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Book review: Hazrat Ali and Nahjal Balagha — by Khaled Ahmed


Justice and Remembrance:
Introducing the Spirituality of Imam Ali

By Reza Shah-Kazemi; IB Tauris 2006
Pp 254; Special price Rs995
Available at bookstores in Pakistan

This is a book from The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, and is dedicated to Syed Hossein Nasr, the great Iranian Twelver Shia scholar, indicating a coming together of the ‘Sixer’ Ismaili-’Twelver’ Shia streams of Islamic thought which should be welcomed by all Muslims. The book also seeks to reach the middle ground of agreement between the Shia and the Sunni schools on the life and message of the great Imam Ali and should be given the due it deserves at a time when a sectarian war threatens to engulf the entire Islamic world.

Ali bin Abi Talib (599-661) was born inside the Kaaba and was a cousin of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, who married his daughter, Fatima. His father Abu Talib is revered by all Muslims because, as an uncle, he brought up an orphaned Prophet PBUH, the son of his late brother Abdullah. Ali was the first male to embrace Islam at the age of nine or ten. In 622 when the Prophet migrated from Mecca to Madina, Ali slept in his bed as a decoy ready to be assassinated instead of the Prophet. In the Madinan period, Ali was the great warrior of Islam, in battle and in single combats, his famous sword Al Zulfiqar a gift to him from the Prophet.

All schools of thought in Islam favour the name Ali. Other names distinguishing one from the other also exist, but Ali has been left out of the sectarian lexicon. Ali is the main pillar of the concept of Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the Prophet, close to the hearts of the Shia and the Sunnis, above all the mystical tradition of the Sunnis. The attributes and virtues (fazael) of Ali were foreseen by the Prophet who often talked of him as his deputy. Imam Hanbal (d.855) says: ‘No companion of the Prophet has had such fazael ascribed to him as those which have been ascribed to Ali bin Abi Talib’. All Muslims accept the statement attributed to the Prophet: ‘For whomever I am the mawla (guardian, master, close friend), Ali is his mawla’.

The most important moment that joins the Shia and the Sunni together is the jointly accepted tradition of Ghadir Khumm in 632, a pool midway between Mecca and Madina, at the time of the Prophet’s last pilgrimage. He gathered his followers and said to them what has been reproduced above about Ali being his mawla. The book says that the Shia take this statement to be a nass (designation) of Ali as successor; for the Sunnis, it indicates the special proximity of Ali to the Prophet. At times mawla is stated as wali but both words have the same etymology. Highly rated by the Sunnis, companion Umar said to Ali on the authority of Ibn Kathir: ‘You have become my mawla and the mawla of every Muslim’ (p.21).

Author Shah-Kazemi doesn’t concern himself with Ali’s role and place within Shii Islam (p.21) but points significantly to individuals that regarded Ali positively before the sectarian battle-lines were drawn in later years: among the historians the name of Tabari (d.923) is well known while among the companions the names of Salman Farsi and Abu Zarr Ghaffari are equally revered. Just as in the rest of the Muslim world, in Pakistan too there are sects that revere Ali more than the others and therefore come into the cross-hairs of the extremists. The majority sect in Pakistan, the Barelvis, have been the target of sectarian wrath for this reason. It is to avoid this fallout that the book avoids examining the period of the brief caliphate of Ali that began in 656 and was dominated by civil war.

Ali was clearly the ‘complete man’. He was a man of action and equally a man of the intellect. He was a warrior and a philosopher at the same time. More than any other companion of the Prophet, Ali has left behind a corpus of meditations that abound with aphorisms and wisdom that is unafraid of paradox. When confronted with the infidel he was an unhesitating warrior — flecked with chivalry accepted later by the West in the figure of Saladin — but strangely hesitant when confronted with Muslims fighting Muslims. His masterpiece remains his collection of thoughts called Nahjal Balagha. The book, called ‘the way of eloquence’, clears the mists of doubt hovering over this work.

The Nahj sermons of Ali were compiled by Sharif al-Razi (d.1016) a renowned Shia scholar of Baghdad. Razi was the great grandson of Musa al-Kazim, the son of Imam Jaafar al-Sadiq, and his mother was the great grand-daughter of Imam Zain al-Abidin, son of Imam Husain bin Ali bin Abi Talib. Razi was a pupil of Sheikh Mufid, the great Shia scholar of Baghdad (d.1022). Razi went around collecting whatever he could find in the name of Ali and put it together. It is admittedly a patchwork, but its style remains uniformly the same, of the highest elegance. The Nahj has often been doubted, Sunni ulema questioning its authenticity on many counts.

Was the book the work of Razi or was it the carefully transmitted bulk of what Ali actually said often in rhymed prose? The author refers to new work carried out by modern scholars on the basis of the methodology traditionally accepted by the Muslims. The mixed verdict is that while some of the Nahj could be later insertions, most of it passes the strict test of ‘chains of transmission’ applied also to hadith reports. The book also refers to the work by Abdul Wahid Amidi (d.1116), a disciple of Ahmad Ghazali, a brother of the more famous Hamid Ghazali, which tends to substantiate the correctness of the Nahj. It also quotes from Encyclopaedia of Islam:

‘It is undeniable that a large portion of the Nahj could indeed be attributed to Ali, especially certain historical and panegyrical passages, although it is difficult to ascertain the authenticity of the more apocryphal sections. Moreover it has been possible to identify a considerable number of passages, accompanied by complete isnad, dating back to the time of Ali. These texts have been recounted by ancient scholars of repute such as al-Tabari, al-Masudi, al-Jahiz and many others’.

Source: Daily Times

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Abdul Nishapuri

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  • Nice Article….
    I would like to add here another book for the readers to read.
    Its is the book by the name “Ali The Magnificent”, and it is a compilation about Ali’s Life and his character from various notable works in History by great Historians such as Simon Ockley, Tabari, Abul Fida, Ibn Athir, Mas’udi, History of the World and many others.
    It also has sayings and verses related to Ali from Quran and Genesis, and many other astonishing facts.
    It surely is a very interesting work to study and motivates a man when he reads such a work and surely is worth reading.

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