Ali ibn Abi Talib and Sufism – Caner K. Dagli

I am the abode of knowledge, and ‘Ali is its gate. – The Prophet.

No figure in the early history of Islam, except the Prophet himself, has been the locus for so much controversy and debate as that of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. These controversies exist on more than one level, ranging from questions of politics and history to issues in theology and metaphysics. The intellectual breadth and spiritual depth of ‘Ali has inspired deep reverence on all parts of the Islamic world, both among the Shi’i’s and the Sunnis, and although most of the conflict between these two major branches of Islam hinges on ‘Ali, one side could never accuse the other of having inadequate love and respect for him. In this way, paradoxically, ‘Ali unites Muslims in their love for him, but his centrality in opposing viewpoints makes him a source of serious contention.

Moreover, we find within the Sunni world another debate with ‘Ali at its center, and this is the question of esoterism in Islam, whose major manifestation is Sufism. The Sufis recognize two types of authority, corresponding to two types of knowledge. In terms of political authority, the orthodox Sunni position is well known. Although the Prophet left no explicit instructions as to that would succeed him politically, most of the community agreed upon Ab Bakr as-Siddiq, the Prophets long time friend and a respected figure among the Companions, as the first Khalifah, or Caliph of Islam. He appointed Umar ibn al-Khattab, who himself appointed a council of six men who in turn elected Uthman ibn Affan. After Uthman’s assassination ‘Ali became the fourth Caliph.

No Sunni denies that, in terms of temporal authority, this was the proper course of events. In the Sunni world, although there existed no separation between church and state, the Caliph was only and administrator, and while he might have been prominent spiritually speaking this was not considered a requirement for the office of Caliph. The Caliphs authority was considered as having come from God, but in the Sunni world, especially after the first generation, it was the ulama, or scholarly classes, who would be responsible for the transmission of religious and spiritual knowledge and who would act as the final authorities on religious matters.

The sultans, the Caliphs, the jurists and the generality of the scholarly classes represent exoteric authority in Sunni Islam. The Sufis, however, recognize a chain of spiritual authority, which is more or less independent of the exoteric authority and in principle, takes precedence over it. We say independent not in the sense that Sufism is inherently antinomian; the opposite is true. But the judgment of a scholar of the Exterior (al-zahir) could never, for the Sufi, overrule the teachings of an authentic spiritual master, a scholar of the Interior, or the Hidden (al-batin). This is because the exterior, whose regulation is carried out by the Shariah, or Divine Law, exists as a support for the inner life, the interior, whose development is carried out by the tariqah, or spiritual path.

Differing interpretations of the meanings of spiritual and temporal authority have led to misunderstanding between the Shiah and Sunni as well as between certain elements within the Sunni world itself. The spiritual authority given to ‘Ali by the prophet is a reality accepted by both Sunni Sufis[1] and Shi’i’s, but they have differed as to its ramifications in the temporal realm. As the first Imam of Shi’ism, ‘Ali combines both types of authority into one person, and according to Shi’ism the proper order of things demands that the Imam should rule both spiritually and temporally. However, whereas in Shi’ism the esoteric aspect of Islam was projected into the community at large, so that the distinction between exoteric and esoteric becomes somewhat blurred, the Sufis have been content to practice their way within the framework established by exoteric authority. This is why they acknowledge ‘Ali as the main transmitter of the inner secrets (there were others, such as Abu Bakr) without there being a necessary contradiction with an exoteric authority not possessed of these secrets. In other words, the vertical hierarchy and the horizontal hierarchy need not mix. From the Sufi point of view, the most profound mysteries were not meant for everyone, and teaching them to the generality of believers would do much more harm than good, the clearer demarcation between the exoteric and the esoteric having the advantage of avoiding such dangers.

From what has just been said we can conclude that the best way to understand the conflict centered on ‘Ali is to see the `horizontal` disagreement between the Shi’i’s and the Sunnis as a sort of projection of the vertical distinction between esoterism and exoterism. This becomes clearer when one examines the profound similarities between Sufism and Shi’ism. The Imams of Twelver Shi’ism are also great spiritual masters in the Sufi chains of transmission, or silsilah.

If one leaves aside the Shari’ite and also cosmic functions of the Imam, his initiatory function and role as spiritual guide is similar to that of a Sufi master. In fact, just as in Sufism each master is in contact with the pole of his age, in Shi’ism all spiritual functions in every age are inwardly connected with the Imam. The idea of the Imam as the pole of the universe and the concept of the qutb in Sufism are nearly identical.[2]

The main difference, then, is how far the spiritual authorities must extend into the temporal realm. ‘Ali happened to combine these two aspects within himself to the highest degree, being both the main recipient of the Prophets inner teachings and the head of the Islamic state. Discussing the debate on succession would take us too far afield here, but it is important to remember that most profoundly the question is one of the esoteric/exoteric distinction, and not of political machinations and power struggles. No intelligent discussion of ‘Ali’s spiritual role is possible without understanding this point.[3]

* * *

‘Ali ibn Abi Talib was the son of the Prophets uncle, and was ten years old when the Prophet received his first revelation. From early adolescence he was raised in the Prophet’s household, due to financial trouble in his own fathers house, and remained close to the Prophet until the Prophets death some twenty-three years later. It was during this time, the Sufis claim, that the Prophet imparted the inner teachings of the new religion to ‘Ali. Although one could rightly say that all of the members of that original apostolic community in Makkah were saints, [4] there is not only the question of sanctity but also that of intellectual qualification. Not every metaphysician is a saint, and similarly not every saint is a great metaphysician. ‘Ali combined in himself the vertical perfection we call sanctity with a tremendous depth and breadth on the horizontal plane. Islamic tradition remembers ‘Ali as a great warrior of his age, never defeated in combat and always gracious to his foes. His virtue off the battlefield was similarly well known, and he has come to be known in the Muslim world as a sort of patron of the poor and a model of what the West would call chivalry, the Islamic futuwwah. Most importantly, he was known in his own time and up to our present day as having possessed a keen intelligence and profound wisdom, being a great teacher as well as extremely eloquent in his use of Arabic.[5] In the Shi’i world the distinction given to ‘Ali is well known.

Among the Sunnis, the Sufis consider him to be the main transmitter of the spiritual teachings of the Prophet, and all the Sufi orders except one trace their origins through him.[6] Also, one finds the curious exception made when his name is mentioned: for the other companions, the honorific rai Allahu anhu (may God be pleased with him) is customarily used, but in the case of ‘Ali one often hears the phrase karram Allahu wajhah, literally, may God honor his countenance. Later we will see how this formula relates to ‘Ali’s spiritual function in the Islamic world. All the descendants of the Prophet, revered in both the Sunni and Shi’i worlds, trace their lineage back to the marriage of ‘Ali with Fatimah, the Prophets daughter. Through ‘Ali passes the spiritual authority of the prophet, to him the physical trace of the Prophet in this world, his descendants, trace their lineage, and with him the Golden Age of Islam, the original Madinah, comes to an end.

Our main aim in this short essay is to look at the original sources in Sufism to see how the spiritual teachings of Islam are related to ‘Ali. We might say Islamic esoterism instead of simply Sufism because the Nahj al-Balaghah and a commentary of some of its passages by the Shi’i scholar Allamah Tabatabai were also used as sources. Without entering into the debate about the authenticity of the Nahj al-Balaghah, it is sufficient to mention that even from the Sunni point of view there is much in this book which comes from ‘Ali, and that the Shi’i-Sunni conflict has resulted in the unfortunate phenomenon of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Most Sunnis tend to doubt Shi’i reports about ‘Ali, out of concern for a certain pious exaggeration from the Shi’i side, and are surely cut off from many authentic traditions. Therefore we thought it appropriate to use some of the most important and well-known passages of the Nahj al-Balaghah as selected by Tabatabai, none of which beings what a Sunni might label as specifically Shi’i. In any event, as was stated above, it is in Sufism and the most esoteric aspects of Shi’ism that consensus can be reached about ‘Ali.

Unfortunately, there is little serious work in Western scholarship devoted to ‘Ali, aside from rather poor translations of Arabic sources and some books written in English of a polemical nature from India and Pakistan, but there is a wonderful translation of some excerpts from the Nahj al-Balaghah [7] translated by Thomas Cleary entitled Living and Dying with Grace. This dearth of material is a curious phenomenon, considering the importance of ‘Ali, and considering that volumes have been written about later political and historical figures in Islamic history. Between the Prophet and the luminaries of the later generations there exists a gap in modern scholarship. We hope to use some of the Traditions (ahadith) regarding ‘Ali, and from the later writings the Mathnawi of Rumi, to see what they can tell us about ‘Ali and Sufism.

Futuwwah-’Ali as the paragon of spiritual chivalry

The word futuwwah literally means youth but can be translated as mystical youth or spiritual chivalry.[8] We say spiritual chivalry because the traditional virtues of chivalry, such as courage and generosity, are not limited to the plane of action but must exist at the highest levels of ones being. According to Sufi tradition, it is with Seth that futuwwah became a spiritual path, and whose dress was the khirqah, or cape. By the time of Abraham, this khirqah had become too heavy, which may be a reference to the decaying nature of things and the impossibility of those of later times to match the spiritual practices of their predecessors. Therefore Abraham instituted a new kind of futuwwah, which was transmitted by him through his prophetic descendants. The Prophet himself received it, and transmitted it to ‘Ali, who then becomes identified as the pole of futuwwah.[9]

‘Ali himself was quite young as compared to the other luminaries of the apostolic age of Islam. This fact combined with his legendary fighting ability and his intelligence and virtue made him the fatal par excellence in Islam. When one reads of ‘Ali one can see his energy and his powerful virtue come through the pages. His counsels and his actions were of the nature of a striking sword and of a well-aimed arrow. When informed that ‘Ali had challenged him to single combat to end a battle, Muawiyah knew he would surely kill me since it was well known ‘Ali had never been defeated in combat. His later writings are a testament to his nobility and intelligence, and his ascetic detachment from the world and its luxuries earned him the title Abu Turab, or Father of Dust, given to him from the Prophet himself.[10]

In the Mathnawi of Rumi, we find a beautiful narration of an incident that took place between ‘Ali and an infidel knight which has been traditionally considered to have taken place at the Battle of Khaybar. ‘Ali had gotten the better of this warrior and was hovering over him about to kill him, whereupon the infidel knight spat upon the face of ‘Ali. Quite to the knights surprise, ‘Ali sheathed his sword, sparing his life.

Learn how to act sincerely from ‘Ali: know that the Lion of God was purged of (all) deceit. In fighting against the infidels he got the upper hand of (vanquished) a certain knight, and quickly drew a sword and made haste (to slay him). He spat on the face of ‘Ali, the pride of every prophet and every saint; He spat on the countenance before which the face of the moon bows low in the place of worship.

‘Ali at once threw his sword away and relaxed (his efforts) in fighting him. That champion was astounded by this act and by his showing forgiveness and mercy without occasion. He said, You lifted your keen sword against me: why have you flung it aside and spared me? What did you see that was better than combat with me, so that you have become slack in hunting me down?[11]

As this passage continues, the knight implores ‘Ali to tell him what he has seen, to give the mysterious reason for his pardon. The knight has already undergone a spiritual transformation sparked by ‘Ali’s strange action, and now seeks to understand how Gods mercy has come upon him:

O ‘Ali, thou art all mind and eye, relate a little of that which thou hast seen!

The sword of thy forbearance has rent my soul, the water of thy knowledge has purified my earth.

Tell it forth! I know that these are His (Gods) mysteries, because tis His work (way) to kill without sword

Thine eye has learned to perceive the Unseen, (while) the eyes of the bystanders are sealed

Inasmuch as the moon (even) without speech is showing the way, when it speaks it becomes light upon light.

Since thou art the gate of the city of Knowledge,[12] since thou art the beam of the sun of Clemency,

Be open, O Gate, to him that seeks the gate, so that by means of thee the husks may reach the core.

We should notice first that Rumi wrote that he spit on the face of ‘Ali. As was stated before, Islamic tradition gives ‘Ali the distinction of the special honorific karram Allahu wajhah. The face the knight spat on would be the same countenance the very sight of which would have a transformative power over his soul.[13] Here we may equate ‘Ali’s face with the moon, and the light upon light as the reflected rays of the sun.

The dark night of the soul covered over (kafir) is illumined by the light coming from the moon, but the moon gives off light precisely because it is not in the dark of night, but is in the presence of the solar rays, the rays of the Divine Intellect, which it reflects to those who have not yet achieved vision of the Divine sun. The knight admits as much, when he speaks of the moon showing the way without speech. The unexpected sparing of his life opened the inner eye just enough so that he could see the moon of ‘Ali’s face shining upon him, inciting him to ask ‘Ali what he had seen, just as one who has seen the moon but not the sun would wonder what the source of that magnificent light could be.[14] For the knight, ‘Ali is Gods light in this world, a saint who God made a light among men.[15] We might also remember here the verse about Moses.

Moses said to his household: Verily beyond doubt I have seen a fire. I will bring you tidings of it or will bring you a flaming brand that ye may warm yourselves. [16]

From a state of infidelity (kufr), the knight in fact becomes a spiritual seeker, which Rumi represents with the series of question, What have you seen? Tell it forth! Here Rumi brings out ‘Ali’s role as the first great master in Islam after the prophet.

If the knight represents the beginning of the path, then ‘Ali represents the end of it:

He said, I am wielding the sword for Gods sake, I am the servant of God, I am not under the command of my body.

I am the lion of God, I am not the lion of passion: my deed bears witness to my religion.

In war I am (manifesting the truth of) thou didst not throw when thou threwest: I am (but) as a sword and the wielder is the (Divine) sun. I am a shadow, the sun is my lord, I am the chamberlain, I am not the curtain (which prevents approach) to Him

The sword of my forbearance has smitten the neck of my anger; the anger of God has come on me like mercy.

I am plunged in light although my roof is ruined; I have become a garden although I am (styled) Abu Turab (the father of dust).

Since (the thought of something) other than God has intervened, it behooves (me) to sheathe my sword

And that which I am doing for Gods sake is not (done in) conformity, it is not fancy and opinion, it is naught but intuition.

I have been freed from effort and search, I have tied my sleeve to the skirt of God.

If I am flying, I behold the place to which I soar; and if I am circling, I behold the axis on which I revolve;

And if I am dragging a burden, I know whither: I am the moon, and the sun is in front of me as a guide.[17]

For the saint, all activity is according to the will of God and for the sake of God. The higher self, the lion of God, dominates the lower self, the lion of passion. ‘Ali is shown here as having completely given up his own will to the Will of God. This is faqr, or the spiritual poverty the Sufis speak of. But poverty in relation to this world and ourselves is plenitude in relation to Heaven and the next world,[18] as we see in the line about the garden and Abu Turab. When the knight spit on the face of ‘Ali, the conflict was brought down to the personal level, a level beneath the dignity of ‘Ali. It seems that Rumi does not interpret this incident as revealing some sort of fault in ‘Ali which he then moved to correct by withdrawing his sword. Rather, as a result of intuition, not fancy, he knew at that very moment what to do. We can see here an illustration of how a spiritual master acts in a way, which befuddles the disciple into moving farther along the path. He says to the knight:

Since I am free, how should anger bind me? Nothing is here but Divine quality. Come in!

Come in, the grace of God has made thee free, because His mercy has the precedence over His wrath.

Come in now, for thou hast escaped from the peril; thou wert a (common) stone, the Elixir hath made thee a jewel.[19]

The last line is reminiscent of the spiritual alchemy, which the master helps the disciple perform. Through his action and not through explicit instruction, ‘Ali helps to bring the seeker to the truth.

On the surface this passage from the Mathnawi is a prime example of futuwwah, of chivalric mercy and generosity on the battlefield. The brave warrior will claim no glory for himself; he fights only for his Lord. Any deed performed only with personal ambition in mind will yield no real fruit. But at a more profound level, it is the story of ‘Ali as master and the knight as disciple. As a result of the intuition upon which the perfect sage acts,[20] he took action to guide one to the truth. From this point of view, ‘Ali did not withdraw his sword so that he may save himself from acting in anger and not for God, but to save the knight from believing that he was dying for this reason. He saves the knights life, and his soul.


In concluding our examples drawn from the Mathnawi, we see Rumi using ‘Ali to explain the initiation and its role in the spiritual quest. He quotes the saying of the Prophet to ‘Ali:

When every one seeks to draw nigh to God by means of some devotional act, do thou seek the favor of God by associating with his wise and chosen servant, that thou Mayst be the first of all to arrive (to gain access to Him).[21]

Then Rumi has the Prophet say to ‘Ali:

Come into the shade (protection) of the Sage whom no conveyor can carry off the Way.

His shadow on earth is like Mount Qaf, his spirit is (like) the Simurgh that circles (soars) exceedingly high.[22]

If I should tell of his qualities until the Resurrection, do not seek (expect)and conclusion and end to them.

The (Divine) Sun has veiled Himself in Man: apprehend (this mystery), and God knows best what is right

O ‘Ali, above all devotional acts is the Way (of God) do thou choose the shadow (protection) of the servant of God

Everyone took refuge in some act of devotion and discovered for themselves some means of deliverance.

Go thou, take refuge in the shadow of the sage, that thou mayst escape from the Enemy that opposes (thee) in secret

When the Pir [master] has accepted thee, take heed, surrender thyself (to him): go, like Moses, under the authority of Khizr

God has declared that his (the Pirs) hand is as his own, since he gave out (the words) the Hand of God is above their hands.[23]

Of course, while the Prophet is speaking here of the primacy of deeper spiritualized knowledge as opposed to multiplication of devotional acts, the Sage he is speaking about is himself, in his function as ‘Ali’s spiritual guide. Rumi uses this first model of master-disciple relationships in Islam as a means of counsel for the spiritual seeker, but it also serves to illustrate the Sufi perspective that the Prophet himself was the first Shaykh of Sufism, and that ‘Ali was his main successor, even though in those earliest times these realities did not carry the names they do now. Rumi uses the story of Khidr and Moses as well as the verse, which describes the reality of the initiation, symbolized by the giving of the hand, which is a vertical pact with God above all else.

The following passage from the Nahj al-Balaghah speaks of esoterism and the initiation:

Here (and he pointed to his heart) I have abundant knowledge, if only I could find people to bear it. Unfortunately, I have found learners who are not faithful to it, applying it to the devices of belief in this world Thus does knowledge die out with the passing of its bearers. O God! Certainly the earth is not devoid of those who rise in honor of God for good reason, either openly and notably, or in fear and obscurity, so that the proof and clarifications of God may not be in vain. But how many are they, and where are they? They are, by God, fewest in number but greatest in rank with God. By them God preserves the divine proofs and clarifications until they entrust them to others like them and plant them in their hearts of others like them. By them knowledge enters into real insight, and they are imbued with the spirit of certainty.

They consider easy what seems hard to those who lead a life of comfort, and they take to what the ignorant are averse to. They are physically in the world, yet their spirits are suspended in the highest liberation. They are the deputies of God on earth, and are those who invite people to the religion of God. Oh, how I long to see them![24]

Here ‘Ali was speaking of none other than the esoteric teachings of Islam and the idea of the khawass, or spiritual elite. He was speaking of the true mystical knowledge, which can only be carried by those who are transformed by its truths. This is why it dies out with the passing of its bearers; books cannot convey such knowledge, they can only speak of it. He also echoes here the fact that many are called, but few are chosen, making note of those who did not make proper use of what he had taught them. Even in the time of ‘Ali those qualified to receive spiritual teachings and pass them on to others like them were in the minority, although sanctity was of course much more widespread. This explains why out of thousands of Companions of the Prophet, and even of the smaller group who were closer to the Prophet, only a small handful of men were to pass on the inner teachings of Islam, with ‘Ali functioning as the main channel for this transmission. At the end of this quote we see ‘Ali longing to see those spiritual elite who will come after his time in this world has ended, who will carry on the teachings he received from the prophet.[25] Again in the Mathnawi we have a reference of ‘Ali, Like ‘Ali, sigh into the well [26] This refers to the tradition that tells that ‘Ali once whispered into a well the secret, esoteric doctrine taught to him by the Prophet, along with a warning against its being divulged. As stated above, these teachings would cause more harm than good to the generality of people (al-awamm). In the well known hadith, Ibn Abbas, the famous Qur’anic exegete of the first generation, was once given the true interpretation of a particular passage of the Qur’an by the Prophet, and when the people asked him about it, he told them the true interpretation they would stone him. Similarly, Abu Hurayrah, the most prolific of hadith transmitters of the first generation, stated that he had two stores of knowledge from the Prophet: the first he taught openly, and that if he were to divulge the second the people would slit his throat. Facts such as these are quite enough to demonstrate the existence of an esoteric tradition living within the exoteric tradition. One ought to remember here that both Ibn Abbas and Abu Hurayrah are pillars of exoteric authority in Islam.

In the Sufi tradition it is related that the Prophet once said to ‘Ali, You are of the rank of Aaron in relation to Moses, except that there will be no prophet after me. Perhaps we may examine this statement in light of the prophetic hadith stating that there will be ulama (those endowed with knowledge) of my ummah who will be of the rank of the prophets of the Children of Israel. Here we can draw a parallel between the spiritual function of at least some of the Hebrew prophets with the great saints of Sufism, lines beginning respectively with Aaron and ‘Ali.

We can understand the role of the later Hebrew prophets and that of the Sufi saints as the renewal of the spirit and inner teachings of the original revelation (none brought a new religion), and so by analogy and not direct parallel, since Sufism draws a clear distinction between a saint and prophet (who is also a saint), we can say that ‘Ali had the same relationship to the Prophet as Aaron did to Moses. No Hebrew prophet after the Sinatic revelation was of the same rank as Moses,[27] just as no saint in Islam could duplicate the role of the Prophet.[28]

Sight and knowledge

No discussion of ‘Ali and Sufism would be complete without speaking about the notion of knowledge one can have of God in this world. In a sense, the reason detre of Sufism is to tear away the veils, which separate man from God in this world. To see this world fully as what it is to see it transparently. To this effect, ‘Ali is once reported to have said, If the veil were lifted my certainty would not be increased. We might consider this in relation to the hadith about the four Caliphs, where they each state how they see God in relation to the world. The first three stated that in relation to a thing they see God with it, before it, and behind it. Then ‘Ali said, When I see a thing, I see God.[29] Here is an illustration of the degrees of knowledge one is capable of in this world. When ‘Ali talks about the lifting of the veil, he is speaking of the lifting if the veil of Gods creation, the outer veil. His certainty would not be increased because his inner veil had already been lifted. Similarly, he said, I would not be worshipping a lord I have not seen.[30] All of these statements refer, not to seeing in the ordinary sense, but to the inner eye in man, the eye of the Heart, or the Intellect. This is what ‘Ali was referring to when he said, God has given man nothing more valuable than the Intellect.[31] In a saint like ‘Ali, this eye is wide open, and he sees all things thought it, and hence sees all things in God. This is why he can make the rather bold statement that he does not worship a lord he has not seen, and truthfully say that he does not see anything apart from God. It is not a question of seeing in the ordinary sense, and the Sufis would rebuke anyone claiming to see God with his two eyes. Rather we must understand sight in a symbolic sense. Since we identify sight more than any other sense with knowing a thing and comprehending it, Islamic esoterism speaks in the language of sight to convey describe the knowledge gained with the eye of the Heart.

Universal Man

The concept of al-insan al-kamil, or Universal Man, is a complex one in Sufism. According to Sufi cosmology, this world in its totality is a manifestation of the Names of God. Within creation, only man is the locus for all the Divine Names, all other created things manifesting some particular Names or Qualities but never all of them. The Prophet said that man was created in Gods image, and we find in the Qur’an, We breathed into him of our Spirit.[32]

Here is not the place for a lengthy discussion of Universal Man; what we are interested in is how this doctrine, which reflects an ever-present truth known to the earlier generations even if it was never formulated fully, relates to ‘Ali. In a poem attributed to ‘Ali:

Thy remedy is within thee, and thou unaware; and thy malady is within thee, and thou unseeing.

And thou art the perspicuous Book revealing by its letters all that is concealed. And thou deemest thyself a small body, yet the greater world (macrocosm) is enfolded within thee [33]

The remedy spoken of is the capability each person has of realizing true knowledge, which is actually a remembrance in the Platonic sense. It is a rediscovery of the fitrah, or the Norm upon which man is created. The malady spoken of is the lower soul, which draws us to this world through desire and laziness, veiling us from Reality. The second line can be understood in light of the Qur’anic verse, We shall show them our signs upon the horizons and within themselves, until it be clear to them that He is the Truth.[34] The macrocosmic signs are mentioned along with their counterparts within man, and the second verse above indicates that the inner signs can lead us to all that is hidden from us (al-mud mar). The last verse is a concise statement of man as the locus for manifestation of all the Divine Names. This poem is one of the earliest statements of the same idea the Sufis speak of when they say, The universe is a big man and man a little universe. Every thing contained in the macrocosm (al-kawn al-kabir, the universe) is also contained in the microcosm (al-kawn as-saghir, man). This means that man, in his central position in the universe, has the capability of knowing the principles of all things sapientally and existentially, deriving from the fact that every object of his knowledge has a counterpart within himself that derives from the same principle, and here we are referring to the Divine Names and Qualities.

Also there is the enigmatic hadith attributed to ‘Ali:

All the Qur’an is contained in the surat al-fatihah, all of this surah is contained in the basmalah, all of the basmalah in the ba with which it begins, all the letter ba in the diacritical point under it and I am that diacritical point.[35]

The dot of the ba represents the intersection of the horizontal and vertical axes of reality, the ‘Alif of iqra! and the ba of bismi rabbika, or Recite in the Name of your Lord, the first verse revealed to the Prophet.[36] This cross is the symbol of Universal Man. The horizontal line of the cross represents human perfection at this level of being, and the vertical line the realization of other states of being. So these states are ranked, in integral expansion, in the double sense of amplitude [horizontal] and exaltation [vertical].[37] ‘Ali is declaring in the language of symbolism that he has realized this station. Also, one may see the point as the principle of all writing, hence symbolically as the principle of all manifestation. In commenting on this subject, the Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi wrote:

Whenever I speak of the Point I mean the Secret of the Essence which is named Oneness of Perception (wahdat al-shuhd), and whenever I speak of the ‘Alif I mean the One Who Alone is (wahid al-wujd), the Essence Dominical, and whenever I speak of the Ba I mean the ultimate Manifestation which is termed the Supreme Spirit, after which come the rest of the letters, then single words, then speech in general, all in hierarchy.[38]

The hierarchy of being is symbolized by the manifestation of lines, letters, and words, all of which derive from principal dot. ‘Ali identifies himself as that dot to express his own identity with the Essence.


The Nahj al-Balaghah is replete with passages where ‘Ali is giving answers of a theological nature to questions of the nature of God and the cosmos. Notably we find eloquent descriptions of tawhid, or the Doctrine of Divine Unity, which are expressed with in Arabic of almost matchless conciseness and power. The following is a brief discussion of the Divine Essence:

So who so describes God glory is to him has given him a comrade (i.e. the description). Who so gives Him a comrade has declared him to be two (tathniyah). Who so declares him to be two has divided him. Whoso divides him is ignorant of Him. (Whoso is ignorant of Him points to Him.) Who so points to him has delimited him. Who so delimits him has numbered Him. Who so says, In what is he?, and has enclosed Him. Who so says, On what is He, has excluded Him (from certain things).[39]

Through this negation of anything we can say about God, ‘Ali is really talking about Beyond-Being, or Non-Being, referring to the Essence which is beyond description. ‘Ali then moves on to discuss some of the attributes of God:

He is being (kain) not as the result of temporal origin (hadith), and existent (mawjd) not having come from non-existence (adam). He is with everything, not through association (muqaranah); and he is other than everything, not through separation (muzayalah). He is active (faal), not in the sense of possessing movements and instruments. He was seeing when none of his creatures were to be observed by Him. He was alone (mutawahhid) when there was none with whom to be intimate and at whose loss to feel lonely.[40]

This above passage can be seen as a description of the Divine Qualities, which relate God to his creation, how God affects but is not affected, the Unmoved Mover. The following passage explains this relationship in reverse, describing how manifestation leads us back to the Principle.

By his giving sense (tashir) to sense organs (mashair) it is known that he has no sense organs. By his giving substance (tajhir) to substances (jawahir) it is known that He has no substance. By his causing opposition (muaddah) among things it is known that he has no opposite (idd). By his causing affiliation (muqaranah) among affairs it is known that He has no affiliate (qarin). He opposed darkness to light, obscurity to clarity, moisture to solidity, and heat to cold. He joins together those things, which are hostile to one another, and separates those, which are near. They prove (the existence of) their Separator (mufarriq) by their separation and therir Joiner (muallif) by their junction. This is (the meaning of) His Words-He is the Mighty and Majestic And of everything created we two kinds; haply you will remember. (p.39 Qur’an LI, 49)[41]

Here ‘Ali is expounding upon the fundamental duality of all manifestation, the realm of opposition which is the manifestation of the Divine, which itself is not subject to any type of opposition. In these three short passages we have a discussion of the Principle in itself, the Principle as it relates to Manifestation, and Manifestation as it relates to the Principle.

‘Ali and interpretation of the Qur’an

Unfortunately, not much remains of ‘Ali’s interpretation of the Qur’an. He wrote an esoteric commentary on the Qur’an, which is now lost, and which survives in fragments in the commentary of Jafar as-Sadiq.[42] Even without a great body of material directly attributable to him we still can get an idea of his understanding of the Qur’an. The Prophet said, O People, among you is one who struggles with the interpretation (tawil) of the Qur’an as I struggle with its revelation (tanzil),[43] referring to ‘Ali. ‘Ali himself said, No verse has been revealed without me knowing for what it was revealed, and where it was revealed[44] The towering figure of Qur’anic commentary Ibn Masud said, The Qur’an has been revealed with seven readings, each with an inner meaning and an outer. ‘Ali ibn Talib knows the outer (al-zahir) and the inner (al-batin).[45] The Sufis have always held that each verse of the Qur’an holds meaning upon meaning, revealing truths much deeper than the surface meaning of the text, a meaning that is of course also true on its own level. Some have assigned four levels of meaning, others seven. These numbers must be understood metaphorically, of course, since in principle the meanings of each verse are infinite. Ibn Arabi said that each time one reads a verse a new meaning should be made clear. Therefore, when Ibn Masud said that ‘Ali knows the inner and outer meanings, this means that he was qualified to interpret the symbols (ayat) of the Qur’an.

The manifest is finite and limited to what we might say about it, but the hidden includes every thing that the manifest is not, and is therefore infinite, and the scope of interpretation goes all the way up to the level of the Divine. The hadith about the dot of the ba is enough to show what the words of the Qur’an, even its very letters, have to say about truths which are difficult or impossible to express other that symbolically, and that ‘Ali knew this language of symbolism.

Considering the substantial volume of material we have attributable to Companions like Ibn Abbas, Ibn Masud, and Ubayy ibn Kab, who were the heads of the Makkan, Iraqi, and Madinan schools respectively, and the fact that these men had such high regard for ‘Ali’s knowledge of the Qur’an,[46] one can only assume that ‘Ali was chiefly concerned with teaching the esoteric meanings to a smaller, more select group, and left the teaching of tafsir to the general public to other Companions.

* * *

In today’s historical analysis, the focus on individual great figures (and there is no greater historical figure than the Prophet; on this believer and non-believer can agree) considers what they left behind in terms of written material or other physical traces. That is why in modern scholarship if it was not written down, it is considered not to have really occurred. Perhaps this fact, along with the tremendous effects the Prophets mission had in the temporal realm, can explain the paucity of scholarship devoted to ‘Ali, and especially to his spiritual role. Teachings in those times were mostly oral, and in the case of asterism both oral and semi-secretive. Thus, the scholar is left with little physical documentation of the very real transmission of knowledge which took place between the Prophet and his Companions, notably to ‘Ali, and between the Companions and the following generation, and so on. Only gradually did these sciences, both exoteric (like hadith) and esoteric (like Sufi psychology) begin to be written down. Actually, from the Sufi point of view, this information is ‘Alive and well and readily accessible and reliable, but the Sufis source of authority, and unbroken oral tradition which serves as the starting point and ultimate criterion of anything written, may still not good enough for the modern researcher. This should not be the case, however, considering that even to our very day very few texts exist which describe the actual practices of Sufism even though the practices are alive and well all over the world. We mention this only because researchers need to take more seriously the aspects of Sufism, which were not meticulously documented.

In this paper we have painted mostly broad strokes. Although touching upon many of the important sayings and teachings of ‘Ali related to later Islamic esoterism, the scope of this paper does not allow us to go into any great detail as to the meaning and proliferation of these sayings in the Islamic esoteric tradition. For example, in the school of Ibn Arabi, in such figures as Abd al- Razzaq al-Kashani and Daud al-Qaysari, one finds frequent reference to ‘Ali in the context of their very subtle metaphysical discussions. This must not be interpreted as simply some pious or sentimental attachment to a great religious figure.

Rather, these later metaphysicians knew full well that they were describing realities to which ‘Ali had spoken in a more synthetic and symbolic way, which was fully in accord with his function as well as with his proximity to the original revelation. This is an only example. There is no doubt that a thorough study of the Sufi literature and oral tradition regarding ‘Ali would keep a scholar occupied for many years.

We must not forget that in the context of Sufism, we are speaking about the second link in a continuous, living chain consisting of only four or five dozen such links, and which is supplemented by an extensive written tradition. If we hope to gain any real understanding of what comes later in this tradition, we ought to be looking closer to the source and not chasing after borrowings and the like. The information presented in this essay should show that the most central doctrines of Sufism were not novel in their conception but only in their formulation, and that ‘Ali had a full, integral knowledge of the realities of which later Sufis would speak using intricate explications of doctrine. We hope that in the future this colossal figures role will not continue to be passed over in silence, and that this short essay has established in the readers mind the connection of ‘Ali to very heart of the Islamic tradition, which is the transmission and assimilation of truth regarding the nature of Ultimate Reality, and whose fountainhead is the revelation given to the Prophet.


[1]. We say Sunni Sufis because Sufism is not confined to the Sunni world, but exist among the Shia as well.

[2]. S.H. Nasr, Sufi Essays, New York, 1991. p. 111.

[3]. For further reading on this topic see Frithjof Schuon Seeds of a Divergence in his Islam and the Perennial Philosophy.

[4]. Lecture by S.H. Nasr, Fall 1997.

[5]. One cannot help inserting here that He is like Arjuna, Mother Teresa, and Shankaracharya all rolled into one.

[6]. The Naqshabandiyyah trace their origin through Ab Bakr as-siddiq, but also claim to be connected to ‘Ali through Jafar as-sadiq.

[7]. Actually, I did spot a complete translation of it somewhere.

[8]. S.H. Nasr, Spiritual Chivalry, Islamic Spirituality, vol 2, ed. S.H. Nasr, New York, 1991. p. 305.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Perhaps dispense with this paragraph.

[11]. Rumi, Mathnawi, trans. R. A. Nicholson, Lahore. Vol. 1, p.202.

[12]. A reference to the hadith appearing at the head of this article.

[13]. Lecture by S. H. Nasr, Fall 1997.

[14]. This symbolism is taken from Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din, The Book of Certainty, Cambridge, 1992. Chapter The Sun and the Moon.

[15]. Is he who was dead, and whom we raised to life, setting for him a light whereby he might walk among men, like unto him who is as it were in darkness whence he cannot emerge? Qur’an, VI 22 (all Qur’anic translations are from Lings in The Book of Certainty).

[16]. Qur’an, XXVII7.

[17]. Nicholson, vol 1. p. 205-206.

[18]. For a discussion of inverse analogy, see T. Burckhardt, Introduction to Sufism, San Francisco, 1995. Chapter 5 Branches of the Doctrine.

[19]. Nicholson, vol. 1, p. 207.

[20]. For a discussion of the spontaneous action of the saint, see The Book of Certainty, p. 64.

[21]. Nicholson, vol. 1, p. 161.

[22]. Here the Simurgh represents the Spirit, and Mount Qaf is the cosmic mountain, analogous to Mt. Meru in the Hindu tradition.

[23]. Ibid., p. 161-162.

[24]. Cleary, Thomas, Living and Dying with Grace: Counsel of Harat ‘Ali, Boston, 1996. pp. 81-83 A shorter version of this is found in Hilyat al-awliya.

[25]. It is interesting to note here an incident where the prophet was with a group of Companions, and mentioned to them that there would be those who would come after him who would be like fifty of you. They asked, Fifty of them, or fifty of us? and he replied, Fifty of you.

[26]. Nicholson, vol 4. p. 517.

[27]. Of course here we are not including Christ in the line of Hebrew prophets.

[28]. On the issue of degrees of prophecy and their function, one can look to the philosophy of Suhrawardi

[29]. There is another version of this hadith where ‘Ali instead recapitulates the three previous statements all together. (S.H. Nasr, lecture).

[30]. Tabatabai Allamah, A Shi’ite Anthology, ed. And trans. William Chittick, London, 1981. P. 38.

[31]. Nicholson, vol. 4, p. 643.

[32]. Qur’an, XLI 53.

[33]. Taken from Nasr, S.H. Ideal and Realities of Islam, Cairo, 1989. p. 63.

[34]. Lecture, S. H. Nasr Fall 1997.

[35]. Guenon, Rene, Symbolism of the Cross, London, 1975. p. 6.

[36]. Lings, Martin, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, 1993.p. 149.

[37]. Tabatabai, p. 30.

[38]. Ibid.

[39]. Ibid., p. 39.

[40]. Lecture by S.H. Nasr, Fall 1997.

[41]. Ab Nuaym Ahmad ibn Abdallah, Hillyat ul-awliya, Beirut, 1967. p. 67.

[42]. Dhahabi, Muhammad Husayn, al-Tafsir wa l-mufassirn, Cairo, 1995. p. 96

[43]. Ibid., p. 97.

[44]. There is a hadith of ‘Ali, whose reference I could not find for this paper, where he encourages learning the science of Arabic letters.

[45]. Dhahabi, Chapter on the madrasahs of tafsir.

[46]. Ibn Abbas said, Whatever I have taken of tafsir is on the authority of ‘Ali,.

Dhahabi, p. 96.

Additional sources used

– Lings Martin, Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, Rochester, VT, 1983.

– al-Sharani Abd al-Wahhab ibn Ahmad, at-tabaqat al-Kubra, Egypt, 1936. pp. 17-18.

– tabatabai Allamah, ‘Ali wa l-falsafat ul-ilahiyyah, (no publishing info. given)