Ali Ben Abu Talib

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Ali, in full, 'Ali ben Abu Talib (c. 600-661), the fourth of the caliphs or successors of Muhammad, was born at Mecca about the year A.D. 600. His father, Abu Talib, was an uncle of the prophet, and Ali himself was adopted by Muhammad and educated under his care. As a mere boy he distinguished himself by being one of the first to declare his adhesion to the cause of Muhammad, who some years afterwards gave him his daughter Fatima in marriage. Ali proved himself to be a brave and faithful soldier, and when Muhammad died without male issue, a few emigrants thought him to have the best claim to succeed him. Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, however, occupied this position before him, and it was not until 656, after the murder of Uthman, that he assumed the title of caliph. The fact that he took no steps to prevent this murder is, perhaps, the only real blot upon his character.

Almost the first act of his reign was the suppression of a rebellion under Talha and Zobair, who were instigated by Ayisha, Muhammad's widow, a bitter enemy of Ali, and one of the chief hindrances to his advancement to the caliphate. The rebel army was defeated at the "Battle of the Camel," near Basra, the two generals being killed, and Ayisha taken prisoner.

Ali soon afterwards made Kufa his capital. His next care was to get rid of the opposition of Muawiyah, the governor of Syria, who had established himself at the head of a numerous army. A prolonged battle took place in July 657 in the plain of Siffin (Suffein), near the Euphrates; the fighting was at first, it is said, in favour of Ali, when suddenly a number of the enemy, fixing copies of the Quran to the points of their spears, exclaimed that "the matter ought to be settled by reference to this book, which forbids Moslems to shed each other's blood." The superstitious soldiers of Ali refused to fight any longer, and demanded that the issue be referred to arbitration. Abu Musa was appointed umpire on the part of Ali, and `Amr-ibn-al-As, a veteran diplomatist, on the part of Muawiyah. It is said that `Amr persuaded Abu Musa that it would be for the advantage of Islam that neither candidate should reign, and asked him to give his decision first. Abu Musa having proclaimed that he deposed both Ali and Muawiya, `Amr declared that he also deposed Ali, and announced further that he invested Moawiya with the caliphate. This treacherous decision greatly injured the cause of Ali, which was still further weakened by the loss of Egypt.

After much indecisive fighting, Ali found his position so unsatisfactory that according to some historians he made an agreement with Muawiyah by which each retained his own dominions unmolested. It chanced, however--according to a legend, the details of which are quite uncertain--that three of the sect of the Kharijites had made an agreement to assassinate Ali, Muawiyah and `Amr, as the authors of disastrous feuds among the faithful. The only victim of this plot was Ali, who died at Kufa in 661, of the wound inflicted by a poisoned weapon. A splendid mosque called Meshed Ali was afterwards erected near the city, but the place of his burial is unknown. He had eight wives after Fatima's death, and in all, it is said, thirty-three children, one of whom, Hassan, a son of Fatima, is said by the Sunni tradition to have stepped aside in favor of Muawiyah, who founded the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs. Ali's descendants by Fatima are known as the Fatimids.

The question of Ali's right to succeed to the caliphate is an article of faith which divided the Muslim world into two great sects, the Sunni and the Shi'i, the former denying, and the latter affirming, his right. The Turks, consequently, hold his memory in abhorrence; whereas the Persians, who are generally Shi`as, venerate him as second only to the prophet, call him the "Lion of God" (Sher-i-Khuda), and celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom. Ali is described as a bold, noble and generous man, "the last and worthiest of the primitive Moslems, who imbibed his religious enthusiasm from companionship with the prophet himself, and who followed to the last the simplicity of his example." It is maintained, on the other hand, that his motives were throughout those of ambition rather than piety, and that, apart from the tragedy of his death, he would have been an insignificant figure in history. (See further CALIPHATE.)

In the eyes of the later Moslems he was remarkable for learning and wisdom, and there are extant collections (almost all certainly spurious) of proverbs and verses which bear his name: the Sentences of Ali.



Initial text from 1911 encyclopedia -- Please update as needed

see Shiites -- Ismailis -- Fatimids