Islamic Studies 'Alī Ibn Abī Ṭālib
Moojan Momen, Omid Ghaemmaghami
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0007


ʿAlī (c. 600–661) was the cousin, and at various times in his life, foster-brother, foster-son, and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. He was a young boy when he embraced Islam and is regarded as the first male to have accepted Muhammad’s prophetic call. After the migration from Mecca to Medina, he married Muhammad’s daughter Fāṭima (d. 633). Four surviving children resulted from this marriage. ʿAlī participated in almost all of the early battles and expeditions, during which his leadership, bravery, and skill as an expert swordsman—all of which posthumously took on mythic proportions—were well regarded. Following the death of Muhammad in 632, disputes over leadership and authority enveloped the nascent community. Those who affirmed ʿAlī’s right to rule came to be known as the Shīʿa ʿAlī (partisans of ʿAlī). The majority of the community came to be known as the Ahl al-sunna (Sunnīs) and acknowledged Abū Bakr (d. 634), ʿUmar (d. 644), and ʿUthmān (d. 656) as the first three caliphs, or leaders, of the community. ʿAlī was declared leader after the assassination of ʿUthmān in 656, but his five-year rule was marked by civil strife and disputes (fitna) that lingered from the death of ʿUthmān until ʿAlī’s eventual murder in a mosque in Kūfa in 661. ʿAlī’ is venerated by Sunnīs as the fourth and last rightly guided caliph, and by the Shīʿa as the first Imām, the rightful successor to the Prophet, and the progenitor, together with his wife Fāṭima, of the succeeding Imāms. Thus, his influence in the Islamic tradition is far-reaching. He is revered for his piety and righteousness, chivalry and bravery, adherence to justice and principle, and knowledge of the Qurʾān and the Sunna of the Prophet.

General Overviews

Poonawala and Kohlberg 1985, Shah-Kazemi 2005, and Gleave 2009 are all excellent academic summaries of the life, works, and legacy of ʿAlī. Rishād 2001 is the most exhaustive study of elements of ʿAlī’s thought and philosophy in any language. Danishnamih ʿAlawi is the most complete collection of works by and about ʿAlī. The general introduction to the life of ʿAlī in Momen 1985 is of benefit to specialists and nonspecialists alike. Muttaqī 2003 and the final volume of Rishād 2001 are vital surveys for any scholar wishing to study the primary sources on ʿAlī. Ocak 2005 gathers some of the best scholarship available on the myth and image of ʿAlī in popular culture.

  • Dānishnāmih ʿAlawī. CD-ROM. Tehran, Iran: Noorsoft, 2009.

    An attempt to compile a complete collection of the writings and speeches attributed to ʿAlī, as well as commentaries on these and other material written about ʿAlī. Contains the searchable text of more than 280 volumes.

  • Gleave, Robert. “Alī b. Abī Ṭālib.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 3d ed. Edited by Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson. The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 2009.

    The most up-to-date academic survey of the life and influence of ʿAlī, covering his life, his works, his position in Sunnī thought, his position in the Ṣūfī tradition, and his position in Shīʿī theology.

  • Momen, Moojan. Introduction to Shīʿī Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʿism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    On ʿAlī’s life, his qualities and the succession to the Prophet (pp. 11–26), and on the Imamate in general (pp. 147–160).

  • Muttaqī, Ḥusayn. Muʿjam al-āthār al-makhṭūṭa ḥawla al-Imam ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. Qum, Iran: Maktabat Āyatullāh Marʿashī-Najafī, 2003.

    A listing of over ten thousand manuscripts about ʿAlī. About half of these are exclusively related to ʿAlī, while the rest are partly related. This is an indispensable source for any scholar wishing to undertake primary source research about ʿAlī.

  • Ocak, Ahmet Yaşar, ed. From History to Theology: Ali in Islamic Beliefs. Ankara, Turkey: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 2005.

    A useful and varied collection of articles about ʿAlī. See especially Sachedina on ʿAlī in Twelver Shiʿism (pp. 3–25) and Daftary on ʿAlī in Ismāʿīlī theology (pp. 59–82). The second half of the book contains articles on ʿAlī in popular literature and iconography.

  • Poonawala, I. K., and E. Kohlberg. Alī ibn Abī Ṭāleb. In Encyclopedia Iranica Online. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 1985.

    Together with Gleave 2009, this is perhaps the best neutral and academic account available online. Poonawala authored the historical section dealing with the life of ʿAlī, while Kohlberg looks at the image of ʿAlī venerated by different Shīʿī groups.

  • Rishād, Alī-Akbar, ed. Dānishnāmih-yi Imām ʿAlī. 12 vols. Tehran, Iran: Muʾassasih-yi Farhangī-yi Dānish va Andīshih-yi Islāmī, 2001.

    This twelve-volume Persian encyclopedia about ʿAlī contains 630 entries and some 3,000 subentries written by religious scholars (ulāma) and university professors based in Iran. Volume titles include “Philosophy and Divine Knowledge,” “Prophethood and the Imamate,” “Ethics,” “Politics,” “History,” and “Economics.” The final volume is devoted to discussing the provenance of primary sources and manuscripts related to ʿAlī. The encyclopedia has received several prestigious publication awards in Iran.

  • Shah-Kazemi, Reza. “ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 256–261. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

    An excellent survey of the life of ʿAlī and the influence he has exerted on virtually every aspect of the Islamic tradition. The article features a useful annotated bibliography for further reading.

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