Ali ibn Abu Talib

Ali ibn Abu Talib
Ali ibn Abu Talib

Ali ibn Abu Talib was the second convert to Islam. The son of Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib, Ali married his cousin Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad and Khadija. Ali and Fatima had two sons, Hasan and Husayn, who both played key roles in the history of Islamic society. Ali also fought courageously in the battles between the small Muslim community based in Medina and the Meccan forces prior to the Prophet’s triumphal return to Mecca.

Because of his familial relationship with Muhammad, many of Ali’s supporters thought he should be Muhammad’s successor. Although the Prophet had not named a successor, some of Ali’s allies claimed that Muhammad had secretly chosen Ali to rule the Islamic community after his death.

However, after some debate the Muslim majority chose Abu Bakr to be the new leader, or caliph. Many members of the powerful Umayyad clan opposed Ali, and he had also feuded with A’isha, the Prophet’s favorite wife. Thus when the next two caliphs were chosen, Ali was again passed over as leader of the Islamic community.

In 656 mutinous soldiers loyal to Ali assassinated the third caliph, Uthman, a member of the Umayyad family, and declared Ali the fourth caliph. But Muaw’iya, the powerful Umayyad governor of Syria, publicly criticized Ali for not pursuing Uthman’s assassins. A’isha sided with the Umayyads and raised forces against Ali.

But she was defeated at the Battle of the Camel and forced to return home. Feeling endangered in Mecca— an Umayyad stronghold—Ali and his allies moved to Kufa, in present day Iraq. Ali’s followers were known as Shi’i, or the party of Ali. This split was to become a major and lasting rift within the Muslim community.

Unlike the schism between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity, the division among Muslims was not over matters of theology but over who should rule the community. The majority, orthodox Sunnis, believed that any devout and righteous Muslim could rule. The Shi’i argued that the line of leadership should follow through Fatima and Ali and their progeny as the Prophet’s closest blood relatives.

The Syrians never accepted Ali’s leadership and the two sides clashed at the protracted Battle of Siffin, near the Euphrates River in 657. When neither side conclusively won, the famed Muslim military commander Amr ibn al-‘As negotiated a compromise that left Mu’awiya and Ali as rival claimants to the caliphate.

The Kharijites (a small group of radicals who rejected city life and who believed that God should select the most devout Muslim to be leader) were outraged at Amr’s diplomacy, Mu’awiya’s elitism and wealth, and Ali’s indecisiveness. According to tradition, they devised a plot to kill all three during Friday prayers.

The attacks on Amr and Mu’awiya failed, but a Kharijite succeeded in stabbing Ali to death in the mosque at Kufa in 661. Ali’s tomb in Najaf, south of present-day Baghdad, remains a major site of Shi’i pilgrimage to the present day. After Ali’s death, his eldest son, Hasan, agreed to forego his claim to the caliphate and retired peacefully to Medina, leaving Mu’awiya the acknowledged caliph.

Ali’s descendants as well as Muhammad’s other descendants are known as sayyids, lords, or sherifs, nobles, titles of respect used by both Sunni and Shi’i Muslims. Within the various Shi’i sects Ali is venerated as the first imam and the first righteously guided caliph.