Ali Zayn Al-Abidin, the son of Hussain who survived the Battle of Karbala, was much more than just a 7th-century religious leader. He was a scholar admired by contemporary academics, an ascetic still praised by the world’s Sufis, and a pioneer of human rights. Here are just a few lessons we can learn from the life of this profound personality.
1. Be resilient in the face of adversity
Ali was unwell and just 22 years old when most of his male family members, including his father Hussain, were killed whilst standing up against the oppressive regime of the time (you can read more about Hussain’s sacrifice here). Whilst it would have been easy for Ali to give up after his experiences, he spent the rest of his life mirroring his father’s message. Ali lived by the following mantra: “And we will most certainly try you with somewhat of fear and hunger and loss of property and lives and fruits; and give good news to the patient, who, when a misfortune befalls them, say: Surely we are God’s and to Him we shall surely return.” (Qur’an, 2:155-156)
2. Refrain from obscenity
In the age of social media, abuse and insults are becoming increasingly common. Ali son of Hussain illustrated the optimal way to respond to trolls. When a man approached him hurling abusive language, he initially ignored him. When the man continued in the same manner, Ali calmly replied: “If what you are saying about me is true then may God forgive me, but if it is not true, then may God forgive you.”
3. Respect human rights
One of Ali’s works, Treatise on Rights, illustrates the need for us to value and respect all life, regardless of creed, race, religion or gender. In this fascinating exposition, he summarises the rights of 51 entities, from the right of your tongue (one of its rights is to “refrain from meddling in which there is nothing to be gained”), the right of your neighbour (“you guard him when he is absent, honour him when he is present, and aid him when he is wronged”), to the right of the one who does evil to you (his right is “that you pardon him”). Putting this treatise in the context of 7th century Arabia, an era where female children would be buried alive and intertribal war was a pastime, sheds some light into how revolutionary it was then, and how valid its concepts remain today. You can peruse the entire treatise here.
4. Give generously
Ali wrote of the benefits of giving charity in his Treatise on Rights, but it is reported that some people regarded him as stingy during his lifetime. It was only after Ali passed away that many of the poor in the city of Medina suddenly reported that their regular provisions had stopped appearing. They then realised that the man who had been secretly providing them with alms in the darkness of the night was Ali son of Hussain. It is said he had been supporting nearly 100 needy families with charitable aid.
5. Learning is for life
Ali was a fountain of knowledge, and his numerous works are a testament to this. Despite only living to his mid-50s, and much of his life being spent under repression, he authored the extensive Al-Sahifa Al-Sajjadiyya, often called the “Psalms of Islam”. This compilation of 54 prayers is so profound that despite being unified in its supplicatory style throughout, it covers concepts from spirituality to social justice – indeed, around 40 commentaries of the invocations have already been authored.
6. Live as a minimalist
It is easy to get drawn into a material lifestyle, where we strive to attain the latest gadget or fashion accessory, and then to obtain the most likes when we share our photos of them with the world. In an example of his humility, Ali son of Hussain used to wear rough clothing in prayer despite having woollen garments available, and would prostrate directly on the ground rather than a prayer rug. When he was once questioned on why he was walking to the pilgrimage in Mecca by foot, he stated: “My sustenance is my virtue, my camel is my leg, and my objective is the Great Friend (God)”.
7. Don’t forget the forgotten
Ali was once riding when he passed a group of individuals suffering with leprosy, who nobody wished to associate with. They invited Ali to eat with them, but he was fasting at the time. When he reached his home, he ordered a special meal, invited the lepers over that evening, and ate with them, sitting beside them during the meal.
8. Spend time in reflection
Ali son of Hussain used to spend hours immersed in worship, weeping and prostrating. Despite being in a position of power as a religious and political leader, he saw himself only as a servant of God, and it is said that his face would go yellow, his legs would tremble and his forehead become wounded due to repeated prostration. Whether you are religious or not, spending time in meditation away from the daily stressors in life is proven to be beneficial, as shown by the recent popularity of mindfulness.
Ali, like his father Hussain, has left a legacy which lives on to this day – one of love, compassion and social justice. Just as Ali sat and ate with the lepers of Arabia almost 1400 years ago, today volunteers from Who is Hussain feed the homeless in London on a weekly basis. This is just one of a multitude of opportunities going on around the globe. Once you’re ready to take the pledge, click here to get involved and help the legacy of Ali live on.