Translated by Mahdi Chamanzar
Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), whose heart and soul brimmed with Divine Revelation, had, since the initial days, a very close and dear companion, who was a source of peace and serenity to his ethereal spirit.
History, in spite of its narrow and biased in recording truths and realities and its distortion of facts, was unable to ignore the name and qualities of that sincere companion of the Almighty's Last Prophet or to undermine his unparalleled virtues.
Indeed, the name 'Ali (A.S.) appears along that of the Prophet and any reference to the Holy Qur'an throughout the history of Islam. As confirmed by authentic sources, he was the first to acknowledge the prophethood of Muhammad (S.A.W.). So deep were the bonds between the two cousins - despite the age gap of 30 years - that he spent more time with him than with any of his brothers. He was, actually, raised by the Prophet (S.A.W.) and imbibed the divine source of knowledge and virtue through him. He personified the morals and wisdom of the Prophet. From the very day that his father Abu Talib had entrusted him to the care of the Prophet, there is no instance of any separation between these two chosen ones recorded in history, except for a few special occasions. Of these, mention could be made of Laylah al-Mabit, when Imam 'Ali (A.S.) was asked by the Prophet to sleep in his bed so that he could migrate from Makkah to Madinah, undetected by the infidels hovering around the house. The other two occasions are the expedition which the Prophet undertook to Tabuk and assigned him to stay in his absence in Madinah as his deputy - citing the Hadith al-Manzilah on the relationship between Moses and Aaron - and his despatch to Yemen before the Farewell Pilgrimage.
Thus, apart from these exceptions, one finds Imam 'Ali (A.S.) always at the side of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) in the same manner as the latter was inseparable from the Holy Qur'an and Divine Revelation. This association between the two wasn't the mere bond of kinship or the prophet's repayment of the favours of his loving uncle and guardian Abu Talib. Rather it was due to the striking resemblance the two cousins shared in spiritual qualities and intellectual perceptions as divine providence had decreed. Years later, Imam 'Ali (A.S.) in his own inimitable and unmatched eloquence was to describe this relationship as follows:
You do know my position of close kinship and relationship with the Messenger of Allah. When I was only a child he took me over. He found neither lies in my speaking, nor weakness in any act. From the time of his weaning Allah had put a great angel with him to take him along the path of high character and good behaviour throughout day and night, while I used to follow him like a young camel following in the footsteps of its mother. Every day he used to demonstrate to me some of his high traits and commanded me to follow. Every year he used to go in seclusion to Mount Hira where I saw him but no one else saw him... I used to see and watch the effulgence of divine revelation and the fragrance of prophethood.(1)
The companionship between the two was so intertwined and was at such a peak of spiritual perception that the Prophet said:
O 'Ali! You see all that I see and you hear all that I hear, except that you are not a Prophet, but you are a vicegerent and you are surely on (the path of) virtue.(2)
Two Perspectives of Imam 'Ali (A.S.)
Although history has recorded the important role and personality of Imam 'Ali (A.S.) in firming up the foundations of Islam in those critical moments of the divine message, it is distressing to note that historians have not paid the required attention to his transcendental characteristics which continue to loom larger than life and extend beyond the realm of valour, magnanimity, piety, knowledge, wisdom and perception.
There are two broadly defined views in the history of Islam with respect to the position and status of Imam 'Ali (A.S.): the perspective of those who claim to follow the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), and the perspective of those who call themselves Shi'ite - by stressing that the sunnah would remain incomplete if the Prophet's practice of love and affection for his Ahl al-Bayt is not duly emphasized.
The Ahl al-Sunnah see Imam 'Ali (A.S.) as a valiant hero who decisively defeated the roughnecks of Arabia from among the unbelievers and hypocrites, and whose matchless sword (dhu al-fiqar) never faltered in the defence of the person of the Prophet and the prestige of Islam. But in their view, Imam 'Ali (A.S.), although a brave, fearless and magnanimous warrior, lacked knowledge of politics and statecraft like the Umayyids, to extend the physical boundaries of Muslim lands through wars, increase state coffers by way of taxation, booties and spoils of war, and crush any signs of dissent in the embryonic stage.
The viewpoint about the Imam by those claiming to be his devotees also falls short of adequate perception. The main axis of belief of this group is that since the Commander of the Faithful (Amir al-Mu'minin) and the Leader of the Pious (Imam al-Muttaqin) decided against use of force for his rights after the Prophet, despite being the most worthy person for the caliphate and was subsequently deprived of political authority, he should be considered as an oppressed saint and should thus be mourned for.
However, the shortcomings of these two points of view do not imply they're wrong. Rather, they should be called as inadequate attempts to fathom the fathomless ocean. Without the least doubt, Imam 'Ali (A.S.) was a matchless warrior and had no peers as regards the caliphate, but neither of these two viewpoints, reflect the essence of his unique and extraordinary characteristics.
For Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) he was the closest, the dearest, the most reliable and the highly respected confidant and companion, but not simply because of his bravery, piety, knowledge or judgement; rather, because he had full qualities of prophethood although he was not a prophet. The Almighty Creator had granted him the perception to see the signs of revelation to his cousin the Seal of Prophets, yet it was Divine Will that he was not Allah's Messenger. Imam 'Ali (A.S.) was in fact the Interpreter of the Holy Qur'an and the Testifier to its Truth, as taught by Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), and this was the greatest privilege for him. This is why he would repeatedly urge people:
Ask me before you lose me (forever). By Allah! There is no ayah in the Qur'an except that I know regarding whom it was revealed and where it was revealed, whether in the plain or on the mountain. Indeed My Lord has granted me a perceptive heart and an eloquent tongue.(3)
The Imam's Knowledge of the Holy Qur'an
Islamic scholars of various schools have focused on the fact that while the Holy Qur'an is the greatest miracle presented to mankind for all time by the Almighty's Last Messenger, Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), Imam 'Ali (A.S.) enjoys the honour of being the most knowledgeable of the companions in respect to the secrets and mysteries of Allah's Revealed Word. Thus, he is the most merited and praiseworthy human being after the Prophet.
This is confirmed by the wise and eloquent speeches as well as the egalitarian practices of Imam 'Ali (A.S.), which continue to stand out as exemplary behaviour for humanity. For instance, although he emphasizes his undisputable right for the caliphate in view of the fact that he was the publicly proclaimed deputy of the Prophet and denounces the incompetent for usurping what did not belong to them, he is so magnanimous that he is prepared to overlook his right of leadership in order to avoid dissension at that critical juncture of Islamic history when the neo-Muslims could well have turned back to idolatry. However, he deems it highly crucial to continue his presence in the intellectual and social scenes by expounding the principles of Islam and interpreting the meaning and purport of ayahs of the Holy Qur'an. A glance at hadith literature and historical narratives including his own sermons and letters, reveal that throughout the twenty-five years of his detachment from political and administrative issues, Imam 'Ali (A.S.) never felt unconcerned about the affairs of the ummah and anxiously invited Muslims to properly learn the meaning of the Holy Qur'an. In one instance he calls on people as such:
O people! Ask me (about any matter), since after me you will never find anyone more knowledgeable than me to pose questions. Neither will you find anyone more knowledgeable than me about what is between the two covers (the Holy Qur'an). So ask me.(4)
On another occasion he says:
Surely, the Almighty Allah has honoured me, from among the companions of the Messenger of Allah, with the knowledge of the abrogator (nasikh) and the abrogated (mansukh), the clear (muhkam) and the allegorical (mutashabih), and the specific (khass) and the general ('amm). And, this is Allah's favour to me and to His Prophet.(5)
In the book Tarikh Dimashq, we come across the words of Ibn Shabramah who says:
No one but (Imam) 'Ali bin Abi Talib (A.S.) was able to assert on the pulpit (publicly) that he could answer any question and explain any subject with respect to the contents of the Holy Qur'an.(6)
In Manaqib Al-i Abi Talib, Ibn Shahr Ashub quotes al-Sha'bi as saying:
There is no one after the Messenger of Allah (S.A.W.) more knowledgeable than (Imam) 'Ali (A.S.) with respect to the Holy Qur'an.(7)
'Abdullah bin 'Abbas, who is considered a well-known exegete of the Holy Qur'an of the early days of Islam, has been quoted in the book al-Nihayah fi Gharib al-Hadith as emphasizing:
My knowledge of the Qur'an in comparison with (Imam) 'Ali (A.S.) is like a small pond in front of a fathomless ocean.(8)
Mansur bin Hazim, a companion of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (A.S.) citing a relatively long report which he presented to the Imam for soliciting his views regarding debates with various scholars, says as follows:
I asked the people: Are you aware that Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) was Allah's proof or authority (hujjah) to mankind? They replied in the affirmative. I asked: Who is Allah's hujjah among the ummah after the passing away of the Prophet (S.A.W.)? They said: the Qur'an. I contemplated on the Holy Qur'an and realized that even groups harbouring doubts about Divine Revelation, such as the Murji'ah, Fatalists and atheists despite their disbelief in the Qur'an never hesitate to cite verses from the Qur'an in their paradoxical arguments, in order to overwhelm their antagonists! Hence, I observed that the Qur'an without a guardian and correct interpreter can not be referred to. So I questioned them: Is there any criteria in this regard to expound the correct interpretation of the Holy Qur'an? They said: 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud, while 'Umar and Huzayfah also have some knowledge of the Qur'an and were able to answer all relevant questions? They replied with one voice: No! On several instances questions were posed and they were unable to reply; however, the only person who has never left any question concerning the Qur'an unanswered, was (Imam) 'Ali (A.S.).(9)
Imam 'Ali (A.S.), the Source of All Authority
The interpretation of the Revealed Word of God or Exegesis of the Holy Qur'an is traced to Imam 'Ali (A.S.). He is considered the indisputable authority in this field. In fact, as scholars testify, he developed this science expounded to him by the Prophet and passed it on to his disciples after creating various branches out of it. A review of the exegeses of the Holy Qur'an reveals that he is the ultimate source for most of the authentic explanations. He bequeathed this science to his cousin 'Abdullah ibn 'Abbas, who on being asked to compare his own knowledge with that of Imam 'Ali (A.S.), said:
It is like a raindrop in comparison with the all-encompassing ocean.(10)
In the book Matalib al-Su'ul it is written:
Among the Islamic ummah 'Abdullah bin 'Abbas is reputedly the pioneer and the foremost exegete of the Holy Qur'an, yet he was a student and follower of (Imam) 'Ali (A.S.) and acquired knowledge from the Imam.(11)
Imam 'Ali (A.S.) and Practical Implementation of the Holy Qur'an
The Imam, in word and practice, showed that his emphasis on his right of leadership and his position of being the Testamentary Legatee (wasi) of the Prophet was not an ambition to gain power and political authority. Rather, it was for the practical implementation of the Holy Qur'an in society as intended by Allah and Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), since during every military encounter Imam 'Ali (A.S.) cherished nothing but martyrdom for the cause of Islam. His famous saying: "By Allah the Son of Abi Talib is more familiar with death than an infant with the breast of its mother", (12) stands out as firm testimony in this regard. It is also worth recalling that the day when the masses fed up with decades of injustice and distortion of the spirit of Islam, came begging at his doorstep to take on the reins of political authority, Imam 'Ali (A.S.), after initial refusal said that he has decided to accept the caliphate only because of the fact that it is the duty of the learned and the capable to duly discharge their responsibilities with respect to the oppressed people.
He says in this regard:
Behold! By Him who split the grain (to grow) and created living beings, if people had not come to me and supporters had not exhausted the arguments and if there had been no covenant of Allah with the learned to the effect that they should not acquiesce in the gluttony of the oppressor and the hunger of the oppressed I would have cast the rope of caliphate on its own shoulders, and would have given the last one, the same treatment as to the first one. They you would have seen that in my view this would of yours are no better than sneezing of goat.(13)
In another instance, once when was mending his shoes during his caliphate, he asked one of his companions of the worth of his worn out footwear and on being said that it was worth nothing, he answered:
This matter of caliphate is even more worthless for me than these worn out shoes, if I am not able to support the oppressed against the oppressors!
What was then the objective of Imam 'Ali (A.S.), when following the passing away of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) and the scandalous event of Saqifah Bani Sa'idah, he solicited the testimony of the Ansar and the Muhajirin for his right to the caliphate?
What made the Imam deliver that memorable and moving sermon called Shiqshiqyyah in which he has denounced the misrule of his predecessors and questioned their legitimacy to the caliphate?
How is it possible to justify the Battles of Jamal and Nahrawan and the War of Siffin that the Imam fought against dissenters as Caliph of the Islamic state?
The answers to these questions are not much difficult for those who are familiar with the position and personality of Imam 'Ali (A.S.). Indeed, in the Imam's view, the caliphate was in essence nothing more than a task to be fulfilled, and he only regarded it as a means to promote the Holy Qur'an and promulgate the Divine laws in society for the benefit of mankind. It is beyond any question that the caliphate was his right in view of the fact that he was the most knowledgeable about the Holy Qur'an and the principles of religion, and was blessed with the wisdom to foresee the outcome of affairs. In this respect, he has said:
I am more cognizant than any of you about the Book (Qur'an) and the sunnah, more perceptive of religion than any of you and more knowledgeable than any of you regarding the consequences of affairs.(14)
It was not due to arrogance but because of solid and indisputable proofs that Imam'Ali (A.S.) considered himself as Manifestation of Qur'anic verses, and was his perception, will and words, as the words, views and will of the Book of Allah. This is the very reason why, during the events of Siffin when the deceitful lifting of the Holy Qur'an on spear points by the forces of Mu'awiyah had misled a part of his own forces to think that they were wrong in fighting fellow-Muslims, the Imam reminded to them:
I am the Qur'an al-Natiq (Vocal or Speaking Qur'an)... This is Kitab Allah al-Samit (Silent Book of God), and it is me who explains and interprets it. So hold fast to the Kitab Allah al-Natiq (Vocal Book of God).(15 & 16)
Undoubtedly, such statements could only be expressed by Imam 'Ali (A.S.). He was witness to the revelation of the Holy Qur'an as well as the eloquent expressions of the Prophet. He demonstrated the practicability of the divine ayahs and the sunnah of the Prophet, not for any worldly objective, but to pave the ground for spreading the genuine precepts of Islam and bringing about justice in society.
Imam 'Ali (A.S.), although privileged with such a great and highly significant position and status, lived a very simple life that measured to the standard of the poorest of people in society. That's why, his speech and his silence, his resentment and his contentment, his deed and his word, his consent and his admonishment, were all manifestations of Allah's will. He was indeed, the living Qur'an, since his life mirrored the practical interpretation of the divine ayahs.
Alas! His detractors deprived him of the chance to promote the Holy Qur'an in its entirety and explain more clear the rule of religion in society so as to pave the way for the Islamic ummah to strive towards prosperity and salvation. It's a pity, the ummah did not give Imam 'Ali (A.S.) the respite to wield his enlightened pen as dexterously as his celebrated sword, dhu al-fiqar, to let mankind benefit from the ocean of knowledge of which he was the repository. It surely is most bothersome for men of knowledge and wisdom to be deprived of the opportunity to shed their light of knowledge on the society and to guide people on the right path, and instead, be forced to unsheathe the sword.
It's even more annoying for men of wisdom and justice to see their precious and valuable words unheeded and their justice not tolerated. It is unfortunate that not even the pulpit was snatched from him to prevent him from expounding his knowledge, but at the same time his hands were tied with the ropes of political intrigue so as to prevent him from even drawing the dhu al-fiqar against oppression and evil in the general interests of the Islamic ummah. Religion is the most significant challenge for men of knowledge and it is that crucial arena where they unravel the waves of wisdom beating in their breasts; for they have waited long to witness the spread of virtue and munificence among mankind.
Imam 'Ali (A.S.) has a famous saying in this respect:
So I adopted patience, although there was pricking in the eye and suffocation (of mortification) in the throats.(17)
In spite of all these barriers, Imam 'Ali (A.S.) used every opportunity to explain and expound the meanings of the ayahs of the Holy Qur'an. However, he was quite concerned with the lack of appropriate learners of the Divine knowledge and thus would say:
I am the great treasure of knowledge, but unfortunately the number of learners and seekers and seekers of knowledge are so few. It won't be long before they miss me for ever, and be disappointed?(18)
In another instance, while addressing his disciple Kumayl bin Ziyad, the Imam said:
O Kumayl! Knowledge is a belief that is acted upon. With it a person acquires obedience in his life and a good name after his death. O Kumayl, those who amass wealth may be dead even though they may be living while those endowed with knowledge would remain so long as the world lives. Their bodies are no more but their figures exist in the hearts. Look, here is a heap of knowledge (pointing to his bosom). I wish I could get someone to bear it. Yes I did find, but either it was the one that could not be relied upon. He would exploit the religion for worldly gains, and by virtue of Allah's favours upon him he would domineer over the people and through Allah's pleas would lord over his devotees. Or it was the one who was obedient to the hearers of truth but there was no intelligence in his bosom. At the first appearance of doubt he would entertain misgivings in his heart. So neither this nor that was good enough. Either the person is eager for pleasures, easily led away by passions, or is covetous for collecting and hoarding wealth. Neither of them has any regard for religion in any matter. The nearest example of this is the loose cattle. This is the way that knowledge dies away with the death of its bearer.(19)
What troubled the Imam was the lack of a deserving audience. He was the repository of knowledge, yet people asked him about the most simple and basic issues, while the crooked tried to annoy him by deliberately posing irrational questions. His answers were based on their level of intelligence, but whenever he found the opportunity he let flow the springs of science and wisdom, he did. That's why he has said:
I have hidden knowledge; if I disclose it you will start trembling like ropes in deep wells.(20)
Nevertheless, never did Imam 'Ali (A.S.) let ago any single opportunity to inculcate Muslims with the meaning and purport of the Qur'an and its vast secrets. Hence, in accordance with the instructions of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) he was the first to compile the Holy Qur'an. He subsequently employed the following two methods for interpretation of the Holy Book:
A. Elucidation of the concepts and moral obligations of the ayahs and the harmonious interrelation between them with respect to actual and related topics.
B. Explanation of Divine knowledge with respects to various matters such as religious, social and scientific, during sermons and while giving answers to ideological questions.
Today, both the effective methods employed by Imam 'Ali (A.S.), are at the disposal of researchers and scholars, enabling them to discover the keys to understanding the Holy Qur'an in order to quench the for divine knowledge of the seekers of truth.
Imam 'Ali (A.S.), Barometer of Qur'anic Concepts
Whatever has been recorded by academic and historical sources of the personality, thoughts, works, practice and behaviour of Imam 'Ali (A.S.), is ample proof of his unrivalled merits that enables seekers of knowledge in an era when mankind has taken giant strides in the scientific field, to rely upon the Imam's words in their fundamental discussions in both the ideological realm and the world of nature and practical sciences.
If contemporary philosophers and theoreticians, in spite of having access to all sources of human knowledge are unable to offer clear, unambiguous and definite answers to many essential questions regarding the science of divinity, anthropology and theology, they are advised to study the trail blazed out by Imam 'Ali (A.S.), whose transcendental wisdom will help unravel the truth. The various theories, beliefs and isms that have been wandering in the valley of bewilderment, should avail the opportunity to contemplate on the timeless wisdom of the eloquent words of Imam 'Ali (A.S.). Then only will they be able to understand the basis of his words. The Imam says:
I advise you to hold fast to the Book of Allah! It is a strong rope, a bright light, a definite remedy and a satiating spring. It protects from error those who have faith in it and grants success to those who abide by it.(21)
Unfortunately, the clear and lucid words of Imam 'Ali (A.S.), which he expressed in an era of ignorance - and at times he vented his feelings by speaking down the mouth of a well because of lack of deserving persons who could lend him their ears - were to be ignored by two groups:
A. Those who claimed to be his devotees but who only devotedly recalled and repeated his words without ever making much effort in theory and in practice to make this these ideals and beliefs manifest in social life.
B. The so-called modernists who because of their narrow-mindedness wrongly dismissed the intellectual legacy of the past with out giving themselves the opportunity to ponder on words and thoughts of Imam 'Ali (A.S.) regarding Divine Revelations, religion, the Qur'an and achievements of Islam.
1. Nahj al-Balaghah, Sermon: 192.
3. Ibid., Sermon: 189.
4. Ibn 'Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq, Beriut: Dar al-Fikr, vol. 42, p. 398.
5. Saduq, Muhammad bin 'Ali bin Babawayh, al-Khisal, p. 576.
6. Ibn 'Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq, vol. 42, p. 299.
7. Ibn Shahr Ashub, Manaqib Al Abi Talib, vol. 2, p. 43.
8. Ibn Athir, al-Nihayah fi Gharib al-Hadith wa al-Athar, vol. 1, p. 212; Majlisi,Muhammad Baqir, Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 106, p. 92.
9. Kulayni, Muhammad bin Ya'qub, Usul al-Kafi, vol. 1, p. 168.
10. Ibn Abi al-Hadid, Sharh al-Nahj al-Balaghah, vol. 1, p. 17.
11. Shafi'i, Matalib al-Su'ul, p. 29.
12. Nahj al-Balaghah, Sermon: 3.
13. Tabrisi, Fazl bin Hasan, al-Ihtijaj, vol. 1, p. 182.
14. Qunduzi, Sulayman bin Ibrahim, Yanabi' al-Mawaddah, vol. 1, p. 214.
15. Mawsu'ah al-Imam 'Ali (A.S.), vol. 8, p. 207.
16. Nahj al-Balaghah, Sermon 3.
17. Saduq, 'Ilal al-Shara'i', p. 40.
18. Nahj al-Balaghah, Maxim: 147.
19. Ibid., Sermon 5.
20. Ibid., Sermon 156.
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