The fourth of the "Rashidun" (Great) Caliphs, Ali ibn Abu Talib has long been considered as the starting point of many esoteric movements in Islam, as well as the formation of Shiite sects. Both Sunni and Shiite Muslims have adored Ali as a great warrior, man of wisdom, poet and imam for centuries. Ali has been given many nicknames and titles such as "Asadullah" (Lion of God), "Haidar al-Karrar" (Lion fighting all sides), "Amir al-Muminun" (Leader of the Believers), "Abu Turab" (Father of the Dust, which was given to Ali by Prophet Muhammad on a certain occasion), "Murtaza" (The Chosen One), "Shah al-Mardan" (Shah of the Brave) and "Abu Hassan" (Father of Hassan, named for his first son Hassan). Though his name has triggered many debates, controversies and Shiism in Islam, no Muslims have ever said or done anything to go against Ali's memory, with the exception of the Umayyad Dynasty and its supporters.
Born to be a Muslim
According to Ali Shariati, a late Iranian Marxist and Islamist, Ali ibn Abu Talib was the first young man originally brought up as a Muslim by Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, he was very young when he converted to Islam. According to Shariati, the change was not technically a "conversion" because he was a child and had no Pagan background. According to Islamic belief: "Every child is born as a Muslim. It is his parents who make him a Christian, a Jew or a Pagan." This very sentence was addressed by Prophet Muhammad himself (Sahih al-Muslim, 33/6426).
Ali was born in 601 in Mecca as the son of the Custodian of the Kaba, Abu Talib, uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Though Abu Talib had a higher rank among Quraysh tribes as the sheikh of the Banu Hashim tribe and the custodian of the Kaba, he was not rich enough to offer a comfortable living for his entire family. So, Muhammad took Ali in order to lower his uncle's economical burdens. Ali stayed with Prophet Muhammad until the Hegira (the great migration of the Muslims from Mecca to Medina). In other words, Prophet Muhammad raised Ali from when he was 5 years old.
Traditionally, Ali is accepted as the first young man to ever have converted to Islam. Although little is known about his life before the Hegira, it is known that Muhammad made Ali stay in Mecca in order to divert the Pagans until Prophet Muhammad arrived safely in Medina. Ali spent a night in Muhammad's bed, in order to make the Pagans believe that Prophet Muhammad was still in his home.
On the other day, Ali gave the things to be given to various people in the name of Muhammad; and he took Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, and the prophet's mother Fatima and left for Medina. Ali and his company met Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr in Quba.
In the fifth month after Hegira, Prophet Muhammad made the Meccan Muslims (Muhajirun, the emigrants) choose a brother from among the Medina Muslims (Ansar, the hosts), each for each, and he chose Ali as his brother. He also gave his daughter to Ali as a wife in the second year of Hegira. Ali and Fatima had five children - namely Hassan, Hussein, Muhseen (who was a still-born child), Zainab and Umm Kulthum. Despite the polygamist tradition of the Arabs, Ali would not marry another woman until Fatima's death.
‘Lion of God'
Ali fought for Islam in nearly every battle during Muhammad's life. He carried the flag of Muhammad in battles such as Badr, Uhud, Hunayn, Khandaq and others. He protected the prophet with his sword until the end of the battles of Hunayn and Uhud, despite being wounded.
Ali served as commander to the Muslim army on several occasions. He also stayed in Medina as the representative of the prophet from time to time. He showed great bravery and sacrifice in the Battle of Khaybar , where the Muslims defeated the Jew of the Khaybar Castle. Ali used a heavy iron gate as a shield during that battle, in order to protect Prophet Muhammad from the flying arrows of the enemy.
Ali served Muhammad in many ways, including scripting his letters and the revelations of the Holy Quran. He was the one who scripted the Hudaibiyya Treaty signed with the Pagans of Mecca. Muhammad ordered Ali to destroy the idols of the pagan tribes in Kaba after the conquest of Mecca by the Muslim army.
After the prophet's death, Abu Bakr was elected as the first caliph. Ali did not show obeisance to Abu Bakr until his wife Fatima died, six months after the passing of his father, Muhammad. This is one of the controversial subjects of Islamic history, especially for sectarian Shiite groups, even though respected historians have stated that Ali never showed any willingness to become the caliph instead of Abu Bakr.
Indeed, Fatima was angry with Abu Bakr because of the heritage of his father, Prophet Muhammad. Fatima asked Abu Bakr for the land called Fadaq as the heritage of his father. However, Abu Bakr refused her request, saying that prophets didn't have heritages. Abu Bakr applied this rule to the wives of the prophet as well, even though Aisha, his daughter, was one of them.
After Fatima's death, Ali never quarreled with the caliphs. He obeyed Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman successively. Despite his efforts to protect Uthman from being martyred, the rebels ultimately killed the caliph.
After Uthman's death, the Muslim land fell into anarchy ("The Fitnah"). Ali was elected as the fourth caliph by prominent Muslims in the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. However, Muawiya, the Damascus governor, did not accept obeying the new caliph, and declared his own caliphate. After a while, Aisha, Prophet Muhammad's wife, Talha and Zubayr, two of the six candidates before Uthman's caliphate, rebelled against Ali.
Therefore, there were three campaigns for the caliphate. As Ali defeated Talha and Zubayr, he also sent Aisha to Medina, ending her authority against him as the caliph. However, Muawiyah took advantage of the anarchy as he was located in Damascus, too far away to be defeated.
Ali fought against Muawiyah and defeated his army. Although the latter left the battlefield, he found help and returned. Ali was good at fighting, while Muawiyah was a better politician. So, the two confronted each other on the table, too. Muawiyah played tricks in order to affect the Muslim majority, which worked well.
The two rivals assigned two arbitrators, one for each, in order to end the controversy among Muslims. Muawiyah's arbitrator, Amr ibn al-As, deceived Ali's arbitrator, declaring Muawiyah as the new caliph in a declaration which was never accepted by Ali or his supporters. Also, a third group rebelled against both rivals, saying that Muawiyah should be taken down since he had rebelled against the true caliph, but Ali should also be killed since he sat down with the rebels against the revelation of God.
Ali defeated the third group, known as Khawarij (The Outsiders). However, Muawiyah again took advantage of the anarchy among Muslims and strengthened his rule in Damascus and environs.Therefore, Muslims had two caliphs at the same time, one in Damascus and one in Kufa.
Ali tried to prepare a strong army in Kufa in order to defeat Muawiyah in Damascus. However, the Iraqi Muslims, the main supporters of Ali, were not so enthusiastic in continuing the fight, as the people were exhausted from the endless battles between Muslim armies.
An angry Kharijite - namely Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam - stabbed Ali with a sword in a mosque while he was praying. He died two days later on Jan. 29, 661, at the age of 60.