We begin the story of Imam Ali on the 13th of Rajab 599 CE in the sweltering heat of the Makkan desserts. True to its word, the Arabian peninsula promised a hot and humid day as onlookers gathered around the Ka’aba.
A commotion had pursued throughout the city as Fatima Bint Asad was moments away from giving birth. A few days prior, in agony from labor contractions, Fatima was unconsolable and desperately ran to the Ka’aba in hopes of ridding herself of the pain. As she leaned against its wall, she begged, “Oh God, for the sake of the one who built this house, Ibrahim, and the child inside of me, I beseech you to make this delivery easy on me.”
In a miracle recorded by history and denied by none, the Ka’aba seemed to have heard her cries and cracked open slightly enough for her to slip inside. For three days, Fatima Bint Asad hid inside the safety of the Ka’aba and caused an uproar in the community.
In the city, Abu Talib paced anxiously waiting on news of his wife. Amongst the many companions included a young boy no younger than eight waiting for his cousin’s arrival. He was known as Muhammad (PBUH.) Onlookers saw Fatima walk out of the Ka’aba days later with a baby that radiated noor. Muhammad (PBUH) endearingly held him and named him Ali while his parents named him Haider, meaning lion in Arabic.
In a title given by the Prophet (PBUH) himself and only to Ali, Amir al Mumineen (leader of the pious and God-fearing) holds a fundamental role in the introduction and influence on Islam today. His character embodies truth, unimaginable kindness, patience, and knowledge only second to the Prophet (PBUH) himself. Perhaps that is why the poets rave and scholars intrigue over the miracle that Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib once was.
Growing up, his father, Abu Talib, led the Bani Hashim tribe where Imam Ali learned about negotiation, trade, and leadership. He stuck close to his elder cousin Muhammad (PBUH,) who was adopted by Abu Talib at the age of six. When he gained clarity and knowledge from Allah (SWT), Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had many companions who helped him adopt and spread the religion of Islam. After the Prophet’s (PBUH) beloved wife Khadijah (AS), Imam Ali was the first man to convert to Islam.
Imam Ali was Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) right hand and shadowed his every step. When Muhammad (PBUH) stood, Imam Ali stood, when Muhammad (PBUH) prayed, Imam Ali prayed alongside him. And when Muhammad (PBUH) spoke, Imam Ali listened to his knowledge at a length no companion came close to. In a famous oration, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had once declared, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is the gate.” (Sharh al-Mawahib al-Ladunniyyah, Muhammad b. `Abd al-Baqi al-‘Azhari al-Zurqani al-Maliki (d. 1122 AH), vol. 3, p. 143).
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Imam Ali’s close relationship is highlighted when we inspect the marriage of Fatima Bint Muhammad (AS.) Fatima remained the crowned jewel in the eyes of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH.) It is said that when she would enter the room, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself would rise to greet sayyidatun nisa ul alameen (the lady of the two worlds.)
So when it came time to wed his beloved daughter, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) could not think of a better man to take the stature of being her husband than Imam Ali. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) rejected many proposals, including that of one of his close companions, and waited for the will of Allah (SWT.) Eventually, Fatima accepted Imam Ali’s proposal.
Imam Ali’s wisdom and compassion knew no bounds. He was a friend to every onlooker and a father to the orphans of Medina. How could Imam Ali sleep with food in his stomach when one of his neighbors went to bed hungry?
We also see Imam Ali’s role as a brave warrior come to a height during the Battle of al-Khandaq (the Ditch.) During the battle, Asadullah (the lion of God, another name for Imam Ali) gained the upper hand advantage against his opposition and was ready to win the war. As he sat on his enemy’s chest, a man spat in Imam Ali’s face in defiance. Imam Ali slowly lowered his sword and got up. The opposition sneered thinking they had outsmarted him. Imam Ali was seen to be pacing, deep in thought, and after a few moments came back and finished the job.
When asked later why he had waited to defeat his enemy, the son of Abi Talib answered that the spit in his face had angered him. He knew that if he defeated him in that moment, it would be out of rage and revenge and no longer for the sake of Allah (SWT.) He decided to step away from the situation, calm his anger, and remind himself of his faith. This was quintessential Imam Ali.
His stature is undeniably high in Islamic history, yet still, is a name contested by many Muslims today. After the Prophet’s (PBUH) tragic demise, many historians record Gadheer e Kum as an announcement for the next leadership in which the Prophet (PBUH) raised Imam Ali’s hand and announced, “Man kunto maula fa ha aliyun maula,” which translates to, “Whoever accepts me as a leader, Ali is his friend/leader too.”
After the sermon, Imam Ali was surrounded by many companions congratulating him. The first to offer their wishes was the Prophet’s (PBUH) dear friend, Abu Bakr ibn Uthman. While the occurrence of this event cannot be denied by a single scholar, many doubt the intent of the message citing that the message does not necessarily need to be an announcement of leadership and could merely be a message of the Prophet (PBUH) reiterating his love for Imam Ali.
Some, however, took the message at face value and adopted Imam Ali as their first Imam after the Prophet’s (PBUH) demise. And why would they not? Imam Ali was arguably the most knowledgeable man within the religion and proved excellent qualities of leadership, patience, and divine appointment.
Today, the portion of the Islamic empire that reveres Imam Ali as the first Imam are known as Shias who encompass approximately 10% of the Muslim community. Despite the contentions that exist over Gadeer e Kum, it was clear that after the Prophet (PBUH,) Imam Ali lacked many friends, and there were those who disrespected his leadership as Imam or protected his family. And while the Islamic empire collectively recognized Imam Ali’s leadership for a mere four years as the fourth caliph, during that time he faced many accusations and internal civil wars.
The accusations made against him and his followers for dividing the ummah (community) are the furthest from the truth, however. On the pulpit, Imam Ali was once asked why he remained pacified and did not fight for his claim towards the caliphate when it was clear that an inconsistency remained within the community. Imam Ali replied by stating that if the injustice was made merely towards him and resulted in the unity of the community, he would accept that as so.
Imam Ali believed in the unity of the Islamic empire far more than he believed in usurping power over it. He was not bothered by the lack of power, nor was he desperate for contention. He remained, and continues to remain, a progeny in Islamic history.
He was truly the Amir Al Mumineen (leader of the pious and God-fearing.)