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Imam 'Ali b. Abi Talib (a), Part II [Lecture 5]

Hamid Algar



-What is meant by Shi'ah

-Opposition to the caliphate of Imam Ali [AS]

-The role of the Imams [AS] with respect to gaining political leadership

-A look at the battle of the Camel

-A look at the battle of Siffin

-The emergence of the Kharijites

-The Battle of Naharwan

-Events till the death of Imam Ali [AS]

The Term Shi'ah

The assumption of the caliphate by Imam Ali [AS] took place either on the same day Uthman was assassinated or according to another source some five days later. It would be useful in order to understand what transpires during the exercise of rule by Imam Ali [AS] to go back a little to examine the nature of the opposition to Uthman because many of the factors of political disunity that were operative during the caliphate of Uthman persisted into the caliphate of Imam Ali [AS]. First of all among the opponents of Uthman were Abd al-Rahman ibn Auf, who had been influential in the selection of Uthman himself and in the selection of Umar he had been one of those few person consulted by Abu Bakr before Umar was nominated as successor. Abd al-Rahman ibn Auf claimed that Uthman had violated the oath that he had taken on the assumption of his rule, particularly that he had failed to distribute equitably the resources of the state in favouring his relatives. And indeed nepotism was a charge generally levelled against him from the range of his opponents. Seconldy those individuals that we classify as the Shi’ah of Ali – the word Shi’ah does occur in the Quran but in a sense totally disconnected to the historical meaning that it assumed. The word Shiah means a group of partisans or followers of a particular individual. It is therefore to be distinguished for example from the word Hizb which we do find in the Quran, meaning a group of persons dedicated to a particular cause, for example the Quran speaks of ‘Hizb Allah’ it also speaks of ‘Hizb Shaitan’, the group or party dedicated to Shaitan. The word Shi’ah in Arabic has a different sense that is ‘a group of people dedicated to a particular individual’. In fact before it became essentially a proper name designating a major segment of the Islamic community, it was applied to persons other than Ali [AS]. For example in the period in question we find people designating themselves as the Shi’ah of Uthman, or the Shi’ah of Mu’awiyah, i.e. persons around whom crystalised a certain distinctive following. With respect to Imam Ali [AS] it can be said that his Shi’ah, i.e. the group of persons devoted to him in a particular sense existed already in the time of the Prophet [sAW], if we say that Shi’ah Islam, obviously not in the fully fledged historical form, existed in the time of the Prophet [sAW], existed in the very sources of Islam. Part of the reason for this is that we can see during the lifetime of the Prophet [sAW] is that we can discern that there were particular individuals who owed particular loyalty to Imam Ali [AS]. There are regarded as being eight people like this, among them who are of particular importance during the caliphate of Uthman who formed an element opposition to him are Abu Dar Ghafari – who was exiled from Madinah, because of his criticism of the rule by Uthman and Ammar ibn Yasir. Individuals such as these and those who more were more loosely associated with Imam Ali [AS] formed the second element in the opposition.

Opposition to Imam Ali [AS] and The Role of the Imams [AS]

Then it is necessary to mention three people who contested the rule of Imam Ali [AS] also, one of the surviving wives of the Prophet [sAW] and two of the companions who had migrated from Makkah to Madinah – Aisha, Talha and Zubair, we can say that these three essentially operated as a single unit. The reason for Aisha’s opposition to Uthman is not entirely clear it is plain from her subsequent behaviour during the caliphate of Imam Ali [AS] that she did not in any way favour him and she seems to have in general favoured rule by the Quraish, but not by Uthman who belonged to a different branch of the Quraish tribe of Makkah, than herself and her father Abu Bakr. As for Talha and Zubair, they had extensive landed estates in Iraq, which at this point had become one of the principle provinces of the Islamic realm and there was as subsequently unfolded during the caliphate of Imam Ali [AS] also an element of regional rivalry. Uthman favoured his kinsfolk who were based in Syria – Mu’awiyah and those who would subsequently become known as the Umayyads. Talha and Zubair identified to some degree with Iraq which was the site of their landed holdings. When Uthman was besieged in his house by the rebel army coming from Egypt, Aisha left went to Makkah it seems on the assumption that after the killing of Uthman, Talha – her principle ally would become the caliph. And then also a number of the Ansar, these two formed a coalition which was an element in the opposition against Uthman. The Ansar, the people of Madinah who had received the Muslims migrants from Makkah, and who found themselves in the reign of Uthman sidelined, disadvantaged in their own city.

After the murder of Uthman the caliphate fell into the hands of Imam Ali [AS]. It seems that a group of five individuals came together and consulted on the his position of rule. Initially Imam Ali [AS] was reluctant to accept the caliphate or the rule of the Muslim community, no doubt because he was aware of the splintered nature of political loyalties, and problems that existed and he was ready to defer to either Talha or Zubair. But when these five individuals insisted and there was a more general indication of popular support, then he consented with some degree of reluctance, in which he made plain that for him worldly rule did not have any important significance or value. We may insert here a certain point which is often raised in discussing the whole question of the Imamate and above all the conduct of Imam Ali [AS] during these tumultuous years. It is said sometimes in a polemical context but nonetheless the question or remark is reasonable and deserve some attention that if the Imamate as the Shiah’s claim is a question of divine appointment, mediated through the Prophet [sAW], then surely it should be matter of duty for the ones who are nominated to claim the office. Whereas we see that during the rules of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, Imam Ali [AS] although dissenting in a very clear and unmistakable fashion, their legitimacy, nonetheless did not press his own claim. Now when finally the exercise of leadership of the community comes his way he demonstrates obvious reluctance. How then is this to be squared with, with what Shiah Islam teaches about Divine Appointment, if the case of Imamate is analogous with Prophethood, clearly the Prophet (i.e. a Prophet in general) does not have a choice. This is an office that he must necessarily accept. To this the answer that is generally given is twofold. Firstly, the Imamate is not primarily or exclusively the actual exercise of political power, it certainly includes that - ideally and theoretically but it is not restricted to it. From the point of view of Shi’ah Islam, the Imamate of Imam Ali [AS], begins immediately upon the death of the Prophet [sAW]. For example we see that Shaikh Mufid says that for 30 years Imam Ali [AS] exercised the Imamate, for 24.5 years he was prevented from exercising rule and for for 5 years and 6 months he exercised rule albeit in the face of massive difficulties. The exercise of Imamate is one thing, and the actual wielding of political authority is another, they are not necessarily synonymous. This is a question that is relevant to the late unfolding of Shi’ism. Because we see that none of the Imams, except for a very brief period Imam Hassan [AS] one of the sons of Imam Ali [AS], held power for a very brief period and in a very restricted area. Otherwise, none of the Imams actually exercised power. Having said this does it mean that the Imamate never existed or it was simply a frustrated claim for political authority? No, because the essence of the Imamate is something else, it is the inheritance of a certain body of knowledge, a certain authority of interpretation of the Quran, of being a living prolongation of the Prophetic Sunnah, and other associated matters.

The second portion of the answer – of why Imam Ali [AS] did not at an earlier point move to claim decisive power for himself – is the fragility of the political situation as recognised by him. In other words in the time of Abu Bakr there were various dissensions in the community, this was the case also in the time of Uthman, therefore he recognised that he did not have a solid core of support on which to base himself and that already dissension and disunity existed within the community and therefore as a pragmatic measure he did not press his claims. Similar remarks, although the details differ on each application, may be held to apply to the subsequent Imams also. In fact, one of the explanations for the occultation of the Imam [AS] is precisely this, that the Muslim community as a whole, even those who claim to be the devotees of the Imams will be few in number and of insufficient devotion. Very soon after Imam Ali [AS] with some reluctance accepted rule, problems occurred. First was the question of identifying and punishing the murderers of Uthman. Imam Ali [AS] had sent his sons Imam Hassan [AS] and Imam Hussain [AS] to guard the house of Uthman when it was surrounded by the rebels from Egypt. And now he found himself facing the task of identifying and capturing the murderers. In the nature of things it was impossible to identify a single individual, because the killing had happened in the course of a tumultuous event, a crowd of several thousand overrunning the house of Uthman. In fact when attempts were made to identify the one who had made the fatal blow or blows, a crowd of rebels gathered in Madinah and called out in unison, ‘We have all killed him.’ In other words they were happy to assume collectively, responsibility. Therefore it was not possible to identify or punish, either one or a group of people.

It seems that the first order of priority of Imam Ali [AS] after assuming rule was the restoration of order in Madinah. And then gradually extending his authority to the other areas of the Muslim world – which now of course included the lands to the north of the Arabian Peninsula, present day Syria, Palestine, Iraq and also Egypt. At this point Aisha came back to Madinah from Makkah and it seems already began to participate in hostile activity against Imam Ali [AS]. Meanwhile the supporters of Uthman, his kinsfolk, left the city and gathered in Makkah joined by the former governors of Basrah and Yemen. The governors who had been appointed by Uthman and had immediately been dismissed because of their mismanagement of affairs by Imam Ali [AS]. Uthman, as one of the migrants was from the Quraish tribe of Makkah – but he was the uncle of Mu’awiyah who in turn was the son of Abu Sufian. Abu Sufian had been one of the most dogged opponents of Islam and had accepted Islam only at the very last moment i.e. when it became apparent that Makkah was going to be conquered by the Muslims but it is a safe assumption to make based upon his own conduct and that of his immediate descendants that this was an opportunistic conversion. A part of what was underway now was the attempt, although under the banner of a certain understanding of Islam to restore the pre-Islamic political order. Mu’awiyah the son of Abu Sufian was appointed by Uthman as the governor of Damascus in Syria. And there effectively made himself autonomous and independent of central rule in Madinah. And he was foremost among those that for opportunistic reasons demanded that Imam Ali [AS] should identify and punish the murderers of his uncle Uthman.

The Battle of the Camel

In the course of attempting to extend his authority from Madinah to the provinces, Imam Ali [AS] sent an envoy to Mu’awiyah in Damascus inviting him to give allegiance to him. The answer was a refusal, Mu’awiyah accused Imam Ali [AS] of complicitly mudering Uthman, and demanded vengeance for his slain uncle. Aisha now in Madinah also refused to give her allegiance to Imam Ali [AS], as did Talha and Zubair. This trio now went to Basrah to gather there, to form a kind of centre of opposition to Imam Ali [AS] who still at this point was established in Madinah as the capital of the Islamic realm. In the year 36 AH, 656 AD, Imam Ali [AS] left Madinah and came to deal with this centre of growing opposition in Basrah. On 15th Jamadi al-Akhir in the year 36 AH, 9th December 656 AD, the battle of the camel took place. At this battle Imam Ali [AS] and the forces that he had raised in Iraq, defeated this trio of opponents. Talha and Zubair were killed, Aisha was sent back to Madinah under escort. The battle of the camel is so known because the forces of the enemy were lead into battle by Aisha sitting on a camel, she effectively acted as a standard bearer to the forces of Talha and Zubair.

Why was Aisha opposed to Imam Ali [AS]? This question can be perplexing to Sunni Muslims who find themselves at a loss to find a satisfactory answer. It seems that the hostility may have gone back to the ‘incident of the slander’. On one occasion, Aisha it seems became separated from the main body of the Muslims in the course of one campaign, she was bought back to the Muslim camp by a young Muslim soldier who had found her. This appears to have aroused suspicions of unfaithfulness on her part, which was finally resolved by the revelation of verses 10-20 in chapter 24. It appears that among those who harboured suspicion to her among those was Imam Ali [AS]. In addition to this we know that Aisha the daughter of Abu Bakr, was among those who obligingly verified the hither to unknown hadith, that, ‘We the Prophets do now leave any property behind.’ When after the death of the Prophet [sAW] his daughter Bibi Fatimah [AS] went to Abu Bakr to claim the land of Fadak, which rightfully belonged to her as her inheritance. Abu Bakr refused her claim saying the Prophet had said, ‘We the Prophets do not leave any property behind.’ (i.e. we do not have any heirs in that sense). A hadith that had previously not been heard by others, but Aisha came forward and said that I heard the Prophet [sAW] say this. Whether or not she had, this again placed her in a context of hostility to Imam Ali [AS] and his wife Bibi Fatimah [AS]. So there are various reasons or factors that one may invoke to explain the hostility of Aisha to Imam Ali [AS].

The problem however arises from the Sunni point of view of explaining her presence on the battlefield in an armed rebellion, against Imam Ali [AS] who from a Sunni point of view is regarded as a legitimate ruler, he is counted from the Sunni point of view as being the fourth of the righteous guided Caliphs (Khulapah Rashideen). Some curious explanations have been put forward. One explanation is that she went there out of curiosity, wanted to know what was going on and somehow found herself in the middle of the battle. Another suggests that she wished to mediate between Ali and his enemies, which again cannot be sustained, because clearly she did not find herself between the two groups on the contrary she led into battle the troops of Talha and Zubair. The third explanation has proven the most persistent, also applies to the more significant case of Mu’awiyah, who fought against Imam Ali [AS] is the doctrine of Ijtihad. Ijtihad, is above all a legal concept, which means in the absence of a clear indication from the Quran or the Sunnah for a certain course of action, making effort (the word Ijtihad comes from the same root as the word Jihad the root is jahada – to make effort or struggle), exerting oneself intellectually or rationally in order to come up with the correct answer. In the absence of clear guidance from the Quran and Sunnah it is generally held that the result of ijtihad is fallible. In other words all you can aim for is a supposition of correctness but not its certainty. Therefore two people may with goodwill, engage in ijtihad and come up with entirely different answers. And it is said in explanation of the conduct of Aisha and later of Mu’awiyah that they like Imam Ali [AS] were engaged in Ijtihad, that is they were all engaged it trying to find out what was the best course of action, and from that point of view even though they were doing diametrically opposed things, somehow they were free of blame. This rather convoluted argument comes into being later, when polemical disagreements between Sunnis and Shi’ahs took off in earnest and when it became necessary to somehow accommodate both reverence for the wives of the Prophet [sAW] including Aisha, and the obvious fact that Imam Ali [AS] was the legitimate ruler. From the point of view of Shi’ah Islam there is no such problem. These arguments, these principles do not need to be invoked, Aisha is held to have been in an open and unseemly revolt against the designated successor to the Prophet [sAW]. After the battle of the Camel in 36 AH, 656 AD, Imam Ali [AS] buried the dead. It needs to be stressed that on each of these occasions, blood was shed and Muslims were killed, this was the first significant incidence of intra-Muslim blood shed. Imam Ali [AS] is recounted to have been overcome with grief, and he himself is reported to have engaged in preparing the dead for burial and in reading the funeral prayers over the dead of the enemy. He then renewed his summons to Mu’awiyah moving in the direction of Syria.

The Battle of Siffin

The demands were refused by Mu’awiyah, the second important battle took place during the caliphate of Imam Ali [AS] the battle of Siffin in 36 AH, 657 AD. This was a lengthy battle unlike the battle of the Camel which had been a swift battle, which lasted for about three months. When we say that the battle lasted for three months, there was not an intensive battle for the totality of this period, what it means is that the two armies faced each other off, with continuous clashes, but not with decisive or intensive battles taking place all the time. However, a decisive turning point was about to be reached on the night between the 9th and 10th of Safar in 37 AH, corresponding with July 27th and 28th of 657 AD. The governor of Egypt Malik al-Ashtar (one of the closest followers of Imam Ali [AS]) was about to inflict a decisive blow on the forces of Mu’awiyah. Indeed Mu’awiyah was about to flee and quit the battlefield. Then however, matters fatefully changed with the intervention of Amr ibn As, who was in the camp of Mu’awiyah – he said, addressing the army of Imam Ali [AS] and Mu’awiyah:-

‘Let the book of Allah judge (or mediate) between you.’

An appeal to the Islamic sentiments, for reverence of the Quran to the soldiers of each side. Mu’awiyah then bought forth one large copy of the Quran that had been lodged in Damascus. One of the events in the life of Uthman had been codifying the text of the Quran. Although as previously mentioned, it is said and believed on good authority, Imam Ali [AS] had himself compiled a complete text of the Quran, this was not in general circulation, only until the caliphate of Uthman was the text codified. One copy of he codified Quranic text was kept in Madinah, others were sent to the centres of rule outside the Arabian Peninsula including Damascus. This official copy of the Quran was bought forth and hung from the end of a spear, and the soldiers in the army of Mu’awiyah did the same with whatever copies of the Quran they had. One interesting sidelight to this part of the battle, we can deduce from it the large number of written copies of the Quran that must have been in circulation. If hundreds of soldiers in the army of Mu’awiyah had written copies of the Quran at this relatively early point (36 AH), then copies of the Quran at this point in time must have been very numerous. Also one could deduce from that, that literacy was at an advanced point aswell, possession of the Quran and the ability to read it was widespread. The historical effect that this trick by Amr ibn As had, the soldiers responded and said, ‘O Iraqis [i.e. the soldiers recruited from in and around Iraq] (O followers of Imam Ali) let us abandon fighting and let the book of Allah [sWT] judge between us.’ Why was this appeal particularly effective – not only because of the general reverence for the Quran that Muslims had at this point – even though they had fallen into dissension among themselves. Also because in the army of Imam Ali [AS] there were numerous individuals known as the Qurra’. Qurra’ is a plural (sing. Is Qarih). The word is cognate with Quran – Qarih is one who recites the Quran but by extension in general has a good knowledge of its contents, and an exceptional degree of religious knowledge. Precisely because these Qurra’ were numerous in the army of Imam Ali [AS], they were particularly susceptible to the pious proposal made by Amr ibn As on behalf of Mu’awiyah.

The Emergence of the Kharijites

Imam Ali [AS] was opposed to this suggestion of arbitration, in fact he invoked (9:49) of the Quran which mentions the possibility of dissension amongst the Muslims. But also the duty of fighting against the rebels until they are defeated by the legitimately constituted power. However he found himself overpowered by opposition within his own ranks. Many of the fighters that had joined from Iraq were motivated not so much by personal loyalty to Imam Ali [AS] and an understanding of the religious dimension of the matter, but simply by a regional loyalty to Iraq as opposed to the Syrian aspect or identity of Mu’awiyah and his following. The leader of the Iraqis who had been recruited by the army by Imam Ali [AS] told him that if he could not agree to the proposed arbitration his men would in fact desert him. They on they one hand and the Qurra’ on the other had came together to tie Imam Ali’s hands and to compel him to accept the suggested arbitration. Each side, the side of Mu’awiyah and the side of Imam Ali [AS] was to name an arbitrator or a mediator – Mu’awiyah nominated as his representative the same Amr ibn As who had originated the whole plan. Imam Ali [AS] chose, again under compulsion from various elements in his army – Abu Musa al-Ashari. Ali [AS] would have preferred to have as his representative Malik al-Ashtar who it seems had served him so well in battle and on other occasions but he was overruled.

As if dissension within his army as if it was not enough that he had been forced to accept mediation and arbitration, another group within his army then blamed him for having done so – claiming that it was his duty to fight and not to accept arbitration. If the slogan of those calling for arbitration had been, ‘let the book of Allah [sWT] judge between us.’ The slogan raised by this dissident group would have been, ‘There is no arbitration accept by Allah.’ In other words, however the battle might turn out, that may be interpreted as the rule of Allah [sWT]. These individuals who attacked and criticised Imam Ali [AS] from an entirely different view point were from the most part from the tribe of Tamimi. One cannot in these early clashes within the Muslim community entirely separate religious loyalty from tribal loyalty – in the same way that the regional factor has to be kept in mind – likewise tribal aswell. Very few of those individuals in the army of Imam Ali [AS] understood what was at issue in purely religious terms and granted loyalty to the Imam [AS] on those grounds. The Tamimis now refused to go along with the arbitration process. Imam Ali [AS] reminded them that this had been his wish indeed to pursue that battle come what may. Not to submit to arbitration, now he had, although under duress, concluded an agreement, then in accordance with Quran (16:91) he was obliged to proceed. This verse is the one which submits the violation of treaties and agreements. On receiving this answer from Imam Ali [AS] now 10,000 soldiers from the tribe of Tamimi withdrew from the army of Imam Ali [AS] – they left the city of Kufa which had become his capital city in southern Iraq, and set up camp outside the city. Imam Ali [AS] went to reason with them, and it seems that some 6000 of them listened to him at least enough to return to Kufa. 4000 determined dissidents from the tribe of Tamim however moved still further away from Kufa to Naharwan in eastern Iraq be it the present day territory of Iran. Whilst this was under way the mediators or arbitrators had their first meeting, at a place on the road between Syria and Iraq. The meeting took place in the month of Ramadhan 37 AH, February 658 AD. The mediators - Abu Musa al-Ashari the representative of Imam Ali [AS] (although not the representative of choice) and Amr ibn As came to the conclusion that the caliph Uthman although he had not exercised exemplary rule was nonetheless not deserving of death. Therefore Mu’awiyah had a point i.e. he was correct on insisting upon vengeance for the death of his uncle. From now on this became the indispensable pretext for Mu’awiyah in opposing Imam Ali [AS]. It was not that Mu’awiyah or anyone else had identified or was in a position to identify the person or persons directly responsible for the killing of Uthman. However it became a pretext for continued resistance to and opposition to Imam Ali [AS].

The Battle of Naharwan

Seeing the outcome of this first meeting of the mediators, Imam Ali [AS] attempted to gather his forces for a renewed war against Mu’awiyah. But by way of preparation he attempted to regain the loyalty of those who had left his army and had camped at Naharwan. Those people who seceded from the army of Imam Ali [AS] against his readiness to accept arbitration became known as the Kharijtes – Kharij means outside i.e. one who has exited, it also has the meaning of a rebel i.e. to come out against someone has the meaning in Arabic for rebelling against them. A Kharijite is someone who has left the community but has done so by way of rebellion. Fairly soon the Kharijites from their original opposition to Imam Ali [AS] on this particular point, evolved into a separate doctrinal school. One of course which has effectively died, although there are people in their attitude who are reminiscent of Kharijites in the Muslim world today. Kharijites, today no longer exist – although it is sometimes sad that an obscure group known as the Ibadis living on the frontiers of Libya, and Iberia – are a prolongation of the Kharijites. Fundamentally, however the Kharijites have gone out of existence – what becomes the hallmark of the Kharijites doctrinally is the belief that the commission of a sin causes an individual to lose his/her attribute of being a Muslim. They claimed that Imam Ali [AS] had sinned, although under duress to the process of arbitration, it was therefore necessary for him to repent in order to recover the quality of Being a Muslim, and therefore legitimacy to rule. Imam Ali [AS] went to war against the Kharijites when they refused to accept arbitration and accused him effectively of apostasy, at precisely Naharwan a battle took place on 9th Safar 38AH – 17th July 658 AD. This battle ended with a crushing victory against the Kharijites, they were effectively wiped out on this occasion. They remained however a number of Kharijites who were still in Kufa, those who Imam Ali [AS] had persuaded to return and he now invited them, as one indication of their loyalty to join him in a new campaign against Mu’awiyah. They refused, as a result of which another battle took place and again the Kharijites were crushed. These victories against the Kharijites however did not however substantially strengthen the military or political position of Imam Ali [AS], within Iraq. It seems that the multiple complications with which Imam Ali [AS] was confronted disheartened many of the soldiers, who were not motivated by strong devotion to his person or by a strong understanding and appreciation of his religious claim. After setting out on the road for another campaign against Mu’awiyah in Syria Imam Ali [AS] was obliged to return to his seat of government in Kufa.

Events Leading till the Death of Imam Ali [AS]

In the month of Sha’ban 38 AH – corresponding to January 659 AD – a second meeting of arbitrators took place. It went beyond the original brief, the original brief of the arbitrators had been to decide upon the legitimacy of Mu’awiyah’s complaint i.e. that Uthman had been unjustly killed and that his killers should be pursued by Ali [AS] and bought to justice. Now however the arbitrators proposed that neither Mu’awiyah or Imam Ali [AS] should be recognised as the Caliph of the Muslim community and that a new caliph should be chosen by a council the composition of which was yet to be determined. This apparently was an agreement that had been reached by a meeting of the mediators meeting in private. Abu Musa al-Ashari, the mediator reluctantly nominated by Imam Ali [AS] went along with this. However, Amr ibn As the associate of Mu’awiyah, whose idea the whole thing had been from the outset – i.e. the idea of arbitration and now that a new council in effect should choose a third person as caliph, went back on it and said that’ I recognise Mu’awiyah as the sole choice of Caliph’. Abu Musa objected to this violation of what had been apparently agreed between them but to no purpose. Now, the apparent possibility of mediation had been wiped out, there were now simply two opposing parties, Imam Ali [AS] with his fragmented following in Iraq and Mu’awiyah in Damascus and his following. Imam Ali [AS] saw that he had no choice but to resume warfare against Mu’awiyah, and in Kufa he did his best to gather together an army. And it seems that he gathered an army of about 40,000 which sounds an impressive figure but given the fragility of his following, not necessarily a reliable group of people. In any event before Imam Ali [AS] could set out for another confrontation with Mu’awiyah he was attacked whilst performing his dawn prayers 28th Ramadhan 40 AH, 28th January 661 AD by one of the Kharijites, by Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljim. Attacked with a poisoned dagger as he was bent in prayer, he was stabbed and martyred, dying soon thereafter.

This ends the caliphate of Imam Ali [AS] and together with the tragic and premature death of his wife the daughter of the Prophet [sAW], Fatimah some years earlier, not to mention the various hardships and difficulties and incidences of treason that he had encountered in his own life, it underlines at a very early point in the history of Shi’ah Islam the tragic fate to which the Imams were exposed. Martyrdom becomes a constant feature of the lives of the Imams, it in fact becomes a secondary defining characteristic. In some cases plain, open and undeniable in the case of Imam Ali [AS], again with his son Imam Husain [AS], in other cases less plain for example poisoned or otherwise killed in obscure circumstances. It might be imagined that the death of Imam Ali [AS] the first of the Imams after a relatively brief and extremely tumultuous period of rule would have put and end to the consolidation of Shi’ism as a distinct school of thought in Islam, in fact we see the opposite is the case. The posthumous appeal of Imam Ali [AS], his influence – spiritual, intellectual and even political constantly grows.

The problem that is encountered in drawing together veneration for Aisha one of the wives of the Prophet [sAW], and Imam Ali [AS] has been mentioned, despite the fact that they were clearly engaged in battle with each other. Mu’awiyah too, in conjunction with the lives of Hassan [AS] and Hussain [AS], a devious and tricky character has according to certain and traditionally predominant currents in Sunni thought, has somehow to be accommodated within a scheme of respect. Even though it is commonly acknowledged that with the period of rule of the Umayyads the period of exemplary rule – the period of the four righteous caliphs has come to an end. How is this then accomplished? How are attempts made to accomplish it? Firstky Mu’awiyah is designated as a companion – according to the loose definition of a companion, he does as such. He had come into contact with the Prophet [sAW] whilst and adult and he is at least outwardly a believer. In addition to that it is said of Mu’awiyah that he was one of the scribes of revelation. There is a group of individuals among the companions who are designated as scribes of revelation i.e. those who at various points during the company of the Prophet [sAW] took down from him in dictation portions of the Quran that were revealed to him. The evidence for Mu’awiyah being a scribe of revelation is extraordinarily weak, at the very most it can be said that he may have written one of the letters dictated to him by the Prophet [sAW], not to say that he was a scribe of the Quran that is to say that he wrote down any portion of the Quran. It might be said, that whatever the Prophet [sAW] said or dictated was revelation, but clearly a letter, a communication of a political type even related from the Prophet belongs to different order of affairs then the Quran itself. Thirdly with respect to Mu’awiyah this ubiquitous principle of Ijtihad is also invoked. That is to say that Imam Ali [AS] done what he thought was right, Mu’awiyah did what he thought was right – they both gave it their best effort and it is not therefore permissible for later generations according to this view of things to pass judgement on either party. This view of things has to be characterised as wilful self-blinding, the facts of these admittedly complex tragic events are really there in great detail. If judgement can be exercised with respect to other events in history there is no reason why judgement cannot be passed in this case also. Therefore this is too wide a gap to be bridged by any of the devices that one commonly finds invoked in Sunni tradition. A recent Muslim historian called Madelung who has an important book called, ‘The succession to Muhammad’ surveys in great detail the events concerned – it is not that he agrees or espouses the Shi’ah point of view in all of its details, for example most of the Quranic verses that are evoked by Shi’i Muslims in support of their distinctive doctrines – he says no – they can be interpreted in another way. It is interesting when he comes to examine the role of Mu’awiyah he regards him based on his own analysis of events which by no means coincides in every detail with the Shi’ah understanding he compares him with Stalin, he says that rarely in pre-modern history is an individual encountered so devious and ruthless as Mu’awiyah. It is only by insisting on the most tenuous and arbitrary criteria that this judgement can reasonably be resisted.


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