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Ali ibn Abi Talib

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Ali ibn Abi Talib

    ca. 597– 661 Cousin and successor of Muhammad

    Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first cousin of Muhammad and husband of the Prophet's daughter, Fatimah. Ali's close relationship to the Prophet inspired some Muslims to accept him as their leader after Muhammad's death. Others, however, did not consider the family relationship to be of primary importance and initially rejected him in favor of more senior members of the community. The difference of opinion over the method of choosing the leader of the Muslim community ultimately resulted in the division of Muslims into two major groups—Shi'i and Sunni.

    Ali grew up in Muhammad's household and embraced Islam when he was about ten years old, making him the Prophet's first male follower. When Muhammad left Mecca for Medina in 622 , Ali joined him and married Fatimah. The marriage produced four children—two sons and two daughters. Ali participated in most of Muhammad's expeditions and became widely admired for his bravery. He also gained respect as a fair and compassionate judge. The Prophet often referred to Ali as “brother” and “heir.”

    When Muhammad died in 632 , his followers argued about who should become their new leader. Some believed that Ali should rightly assume this role. A majority, however, chose to follow Abu Bakr , who became the first caliph after Muhammad. Ali became the first imam of the Shi'is and the fourth of the Rashidun, or “rightly guided,” caliphs of the Sunnis.

    Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, succeeded Abu Bakr in 634 . Ten years later, when Umar died, Uthman ibn Affan became the third caliph. Uthman's assassination in 656 seriously threatened Muslim unity and pressure mounted for Ali to take control. Although elected fourth caliph, Ali did not have wide political support. Uthman's family believed that Ali should avenge Uthman's death and punish those responsible. But Ali's supporters insisted that Uthman had died deservedly because he had ruled unjustly. In order to retain power and keep his followers unified, Ali had to satisfy both sides.

    Establishing a stronghold in the Iraqi city of Kufa, Ali marched on his enemies in Basra and defeated them. Yet his failure to condemn Uthman's murder weakened his support among his followers. The Umayyads, who ruled in Syria and who were related to the slain caliph, felt it was their duty to avenge Uthman's death and rose up against Ali. A battle on the upper Euphrates River proved inconclusive and the leaders agreed to settle their differences through arbitration. Some of Ali's followers felt betrayed by this move. To them, a compromise based on human judgment would be a challenge to God's will, and therefore against Islamic principles. They abandoned Ali for a new commander. Despite Ali's attempts to eliminate these rebels, known as the Kharijis, their movement spread. In 660 a Kharijite assassin fatally wounded Ali while he was worshipping in the mosque of Kufa. He died two days later, and his tomb in nearby Najaf became an important holy site for Shi'i pilgrimages.

    Many Shi'i Muslims honor Ali for his teachings concerning social justice, which were collected and published in the 1200s in The Peak of Eloquence. One of Shi'i Islam's most important holy days, the Festival of Ghadir, commemorates the day on which Muhammad named Ali as his successor. See also Fatimah ; Imam; Karbala and Najaf; Khariji; Muhammad ; Shi'i Islam; Sunni Islam; Umayyad Caliphate.

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