāb V, p. 22).

In the period preceding ʿAlī’s caliphate ʿOṯmān was faced with problems arising from conflicts of interest between the traditional tribal and the new Islamic leadership (H. A. R. Gibb, “An Interpretation of Islamic History,” Studies on the Civilization of Islam, ed. Shaw and Polk, London, 1962, p. 7). The so-called qorrāʾ, the original conquerors from minor clans, resented ʿOṯmān’s tightening of central control and felt that their interests were threatened by the growing influence of the traditional tribal leaders, who were newcomers to the provinces. This was the common cause of opposition in all provinces except Syria, which was kept free from uncontrolled immigration and was held in firm control by Moʿāwīa, governor since 20/641. In mid-35/656 discontented provincial groups from Egypt, Kūfa (led by Mālek Aštar), and Baṣra arrived in Medina (S. M. Yūsof, “The Revolt against ʿUthmān,” IC 27, 1953, pp. 1-7; Shaban, Islamic History, pp. 60ff.; M. Hinds, “The Murder of the Caliph ʿUthmān,” IJMES 3, 1972, pp. 450-69).

In Medina itself opposition came from three main groups. First, a number of prominent Mohāǰerūn accused ʿOṯmān of nepotism and deviation from Islamic principles, e.g., the alteration of the number of rakʿas to be prayed at Menā and ʿArafāt (Ṭabarī, IV, p. 267). Shortly before his death, ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān b. ʿAwf is said to have declared that Oṯmān had departed from his promise to adhere to the Koran, the Sunna, and the sīrat al-šayḵayn, and he requested that he should not be allowed to pray at his funeral (Balāḏorī, Ansāb V, p. 57; Ebn Aʿṯam, al-Fotūḥ II, Hyderabad, 1968-75, p. 151). ʿAbdallāh b. Masʿūd, who seems to have been dismissed from the Kufan treasury, ejected from the mosque, and beaten for criticizing ʿOṯmān, is reported to have made the same request (Balāḏorī, Ansāb V, pp. 36-37). Abū Ḏarr Ḡefārī, who was critical of ʿOṯmān and Moʿāwīa, was exiled from Medina (ibid., pp. 52-56; Masʿūdī, Morūǰ II, ed. M. Moḥyī-al-dīn, Cairo, 1964, pp. 348-51). ʿAmmār b. Yāser was beaten for his criticism of ʿOṯmān (Balāḏorī, Ansāb V, pp. 48, 83; Ebn Aʿṯam, al-Fotūḥ II, pp. 154-55). The second group of Medinan opponents formed around Ṭalḥa and became clearly distinguishable from the first only at the battle of the Camel. It included Zobayr and ʿĀʾeša, who were opposed to Omayyad domination but favored the Qorayš. Both Ṭalḥa and Zobayr had enormous income from their estates, mainly in Iraq, and their opposition stemmed from the strengthening of Omayyad power (Ebn Saʿd, III/1, pp. 77, 157). Ṭalḥa became vocal in his criticism of ʿOṯmān, used his influence on the people of Baṣra to encourage their opposition, and was active against ʿOṯmān at the time of the siege (Balāḏorī, Ansāb V, p. 81; Ebn Aʿṯam, al-Fotūḥ II, p. 229; Ṭabarī, IV, pp. 379, 405). ʿĀʾeša, who had also played her part in fomenting opposition, left for Mecca when ʿOṯmān was besieged, hoping that he would be killed and that Ṭalḥa would became caliph (Balāḏorī, Ansāb V, p. 91; Ṭabarī, IV, p. 407). The Anṣār, who had lost their influence under ʿOṯmān, formed the third group. The appointment of Ḥāreṯ b. Ḥakam as market overseer in Medina added insult to injury; they felt impotent in their own town (Balāḏorī, op. cit., V, p. 47).

In the meantime, ʿAlī had acted as a restraining influence on ʿOṯmān without directly opposing him. Making this point, Ebn Aʿṯam states that ʿAlī knew that ʿOṯmān would not dare to act against him (al-Fotūḥ II, pp. 158, 164, 168, 184). On several occasions ʿAlī disagreed with ʿOṯmān in the application of the ḥodūd; he had publicly shown sympathy for Abū Ḏarr and had spoken strongly in the defense of ʿAmmār b. Yāser. He conveyed to ʿOṯmān the criticisms of other Companions and acted on ʿOṯmān’s behalf as negotiator with the provincial opposition who had come to Medina; because of this some mistrust between ʿAlī and ʿOṯmān’s family seems to have arisen. He tried to mitigate the severity of the siege by his insistence that ʿOṯmān should be allowed water.

Following ʿOṯmān’s murder most of the Omayyads fled Medina, thus leaving the provincial opposition in control of the situation. The strongest groups were the Egyptians, the Anṣār, and the prominent Mohāǰerūn. They invited ʿAlī to accept the caliphate; reluctant, he agreed only after long hesitation, probably several days after ʿOṯmān’s death. The sources suggest that before the murder of ʿOṯmān, the Basran opposition group at Medina considered Ṭalḥa as its champion, while the Kufans supported Zobayr; later both groups supported ʿAlī (Ṭabarī, IV, pp. 427ff.). Thus the situation in Ḥeǰāz and the provinces on the eve of ʿAlī’s election was far from settled. His brief reign was beset by difficulties attributable to the state of affairs that he inherited. Moḡīra b. Šoʿba advised ʿAlī against immediately removing all governors appointed by ʿOṯmān, especially Moʿāwīa; ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAbbās also counseled him to proceed slowly, but responding to the demands of his supporters, he replaced ʿOṯmān’s governors with his own, thereby setting off a series of reactions which culminated in the battles of the Camel and Ṣeffīn (Ṭabarī, IV, pp. 438ff.; Masʿūdī, Morūǰ II, pp. 363-65).

The Battle of the Camel. Returning to Medina, ʿĀʾeša learned that ʿOṯmān had been murdered and that ʿAlī was caliph. She turned back to Mecca and actively participated in a campaign against him; her grudge against ʿAlī stemmed from the incident of the slander against her (cf. Koran 24:10-20), when ʿAlī had advised the Prophet to divorce her (Ebn Hešām, al-Sīrat al-nabawīya III, pp. 313-14; Wāqedī, Ketāb al-maḡāzī II, p. 430; Ebn Saʿd, II/2, p. 29). Meanwhile, the Omayyads who had fled from Medina gathered in Mecca; they were joined by the deposed governors of Baṣra and Yemen, who had brought with them money appropriated from the public treasury. Ṭalḥa and Zobayr, already frustrated in their political ambitions, were further disappointed by ʿAlī in their efforts to secure for themselves the governorships of Baṣra and Kūfa. When they learned that their supporters had gathered in Mecca, they asked ʿAlī’s permission to leave Medina on the pretext of making the ʿomra (lesser pilgrimage). They then broke with ʿAlī, placing the responsibility for ʿOṯmān’s murder on him and demanding that he bring the murderers to trial; they were joined by the Omayyads, whose objectives, however, were different. Unable to muster much support in Ḥeǰāz, Ṭalḥa and Zobayr decided to move to Baṣra with the expectation of finding the necessary forces and resources to mobilize Iraqi support. When ʿAlī discovered this, he set out in pursuit but did not succeed in overtaking them. The rebels occupied Baṣra, killing many people. ʿAlī raised support in Kūfa and followed the conspirators to Iraq. After negotiations for a peaceful settlement failed, the rebels were defeated in the Battle of the Camel, so named because of ʿĀʾeša’s presence at the center of the battle mounted on a camel (Ḡalābī, Waqʿat al-ǰamal, ed. M. Āl Yāsīn, Baghdad, 1970).

ʿAlī entered Baṣra and divided the money found in the bayt al-māl (public treasury) equally among his supporters. This act may be taken as an indication of his policy to give equal value to the Muslims who served Islam in its early days and to the later Muslims who played a role in the conquests. He appointed ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAbbās governor of Baṣra, and went to Kūfa in order to gain support against Moʿāwīa. He succeeded in forming a broad coalition which brought two more groups into his camp, the qorrāʾ, who saw in him their last hope of regaining influence, and the traditional tribal leadership, attracted by his equal division of the booty. The successful formation of such a diverse coalition—comprised of men like ʿAmmār b. Yāser (Mohāǰer), Qays b. Saʿd b. ʿObāda (Anṣārī), Mālek Aštar (qorrāʾ group), and Ašʿaṯ b. Qays Kendī (a former redda leader who had emerged as a tribal leader in Kūfa)—seems to be due to ʿAlī’s remarkable character.

The Battle of Ṣeffīn. ʿAlī opened negotiations with Moʿāwīa with the hope of regaining his allegiance. Moʿāwīa insisted on Syrian autonomy under his own leadership, but ʿAlī maintained that all the provinces should share equally in problems facing the Muslim community. Moʿāwīa replied by mobilizing his Syrian supporters and refusing to pay homage to ʿAlī on the pretext that his contingent had not participated in his election. Furthermore, as ʿOṯmān’s walī (near relative), he demanded the surrender of ʿOṯmān’s murderers. ʿAlī rejected Moʿāwīa’s demands, asserting that he was duly elected by the people, who had the right to exercise their judgment, and that ʿOṯmān had been killed because people were outraged at his arbitrary actions; hence they were not liable for punishment (Menqarī, Waqʿat Ṣeffīn, pp. 29-32, 81-82, 86-91, 200-201).

Toward the end of 36/657 the two armies met on the plain of Ṣeffīn. The confrontation lasted three months, most of the time being spent in negotiations. Finally, a week of combat was followed by a violent battle known as laylat al-harīr (the night of clamor); the Syrians were on the point of being routed when ʿAmr b. ʿĀṣ advised Moʿāwīa to have his soldiers hoist maṣāḥef (either parchments inscribed with verses of the Koran, or complete copies of it) on their spearheads in order to cause disagreement and confusion in ʿAlī’s army. Aware of the divisions within the ranks of ʿAlī’s camp, Moʿāwīa exploited the situation. As the main purpose of raising the maṣāḥef was to bring about the cessation of hostilities, it is worth noting that the call for peace was addressed not to ʿAlī but to the ahl al-ʿErāq (people of Iraq) who formed the bulk of ʿAlī’s army, thereby isolating ʿAlī from his followers by appealing to their regional interests. ʿAlī saw through the stratagem, but only a minority was in favor of continued fighting; the most powerful tribal leader of Kūfa, Ašʿaṯ b. Qays Kendī, insisted on accepting Moʿāwīa’s call, reportedly telling ʿAlī that not a single man from his camp would fight for him if he did not accept the proposal for settlement (Menqarī, Waqʿat Ṣeffīn, p. 482; Yaʿqūbī, Morūǰ II, p. 178). This refusal of the largest bloc in his army to fight was the decisive factor in ʿAlī’s acceptance of the arbitration. With the majority of the qorrāʾ also favoring a settlement, ʿAlī stopped the fighting and sent Ašʿaṯ b. Qays to ascertain Moʿāwīa’s intentions. Moʿāwīa suggested that each side should choose an arbiter, who together would reach a decision based on the Koran; this decision would then be binding on both parties.

At this time Moʿāwīa seems to have made no specific reference to his earlier insistence on vengeance for ʿOṯmān’s blood or return to šūrā. Most of the people in ʿAlī’s camp, now satisfied, turned to the designation of the ḥakam (arbiter) who would meet ʿAmr b. ʿĀṣ, the Syrian representative. The question as to whether the arbiter would represent ʿAlī or the Iraqis (mainly the Kufans) caused a further split in ʿAlī’s army. Ašʿaṯ b. Qays and the qorrāʾ rejected ʿAlī’s own nominees, ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAbbās and Mālek Aštar, and insisted on Abū Mūsā Ašʿarī, who was opposed by ʿAlī, since he had earlier prevented people from supporting him. Abū Mūsā was favored by the qorrāʾ because he had stood for provincial autonomy, while Ašʿaṯ b. Qays hoped to prolong the deadlock between ʿAlī and Moʿāwīa in order to check ʿAlī’s power and regain his own former influence. ʿAlī finally accepted Abū Mūsā.

The drafting of the agreement proceeded only after ʿAlī had agreed to be referred to by name and not as amīr al-moʾmenīn; Moʿāwīa objected that if ʿAlī were indeed caliph, he would not have fought him. The main terms of the agreement were: 1. The Koran was to decide between the two sides; 2. the task of the arbiters was to reach a binding agreement; 3. the arbiters would be guided by the Koran, but failing to find guidance they would resort to al-sonnat al-ʿādelat al-ǰāmeʿa ḡayr al-mofarreqa (see M. Hinds, “The Ṣiffīn arbitration agreement,” Journal of Semitic Studies 17, 1972, pp. 93-129). With the drafting of this agreement, ʿAlī’s coalition began to collapse. The question of having recourse to the Sunna seems to be the main cause of the reaction of the qorrāʾ. They had agreed to the arbitration because it was a call for peace and application of the Koran; the terms of the agreement had not yet been settled and there was no indication that ʿAlī would not be regarded as amīr al-moʾmenīn. More serious was that extending the authority of the arbiters beyond the Koran to the vague Sunna compromised the authority of the Koran; it was thus tantamount to taḥkīm al-reǰāl fi’l-dīn (or fī ketāb Allāh). Thus they raised the cry lā ḥokm ellā lellāh (the jurisdiction rests with Allah alone). By this time the Syrians claimed that the document was an agreement that the Koran should be consulted as to whether ʿOṯmān had been killed justly or unjustly, though the qorrāʾ had no doubts that he had been killed justly. The raising of the question of ʿOṯmān’s murder by Moʿāwīa at this critical stage should be viewed in conjunction with his earlier evasiveness on the issue. The whole affair looks like a skillfully organized attempt to destroy ʿAlī’s coalition. The qorrāʾ told ʿAlī that if he did not repent of his acceptance of the arbitration, as they had done, they would declare themselves dissociated (barāʾa) from him. On the army’s return to Kūfa some of the qorrāʾ stopped at Ḥarūrāʾ, but ʿAlī succeeded in reconciling them, probably by making concessions. Only after returning to Kūfa did ʿAlī make it clear that he would not infringe on the arbitration. At this time those who had protested against the arbitration seceded from ʿAlī’s camp (hence known as Ḵawāreǰ) and gathered at Nahrawān.

The first meeting of the arbiters appears to have taken place at Dūmat al-Jandal around Ramażān, 37/February, 658, as stipulated in the agreement. The conclusion was reached that the acts of which ʿOṯmān was accused were not arbitrary (aḥdāṯ), thus implying that he had been killed unjustly and that Moʿāwīa had a right to claim vengeance. The verdict was not made public, but both parties came to know about it (L. Veccia Vaglieri, “Il conflitto ʿAlī-Muʿāwīya e la secessione khāregita riesaminati alla luce di fonti ibadite,” AIUON, 1952, pp. 1-94; idem, “ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib,” EI2 I, p. 384). ʿAlī protested, stating that it was contrary to the Koran and the Sunna and hence not binding. Then he tried to organize a new army, but only the Anṣār, the remnants of the qorrāʾ led by Mālek Aštar, and a few of their clansmen remained loyal. He left Kūfa with his new army to engage Moʿāwīa, but first turned to Nahrawān to deal with the dissidents. He tried to enlist their support by declaring that he would fight Moʿāwīa, but they persisted in their demand that he first confess his sin in accepting the arbitration; after promising quarter to those who would submit, ʿAlī attacked. The resulting massacre was widely condemned, and defections from his army forced him to return to Kūfa.

By now ʿAlī and Moʿāwīa were no longer a caliph and a rebel governor, but two rivals for the caliphate. It seems that the arbiters and other eminent persons, with the exclusion of ʿAlī’s representatives, met at Aḏrūḥ in Šaʿbān, 38/January, 659 to discuss the selection of the new caliph. ʿAmr b. ʿĀṣ supported Moʿāwīa, while Abū Mūsā preferred his son-in-law, ʿAbdallāh b. ʿOmar, but the latter refused to stand for election in default of unanimity (Masʿūdī, Morūǰ II, p. 408). Abū Mūsā then proposed, and ʿAmr b. ʿĀṣ agreed, to depose both ʿAlī and Moʿāwīa and submit the selection of the new caliph to a šūrā. In the public declaration that followed Abū Mūsā observed his part of the agreement, but ʿAmr b. ʿĀṣ declared ʿAlī deposed and confirmed Moʿāwīa as caliph.

Meanwhile, Moʿāwīa had followed an aggressive course by making incursions into the heart of Iraq and Arabia. By the end of 39/660 ʿAlī, who was regarded as caliph only by a diminishing number of partisans, lost control of Egypt and Ḥeǰāz. Early one morning while praying in a mosque at Kūfa, he was struck with a poisoned sword by a Kharijite, ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān b. Molǰam, intent on avenging the men slain at Nahrawān. Two days later, on 19 (or 21) Ramażān 40/27 January 661, ʿAlī died at the age of sixty-three and was buried near Kūfa. The burial was kept secret, but in the time of Hārūn al-Rašīd his tomb was identified a few miles from Kūfa and a sanctuary was established around which a town called Naǰaf grew up. Of his fourteen sons and nineteen daughters by nine wives and several concubines, Ḥasan, Ḥosayn, and Moḥammad b. Ḥanafīya are well known. ʿAlī’s political discourses, sermons, letters, and sayings were collected by Šarīf Rażī in a book entitled Nahj al-balāḡa (“The road of eloquence”), well known in Arabic literature; the most famous of its commentators is Ebn Abi’l-Ḥadīd (Šarḥ Nahī al-balāḡa, ed. M. Abu’l-Fażl, Cairo, 1965); a dīvān is also attributed to ʿAlī.

Since the conflicts in which ʿAlī was involved were perpetuated in polemical sectarian historiography, biographical material is often biased. But the sources agree that he was a profoundly religious man, devoted to the cause of Islam and the rule of justice in accordance with the Koran and the Sunna; he engaged in war against “erring” Muslims as a matter of religious duty. The sources abound in notices on his austerity, rigorous observance of religious duties, and detachment from worldly goods. Some authors have pointed out that he lacked political skill and flexibility.

His position among the Shiʿites. The Shiʿites maintain that the Prophet designated ʿAlī as his successor by God’s command; on reaching Ḡadīr Ḵomm from the “farewell pilgrimage,” the Prophet announced a congregational prayer. As the people gathered he took ʿAlī by the arm and made him stand next to him, and said: “O people, know that what Aaron was to Moses, ʿAlī is to me, except that there shall be no prophet after me, and he is my walī to you after me. Therefore, he whose master (mawlā) I am, ʿAlī is his master.” Then he lifted ʿAlī’s arm and said: “O God, be affectionate to him who is devoted to ʿAlī, show enmity to him who is his enemy, give victory to him who helps ʿAlī and forsake him who forsakes ʿAlī. May the truth encompass ʿAlī to the end of his life” (Kolaynī, al-Kāfī I, pp. 286ff.; Qāżī Noʿmān, Daʿāʾem al-Eslām I, pp. 14ff.; see also Tabrīzī, Meškāt al-maṣābīḥ III, ed. M. Albānī, Damascus, 1961-62, pp. 242-47). This tradition, which is accepted by the Sunnis but interpreted differently by them, epitomizes the Shiʿite veneration of ʿAlī and their doctrine of the imamate (see “Emāma”).

The imamate of ʿAlī is a cardinal principle of Shiʿite faith. Through walāya (devotion to ʿAlī and the Imams) true knowledge of Islam can be obtained. The first three caliphs had usurped ʿAlī’s right and the majority of the early community had apostatized because they deviated from the rightful Imam. According to a saying attributed to ʿAlī himself, those who fought against him in the battle of the Camel were “breakers of allegiance” (nākeṯūn), those who opposed him in the battle of Ṣeffīn were “wrongdoers” (qāseṭūn), and those who fought against him in the battle of Nahrawān (the Ḵawāreǰ) were “deviators” (māreqūn). Only the Batrīya among the early Zaydīs upheld the imamate of Abū Bakr, ʿOmar, and ʿOṯmān, on the grounds that ʿAlī did not oppose them. Considering him the most excellent man (fāżel) after the Prophet, they permitted the imamate of the less excellent (mafżūl). But from the 3rd/9th century onward the views of the Jārūdīya, who rejected the imamate of the first three caliphs, prevailed among the Zaydīs. ʿAlī, the waṣī of the Prophet, was specially instructed and authorized by him on God’s command to assist him in his task. The Prophet brought the revelation (tanzīl) and laid down the šarīʿa, while ʿAlī, the repository of the Prophet’s knowledge, provided its interpretation (taʾwīl). During the Prophet’s lifetime ʿAlī’s position was next to his and after him he succeeded him as the next most excellent man. He was divinely guided, infallible (maʿṣūm), purified from all defilement, and could not commit any sin, minor or major. He is the disposer of heaven and hell and the dispenser of drink (sāqī) at the celestial pool of Kawṯar. He will intercede with God on the Day of Judgment on behalf of his followers; he is the Guide for mankind, the Proof (ḥoǰǰa) of God’s existence to His creatures, and the Gate of His mercy. Salvation is reserved solely for those who declare their belief and devotion to him (Qāżī Noʿmān, Šarḥ al-aḵbār MS; Ebn Bābūya, Resālat al-eʿteqādāt, tr. Fyzee, London, 1942; Ḥellī, Šarḥ al-bāb al-ḥādī ʿašar, tr. Miller, London, 1958; Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, Tehran, 1376/1956, VII, pp. 326-40, VIII, pp. 16-63, XV, pp. 1ff., XXVII, pp. 1ff., XXXV-XLII, passim). Some extreme Shiʿite groups (ḡolāt) even attributed divinity (robūbīya) to ʿAlī. Thus the imamate, the heart of Shiʿism, is closely connected with ʿAlī. His personality not only provided this doctrine with historical perspective but also served as a point of departure for the highly sophisticated philosophical speculations on the imamate which evolved over the centuries (Mofīd, al-Efṣāḥ fī emāmat ʿAlī, Naǰaf, 1950; Kermānī, al-Maṣābīḥ fī eṯbāt al-emāma, ed. M. Ḡāleb, Beirut, 1969; W. Madelung, “Imāma,” EI².


See also Ebn ʿAbd Rabbeh, al-ʿEqd al-farīd, ed. A. Amīn, Cairo, 1948-53, IV, pp. 310-61, V, pp. 90-102.

Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr Yaman, al-Šawāhed wa’l-bayān MS. Edrīs ʿEmād-al-dīn, ʿOyūn al-aḵbār II-III MS. Bharūčī, Ketāb al-azhār VI MS. Amīn, Aʿyān al-šīʿa, Beirut, 1960, III, pt. 1 and 2.

L. Caetani, Annali. E. Petersen, ʿAlī and Muʿāwīya in Early Arabic Tradition, Copenhagen, 1964.

The following recent biographies are worth noting: Ṭ. Ḥosayn, al-Fetnat al-kobrā, Cairo, 1954.

J. Jordāq, al-Emām ʿAlī: Ṣawt al-ʿadālat al-ensānīya, Beirut, 1958.

ʿA. ʿAqqād, ʿAbqarīyat al-emām ʿAlī, Cairo, 1961.

M. Ḵalīlī, Zendagānī-e hażrat-e ʿAlī, Tehran, 1342 Š./1963.

ʿAbd-al-Fattāḥ, al-Emām ʿAlī, Cairo, n.d.

ʿA. Ḵaṭīb, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb: Baqīyat al-nobūwa wa ḵātem al-ḵelāfa, Cairo, 1966.

Ḵ. M. Ḵāled, Fī reḥāb ʿAlī, Cairo, 1980.

A. Oways and M. Āšūr, Rābeʿ al-rāšedīn ʿAlī, Cairo, 1981.

M. Ḡorayb, Ḵelāfat ʿAlī, Cairo, 1982.

ii. ʿAlī as seen by the Community

In popular thought. ʿAlī’s position in popular religion and thought is second only to that of Moḥammad himself. Generations of admirers, not all of them Shiʿites, embellished the traditional biographical data with anecdotes stressing his outstanding physical, moral, and spiritual qualities. According to popular ʿAlid belief, ʿAlī was not only the first person to have embraced Islam; he also surpassed all other Companions in his devotion to the Prophet and in his bravery, generosity, humility, and piety. (Abū Bakr may be called al-Ṣeddīq and ʿOmar al-Fārūq, but ʿAlī is both al-Ṣeddīq al-Akbar and al-Fārūq al-Aʿẓam.) He is said to have participated with the Prophet in the ascension (meʿraǰ) to heaven, and to have sat by him whenever a revelation came down; he wrote down each verse together with its hidden meaning, and this then became the moṣḥaf ʿAlī. Like Moḥammad, ʿAlī was given many names and honorific appellations: Three hundred of these are said to be found in the Old and New Testaments and more especially in the Koran (where numerous terms, such as sabīl, mīzān, ṣerāṭ and neʿma are interpreted as referring to him); others are preserved in heaven. ʿAlī’s title, amīr al-moʾmenīn, was bestowed on him by God before the creation of Adam.

Of ʿAlī’s various exploits during Moḥammad’s lifetime, his encounters with demons became a favorite subject among story-tellers. He was said to have fought with Eblīs, whom he would have killed but for Moḥammad’s intervention. On another occasion he was sent by Moḥammad to the valley (wādī) of the jinn after Gabriel had informed the Prophet of a plot being hatched there against him; ʿAlī was victorious over the jinn, converted many of them to Islam, and appointed one of them as his representative (ḵalīfa) in charge of propagating of faith among the infidel jinn. It was from one of the believing jinn that ʿAlī learned about the Yemeni tyrant Joḏām (or Hożām) b. Ḥaǰǰāf; his journey to combat this infidel provides the framework for a series of miraculous events which confirm ʿAlī’s supernatural powers: He walked so fast that no one could keep pace with him; he could jump across a lake 12 ḏerāʿ wide; when attacked by large numbers of the enemy he slew them all single-handedly. Similar motifs appear to be prevalent in the Maḡreb: ʿAlī is said to have been encircled by a Christian army somewhere in North Africa, but to have been saved by opening a passage in the mountains with one stroke of his sword. Stories circulating in Iran (modeled perhaps on the feats of the legendary Rostam) dealt especially with ʿAlī’s adventures in the company of Mālek Aštar and Abū Meḥǰan and his successful wars against the Sasanian king Qobāḏ (Kavāḏ) and against dragons and demons.

ʿAlī’s entire life is in fact seen as a series of miraculous events, from the time the earth lit up on the night of his birth until, at the moment of his death, the stones around the Jerusalem temple were covered with blood. The miracles attributed to him, many of which are also ascribed to Moḥammad, are so numerous that only a few typical ones can be mentioned here. ʿAlī understood the language of animals and plants, as well as all human tongues. He could order the plants to do his bidding: A dried-up tree turned green and bore fruit at his behest. Inanimate objects also obeyed him. At Ṣeffīn, he ordered a rock to move; abundant water was found underneath it, with which his supporters quenched their thirst; the rock then returned to its original position. On another occasion, ʿAlī lowered the waters of the Euphrates with his stick, thus averting the danger of a flood. Pebbles turned to gold in his hand; the waters of a wādī turned to stones over which ʿAlī then walked (a Jew who witnessed that miracle adopted Islam). On at least three occasions (in Mecca, Ḵaybar, and Iraq) the sun was turned back, or brought to a standstill, to enable ʿAlī to pray at the prescribed time. He could heal the sick and bring the dead back to life: When he addressed the people of the cave (ahl al-kahf) they returned to life and answered his questions.

Some of the miracles associated with ʿAlī serve to show that he was the object of God’s special love: Gabriel is said to have brought the Prophet a citron (otroǰǰa) from heaven; when opened, it was found to contain a piece of silk from Paradise with an inscription that this was a present from God to ʿAlī. Another present from God was a shirt which had belonged to Aaron (a reference to the wide-spread tradition that ʿAlī holds the same rank with respect to Moḥammad as does Aaron with respect to Moses, except that ʿAlī is not a prophet). ʿAlī also possessed Adam’s shirt, Moses’s rod, and Solomon’s ring. ʿAlī was born circumcised (like some of the prophets), could see from behind as well as from the front, and did not cast a shadow; his excreta were never seen (since by God’s command the earth immediately swallowed them), and he exuded a fragrance more pleasing than musk.

These and similar anecdotes were spread among the populace by popular preachers and story-tellers, and poems (usually in the form of qaṣīdas) extolling ʿAlī’s virtues and exploits are known to have been recited in the bazaars by professional manāqeb-ḵᵛānān at least from the 4th/10th century. As Goldziher has shown, many ʿAlid fables provided a convenient means for preserving pre-Islamic traditions: Thus the celebration of Nowrūz was said to be legitimate because on this day Moḥammad had appointed ʿAlī as his successor. Attempts to combine Persian and Muslim traditions are evident in legends such as that of the marriage of ʿAlī’s son, Ḥosayn, to the daughter of Yazdegerd, the last Sasanian king.

ʿAlī’s shrine. Several places are mentioned as ʿAlī’s shrine (mašhad). Some authorities claim that it is located at the Baghdad quarter of Karḵ or at Ḥella, while others place it in various spots outside Iraq, including Medina, Damascus, Ray, and Mazār-e Šarīf (in Afghanistan). Among the Shiʿites, a minority believes it to be in Kūfa proper—in the palace, the mosque, the public square, or the house of ʿAlī’s nephew Jaʿda b. Hobayra. But most Shiʿite scholars are in agreement that ʿAlī was buried at Ḡarī, west of Kūfa, at the site of present-day Naǰaf. These scholars explain the discrepancies among the various reports by maintaining that ʿAlī himself requested to be buried in a secret place so as to prevent the Kharijites and other enemies from desecrating his grave. Legend has it that both the location and the manner of ʿAlī’s burial were preordained by God : The camel carrying his body knelt down and refused to budge when it reached the site of the appointed shrine, where a wooden tablet was then found bearing a Syriac inscription announcing that the grave had been dug for ʿAlī by Noah 700 years before the Deluge. According to Shiʿite tradition, ʿAlī is buried in the same tomb as Adam and Noah.

ʿAlī’s resting-place remained secret throughout the reign of the anti-ʿAlid Omayyads. The ʿAbbasid Dāwūd b. ʿAlī is said to have ordered a small structure built over the grave in 133/750-51. According to other reports, Hārūn al-Rašīd was the first ruler who discovered its location when he accidentally stumbled upon it during a hunting expedition; thereupon a tomb was erected and people began to settle in the vicinity. The geographer Ebn Ḥawqal reports that the Hamdanid governor of Mosul, Abu’l-Hayǰāʾ (d. 317/929), was responsible for the restoration of the tomb: He built a dome on four columns and adorned the shrine with carpets and hangings. The Buyid ruler ʿAżod-al-dawla (d. 372/983) took the two sanctuaries of ʿAlī in Naǰaf and Ḥosayn in Karbalā under his special protection; he built a new mausoleum over ʿAlī’s grave, around which a defensive wall was constructed by Ḥasan b. Fażl (d. 414/1023-24). The mausoleum was burned down in 443/1051-52 during anti-Shiʿite riots, but was restored before 479/1086. ʿAlī’s tomb was spared from destruction during the Mongol invasion of Iraq. The Il-khanid Ölǰeytü (d. 716/1316), after embracing Twelver Shiʿism in 710/1310, even entertained the idea of transporting the remains of ʿAlī and Ḥosayn to his capital Solṭānīya, but did not live to realize this scheme. Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, who visited Naǰaf in 726/1326, describes the walls of the mosque where ʿAlī’s tomb was shown as covered with enameled titles; four gates led to the shrine, each curtained and having a silver doorstep. The shrine seems to have escaped the devastation wrought on Iraq during Tīmūr’s raids. The extremist Shiʿite rebel and leader of the Mošaʿšaʿ movement, ʿAlī b. Moḥammad b. Falāḥ, plundered it after conquering Naǰaf in 857/1453, but no permanent damage appears to have been inflicted.

When the shrine came under Safavid occupation it became the focus of much devoted attention, exemplified in the pilgrimage made by Shah Esmāʿīl I (d. 930/1524) to Naǰaf and Karbalā. Not to be outdone, Solaymān the Magnificent also visited the sanctuaries (in 1534), after the first conquest of Iraq by the Ottomans. In 1803 the shrine at Naǰaf had to endure yet another attack, this time by the Wahhābīs, but it stood firm. Today a gold-plated dome rises above ʿAlī’s tomb. The interior is decorated with polished silver, mirror work, and ornamental tiles. Over the grave itself is a silver tomb, and the courtyard has two minarets.

The importance of a pilgrimage to Naǰaf is emphasized in all Shiʿite works on zīārāt. The occasions especially recommended for visits are the anniversaries of ʿAlī’s birth and death, the Ḡadīr Ḵomm festival, the Prophet’s birthday, and the 27th day of Raǰab, traditionally the date of the beginning of Moḥammad’s prophetic mission. The recitation of special prayers over ʿAlī’s grave is considered particularly beneficial in view of ʿAlī’s role as intercessor on the Day of Judgment. Sunni polemists have often accused the Shiʿites of preferring pilgrimages to the tombs of ʿAlī and the other Imams over the ḥaǰǰ to Mecca.

Among extremist Shiʿites. One of the basic differences between Emāmī Shiʿism and the various Shiʿite branches known collectively as ḡolāt concerns the question of the respective roles of ʿAlī (and the other Imams) on the one hand, and Moḥammad on the other. Emāmī Shiʿism shares with Sunni Islam the belief that Moḥammad, as seal of the prophets, was the last to have received revelation (waḥy). Classical Emāmī Shiʿite doctrine holds that ʿAlī and the other Imams were the recipients of inspiration (elhām) and were thus moḥaddaṯūn (“those addressed by angels”), but that they were subordinate to Moḥammad. In contrast, some of the ḡolāt believed that ʿAlī was equal or even superior to Moḥammad, while others went so far as to claim that ʿAlī was the locus of the divine.

The gamut of ḡolāt thinking on the subject is illustrated by the following examples (which must, however, be treated with some caution as they are found mostly in hostile sources): Some of ʿAlī’s followers (often identified as the adherents of ʿAbdallāh b. Sabaʾ) believed in ʿAlī’s divinity, while others maintained that he had not died and would return to earth to restore justice. The Ḡorābīya believed that Moḥammad resembled ʿAlī more closely than one raven (ḡorāb) another; when Gabriel was dispatched by God with a revelation for ʿAlī, he was (or pretended to be) misled by the great similarity between ʿAlī and Moḥammad, and handed the revelation to the latter. The Manṣūrīya (followers of Abū Manṣūr ʿEǰlī) claimed that ʿAlī was the stone (kesf) which had fallen from heaven (cf. Koran 34:9, 52:44), and that he was the second person whom God created (the first being Jesus). Some adherents of the Rāwandīya maintained that the divine spirit had lodged in Jesus, then in ʿAlī, and later in the other Imams, while Jāber Joʿfī supposedly identified ʿAlī with the eschatological “beast of the earth” (dābbat al-arż) (cf. Koran 27:82). One sub-sect of the Ḵaṭṭābīya (the disciples of Abu’l-Ḵaṭṭāb) reportedly believed that ʿAlī (and all other Imams) were prophets and apostles, and that Moḥammad was the speaking apostle (nāṭeq) while ʿAlī was the silent one (ṣāmet). The ʿAlyāʾīya (or ʿElbāʾīya) maintained that Moḥammad was the apostle, or even the slave, of ʿAlī; they not only believed in ʿAlī’s divinity but also condemned Moḥammad for claiming authority for himself (whence their appellation Ḏammīya). According to a different report, the ʿAlyāʾīya believed in the divinity of both Moḥammad and ʿAlī, but gave preference in divine matters to ʿAlī. They are therefore also known as ʿAynīya, and are distinguished from the Moḥammadīya (or Mīmīya) and the Sīnīya, who deify Moḥammad and Salmān Fāresī respectively. The ʿAlyāʾīa share with other ḡolāt (known collectively as Moḵammesa) a belief in the infusion (ḥolūl) of the divine spirit in the bodies of five person: Four of these are generally held to be the “people of the cloak” (ahl al-kesāʾ [See Āl-e ʿAbā], i.e., ʿAlī, Ḥasan, Ḥosayn, and Fāṭema), while there is disagreement as to whether the fifth is Moḥammad or Salmān. The Moḵammesa are also said to have argued that each of the five had his opposite (żedd) in whom the evil principle of the divine was revealed (a doctrine attributed specifically to Šarīʿī and Šalmaḡānī [executed in 322/934]), and that God had delegated (fawważa) the creation of the world to Moḥammad, who in turn transferred responsibility for its management to ʿAlī.

Although the Ismaʿilis are not generally viewed as belonging to the ḡolāt, some Ismaʿili doctrines on ʿAlī are clearly influenced by extremist ideas. In the Fatimid Ismaʿili hierarchy, ʿAlī’s position as asās (fundament) means that he is superior to all other Imams (hence the Ismaʿili Bohra community of India does not consider him an Imam); this position is also generally taken to mean that he is subordinate to Moḥammad, though some writers argue that Moḥammad’s superiority is only valid during his terrestrial life. In the Nezārī Ismaʿili doctrine of the Qīāma, with its emphasis on a perennial Emām-e Qāʾem, ʿAlī is made to appear as Imam with a rank notably higher than that of Moḥammad; the imamate is then seen as the source of prophethood.

A combination of extremist Shiʿite doctrines and non-Islamic pagan elements is apparent in the Noṣayrī deification of ʿAlī. For the Noṣayrīs (see ʿAlawī), ʿAlī is the incarnation of the universal soul and an emanation of God. Thus ʿAlī has not begotten and has not been begotten (cf. Koran 112:1); he has always existed and is unique and immortal. According to the Esḥāqīya branch of the Noṣayrīs, ʿAlī is God, who appeared in every generation in a different guise: Once as Ḥasan, then as Ḥosayn. ʿAlī sent Moḥammad to the world as prophet; Moḥammad is the veil (ḥeǰāb) under which ʿAlī was hidden. ʿAlī’s symbol is the meaning (maʿnā), while that of Moḥammad is the name (esm).

Extremist criticism of ʿAlī appears to be limited to the early Kāmelīya or Komaylīya) sect, whose members reportedly branded him an unbeliever for letting himself be supplanted by the first three caliphs; but he and his followers returned to the fold of Islam when he became caliph and waged wars against his opponents. In the writings of Ḥamza b. ʿAlī, the founder of the Druze religious doctrine, ʿAlī plays a negative, albeit negligible, role: He and Moḥammad, Abū Bakr, ʿOmar, and ʿOṯmān are all ministers of evil. Such a hostile view was apparently not shared by the Druze writer Esmāʿīl Tamīmī (fl. early 5th/11th century): According to writings attributed to him, ʿAlī, one of the five fundaments, is master of the esoteric aspect; “uniqueness” is to be claimed only for him. During the meʿrāǰ Moḥammad noted someone looking like ʿAlī: It was an angel created to look like him because of the angels’ deep longing for him.

The influence of ḡolāt attitudes can be traced to modern times. The leader of the 7th/13th-century Bābāʾī movement, Bābā Esḥāq, allied himself to extremist forms of Shiʿism prevalent in Irano-Turkish popular circles. The above-mentioned ʿAlī b. Moḥammad b. Falāḥ believed in ʿAlī’s divinity and claimed that the spirit of ʿAlī had been infused into his own body. Similar views are found in the unexpurgated version of the Dīvān of Shah Esmāʿīl I. Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī (d. 1241/1826), founder of the Šayḵīya movement, is said to have seen in ʿAlī an incarnation of the divine and to have maintained that God had delegated the power of creation to ʿAlī and the other Imams. And members of the Persian Ahl-e Ḥaqq sect, though they do not accord ʿAlī a central position in their doctrine, nevertheless believe that it was in his person that the second of seven successive manifestations of the divinity was made.

Among Sufis. In early circles of zohhād ʿAlī was especially renowned for his piety and poverty. He is said to have dressed simply, mended his own clothes and footwear (whence his sobriquet Ḵāṣef al-naʿl “sewer of the shoe”), worked as a day laborer, and often to have had to sell whatever few belongings he possessed, such as the sword with which he had defended the Prophet, in order to feed his family. He is also described as the most knowledgeable of the Companions of Moḥammad, as regards both theological questions and matters of positive law. Typical is the view of Jonayd (d. 298/910), who considered ʿAlī as “our master in the roots and branches (of religious knowledge) and in perseverance in the face of hardship.”

With the growth of Sufi doctrine in the 4th/10th and 5/11th centuries, increasing emphasis was placed on ʿAlī’s possession of secret or esoteric knowledge (ʿelm-e ladonī) transmitted to him by the Prophet; many considered it virtually boundless, since he was believed to have even been granted participation in the ḡayb (e.g., by being granted knowledge of future events and knowledge of seventy-two of the seventy-three letters of the Greatest Name of God). While ʿAlī’s position among the early Sufis was thus assured, he was sometimes regarded, in what may be seen as an echo of Sunnite-Shiʿite rivalry, as less excellent than Abū Bakr, or as having to share the position of greatest excellence with the first three caliphs.

ʿAlī’s position in the Sufi world was reinforced by a number of developments. There was, first, the reorganization of the Sufi-dominated fotūwa during the reign of the Caliph Nāṣer (575-622/1180-1225), with its attendant emphasis on ʿAlī as sayyed al-fetyān, the epitome of courage, generosity, and selflessness. This view was associated with the saying lā fatā ellā ʿAlī, which had allegedly been uttered by a divine voice during the battle of Oḥod. Second, ʿAlī often occupied a central position in the Sufi orders, which were established from the 5th/11th century onward. For instance, the Naqšbandīya (who do not consider themselves Shiʿites) believe that the Prophet transmitted the method of vocal ḏekr to ʿAlī, whereas the silent ḏekr was transmitted to Abū Bakr. Other, distinctly Shiʿite, orders regarded ʿAlī as their patron and traced their descent back to him through different chains of transmission (selsela). One of the best known of these orders is the Turkish Bektāšīya, whose secret doctrine is imbued with extremist Shiʿite ideas. The Bektāšīs believe, for example, that ʿAlī’s death should be construed in a symbolic rather than a physical sense. They hold that ʿAlī is united with God and Moḥammad in a trinity; at times ʿAlī’s superiority to Moḥammad is clearly implied, as in the belief that the Prophet was healed at Oḥod when he prayed for ʿAlī’s help, or that Moḥammad reached the state of al-fanāʾ fi’llāh (annihilation in God) because he rendered homage to ʿAlī. The Bektāšīs also claim that ʿAlī as a boy had the appearance of a lion (as his name Ḥaydara implies), and that he defeated the giant creature Dīv, releasing him only after he had become a Muslim and promised not to eat men again. Ḥorūfī influence on the Bektāšīya can be seen in calligraphic sentences connected with ʿAlī worked into the shape of a lion; pictures of him are often drawn by combining letters of his name.

Other Shiʿite orders flourish in modern Iran. Members of these orders address each other with yā ʿAlī; some of them maintain that ʿAlī is greater than the Prophet (since the latter was sent to prepare men for the former), and that Moḥammad himself expressed the wish that ʿAlī should be venerated above him. This is why ʿAlī, and not the Prophet, was born in the middle of the Kaʿba. Some of these Sufis believe that each pīr received his knowledge directly from ʿAlī. For many others, the investment with the cloak (moraqqaʿa) as a symbol of the transmission of spiritual powers is closely associated with ʿAlī: According to an often-quoted tradition, the two most precious things shown to Moḥammad during the meʿrāǰ were spiritual poverty and a cloak. After his return to earth he was ordered by God to place the cloak on ʿAlī, from whom it passed to the other Imams.

In addition to such Sufi orders there flourished, particularly in Mongol and Safavid Persia, individual scholars who united in their thought Shiʿite speculative theology and Sufi mysticism. One of the earliest representatives of this trend is ʿAlī b. Mīṯam Baḥrānī (d. 679/1280-81), who saw in ʿAlī the original shaykh and walī of the Sufis, and who (in his Šarḥ nahī al-balāḡa) imbued ʿAlī’s utterances and speeches with a Sufi coloring. Other writers include Ḥaydar Āmolī (d. after 794/1391-92), who does not conceal his indebtedness to Ebn al-ʿArabī for many of his ideas; Raǰab Borsī (d. after 843/1439); Ebn Abī Jomhūr Aḥsāʾī (d. after 90l/1496); and Mollā Ṣadrā Šīrāzī (d. 1050/1640). Some of the views of these writers have been the subject of recent research, but there is much about their thought which requires further study. For all their individual differences, it is probably correct to say that all of them agree in seeing the Islamic imamate as the hidden, secret aspect of prophethood. ʿAlī, who combines in his person the role of Imam and walī, thus embodies the esoteric aspect of Moḥammad. The Islamic imamate incorporates the imamate (i.e., the bāṭen) of all previously revealed religions; hence ʿAlī embodies the principle of esoteric religion as a whole. As such he existed before all mankind; he was sent secretly with each prophet, and openly with Moḥammad (this is the idea underlying utterances ascribed to ʿAlī such as “I carried Noah in the ark, I am Jonah’s companion in the belly of the fish … I am Ḵeżr, who taught Moses, I am the teacher of David and Solomon, I am Ḏu’l-qarnayn”). ʿAlī is the seal of the absolute walāya (walāya moṭlaqa), while the Qāʾem is the seal of the restricted, or particular, walāya (walāya moqayyada). Moḥammad and ʿAlī were created of the same light substance (nūr) and remained united in the world of the spirits; only in this world did they separate into individual entities so that mankind might be shown the difference between prophet and walī. ʿAlī represents the Greatest Name of God. He and Moḥammad are reflections of God’s attributes; since God can only be known through His attributes (His essence remaining hidden from mankind), it is through them that God may be known. “I am the dot underneath the bāʾ” is a favorite statement ascribed to ʿAlī, referring to the belief that all secrets are contained in the dot underneath the fist letter of the basmala. This is the dot through which the vertical alef of the pure Being of God assumed the horizontal form of the bāʾ, representing the first stage of multiplicity.


Popular thought. Practically every Emāmī Shiʿite collection of traditions contains some material of a popular nature on ʿAlī. Many of these traditions are conveniently assembled in Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, Tabrīz, 1303-5/1886-88, esp. IX (the chapters dealing with ʿAlī’s biography): Of the numerous works which devote special sections to ʿAlī’s miracles, the following may be mentioned: Hebatallāh b. Ḥosayn Rāwendī, Ketāb al-ḵarāʾeǰ wa’l-ǰarāʾeḥ, Bombay, 1301/1883-84, pp. 16-21, 82-87, 129-44.

Moḥammad b. Ḥasan Ḥorr ʿĀmelī, Eṯbāt al-hodāt be’l-noṣūṣ wa’l-moʿǰezāt, ed. H. Rasūlī, Qom, 1379/1959-60, IV; V, pp. 2-121.

AbūʿAbdallāh Jaʿfar b. Moḥammad Rabʿī Nezārī, al-Anwār al-ʿalawīya, Naǰaf, 1343/1924-25, p. 93ff.

See also Aḥmad b. ʿAbdallāh Bakrī Baṣrī, Ḡazwat ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb maʿa Joḏām b. al-Ḥaǰǰāf, Yale MS. Arabic 274 (cf. Brockelmann, GAL S. I, p. 616).

ʿAbd al-Jalīl Qazvīnī, Ketāb al-naqż, ed. J. Ḥosaynī, Ormavī, Tehran, 1952, esp. pp. 33-37, 39-40, 342-52, 469-72, 556, 559-64, 570-72, 576-91.

Goldziher, Muhammedanische Studien, Halle, 1889-90 (tr. C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern, Muslim Studies, London, 1967-71), II, pp. 288, 297, 330-32.

D. Ṣafā, Ḥamāsa-sarāʾī dar Īrān, Tehran, 1324 Š./1945, pp. 355-65.

H. Massé, “Ḥamāsa,” EI2. Sezgin, GAS II, pp. 278-79.

Shrine. Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 215. Heravī, Ketāb al-ešārāt, ed. J. Sourdel-Thomine, Damascus, 1953, pp. 46, 47, 76, 77.

Ebn Šahrāšūb, Manāqeb āl Abī Ṭāleb, ed. by a committee of Naǰaf scholars, Naǰaf, 1376/1956-57, II, pp. 171ff.

ʿAbd-al-Karīm b. Ṭāwūs, Farḥat al-ḡarī, Naǰaf, 1368/1948-49.

Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, tr. Gibb, pp. 81-83.

Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār XXII, pp. 35ff.

Idem, Toḥfat al-zāʾer, Tehran, 1314/1896-97, pp. 60-114.

Le Strange, Lands, pp. 76-78.

S. H. Longrigg, Four Centuries of Modern Iraq, Oxford, 1925, pp. 25, 90, 216-17, 229, 288.

E. Honigmann, “Nadjaf,” EI1.

D. M. Donaldson, The Shiʿite Religion, London, 1933, pp. 54-65.

R. Kriss and H. Kriss-Heinrich, Volksglaube im Bereich des Islams I, Wiesbaden, 1960, pp. 230, 242-43.

S. Māher Moḥammad, Mašhad al-emām ʿAlī fi’l-Naǰaf, Cairo, 1969.

Extremist Shiʿites. Ebn Qotayba, Maʿāref, ed. M. E. Ṣāwī, Cairo, 1353/1934, p. 267.

Ašʿarī, Maqālat, index. Nawbaḵtī, Ketāb feraq al-šīʿa, ed. H. Ritter, Istanbul, 1931, index.

Saʿd b. ʿAbdallāh Ašʿarī Qommī, Ketāb al-maqālāt wa’l-feraq, ed. M. J. Maškūr, Tehran, 1963, index.

Malaṭī, Ketāb al-tanbīh wa’l-radd, ed. S. Dedering, Istanbul, 1936, index.

ʿAbd-al-Qāher Baḡdādī, Ketāb al-farq bayna’l-feraq, ed. M. M. ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd, Cairo, 1964, index.

Ebn Ḥazm, al-Feṣal, Cairo, 1317-21, IV, pp. 183ff.

Šahrestānī, ed. ʿA. M. Wakīl, Cairo, 1387/1968, I, pp. 152, 174, 175, 179, 185, 189.

Maqdesī, II, p. 202; V, pp. 124-25, 129-33.

R. Dussaud, Histoire et religion des Noṣairîs, Paris, 1900, esp. pp. 51-69.

I. Friedlaender, “The Heterodoxies of the Shiites in the Presentation of Ibn Ḥazm,” JAOS 28, 1907, pp. 1-80; 29, 1908, pp. 1-183, index.

C. Sell, The Cult of ʿAlī, Madras etc., 1910.

L. Massignon, Salmān Pāk, repr. in Opera minora, ed. Y. Moubarac, I, Beirut, 1963, pp. 468-71, 477.

V. Minorsky, “The Poetry of Shāh Ismāʿīl I,” BSOAS 10, 1940-42, pp. 1025-26.

J. Hollister, The Shīʿa of India, London, 1955.

M. G. S. Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, The Hague, 1955, pp. 16-17, 163, 170, 192.

H. Corbin, Trilogie ismaélienne, Tehran and Paris, 1961, index.

V. Minorsky, “Ahl-i Ḥaḳḳ,” EI2 I, pp. 260-63.

H. Brentjes, Die Imamatslehren im Islam nach der Darstellung des Ascḥʿarī, Berlin, 1964, pp. 18-30.

H. Laoust, Les schismes dans l’Islam, Paris, 1965, pp. 15-18, 69, 257, 363, 390-92, 419.

F. Rosenthal, Knowledge Triumphant, Leiden, 1970, pp. 151-53.

E. Eberhard, Osmanische Polemik gegen die Safawiden im 16. Jahrhundert nach arabischen Handschriften, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1970, index.

ʿA. S. Sāmarrāʾī, al-Ḡolū wa’l-feraq al-ḡālīa, Baghdad, 1392/1972.

T. Nagel, Rechtleitung und Kalifat, Bonn, 1975, pp. 197-208.

D. R. W. Bryer, “The Origins of the Druze Religion,” Der Islam 52/2, 1975, pp. 242, 250, 259, 260.

Wadād Qāżī, “The Development of the Term ghulāt in Muslim Literature,” Akten des VII. Kongresses für Arabistik und Islamwissenschaft, ed. A. Dietrich, Göttingen, 1976, pp. 295-319.

J. van Ess, Chiliastische Erwartungen und die Versuchung der Göttlichkeit, Heidelberg, 1977, pp. 72-73, 80.

H. Halm, “Das "Buch der Schatten",” Der Islam 55, 1978, pp. 219-65; 58/1, 1981, pp. 15-86.

Sufism. Sarrāǰ, Ketāb al-lomaʿ, ed. ʿA. Maḥmūd and Ṭ. ʿA. Sorūr, Cairo, 1960, pp. 179-82.

Abū Noʿaym Eṣfahānī, Ḥelyat al-awlīāʾ I, Cairo, 1932, pp. 61-87.

Ḥaydar Āmolī, Jāmeʿ al-asrār, ed. H. Corbin and O. Yaḥyā, Tehran and Paris, 1969, index.

Raǰab Borsī, Mašāreq anwār al-yaqīn, Beirut, n.d.

Ebn Abī Jomhūr Aḥsāʾī, Ketāb al-moǰlī, Tehran, 1329/1911.

Monāwī, al-Kawākeb al-dorrīya I, Cairo, 1357/1938, pp. 38-45.

W. M. Miller, “Shiʿah Mysticism (the Ṣufis of Gunābād),” Moslem World 13, 1923, pp. 343-63.

J. K. Birge, The Bektashi Order of Dervishes, London, 1937, pp. 132-48.

K. M. Šaybī, al-Ṣela bayna’l-taṣawwof wa’l-tašayyoʿ, Baghdad, 1382-83.

J. S. Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, London, 1971, index.

H. Corbin, En Islam iranien, Paris, 1971-72, index.

S. H. Nasr, Sufi Essays, London, 1972, pp. 104-20.

A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Chapel Hill, 1975, index.

A. Hartmann, an-Nāṣir li-Dīn Allāh (1180-1225), Berlin and New York, 1975, index.

R. Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischen Persiens. Zweiter Teil: Glaube und Lehre, Wiesbaden, 1976, index.

Cite this page
I. K. Poonawala and Etan Kohlberg, “ʿALĪ B. ABĪ ṬĀLEB”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 31 May 2023 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_5150>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 19851215

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