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Ali ibn Abi Talib

Ali ibn Abi Talib

Historian Hassan Abbas sums up the dilemma at the heart of Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib's reign in the following way:

So why is it, then, that a man so loved by Islam's most important figure is also one who is at the centre of vicious debates among some of the religion's followers even today?1

This quote aptly encapsulates the two sides of Imam Ali. On one hand, he is regarded by many as a supremely spiritual religious scholar. He was beloved by the Prophet Muhammad, who raised him like a son. And yet when he became caliph, many Muslims opposed his rule, and his legacy has been one of violence. Let's read on to find out more about Ali's life and legacy.

Imam

According to Shia Muslims, an imam is a Muslim leader descended from the Prophet Muhammad who is sinless and divinely appointed to lead. In the Sunni Muslim tradition, an imam is a leader of prayers in a mosque.

Ali ibn Abi Talib: Facts

These top ten facts about Ali ibn Abi Talib give an overview of the key information about this controversial caliph.

Ali ibn Abi Talib An artist's depiction of the marriage of Ali and Fatimah StudySmarterFig. 1 - An artist's depiction of the marriage between Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

  1. Ali ibn Abi Talib reigned as caliph for five years between 656 and 661.
  2. Ali ibn Abi Talib was married to the Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah. This made him the Prophet's son-in-law.
  3. Ali ibn Abi Talib's mother was the aunt of the Prophet Muhammad.
  4. Ali was raised by the Prophet Muhammad and his wife.
  5. When the Prophet Muhammad learned of an assassination attempt on his life, he fled to Medina in 622. Ali stayed behind in Muhammad's bed as a decoy. By doing so, he successfully tricked the assassins into believing that Muhammad had not left the city. Ali joined the Prophet and the other Muslim believers in Mecca at a later date.
  6. Ali largely withdrew from public affairs after Muhammad's death during the reigns of the first three Rashidun caliphs.
  7. Ali became caliph in 656 when Caliph Uthman was assassinated. Unlike Uthman, Ali was not appointed by a committee but was chosen by popular demand in the city of Medina.
  8. The manner by which Ali had become caliph sparked the First Fitna - the first civil war within Islam.
  9. Ali was assassinated in 661. This was the end of the Rashidun Caliphate.
  10. Imam Ali is the key figure at the centre of the Sunni/Shia split in Islam. Shias believe that only Ali and his descendants had the right to become caliphs because of their close relationship with the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis believed that any faithful Muslim had the right to become caliph. They did not see Ali's death, nor the fact that the caliphate passed to Muawiya I instead of Ali's son, as removing leadership from the Prophet's rightful heir.

Ali and the History of Early Islam

After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, four successive leaders had all been close companions or relatives of the Prophet: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali.

The reigns of these four caliphs became known as the Rashidun Caliphate - the first caliphate in Islam. Rashidun means 'rightly guided', and it refers to the fact that most Muslims believe that these caliphs were pious moral exemplars who represented a golden age within Islam.

Caliph

Ruler of the Islamic community

Caliphate

The political and religious state of Islam in the years following Muhammad's death

Ali ibn Abi Talib: Biography

This section gives a comprehensive overview of Ali's life from his birth in Mecca to his assassination and secret burial.

Early life

Ali ibn Abi Talib was born in 600 in Mecca. His father, Abu Talib, was the leader of the Banu Hashim tribe and uncle to the Prophet Muhammad. When Abu Talib's finances became difficult, Muhammad offered to take in the boy and raise him in his own home. Ali was raised by the Prophet Muhammad.

The Prophet Muhammad's first divine revelation occurred when Ali was about ten years old. Ali believed Muhammad's words, becoming one of the very first Muslim believers.

The Medinan Years

In 622, the Muslim community in Mecca migrated to Medina because of the ongoing religious persecution against the Prophet Muhammad and his followers.

The story goes that the Prophet learned of an assassination attempt on his life and decided to flee the city. Ali put on Muhammad's cloak, climbed into his bed, and pretended to be the Prophet so that the assassins wouldn't know that Muhammad had left Mecca already. The plan worked - the Prophet Muhammad escaped Mecca and Ali was able to join the Muslims in Medina at a later date.

Ali ibn Abi Talib Illustration of Ali fighting for the Prophet Muhammad at Medina StudySmarterFig. 2 - Ali fighting for the Prophet Muhammad with his sword Zulfiqar at Medina.

Ali was a key participant in the battles that the Prophet Muhammad fought between 622 and 632 during the Medinan years. He took on many important administrative and religious tasks for the Prophet, such as writing down the terms of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah in 628 and becoming one of the scribes of the Qur'an.

Treaty of Hudaybiyyah

This treaty was signed in 628 between Muhammad and the Quraysh tribe of Mecca. It agreed to a ceasefire of ten years between Muslims and the Quraysh, and between their respective allies. However, the treaty was broken after just two years.

Ghadir Khumm

One of the most contested sayings by the Prophet Muhammad was made about Ali in an event called the Ghadir Khumm in 632, not long before Muhammad died. While he was giving a sermon, Muhammad is reported by both Sunni and Shia sources to have said:

Whoever I am his mawla, this Ali is his mawla.

Mawla

Mawla has many different meanings. It can mean 'Lord', 'guardian' or 'helper' - or it can mean 'friend', 'nephew' or 'close to'.

Muslims interpret this in different ways:

Shia MuslimsSunni MuslimsSufi Muslims

Shia Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad knew he was going to die soon, and this statement was Muhammad's way of appointing Ali as his successor.

Sunni Muslims argue that this statement was the Prophet Muhammad's affirmation of his close relationship with Ali and his wish that Ali should take over the family responsibilities of Muhammad after his death.

Sufi Muslims, the mystics of Islam, believe that this statement refers to the Prophet Muhammad's designation of Ali as his spiritual heir.

Mystic

A person who uses contemplation to achieve union with the Divine

After Muhammad's Death

During the 24 years between the Prophet Muhammad's death and his succession as caliph in 656, Ali took very little part in public affairs. Unlike during Muhammad's years, he fought in none of the battles waged by the three Rashidun caliphs who came before him.

In 644, Ali was one of six men appointed by Umar to select the next caliph. The contest ended up being between Uthman and Ali. Uthman won more votes than Ali, partially because Uthman agreed to all the terms of the caliphate, whereas Ali only agreed to two of the three terms.

The three terms of the caliphate were that the caliph should rule according to the Qur'an, the practices of Muhammad, and the precedents of the first two caliphs - Abu Bakr and Umar. Uthman agreed to all three terms, whereas Ali only agreed to the first two. He was critical of the first two caliphs.

Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib

In 656, Uthman was assassinated by a Kharijite during a siege on his home in Medina. In the chaos of the days that followed, the main groups in Medina - the Basrians and the Kufis - asked Ali to become caliph in Uthman's place. Ali thereby became caliph without having been appointed by a committee.

Kharijites

The Kharijites were an early Islamic sect. They believed that Ali was the true heir to Muhammad, and they were willing to use violent means to ensure their beliefs were met.

First Fitna

However, within a very short time, Ali faced the first conflict of his reign when the widow of the Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, joined with two of Ali's rivals, Zubayr and Talha, to form a coalition against him. They blamed Ali for Uthman's death because he took no action against the Kharijites for having murdered Uthman. They also argued that the caliph should be decided by a committee.

First Fitna

The first civil war within Islam. This began in 656 when opposition arose against Caliph Ali, and it finished in 661 when Ali died and Muawiya I became caliph.

The two sides met at the Battle of the Camel in 656. Ali was victorious, but he acted leniently towards his opponents - none of the army was enslaved, and he treated Aisha and Zubayr well. Talha died of battle wounds.

Battle of Siffin

Next, Ali faced opposition from the governor of Syria, Muawiya. Muawiya was a close kinsman of Uthman, and he also blamed Ali for not taking revenge on Uthman's death. The two sides met at the Battle of Siffin in 657.

Ali ibn Abi Talib Illustration of the Battle of Siffin StudySmarterFig. 3 - Illustration of the Battle of Siffin.

Ali's side had nearly won the battle when Muawiya had a stroke of genius. He ordered his soldiers to put Qur'an pages on the end of their lances in a gesture intended to communicate that Muslims should settle their disagreements by the Qur'an rather than by the sword. Ali's army refused to fight against people holding Qur'an pages, and Ali was forced to enter negotiations with Muawiya.

Battle of Nahrawan

Unfortunately for Ali, his supporters, the Kharijites, were incensed that he had agreed to enter into negotiations with Muawiya rather than continue the battle. Moreover, Ali's army hated the Kharijites because of their violent actions.

Ali demanded that the Kharijites renounce enmity and war, but they refused. The result was the Battle of Nahrawan, in which Ali killed the vast majority of the Kharijite sect in 658.

Enmity

A state of constant hatred and active hostility towards a person or group of people.

Death and Succession

In 661, Ali was assassinated in a mosque by a Kharijite who sought revenge for the Battle of Nahrawan. Ali did not appoint a successor before he was killed, but he had frequently argued that the caliphate should remain in the line of Muhammad, meaning that the natural heir to Ali was his eldest son, Hasan. Many in Medina pledged allegiance to Hasan upon Ali's death.

However, things did not go as Ali planned. Muawiya, who had declared himself caliph in Syria, rode his army into Medina and entered into negotiations with Hasan. Hasan agreed to abdicate in favour of Muawiya in exchange for a large financial settlement. Thus, leadership transferred from the Prophet's family to the Umayyad clan upon Ali's death.

How did Muslims at the time react to the transfer of leadership from Hasan to Muawiya?

On the one hand, leadership transferred peacefully from Hasan to Muwaiya. This suggests that most Muslims at the time were content to see Muawiya become caliph.

However, historian Fred Donner argues that Muslims probably accepted Muawiya as caliph not because they thought he was the just ruler, but instead out of a desire for stability after several years of continual conflict.2

Ali ibn Abi Talib as Caliph: Evaluation

Historian Hassan Abbas sums up the circumstances of Ali's rule as caliph in the following way:

By the time he rose to the office of the caliph, things had deteriorated to the point that his four years in power (656-661) were mostly consumed in dealing with civil wars, rebellions and the ugly rise of clan politics.3

Ali was also known for his decentralised approach to rule. He followed the precedent set by Muhammad in favouring an equal distribution of taxes amongst Muslims.

Ali ibn Abi Talib: Achievements

Ali's achievements lie less in his rule as caliph - which can hardly be marked as a success story given his constant failure to unify the caliphate under his rule - than in his earlier years under Muhammad and the Rashidun caliphs.

  1. Military achievements under Muhammad: During the Medinan years, Ali distinguished himself on the battlefield at many of the important battles between Muhammad and the Quraysh. It is said that he was an exceptionally brave soldier.
  2. Religious achievements under Muhammad: Ali spread the teachings of Islam to Yemen in 631.
  3. Religious scholar: During the period of the Rashidun caliphs, Imam Ali devoted his time to the study of Islam. Many wise sayings are attributed to him, and he is considered to be a mystic by the Sufi tradition, which holds him as the spiritual successor to Muhammad.

Ali is such a revered figure within the Sufi tradition that many Sufi mystics chant 'Ali Maula' repeatedly in their search for spiritual connection with the divine.4

Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib: Shrine

Ali asked to be buried secretly because he was afraid his enemies would dig up his body to humiliate him in death. It wasn't until several centuries later that Muslims found where he had been buried, in a grave in a city called Najaf.

Ali ibn Abi Talib The Sanctuary of Imam Ali StudySmarterFig. 4 - The Sanctuary of Imam Ali.

This site became a holy shrine known as the Sanctuary of Imam Ali. Every year, millions of Muslim pilgrims visit this shrine, paying homage to Ali.

Ali ibn Abi Talib - Key takeaways

  • Ali ibn Abi Talib was the fourth Rashidun Caliph. He ruled between 656 and 661.

  • Ali's reign was marked by conflict, which became known as the First Fitna, or the first civil war within Islam.

  • Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad intended Ali to be his successor. Sunni Muslims instead think Muhammad wanted Ali to take over responsibility for his family when he died. Sufi Muslims believe Ali was the spiritual successor to Muhammad.

  • Ali was assassinated by a Kharijite in 661. This was the end of the Rashidun Caliphate.

  • Ali's grave became an important site of pilgrimage known as the Sanctuary of Imam Ali.

References

  1. Hassan Abbas, The Prophet's Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib, (2021) pp. 4.
  2. Mary Beasely, 'From conflict to community' in John M. Hull, Education, Religion and Society, (2006) pp. 157.
  3. Abbas, The Prophet's Heir (2021), pp. 7.
  4. Ibid., pp. 4.
  5. Fig. 1: An artist's depiction of the marriage of Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatimah, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ali_ibn_Abi_Talib_and_Fatimah_bint_Muhammad.jpg, by khamenei.ir, https://khamenei.ir/i, licensed by Creative Commons Attribution 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en.
  6. Fig. 4: The Sanctuary of Imam Ali, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shrine_of_Imam_Ali_ibn_Abi_Talib.jpg, by Mahdishalchian, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Mahdishalchian&action=edit&redlink=1, licensed by Creative Commons Attribution 3.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ali ibn Abi Talib

Ali ibn Abi Talib was one of the most important figures in Islamic history. He was known for being a very pious man and the close friend and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, who became the fourth caliph to rule the Islamic community. However, he is also known for having been assassinated, an event which would in time lead to the Sunni/Shia split in Islam. 

The sword of Ali ibn Abi Talib has an extraordinary story. It is said that when Muhammad prayed, Allah gave a sword to the Muslim army fighting in the Battle of the Trench. This sword ended up in Ali's hands and helped them win a mighty victory. This sword became known as Zulfiqar. However, no one today knows where Ali's Zulfiqar sword ended up. 

Ali was raised by Muhammad and his wife, and he became a prominent figure during Muhammad's years at Medina. However, he withdrew from public life when Muhammad died, some argue as a silent criticism of the way the first three caliphs went about their leadership. In 656, Ali became caliph, but he was assassinated just a few years after. He asked to be buried secretly so that his enemies would not be able to profane his body in death. 

The first group to fight Ali ibn Abi Talib was a coalition made up of Muhammad's widow, Aisha, and two of Muhammad's close companions - Zubayr and Talha. The next person to launch an attack on Ali was the governor of Syria, Muawiya. The last group to fight against Ali was the Kharijite sect, when they refused Ali's call to abandon enmity and war against those they disagreed with. 

Ali ibn Abi Talib was known as a great mystic and religious scholar of Islam. When he withdrew from public life after Muhammad's death, he devoted much of his time to religious studies. He was also known as a kind and gentle man, as well as a brave soldier in battle. 

Final Ali ibn Abi Talib Quiz

Question

When did Ali reign as caliph? 

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Answer

656-661

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Question

Who was Ali married to? 

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Answer

Fatimah, the Prophet Muhammad's daughter

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Question

Who raised Ali as a child? 

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Answer

Muhammad and his wife

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Question

What did Ali do in 622? 

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Answer

He stayed behind in Mecca, wearing Muhammad's cloak and sleeping in his bed as a decoy. This enabled Muhammad to escape an assassination attempt by fleeing to Medina. 

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What did Ali do after Muhammad's death? 

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Answer

He withdrew from public affairs. 

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Question

How was Ali appointed caliph? 

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Answer

The two main groups in Medina asked him to become the next caliph and he agreed and declared himself caliph. 

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Question

When was Ali born? 

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Answer

600

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Question

What is the contested saying given by Muhammad about Ali? 

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Answer

'Whoever I am his mawla, this Ali is his mawla' 

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Question

What does Mawla mean? 

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Answer

Mawla has many different meanings - it can mean lord, helper, or guardian, or it can mean friend, nephew or close to. 

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Question

What was the event called where Muhammad described Ali as a mawla? 

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Answer

The Ghadir Khumm

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Question

Who did Ali lose out to in the committee deciding the third caliph in 644? 

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Answer

Uthman

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Who formed a coalition against Ali in 656? 

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Answer

Aisha, Muhammad's widow, together with two of Muhammad's companions - Zubayr and Talha

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What happened at the Battle of the Camel in 656? 

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Answer

Ali won a decisive victory against his opponents Aisha, Talha and Zubayr.

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In which battle did Ali meet his opponent Muawiya? 

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Answer

The Battle of Siffin

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What did Muawiya do in battle that forced Ali to enter negotiations with him? 

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Answer

He ordered his soldiers to put Qur'an pages on the end of their lances. 

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Who did Ali fight against at the Battle of Nahrawan in 658?

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Answer

The Kharijite sect

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Who were the Kharijites? 

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Answer

The Kharijites were a sect that believed only Ali had the right to become caliph. However, they turned on him when Ali agreed to deal leniently with his enemies, such as Muawiya. 

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Question

Why was Ali assassinated by a Kharijite in 661? 

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Answer

Because the Kharijite sought revenge for the Battle of Nahrawan. 

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Question

Who became caliph after Ali? 

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Answer

His eldest son Hasan initially became caliph. But he abdicated in favour of Muawiya, who became the first Umayyad caliph. 

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Question

What is Ali's shrine in Najaf called? 

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Answer

The Sanctuary of Imam Ali

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