Abul Hasan Ali, or Ali (Lofty, Exalted), the son of Abu Talib and the cousin of Muhammad was born on Friday, the 13th Rajab in the 28th year of amul feel (the year of elephants), or 600 A.D. inside Kaba in Mecca. His mother Fatima bint Asad stayed in Kaba for three long days and as the fourth day approached, she stepped out, carrying her gem in her arms. He was brought up under the subtle care and affection of Muhammad. Ali himself cherished the memory of his childhood by saying: "The Prophet brought me up in his own arms and fed me with his own morsel. I followed him, wherever he went, like a baby-camel which follows its mother. Each day a new aspect of his character would beam out of his noble person and I would accept it and follow it as commanded."
Ibn Abid Hadid (d. 655/1257) quotes Ibn Abbas as relating in his "Sharh Nahj al-Balagha" that Muhammad and Ali loved each other intensely. Muhammad was so fond of Ali that once when Ali was a young boy, he sent him out on some errand, and Ali took long time to return; he started getting worried and prayed to God, "O'Lord, do not let me die unless I behold Ali once again."
Ahmad bin Hanbal writes that, "There are not as many verses and traditions in the praise of any other companion of Muhammad as there are in the praise of Ali bin Abu Talib." Ibn Abbas says that, "There have not descended as many verses about anybody as have revealed about Ali." On another occasion Ibn Abbas narrates, "Three hundred verses of the Holy Koran have been revealed in favour of Ali." Abdullah bin Ayyash bin Abu Rabiah says, "Ali's knowledge and insight were perfect and he was the first to embrace Islam and he has the honour of being the son-in-law of the Messenger of God. He alone had perfect ability to understand the traditions. He was very brave in fighting and very generous in charity."
Regarding the first man to profess faith in the prophetic mission of Muhammad, the early historians seem to have created a debating issue. Ibn Hisham (1st vol., p. 245), Tabari (2nd vol., p. 56) etc. however write that Ali bin Abu Talib was the first male to accept Islam at the hands of Muhammad. While Nuruddin Ali bin Ibrahim Shafayee writes in "Sirat-i Halabiya" that, "Ali was like a son unto Muhammad, therefore, his faith from very start was the faith professed by the Prophet." Masudi (d. 346/958) writes in his "Muruj adh-Dhahab" (2nd vol., p. 283) that, "The general conscientious of opinion amongst the Muslim historians and theologians is that Ali was never a non-Muslim or prayed before idols, therefore, the question of his embracing Islam does not and cannot arise."
In 614 A.D. about four years after his divine call, Muhammad proceeded to summon his close relatives. Thus he prepared a banquet, a lamb, and a bowl of milk for the entertainment of forty guests of the Hashimite. When Muhammad asked the assembly, who will assist him in his mission, no answer was returned. It was only Ali on that occasion stood up to offer his services for the cause of Islam to Muhammad. Thomas Carlyle writes in "Heroes and Hero-worship" (London, 1850, p. 77) that, "Nevertheless, it proved not a laughable thing; it was very serious thing! As for this young Ali, one cannot but like him. A noble minded creature, as he shows himself, now and always afterwards; full of affection and fiery daring."
During the night of Muhammad's migration from Mecca, it was indeed a most dangerous moment for Ali, when he volunteered to sleep fearlessly in Muhammad's bed. The task entrusted to him was not a small undertaking for a young man of 22 or 23 years old, but the way in which he carried it out, Ali showed an unflinching fidelity. He was called upon to deputise Muhammad at the risk of his own life, for it was highly probable that the assassins, furious at being foiled of their chief objective would kill Ali in his stead. Historian Tabari writes that, "Ali's willingness to sacrifice his life for Muhammad is unique in the history of mankind." Shibli Nomani writes in his "Sirat al-Nabi" (tr. by Fazlur Rahman, Karachi, 1970, p. 247) that, "It was a very critical moment. Ali knew that the Quraysh had planned to assassinate the Prophet, and fully realized that his bed that night was to be turned into a place of murder, but, for the Victor of Khaybar it was a bed of roses." On that occasion a Koranic verse revealed in favour of Ali, which reads: "And among men there is he who would sell himself to seek the pleasure of God, and God is Compassionate to His servants." (2:207)
During the 2nd year of migration, Ali's betrothal took place with Muhammad's daughter Fatima, which had been actualized in the month of Ramdan, but the nuptial ceremonies were performed two months later in Zilhaja very simply without pomp and ostentation. Abu Muhammad Ordoni writes in "Fatima the Gracious" (Qumm, 1992, p. 131) that, "The Prophet asked for a jug of water; he sipped a small amount of the water and after gargling with it, placed it back in the jug. He then called for Fatima and sprayed her head and shoulders with that water and did the same thing to Ali." According to some sources, Ali at the time of marriage was 21 years, 5 months and 15 days old, while Fatima was 15 years, 5 months and 15 days old.
Ali is said to have taken part in all the holy wars with the exception of the expedition of Tabuk, when he was left as a governor of Medina, and during that occasion, Muhammad said, "O Ali, you are to me as Aaron was to Moses." ("Masnad", 1st vol., p. 174) His dauntless courage, fortitude and unflinching loyalty made him the main hero of all these campaigns. It was the valour of Ali and the strength of his arms that turned the table at critical juncture on the battlefield, and it was the victories won by him that ensured the triumph of Islam over polytheism. At the battle of Badr, as had been customary in all Arabian battles since pre-historic times, the champions of each force came out of the ranks before commencement of operations. With Hamza and Obaida, Ali fought duel with the Meccan champions. In the battle of Uhud, Ali stood steadfast to shield Muhammad when the Muslims had fled from the field.
Ali's dauntless courage and valour was further seen when he killed Amr bin Abdu-wudd in the battle of Ditch, ensuing the triumph of Islam. During the battle of Khaibar, five strongholds of the Jews had been reduced with the exception of al-Qamus, whose commander was Marhab. Muhammad at first assigned Abu Bakr to lead the Muslim army to besiege the fort. R.V.C. Bodley writes in "The Messenger" (London, 1946, p. 271) that, "Into this Abu Bakr led a heroic attack, but he was driven back. Then Umar tried, but while he reached the mouth of the breach, he had to retire." Thus, Muhammad declared, "Tomorrow, I will hand over the banner of Islamic army to such a person who is an impetuous warrior and not an absconder; he befriends God and His Apostle and is also befriended by them. God is sure to grant victory on his hands." The next morning, Ali had been given the charge to lead the assault and to fight till the Jews acknowledged submission. Ali, clad in a scarlet vest over which was buckled a cuirass of steel, proceeded to the front. He put Harith, a man of gigantic stature to the sword. To revenge the death of his brother, the Jewish champion Marhab stepped forward from Jewish lines, and challenged Ali to single combat. "I am Marhab", he cried, "as all Khaibar know, a warrior bristling with arms in a furiously ranging war." Ali advanced from the Muslim ranks in response to his vainglorious challenge, saying "I am he whom his mother named Haidar, a lion of the wilderness; I weigh my foes in a gigantic balance." As both closed, Marhab made a thrust at Ali with his three-pronged lance, which Ali dexterously warded off, and before he could recover himself, Ali dealt him a blow with his irresistible sword, which divided his buckler, passed through his doubled turban, cleaving his head went down to his chest. Marhab fell lifeless to the ground. The Muslim warriors rushed forward in a body, and captured the citadel and the victory was decisive.
During the battle of Hunain, the Muslim army was unable to withstand the volley of arrows of the foe. Some of them shattered but Ali faced the situation boldly. He put numerous opponents to death with his sword.
Ali acted as the scribe for writing the treaty of Hudaibia. He wrote Muhammad as Messenger of God. The infidels objected to it. They wanted him to write Muhammad, the son of Abdullah. The Prophet consented to do so for the sake of peace, but Ali did not like to delete those words with his own hands. To him it was sacrilege and against the spirit of reverence. Muhammad however did so with his own hand.
Ali spent his youth in the shadow of the sword and his early manhood in wielding it. On several occasions, he fought single-handed against overwhelming odds and emerged out victorious. In the battle of Siffin, he penetrated into the front ranks of the Syrian forces, dressed only in a cotton uniform and without any protective armour. For much the same reason, Ali wore protective armour on the front part of his body only, while his back lay open and unprotected. Someone asked him, "Are you not afraid that you will be attacked from behind?" "God forbid", was Ali's reply, "that I may live to see the day when an enemy would have the dexterity to attack me from the rear." Once a soldier asked Ali why he preferred mule to a horse when going into action. Ali replied, "A horse can gallop at a great pace, but a mule only ambles along, faltering little in its slow and steady pace. As I have neither to chase one who flies from the battlefield nor any inclination to seek safety in flight myself, I prefer a mule to horse." His behaviour at the battles also illustrates his adherence to his code he imparted. While fighting a duel in a battle, Ali had thrown his opponent on the ground and had drawn his sword to cut off his head, when the latter spat on his face. Ali then left his enemy and sheathed his sword. Asked why he left such a dangerous foe alive, Ali said, "I would have killed him in the way of God, but when he spat on my face, I lost my temper and his death at that juncture would have been caused from motives of retaliation rather than in the spirit of holy war."
During the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad entered Kaba and removed 360 idols. The Meccans looked on aghast while Muhammad, with a stroke of stick held in hand, smashed the idols which lay in the lower cavities of the walls. To break those idols which were placed higher up, out of reach of either hand or stick, in particular the idol most treasured by the Meccans, that of Hubal, like a giant statue; Muhammad solicited the help of Ali. Ibn Sa'd (3rd vol., p. 13) and other compilers of Hadiths, like Tirmizi (2nd vol., p. 299) and Ibn Majah (p. 12) write that Muhammad said, "Ascend on my shoulders and then shatter with this stick all the idols which are placed up above." Ali placed his feet on the shoulders of Muhammad and completed the great purge. He cast down all the idols, relics of the age of ignorance, also climbed to the top of the Kaba and pulled Hubal from its place and threw it down.
In the year 9/631, Islam was firmly established throughout Arabia. There remained, however, certain isolated pockets of resistance, therefore, Muhammad next turned his attention to the large Christian community of Najran in Yamen, and invited them to accept Islam. Their response was to conduct a mubahila (imprecation), which was an old custom much used by the ancient prophets. Each of the disputant parties was required to swear a solemn oath that they were on the side of the truth, calling on God to wreak His vengeance on them if they lied. In short, mubahila was a custom to invoke the curse of God on the liar. Hence a deputation of sixty Christian priests, headed by Abu Harith bin Alqamah, the grand bishop of Najran, Abdul Massih and Ayham arrived in Medina. Muhammad had taken with him Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Hussain, making themselves as panj-tan (the blessed Quincunx), and when the Christians saw their radiant faces, they were dismayed and overwhelmed. The bishop of Najran changed his mind, and went to Muhammad, informing their inability to proceed with the mubahila, and agreed to come to the terms.
The Muslim scholars unanimously concur with the fact, says, Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal in his "Masnad," "that not one of the companions of the Prophet was ever praised by God and His Prophet for his virtues and estimation as was Ali." On one occasion when four of the Muslims complained to Muhammad concerning something that Ali had done, Muhammad was displeased and said, "What do you want from Ali? Ali is from me and I am from Ali. He is the guardian of every believer after me." (Tirmizi, 2nd vol., p. 298) On another occasion, Muhammad is reported to have said, "Ali is my brother, my executor and my successor. You obey him."