1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ali

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ALI, in full, ʽAli ben Abū Talib (c. 600–661), the fourth of the caliphs or successors of Mahomet, was born at Mecca about

EB1911 Alhambra - The Court of the Myrtles.png
From Gayangos and Owen Jones, The Alhambra.
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the year A.D. 600. His father, Abū Talib, was an uncle of the prophet, and Ali himself was adopted by Mahomet and educated under his care. As a mere boy he distinguished himself by being one of the first to declare his adhesion to the cause of Mahomet, who some years afterwards gave him his daughter Fatima in marriage. Ali proved himself to be a brave and faithful soldier, and when Mahomet died without male issue, a few emigrants thought him to have the best claim to succeed him. Abu Bekr, Omar and Othman, however, occupied this position before him, and it was not until 656, after the murder of Othman, that he assumed the title of caliph. The fact that he took no steps to prevent this murder is, perhaps, the only real blot upon his character. Almost the first act of his reign was the suppression of a rebellion under Talha and Zobair, who were instigated by Ayesha, Mahomet’s widow, a bitter enemy of Ali, and one of the chief hindrances to his advancement to the caliphate. The rebel army was defeated at the “Battle of the Camel,” near Bassorah (Basra), the two generals being killed, and Ayesha taken prisoner. Ali soon afterwards made Kufa his capital. His next care was to get rid of the opposition of Moawiya, who had established himself in Syria at the head of a numerous army. A prolonged battle took place in July 657 in the plain of Siffin (Suffein), near the Euphrates; the fighting was at first, it is said, in favour of Ali, when suddenly a number of the enemy, fixing copies of the Koran to the points of their spears, exclaimed that “the matter ought to be settled by reference to this book, which forbids Moslems to shed each other’s blood.” The superstitious soldiers of Ali refused to fight any longer, and demanded that the issue be referred to arbitration (see further Caliphate, section B. 1). Abu Musa was appointed umpire on the part of Ali, and ʽAmr-ibn-el-Ass, a veteran diplomatist, on the part of Moawiya. It is said that ʽAmr persuaded Abu Musa that it would be for the advantage of Islam that neither candidate should reign, and asked him to give his decision first. Abu Musa having proclaimed that he deposed both Ali and Moawiya, ʽAmr declared that he also deposed Ali, and announced further that he invested Moawiya with the caliphate. This treacherous decision (but see Caliphate, ib.) greatly injured the cause of Ali, which was still further weakened by the loss of Egypt. After much indecisive fighting, Ali found his position so unsatisfactory that according to some historians he made an agreement with Moawiya by which each retained his own dominions unmolested. It chanced, however—according to a legend, the details of which are quite uncertain—that three of the fanatic sect of the Kharijites had made an agreement to assassinate Ali, Moawiya and ʽAmr, as the authors of disastrous feuds among the faithful. The only victim of this plot was Ali, who died at Kufa in 661, of the wound inflicted by a poisoned weapon. A splendid mosque called Meshed Ali was afterwards erected near the city, but the place of his burial is unknown. He had eight wives after Fatima’s death, and in all, it is said, thirty three children, one of whom, Hassan, a son of Fatima, succeeded him in the caliphate. His descendants by Fatima are known as the Fatimites (q.v.; see also Egypt: History, Mahommedan period). The question of Ali’s right to succeed to the caliphate is an article of faith which divided the Mahommedan world into two great sects, the Sunnites and the Shiites, the former denying, and the latter affirming, his right. The Turks, consequently, hold his memory in abhorrence; whereas the Persians, who are generally Shi‛as, venerate him as second only to the prophet, call him the “Lion of God” (Sher-i-Khudā), and celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom. Ali is described as a bold, noble and generous man, “the last and worthiest of the primitive Moslems, who imbibed his religious enthusiasm from companionship with the prophet himself, and who followed to the last the simplicity of his example.” It is maintained, on the other hand, that his motives were throughout those of ambition rather than piety, and that, apart from the tragedy of his death, he would have been an insignificant figure in history. (See further Caliphate.)

In the eyes of the later Moslems he was remarkable for learning and wisdom, and there are extant collections (almost all certainly spurious) of proverbs and verses which bear his name: the Sentences of Ali (Eng. trans., William Yule, Edinburgh, 1832); H. L. Fleischer, Alis hundert Sprüche (Leipz. 1837); the Divan, by G. Kuypert (Leiden, 1745, and at Bulak, 1835); C. Brockelmann, Gesch. d. arabisch. Lit. (vol. i., Weimar, 1899).