‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.): The Father of Sufism

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is a selection of the wisdom of ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.) on various topics.  The roots of Sufism lie embedded in Islam itself.  There are numerous passages in the Holy Qur'an which are of a mystical character.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) himself displayed mystical inclinations and he very often retired to the cave known as Hirah for the purpose of devotions, meditation and contemplation.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) was the recipient of two types of Revelations, one Embodied the Holy Qur’an, and the other Illuminated his heart.  The former was meant for all, the latter for those selected few whose hearts could be Illuminated with the Divine Light.  The knowledge of the Prophet (s.a.w.) was thus both book knowledge, ‘ilm asw-swafinah, and heart knowledge, ‘ilm as-sina.  ‘Ali (k.w.) received his heart knowledge from the Prophet (s.a.w.).  It is related that after the Ascension, the Prophet (s.a.w.) awarded a mantle to ‘Ali (k.w.) which led to the illumination of his heart.

‘Ali (k.w.) enjoined the severance of the heart from all things save Allah (s.w.t.).  ‘Ali (k.w.) was asked what was the purest thing that could be acquired, and he said, “It is that which belongs to a heart Made Rich by Allah.”  When ‘Ali (k.w.) was asked about gnosis, he said, “I know Allah by Allah, and I know that which is not by Allah by the Light of Allah.”  When asked whether he had seen Allah (s.w.t.), he said that verily he had seen Allah (s.w.t.) for he could not worship Him unless he knew Him.

Abu Darda’ (r.a.), an eminent companion of the Prophet (s.a.w.), said, “None in this world has excelled ‘Ali in prayer.”

While praying, so great was the intensity of his emotions that he would fall into a swoon.  It is related that on one occasion, Abu Darda’ (r.a.) found ‘Ali (k.w.) lying rigid on the prayer mat, and touching his cold body thought that ‘Ali (k.w.) had breathed his last.  When he broke this news to Fathimah (r.a.), she said that ‘Ali (k.w.) often became unconscious while praying.  Abu Darda’ (r.a.) wept profusely, and then sprinkled some water on ‘Ali’s (k.w.) face and he regained consciousness.  Seeing tears in the eyes of Abu Darda’ (r.a.), ‘Ali (k.w.) asked, “Why are you crying?  You shed tears when you see me in this state.  Imagine what will happen to me when the angels drag me into the Presence of Allah, and I am forced to render an account of my deeds.  They will blind me with fetters of iron, and present me before Allah, and those of my friends who will happen to be witnesses will be powerless to help me.  They will lament my unhappy plight, but none save Allah will be able to help me on that day.”

Very often, ‘Ali (k.w.) would sob all night in his prayers to Allah (s.w.t.), and Allah (s.w.t.) would Reward him with a Glimpse of Inner Vision.  According to ‘Ali (k.w.), “The highest purpose of knowledge is the awakening of latent spiritual faculties whereby one is enabled to discover his true and inner self.  It is to this inner self that Allah (s.w.t.) Reveals Himself when the Self disappears in the Vision of the All Absorbing Reality.”

‘Ali (k.w.) often observed that man could have the joy and wonder of communion with Allah (s.w.t.) if one abandoned pride, disciplined the flesh, overcame lust and submitted to the Will of Allah (s.w.t.).  He exhorted people in his various sermons to not indulge in gross licentiousness which had characterised Arab society in the Days of Ignorance but should instead live in piety and simplicity as enjoined by Islam.  ‘Ali (k.w.) said, “Man is a wave in the boundless Ocean of Allah.  As long as man’s vision is clouded by ignorance and sensuality he will consider himself to be a separate entity, different from Allah.  But when the Veil between him and Allah is Lifted, he will then know what he really is.  The wave will then merge with the Ocean.”

‘Ali (k.w.) held that enlightenment is needed so that one can first get to know himself.  Only then would one get to know Allah (s.w.t.).  ‘Ali (k.w.) held that to this end religious exercises must be practised.  The Sufism for which ‘Ali (k.w.) stood, derived its strength from the shari’ah.  ‘Ali (k.w.) preached that any form of knowledge which failed to show the Infinite Reality in man was useless, because it could not fill that vacuum in which the aching soul in every individual was so pathetically conscious.

‘Ali (k.w.) wanted men to be virtuous as virtues purify the soul, and it is only the purified soul that can be the recipient of spiritual enlightenment.  This is the doctrine of inner light which was the enunciated by ‘Ali (k.w.) as the core of Sufi thought.  Accordingly, ‘Ali (k.w.) is acknowledged as the Father of Sufism and the Prince of Awliya’.

‘Ali (k.w.) also enunciated the doctrine of preference.  He stood for and preferred the claims of others to his own claims.  He gave an outstanding demonstration of this doctrine when he slept on the bed of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) on the night of the Holy Prophet's (s.a.w.) migration from Makkah, when the infidels were seeking to slay him.  ‘Ali (k.w.) risked his life for the sake of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.), because of the preference that ‘Ali (k.w.) gave to the life of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) over his own life.

After the death of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.), ‘Ali (k.w.) was considered amongst the more deserving persons to be elected as the caliph.  Yet, when his claims were overlooked and other persons were elected as caliphs, he offered them and allegiance in pursuance of the doctrine of preference.  It was this spirit of preference that motivated ‘Ali (k.w.) to plunge in the thick of battle to meet the challenge of the enemy regardless of his own personal safety.

It is related that after the Ascension, when the Prophet (s.a.w.) gave ‘Ali (k.w.) a mantle, he asked him how he would use the mantle.  ‘Ali (k.w.) said that he would use it to cover the faults of others.  The true Sufi way lies in covering the faults of others.

According to ‘Ali (k.w.), fasting was not a mere formality or a ritual; it was an exercise for the purification of the soul.  Because of his constant fasting, ‘Ali (k.w.) earned the epithets ‘Qa’im al-Layl,’ the one standing in prayer most of the night; and ‘Swa’im an-Nahar,’ the one fasting during the day.  ‘Ali (k.w.) held that hunger sharpens the intelligence and improves both the mind and health.

Hunger involves some affliction for the body, but it illumines the heart, purifies the soul, and leads the spirit to the presence of Allah (s.w.t.).  One who cultivates his spiritual nature by means of hunger in order to devote himself entirely to Allah (s.w.t.) and detach himself from worldly ties, is at a much higher level than the person who cultivates his body by means of gluttony and lust.

‘Ali (k.w.) acted on the advice of the Prophet (s.a.w.), “Fast so that perchance your hearts may seek Allah in this world.”  And indeed, because of his fasting and other spiritual exercises, ‘Ali (k.w.) did see Allah (s.w.t.) in this world.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) had enjoined, “When you fast, let your ear, your eye, your tongue, your hand, and your every limb fast.”  ‘Ali (k.w.) followed this advice to the letter as well in spirit.  Through the discipline of fasting, ‘Ali (k.w.) was able to subordinate the physical senses to spiritual requirements in such a way that they could respond only to what was pure and became dead to what was impure.  ‘Ali (k.w.), thus, led a purified life.

‘Ali (k.w.) held that jihad is the gateway to Paradise.  He said, “Allah has Opened this gate for His friends.  It is the mantle of piety.  It is the shield of faith.  He who avoids it, Allah Subjects him to disgrace.”

‘Ali (k.w.) held that jihad did not lie in merely taking up arms in the Cause of Allah (s.w.t.); it means incessant struggle against falsehood it all spheres of life.  Jihad is the main pillar on which Islam rests.

The first stage in the path of Sufism is repentance.  Repentance is described as the awakening of the soul from the slumber of heedlessness so that the sinner becomes aware of his evil ways and feels contrition for past disobedience.  ‘Ali (k.w.) repeatedly prayed for Allah’s (s.w.t.) Forgiveness.  His typical prayer was, “O Allah, Forgive me my sins of which You are more Aware than I.  And if I commit these sins again, even then Forgive me and whatever promises I have made with myself to follow Your Commands that have not been fullfilled.  I seek Your Forbearance.  If I have sought Your Proximity with my tongue, but my heart has not kept pace with my tongue, then Overlook my lapse.  O Allah, Forgive me for my futile talk, vain desires and lapses of tongue.”

‘Ali (k.w.) admonished that while living in the world, one should not renounce the world, still he should not have an undue attachment for it because detachment from the world, zuhd, is a means of attaining Allah (s.w.t.).  It is related that someone begged ‘Ali (k.w.) to give him a precept.  ‘Ali (k.w.) said, “Do not let your wives and children be a cause of concern for you, for if they be the friends of Allah, He will look after His friends, and if they are the enemies of Allah, why should you take care of Allah's enemies?”

In the mystic way, the traveller will meet many trials and tribulations.  Allah (s.w.t.) Subjects His lovers to severe testing, and only he will pass such tests who his patient.  ‘Ali (k.w.) was the personification patience, and for this he acquired the epithet of ‘Job, the Second.’  In the battle of Uhud, ‘Ali (k.w.) received as many as sixty-one wounds on his person so that his whole body looked like one massive wound to which the nurses were unable to dress.  Although ‘Ali (k.w.) was in mortal agony, he said, “May Allah Grant me the patience to bear this suffering.  Is it not a Favour of Allah that He Gave me the courage to stand and fight, and not to leave the field?”

‘Ali (k.w.) was the most learned man of the age.  He was a living encyclopaedia of knowledge.  The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) said, “If I am the City of Knowledge, verily ‘Ali is the Gate of it.”  He was the first person to have learned the Holy Qur’an by heart.  He possessed a prodigious memory and he was a keen observer; he was a deep thinker; he had an enlightened mind and he carried a vast storehouse of knowledge in his brain.  He was a versatile genius and he exhibited extraordinary talents in all disciplines of knowledge.  He was a master of philosophy and rhetoric.  He was a distinguished poet.  He was a great teacher and preacher.  His knowledge extended to such disciplines as logic, mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine and history.

‘Ali (k.w.) held that the principal aim of knowledge was the inculcation of virtue, promotion of faith, and understanding of Allah (s.w.t.).  He held that knowledge enlivens the soul, for it kills ignorance.  He defined knowledge as the sum total of excellence.  He held that the pursuit of knowledge is better than the pursuit of riches, that knowledge is the ornament of the rich and the riches of the poor and that knowledge is better than riches.  He held that the learned live even after their death.  He maintained that the learned were the living ones in the dead mass of ignorance.  He observed that to respect the learned was to respect Allah (s.w.t.).  With regards to the respect of the teacher, he held that one who teaches you a letter binds you with the fetter of gratitude.  He maintained that the talk of the learned man carried within it the fragrance of the garden of Paradise.


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