On this day, the 13th of Rajab, Ismaili Muslims as well as many other Muslims around the world celebrate the birth anniversary of Amir-al-mu’minin Mawla Murtaza ‘Ali (alay-hi’s-salaam). Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) was the wasi (the Successor, inheritor of the Prophet’s authority) and the only person born inside the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. For all Shi’a Muslims, Hazrat Ali (a.s) is their first Imam, also considered as ‘asās al Imāmah’, that is, the ‘Foundation of the Imamat‘.
During a severe famine, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) had taken Hazrat Ali (a.s) under his care since he was about 5 years old in order to relieve the pressure on the household of Hazrat Abū Tālib. Hazrat Ali (a.s) remained a close companion of the Holy Prophet until the Prophet’s passing away in the year 632 CE. The intimacy of the relationship between them is summed up in the words of one of Imam Ali’s own sermons as noted in Nahj al-Balagha, as: “When I was but a child, he took me under his wing… I would follow him [that is, the Prophet] as a baby camel follows the footsteps of its mother. Every day he would raise up for me a sign of his noble character, commanding me to follow it. He would go each year into seclusion at the mountain of Hirā; I saw him and nobody else saw him. At that time no household was brought together for the religion of Islam, except the Messenger of God, Khadija (his wife) and myself as the third. I saw the light of the revelation and the message, and I smelt the fragrance of Prophecy.”
Imam Ali (a.s) was amongst the closest companions of the Prophet and was the first male to pledge support to him. Later, based on divine command, the Prophet invited his close family members to his cause. In the biography of the Prophet, this event is referred to as Da’wat al-‘Ashira, when the Prophet asked his closest family members to accept and support the message of God which he had received. At this gathering, only Hazrat ‘Ali responded positively and said: ‘O Prophet of Allah, I will be your helper in the matter.’ The Prophet laid his hand on the back of Hazrat ‘Ali’s neck and said: ‘This is my brother, the executor (of my will), and my successor among you. Listen to him and obey him.’
The Holy Prophet while describing Hazrat ‘Ali said, “Truly, Ali is from me and I am from him”. He also said, “Three things were revealed to me regarding ‘Ali: he is the leader of the Muslims, the guide of the pious, and the chief of the radiantly devout.” (www.iis.ac.uk)
Imam Ali (a.s) is recognized as the most important spiritual and intellectual authority in Islam after the Holy Prophet. The first Shia Imam, Hazrat Ali Amir al-Mu’mineen (Commander of the Faithful) is also revered by all Muslims as the last of the four “rightly-guided caliphs” (al-khulafa al-rashidun). Many of the teachings of Hazrat Ali (a.s) are preserved in various sources. These include collections of Shi’i hadith, also in Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim as well as Nahj al-Balagha, an assortment of Imam Ali’s sermons, speeches and letters. In the Ismaili Muslim tradition of the Subcontinent, the teachings of Imam Ali al-Murtaza (the One who is favorite to God) are also preserved in Kalaam-e-Mawla (words of ‘Ali), a poem of 327 verses composed in the Hindi language which draws inspiration from the sayings and writings of our beloved first Imam, Hazrat Ali, Bab-e-Madinatul-ilm (the door to the city of Knowledge).
While most of the messages conveyed in the Kalaam-e-Mawla are about ethics, there is also a strong esoteric and mystical aspect to the text which addresses more than two dozen topics, from virtues such as generosity and good manners, to vices such as greediness and gossip. Other themes include the cycle of life from birth to death, justice and knowledge. Today, we will focus on a number of verses in the section dealing with Ibadah (service/servitude to God) and Purity, which speak about prayer and personal spiritual growth.
In these verses Mawlana Ali (a.s) tells us that for the mu’min, or believer, who wakes up in the middle of the night to pray, an even brighter light (nur) fills their face/heart. This light is so bright that it can be perceived on the enlightened murid’s face, even through the brightness of the day.
He continues by saying that during the day, mu’mins must earn their living, but during the time of Ibadah one must sit restfully and remember their Lord. People often complain that they don’t have time to sit and think of God when they are worried about putting food in their stomachs. To this Mawla Ali Mushkil-Kusha (the solver of problems) replies that when there is no work in the dark of night, it is time to remember God. For the night is great; while the entire creation rests, Pirs (spiritual guides), Prophets and those close to God take advantage of its cover to recite the Lord’s name.
The verse continues: Nabi Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) experienced the mi’raj because he practiced ibadah/bandagi every night. This mi’raj is possible for every mu’min if, from his/her heart, s/he removes all thoughts of the world and at night s/he stays up with concentration and follows the path of the Prophet towards his Creator. It is then that mu’mins can experience their own mi’raj by virtue of the Deedar, or vision of their Lord. For within all hearts, there is love. No heart is empty of it, for without love the heart remains wrapped in sadness. But those who feel love for the True Lord are blessed, for they perform zikr upon every breath in constant remembrance. Just like the air that we breathe, Faith should be an instinctual and natural part of our lives.
Hazrat ‘Ali’s life also embodies the spiritual teaching of Islam. He emphasized the practice of zikr and said:“Perpetuate the zikr, for truly it illuminates the heart, and it is the most excellent form of worship (…) Truly, God has made the zikr a polish for the hearts, by which they hear after being deaf, and see after being blind…”
On June 25, 2006 at the commencement Ceremony of the American University in Cairo, Egypt, Mawlana Hazar Imam (Aga Khan lV) highlighted the enduring relevance of the teachings of Hazrat Ali:
“From the very beginnings of Islam, the search for knowledge has been central to our cultures. I think of the words of Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first hereditary Imam of the Shia Muslims, and the last of the four rightly-guided Caliphs after the passing away of the Prophet (may peace be upon him). In his teachings, Hazrat Ali emphasized that ‘No honor is like knowledge.’ And then he added that ‘No belief is like modesty and patience, no attainment is like humility, no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than consultation.’
“Notice that the virtues endorsed by Hazrat Ali are qualities which subordinate the self and emphasize others – modesty, patience, humility, forbearance and consultation. What he thus is telling us is that we find knowledge best by admitting first what it is we do not know, and by opening our minds to what others can teach us.” https://www.akdn.org/speech/his-highness-aga-khan/american-university-cairo
Over the centuries, across diverse cultures and languages, much has been written in praise of Hazrat ‘Ali. He has been given many titles including al-Murtaza, the Favored One; Shah-i Awliya, the King of the Saints; and Mushkil Kusha, the one who removes difficulties. The phrase “Ya ‘Ali Madad” is oft recited across diverse Muslim lands. The very mention of his name brings solace, courage and hope to believers facing difficulties and hardship as expressed in the prayer of Nad-i-‘Ali.
Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, who was a prominent Sunni hadith transmitter, narrates a hadith in which, during the siege of the fort of Khyber, the Prophet referred to Imam ‘Ali as “a man who loves Allah and His messenger and who is loved by Allah and His messenger.”
Yawm-e-Ali, the birth anniversary of Imam Ali (a.s) Imamul Muttaqin (Leader of the God-conscious) is an opportune time to reflect on the spirit of his message. We all desire to develop ourselves intellectually, to enrich our lives materially, but we should also aim to nurture our own spiritual growth and those of our families. What are we doing to encourage our family members to incorporate personal, individual prayers into their lives? We spend time thinking about our professional development; let us also think about the way in which we can cultivate our spiritual goals. On this blessed day, let us resolve to embark upon, or continue on the path towards spiritual enlightenment.
Recommended reading: “Spiritual Quest: Reflections on Quranic Prayer According to the Teachings of Imam Ali” by: Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi (2011) ISBN Paperback #: 978-1-84885-447-5