BOOK REVIEW: Unique qualities of Ali ibn Abi Talib

28th Nov 2014
BOOK REVIEW: Unique qualities of Ali ibn Abi Talib

The Special Characteristics of the Leader of the Faithful – Ali b. Abi Talib. By Ahmad b. Shu’ayb al-Nasa’i. Translated by Michael Mumisa. Birmingham: Al-Mahdi Institute. pp103. PB. 2014. £9.99

Ali ibn Abi Talib is a towering personality in Islam. In the Sunni tradition, he is revered as the fourth rightly-guided Caliph of Islam (khulafa al-rashidun) and the son-in-law of the Prophet (peace be on him), while in the Shi’i branch of Islam, he is considered to be the first Imam and the leading light of the Ahl al-Bayt (family of the Prophet).

Ali was a cousin of the Prophet and lived with him during his early years. He was not only one of the first to embrace Islam, but also one of the foremost supporters of the Prophet and his message. He later married Fatimah, the Prophet’s youngest daughter, and became the head of the Ahl al-Bayt after the death of the Prophet. Ali was the most knowledgeable amongst the companions of the Prophet and the latter once remarked, ‘Are you [Ali] not happy that you to me are in the rank of Harun (Aaron) to Musa (Moses)?’ (Sahih al-Bukhari) In short, Ali ibn Abi Talib was a unique and outstanding figure of early Islam whose life, contribution and legacy continues to exert profound influence on Muslim thought, culture and history to this day.

Living at a time of considerable political turmoil, social upheaval, sectarian strife and cultural confusion across the Muslim world (especially in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt), it needs to be pointed out that Ali ibn Abi Talib was a Muslim long before he became the fourth Caliph of Sunni Islam and the first Imam of the Shi’a Muslims. Those who claim to follow the Prophet of Islam, therefore, have no choice but to love Ali ibn Abi Talib because he said, ‘Whoever loves me, loves these two, their father and mother (meaning Hasan, Husayn, Ali and Fatimah), they shall be with me on my level on the Day of Judgement.’ (Sunan, al-Tirmidhi and Musnad, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal)

In other words, if the personality of Ali ibn Abi Talib is the dividing line between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, then the book under review shows that he can be an equally powerful unifying force for both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

Abu Abd al-Rahman Ahmad ibn Shu’ayb ibn Ali ibn Sinan ibn Bahr ibn Dinar, better known as Imam al-Nasa’i, was born around 829 (214 AH) in the city of Nasa in the eastern Abbasid province of Khurasan. After completing his early education locally, at the age of 20, he travelled extensively in pursuit of knowledge. In due course, he mastered traditional Islamic sciences and became known for his expertise in hadith (Prophetic traditions) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Eventually, he settled in Egypt and became a famous writer and compiler of hadith, authoring more than 15 books.

Today he is best known for his Sunan al-Nasa’i, being one of the six most authentic anthologies of Prophetic traditions (sahih sitta) in the Sunni tradition. Imam al-Nasa’i’s scholarship was impeccable so much so that, according to al-Dhahabi (d 1348), himself a renowned scholar of hadith, he ‘was more proficient in hadith and its rijal (narrators) than Muslim [compiler of Sahih Muslim], Abu Dawud [compiler of Sunan Abi Dawud], Abu Isa [al-Tirmidhi]. He competes against Bukhari and Abu Zur’a.’

Imam al-Nasa’i was not only a master of Prophetic tradition, he was also a man of great courage, principle and fortitude. Towards the end of his life, he moved to Damascus and there he was shocked to hear people publicly praising Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan but reviling Ali ibn Abi Talib. This prompted Imam al-Nasa’i to compose a book titled Khasa’is Amir al-Mu’minin Ali ibn Abi Talib (Unique Qualities of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Leader of the True Believers).

Consisting of 54 short sections and more than 150 ahadith, I must admit, I read this anthology cover-to-cover in one sitting. This excellent book shows that Ali ibn Abi Talib was unique amongst the companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) and every Muslim, Sunni or Shi’a, must love him for the Prophet clearly stated, “As for you O Ali, you are my son-in-law, father to my sons, you are part of me and I am part of you.” (p90)

It is worth pointing out that the majority of the ahadith contained in this book was classified as sahih (authentic) or hasan (good) by Imam al-Nasa’i and they can also be found in other anthologies of Prophetic traditions, both Sunni and Shi’i.

The book has been translated into English by Michael Mumisa, who is a doctoral candidate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Unfortunately, the ‘translator’s note’ is far too brief (consisting of only 5 pages); a detailed introduction highlighting the historical context in which this book was composed would have enhanced its value.

Nonetheless, I am confident that this ‘work will do much to balance possible misconceptions amongst those who identify themselves as Shi’i as to the regard for Ali b. Abi Talib amongst authorities of the Sunni tradition, whilst at the same time offering insight to those who identify themselves as Sunni as to the reasons why the personality of Ali b. Abi Talib is so central to the religious life of the Shi’a.’ (p viii)

Muhammad Khan, Acclaimed author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).

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