Arabic: ¢alī bni abī tālib
Tomb of Ali in Najaf, Iraq.
Ali was both Muhammad’s cousin, being the son of Abu Talib, as well as his son-in-law through marriage to Fatima. In Shi’i Islam, Ali is counted as the first Imam, a position he held from 632 when Muhammad died.
There are two leading versions of Ali, the one of the Sunnis and the other of the Shi’is. Though both versions have a positive view of him, and at least on the legitimacy of his position as Caliph, the Sunnis present him as a relatively weak ruler with many faults.
The Shi’is reject this view, regarding him infallible and the possessor of a divine light passed on from Muhammad, and later transferred to subsequent Imams.
Ali is believed to have been either the first or second male to convert to Islam, and he was a very devout Muslim. Ali had several wives, and among them was Fatima, with whom he had several children, but it is Hassan and Husayn that had importance for the development of Islam.
With the death of Muhammad in 632, the Muslim community was for a short period without a leader, and without clear indications on how to chose the new leader.
Some traditions of this period tell that Muhammad had chosen Ali to be the leader, a choice not unlikely, but this is a question that has been disputed throughout history. In any case, Abu Bakr was chosen the ‘deputy of the messenger’, in Arabic, khalifatu r-rasūl, which has become ‘Caliph’ in English.
Ali accepted this choice, but with the death of Abu Bakr and Umar in 634 and 644, he tried again to become Caliph, but there were strong forces working against him, so he didn’t succeed. Finally, after the assassination of the 3rd Caliph, Uthman, it was Ali’s turn to become Caliph.
All through his governing period, Ali faced strong opposition. First, he was opposed by A’isha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, but the strongest opposition was raised by Mu’awiyya from the Ummayad family based in Syria. The assassinated Caliph, Uthman, had been the kinsman of Mu’awiyya, and he accused Ali of not having charged his murderers.
In 658, Ali gave in to Mu’awiyya’s criticism and established an investigation committee. This compromise shocked many Muslims, and a group of them broke with Ali. This group soon came to be known as Kharijis, and when Ali was murdered in 661, this was probably the act of a member of the Khariji sect.
The murder of Ali represents a watershed in the understanding of history not only among Shi’is but also among Sunnis. Ali was the last Caliph coming from the group of Muslims that had converted before the Hijra (622), and he was also the last elected Caliph.
After Ali the Caliphate became hereditary and without the legitimacy of the connection to Muhammad and his ruling system.
For most groups of Shi’is, the hope of a just ruling elite inside Islam, i.e. a just Islam on earth, disappeared after this. The Shi’is never accepted Mu’awiyya nor any later Caliphs, and took the name ash– shi¢atu ¢alū, which could be translated into English, with ‘Ali’s Party’ or ‘Ali’s followers’.