He Whose Crime was Justice

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In the Name of God, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful
All Praise is due to God; all Praise is due to God who said: “Certainly We sent Our apostles with manifest proofs, and We sent down with them the Book and the Balance, so that mankind may maintain justice.” (Sūrat al-Ḥadīd 57:25)]

Esteemed anthropologists, respected scholars, fellow students, dear friends, and my distinguished co-panelists – Salāmun ‘alaykum and good morning to all of you!


Let me begin this reflection by reciting a couplet from Hakim Sanā’ī, a 12th century Persian poet:

Justice is a candle lighting the world

Injustice a fire burning countries

Without methodologically delving into the ontology-epistemology matrix of the concept, there is no dispute that justice is given distinct quiddity (māhiyyyah) in many perspectives, schools of thought and religions. It is often regarded as a supreme virtue for an individual and a sublime principle for a collective.

And in most, if not all instances, great personalities such as Socrates, Voltaire, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela, and others who were perceived to be upholders of certain supreme values are not confined inside the box of their respective schools of thought or religions. Each of them has been presented as someone representing the entire humanity.

In this context, while a considerable number of Muslims hardly know ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and at most, recognize him as a Muslim caliph, or a Muslim general, George Jordaq, a Lebanese Christian does something which many of us Muslims should do more. By writing Sawt al-‘Adālat al-Insāniyyah (The Voice of Human Justice) as a biographical account of ‘Ali, Jordaq has tried to take his hero out of the cocoon of a particular religion, viz. Islam, and to bring him into the sphere of mankind as a whole.

And along this line, it is interesting to note that in its UNDP 2002 Arab Human Development Report distributed around the world and available online, the United Nations has advised Arab countries to take Jordaq’s hero as a model in nurturing work and knowledge as well as in establishing a government based on justice, thereby listing his six guiding principles about ideal governance (Arab Human Development Report 2002, pp. 82, 107, www.arab-hdr.org/publications/other/ahdr/ahdr2002e.pdf.).

Guide Questions

As our guide in this reflection, let me address these three questions: (1) Who instilled this justice in ‘Ali ibn Abī Tālib? (2) Did he establish justice only when he was the caliph, or even before that? (3) How did he institute justice during his less than five years of rule?

His Model in Instilling Justice
Baginda Ali, as he is known in ancient local Muslims’ Kissa, was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet of Islam. He was privileged to be nurtured by the caring and affectionate hands of the Prophet.

As ‘Ali himself narrates, “The Holy Prophet brought me up in his own arms and fed me with his own morsel. I followed him wherever he went like a baby-camel following its mother. Each day a new aspect of his character would beam out of his noble person and I would accept it and follow it as a command.” (Nahj al-Balaghah, Sermon 190)

Throughout the Prophetic mission, ‘Ali used to accompany Muhammad to help and protect him from his detractors. He used to write down the verses of the Qur’an and discuss them with the Prophet as soon as they were revealed by Archangel Gabriel.

As expressed by Edward Gibbon, “From the first hour of his mission to the last rites of his funeral, the apostle was never forsaken by a generous friend, whom he delighted to name his brother, his vicegerent, and the faithful Aaron of a second Moses” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1911), vol. 5, pp. 381-382).

These thirty-three years of companionship were accounted for ‘Ali’s imbibing of his master’s knowledge, self-sacrifice, forbearance, bravery, kindness, generosity, eloquence, and justice.

As such, there must have been always a good teacher for a good student. He would watch how the Prophet would instil economic justice by giving women the right to sustenance, to inherit and to her dowry. He would watch how the Prophet would institute political justice by formulating the Madīnah Constitution which had provided for the rights of citizenship to the Muslims, Christians and Jews of Madīnah. He would watch how the Prophet would implement religious justice by providing rights of worship to all citizens of the city-state.

And speaking of justice, it was a supreme human value which ‘Ali ibn Abī Tālib upheld throughout his lifetime irrespective of the price he had to pay for it.

Justice Prior to His Caliphate
Now, the question is: did he establish justice only when he was the caliph, or even before that? In other words, from 11 AH when the Prophet passed away up to 36 AH when he was unanimously installed in the office of caliphate, did he remain quiet, seeing injustices for 25 years? Expectedly, the answer is a resounding ‘No’. In fact, whenever he saw injustice he would speak out in a reasonable way. He knew when to speak and how to speak. As Plato said, “A wise man has something to say whereas the fool has to say something.” In the words of no less than Hadrat ‘Alī himself, “The wise is he who thinks first before he speaks, and the fool is he who speaks and then thinks.”

During the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb, ‘Alī would solve many intricate judicial cases and avert penalties based on wrong judgments. During the caliphate of ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān, ‘Ali would warn the caliph of Marwan ibn al-Hakam’s evil advices. He would implement the punishment for the then governor of Kūfah, Walīd ibn ‘Uqbah, for being drunk while leading the salāt al-fajr or the dawn prayer. When ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān was besieged, he would ask his sons Hasan and Husayn to provide the caliph some water.

Justice during His Caliphate
Since the people unanimously paid allegiance to him in assuming the office of the caliphate, the Commander of the Faithful did not delay a single moment in removing the officials whom he viewed as impious and unjust, to the chagrin of well-wishers who recommended him to retain them temporarily while consolidating his position.

When some pioneering Muslims took issue with him as to why their share from the public treasury is equal to that of the others and not more, the Caliph said that equality was part of the Sunnah of the Messenger of God and that they were not different from the others in this regard (Nahj al-Balāghah, Sermon 205).

During his caliphate, his cousin Ibn al-‘Abbas once came to him while ‘Ali was mending his old shoes with his own hands. Turning to Ibn al-‘Abbas, the caliph asked, “How much do you think is this shoe worth?” “Nothing,” replied his cousin. ‘Ali said, “But the same shoe is of more worth to me than authority over you if it were not to me a means for establishing justice, recovering the rights of the deprived, and wiping out evil practices” (Ibid., Sermon 33).

In the famous epistle to his appointed governor of Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar, which shows an amazing sensitivity to justice and compassion toward the people, he writes: “Never, never act with them like a predatory beast which seeks to be satiated by devouring them, for the people fall into two categories: they are either your brethren in faith or your brethren in creation… Do not ever say, ‘I have been given authority’ or ‘My command should be obeyed’ because it corrupts the heart, consumes one’s faith, and invites calamities’” (Ibid., Letter 53).

When the Caliph saw his soldiers using foul language against those of Mu‘awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan in the Battle of Siffin, he dissuaded them from such unethical act—even though it was against an enemy and at the time of war—telling them: “Instead of abusing him you should say, ‘O God! Save our blood and their blood, bring about reconciliation between us, and lead them, who have strayed, to the right path’” (Ibid., Sermon 206).

During the same battle, ‘Ali regained control of the water after Mu‘awiyah shut it off to him and his army. But he did not retaliate in kind; he did not hinder Mu‘awiyah’s troops from using the water.

When Caliph ‘Ali heard the news of an army of Mu‘awiyah’s incursion into a city under his jurisdiction and robbed a Jewish woman of her anklet, he exclaimed, “Even if one died of grief because of this incident, this would not be an overreaction” (Ibid., Sermon 27).

How about if an innocent subject under the jurisdiction of a ruler was brutally murdered in public, or worse, beheaded, as in countless cases nowadays? Can we detect any vestige of authentic grief from our leaders? One may ask.

Under the pressure of the Kharijites, the caliph submitted to arbitration, but when they found out the deception of the enemy, they demanded that the caliph annul the pact. But he did not agree to violate the pact, even though doing so was to his advantage.

On the deathbed of his martyrdom, he asked his relatives not to let his killing pave the way for a widespread bloodbath, saying: “O sons of ‘Abd al-Muttalib, certainly I do not wish to see you plunging harshly into the blood of Muslims, shouting, ‘The Commander of the Faithful has been killed’” (Ibid., Letter 47).

Dr. Wildred Madelung, Professor of Arabic at Oxford University, tries to capture some of these aspects of ‘Ali’s personality when he writes: “In face of the fake Umayyad claim to legitimate sovereignty in Islam as God’s Vicegerents on earth, and in view of Umayyad treachery, arbitrary and divisive government, and vindictive retribution, they came to appreciate his honesty, his unbending devotion to the reign of Islam, his deep personal loyalties, his equal treatment of all his supporters, and his generosity in forgiving his defeated enemies” (The succession to Muhammad: a study of the early caliphate (1997), pp. 309-310).

Finally, at the age of 63, ‘Ali was murdered, after barely five years of rule, on Ramadan 21, 40 AH (January 29, 661 CE) by Ibn Muljim – an epitome of religious fanaticism – who mortally wounded him with a poisoned sword in the mosque of Kufah (in Iraq) during the morning prayer on 19th Ramadan.

Thus, that fateful day of fasting was the day when “the voice of human justice,” as aptly described by George Jordac, was silenced forever.

In the words of Robert D. Osborn, “With him perished the truest hearted and best Moslem of whom Mohammadan [sic] history had preserved the remembrance” (Islam under the Arabs, 1876, p. 120).


In conclusion, let me say that much still can be said but words cannot surely give justice to the justice of ‘Ali.

Now, fourteen centuries after the conviction to death of that personage, for the de facto local Muslim leaders to study his life and conduct and thereafter emulate him as much as they can is certainly a positive step toward good governance and wholesome leadership.

Ladies and gentlemen, this was the account of a convicted criminal in history – a criminal who was convicted for committing the heinous crime of justice, and his name is ‘Ali ibn Abi Tālib.

Thank you so much!

(Excerpt from Mansoor Limba, MY TEHRAN DIARY, https://www.elzistyle.com/product/my-tehran-diary.)

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