Reflections on Imam Ali for today

TEHRAN, Jul. 25 (MNA) – If we try to sum up Imam Ali as a role model for people and leaders today, we could speak of his integrated spiritual life in which faith was lived out in every word and action.

What is happening when a Christian student of Islam is being invited to offer reflections on Imam Ali for today?  The principle is simple: just as the Qur'an is guidance for all humankind and Prophet Muhammad is a blessing for all the worlds, so all our great religious figures do not belong to any one community but rather to God and thus to all humankind.  It is therefore the task of those with some knowledge of their lives, teaching and example to find ways to make that available to the widest possible audience.

If we reflect on his uniqueness in Shi'a understanding, then the importance of Imam Ali becomes clear.  As a young boy, he was living in the household of Muhammad and Khadijah when the first revelation took place.  Even before that time, he must have been conscious of the personal qualities of his guardian, whose character before the Qur'an started to be sent down is clearly established.  As the first male follower of the Prophet whilst still a boy, he knew that he was destined to be his successor as head of the community (wali), therefore he ‘drank in’ the sunnah of the Prophet and modelled his own life on that pattern.  We are told that he was one of the appointed scribes to take down the Qur'an from the lips of the Prophet but uniquely he was taught both the outer (zahiri) and the inner (batini) meanings of each verse by the Prophet himself.  If we add to this that he was one of the Ahl al-Bayt rendered most thoroughly pure by God and thus sinless in word and deed (ma'sum) and also that he was the recipient of divine inspiration (ilham), then we can see that his life and character should be an inspiring example to any man or woman.

One central characteristic of Imam Ali is his exemplary faith expressed in action.  He endured the hardships of the early life of the Muslim community in Mecca and was willing to submit himself totally in trust to God when he took the place of Prophet Muhammad on the night when the Prophet left Mecca for Medina (hijra) and thus was willing to face the anticipated assassins.  During the years of repelling attacks from the people of Mecca, Imam Ali was noted for his excellence in single-handed combat, relying on God to give him victory for his own sake and that of the other people who would thus be spared the risk of injury and death if further fighting could be avoided.  This complete trust and surrender of his life to the will of God is testament to the life of faith for all who would tread the way of God.

Just as the Prophet was noted for the simplicity and frugality of his lifestyle, so we see the same characteristics in the life of Imam Ali.  He refused extravagant food and he and Lady Fatima are recorded on several occasions to have given away to those in greater need the food that was intended for their own family.  Imam Ali acted as the agent of the Prophet to take care of the poor and hungry in the community and was noted to go out at night with a sack-full of bread to leave some discretely at the doors of those in need.  When we consider that in the world today there are millions on the verge of starvation and also millions who make themselves ill by over-consumption, then the strength of this example is clear.  What disrespect for human beings does it show when there are millions without clean water to drink or adequate shelter or healthcare and at the same time individuals have money for joyrides into space or governments spend billions on yet more armaments?  

When Imam Ali moved the centre of his administration to Kufa, he deliberately refused to live in the governor’s palace but rather took up a simple residence as a sign to the people that he was both their leader and one with them in humanity; the similarity with the Prophet’s accommodation in Medina is clear for all to see.  By contrast, how many of today’s leaders think that their prestige is strengthened by living in lavish accommodation?  So many of our great cities are seen to have people living an excessive lifestyle while the fringes of the same cities are generally packed with the most basic and inadequate dwellings for the multitude of the poor, whose labour enables the privileged few to enjoy their excess.

This concern for the poor and needy in society, surely the first duty of anyone in power or with wealth beyond the basic needs of their family, can be demonstrated from the charge that we are told was passed on from one Imam to the next.  It was reported that Imam al-Baqir reported this charge from Imam Zayn al-Abidin: “O my dear son! I advise you a statement which my father [Imam Husayn] gave me when approaching death, that he had received in turn from his father [Imam Ali].  Never commit any crime against the person who has no supporter except God.”

In spite of all the cares and concerns of the community that he had to bear, we note the way in which Imam Ali was a family man with affection and regard for his own children.  After the death of his wife, Lady Fatima, he entrusted them to the care of the Prophet’s widow, Umm Salama.  Even in the thick of battle at Siffin, he took time to enquire about the welfare of his two sons who were there with him.  No matter how pressing business or public responsibilities might be, here is a model for parents and leaders.  Is it not a shame when some children are neglected because of over-concern to expand the business or make headway in public life?  Similarly, it is surely a form of modern oppression when parents are forced to leave their children for months on end in order to travel in search of work in another country or region, or when the cost of living is allowed to rise so high that parents have to work excessive hours and thus neglect their children.

One of the great tragedies of modern living is that the means of conducting warfare have become so advanced that they now lead to indiscriminate killing on an industrial scale.  The doctrine of asymmetrical warfare can be summed up to say, ‘one of our lives is worth a thousand of theirs.’  What utter disregard for the humanity of the enemy!  By contrast, we see Imam Ali, like his two successors, seeking to avoid conflict and fighting if at all possible.  He did not lay claim to his rightful position and call Muslims to arms when the community took a different route after the death of the Prophet.  He refused to strike the first blow at the Battle of the Camel.  Even as he lay dying, he gave orders that only his assassin was to be brought to justice and that there should be no wholesale revenge.  Every human life is to be respected!

One characteristic noted by historians is that Imam Ali laid great stress on preserving the purity of the message that had been revealed in the Qur'an and implemented by the Prophet.  It was decided in the electoral college set up by Caliph Umar that his successor must agree to follow not only the Qur'an and the sunnah but also the rulings of the first two caliphs; Imam Ali refused to accept leadership on this basis.  Again, when he was approached after the death of Uthman, he emphasised that if he became leader there would be an end to corruption and a return to the original values.  Central to his life and principles was the key ethic of justice; justice was to be available to all within society, whatever their rank, wealth or family.  It is a sad reality in the contemporary world that injustice and corruption are to be found in abundance: corrupt politicians, people buying influence, and justice being available only to the rich and powerful.

If we try to sum up Imam Ali as a role model for people and leaders today, we could speak of his integrated spiritual life in which faith was lived out in every word and action, his demand for equal access to justice and respect for every human life, his simplicity of personal lifestyle and emphasis on taking care to relieve the poverty and need of people without family, money, good health or the opportunity to earn a living.

Dr. Chris Hewer comes from a background in Christian theology, education, Islamic studies and inter-faith studies and has worked in the field of Muslims in Britain and Christian-Muslim relations since 1986.

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