Shafaqna – Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī
Chapter 8: Why did Imam ʿAlī remain silent for 25 years?
The validity of the aḥādīth confirming ʿAlī as the Caliph and the Imam is beyond question. But the question remains: Why did ʿAlī, the rightful successor to the Prophet, remain silent after the latter’s death and made no effort to press his rights? Why did he not awaken society from its slumber? The answer is that Imam ʿAlī never hesitated to press for his rights and always reminded people of the rightful place of the Prophet’s Household as successors, but he never attempted to take back his rights by force. We will consider the historical reports about this in the following paragraphs.
How the Imam pressed for his rights in different situations
When the Commander of the Faithful, ʿAlī, was informed of the strife between the Emigrants and the Helpers in Saqīfa, and also of their bragging about themselves, he asked: ‘What was the Helper’s argument?’ They answered: ‘Since, we have sheltered the Prophet, one leader shall be chosen from the Helpers and one from the Emigrants.’ the Imam said: ‘if the leader were supposed to be chosen from the Helpers, why did the Prophet then urge us to be kind to those Helpers who were righteous and upright and merciful towards those of them who were sinful?’ A man asked the Imam: ‘How does this statement indicate that leadership does not belong to the Helpers?’ He responded: ‘If leadership were their due, there would be no need to advise us to treat them kindly, since those in power do not need kindness.’ Then, the Imam asked: ‘What was Quraysh’s argument?’ They reported that the Quraysh members said that they were the Prophet’s tribe. the Imam commented: ‘They took the tree and left the fruit’ (Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon 67). Sharīf al-Raḍī quotes Imam ʿAlī in Nahj al-Balāgha as composing the following lines of poetry as a reaction to the Quraysh’s stance:
- You say you have seized power through a council,
- But the council members were all absent.
- And if you have resorted to kinship and won power,
- Then, there are others closer to the Prophet that you are. (Aphorism 190)
Sometime after Saqīfa, they brought ʿAlī to the Mosque forcefully to make him pledge allegiance, but he resisted their demand and said: ‘I am more entitled to the Caliphate than you. The right thing to do is for you to take an oath of loyalty to me. You snatched the power and caliphate from the hands of the Helpers by claiming to be the relatives of the Prophet but now you are depriving his family from their right to caliphate!’
- Surprisingly, in that gathering it was ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb who demanded that ʿAlī pledge allegiance and said: ‘I will not let go of you until you give the oath.’ However the Imam, who by means of divine knowledge knew about this man’s future, revealed ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb’s true motive behind his insistence through a proverb: ‘You only milk a cow if at least half of it is going to be yours!’
- Abū ʿUbayda al-Jarrāḥ employed a more moderate tone. He turned to ʿAlī and said: ‘Cousin! You are young, but they are the elders of this community; you are not as experienced as they. That is why I deem Abū Bakr as the fittest for assuming authority over Muslims. Let him be Caliph! In the future, if you are alive, you will be more worthy and qualified than anyone else, since no one doubts your wisdom, virtue, eminence, and your kinship to the Prophet.’ In response to Abū ʿUbayda, the Imam said: ‘The successor of the Prophet must have all the qualities that you have just mentioned, but the Caliph chosen at Saqīfa lacks them:
- Knowledge of the Qur’an
- Knowledge of religious laws
- Good awareness of the Prophet’s tradition (Sunna)
- Good awareness of social affairs and matters
- Eagerness to eradicate corruption and wrong-doings from society
- Fair distribution of public wealth
I do not see these qualities in the present Caliph to take an oath to him; I see them rather in myself’ (al-Imama wa al-Siyāsa, 1/11-12).
Amr b. Wathila says: ‘I was eavesdropping outside the house in which the Council of Six was formed, when I heard ʿAlī saying: “I will provide you with an argument so compelling that neither the Arabs nor non-Arabs can refute it.” Then he said, “Is there anyone among you who believed in Islam earlier than me?” All of them said: “No!” ʿAlī continued, “Is there anyone among you about whom the Prophet said something like this: And whoever I am the master of, then ʿAlī is his master. O God! Love those who love him, and be an enemy to those who are enemies to him.’?” Again, they all answered, “No”’ (al-Ṣawāʿiq, 75(
In the year 35/656, Imam ʿAlī accepted the position of Caliph as a religious duty. On that day, the Imam said, in the presence of the Prophet’s Companions: ‘who amongst you has heard this sentence at Ghadīr Khumm: “And whoever I am the master of, then ʿAlī is his master. O God! Love those who love him, and be an enemy to those who are enemies to him”?’ Some, including Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī, Sahl b. Hanīf, Khuzayma b. Thābit, ʿAbd Allāh b. Thābit al-Anṣārī, stood up and said: ‘We heard what has just been said’ (Usud al-Ghāba, 3/307 and 5/205).
- the Imam’s reasoning and arguments regarding his legitimacy are not restricted to the instances just mentioned, rather he would break his silence and proclaim the truth on many occasions.
- After Prophet’s death, both his daughter Fāṭima, her sons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, and even ʿAbd Allāh b. Jaʿfar, and ʿAmmār b. Yāsir confirmed ʿAlī’s rightfulness on the basis of what had transpired at Ghadīr. It is interesting to note that when the relation between Muʿāwiya and ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀs went sour, the latter uttered in an ode extolling many of ʿAlī’s noble characteristics and pointed to his appointment by the Prophet as his successor at Ghadīr Khumm (See al-Ghadīr, 2/159 onwards). In reality, those who form friendships and alliances based on material interests, at times of disagreement, find their ties of friendship and their unity shattered. Accordingly, Amr b. al-ʿĀs in his ode reveals this to be a reality. Therefore, the arguments he deployed (for ʿAlī’s rightfulness) are indicative of the fact that ʿAlī and his descendants never gave up trying to protect the rights of the people and guide them to the right path.
Why did Imam ʿAlī not resort to force?
The second question we might ask is why Imam ʿAlī did not use force to press his rights? He has answered this question himself as follows: because at that time using force would have harmed the Muslim nation and would have resulted in the collapse of the state. The main threat presented by the use of force was that disaffected elements, namely the hypocrites (munāfiqūn), who had been waiting for a chance to start a rebellion and cause disorder and chaos in Muslim lands, would seize the opportunity to advance their own interests. On the other side, the Arabs living far from Medina had already started to revolt, and this posed a genuine threat to the stability of the nation. Moreover, the Prophet had warned against the risk of employing power at such times. In the same vein, we can read in one of Imam ʿAlī’s sermons:
O People! Steer clear through the waves of mischief by boats of deliverance, turn away from the path of dissension and put off the crowns of pride. Prosperous is one who rises with wings (i.e. when he has power) or else he remains peaceful and others enjoy ease. It (i.e. the aspiration for Caliphate) is like turbid water or like a morsel that would suffocate the person who swallows it. One who plucks fruits before ripening is like one who cultivated in another’s field.
If I speak out they would call me greedy towards power but if I keep quiet they would say I was afraid of death. It is a pity that after all the ups and downs (I have been through). By Allāh, the son of Abu Tālib is more familiar with death than an infant with the breast of its mother. I have hidden knowledge, if I disclose it you will start trembling like ropes in deep wells. (Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon no. 5).
The concluding sentence of the sermon indicates that the Imam, whether through divine guidance or the Prophet’s instructions, was aware that using force at that time would have a disastrous effect on Islamic society.
In a letter written towards the end of his caliphate, Imam ʿAlī sheds more light on the issue:
By Allāh, it never occurred to me, and I never imagined, that after the Prophet the Arabs would snatch away the caliphate from his Household nor that they would take it away from me after him, but I suddenly noticed people surrounding the man to swear him allegiance.
I therefore withheld my hand till I saw that many people were reverting from Islam and trying to destroy the religion of Muhammad (may Allāh bless him and his descendants). I then feared that if I did not protect Islam and its people and there occurred in it a breach or destruction, it would mean a greater blow to me than the loss of power over you which was, in any case, to last for a few days of which everything would pass away as the mirage passes away, or as the cloud scuds away. Therefore, in these happenings I rose till wrong was destroyed and disappeared, and religion attained peace and safety. (Nahj al-Balāgha, letter no. 62)
Abū al-Ḥasan Madāʾinī quotes ʿAbd Allāh b. Junayd as saying: ‘I was performing the rites of ʿUmra when I entered Medina and walked toward the Prophet’s Mosque. Suddenly, I heard the call of Friday Prayer, which caused people to gather. Then, ʿAlī entered carrying his sword. His entry having caught people’s attention, he started to speak. He began by praising God and blessing the Prophet: ‘After the death of the Prophet, we are his descendants, heirs, and close friends; no one can stand equal to us on this ground. And no one can dare to usurp our right. But suddenly, people started to stand against us; they took Prophet’s authority from us, so others took it… I swear to God that if it were not due to my fear of dissension and discord among the Muslims, and also the fear of the return of disbelief to this nation and the debilitation of religion. If it were not because of these, we would have acted otherwise, and those who in doing good to people do not hesitate would have been in the position of power as rulers’ (quoted in Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd, 1/307).
Ibn Isḥāq in his biography has quoted Zubayr b. Bakkār as saying: ‘When people swore the pledge of allegiance to Abū Bakr, the Banū Taym tribe took pride and satisfaction from this pledge, but the majority of the Emigrants and the Helpers were quite certain that after the Prophet it was ʿAlī who was entitled to the caliphate. A number notable persons from the Banū Hāshim composed poems criticizing the selection of the new Caliph. However, when ʿAlī was told about these poems he asked them to desist, and added, ‘the stability and security of religion is the most pleasing for us.’ (Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha 6/21; Biḥār al-Anvar 28: 353 )
This shows that the Imam avoided undertaking or endorsing any divisive actions in order to preserve the outward unity and order of the Muslim nation. During this time, the Imam was aware that a group of neighbouring Arabs were on the brink of quitting the faith and that the hypocrites in Medina were waiting for a chance to strike and revive pre-Islamic values. But in spite this, the Imam could not do act alone. He had no choice but to cooperate with the Caliphs, so long as this cooperation brought an advantage for Islam. So he guided the Caliphs in solving thorny issues and also met with delegations coming to Medina; he taught the laws and teachings of the Qur’an to both Emigrants and Helpers, and to their sons as well. In any case, ʿAlī spent twenty five years in this way, until the year 35/656, when ʿUthmān was killed before the eyes of the Emigrants and the Helpers as a result of the distortions he had made in the religion. the Imam had informed the second Caliph of such an ominous fate beforehand.
Accepting the offer of caliphate after twenty five years
the Imam, after twenty five years of exclusion from power, on the Helpers’ and Emigrants’ insistence, reluctantly accepted the offer of the Caliphate. It was a choice that would take its toll on him. Muḥammad b. Ḥanīfa reports: ‘I was with my father when ʿUthmān was killed. The Companions of the Prophet came to ʿAlī’s house and called out altogether: “The man is slain. The people need a leader. And there is no one is better than you; there is none more experienced or learned in Islam than you, and you are the closest to the Prophet.” the Imam demurred and said: “I am better as your advisor than your ruler.” However, they replied: “By God, we will not leave until we pledge allegiance to you.” Seeing that their minds were made up, the Imam stated: “The pledge should be given openly at a mosque and with the consensus of the Muslims.”’
ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbbās reports: ‘I was so afraid that in the mosque some would turn against ʿAlī and defy him but he would not accept anything but taking the oath at the mosque. In the mosque, when ʿAlī came in, both the Helpers and the Emigrants took the oath to him, then the rest of the people followed them and did the same thing.’ (Ṭabarī, 3/450).
There is another account in Ṭabarī that describes the same events: ‘People surrounded ʿAlī and told him: “We will pledge allegiance to you. Do you not see what they have done to Islam?” ʿAlī replied: “Leave me and go to another person for we are moving towards a future uncertain. Time is pregnant with incidents which would terrorize the hearts and paralyze the minds.” They responded: “By God! Are you not in agreement with us, do you not see the present state of Islam, and the ongoing sedition? Do you not fear God?”
the Imam said: “I have given you my opinion. So beware! For if I accept the Caliphate, I will act based on my knowledge and learning; and if you leave me now, I would continue my life just like you, and would be obedient to the future Caliph’’ (Ṭabarī, 3/456).
That was Ṭabarī’s description of the event. Imam ʿAlī, however, describes people’s rush to his house in the following manner:
‘They leapt upon me as the camels leap upon each other on their arrival for drinking water, having been let loose after unfastening of their four legs till I thought they would either kill me or kill one another in front of me.’
(Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon 54).
In another sermon, he relates:
‘At that moment, nothing took me by surprise, but the crowd of people rushing to me. It advanced towards me from every side like the mane of the hyena so much so that Ḥasan and Ḥusayn were getting crushed and both the ends of my shoulder garment were torn. They collected around me like a herd of sheep and goats.’ (Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon 3)
Investigating the history of the election and the pledge of allegiance makes clear that such a large and harmonious mass movement, which faced such minor opposition at the time, was unprecedented. The opponents and disputants who emerged were those who used to benefit from the previous Caliph, for example, Zayd b. Thābit, ʿUthmān’s treasurer, to whom Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī said: ‘The reason behind you being against taking the oath of loyalty to ʿAlī is that you were given substantial amounts of gold and silver by the previous Caliph.’
Totally assured and certain, the Imam started a series of fundamental structural reforms in order to eliminate the causes of peoples’ sufferings. Unfortunately, however, according to the Imam himself, there were three groups who did resist against these reformations:
When I took up the reins of government one party broke away and another turned disobedient while the rest began acting wrongfully… Behold! By Him who split the grain and created living beings! If people had not come to me and supporters had not exhausted the argument and if there had been no pledge of Allāh with the learned to the effect that they should not acquiesce in the gluttony of the oppressor and the hunger of the oppressed I would have cast the rope of Caliphate on its own shoulders, and would have given the last one the same treatment as to the first one. Then you would have seen that in my view this world of yours is no better than the sneezing of a goat. (Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon 3)