Hazrat Ali played a foundational role in the development of intellectual sciences

“…he [Ali ibn Abi Talib] was a prince to whom God gave much knowledge and wisdom.”1

“Ali b. Abi Talib, may God beautify his profile, is the secret mystery of the gnostics…and the whole Muslim Community agree that Ali b. Abi Talib represents the breaths of inspiration of all the prophets…He has sayings the like of which no one prior to him ever uttered and after him the like of which no one has expressed.” 2

Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib (599-661 CE) was the first cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, the fourth of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs (al-khulafa’ al-rashidun); and the first Imam of the Shi‘i Muslims deemed to be appointed by divine mandate. The word Shi‘i is derived from the term shi‘at Ali, meaning “partisans of Ali.”

Hazrat Ali was born in the Ka’ba. His mother Fatima bt. Asad and father Abi Talib had taken care of the orphaned Muhammad, but several years before the Prophet’s mission began, Abi Talib had become impoverished due to a drought. The Prophet and his wife Khadija took care of Ali, who was five years old at the time, becoming the constant companion of the Prophet.

Hazrat Ali “lived physically in the shadow of the Prophet and absorbed spiritually all that radiated from him. In one of his sermons, Imam Ali mentions the intimacy of the relationship between them:

“When I was but a child he took me under his wing … I would follow him [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] Hira. I saw him and nobody else saw him. .. I saw the light of the revelation and the message, and I smelt the fragrance of prophecy“ (Peak, p.393 cited in Justice and Remembrance  p 13).

Throughout the Prophet’s life, Hazrat Ali proved his unwavering loyalty to him and the cause of Islam, and was a distinguished scribe of the continuous revelations. Hazrat Ali’s standing in Muslim tradition is evidenced by the numerous narratives that relate to the period of his Caliphate and earlier, and also by a monumental compilation of his discussions, sermons, and epistles titled Nahj al-balagha (The Way of Eloquence). Compiled by al-Sharif al-Radi (d.1016), a renowned Shi’i scholar of Abbasid Baghdad, the Nahj al-balagha, has exerted significant influence on Arabic literature.

Nahj al-Balagha
Nahj al-Balagha. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Hazrat Ali’s  teachings, which inspired the spiritual life of Muslims through the centuries, were translated into numerous languages across the Muslim regions, including the Kalam-e Mawla (‘Discourse of Mawla Ali’), a poetic rendition  of the teachings of Hazrat Ali in Hindustani. Compiled in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, it comprises 327 verses divided into 23 thematic sections.

Manuscript of Kalame Mawla written in Khojki script in Bombay in 1851 by Khoja Alahrakhea Koriji. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Historians agree that Hazrat Ali played a foundational role in the development of the Islamic intellectual sciences as a whole – jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (kalam), Qur’anic interpretations (tafsir), rhetoric (balagha), grammar (nahw),  calligraphy (khatt), the mystical knowledge associated with Sufism, as well as sciences such as numerology (jafr) and alchemy (al-kimya). Hazrat Ali is credited with being the developer of the Kufic script, the oldest style of calligraphy, named after the city of Kufa in Iraq, where Hazrat Ali resided and where the script is believed to have originated. Hazrat Ali taught that each letter of the alphabet has not only an outward form, but also an inner meaning. Other calligraphic styles developed from the Kufic script.

Shah-Kazemi notes “the Prophet’s definition of Ali as the ‘gate’ to prophetic wisdom … takes on the appearance of both a description of what Ali was in relation to the Prophet in their own age, and also a prophecy of the role Ali would play in relation to the subsequent unfolding of the sciences of the tradition—all such sciences being understood as so many formal, outward manifestations of the essential, inward spirit of the Islamic revelation…” (Justice and Remembrance p 12).

Lewisohn quotes the Persian philosopher Allamah Tabataba’i (d. 1981) on Hazrat Ali:
“Despite the cumbersome and strenuous difficulties which absorbed his time, he left behind among the Islamic community a valuable treasury of the truly divine sciences and Islamic intellectual disciplines… In his talks and speeches he expounded the most sublime Islamic sciences in a most elegant and flowing manner. He established Arabic grammar and laid the basis for Arabic literature. He was the first in Islam to delve directly into the questions of metaphysics…in a manner combining intellectual rigor and logical demonstration…he was so devoted to metaphysics and gnosis that even in the heat of battle he would carry out intellectual discourse and discuss metaphysical problems” (The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam, p 144).

For Imam ʿAli, the ‘true intellectual’ (al-aqil) is one who not only thinks correctly but also acts ethically, and, at the deepest level, one who seeks to realise the ultimate Reality” (Justice and Remembrance, p 35).

Intellect verses reason
From the Latin intellectus, intellect “is that which is capable of a direct contemplative vision of [mystical] realities, whereas reason… works with logic and arrives at mental concepts, only, of those realities. Reason should be perceived as one of the modes of the intellect…With the intellect, then, one is able to contemplate or ‘see’ the Absolute; with the reason, one can only think about it” (Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance p 22).

“Being true to one’s intellect—to the treasures buried deep within it and not just to the rational functions operative on its surface—is tantamount to being ‘spiritual’” (Justice and Remembrance, p 35).

Bowl, 10th century, Iran. Written around the rim of the bowl in kufic script is a saying attributed to Hazrat Ali: “Knowledge is the noblest of personal qualities and love is the highest of pedigrees.” Image: Harvard Art Museums

The intellectual and spiritual legacy of Ali b. Abi Talib is widespread and can be found amongst all Muslims regardless of their schools of interpretation. Through his teachings, practical guidance, and the exemplary life that he led, “Ali ibn Abi Talib is regarded as a paragon of wisdom, piety and virtue, and is not only a great Muslim but a great religious leader whose universal message … is relevant for all time” (Appendix, The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam, p 149).

Mawlana Hazar Imam Aga Khan IV highlighted the enduring relevance of Hazrat Ali’s teachings:
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 emphasised that “No honour 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 emphasise 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.”
Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2006

Further reading:
The origin of the art of Islamic calligraphy is attributed to Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib
Hazrat Ali taught that intellect is first and foremost a spiritual faculty

1Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1230), Tadhkirat al-awliya, cited by Lewisohn in The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam, Edited by Ali M. Lakhani, p 114
2Abu Ibrahim Isma’il ibn Bukhari (d. ca. 870) cited by Lewisohn in The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam, p 113,
Reza Shah-Kazemi,  Justice and Remembrance, Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali, I.B.Tauris Publishers, London, 2006

Contributed by Nimira Dewji, who also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com

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