We condemn the war and support Ukraine in its struggle for democratic values.
We also encourage you to join the #StandWithUkraine movement by making a donation at this link
Ali Abi Talib

For ninth-century Baghdad, Ali b. Abi Talib in the literature was not only of historiographical concern, it was debated in other scholarly circles because it had profound implications for the meaning and nature of Islam. In his inimitable way, Jahiz tells the following anecdote that reveals the importance of key companions in religious debate two hundred years after their demise: One of our friends questioned Abu Luqman, the fool, about the "indivisible particle." "The atom," he replied, "is Ali b. Abi Talib." Abu al-Aina asked him: "Are there no other atoms in the world?" " Indeed there are: Hamza and Ja far." "What about al- Abbas?" " He is an atom." "What do you say about Abu Bakr and Umar?" "Abu Bakr is divisible and Umar is divisible." "And Uthman?" "He is doubly divisible, and so is Zubayr." "And what do you say about Mu awiya?" " He is indivisible." (Pellat 1969, 149) Jahiz tells us that the fool had overheard scholars speaking about the "indivisible particle" and had become confused. I believe that the fool had probably also heard religious scholars debating the merits of the key companions involved in early Islamic conflicts, and simply put the two together.

The companions of the Prophet played a vital role in the religious and political consciousness of Muslims in ninth-century Baghdad. Sunni, Shi i, and Abbasid apologists each held opinions about the companions, in general, and certain companions, in particular. The Hanbalis, in particular, and the hadith scholars, in general, tended to favor the idea that all the companions were equal in merit. In contrast to the ritualized cursing of some of the companions by the Shi is, they adopted a view of universal respect and pious reverence toward them.(2) The position of Mu awiyah among the ranks of the illustrious founders of Islam was a point of contention. While hadith scholars seemed to have no problem in accepting him as a companion like all the rest, Abbasid apologists could not be so magnanimous toward the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Jahiz, who wrote a treatise on the caliphate for Ma mun in 200/815-16, again gives us an inkling of this debate in his own maligning of the Hanbali supporters: "[They say] 'Do not curse Mu awiyah! He was one of the Companions of the Prophet, and to curse him is a (blameworthy) innovation; whosoever hates him contravenes the sunna.' In other words, the sunna requires us to pardon those who specifically repudiate the sunna" (1). Tabari one of the greatest historians, marshaled the sources to present a historical account, a political philosophy, and character appraisals.

Tabari opens his account of the fitnah with a Sayf report that showed Ali's concern about consolidating his position. Narrated with different chains of authorities, but all leading to Sayf, six reports insisted that only six or seven Badr combatants had anything to do with the entire civil war (6). The merit of the conflict between Ali and his opponents turned on the presence of those who had participated in the crucial battle between the Prophet and the Quraysh, the so-called Badriyyin. Tabari's multiple reports insisted that the Badriyyin opted for neutrality. This political assessment, represented as a lack of distinguished support for Ali, could easily be read as a crisis of legitimacy for Ali's authority, but Tabari did not explore this line of inquiry. Later in the account, in fact, Tabari used Abu Mikhnaf to suggest the support of some eminent Medinese (Umm Salamah and Abu Qatadah) (6). In the final analysis, then, Ali enjoyed support in Medina, but it did not include too many of the eminent Badr combatants. Using multiple reports, Tabari seems to have presented a strong case for neutrality without directly casting doubt on the legitimacy of Ali's authority. The issue of Ali's authority was taken up by his son Hasan, who had been reluctant to enter the conflict and tried to dissuade his father from going into battle. Hasan approached his father, complaining that he paid no heed to his advice. At one level, the report seems to fall clearly within Tabari's refrain of reports that posited neutrality, but Ali reacted angrily to Hasan's recommendation, reproaching him as a constant source of irritation: "You whimper like a young woman!" However, a Sayf report showed Ali arguing that he had no choice but to deal with the situation, and that he was acting on behalf of the Medinese: "This matter belongs to the people of Medina, and we would not like it to be lost." Tabari followed with a third report(4) in which Ali said that he had long been waiting to take his rightful place in Islam (6). Sayf's report clearly tried to reconcile the difference between father and son, two eminent members of the family of the Prophet, and hinted at the non-Shi i basis of Ali's legitimacy. The report was carefully placed between one in which Hasan, a Shi i imam, favors neutrality, and another, which hints at Ali's Shi i right of succession. The Sayf view of Ali's legitimacy was counterbalanced by political options presented in the other reports. For rising up against a legitimate authority, ishah's position in the fitnah was somewhat more difficult to justify. While Tabari could not show that she favored neutrality, he was able to reconstruct her political decisions as moral ones. A ishah was returning from Mecca when she heard the news of Uthman's assassination. She went back and used her position as the widow of the Prophet to protest publicly against the murderers of Uthman. One Mada ini report suggested that she had been opposed to Uthman at the end of his reign, but Sayf has the final word, and reports that the noisy and sinful rabble had taken control of Madina (6). Sayf's account thus provides a justification for A ishah's protest - again without dealing directly with the gist of the Mada ini report. The rehabilitation of A ishah is evaluated more emphatically at the level of personal morality, involving a hadith of the Prophet in which he cautioned his wives not to be the object of barking dogs at Haw ab.(5) During the fitnah and on the way to Basrah, A ishah heard dogs barking and was told that the place was called Haw ab. Recalling the hadith, she decided to turn back to Madina, but was dissuaded by someone who swore an oath that the particular place was not Haw ab. Tabari reports that the person responsible may have been Abd Allah, the son of Zubayr: "It is claimed that he Abd Allah b. Zubayr) said (to her): 'Whoever said that this is Haw ab is lying.' He persisted until she agreed to move." A ishah was determined to turn back on account of the hadith, but was dissuaded from doing so on the basis of false testimony. The report clearly presented her as responding to a religious duty that she fulfilled. Tabari does not leave the matter there, however, but provides another report of the incident, which stated that A ishah's decision not to return to Madina was changed by the news of Ali's rapidly approaching army. ...

Order now

Related essays