Caliphate of Imam Ali (a)

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Government Method

Reciprocal Rights of People and the Ruler

According to Imam 'Ali (a), there are mutual rights between the ruler and the people. They are divinely established and reciprocal. He said:

"In the same way that one has rights over the other, the latter also has rights over the former. The only one who has rights over everyone whilst none have rights over Him, is Allah. This does not apply to any of His servants."[1]

Also according to Imam 'Ali (a), respecting these mutual rights have great benefits:

"If subjects fulfill the rights of the ruler and the ruler fulfills the rights of their subjects, then rights attain a position of honor amongst them. The ways of the religion become established, the signs of justice become fixed, and the Sunna gains currency."[2]

Then, he states:

"If subjects gain sway over their ruler, or the ruler oppresses their subjects, then discord will be sewn. In every word, signs of oppression will appear, mischief will enter the religion, and the ways of the Sunna will be forsaken. Then, [people will] act on their desires, discard the commands (of religion), and [become] seriously diseased in the spirit. There will be no hesitancy in disregarding the most important of rights, nor in committing the biggest of wrongs. In these circumstances, the virtuous will be humiliated while the vicious will be honored, and there will be serious chastisements from Allah, the Glorified, onto the people."[3]

'Ali (a) highly respected the personalities and rights of the people and this is evident from the letters that he sent to his official agents. In a letter to one of his tax-collectors, he (a) wrote:

"Behave justly with the people and be patient with regards to their needs, because you are the treasurer of the people, a representative of the community, and an ambassador of the Imams."[4]

Also, in a letter advising zakat collectors, he wrote:

"Do not frighten any Muslim. Do not pass over his lands so as to make him feel uneasy. Do not take more than Allah's share from his property. When you visit a tribe, you should stop at their watering place as opposed to entering their houses. Proceed towards them with peace and dignity until you meet them. Then salute them and do not forget to greet them. Then say to them, 'O servants of Allah, the vicegerent of Allah and His caliph have sent me to collect Allah's share in your properties. Is there anything of His share in your properties? If so, give it to His vicegerent.' If someone responds in the negative, then do not repeat the demand. If someone responds in the affirmative, then go with him without frightening him, or threatening him…"[5]

When 'Ali (a) appointed Malik al-Ashtar to govern Egypt, he wrote:

"Habituate your heart to mercy for your subjects, and to affection and kindness for them. Do not stand over them like greedy beasts who feel as though they should devour them. They (your subjects) are of two kinds: either your brother in religion or like you in humanity/creation."[6]


In the beginning of his caliphate, Imam 'Ali (a) put an end to some of the false traditions of the first three caliphs. He stopped the way in which the public treasury was distributed based on the participation in battles of the early years of Islam, or with precedence for those who had become Muslim faster. He said: "Treat everyone equally when distributing the public treasury and do not prefer anyone over the other…. I have studied the Qur'an from the beginning to the end, and yet I have not found anything to suggest the superiority for the descendants of Ishmael – i.e. the Meccan Arabs – over Isaac's [and all people are equal]."[7] He appointed 'Ammar b. Yasir and Abu l-Haytham b. Tayyihan to the public treasury and gave them written orders:

"The Arabs, non-Arabs, and all Muslims from every tribe and ethnicity should receive an equal share from the public treasury."[8]

Moreover, when Imam 'Ali (a) accepted the caliphate, he ordered that the lands that 'Uthman had given to different people be restored to the treasury as it was 'the property of God'.[9]

Conduct Concerning the Public Treasury

Imam 'Ali (a) was so strict with regards to dealing with justice with the public treasury, that when his daughter only borrowed a pearl necklace from 'Ali b. Abi Rafi', the keeper of the public treasury, he gave both her and him a stern warnings.[10]

On another occasion, Imam 'Ali (a), in response to a financial request from one of his companions, said: "This property is neither mine, nor yours. Rather it is war booty that was obtained for the Muslims by their swords. If you had participated in the war alongside them, you would have received a share equal to theirs. However, [as this is not the case], it is not becoming for what they have earned by their own hands to be eaten by anyone else."[11]

Strict Enforcement of Law and Religion

He was uncompromising when enforcing the laws of Islam, and this made him intolerable for some people. The following two stories illustrate this:

Once, 'Ali (a) ordered Qanbar to punish someone with a number of lashes as per the legal punishment (hadd). Overcome with emotion, Qanbar added three more lashes. However, 'Ali (a) made the man retaliate and lash Qanbar three times for the injustice of the three additional lashes.[12]

One night, a rich man from Basra invited 'Uthman b. Hunayf (the governor of Basra) to a party and arranged to meet him at the party. 'Ali (a) heard about the gathering and instantly wrote a letter to 'Uthman b. Hunayf, saying: "O' Ibn Hunayf!, I have come to know that a young man from Basra invited you to a feast and you leaped towards it. Various types of foods of different colors were offered to you, and large bowls were being given to you. I never fathomed that you would accept an invitation to a feast from people who turn out beggars and invite the rich... Realize that your Imam has contented himself with two shabby pieces of cloth from the (comforts of the) world and two loaves (of bread) for his meal."[13]

Reproaching the Flatterers

Imam Ali (a) hated the extensive praising and flattering of people and forbade Muslims from it. The following stories illustrate this:

When returning from the Battle of Siffin, a man named Harb b. Shurahabil was walking with Imam 'Ali (a) who was on horseback. Imam 'Ali (a) stopped him and said to Harb, "Go back!" When Harb refused, he told him, "Go back, since such a person as you going on foot accompanying such a person as me brings trouble for the governor and ruler, and humiliation and disgrace for a believer."[14]

Once, one of the companions eulogized Imam 'Ali (a). He strictly prohibited him from doing so and said:

"In the view of the virtuous people, the worst state of a ruler is that they are thought to love glory, and that their affairs are shaped on pride. I would hate for it to occur to your mind that I love to be flattered or to hear eulogies. By the grace of Allah, I am not like this. Even If I loved to be mentioned like this, I would have forsaken it in submissiveness to Allah, the Glorified, rather than accept greatness and sublimity to which He is more entitled. Generally, people become pleased when they are praised after a good performances, but do not praise me for the obligations that I have discharged towards Allah and towards you…"[15]

When 'Ali (a) led his army towards Syria, and they approached the city of al-Anbar, local peasants were standing in rows and ran forward to welcome him happily. Then he said, "What a wrong action you have done!" They said: "This is our custom and the way in which we show our respect to our governors." 'Ali (a) said, "By Allah, this does not benefit your leaders. You are yourself into hardship in this world and earning misery for the next world by doing so."[16]

Military System

'Ali (a) knew that the army was a source of confidence for the people, dignity for the governors, glory for the religion, and security for the state. The army's success was contingent on the economic situation of the state and the taxes given by people, government agents, traders, and industry owners and their stability and strength for protecting the country depend on the overall government system.[17]

With regards to recruiting army members, he said, "Associate with considerate people from high families, virtuous houses and decent traditions, and then people of courage, valor, generosity and benevolence… there should be a close relationship between them and the leader of the Ummah, and they should be supported financially."[18]

In the views of Imam 'Ali (a), the people are considered to be the most important defensive mechanism for a government, and if their support wanes, it would result in the complete destruction of the armed forces in a prolonged war and may be followed by the overthrowing of the government. As such, he stated,

"The elites of a nation impose a heavy burden on the government, since they show less support in times of hardship, more discontent with an administration of justice and they are less resistant against problems. However, the general public forms the standing pillars of religion, grandiose Muslim congregations and society and reserved armed forces."[19]


During his rule, Imam 'Ali (a) appointed and replaced governors in a few cities, including:

From among the governors of 'Ali (a), some were killed, like Malik al-Ashtar, Muhammad b. Abi Bakr, 'Abd Allah b. Khabbab, Muhammad b. Abi Hudhayfa, Abu l-Hasan b. al-Hassan al-Bakri, and Hulw b. 'Awf.

Some also died of old age in the time of 'Ali (a), such as, Sahl b. Hunayf, Abu Qatada, and Hudhayfa b. Yaman.

However, some continued as governors until they died, like Qays b. Sa'd, 'Uthman b. Hunayf, Kumayl b. Ziyad, Sa'd b. Mas'ud and Sulayman b. Surad.

There were also some who failed in performing their duties and were rebuked like, 'Ubayd Allah b. al-'Abbas and Sa'id b. Namran.

Imam 'Ali (a) also dismissed and removed some governors due to their disloyalty like Mundhir b. Jarud and 'Uqba b. 'Amr.[20]

  1. Nahj al-balagha, sermon 207
  2. Nahj al-balagha, sermon 207
  3. Nahj al-balagha, sermon 207
  4. Nahj al-balagha, letter 51
  5. Nahj al-balagha, letter 25
  6. Nahj al-balagha, letter 53
  7. Mahmudi, Nahj al-sa'adat fi mustadrak nahj al-balagha, vol. 1, p. 224; Mufīd, al-Ikhtisas, p. 151
  8. Husayni Dashti, Ma'arif wa ma'arif, vol. 7, p. 457
  9. Mas'udi, Ithbat al-wasiyya, p. 158
  10. Tabari, Tarikh al-rusul wa l-muluk, vol. 6, p. 90
  11. Thaqafi, al-Gharat , vol. 2, p. 45
  12. Qummi, Tafsir al-Qummi, vol. 2, p. 167
  13. Nahj al-balagha, letter 45
  14. Ibn Athir, al-Kamil fi l-tarikh, vol. 3, p. 318
  15. Nahj al-balagha, sermon 216
  16. Nahj al-balagha, maxim 37
  17. Nahj al-balagha, letter 53
  18. Nahj al-balagha, letter 53
  19. Nahj al-balagha, letter 53
  20. Shahidi, Zistnama-yi Imam 'Ali, p. 26