Imam Ali (AS), the Father of Sufism
The Holy Prophet and Sufism
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 holy Prophet of Islam p.b.u.h. himself displayed mystical inclinations and he very often retired to the cave known as Hirah for the purpose of devotions, meditation and contemplation. The holy Prophet 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 holy Prophet was thus both book knowledge (Ilm-i-Safina) and heart knowledge (Ilm-e-Sina). Hadrat Ali received his heart knowledge from the holy Prophet. It is related that after the Ascension, the holy Prophet awarded a mantle to Hadrat Ali which led to the illumination of his heart.
Gnosis of God
According to Hadrat Ali the base of religion is the gnosis of God. He held: “The height of gnosis is His confirmation. The height of confirmation is tawhid. The height of tawhid is the acknowledgement of the supremacy of God in all matters. He is beyond all attributes. No particular attribute can give an idea of His exact nature. He is not bound by anything; all things are bound by Him. He is Infinite, limitless, boundless, beyond time, beyond space, beyond imagination. Time does not affect Him. He existed when there was nothing. He will exist forever. His existence is not subject to the law of birth or death. He is manifest in everything, yet He is distinct from everything. He is not the cause of anything, yet everything is because of Him. He is unique and He has no partner. He is the Creator. He creates as well as destroys. All things are subject to His command. He orders something to be and it
is.” Hadrat Ali enjoined the severance of the heart from all things save God. Hadrat Ali 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 God.” When Hadrat Ali was asked about gnosis, he said, “I know God by God, and I know that which is not by God by the light of God.” When asked whether he had seen God, he said that verily he had seen God for he could not worship Him unless the knew Him.
Prayers to God
When Hadrat Ali used to pray, his hair would stand on end. He would tremble and say, “The hour has come to fulfill a trust which the heavens and the earth were unable to bear.” Abu Darda an eminent Companion of the holy Prophet 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 found Hadrat Ali lying rigid on the prayer mat, and touching his cold body thought that Ali had breathed his last. When he broke this news to Hadrat Fatima, she said that Hadrat Ali often became unconscious while praying. Abu Darda wept profusely, and then sprinkled some water on Hadrat Ali’s face and he regained consciousness. Seeing tears in the eyes of Abu Darda, Hadrat Ali said: “Why are you crying? You shed tears when you see me in this state. Imagine what will happen to me when the Angels dragged me into the presence of God, and I am forced to render an account of my deeds. They will blind me with fetters of iron, and present me before God, 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 God will be able to help me on that day.”
Communion with God
Very often, Hadrat Ali would sob all night in his prayers to God, and God would reward him with a glimpse of Inner Vision. According to Hadrat Ali, 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 God reveals Himself when
the self disappears in the vision of the “All Absorbing Reality.” Hadrat Ali often observed that man could have the joy and wonder of communion with God if one abandoned pride, disciplined the flash, overcame lust and submitted to the Will of God. He exhorted people in his various sermons to not indulge in gross licentiousness which had characterized Arab society in the “Days of Ignorance.” But should instead live in piety and simplicity as enjoined by Islam. Hadrat Ali
said, “Man is a wave in the boundless laceType w:st=”on”>SealaceType> of laceName w:st=”on”>GodlaceName>. As long as man’s vision is clouded by ignorance and sensuality he will consider himself to be a separate entity, different from God. But when the veil between him and God is lifted, he will then know what he really is. The wave will then merge with the ocean.” Hadrat Ali held that enlightenment is needed so that one can first get to know himself. Only then would he get to know God. Hadrat Ali held that to this end religious exercises must be practiced. The Sufism for which Hadrat Ali stood, derived its strength from the Shari’ah. Hadrat Ali 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. Hadrat Ali 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 Hadrat Ali as the core of Sufi thought. Accordingly,
Hadrat Ali is acknowledged as the “father of Sufism” and the prince of saints.
Doctrine of Preference
Hadrat Ali 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 on the night of the holy Prophet’s migration from Mecca, when the infidels were seeking to slay him. Hadrat Ali risked his life for the sake of the holy Prophet, because of the preference that Hadrat Ali gave to the life of the holy Prophet as compared with his own life. After the death of the holy Prophet, Hadrat Ali considered that he was the most deserving person 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 Hadrat Ali 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 holy Prophet gave Hadrat Ali a mantle, he asked him how he would use the mantle. Hadrat Ali 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 Hadrat Ali, fasting was not a mere formality or a ritual;
it was an exercise for the purification of the soul. Because of his
constant fasting, Hadrat Ali earned the epithets of “Qa’im-ul- Lait” (praying most of the night without sleep); and “Sa’im-ul- Nahar” (fasting mostly during the day). Hadrat Ali 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 God.
One who cultivates a his spiritual nature by means of hunger in order to devote himself entirely to God 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. Hadrat Ali acted on the advice of the holy Prophet, “Fast so that perchance your hearts may seek God in this world.” And indeed, because of his fasting and other spiritual exercises, Hadrat Ali did see God in this world. The holy Prophet had enjoined, “When you fast, let your ear, your eye, your tongue, your hand, and your every limb fast.” Hadrat Ali followed this advice to the letter as well in spirit. Through the discipline of fasting,
Hadrat Ali 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. Hadrat Ali thus led a purified life.
Hadrat Ali held: “Of the most meritorious acts of a believer, and one of the most acceptable things to God is Zakat. It behoves everyone to give charity, because from amongst the acts of worship, this is the most pleasing to God.” In his sermons, Hadrat Ali exhorted the people in the following terms: “O ye people, send a part of your wealth to God so that it may stand you in good stead in the next world. Do not leave your entire wealth here so that it will become a source of annoyance to you in the next
In the annals of Arabs, Hatim Tai enjoys fame for his munificence and generosity. Hadrat Ali outclassed Hatim in the matter of generosity.
Hadrat Ali was born in the Ka’bah. He had, therefore a strong emotional attachment for the Ka’bah. Hadrat Ali observed that the holy Ka’bah was located in a territory known for its stony wastes and wilderness and where no water was available. God had ordained the
Muslims to bear the hardships involved in a journey through such an inhospitable land cheerfully so that those very privations might ultimately become a source of salvation. The pilgrimage is symbolic of the fact that whatever hardship one bears in the trials of life and endeavors to fulfill the will of God, he acquires goodness and righteousness by them. The darkest thing in the world is the beloved’s house without the beloved. What is really important for a lover is the beloved and not the house of the beloved. According to Hadrat Ali the spirit of pilgrimage did not lie in a bare visit to the Ka’bah, it lay in developing the inner vision whereby one could see God, the Lord of the Ka’bah.
Hadrat Ali held that jihad is the gateway to Paradise. He said: “God has opened this gate for His friends. It is the mantle of piety. It is the shield of faith. He who avoids it, God subjects him to disgrace.”
Hadrat Ali held that jihad did not lie in merely taking up arms in the cause of God, 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. Hadrat Ali repeatedly prayed
for God’s forgiveness. His typical prayer was: “O God, forgive me my sins of which you are more aware than me. 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 fulfilled. 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 God, forgive me for my futile talk, vain desires and lapses of tongue.”
Hadrat Ali 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 God. It is related that someone begged Hadrat Ali to give him a precept. Hadrat Ali said: “Do not let your wives and children be a cause of concern for you, for if they be the friends of God, He will
look after His friends, and if they are the enemies of God, why should you take care of God’s enemies?”
In the mystic way, the traveller will meet many trials and
tribulations. God subjects His lovers to severe testing, and only he will pass such tests who his patient. Hadrat Ali was the personification patience, and for this he acquired the epithet of “Job, the Second.” In the battle of Uhud, Hadrat Ali received as many as 61 wounds on his person so that his whole body looked like one
massive wound to which the nurses were unable to dress. Although Hadrat Ali was in mortal agony, he said: “May God Grant me the patience to bear this suffering. Is it not a favour of God that He gave me the courage to stand and fight, and not to leave the field?”
About the patience of Hadrat Ali, Dr. Ata Mohyuddin writes as follows in his Ali, the Superman: “Ali used to say that at no time in his life
had he ever known peace and tranquility. From the time of infancy when he was taken into the home of the holy Prophet, Ali felt the ferment of turbulence and turmoil. The holy Prophet was constantly persecuted by the Meccan pagans. And from adolescence onwards, Ali was constantly fighting in jihad, and after the death of the holy
Prophet, he was embroiled against his wish, in the political intrigues of others. Even when elected Caliph, the implacable enemies of Islam arose and rebelled against him, yet he bore all these afflictions with patience, thanking God that he had acquitted himself well in the tests and trials to which the Almighty had thought fit to subject him.”
Hadrat Ali, The Gate of Knowledge
Hadrat Ali was the most learned man of the age. He was a living encyclopedia of knowledge. The holy Prophet 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.
His concept of Knowledge
Hadrat Ali held that the principal aim of knowledge was the
inculcation of virtue, promotion of faith, and understanding of God. 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 earned was to respect God. 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 laceType w:st=”on”>gardenlaceType> of laceName w:st=”on”>ParadiselaceName>.
Superiority of knowledge over wealth
It is related that once ten learned men approached Hadrat Ali. They wanted to know how knowledge was better than wealth and they requested that each one of them be given a separate answer. Hadrat Ali answered them as follows:
(1) Knowledge is the legacy of the Prophet, whereas wealth is the inheritance of the Pharaohs. As the prophets are superior to the Pharaohs, so knowledge is better than wealth.
(2) You have to guard your wealth, but knowledge will guard you. Therefore, knowledge is better than wealth.
(3) When knowledge is distributed it increases. When wealth is distributed it decreases. As such knowledge is better than wealth.
(4) A man of wealth has many enemies, while a man of knowledge has many friends. Therefore knowledge is better than wealth.
(5) A learned man because of his wider outlook is apt to be generous, while a rich man because of his love for money is apt to be miserly.
As such knowledge is better than wealth.
(6) Knowledge cannot be stolen, but wealth is constantly exposed to the danger of being stolen. Accordingly, knowledge is better than wealth.
(7) With the lapse of time, knowledge gains in depth and dimension. Hoarded coins get rusty or cease to be legal tender. Therefore knowledge is better than wealth.
(8) You can keep account of wealth because it is limited, but you cannot keep account of knowledge because it is boundless. That is why knowledge is better than wealth.
(9) Knowledge illuminates the mind, while wealth is apt to darken it.
Therefore knowledge is better than wealth.
(10) Knowledge is better than wealth, because knowledge induced the holy Prophet to say to God “We worship Thee as we are Thy servants,” while wealth engendered and Pharaoh and Nimrod caused the vanity that made them claim godhead.