by Hamid Algar
-A look at the merits of Imam Ali [AS]
-A look at Nahj al-Balaghah
-The link between Imam Ali [AS] and Sufi chains
-A look at the practice of Ziyarah to the tombs of the Ma'sumin
-A brief look at the history of Imam Hassan [AS]
-A look at the arguments of legitimacy for rule of Imam Hassan [AS]
-A look at the abdication of Imam Hassan [AS]
After the Prophet [sAW] himself there is no other figure in Islamic History who has exercised the same comprehensive and lasting influence as Imam Ali [AS]. This can in part be seen from the duality of titles that one may be applied to him with respect to Sunni and Shi'ah tradition respectively. From the Sunni point of view he is the fourth among the rightly guided caliphs, from the Shi’ah point of view he is the first of he 12 Imams [AS], that in itself indicates that he holds an honoured position in the totality of Islamic tradition despite varying interpretations. But one has to bear in mind that the majority of those titles are retrospective, it is not that in his lifetime or soon thereafter the concept took shape that there was a succession of four rightly guided Caliphs, and clearly the entire history of Shi’i Islam with respect to the succession of the Imams was yet to unfold. We therefore have to look beyond this duality of title and look at the various ways in which he left a legacy of knowledge and spirituality. To begin with given that the bulk of Sunni and Shi’ah forms are yet unformed in their totality - we can look at the general influence of Imam Ali [AS]. Imam Ali [AS] stood out among all the associates of the Prophet [sAW] this is generally recognised knowledge matter - for his detailed knowledge of the Quran the traditions of the Prophet [sAW] and the nascent discipline of Fiqh - Islamic Jurisprudence. This is not surprising, taking into account his closeness to the Prophet [sAW] from childhood onwards and also his extraordinary spiritual and intellectual gifts.
A very large number of hadiths - traditions of the Prophet [sAW] himself, are narrated by him and from him. With respect to Shi’ah tradition we find a large number of hadith from the Prophet [sAW] ultimately related by one or another from among the Imams [AS]. From the point of view of Shi’ah hadith narration, it is sufficient for one of the Imams [AS] to say my ancestor the Prophet [sAW] said such and such. It is not necessary from the point of view of Shi’ah hadith to have a complete chain of transmission from the Prophet [sAW] to the Imam [AS] to be cited that in itself is a guarantee (i.e. it is good enough that the Imam said that my ancestor the Prophet [sAW] said such and such). That silent, implicit chain of transmission passes in the first place through Imam Ali [AS] through his successors in the line of the Imams. But then we also find a hadith related from the Prophet [sAW] by means of Imam Ali [AS] in the Sunni books of tradition. There are in Sunni tradition 6 books of hadith of the Prophet [sAW], that are counted to be particularly reliable and valuable. In these, we find 586 traditions related from the Prophet [sAW] on the authority of Imam Ali [AS]. Many of them relate to the mode of worship of the Prophet [sAW] i.e. how he performed prayer.
The first person to perform the prayer with the Prophet [sAW] was Imam Ali [AS]. After the Archangel Gabriel, the medium of revelation, had instructed the Prophet [sAW] the manner whereby the prayer was to be performed - he performed it for the first time with Imam Ali [AS]. Also we have from the hadith related from Imam Ali [AS] from the Sunni books numerous traditions about the supplicatory prayers made by the Prophet [sAW]. Prayer i.e. the canonical prayer, the prayer that is obligatory five times a day - salah (in Persian - Namaz), the form of which is prescribed, then supplicatory prayer - Du’a, the form of which is not prescribed, it is not in itself obligatory, although it is meritorious and frequently practised. It is also known that Imam Ali [AS] in the lifetime of the Prophet [sAW] himself, compiled a collection of hadith (sayings of the Prophet [sAW]). It is often thought the written recording of the hadith, began after the life of the Prophet [sAW]. In fact, there are a number of indications that this was not the case, and among the early compilers of the Prophetic hadith in written form was Imam Ali [AS]. These early collections of hadith are known as Sahifah, meaning here a number of pages bound together, not a complete book in the familiar form.
Finally with respect to hadith we know that after the death of the Prophet [sAW], Imam Ali [AS] took care to discourage the circulation of dubious or spurious hadith, which evidently had already entered into circulation. During the exercise of rule of the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, Imam Ali [AS] was primarily concerned with the cultivation of knowledge, he avoided an open challenge to the legitimacy of the caliphs. Among the subjects which he engaged in teaching were above all Islamic Law, the Ahkam (the precise ordinances of Islamic Law) - which had not yet crystallised as a separate discipline, the meanings of the Quran with respect in particular to occasions on which various verses had been revealed, subject matter which is known in Arabic as Asbab al-nuzul (the occasions for the revelation of a verse). Why is it worth knowing the occasions on which certain verses of the Quran were revealed, because in some cases, this helps to clarify the meanings of the verses in question. It is not that the Quran is a book of history, a chronologically ordered account of the life of the Prophet [sAW] and the early Muslims. However there are certain verses of the Quran which address themselves to a particular situation that arose in the life of the Prophet [sAW] and the early Muslims, and to know that occasion helps sometimes in clarifying the scope and meaning of a particular verse.
More specifically with respect to Shi’ah Islam the main legacy of Imam Ali [AS] in written form is of course the Nahj al-Balaghah, roughly translated as the, 'Path of Eloquence’. This is not the title given to the book by Imam Ali [AS] himself, it is the name given to it by its compiler a scholar by the name of Sharif al-Radi who died in the year 359 AH, 969 AD. This is a book which contains in the most reliable edition, the text of 208 sermons, delivered by Imam Ali [AS], 79 letters that he addressed to various recipients and 418 brief or almost proverbial utterances, in some cases they did almost become proverbial like many other statements remarkable for their precision and their wisdom. They left the realm of personal attribution, and became proverbial i.e. proverbial to the Arabic Language. The particularly noteworthy are of course the sermons. In these sermons Imam Ali [AS] touches essentially on two areas concerned - first of course the political situation of the day both in the time of the first three caliphs and more particularly in his own contested exercise of rule. Most of the sermons that have a political context or reference do relate to the period of his caliphate. The quietism that he espoused during the caliphate of the first three caliphs is reflected in the relative paucity of political references in his sermons from that period. Particularly important among those sermons is however the third sermon in the usual ordering, in which during his exercise of the caliphate he reflects back upon the exercise of rule by his predecessors Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, criticising them essentially for usurping the rule and in varying degrees misusing their office.
It is presence of this sermon in particular in the Nahj al-Balaghah that has caused doubt to be cast on the authenticity of the work as a whole by later polemicists. The occurrence of this sermon in the collection clearly disturbs - negates even the subsequent image built up of a kind of more or less harmonious uniform exercise of rule by the first four caliphs who together form the Khulafa Rashidin - the rightly guided caliphs. The other main topic that occurs in the sermons is of a more theological, philosophical or Gnostic nature, in other words disquisitions upon the unity of God, the understanding of the Divine Being and the duties of man with respect to the Divine reality. It should not be thought that these two topics are easily divided, either textually or conceptually. If you look at many of the sermons of Imam Ali [AS] in Nahj al-Balaghah you will see in fact that the two topics occur sometimes in the same sermon. And maybe by way of illustrating the close interlinking between these two foci of concern, we can refer to the incident during the battle of Siffin - when Imam Ali [AS] was advancing to do battle with Mu’awiyah. Whilst advancing to do battle, Imam Ali [AS] was discoursing to his followers precisely on the subject of the Divine Unity (Tauhid). When one of his soldiers asked him is this the time to be talking on such matters, in other words when we are about to go into battle is it the time to be talking about the subtle, profound matters of theology. To this Imam Ali [AS] replied - this is precisely the time when we should indeed be engaging in such discussions,, it is precisely for the sake of tauhid that we are about to engage in battle.
We therefore see a close interconnection in his [AS] mind and also contextually in the the Nahj al-Balaghah, the Nahj al-Balaghah is then a compilation. It is not a work that emerges from Imam Ali [AS] himself nor can it be taken to be a complete record of his sayings even of his significant sayings. But it is a work of very great importance, and one can say that after the Quran itself, it is customarily the second text of authority referred to by Shi’ah Muslims. Particularly important in the Nahj al-Balaghah apart from the historical matters referred to, is it’s virtual invention complete and ready made of a terminology of theological discussion. This has also been one of the matters raised by those who question the authenticity of Nahj al-Balaghah. That a highly detailed and sophisticated terminology for the discussion of theological matters exists in Nahj al-Balaghah - surely it is argued that this is a product of a later age, when the Islamic sciences had developed and attained a point of greater maturity. Frequently the authenticity of the Nahj al-Balaghah is questioned in polemics by Sunni Scholars, or more generally by Sunnis. First of all, the following should be taken into consideration, the Nahj al-Balaghah is really the culmination of the tradition within Shi’ah Islam, in other words it can not be said that out of a group Sharif al-Radi sat down and compiled the fanciful collection of sermons then attributed them to Imam Ali [AS]. If he did then he himself must have been a genius which is another question. But even apart from that we know that even as early as the second century of the Islamic era similar attempts had been made at compiling the sermons, the utterances of Imam Ali [AS]. Therefore it can be said that his work attained lasting fame insofar that it was the culmination of a tradition. Secondly is the simple fact that part of the contents of Nahj al-Balaghah - by no means all of it, is also to be found in other works. Works of an earlier period and in some cases works compiled by Sunni authors. For example the great history of Tabari, who also has compiled one of the earliest and detailed commentaries on the Quran - the history of Tabari contains some of the sermons we find in Nahj al-Balaghah. And again we find another early author al-Ja’id in his Kitab al-Bayan wa tafsir has some of the same material.
Then too, one has to bear in mind Sharif al-Radi the compiler of the Nahj al-Balaghah, lived in Baghdad, at a time when Baghdad was the centre of all Muslim Scholarship whether Sunni or Shi’ah. And there is no record of any of his contemporaries in Baghdad having accused him of forgery or unreliability in the compilation of the Nahj al-Balaghah. In fact we find that among the early commentators on the Nahj al-Balaghah were quite a number of Sunni Scholars. It is not until quite a lot later when sectarian polemics between Sunnis and Shi’ah’s had become more developed, that the authenticity of Nahj al-Balaghah became under question. One can say in elaboration of this point that at an earlier period - the time of Sharif al-Radi, it was possible to be a Sunni and have some nuance or understanding of the problems, the differences, the diversions, even the hostilities that marked the early history of Islam. Later when sectarian positions had crystallised, become clearer - then, the tendency towards a simplistic idealisation of early Islamic History arose, so it became necessary to obscure or even deny the obvious differences that did exist in the earliest Islamic period. The extreme example of this the desire is to whitewash Mu’awiyah and describe him as having engaged in some kind of exercise of personal judgement doing his best and maybe the result was questionable but he was as it were mujtahid.
As far as the language question is concerned, the style of the Nahj al-Balaghah it is an inimitable style, it is true that the terminology used in it with respect to the Divine Unity and Divine Attributes and so forth is to be found in the early unfolding of Islamic theology. However the cause/effect relationship, is the opposite of that which is sometimes maintained. In other words it is not that a text was compiled at a later date reflecting the usage of that later period but it is rather that the origin of this terminology is precisely to be assigned to Imam Ali [AS], and then entered and in fact formed the basis for much later theological and philosophical discussion. Regrettably there is no satisfactory translation of the whole book in English, it is a very challenging task, the Arabic in its concision, in its eloquence, and sometimes in the obscurity of its vocabulary especially with respect to contemporary usage, all of this taken together represents a challenge. Most of the translations have been done by people of Indo-Pakistani background, unfortunately they have not proven equal to it.
Finally with respect to Imam Ali [AS], this being a brief overview of his posthumous influence, in the world of Sufism. Sufism is of course overwhelmingly a Sunni phenomenon. It is of course in it’s creedal and theological basis - Sunni. However it is of high significance that almost all of the chains of transmission that one finds in organised Sufism go back to Imam Ali [AS], there is but one significant exception, one order that traces its origin back to Abu Bakr - although it also covers its bets by having a second line of transmission going back to Imam Ali [AS]. Otherwise the totality of significant lines of Sufi transmission have as their first link Imam Ali [AS]. Now, the chain of transmission in Sufism means, taken literally, that a certain individual sits opposite another, and receives from him by way of spiritual transmission the essence of the Sufi line. This is still practised today in various Sufi orders. It is not to be imagined as a matter of historical reality that Imam Ali [AS] engaged in the transmission of what later crystallised as Sufism in the same way, that is to say, someone sat opposite him and received from Imam Ali [AS] an initiation in a certain spiritual line. The reality that one may presume to underlie this belief that Ali [AS] is the origin of a newly initiated line must be more general i.e. that the teachings and the inward essence, the spirituality of Imam Ali [AS] for that matter some of the subsequent Imams [AS] aswell can be seen to lie at the origins of what later crystallises as Sufism. Finally with respect to Imam Ali [AS] it should be pointed out, that his place of martyrdom and subsequent burial, became the first shrine of Shi’ah Islam. It is said that Imam Ali [AS], was buried initially in Kufa, in Iraq, at the place of his martyrdom - other versions have him buried either in Madinah or least probable of all at Mazar al-Sharif in northern Afghanistan (this claim came in the 14th century). Supposedly all of the pious scholars and men of the city of Bagh dreamt that in such and such a place you will find the tomb of Imam Ali [AS] - so the next morning they got up and told each other what they dreamt of and they were astonished that they all had the same dream, so they went together to the place indicated, started digging and then came to the surface of wooden box conveniently marked in Arabic, â€˜this is the tomb of Ali ibn abi Talib [AS]’ then a big shrine was built there. However the reliable consensus is that Imam Ali [AS] is buried in Najaf near to his place of martyrdom.
Throughout the Umayyad period inaugurated by Mu’awiyah, it seems that the palce of his burial was kept unmarked, deliberately kept unmarked and secret - because of the continuing hostility of the Umayyads to Imam Ali [AS] and his descendants. It was not until the third century, that the first shrine, the first gold architectural marker of the tomb, was constructed. And of course it has gone through a series of destructions and reconstructions since then. Najaf has acquired a series of importances in Shi’ah history. First of all as a place of pilgrimage, because of recourse to the English language we are forced to say pilgrimage however we make clear that what we are dealing with here and what we referring to here is something other than Hajj, which is obligatory for all Muslims. The word translated here by religionists is ziyarah. And the visiting of the tomb of Imam Ali [AS] occupies an important part in Shi’ah religiosity and spirituality. And there are of course many sayings from the Imam [AS], about the virtue and the merit of visiting his tomb and that of his successors. What is the purpose of this? Of course in the first place an expression of loyalty to the Imam [AS] and to his cause. Secondly, an understanding of the spiritual virtues that he taught. Because a pilgrimage in person is often not possible for reasons of distance, poverty, other obstacles such as war, the interruption of safe travel - the ziyarah can in fact be made from a distance. Which indicates the ziyarah is not in its essence the movement of a body from one location to another - it is on the contrary an exploration to moving spiritually in the presence of the Imam [AS]. In addition to being a focal point of ziyarah in this particular sense, Najaf has become firstly a place for the cultivation of knowledge, the centres of Shi’ah learning of the centuries have of course shifted from one location to another, depending on a variety of factors. But generally speaking Najaf has held a particular importance, centrality to the degree that it is referred to as the abode of knowledge â€˜dar al-â€˜ilm’. Most important scholars of Shi’ah Islam particularly in recent times have either studied there or spent the entirety of their careers there. Finally with respect to Najaf you may say of it that it is an important place of burial, to be buried in the vicinity of Imam Ali [AS] is desirable particularly since tradition associates Najaf not only with him but also with earlier figures in sacred history even with Adam [AS] and with Noah [AS] they are said to have been buried there.
Imam Hassan [AS] is the son of Imam Ali [AS]. In just the same way that Imam Ali [AS] from a Sunni point of view, from the perspective of Sunni history might be designated as the fourth of the rightly guided caliphs, so to we sometimes find Imam Hassan [AS] designated as the fifith of the rightly guided caliphs. This is relatively infrequent, because the area under the control of Imam Hassan [AS] was relatively limited and the duration of the exercise of his rule was also quite brief. More commonly of course Imam Ali [AS] is regarded as the last of the Khulafa Rashidin. However there is a kind of nod in the direction of the legitimacy of Imam Hassan [AS] by some Sunni historians - who designate him as being among the fifth of the Khulafa Rashidin. As for Imam Hassan [AS] we know that he was born of course through Imam Ali [AS] and his mother Bibi Fatimah [AS] on 15th Ramadhan in 3 AH. Imam Hassan [AS] was extraordinarily close, not only to his father but also to his grandfather the Prophet [sAW]. Here of course we have a number of sayings of well attested hadith. Which reflect the affection and the devotion of the Prophet [sAW] not only to Imam Hassan [AS] but also to his brother who has is the third of the Imams, Imam Husain [AS]. For example, the Prophet [sAW] is recorded to have said,
'Hassan and Hussain are my children, whoever loves them loves me, whoever hates them hates me.’ (this hadith is similar in wording, as already mentioned in respect of Bibi Fatimah [AS])
'They will be the chiefs of the youths of Paradise.’
With respect to these two grandchildren we know that the Prophet [sAW] was extraordinarily indulgent to them, allowing them to climb on his back, for example while he was prostrated in prayer. On one occasion when he saw Hassan [AS], fall down, he interrupted the sermon that he was delivering in order to help the child to his feet. But of course there is more to this matter than the simple love of a grandfather for his grandchildren. The designation of Imam Hassan [AS] and Imam Husain [AS] as the children of the Prophet [sAW], not of course in a literal sense, implies clearly significance for their lineage that like their father they have a direct link to the Prophet [sAW] and are beloved of him and have also the same right to succeed him as did their father Imam Ali [AS]. With respect to Imam Hassan [AS] it is said that he also physically resembled the Prophet [sAW]. He was very close to him in his outward appearance.
When his father Imam Ali [AS] was killed at Kufa, Imam Hassan [AS] was there also - it should be pointed out that by now at least, the political history of Islam had moved largely outside the Arabian Peninsula. Madinah the city of the Prophet [sAW], the sight of the first political authority, in Islam, was left behind. And a contest was underway between Iraq and Syria, the centre of the feudal caliphate of the Umayyads and later successors was not in the Arabian Peninsula. Imam Hassan [AS] was at Kufa when his father was assassinated. After the martyrdom of Imam Ali [AS], Mu’awiyah now for the first time openly claimed the caliphate for himself. His nominee to the arbitration committee (in Sifin) Amr ibn As had proclaimed Mu’awiyah the caliph. When Abu Musa al-Ashari the individual who Imam Ali [AS] had reluctantly nominated with the same commission, had agreed to depose Imam Ali [AS] on the understanding that a new caliph would be chose by some kind of selection process. Mu’awiyah was an extremely cunning operator, and believed in moving step by step so he did not at this point himself move forward to claim the caliphate based upon the declaration made by Amr ibn As. This happened only after the assassination of Imam Ali [AS]. Earlier he had just disputed the legitimacy of Imam Ali’s [AS] caliphate and brought much of the territory of the Muslim realm under his control above all Syria. Now after the death of the Imam [AS] he claimed the caliphate for himself openly and categorically. Now there took place an unequal contest - unequal in terms of man power and political strength, between Mu’awiyah and Imam Hassan [AS].
In much the same way that Imam Ali [AS] had become caliph by acclamation after the assassination of Uthman. Imam Hassan [AS] now became caliph by acclamation in Kufa. Much the same way as in terms of outward procedure, not in the way of the inward element legitimacy that you find in the way of Imam Hassan [AS] as being the descendant of the Prophet [sAW] and the son of the Imam Ali [AS] [i.e. people acclaimed him not necessarily with the knowledge that he was the Imam [AS]]. It was said that 40,000 people acclaimed Imam Hassan [AS] as the caliph in Kufa. The figure of 40,000 has certain generic quality to it in Muslim histories, 40,000 seems to be a kind of conventional figure meaning a large number of people. It may be safer to go with the general concept, rather than the precise statistic of 40,000. In any event a fairly large number of people did gather around Imam Hassan [AS] and proclaimed him as caliph - as the legitimate ruler of the Islamic realm. Including a large number of people who had fought with Imam Ali [AS] at the battle of Siffin. As for Madinah - or Madinah and Makkah together which played something of a role earlier - there was no sign of opposition to Imam Hassan [AS] who seems to have been in the Hijaz - in the Arabian Peninsula universally popular. The problem for Imam Hassan [AS] however was not simply the limited territory he now controlled after his proclomation as ruler, but the mixed and unreliable nature of those who gathered around him as his supporters. It can be said that there are roughly three factions among the followers of Imam Hassan [AS] at this point. Firstly, the inhabitants of Iraq, who out of a kind of regional patriotism were opposed to Mu’awiyah who had established his power base in Syria. Secondly, those who were moved by religious considerations to support Imam Ali [AS] - not however in the precise sense of the Shi’ah belief of the exclusive legitimacy of Imam Ali [AS] and his descendants - simply that there was a respect for Imam Hassan [AS] as the grandson of the Prophet [sAW]. Then lastly, and this group was smaller in number, those who already had firm and clear belief in the exclusive legitimacy of the line descending from Imam Ali [AS].
On his ascension to rule Imam Hassan [AS] made a speech in Kufa and he praised the merits of his family, mentioned with emphasis the rights and the qualities of his father, emphasised his own direct relations with the Prophet [sAW], described his claims and very significantly sighted in support of them - verse (33:33), they ayah tathir which speaks of the purification of the household of the Prophet [sAW]. Interpreted by Shi’i commentators on the Quran and a good number of Sunni commentators to indicate the sinlessness, the inerrancy of the descendants of the Prophet [sAW] through Imam Ali [AS] and Bibi fatimah [AS]. The citation of this verse at a relatively early point in the history of Shi’ism is a clear indication that the special status in purely religious aswell as genealogical terms of the household of the Prophet [sAW] was already in the forefront. This verse was regarded as a significant indication of the rights and acclaims of the household of the Prophet [sAW]. Supposedly now 40,000 troops now swore allegiance to Imam Hassan [AS], when he had completed the speech, on condition that he should rule in accordance with the Quran, and the Sunnah of the Prophet [sAW]. There was no mention made on this occasion, of the precedence of the first two caliphs. One of the pretexts advanced for the exclusion of Imam Ali [AS] to the caliphate after the death of Umar was his refusal to be bound by the precedence set by Abu Bakr and Umar. Now, Imam Hassan [AS] receives allegiance simply on these two conditions - that he should rule in accordance with the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet [sAW] himself.
Some of the troops sought to insert the following condition in their pledge of allegiance, that Imam Hassan [AS] should wage war against those who had declared the forbidden to be declared permissible i.e. against Mu’awiyah. Imam Hassan [AS] replied that this was implied in the first two conditions (i.e. to rule according to the Quran and Sunnah - which clearly indicated that war should be waged against those that declare the forbidden permissible). The fact that he did not accept it as a separate condition for the swearing of allegiance may however indicate that he was not anxious yet for an immediate clash with Mu’awiyah and his forces. If this particular demand had been made explicit and highlighted, then he might have felt compelled to embark on a war for which he was not yet prepared. And very probably he probably already sensed the fickleness of some of his supporters. Although they were pressing him for war many of them were already inclined to desert him. It seems that the beginning of Imam Hassan’s [AS] caliphate or exercise of rule in Kufa was at least tacitly approved in many regions of the Islamic world, in the Hijaz and elsewhere - a development which was unforeseen by Mu’awiyah. Mu’awiyah, despite the general skill and cunning that he displayed in political matters, clearly assumed that the position of Imam Hassan [AS] would be weaker than his father’s even at the very outset. Once Imam Hassan [AS] established, at least the beginnings of rule in Kufa, Mu’awiyah began to send agents to agitate against Imam Hassan [AS], in the Yemen, in the Hijaz, in Iran which was now under Islamic rule and elsewhere.
Mu’awiyah gathered an army of 60,000 from Syria and advanced in the direction of Iraq, in order to confront Imam Hasan [AS] before he had a chance to consolidate his rule - or to advance his military preparations. It seems that the preference of Mu’awiyah - and now his cunning comes to the fore clearly - was that Imam Hassan [AS] should abdicate, that he should voluntarily relinquish his claim to rule, his exercise of rule, rather than Mu’awiyah defeating Imam Hassan [AS] in battle, or putting him to death. Were he to put him to death then he would have been guilty of killing a grandson of he Prophet [sAW]. His successor Yazid did precisely that through his killing of Imam Hussain [AS]. However at that point Umayyad rule was far better rooted and even so horrendous an act of killing the grandson of the Prophet [sAW] did not shake in the short term the position of the Umayyad pseudo-caliphs. Mu’awiyah therefore simply wanted to force Imam Hassan [AS] to abdicate.
A correspondence now took place between Imam Hassan [AS] and Mu’awiyah the contents of which are extremely interesting. Imam Hassan [AS] based his claim to rule in this correspondence on his direct relationship (as described previously) to the Prophet [sAW], and also of being the son of Imam Ali [AS]. Imam Hassan [AS] wrote to Mu’awiyah:-
'We were shocked to see that some people snatched away our right from us even though they were men of excellence, virtue and merits and were the forerunners in Islam (On the one hand Imam Hassan [AS] is clearly reflecting the undoubted position of his father Imam Ali [AS], that the right of the Ahl al-Bait [AS], the household of the Prophet [sAW] to exercise rule had been snatched away, on the other hand he says, 'even though they were men of excellence virtue and merits and were the forerunners in Islam.( clearly a reference to the first three caliphs, they were men of excellence and embraced Islam early but that did not prevent them from usurping the rights of the Ahl al-Bait [AS]). Now what a great astonishment and shock it is to see that you Mu’awiyah are attempting to accede to a thing that you do not deserve (unlike the first three caliphs who had some excellence and virtue, and had early on embraced Islam, Mu’awiyah has no such claim) you do not possess any known merit in religion, nor do you have any record in Islam that has even been praised on the contrary you are the son of the leader of the opposition party (Abu Sufian who for a long time opposed Islam, and made an opportunistic conversion after the conquest of Makkah) you are the son of the greatest enemy of the Prophet [sAW] from among the Quraish. So give up your position in falsehood enter into my homage as other people have done for you are certainly aware of the fact that I am far more entitled to the caliphate than you in the eyes of God and all worthy people. Fear God, restrain yourself from rebellion and from shedding the blood of the Muslims, for by God there will be no good for you if you meet your Lord with responsibility for the blood of the Muslims.’
This is a clear legitimist argument that is being put forward by Imam Hassan [AS] with the main emphasis upon the virtues and claims of the household of the Prophet [sAW], regarding the uprising of Mu’awiyah as a continuation of the diversion of rule that was inaugurated by the first three caliphs. The response of Mu’awiyah is also of great historical interest, he said among other things the following:-
'Whatever you have said about the excellent merits of the Prophet [sAW] he was indeed the most excellent among all men. You have mentioned the death of the Prophet [sAW] and the dispute that took place among the Muslims at that time, in this you are making accusations against Abu Bakr, Umar and Others - against virtuous men from the migrants and the helpers. I hate this accusation against the people whose actions according to us are beyond doubt and reproach.’
Already we see at this point that Mu’awiyah is attempting to associate himself with the companions of the Prophet [sAW] with Abu Bakr, Umar and others. And he is suggesting that any accusation or criticism of such persons is unacceptable. In the same way that we see in the speeches of Imam Hassan [AS] and before him Imam Ali [AS] the essential elements of Shi’ah doctrine with respect to the Imamate - likewise one can see here the beginnings of what gradually emerges as the Sunni position. According to Sunni tradition or belief as it later came into being, all the companions are if not infallible as the Imams [AS] are, still they are all of them beyond criticism that if they made errors then it is not up to us to judge those errors whatever they did they did in good faith. Here already one sees this later doctrinal development foreshadowed in the mouth of Mu’awiyah when he says that no accusation can be made against Abu Bakr, Umar and others from among the companions. Then in a patronising fashion he goes on to say:-
'When this community had some disagreements after the Prophet [sAW] concerning the leadership it was not ignorance of your families merits, your priority, your close relationship with the Prophet [sAW], the community was also not unaware of your exalted place, or your qualifications in it, but the community saw that this thing (i.e. the caliphate) would be better placed among the Quraish in general and they therefore selected Abu Bakr. This is what the people thought best in the interests of the community, you are asking me to settle the matter peacefully and surrender but the situation concerning you and me today is like the one between you (Imam Ali [AS]) and Abu Bakr after the death of the Prophet [sAW]. Had I believed that you had a better grasp over the subject people better than I do, you could protect the community better than I, that you were stronger in safeguarding the properties of the Muslims, outwitting the enemy than I - then I would have done what you asked me to do. But I have had a longer period of reign and am more experienced, better in policies and older in age than you. It therefore would be better for you not to insist. If you enter into obedience to me now you will accede to the caliphate after me.’
Again here Mu’awiyah is attempting to place himself in the same position as Abu Bakr after the death of the Prophet [sAW]. From the point of view of Shi’ah Islam both are usurpers - both Abu Bakr and Mu’awiyah. However, the situations are clearly different in that here Mu’awiyah is disregarding a number of significant differences between the two situations. However, what is truly significant is that here there is implicitly being set forward an entirely different criteria for rule. Not the legitimist argument of Imam Hassan [AS], but rather a pragmatic claim to be better able to fulfil the immediate tasks of rule. Notice how Mu’awiyah says, â€˜I have a longer period of reign,’ That is to say Imam Hassan [AS] has just acceded to rule after the martyrdom of his father, Mu’awiyah has for a number of years been the governor of Syria. He also says that he is better experienced in politics, no doubt Mu’awiyah was more experienced in a certain type of politics in trickery and a number of other political skills, and he was older in age. These are the criteria advanced by Mu’awiyah in support of his claim. One can say that here to there is the beginnings of a significant difference in political theory. That which is important for the exercise of rule, is not piety, is not religiosity, but simple personal power and proven administrative ability, and military capacity - this is what Mu’awiyah claims. In other words a clear separation between religious and political principle. It can be said almost that Mu’awiyah amongst other things is the first secularist in Islam. The criteria that he puts forward for legitimate rule are not of a religious nature but simply of a pragmatic, administrative nature.
The Shi’ah position is not only legitimist in the sense of claiming legitimacy on the basis of designation by the Prophet [sAW] and then through Imam Ali [AS] it is also one that insists upon the inseparability of the religious and political. It is not acceptable for the bifurcation of authority into religious and political. One can say from a broad point of view, what is underway from now on is not simply what you might call a growing division between Sunni and Shi’ah positions which are more and more clearly differentiated from each other, more and more clearly consolidated with the passage of time - it is fundamentally a struggle over the whole orientation of the Muslims community with of course particular concentration on the ruling institution. As for the outcome of this militarily and politically unequal contest between Mu’awiyah and Imam Hassan [AS] the chronology is a little unclear. There was a prolonged correspondence between Mu’awiyah and Imam Hassan [AS]. And the chronology of the events that did eventuate in the abdication of Imam Hassan [AS] is somewhat unclear.
Some of the historians that were sympathetic to the Umayyads present Imam Hassan [AS] as having been inclined to abdicate from the very beginning but hindered from doing so by the hostility of some in his army who wished militarily to confront the Umayyads. It is also claimed that he was insistent on having a financial compensation for abdicating the caliphate. Precisely this detail casts doubt on the narrative as a whole - since it was the custom of Imam Hassan [AS], following upon the example of his father Imam Ali [AS] to empty the state treasury at the end of each week, he did not believe in building up a surplus, on the contrary in order to discourage any tendencies to opulence the treasury was deliberately emptied at the end of each week. Some of these accounts in the Umayyad period even claim that there were 5 million dinars in the treasury at Kufa which Imam Hassan [AS] insisted on keeping for himself, a totally unrealistic figure in view of what has been said. What appears to have happened is that Imam Hassan [AS] at a certain point recognised both the unreliability of his forces and there small number. And therefore he decided to abdicate on certain conditions, he sent a letter with these conditions to Mu’awiyah - Mu’awiyah at the same time sent a blank piece of paper to Imam Hassan [AS] in other words he was willing to accept whatever conditions Imam Hassan wanted to put forward.
Whether this actually happened is somewhat uncertain - it was not until a number of military manoeuvres with inconclusive outcomes that the abdication took place. Some of the followers of Imam Ali [AS] in fact rebelled against him others deserted and went over to the enemy, they were bribed or otherwise induced to defect to the enemy camp. It seems that the unreliability of his following was the decisive factor. He gave a speech to his followers, to those who proclaimed themselves as followers addressing the people of Iraq:-
'O people of Iraq, what shall I do with your people who are with me. Here is the letter of Qais ibn Sa’d - informing me that even the nobles from among you have gone over to Mu’awiyah. By God what shocking and abominable behaviour on your part. You are the same people who forced my father to accept arbitration at Siffin (Imam Ali [AS] was compelled by some of his own followers to accept arbitration with Mu’awiyah at the battle of Siffin) when the arbitration to which you yielded took place you turned against him. When he called upon you to fight Mu’awiyah then you showed your slackness and laziness - after the death of my father you yourselves came to me and paid me homage out of your desire and wish. I accepted your homage and came out against this Mu’awiyah. Now you are behaving in the same manner as before with my father. (Imam Hassan [AS] is now faced with a repetition of the behaviour of the Iraqis supporters of his father).’
Then a large number of even his more faithful supporters deserted him and now there remained no other possibility accept abdication. As for the terms of the abdication, there are varying narratives. Some claim that Imam Hassan [AS] was to receive financial compensation, secondly and more significantly an amnesty for the followers of Imam Ali [AS] - it was not enough from the point of view of Mu’awiyah that Imam Ali [AS] had been assassinated and now he was on the verge of taking the caliphate from Imam Hassan [AS] - he also had a policy for the seeking out and killing the followers of Imam Ali [AS] who had survived him. One of the terms of the abdication was that an amnesty should be proclaimed for the followers of Imam Ali [AS]. Then that the ritual cursing of Imam Ali [AS] that had taken place the beginning of Mu’awiyah’s rule to be bought to an end. This is an important detail, the ritual cursing of Imam Ali [AS] had been introduced by Mu’awiyah in Damascus and was then spread elsewhere in the Umayyad lands - what you may regard as an inappropriate compensation - Shi’ah Muslims after the rise of the Safawid dynasty in Iran in the 15th century introduced the cursing of some of the enemies of the Ahl al-Bait [AS] into there rituals, it became kind of an appendage to the call to prayer for quite a long period. But the habit, of the unpleasant tradition of ritual cursing as a quasi liturgical practise must be assigned to Mu’awiyah and his cursing of Imam Ali [AS].
More significantly among all the conditions were that Mu’awiyah was not to nominate his own successor and if he were to predecease Imam Hassan [AS] then Imam Hassan [AS] would regain the caliphate. Both of these conditions were important in that they implied not a permanent forfeiture of the ruling institution to Mu’awiyah and his descendants. Mu’awiyah broke the first condition by nominating yazid as his successor - it was during the caliphate of yazid that Imam Husain [AS] the other grandson of the Ptophet [sAW] was martyred. As for the other condition that if Mu’awiyah were to predecease Imam Hassan [AS], the caliphate should be returned to him this condition was not operative because Imam Hassan [AS] died in the year 49 AH, 669 AD at the age of 46 years. After his abdication from the caliphate - he left Kufa and settled in Madinah and it was there that he died most probably poisoned by one of his wives, at the instigation of Mu’awiyah. Immediately after the death of Imam Hassan [AS], Mu’awiyah in contravention of the agreement, nominated his own son Yazid as his successor. The relatively brief Imamate of Imam Hassan [AS] is significant, although as it seems he lost the caliphate - because of the restricted and unreliable nature of his following he clearly remained the Imam, not simply in the abstract sense but in the sense of having a clearly defined body of followers. Many of his followers whose motivation was not necessarily based on religious understanding fell away from him, after and before his abdication. Some remained loyal to him. The Imamate of Imam Hassan [AS] not simply in an inward sense of legitimacy an outward sense of having a body of followers continued after his abdication from the caliphate. What does this mean - It means that here Islam is now in the process of becoming a distinct community within the overall body of Muslims. The claim to legitimate rule over the entire Muslims community actually continues - although it never again becomes close to realisation - with the partial exception of Imam Rida [AS]. But the Imamate continued in the sense of a large number of persons following the Imam [AS] - Imam Hassan [AS] and his successors as their focus of religious loyalty and devotion. So that not only in the doctrinal sense but also in the organisational visible sense - one may say that Imam Hassan [AS] bought the Shi’ah movement forward to a greater degree of clarity on the external plain.