Imam Ali (as), whose Imam is he? 1

Imam Ali, the leader of the believers, is the epitome of justice, bravery and piety. The history of Islam is bound to his great personality and honorable existence. He is on the high peak of the Right Path and is the Imam and leader only of those who are on the same path even on a very low level. Only those who look at the lifestyle of Imam Ali (a.s) and attempt at getting closer to him in practice can really and truly claim that they regard him as their Imam. We, the Shia Muslims always consider Imam Ali (a.s) our Imam and claim that we are his followers. Thus, we are celebrating his birth this evening.

The question is, is there any criteria to be met by which we can hope that we are following Imam Ali (a.s) and that he is our Imam, or is it just enough to say we are born Shia and love him, irrespective of any similarities between our lifestyle and that of his? There is a sheikh who leads the congregational prayer in a certain mosque that I never go to. Can I claim that he is my imam of Jama’at although I never stay behind him in praying?!

This lecture aims at introducing some of the main characteristics of Imam Ali (a.s). As we will see after the Prophet of Islam (s.a.w.w) he enjoyed the highest of those virtues and hence, is he indeed the Imam and the unique leading figure of those personalities. He is on the high peak of the Right Path and is the Imam and leader only of those who are on the same path even on a very low level. Only those who look at the lifestyle of Imam Ali (a.s) and attempt at getting closer to him in practice can really and truly claim that they regard him as their Imam.

Before introducing the characteristics of Imam Ali (a.s) I shall share with you the meaning of ‘Imam’ and why do the Shia follow Imam Ali (a.s).

Who is an Imam?

‘Imam’ literally means leader, chief, guide and standard. An ‘Imam’ is the one that people adhere to and follow his words or actions. The term ‘imam’ in the language of the Quran does not necessarily carry a holy and respectful meaning. It is a title for specific elite who have a leading position in their communities be it a positive and righteous leadership or a negative and destructive one.

Thus, the Almighty God appointed Prophet Ibrahim (a.s) an ‘imam’ for people,(1) and also commanded Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.w) and his companions to fight back the ‘imams of Kufr’ (the leading figures of the infidels) who violated their oaths after their covenant and attacked the religion of Islam.(2)

Imam Ali (a.s) is a leader who was appointed by Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.w) through revelation. Therefore, he is a righteous leader, following his leadership and guidance would lead to true Sunna of the Prophet of Islam which leads to Paradise.

Do Shia follow Imam Ali (p) rather than Prophet Muhammad (P)?!

Sometimes people wonder why is it that the Shia consider themselves the followers of Imam Ali (a.s)? Are we not supposed to follow the guidance of the Prophet of Islam? Do they follow Imam Ali rather than following the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad?!

The answer is that both Shia and Sunni Muslims claim they are following the guidelines and the teachings revealed to the Prophet of Islam. However, after the demise of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his pure progeny) two main schools of thought emerged in introducing Islam to the next generations; i.e. The School of Kholafa (known as Sunnis), and the School of Ahlul-Bait (known as Shiites).

The Shia believe that following the words and actions of Imam Ali (a.s) and the other 11 Imams of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s) leads to the actual teachings of the Prophet of Islam. Therefore, when they say they are the Shia of Imam Ali (a.s) they mean they are the followers of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.w) through the path of his best student; Imam Ali (peace be upon him).

A rabbi visited Imam Ali (a.s) and asked: “When did your Lord come into existence?! The Imam replied: “When He did not exist to say when did He exist? My Lord was before ‘Before’ without any ‘before’ and after any ‘After’ without ‘after’ and there is no end or limit to His goal. All limits end with Him and He is the end of all limits.” The astonished rabbi said: “Are you a prophet?!” the Imam replied: “Woe unto you! Indeed, I am one of the slaves of Muhammad (s.a.w.w).”(3)

Imam Ali (a.s); Whose Imam is He?

1. Imamul-Mo’meneen (The Imam of the believers)

Imam Ali (a.s) is the first Imam and the leading figure of all believing Muslims. Historically it is an indisputable fact that he was the very first person who believed in Islam. The Imam himself expressing this fact says; “None preceded me except Ahmad.”(4)

Ahmad ibn Hanbal; the Imam of the Hanbali School of jurisprudence narrated in his book from Iyas ibn Afif from his father: “I was a trader before Islam. Once I went for the Hajj ceremony to Mecca and stayed with my business counterpart; Abbas ibn Mottalib. One day as we were negotiating on a deal, a man came out of his room, looked up at the sun in the sky and as soon as the sun inclined towards west he began praying. Immediately after that a woman and a young boy came out and joined him in prayer. I asked Abbas who they were, and he said: The man is Muhammad ibn Abdullah my nephew, and she is his wife; Khadijah daughter of Khowaylad and the young boy is Ali ibn Abi Taleb; his cousin.

I asked what they were doing, and he said: “They are praying, and he thinks that he is a prophet whilst no one follows him other than these two. He also claims that one day the treasury of Kasra and Caesar will be opened to him.”(5) We must however remember that when we say Imam Ali (a.s) was the first who believed in Islam, we do not mean before that time he did not believe in God or as if prior to that he was an idolater! Imam Ali (a.s) never in his entire life worshipped other than one God and thus Sunni Muslims admire him by praying for him, “May God honor his face’.

This tribute is used only for him expressing the fact that his face was honored by God as unlike many others he never prostrated himself before any idol. Therefore, when we say Ali was the first Muslim it is in the same context as when Prophet Ibrahim (a.s) said: “And I am the first of the Muslims.” (6)

or when the holy Quran says; “The Messenger believed in what was revealed to him from his Lord.”(7)

Thus, Imam Ali (a.s) is only the Imam and the leader of those who have faith in God and believe in the message of the Prophet of Islam (s.a.w.w). Those who do not believe in Islam in any form or shape cannot claim that he is their leader.

Continue in the next article: ( Imam Ali (as), whose Imam is he? 2 )

NOTES:

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1. The Holy Quran 2:124

2. The Holy Quran 9:120

3. Al-Kaafi vol.1 p.89

4. Al-Kaafi, vol.1 p.198

5. Al-Mosnad vol.1 p.448

6. The Holy Quran 6:163

7. The Holy Quran 2:285