Ali (ca. 600-661), the fourth caliph of the Arab and Islamic Empire, was the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed. The Shiite branch of Islam regards him and certain of his descendants as inspired rulers and the only true heirs of Mohammed.

Ali was the son of Abu Talib, Mohammed's uncle and for a time his guardian. Abu Talib also was chief of the clan of Hashim of the tribe of Quraysh in Mecca. When Abu Talib was in financial straits, Mohammed took Ali into his household. Ali was there when, about 610, Mohammed received the first revelation and the call to be a prophet. Ali is said by some to have been the first male Moslem, but he could only have been about 10 years old at the time. He joined in the Hijra, the migration to Medina in 622, and shortly afterward married Mohammed's daughter, Fatima, who bore him two sons, Hasan and Husein. After Fatima's death in 632, Ali took other wives. The best known of his other sons was Mohammed ibn-al-Hanafiyya (son of the woman of the tribe of Hanifa). Ali took part in most of the military expeditions sent out by Mohammed from Medina and is reputed to have shown great courage.

After a dispute with Abu Bakr over some lands which Fatima had claimed to have inherited from her father, Ali recognized the caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman and lived quietly in Medina. On one occasion he was left in charge of Medina when Omar was absent, and Omar also appointed him to the Council of Six to elect a successor. During the final insurrection against Othman in June 656, Ali remained openly neutral, though he is known to have been friendly with some of the insurgents.

On Othman's assassination Ali was elected caliph by the Moslems in Medina, but he was not recognized either by Muawiya, then governor of Syria, or by a Meccan group led by Aisha, Talha, and Zubayr. This latter group went to Iraq and raised a small army, which was defeated by Ali's troops at the Battle of the Camel near Basra in December 656.

Muawiya was more difficult to deal with. He and Ali with their armies confronted one another at Siffin in July 657, but after some skirmishes they agreed to an arbitration on the question of the caliphate. What happened next is obscure, but Ali refused to accept the decision of the two arbiters. He and Muawiya remained in a state of war, but there were no further hostilities, though Ali had to fight against dissidents among his own supporters known as the Harurites. While Muawiya brought Egypt and Syria under his control, Ali continued to rule Iraq, most of Arabia, and, at least nominally, the eastern provinces. On Jan. 24, 661, a man called Ibn-Muljam stabbed Ali with a poisoned sword to avenge some of the Harurites. Ali's son Hasan made a feeble effort to claim the caliphate, but he was easily defeated by Muawiya, who was then universally acknowledged as caliph.

Because of the mass of pious legends which have grown up around Ali, it is difficult to know what the real man was like. He seems to have been a devout Moslem but to have had no special gift for politics. Even moderate Shiites, however, claim that he was the most excellent of men after Mohammed and so was designated to succeed him. After his death and still more after the death of his son Husein, Ali's figure caught the popular imagination and a political party was formed around him and his descendants. This is the Shiite or Shia (that is, "the party") sect, which has several subdivisions. For the more moderate Shiites Ali is an inspired or charismatic leader, divinely preserved from sin and error, and his tomb at Nejef, Iraq, is a place of pilgrimage.

Although Shiite Moslems claim that Mohammed designated Ali as his successor, this is denied by Sunnite Moslems. Modern scholars have found no evidence that supports the Shiite claim.

Further Reading on Ali

The main events of Ali's reign are discussed in Julius Wellhausen, The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall (1902; trans. 1927). Erling Ladewig Petersen, Ali and Muawiya in Early Arabic Tradition (1964), is a study of the sources. The Shiite account of Ali is summarized by Dwight M. Donaldson in the opening chapters of The Shiite Religion: A History of Islam in Persia and Irak (1933).

Additional Biography Sources

Jurdaaq, Jaurj, The voice of human justice, Accra: Islamic Seminary, 1982.

Mohy-ud-Din, Atta, Ali, the superman, Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1980.

Nadvai, Abulohasan Alai, The life of Caliph Ali, Lucknow, India: Academy of Islamic Research & Publications, 1991.