Imam Ali with people

Imam Ali's simple lifestyle 

 Imam Ali (a) always ate and dressed in such a simple way that even the poorest could afford better. It was not because he was poor, but it was because he wanted to lead the life of the poorest person and spend all that could thus be spared on the poor. I have noted below certain cases quoted by the historians. These incidents are of the time when he was the ruler of the entire Muslim Empire, except Syria.

Suwayda bin Ghafla says: "One day I went to see Imam Ali (a) in the Government House (Darul Imarah). It was the time of breakfast and before him there was a cup of milk and some barley bread. The bread was dry, stale, hard and did not contain any butter or oil. It could not be easily broken into pieces. Imam Ali (a) was exerting himself to break it and to soften it. I turned towards the maid-servant, Fizza and said, 'Fizza! Have you no pity upon your old master, and why can't you give him softer bread and add some butter or oil to it?' She replied, "Why should I pity him when he never pities himself. He has given strict orders that nothing is to be added to his bread and even chaff and husks are not to be separated from the flour. We, ourselves eat much better food than this, although we are his servants." Hearing this, I told him, "O master! Have pity on yourself, look at your age, your responsibilities, your hard work and your food." He replied, "O Suwayda! You have no idea what the Holy Prophet (s) used to eat. He never ate his fill for three consecutive days." [13]

Abdullah ibn Zurarah says: "I went to see Imam Ali (a) on an Eid (festival) day. He asked me to join in his breakfast. I consented. A very simple kind of food was served before us. I told him, "O master! You are such a rich man and a caliph. I was expecting that a game would be served before us but what do I see?" The great Imam replied, "Ibn Zurarah, you have heard of mighty kings who have led life of luxury. Let me be a ruler leading the life of a poor and humble person -- a humble labourer." [14]

Ibn Abi Rafe', the famous Tabe'i, says: He went to Imam Ali (a) on an Eid day and while he was sitting there, a bag was brought before the Imam, he thought it might contain jewels. The Imam opened the bag, it contained dried pieces of bread, which he softened with water. Ibn Abi Rafe' asked him as to the reason of sealing such a kind of food which even a beggar would not care to steal. The Imam (a) smiled and said: "I keep it sealed because my children try to substitute softer bread, containing oil or butter in it." Ibn Abi Rafe' said, "Has Allah prohibited you to eat a better kind of food?" He replied: "No, but I want to eat the kind of food which the poorest of this region can afford at least once a day. I shall improve it after I have improved their standard of life. I want to live, feel and suffer like them". [15]

Harun ibn Anza said that he accompanied his father (Anza) to meet Imam Ali (a), in winter days and the winter was very severe. He found the Imam in a very thin cotton garment, and the cold wind was making him shiver. Anza asked him, "O Commander of the Faithful! Allah has reserved a share for you and your family from Public Treasury why do you not make use of it?" He replied: "O Anza! I don't want anything from your treasury, this is the dress I have brought with me from Medina." [16]

Zayd ibn Wahab said that once Imam Ali (a) came out of his house and there were patches sewn to his dress. Ibn Nu'aja, who was once a Kharijite and an enemy and yet he was allowed to lead a peaceful and comfortable life by Imam at Kufa, once taunted Imam Ali (a) on the very poor and coarse kind of dress put on by him. He replied: "Let go, what have you to find objection in my dress, it is the kind which our masses can afford, why can't you think of their lives and dresses! I shall improve my standard after I have succeeded in improving theirs. I shall continue to live like them. Such a kind of dress makes one feel humble and meek and give up vanity, haughtiness and arrogance." [17]

Amr ibn A'iz narrated that once he asked Imam Ali as to the reason of his having patches in his dress, he replied: "O Amr, such type of dress makes you soft-hearted, vanishes vanity from your mind and it is the kind which poor Muslims can conveniently afford." [18]. (See alsoNahjul Balagha, Saying 103)

Hasan bin Jurmuz narrates that his father once saw Imam Ali coming out of Kufa Mosque in a shirt made of jute cloth and around him were people so well-dressed that compared to him they looked like princes, he was advising them as how to understand religion. [19]

Abu Nuziya, the draper of Kufa narrates that Imam Ali purchased two shirts from his shop, one was of superior quality, which he handed over to his slave Qambar to put on and the other which was cheap and coarse, reserved it for himself. [20](See more about Imam Ali's dress and food in Nahjul Balagha, Letter45 and Sermon207)

Imam Ali with his friends and subjects 

 Let us see what history says about his behavior with his friends and relatives.

Abdullah ibn Ja'far was his nephew, whom he had brought up since the death of his father, Ja'far ibn Abu Talib and to whom he had given his beloved daughter Zainab, in marriage. Once Abdullah came to him requesting for an advance installment of his share from Baitul Mal (Public Treasury). Ali (a) refused and when the young man persisted, he said: "No, my son! Not until all the others get their share."

Aqeel, Imam Ali's elder brother, was financially not in sound condition. He asked for something more than his due share before the time. The Imam refused by saying that he could not resort to dishonesty. Aqeel must wait till the time of disbursement and he must bear the sufferings patiently. Imam Ali (a) cited this incident in one of his sermons. (Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 221)

Ibn Hunaif, was his trusted disciple, and a faithful follower. He was governor of a province and was once invited to a function which was followed by a sumptuous dinner. When Imam Ali (a) heard of this, he sent him a very strong letter, criticizing his action. He wrote: "You went to a dinner where only rich people were invited and the poor were scornfully excluded". (Nahjul Balagha, Letter 45)

Imam Ali (a) had two slaves, Qambar and Sa'id. After his demise, Qambar related that very seldom he had the occasion to serve his master. The noble Imam used to do his work by himself, used to wash his own clothing, used even to stitch patches on them whenever needed. He would give them good food and descent dresses and would himself eat and dress like a simple man. Let alone whipping or beating, he never even got angry with them. He never used a can, even on his horse, camel or mule. These animals apparently understood his mood and desire and would trot and walk as he wished them to do. His regular phrase with them was, 'Go easy, child'.

Continuing, Qambar said: "One and only once, he got annoyed with me. It was the occasion when I showed him the money that I had hoarded. It was from my share of income given to me like others from the Public Treasury and the gift I had received from the members of his family. I had no immediate use of it and thus had saved the amount. It was not much, being barely 100 dirhams. When I showed him the amount, he looked and annoyed and what pained me more, he looked very sad. I inquired as to why he was so sad. He said: "Qambar, if you had no use of this money, were there not people around you who were in need of it, some of them might have been starving and some might have been ill, could you not have helped them? I never thought that you could be so heartless and cruel, and could love wealth for the sake of wealth. Qamber, I am afraid you are not trying to acquire much from Islam, try more seriously and sincerely. Take these coins from here". Qambar went out and distributed the money amongst the poor in Masjid Kufa.

Sa'id says, "It was a very hot day. Imam Ali (a) was writing some letters, he wanted to send me to call some of his officers, he called me once, twice and thrice and each time, I purposely kept silent and did not reply. He got up to look for me and found I was not sitting very far away from him. He asked me as to why I did not respond to his call. I replied, 'Sir, I want to find out when and how you get angry'. He smiled and replied: "You can't rouse my anger with such childish tricks".

Once Ubaydullah ibn Abbas, as governor maltreated Bani Tamim clan. They complained to Imam Ali. He wrote to Ibn Abbas,

"You should not behave like a beast with your subjects. They are respectable people and should be treated respectfully. You are representing me and your treatment would be taken as that of mine. Your first consideration should be the welfare of those over whom you rule and then to treat them with due respect". (Nahjul Balagha, Letter 18)

Once a group of non-Muslim subjects complained to Imam Ali (a) that Abdullah ibn Abbas always treated them with contempt and scorn. They were farmers and laboured hard. It had then become a practice that non-Muslims were usually treated scornfully. Imam wrote to Abdullah:

"The farmers complain about your harsh, contemptuous and cruel treatment. Their complaints require careful consideration. I feel that they deserve better treatment than what was meted out to them, give them a better chance to approach you and treat them kindly and politely. They may be heathens and polytheists but being our subjects, and human beings, they do not deserve to be driven away from us and treated harshly". (Nahjul Balagha, Letter a19)

Once Imam Ali was passing through Ambaz with his army. The rich men of the province, as was the custom of those days, came out to greet him. They offered the best Persian horses as presents and requested his permission to serve his army. He met them courteously but politely refused to accept the gifts and said, "You have paid your taxes, to receive anything more from you, even when you offer it voluntarily and willingly, is a crime against the State." But when they persisted and pressed their request, he ordered that the horses could be accepted as their taxes and so far as the feast was concerned, it must be paid out of the war expenses.

The Russians in 1905 found an order of Imam Ali in his own hand-writing which was in Kufi script. This was found in a monastery of Ardabail, chief town of Azar Baijan. This letter was an amnesty deed to the monastery and the Christians of Ardabail. Translation of this deeds appeared in the Russian newspapers and thence it was translated in the Turkish papers and in the Arabic Magazines of Cairo and Beirut, and several commentating articles on the spirit of toleration and the treatment of conquered countries by Islam were written by the Russians and Arab Christians. Apparently from the magazine "Hablul Matin", it was translated by the magazine "Al-Hakam". (Vol. II, No. 47, 1906)

In this deed, Imam Ali (a) says that as a caliph and a ruler, he promises safety and security of life, property, honour, social status and religious freedom of Armanian Christians. This order should be obeyed by his officers and by his successors. The Christians should not be maltreated or looked down because they are non-Muslims. So long as they do not try to betray and injure the cause of the State of Islam, they should not be molested but should be allowed to practice their religion and to trade freely and openly. Islam teaches us to carry a message of peace with us and improve the status of society wherever we go and the best way to achieve this is to create amity, friendliness and concord between human beings; therefore, Muslims should try to develop friendship of these people and should never resort to wrong use of power, force and arrogance. They should not be overtaxed, should not be humiliated and should not be forced out of their homes, lands, and trades. Their priests should be treated with due respects, their monasteries should be protected and they should be allowed to carry on their lectures, teachings and preachings as usual and their religious ceremonies should not be banned. If they want to build their places of worship then fallow and unclaimed lands should be allotted to them. One, who disobeys this order is going against the orders of Allah, and the Holy Prophet (s) and will deserve His Wrath.

Once when Harith ibn Suhayl, the Governor of Kufa, was riding through the city, saw Imam Ali (a) also on a ride. He got down from his horse to accompany the Imam on foot. Imam Ali (a) stopped his horse and said, "It does not behove a man to lower himself before anybody but Allah. Please mount back on your horse. Even if you had not been an officer of the State, I would not have allowed you to lower yourself like this, the sight of such humiliation of man before man never pleases me. It is the worst form of tyranny which can be practiced."

There is a letter of Imam Ali (a), which is actually a system of rules and regulations for the administration of a just government and a code for higher values of morality. It is included in Nahjul Balagha (Letter 53) and is referred so often by historians of Europe, philosophers of Arabia and even by Justice Kayani in his presidential address at the Karachi Bar on April 16, 1960. Thus it needs no introduction. In this letter there are instructions which show that he wanted his officers to remember that the people over whom they rule are the trust entrusted to them by Allah, and they should be treated as such.

Imam Ali (a) had a very soft corner in his heart for the old, the weak, the disabled and the poor and children were always his favourites.

It was the hottest day of the season, he had finished his noon-prayers in the masjid and was passing through the bazaar. He saw a young slave-girl piteously weeping. He asked her the reason. She said that her master had given her some money to get dates from the bazaar. The dates which she brought were not liked by her master, he wanted them to be returned and get back the money. The fruit-seller refused to take them back, her master was beating her for the money and the fruit-seller had also punished her for going to him over and over again. She did not know what to do and whom to approach for help.

Imam Ali (a) accompanied her to the fruit-seller to advise him to take the dates back. He was a new-comer to Kufa and did not recognize the Imam and was rude to him. Some passers-by intervened and introduced the Imam to him. He jumped from his shop and begged of Imam Ali (a) to excuse him and said that he would give back the money immediately to her. The Imam replied that it was really mean of him to treat honest suggestion disdainfully and haughtily and to cow down before power and might so abjectly. The owner of the slave-girl had also heard the news of this incident and ran to meet the Imam to apologize for the trouble caused to the slave-girl. Imam Ali (a) told him, "You have no mercy for a person who is under your power and you do not forgive her mistake, have you a right to expect mercy and forgiveness from the Lord? You people have acquired nothing from Islam but its name."

One day he saw an old woman carrying a heavy load of fire-wood which she could hardly lift, she was tottering under the weight. Imam Ali (a) relieved her of her weight, carried it to her house. when Imam Ali (a) told her about who he was, only then she realized that the one who had served her like an obedient servant was none but Imam Ali, the Caliph and the Commander of the Faithful.

It was after his death only that people came to know that he had provided a shelter to a leper in an advanced stage of the disease. The shelter was outside the town, he used to go there daily, dress his wounds, feed him with his own hands (because the leper had lost his hands), wash him, put his bed in order and carry him out of the shelter for a little while so that he may get fresh air. Incidentally, when the relatives and friends of Imam Ali (a) came across this shelter and found a leper in it, they told him the Imam was assassinated as they had just then buried him. The news so affected the man that he died on the spot.

Imam Ali's noble behavior towards enemies 

 I have cited below few cases which go to show what type of man was Imam Ali (a). He was as Pool says: "Truly a noble man, a man of righteousness and a man of brave, humble and forgiving spirit", and as Oelsner says: "Pure, gentle and learned, without fear and without reproach, setting the nobles example of character to the world". Out of hundreds and hundreds of cases to select I find it rather difficult which to choose and which not to choose. I have selected a few according to the standard of my knowledge and visualization."

Talha ibn Abi Talha was not only a bitter enemy of Islam, but was also hostile towards the Holy Prophet (s) and Imam Ali (a). His exertions to harm these two and their mission is a historical fact. In the Battle of Uhud, he was the standard-bearer of the army of Quraish. Ali (a) faced him and in a hand to hand encounter, dealt him such a severe blow that he reeled and fell down. Imam Ali left him like that and walked away from him. Many Muslim warriors ran up to Ali and advised him to finish Talha, saying that he was Ali's worst enemy. Ali replied: "Enemy or no enemy, he can't defend himself now, and I cannot strike a man who is not in a position to defend himself. If he survives he is welcome to live as long as his life lasts"

In the Battle of Jamal, in the thick of the encounter his slave Qambar brought some soft drink saying, "My master! The sun is very hot and you have been constantly fighting, have a glass of this cold drink to refresh yourself". He looked around himself and replied: "Shall I refresh myself when hundreds of people around me are lying wounded and dying of thirst and wounds? Instead of brining soft drink for me take a few men with you and give each of these wounded persons a soft drink". Qambar replied: "My master! They are all our enemies!" He said: "They may be, but their are human beings, go and attend to them."

In the Battle of Siffin, Muawiyah reached the river Euphrates before the army of Imam Ali (a) and took position of the river. When Imam Ali's army reached there, he was informed that they would not be allowed a drop of water from the river. Imam Ali (a) sent a messenger to Muawiyah, saying that this action was against the canons of humanity and orders of Islam. Muawiyah's reply was that, "A war is a war, hence one cannot accept principles of humanity and doctrines of Islam. My sole aim is to kill Ali (a) and to demoralize his army and this stoppage of water will bring about these results quickly and easily". Imam Ali (a) ordered his son, Husain (a), to resume the attack and get back the river. The attack took place and the river was captured. It was then Muawiyah's turn to beseech permission to get water from the river. His messengers arrived and Imam Ali (a) told them to take as much water as they liked and as often as they required. When Imam's officers told him that those were the very people who had refused water to them, should they be allowed a free run of the river? He replied, "They are human beings and though have acted inhumanly, yet I cannot follow their example and cannot refuse a man food and drink just because he happens to be my sworn enemy!"

In the Battle of Naharwan, Imam Ali (a) himself was fighting like any other ordinary soldier. During this battle, a man came to face him and in the encounter lost his sword. He realized his hopeless plight of standing before Ali without any weapon in hand. Ali's hand was raised for a blow when he saw the opponent trembling with fear, he lowered his hand slowly and said: "Run away, friend, you are not in a position to defend yourself". This attitude made the man bold and he said: " Ali! Why don't you kill me, it would have made one enemy less for you". Ali replied, "I cannot strike a man, who cannot defend himself. You were begging for your life and it was spared". The opponent got bolder, and said, " I am told that you have never refused a beggar. Now I beg you of your sword, will you grant it to me?" Ali handed him over the sword! Taking possession of the sword he said: "Now Ali! Who is going to defend you against me and save you from my killing-blow?" He replied: "Of course Allah will defend me if He so wills! He has appointed my death to be my guarding angel, no one can harm me before it is due and no one can save me when it arrives". Nobility of though and action affected the foe and he kissed the bridle of Ali's horse and said: "O master! You are a great man indeed! You cannot only forsake the life of your enemy in a battlefield but also you can grant him your sword. May I have the honour to act as your body guard and to fight for you? Imam Ali replied: "Friend! Fight for truth and justice and don't fight for individuals!"

During 39 and 40 A.H., Muawiyah, organized bands of murderers and brigands to enter the border-towns and to carry on loot, plunder, arson and rape. Kumail was at that time the Governor of Hiyat. He asked Imam's permission to organize similar bands and carry plunder in the province of Qirqisya, which was under the control of Muawiyah. Imam Ali (a) replied to him: "I never expected such a suggestion from a man like you. It is more noble and more moral to guard your people and province then to plunder others. They might be our enemies but they are human beings. They consist of civilian population comprising of women and children, how can one kill, loot and plunder them?? No, never! Don't even dream of such a venture!" (See Nahjul Balagha, Letter 61)

It was the month of Ramazan, the month of fasting. It was the time of the morning prayers. Masjid Kufa was overcrowded. Imam Ali (a) was kneeling down before Allah and when he raised his head, a terrible blow fell upon it making a very deep cut. There was a great disturbance and commotion in the masjid. The assassin ran for his escape. The Muslims chased him and brought him before Imam Ali (A)S who was on the prayer carpet that was soaked in blood and he was reclining upon his sons. He knew the blow was fatal and that he would not survive it but when the assassin was brought before him, he saw that the rope which had bound him was so tightly tied that it was piercing in to his flesh. Imam Ali (a) turned towards the Muslims and said: "You should not be so cruel with your fellow-beings, slacken his ropes, don't you see that they are cutting his flesh and he is in agony?" Such was Ali! History is replete with incidents of his chivalrous and kind treatment towards his enemies. (See also "The cursed assassin and the noble martyr")



[13] Musnad Ahmad ibn Hambal

[14] Matalibus Sual, Allama Kamaluddin Muhammad ibn Talha Shafi'I

[15] Seerah Milani and Musnad Ahmad ibn Hambal

[16] Ahmad ibn Hambal; Al-Manaqib; and Tarikh ibn Athir;

[17] Musnad Ahmad ibn Hambal

[18] Kanzul Ammal, Ali Muttaqi; Riyad al-Nudirah, Tabari.

[19] Abdul Barr, Al-Isti'ab.