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The Rules of Understanding the Commander of the Faithful (A.S.)’s Political Sīra

Author : Mahdi Mehrizi
Subject : Political Sciences
Translator : Ahmad Rezwani
Editor : Mahdi Baqi

25 Oct 2011
Hadith Sciences 3


Key Words


Because of their existential prominence, the great human beings live an expansive and varied life. They enjoy lofty ideas due to their superior scholarly grasp of the dark and hidden aspects of man and the world. Their exuberant thoughts and ideas and their type of behavior and conduct sometimes create certain questions and doubts at first sight and for the naïve human beings.

Delving into the thoughts and studying the behaviors of such elites would guide one to principles and unequivocal proofs that serve as a thread stringing together the dispersed beads of a rosary. Thus, the initial diversity and inconsistency would be removed, leading to the emergence of a harmonious collective portray.

Then, it can be concluded that getting to know the great, high-minded, and well-behaved human beings is dependent upon unveiling the principles and unequivocal facts of their thoughts and lives and thereby strive in interpreting and elucidating their words, thoughts, and behaviors as a whole. Of course, it is evident that this requirement is born out of the limitation of people’s capacities for understanding and their different levels of comprehension and intelligence. Therefore, these questions do not occur to the peers of the great men; and, the lower the levels of the pyramid of social strata, the greater the difficulties, so as the more dynamic the thought and the greater the distances [between these levels], the more evident the problem.

Accordingly, the Qur’ān is hard to grasp and this has to be taken into account for understanding the thoughts and behaviors of such Prophets as Khiḍr, Noah, Abraham, etc.

It is worth-mentioning that as this rule applies to comprehending the lofty non-material thoughts beyond-time-and-space boundaries, it should be applied to understanding the social conducts and behaviors, as well; that is to say, extraction and compilation of great people’s unequivocal thoughts and behaviors is the key to attaining proper understanding of their personality and life.

Based on this rule, getting to know Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) and entering his vast expanses of ideas and conducts, requires discovering the principles and unequivocal foundations of his opinions and sīra (life story), without which it is impossible or difficult to attain a harmonious system [for knowing him].

The present discourse tries to introduce, to some extent, the rules for understanding Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s political sīra. And, of course, this is only a part of that greater task.

But before that, it is deemed necessary to point out some of the questions and ambiguities in Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s life and sīra in order to show the significance and priority of this rule.

1. Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s Silence

After the demise of the Apostle of Allah (S.A.W.), the Commander of the Faithful remained silent for a long time and withdrew from the socio-political trends of the Islamic community. This silence and withdrawal is questionable to some; i.e., they ask: Why did the Imam (A.S.) withdraw from the society while he was witnessing the deviations and would not fight against it?

2. Political Strategem

In this respect, Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd said:

Know that a group of those who do not know the real virtue of the Commander of the Faithful (A.S.) claim that ‘Umar was more diplomatic than he was, even though he was considered more knowledgeable than ‘Umar. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) asserted this issue in his Al-Shifā’ in the chapter on Ḥikma. Our master Abū al-Ḥasan has also inclined toward this issue and has related it in his Al-Ghurar. Moreover, some of his enemies and opponents presumed that Mu‘āwiya was ahead of him in politics and better in management!

We have already, in this book (Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha), have talked about Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s excellent policy and sound stratagem.[1]

Al-Shahīd al-Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr has brought up this issue with the following questions:

Why did the Imam not submit to some fair solutions and bargaining? Why did he not keep silent? Why did he not temporarily accept the corrupt system left over from ‘Uthmān’s reign? Why did he not approve the corrupt system so that when they would surrender to him, he could purge it powerfully and decisively?[2]

Similarly, it is said:

Some have supposed that certain parts of Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s political position-takings indicate his political impotence and incompetence and presumed that he was only a man of battle and bravery, not a man of politics.

Among his position-takings, which prompted them to such presumption was some of his actions before he rose to power, like his position in the electoral council that ‘Umar had set up for appointing a caliph; and his political position-takings after he rose to power, like dismissing Mu‘āwiya in the beginning of caliphate.[3]

3. Appointment of Treacherous and Incompetent Administrators.

Among Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s administrators were such people as Ziyād b. Abīh, Mundhir b. al-Jārūd, and Nu‘mān b. ‘Ajlān who were treacherous; also, there were others who were not sufficiently experienced, like ‘Ubayd Allāh b. ‘Abbās and Abū Ayyūb. All in all, this is not compatible with Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s emphasis on employing righteous and experienced administrators.

4. Dismissal of Righteous Administrators

Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) dismissed one of his long-time friends, Abū al-Aswad al-Du’lī, from his post as a judge so as it was questionable for Abū al-Aswad himself, as well:

Amīr al-Mu’minīn appointed Abū al-Aswad as the judge, and then he dismissed him. He [Abū al-Aswad] asked him, “Why did you dismiss me, as I did not commit any crime nor betrayed?”[4]

Similarly, the dismissal of Qays b. Sa‘d and replacement of Muḥammad b. Abī Bakr was obscure for some, since they knew Sa‘d as someone with a high political intelligence and loyal to Imam Alī (A.S.); and Muḥammad b. Abī Bakr was a young man beginning to enter the ploitcal world.[5]

Now, after raising some questions and ambiguities concerning Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s political sīra, we proceed to study the conditions and rules for understanding it and address four topics in this line:

One. Paying Attention to the Society’s Existing Potentials

We can never analyze and evaluate human actions apart from the objective realities of the society; otherwise, we will fall into subjectivism and illusory assessments. Although reality is not to be followed outright and set as a basis for decision-making and behavior, it cannot be thoroughly neglected and unnoticed, either. Therefore, the individual and collective behaviors and decisions of human beings are to be analyzed in their historical contexts. Discovering and recognition of these contexts and capacities get harder as they go further back into history; that is because we have to trust the historical documents and texts and judge accordingly. However, truth of these texts and their sufficiency for displaying realities has always been controversial and dubious; but, what is extant is not to be ignored.

Now, if we want to analyze such great personalities as Imam ‘Alī (A.S.), we have to keep this rule in mind. For instance, were there other competent figures that Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) dispensed with at the time when he appointed Ibn Abīh?

Or the number of competent, proficient, counseling, and conforming managers is always few and only those whose harm is less are to be chosen from among the existing forces. Based on this same rule, some writers have responded to the employment of such people as Ziyād b. Abīh as follows:

It is to be noted that Imam ‘Alī (A.S.), like other rulers, encountered undeniable realities and, given the necessity of managing the community and employing all potentials and due to the shortage of sincere companions, he had to employ Ziyād and people like him, while he constantly had them under his control and carefully watched over the situations.[6]

It is also related in the same source that ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Abbās suggested the appointment of Ziyād to Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) and Jāriyat b. Qudāma confirmed him, too. Or course, Ziyād was experienced in his job but was not religiously committed.

Postponement of certain cultural reforms can also be linked to this issue. Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s words in this respect are as follows:

If my two steps stay firm in these slippery places, I will alter [many] things.[7]

In his commentary of this saying of the Imam, Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd says:

Verily, engagement in war against the rebels and Khawārij would prevent him from altering the previous rulings. He referred to this by the word madāḥiḍ (slippery places) where he wishes his steps to stay firm, thus he tells his judges: “Make judgments like you did before, so that people’s unity may not be defiled.” [8]

Yet in another ḥadīth, he is quoted as saying:

If I force people to abandon these things and restore them to their original station and the way they were common in the Prophet’s era, my troops will scatter and I will be left alone or with few followers.[9]

Two. Governments after the Rebellion and Revolution, People’s Preparedness and Demands

If a government takes office after people’s rebellion and revolution, the community’s demands from it are more than those before the revolution because a rebellion occurs due to discontent and is staged when the general public is not able to withstand [the status quo] any longer. On the other hand, in revolutionary circumstances, people’s endurance for hardships is greater; therefore, they accept many of the changes in those circumstances, which, in normal conditions, are hard to accept.

Thus, the ruler, on one hand, should derive the soundest and the most useful benefits from this public tolerance; and, on the other, he should respond to people’s many emotional and legal demands. Many a time he has to forgo some of the government’s rights, or else, to enforce certain restrictions.

Shahīd al-Ṣadr wrote in response to the question why Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) did not reinstall Mu‘āwiya until after he would have established his rule and then he would remove him from office:

It is to be noted that Imam ‘Alī came to power after a revolution, not in normal circumstances. What is implied here is that the community’s remainder of religious passion and sentiments accumulated, boiled up, and imploded in a single moment; a moment that a committed leader does not wish for otherwise: i.e. a moment of implosion in the life of an umma, so as to exploit it and guide the umma onto a normal course. It was inevitable for the Imam to exploit such a moment; because the psycho-spiritual preparedness of the people in the Muslim world is not preparedness in the normal and steady circumstances based on a gradual planning.

If the Imam had temporarily retained the falsehood and endorsed the previous rulers’ unwarranted changes and kept silence before Mu‘āwiya and other parties, the erupted storm would have subsided and that emotional and psychological preparedness would have cooled off.[10]

Three. Solidarity and Unity of the Islamic Community

Both during his political seclusion and in his caliphate, Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) regarded the solidarity of the Islamic community and prevention of its collapse as one of his basic goals and frequently emphasized on it. Concerning his seclusion period, many sayings have been related from him, such as the following:

I found that endurance thereon was wiser. So I adopted patience although there was pricking in the eye and suffocation in the throat.[11]

Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd reported the following from Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. Junāda:

By God, if there were no fear of disunity among the Muslims and the return of disbelief and the extinction of faith, we would treat them otherwise.[12]

Also, Al-Kalbī relates from Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) who, before leaving for Baṣra, described his bitter silence after the demise of the Prophet (S.A.W.) as follows:

I found that endurance thereon was better than disunity among the Muslims and shedding their blood; people are newly converted to Islam, and religion is like a shaking churn, the slightest weakness will corrupt it and the smallest number of people will topple it.[13]

He further said:

You have certainly known that I am the most rightful of all others for the caliphate. By God, so long as the affairs of the Muslims remain intact and the tyrannies are only against me, I shall keep quiet.[14]

After taking over the rule, the solidarity and integration of the Muslims was his primary concern, too. He retained Shurayḥ in his position as a Judge so long as the Muslims’ community would gain ground. Accordingly, he said:

Judge as you did [previously], so as the people’s affairs may get in order.[15]

Similarly, he announces the reason for his insistence on a part of cultural alterations to be prevention of disunity and riot:

I was afraid that a riot would have been aroused among a part of my troops. I have witnessed such disunity among the umma.[16]

He wrote in response to Abū Mūsā concerning arbitration:

Know that no one is keener for the unity of the umma of Muḥammad (S.A.) than I am.[17]

Four. Restoring the Spirit of Religion and the Sunna of the Prophet

There is no doubt that behind the legal rulings and regulations lie goals and intentions that are the gist and essence of religious law (sharī‘a) and that all the outward rulings and regulations are for preserving their soundness and preventing their loss.

On the other hand, due to their tangibility, rulings and regulations are perceived faster and the masses get used to them more readily, and it is most likely that their essence and goal fall into oblivion while in the throes of dealing with these outward aspects. It is on this basis that reminding and recalling these goals is among the plans of religious leaders and revealed scriptures.

It can be said that servitude to God, justice, truthfulness, sincerity, and respect for human rights and dignity are the four superior goals of revealed religions in human interrelationships and man’s relation to God.

The Muslim community after the Prophet (S.A.W.) suffered great losses in these four areas. Servitude to God was replaced with obedience to other than God; tyranny and oppression and unduly discriminations sat over the justice seat; trickery and deception were replaced with truthfulness; observing the rights of human beings and respecting their dignity was replaced with their humiliation and putting them to sleep.

In his short rule, Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) attempted to restore the visage and spirit of religion as Allah had revealed to the Prophet (S.A.W.) and as it was evident in the early Islamic community. Following are some examples of his approaches in this respect:

1. Seeking Justice

Imam ‘Alī’s sayings and sīra in seeking justice is well-known to all. When he was reproached for observing equality in dividing public treasure he said:

Do you command me that I should seek victory by oppressing those over whom I have been placed? By God, I won’t do so as long as the world goes on, and as long as one star leads another in the sky.[18]

He also said:

By God, I would rather pass a night in wakefulness on prickly thorns or be driven in chains as a prisoner than meet Allah and His Messenger on the Day of Resurrection as an oppressor of some people.

Similarly, he made some recommendations to Muḥammad b. Abī Bakr when appointing him as the governor of Egypt, including:

Have equal looks and glances at them.[19]

When ‘Ubayd Allāh b. al-Ḥurr al-Ju‘fī, who had joined Mu‘āwiya and accompanied him in the battle of Ṣiffīn, came to Kūfa and called on ‘Alī (A.S.) to solve his familial problem, his holiness told him: “You have assisted our enemies and now you have come here (to ask for help)?!” ‘Ubayd Allāh asked: “Will this deprive me of your justice?” The Imam (A.S.) said: “No.”[20]

All this took place twenty five years after the demise of the Prophet (S.A.W.) under circumstances in which the Islamic community had witnessed all kinds of injustice and tasted the bitterness of discrimination and oppression with all its being:

Sometimes placing the Arabs as superior to non-Arabs, sometimes the Ṣaḥābīs to non-Ṣaḥābīs, and sometimes the Umayyads to other Arabian tribes…

Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) considered the revival of this religious principle as among the values that he would not back off and when Ṭalḥa and al-Zubayr criticized this equality, he said:

And as for distribution and equality, that is not what I began to order; rather, you and I saw that the Apostle of Allah (S.A.W.) ordered it and the Book of Allah articulates about it.[21]

2. Honesty and Guilelessness

Another principle that Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) tried to revive was guilelessness and honesty. First of all, he would himself swear that he had not told lies:

By God, I have not hidden any words nor have I told a lie.[22]

In politics and management, he firmly warns against deceptions and wiles and says:

O People! If deception were not repulsive, I would be the craftiest person.[23]

He views his difference from Mu‘āwiya in that the latter resorts to deceit, whereas he avoids it.[24]

He advises Mālik al-Ashtar as follows:

If you make a treaty with your enemy, respect it and see it as trustful…; as people regard no obligation as important as respect for treaties.[25]

If it is reported that Imam ‘Alī (A.S.) practiced deception in battles, it does not mean perfidy and violation of treaties; rather, it was a kind of psychological warfare. For instance, in the battle of Ṣiffīn, he swore that he would kill Mu‘āwiya and uttered this out loud, but then he would silently say: inshā’ Allāh![26] This conduct did not infer any deception.

It seems that “deception in battles” does not mean perfidy and violating contracts; rather, it is precision in planning, acuity, cleverness, and a kind of psychological war against the enemy. In other words, sincerity and honesty are major principles in Islamic teachings and code of living, which allow no exception and ‘Alī (A.S.) insisted on reviving it and perhaps that was why he did not hesitate about discharging Mu‘āwiya in the first place.

3. Respect for Human Rights and Dignity

In Imam ‘Alī (A.S.)’s political school, human beings are either brothers in religion or equals in creation.[27] Thus, they have dignity and character and enjoy rights that are to be respected by all.

People should not be humiliated; they should not remain ignorant and unaware and no one should be looked down on or talk to as in a landlord-peasant relationship, since all these are incompatible with human dignity. Thus, his holiness prohibited people from walking on foot along the statesmen when they (the latter) are on horseback.[28] In the same vein, he dismissed Abū al-Aswad (a competent and pious man) from his post as a judge just because he had raised his voice at one of litigants in a legal procedure.[29]

‘Alī (A.S.) accepts ḥukūma in order to uphold a right and repel a falsity.[30] Therefore, he forbids starting a war and recommends listening to the enemy’s words in battle.[31] He also commands that the battle begin in the afternoon so that it gets dark sooner to abandon fighting.[32] Similarly, he does not wish to witness human degradation, so he tells the one who is asking for something to write down what he wants so that he would not see shame for asking on his face.[33]

Accordingly, he is outraged to see the Jewish blind old man begging in an Islamic community and the public treasury would not support him.[34]

In order to safeguard human dignity while implementing legal punishment, he would order to bring in the culprits blindfolded so that when their names are pronounced, the one who had committed the crime would turn back and the other culprits would not be recognized.[35] Again, he would not punish anyone before committing a crime, hence not imprisoning Ibn Muljam [even though he knew by foresight what he had plotted to do].[36] Similarly, he allows Ṭalḥa and al-Zubayr to travel to Mecca, simply because they had sworn that they wanted to go on a pilgrimage, not for engaging in an intrigue.[37]

Accordingly, he would say:

I do not deem it right to force someone to do something he is reluctant to do.[38]

He would also say:

Do not address me in the manner despots are addressed.[39]

Do not use pompous words on me. Do not state to me those solicitous pretentions and conventional consents that you state to the despots.[40]

[1] Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha, vol. 10, p. 212.

[2] Ahl al-Bayt, Tanawwu‘ Adwār wa Waḥddat al-Hadaf, (Dār al-Ta‘āruf, Beirut, 1410/199), p. 19.

[3] Mawsū‘at al-Imām ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (A.S.), vol. 4, 51.

[4] Ibid, pp. 137-138.

[5] Ibid, 256.

[6] Ibid, p. 138 and vol. 12, p. 267.

[7] Nahj al-Balāgha, wise saying No. 272.

[8] Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha, vol. 19, p. 161.

[9] Mawsū‘at al-Imām ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (A.S.), vol. 4, 123.

[10] Ahl al-Bayt, Tanawwu‘ Adwār wa Waḥdat Hadaf, pp. 10-11.

[11] Nahj al-Balāgha, sermon No. 3.

[12] Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha, vol. 1, p. 307.

[13] Ibid, p. 308.

[14] Nahj al-Balāgha, sermon 72.

[15] Al-Ghārāt, vol. 1, p. 123.

[16] Mawsū‘at al-Imām ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (A.S.), vol. 4, p. 124.

[17] Ibid, p. 245.

[18] Nahj al-Balāgha, sermon, 126.

[19] Ibid, p. 226.

[20] Ibid, pp. 229-230.

[21] Ibid, 112.

[22] Ibid, p. 115.

[23] Ibid, 127.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Nahj al-Balāgha, letter 53.

[26] Mawsū‘at al-Imām ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (A.S.), vol. 4, p. 303.

[27] Nahj al-Balāgha, letter 53.

[28] Mawsū‘at al-Imām ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (A.S.), vol. 4, p. 163.

[29] Ibid, 256.

[30] Ibid, p. 129, .1358.

[31] Ibid, p. 306, .1789.

[32] Ibid, p. 309, .1797.

[33] Ibid, p. 224, .1635.

[34] Ibid, p. 204, .1527.

[35] Wasā’il al-Shī‘a, vol. 8, p. 53, . 1, p. 55, . 4.

[36] Mawsū‘at al-Imām ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (A.S.), vol. 7, p. 207, . 2906.

[37] Al-Jamal, p. 166-167.

[38] Ansāb al-Ashrāf, vol. 2, p. 162; Ta’rikh al-Ya‘qūbī, vol. 2, p. 203.

[39] Nahj al-Balagha, semon 126.

[40] Sayrī dar Nahj al-Balāgha, p. 126.

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