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Two Sermons by Imam Ali


By Tahera Qutbuddin


The Montréal Review, July 2021




What is the relationship between virtue and piety? Grounded in the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, the teachings of Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661)—first Imam after the Prophet Muhammad according to the Shia, and fourth Caliph according to the Sunnis—contend that they are essentially linked. In this article, I analyze Ali’s sermons and sayings to demonstrate that in his vision virtue and piety go hand in hand such that each entails and informs the other: you cannot be truly pious if you are not truthful and kind and you cannot be truly virtuous if you do not humble yourself before your creator. In his conception, all virtue is contained in the idea of piety such that a description of piety is a description of virtue and a description of virtue is a description of piety. Underscoring the vital correlation, he preaches that the fundamental source for acquiring knowledge of virtue is divine revelation: we originally learned virtue, and continue to learn virtue, from the guidance of the prophets sent by God through the ages to teach humankind.

Most contemporary secular virtue ethicists have nothing to say about piety. But Islam, like most faith traditions, intrinsically connects the two, and its scriptures contain abundant examples of this association. The Qur’an links prayer with behavior, saying, «Ritual prayer restrains you from indecency and dissipation»,1 and it makes material charity one of the so-called pillars of the faith.2 Muhammad’s hadith tie the spiritual with the social aspect of human life, such as the hadith which says: “Those who believe in God and the last day should honor their neighbors.”3 Explaining and elaborating the nexus in rich detail, Ali’s teachings firmly link virtue with piety.

After brief contextualizing remarks on Ali’s life, teachings, and ethics of virtue, the article presents texts and analyses of two famous sermons that address the relationship between virtue and piety, namely, “The Four Pillars of Faith” and “Description of the Truly Pious.” (I treat piety and faith synonymously in several places in this paper, insofar as both focus on mindfulness of God, belief in him, and behavior based on his commands.) These sermons are among Ali’s most comprehensive presentations on the topic, but much of his oeuvre lends itself to the discussion at hand, and the section following highlights some of his notable teachings on brotherhood and pluralism. The final section brings Ali’s vision into sharper focus by comparing his ethics of virtue in general terms with certain types of self-oriented and ascetic Muslim approaches. Throughout the article, Ali’s sermons, epistles, and sayings are examined alongside historical reports regarding his character and practice. Referring to the umbrella topic of the present volume—that virtue orients us to self-transcendent goods—the concluding remarks cite a final text by Ali predicating human happiness on a combination of piety and virtue.

Ali’s Life: Courage and Conviction in Adversity

Ali is an eminent figure in Islamic history.4 The Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, ward, and son-in-law, he was the first male to accept Islam. The Shia believe him to be the Prophet’s legitimate successor in both his spiritual and temporal roles, while Sunnis regard him as the fourth historical Caliph. Both Shia and Sunni Muslims extol his deep personal loyalty to the Prophet, his valor in the early battles, and his profound piety, learning, and justice. They invoke benedictions upon him whenever they mention Ali’s name, such as “God’s blessings and peace upon him” (Shia), and “May God honor his face” (Sunni). They recount numerous sayings from the Prophet praising him, among the most famous of which are: “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gateway” ; “Ali is to me as Aaron was to Moses, except that there is no prophet after me” ; “You, Ali, are my brother in this world and the next.”5

Dedicated to preaching virtue and piety, Ali’s life was also a litany of fortitude. Born in Mecca around 600 AD, he was raised by his older cousin Muhammad. He was about 10 years old when Muhammad began the call to Islam, and 23 at the time of his migration to Medina. Shortly thereafter, he married Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, with whom he had two sons, Hasan and Husayn, and two daughters, Zaynab and Umm Kulthum. In Medina, he put his life on the line for his principles and played a leading role in establishing Islam, with a crucial part in the major Battles of Badr, Uhud, Khaybar, and The Trench against the Meccans and their allies. Muhammad’s death in 632 AD struck him hard, as he mourned a deeply revered leader and beloved benefactor. In the wake of Muhammad’s demise, and Fatima’s two months later, he conceded command to the first three Sunni caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman, though upholding his right to the succession. For the next twenty-five years, he lived a life of retirement from politics, dedicated to collecting the Qur’an and educating his children. Even after becoming caliph in 656 AD, he was faced by repeated uprisings from within. In the four years he ruled, he fought three pitched battles against dissenting Muslims: first, the Battle of the Camel against the Prophet’s widow A’isha, the Prophet’s companions Talha and Zubayr, and the people of Basra; then, the Battle of Siffin against Mu’awiya from the rival Umayyad clan and the people of Syria; and finally, the Battle of Nahrawan against the Seceders (Arabic: Kharijites) from his own Iraqi army. He migrated from Medina to Kufa to confront the insurgency of the Camel, and stayed there, using it as a base for the fight with Mu’awiya. Some of his closest associates and family members were killed at Siffin and in its aftermath. After the post-Siffin arbitration went against him, most of his supporters pulled back, and he spent the last few months of his life persuading them to resume the fight. Meanwhile, Mu’awiya was going from strength to strength, taking over Egypt, and sending raiding parties into the Arabian Peninsula and even Iraq itself, not far from Ali’s capital, Kufa. This state of affairs continued until in 661 AD, a Kharijite killed Ali while he was praying in the grand mosque in Kufa. The orations and epistles quoted in this article—which articulate his morality and conviction, and champion justice and charity—were mostly spoken and written during the turbulent years of his caliphate.

Ali’s Teachings: Piety, Philosophy, and Governance

Ali is the preeminent sage and orator of Islam. Hundreds of orations, epistles, and sayings are attributed to him, composed and initially transmitted orally, and compiled in tens of collections and thousands of pages of pithy, vivid, rhythmic prose.6 Major extant compilations include The Path of Eloquence (Nahj al-balāgha) compiled by the Twelver Shi’ite scholar Sharif Radi (d. 1041)7 and A Treasury of Virtues (Dustūr ma’ālim al-ḥikam) compiled by the Fatimid Shafi’i-Sunni judge Quda’i (d. 1062). Considered the epitome of Arabic eloquence by medieval and modern litterateurs and critics, Ali’s words are also deemed authoritative. For the Shia, they are second in stature only to the Qur’an and hadith, and the majority of Sunnis also deeply revere them. This broad-based veneration is a large part of the reason why the themes of Ali’s sermons have influenced the development of Muslim thought. Clearly, Ali’s teachings have had enormous currency through the ages and continue to resonate today. Moreover, his orations cover a wide array of both spiritual and material subjects. Learned philosopher, pious ascetic, governing caliph, warrior, and commander, Ali’s persona and words bring together disparate aspects of the human experience.8

Ali’s Ethics of Virtue

Ali’s orations are among Islam’s foundational texts for ideas of virtue and piety. After the Qur’an and the sayings of Muhammad, they form the most copious and significant early source for notions of virtue ethics in Islam. The texts attributed to Ali are mostly from his public preaching, and given their homiletic and persuasive function, it is to be expected that they do not offer a detailed theoretical analysis of virtue. But from the abundance of sermons, sayings, and epistles, we can distill some philosophical underpinnings. Broadly, Ali’s sermons preach worship of the creator, promote awareness of the transience of human life, and focus on the subsequently urgent need to prepare for the imminent and permanent hereafter. This multi-pronged umbrella theme of Ali’s philosophy connects directly with his ethics of virtue. Preparation for the hereafter, he says, is achieved not solely through prayer and fasting. He fully encourages devotion and ascetic practice but combines them with an uncompromising requirement of humanitarian good. (By “humanitarian” good, I mean as it relates to behavior among humans, which is seen by contemporary virtue ethicists as secular; in Ali’s view, “humanitarian” virtues are not different in category than “religious” virtues.) In order to worship God sincerely, Ali says, you must also be just, wise, and compassionate toward others. You must cultivate forbearance and gratitude. The rich among you must take responsibility for feeding the poor. You must perform good deeds and participate in building an equitable society, for all creatures are God’s own creation. In Ali’s vision, piety and virtue cohere, and together form the basis for true happiness. In this, he draws on Qur’anic and prophetic teachings, some of which I cited in my Introduction, where piety and virtue are also intrinsically linked. Moreover, and as I also mentioned at the outset, Ali’s linking of virtue and piety is based on the understanding that religious teachings are the primary source for acquiring awareness of virtues. How did humans first become differentiated from animals? How did we learn goodness? In Ali’s vision, we learned it through the example of God’s prophets and the teachings of his revealed books.

Sermon 1. “The Four Pillars of Faith”: Text and Analysis

It is reported that a man named Abbad ibn Qays asked Ali, “Commander of the Faithful, tell us: What is faith?” Ali replied with a homily, in which he presented faith as an edifice grounded in a number of fundamental religious and humanitarian virtues. Parsing faith into essential elements of forbearance, conviction, justice, and struggle against evil, he parsed each of the four further into sixteen supporting characteristics, intertwining the spiritual with the humanitarian. Binding the list of traits in a complex narrative sustained by the themes of rationality and societal engagement, he presented spiritual virtues as both the spur and the source of humanitarian ethics, while holding up the teachings of the prophets as the originating point for all virtue. This is the text of the sermon:9

Faith, Abbad, stands on four pillars: forbearance, conviction, justice, and struggle against evil.

Forbearance stands on four columns: Longing, fear, rejection of worldliness, and expectant waiting. Whoever longs for the garden is diverted from indulging desires. Whoever fears the fire retreats from forbidden things. Whoever rejects worldliness makes light of calamities. And whoever awaits death hastens to perform good deeds.

Conviction also stands on four columns: Perceptive sagacity, counsel offered by this world’s lessons, interpretation of God’s wisdom, and following the practice of the earlier prophets. Whoever perceives with sagacity interprets God’s wisdom. Whoever interprets God’s wisdom recognizes these lessons. Whoever recognizes these lessons also recognizes the path trodden [by earlier prophets]. And whoever recognizes the path trodden [by earlier prophets] is like someone who has lived with them and been guided to the steadfast faith.

Justice in its turn stands on four columns: Deep comprehension, abundant knowledge, blossoms of wisdom, and flowerbeds of restraint. Whoever comprehends understands particulars from the generalities of knowledge. Whoever knows the path of wondrous wisdoms is guided to the repositories of self-control and does not stray. And whoever possesses restraint eschews extremes in his affairs and lives among people respected and loved.

Struggle against evil stands on four columns: Enjoining good, forbidding evil, valor in battle, and abhorring the corrupt. Whoever commands good strengthens the believers’ resolve. Whoever forbids evil cuts off the hypocrites’ noses. Whoever is valorous in battle has discharged his duty. And whoever abhors the corrupt has been roused to anger for the sake of God—so God will be roused to anger on his behalf.

This is faith, Abbad, and its columns and pillars.

Table 1. The Four Pillars of Faith

The Four


Longing for the garden

Pillars of Faith


Fear of the fire



Rejection of worldliness



Expectant waiting for death



Perceptive sagacity



Counsel offered by this world’s lessons



Interpretation of God’s wisdom



Following the practice of the earlier prophets



Deep comprehension



Abundant knowledge



Blossoms of wisdom



Flowerbeds of restraint



Enjoining good


against evil

Forbidding evil



Valor in battle



Abhorring the corrupt

Abbad’s question is about the essence of faith (īmān), and Ali parses it as a conglomeration of religious and humanitarian virtues. He describes faith in terms of a metaphorical castle, with “pillars” and “columns” holding it up (see Table 1). He structures his answer using a mnemonic device called the “method of loci” (Latin: places) also called the “memory palace technique,” which involves filing new information under previously stored memories of space, physical or figurative;10 here, mapping new material within a predictable, structural, list-form. In this numerically framed sermon, we have four pillars and sixteen columns, twenty characteristics in all. They include both religious and ethical traits, forming a synergistic whole. Humanitarian virtues are explained on a religious plane, while religious concepts are parsed and presented in terms of humanitarian ethics.

Islam (literally: commitment to God’s will) has also been described from early times as an edifice with pillars, framed by its monotheistic doctrine, and constituted by its practice of ritual prayer, fasting, the alms-levy, and the Hajj pilgrimage. Īmān (literally: faith) on the other hand is widely seen as Islam’s internal manifestation, and Ali’s sermon presents a granular parsing of what faith translates into in terms of character and behavior.

The following is a summary of the sermon’s schema in which each pillar represents an elementary trait and each column denotes a supporting characteristic: The edifice of faith is constructed on the pillars of forbearance, conviction, justice, and struggle against evil (Arabic: ṣabr, yaqīn, ʿadl, and jihād). The pillar of forbearance is supported by the columns of longing, fear, rejection of worldliness, and expectant waiting. The pillar of conviction is supported by the columns of discernment, counsel offered by this world’s lessons, interpretation of God’s wisdom, and following the practice of the earlier prophets. The pillar of justice is supported by the columns of comprehension, knowledge, wisdom, and restraint. And the pillar of struggle against evil is supported by the columns of enjoining good, forbidding evil, valor in battle, and abhorring the corrupt. These characteristics—cast as the pillars and columns of faith—include both religious and ethical behaviors and characteristics.

For each pillar of faith, Ali explains how its columns work together to form a complex, interlinked whole. For the first pillar, forbearance, Ali lists supporting columns of longing, fear, rejection of worldliness, and expectant waiting. Then he explains the connection between the traits: “Whoever longs for the garden is diverted from indulging desires; whoever fears the fire retreats from the forbidden; whoever rejects worldliness makes light of calamities; and whoever awaits death hastens to perform good deeds.” Here, qualities of spirituality—fearing the fire, rejecting worldliness, and awaiting death—are presented as a spur to humanitarian ethics.

Another keystone of Ali’s philosophy of virtue is visible in the sermon’s presentation of religious teachings as the source of humanitarian ethics. This idea underpins the whole text, but is most clearly visible in the explanation of the second pillar of faith, conviction, where, alongside sagacity and world-lessons, God’s wisdom and his prophets’ teachings are held up as essential elements. After listing these four, Ali explains how one leads to the other, and how, through practicing them all together, one achieves conviction:

Whoever perceives with sagacity interprets God’s wisdom. Whoever interprets God’s wisdom recognizes these lessons. Whoever recognizes these lessons also recognizes the path (sunna) trodden by earlier prophets. And whoever recognizes the path trodden by earlier prophets is like someone who has lived with them and been guided to the steadfast faith.

In addition to the remarks he makes in this text, throughout his oeuvre Ali refers to the prophets as exemplars. In an oration denouncing the base character of this world, he lauds Muhammad, Moses and Jesus for their disengagement from materialism:11

An indication of the world’s lowliness is that God has by consideration and choice turned it away from his intimates and devotees, and presented it instead to his enemies as a test and a trial. He raised Muhammad above its lowliness, when he tied a tight belt around his waist from hunger. He protected his intimate and confidant Moses from it when Moses became so thin that the greenness of the plants he ate showed through the skin of his stomach. The day he took refuge in the shade, he did not ask God for anything except some food, because he was exhausted by hunger. … The Spirit and Word, Jesus, son of Mary, said: “My food is hunger, my garment fear of God, my clothing rough wool, my mount my own two feet, my night-lamp the moon, my heating in winter the rays of the sun, my fruit what the earth has grown for grazing animals. I go to sleep owning nothing, yet no-one is wealthier than I am.”

Next he praises Solomon for concentrating on prayer and God’s forgiveness. Then, referring to all the prophets collectively, he commends their rejection of the world’s corrupt aspects, “These, the prophets of God, his chosen and select, distanced themselves from the world, and rejected of it what God urged them to reject.” He ends the segment by explicitly stating that humans learned piety by walking the path shown to them by the prophets: “The pious learned from their example and followed in their footsteps. They focused their reflection and benefited from exemplary lessons.”

In this theme as in others, Ali’s teachings reiterate the Qur’an’s presentation of the verbal and exemplary guidance of the prophets for humankind. Among many other verses extolling the prophets collectively or individually, one oft-quoted Qur’anic verse about the Prophet Muhammad declares: “God’s messenger is a beautiful exemplar (Arabic: uswa ḥasana) for those who place their hopes in God and the last day and remember God unceasingly.”12 Another much-cited verse lauds Muhammad’s strong moral fiber, “Truly, you possess the noblest character traits.”13 It is clear that the Qur’an considers Muhammad an exemplar for humankind, and that virtue is among the most significant things he exemplifies—a doctrine that Ali echoes.

The third pillar of faith presented in this sermon is justice.14 Justice for the weak and downtrodden was not only a crucial refrain in Ali’s sermons, but also the hallmark of his rule. In a widely accepted hadith, Muhammad himself extolled Ali’s justice to his companions, “The most just (and/or: the best judge) among you is Ali.”15 As mentioned earlier, Ali was simultaneously a ruler, a commander, an ascetic, and a sage. In his capacity as ruler, he practiced the justice he preached. His letters to governors instructed them to be fair and compassionate in administering their subjects. When he appointed Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr as governor of Egypt, he urged him in the letter of appointment to be kind and evenhanded to the people he governed: “Lower your wing for them, offer them your softer side, show them your face, and give equal attention to all in glance and look.”16 Regarding his own governing practice, Ali said,

I would prefer to sleep on a bed of thorns and be dragged in iron fetters, rather than coming to my meeting with God and his messenger having oppressed any of God’s servants, or having usurped any part of someone’s property.17

Justice in Ali’s view is a primary virtue, while virtues such as generosity are secondary, being contingent on an absence of conflict with primary virtues. In this, he is going against the grain of the classical Arabic poetic tradition inherited from pre-Islamic bards, where generosity (alongside courage) is one of two principal virtues praised in any leader. Once Ali was asked, “Which is better, justice or generosity?” He replied, “Justice puts everything in its rightful place, while generosity takes things out of their proper sphere. Justice is a universal driver, while generosity is a particular aspect. Thus, justice is the nobler and better of the two.”18 You should practice both, but when one comes up against the other, you must give priority to justice. As university professors, we could take the familiar example of fairness in grading students’ work: If a teacher were to be “generous” with her grades, in the sense that she gave everybody an “A” whether their performance merited it or not, she would be unfair to the students who worked hard to earn that “A.” In this kind of situation, one must give precedence to justice over generosity.

Ali’s conception of justice and compassion was pluralistic. He enjoined his tax collectors, for example, to be gentle to all subjects of the realm. In one such letter, he wrote to them: “Do not block anyone from their needs. … do not whip anyone for silver. Do not appropriate the property of any one of the people, whether they pray the prayer of Islam (i.e., Muslims) or are protected through a covenant (i.e., Jews and Christians).” A large proportion of the people in Ali’s realms were Christians and Jews, and in Egypt the majority of the population was Coptic Christian. Among the Muslims in his realm, a large proportion of the people were not his Shia followers, yet he made no distinction between them in terms of rights in the state. Here too, his directions for just and kind government applied equally to all. All were accorded safety of life, honor, and property under Ali’s rule; his exhortations to equitable treatment did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or gender. In his letter of appointment as governor for Malik al-Ashtar, Ali instructed him to be just, and explained why in this famous line, “They are either your brothers in faith or your peers in humanity.”19 It is important to remember that Ali preached this message from a position of power. He preached it because he believed it to be the right thing to do. Society is messy; Ali’s words and practice show that although he was not expecting that we can wave a magic wand and resolve all our differences, he believed we can and should learn to understand and respect each other’s beliefs. Indeed, Ali had his own strong faith convictions; in addition to making conviction one of the pillars of faith, he speaks of his own state in one text where he says, “I have not been separated from truth since the first time it was shown to me.”20 Elsewhere, he declares, “Removing the veil (of the body, at the time of death) will not increase my conviction.”21 But from this conviction sprang inclusivism, openness, and tolerance. In Ali’s rule, all in the state were accorded equal rights.

A companion of Ali named Dirar al-Nahshali described him in a celebrated passage that highlights his exemplary justice (among other virtues such as discernment and simplicity, two of Ali’s justice-supporting “columns”):22

Ali was farsighted and strong. When pronouncing judgment, he was discerning. When commanding, he was just. Knowledge gushed from his person. Wisdom spoke upon his tongue. He shied away from the ornaments of this world, taking solace in the lonely night. He wept copiously in prayer, thought deeply, and turned his hands one over the other, admonishing himself before admonishing others. He favored simple food and plain clothes. He lived among us as one of us, responding when asked, and answering when questioned. But despite our intimacy, we would approach him with reverent awe, hesitating to call him out for a casual conversation. He respected the pious and was kind to the poor. The powerful did not dare presume upon a favorable ruling and the weak never despaired of his justice.

Showcasing another fundamental aspect of Ali’s vision, three of the columns supporting the sermon’s pillar of justice—comprehension, knowledge, and wisdom—underscore the importance of learning and rationality; as do two of the columns supporting the pillar of conviction, viz., sagacity and world-lessons. A cornerstone of Ali’s teachings, learning and rationality are emphasized heavily throughout his oeuvre. A famous sermon addressed to his companion Kumayl begins with the assertion that “knowledge is better than wealth,”23 and it compares the two in very specific ways. Ali’s teachings on all aspects of spiritual and worldly life, on theology as well as practical matters, stress rationality. For Ali, faith is not blind faith; faith is only complete when based on logic and understanding.

The final pillar of faith in Ali’s sermon is struggle against evil. The Arabic term is well known—jihad. In our time, most people translate the term as holy war. In fact, Arabic has other, more specific terms for warfare, viz., ḥarb and qitāl, while the root meaning of the word jihad is “effort.” The connotation of the word in Ali’s sermon is based on its nuanced usage in the Qur’an and in Muhammad’s teachings.24 A report about Muhammad reinforces Ali’s combined humanitarian and religious presentation of jihad, and it also endorses my translation of the term as struggle against evil: Muhammad returned to Medina one day from a major battle against his Meccan enemies, and said to his followers, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” Surprised, they asked him what could be more challenging than the battle they had just fought, in which they had put their lives on the line to defend Islam. Muhammad said, “The greater jihad is the fight against your own immoral desires.”25 In Ali’s sermon, jihad is presented as an effort to combat evil in all its forms and in all ways possible, internal and external, on the level of the community and on the level of the individual. He parses jihad, as we have seen, as enjoining good, forbidding evil, valor in battle, and abhorring the corrupt, and he explains the contribution of each of these four traits to the fight against evil.

Sermon 2. “Description of the Truly Pious”: Text and Analysis

It is reported that a companion of Ali named Hammam said to him, “Commander of the Faithful, describe to me the truly pious such that I see them before my eyes.” In a succinct initial answer, Ali recited the Qurʾanic verse: “God is with those who are pious and perform good deeds.”26 Hammam asked for a fuller reply, and Ali responded with a lengthy sermon. He opened with theological lines setting up the discourse as a relationship between the divine being and the human being, in which he constructed the parameters of human piety vis-à-vis their obedience to God:27

God created the people when he created them not needing their obedience and untouched by their disobedience. The disobedience of those who disobey does not harm him, and the obedience of those who obey does not benefit him. He distributed sustenance among them, and placed them in various places on the earth.

Next, in the body of the sermon, he listed a large number of religious and humanitarian virtues side by side as essential components of true piety. Hammam’s question is about the qualities of the truly pious, and Ali’s response begins with the framing line, “The pious in this world are people of virtue.” Like the Qur’an verse he had cited initially, the line fundamentally connects piety and virtue, predicating one on the other, and offering them as equivalents. After the framing line, the bulk of Ali’s description of the pious takes the form of a list of approximately eighty virtuous behaviors. The catalog contains items we normally categorize under religious virtues and others we usually consider humanitarian virtues. Although items from both categories are juxtaposed at what seems initially to be an ad hoc system, the apparent random mixing is not random at all. In Ali’s vision, the distinction is moot because the text’s main takeaway is that there is no distinction: religious virtues are humanitarian and humanitarian virtues are religious, and together they form an intrinsic whole. This is the body of the sermon:

The pious in this world are people of virtue. Their speech is rational, their garments simple, and their walk the embodiment of humility. They lower their eyes avoiding things God has forbidden them to see, and dedicate their ears to hearing words of wisdom that bring them benefit. Their hearts are at peace in times of tribulation and in times of prosperity. If not for the lifespans decreed for them by God, their souls would not linger in their bodies the blink of an eye, but would instantly depart, yearning for God’s reward and fearing his punishment. The creator’s majesty in their hearts makes all else small in their eyes. Paradise is before their gaze—they see it as clearly as though they themselves were enjoying its blessings. Hellfire too is before their gaze—they see it as clearly as though they themselves were being tortured in it. Their hearts are sorrowful, their malice never feared, their bodies emaciated, their needs few, and their persons chaste. They patiently endure these few days here, awaiting the long comfort of the hereafter, and a profitable trade bestowed in ease and security by their lord. The world approached them but they turned away. It shackled them but they ransomed their souls and set them free.

In the night they stand in worship reciting sections of the Qurʾan, chanting it in sweet melody, moving their own hearts to tears and finding in it the cure for their illness. If they come across a verse that rouses yearning, they latch on to it hungrily and their hearts stretch out toward it in desire—its promised blessings are visible right in front of their eyes. If they come across a verse that stokes fear, they incline their hearts toward its warning—the hiss and crackle of the inferno fills the innermost parts of their ears. They bow their spine, laying their forehead, palms, knees, and toes on the earth, beseeching God to free their necks from the fire.

In the day they are kind, wise, good, and pious. Fear has emaciated them like arrow shafts. The observer thinks them ailing, but they are not ill. He says, “They are crazy!”, but they are crazed only by something immensely grave. They are not satisfied with a few good deeds, and they do not think their numerous endeavors too many. They constantly chide themselves and fear the consequence of their actions. If one of them is praised he is apprehensive, and replies: I know myself better than you know me, and my lord knows me even better. Lord, do not hold me to what they say about me, make me more virtuous than they estimate, and forgive those of my actions they do not know.

Their hallmark is strength in faith, resolve with gentleness, belief with conviction, voracity for knowledge, knowledge with maturity, temperance in affluence, humility in worship, forbearance in indigence, patience in hardship, seeking the licit, enthusiasm in following guidance, and aversion to greed. They perform good deeds while always being on guard. They spend the night thanking God and the morning praising him. They sleep vigilant and awake in joy, vigilant because they have been warned against neglect and joyful because they have gained blessings and mercy. If their ego bucks against doing something it dislikes, they do not allow it full rein in letting it do what it desires. Their joy is centered on things which bring lasting reward, while they care little for commodities which will not remain. They combine maturity with learning and words with action.

You will see this—their needs are few, their slips are rare, their hearts are humble, their souls are content, their fare is meager, their manner is easygoing, their faith is protected, their appetite is dead, and their rage is held in check. Their goodness is always anticipated, and their evil never dreaded. If they sit with the heedless they are still listed among the heedful, and if they sit with the heedful they are not listed among the heedless. They forgive those who oppress them, give to those who hold back from giving to them, and foster those who cut them off. Lewdness is far removed from them, gentleness imbues their words, and wrongdoing is absent from their actions. Their decency is ever present, their goodness always forthcoming, and their evil always distant and removed.

In calamities they remain calm and dignified, in catastrophes they remain patient, and in happy times they remain thankful. They never wrong an enemy or transgress to help loved ones. They acknowledge the dues they owe to another before testimony is given against them. They never squander something they have been given in trust. They never forget a thing of which they have been reminded. They never call others vile names. They never harm a neighbor. They never gloat at another’s misfortune. They never enter into wrongdoing and never leave the truth.

If they are silent their silence is not burdensome. If they laugh they are not raucous. If attacked in treachery they are patient—God himself avenges them. They weary themselves by constant chiding while never causing others unease. They push themselves to prepare for the hereafter and never cause others harm. Chaste and upright, they stay away from those who distance themselves. Kind and merciful, they draw near to those who seek to come close. Their detachment is not from arrogance or grandiosity, and their drawing near is not from cunning or trickery.

The Arabic term that I have rendered as “piety” is taqwā (in the plural active participle, muttaqūn), an encompassing characteristic that entails the possession of a comprehensive set of humanitarian virtues and religious merits. Taqwā is a fundamental concept in Islam, its verbal nouns and imperatives among the most visible lexemes of the Qurʾan and hadith. The early Islamic sermon too is permeated with injunctions to taqwā; the formula “I counsel you to piety” is a standard unit in orations,28 which also frequently cite the Qurʾanic verse, “Gather your provisions; the best provision is piety.”29 Faḍāʾil, translated in the present article as “virtues,” can also be rendered as “excellent qualities” (cf. Greek “arête”);30 yet, it is relatively unproblematic to translate—translating taqwā is more complicated. Often rendered imprecisely as “fear of God,” Muslims understand taqwā to mean something more than simple fear. As with many signifiers that are culture-specific, no English word or phrase exactly conveys its full range of implications, but its scope comes close to the English (Christian) usage of “godfearing,”31 or the biblical Mosaic command to “be holy” (Hebrew: qedoshim).32 In Islam, taqwā means desisting from evil deeds, fearing God’s retribution for any wrongs you may do, being aware that God sees and knows everything, and indeed, most importantly and paradoxically, being in awe of him while also taking comfort from his presence at all times.33 This attitude entails believing in God, being ever conscious of him, and thus always thinking and acting righteously. I typically render taqwā as “piety” or “consciousness of God.” Ali’s Description-of-the-Pious sermon itemizes the characteristics that are necessarily inherent in taqwā.

In Ali’s vision—as seen in this sermon and others—piety is what unifies the virtues, because all goodness stems from God. Virtues are not random acts of charity and decency, but rather, all are expressions of piety. God’s love serves as a kind of capstone which integrates all virtues—if you truly love God, you will wish to please him by emulating his attributes, and his attributes represent the virtues. For example, mercy is a divine attribute that is forcefully emphasized in the Qur’an; the opening of all but one of its chapters open with the line, “In the name of God, most merciful, ever merciful.” Imbibing virtues is to actually experience God’s presence: In ordinary acts for an individual, it means that I try my best not to be selfish. If I abide with God in my daily life, I self-orient to compassion, to virtue. Piety functions to energize and motivate. Consciousness of God alters my perception. It animates random little acts of kindness, in an expression of the intimacy I have with God. Turning the issue on its head, virtue is essential to piety. Only if I speak the truth, only if I am kind to others, am I achieving closeness to my creator and theirs.

In the following two lists—solely for the purpose of highlighting the strong presence of both in Ali’s description of piety—I separate the categories into religious and humanitarian virtues. Indeed, many virtues may potentially be listed under both headings; performing good deeds, avoiding evil deeds, and seeking knowledge, for example, could fall under both classifications.

Virtues in Ali’s sermon that we presently deem religious—which speak of God, of spiritual practices, and the hereafter— are the following, twenty-three in all (there is some overlap among the items within this list, and also within the next list of humanitarian virtues, but nuances and contexts differ):

  1. Avoiding looking at things God has forbidden you to see
  2. Dedicating ears to hearing only words of wisdom that bring benefit
  3. Chastity
  4. Praying through the night
  5. Reciting the Qur’an
  6. Taking the Qur’an’s words to heart
  7. Fear of God’s punishment
  8. Anticipation of the hereafter
  9. Breaking free of worldliness
  10. Strong faith
  11. Thanking God and praising him
  12. Bodily emaciation from fear of doing wrong
  13. Belief with conviction
  14. Humility in worship
  15. Seeking the licit
  16. Enthusiasm in following guidance
  17. Good deeds
  18. Vigilance against neglect
  19. Joyfulness in God’s blessings and mercy
  20. Centering joy on things which bring lasting reward
  21. Caring little for commodities which will not remain
  22. Mindfulness of the hereafter
  23. Preparation for the hereafter

Virtues in Ali’s sermon that are usually deemed secular humanist—which relate particularly to humans’ behavior toward each other—are the following, fifty-seven in all:

  1. Rationality in speech
  2. Simplicity in dress
  3. Humility in walk
  4. Kindness
  5. Patience
  6. Contentment
  7. Good deeds
  8. Modesty regarding stature and achievements
  9. Resolve with gentleness
  10. Voracity for knowledge
  11. Maturity in knowledge
  12. Forbearance in indigence
  13. Patience in hardship
  14. Aversion to greed
  15. Maturity with learning
  16. Words with action
  17. Needs few
  18. Slips rare
  19. Humble hearts
  20. Meager fare
  21. Easygoing manner
  22. Full control of physical appetite
  23. Holding rage in check
  24. Reining in self from indulging base desires
  25. Always doing good
  26. Never doing evil
  27. Forgiving those who oppress
  28. Giving to those who hold back from giving
  29. Fostering those who cut off ties.
  30. No lewdness
  31. Gentle words
  32. Absence of wrongdoing
  33. Decency ever present
  34. Never causing others harm
  35. Calm and dignity in calamities
  36. Patience in catastrophes
  37. Thankfulness in happy times
  38. Never wronging an enemy
  39. Never transgressing to help loved ones
  40. Acknowledging dues owed to others
  41. Never squandering something given in trust
  42. Never forgetting lessons learned
  43. Never calling others vile names
  44. Never harming a neighbor
  45. Never gloating at another’s misfortune
  46. Never enter into wrongdoing
  47. Never forsaking the truth
  48. Their silence is not burdensome
  49. Their laughter is not raucous
  50. Patience when attacked in treachery
  51. Constant self-chiding
  52. Chastity and uprightness
  53. Staying away from those who distance themselves
  54. Never being arrogant or grandiose
  55. Kindness and mercy
  56. Drawing near to those who seek to come close
  57. No cunning or trickery

Religious and humanitarian virtues are interwoven in the sermon’s narrative primarily by juxtaposition. For example, Ali talks in the same breath about “strength in faith, voracity for knowledge, temperance in affluence, humility in worship, forbearance in indigence, patience in hardship, seeking the licit, enthusiasm in following guidance, and aversion to greed”—here, both kinds of virtues—such as worship (religious) and temperance (humanitarian)—are placed side by side and fuse smoothly. In another example of the combination between religious and humanitarian, he says of the pious, “their needs are few, their slips are rare, their hearts are humble, their souls are content, their fare is meager, their manner is easygoing, their faith is protected, their appetite is dead, and their rage is held in check”—here too, both kinds of traits meld.

Virtues are not given in a list of single words, but rather, they are explained in real-life situations. An example is seen in the following line: “In calamities [the pious] remain calm and dignified, in catastrophes they remain patient, and in happy times they remain thankful.” Here, dignity, forbearance, and gratitude are enjoined within the contexts of calamity, catastrophe, and happiness. Additionally, traits are explained alongside real life actions. An example is seen in the following line: “Chaste and upright, [the pious] stay away from those who distance themselves. Kind and merciful, they draw near to those who seek to come close. Their detachment is not from arrogance or grandiosity, and their drawing near is not from cunning or trickery.” Here, chaste disinterest and merciful kindness are lauded within the context of fostering social relationships, and explained from the perspective of righteous motivation.

Like taqwā, another term in this sermon that needs to be understood in context is amal; commonly (and in this setting, incorrectly) translated as “hope,” amal is a flaw that is warned against in Ali’s sermons and in the early Arabic homiletic tradition more generally, and it customarily signifies denial of one’s own mortality, having “long (and false) hopes” that one will live forever and enjoy the pleasures of this earth without end.34 Ali is not criticizing hope in the positive meaning we commonly denote by the term. Here, he praises the pious, saying (in literal translation), “their hopes are near,” which I have rendered idiomatically as “their needs are few.” Contextualization is crucial to understanding this sermon and others. If we want to apprehend what virtues Ali espouses and what traits he warns against, we need to recognize the associations of the words and idioms he uses and translate sentence-by-sentence; direct word-to-word translation of a passage is frequently inadequate.35 To denote positive hope, Ali typically uses another word, rajāʾ. A virtue regularly associated with having faith in God, rajāʾ is used in another sermon by Ali in the line: “Place all your hopes (rajāʾ) in your lord.”36 Elsewhere, he applauds the virtue of positive hope without using either term, amal or rajāʾ, “The time remaining in a believer’s life is priceless,”37 meaning there is always hope—no matter what you did earlier, there is still time to turn over a new leaf, to be good, to do good. Similarly, though rajāʾ is not a term used in the present sermon, the virtue of hope permeates it entirely. The subtext of the piece is that pious and virtuous people are people of hope. They inculcate characteristics of piety and virtue, and perform acts of piety and virtue, because they hope for God’s pleasure and reward in this world and the next.

Teachings on Brotherhood and Pluralism

The hundred virtues listed in our two texts—twenty in “Pillars of Faith” and eighty in “Description of the Truly Pious”—are not the only virtues Ali emphasizes. There are a myriad of teachings underlining the sanctity of life and property, condemning oppression, and forbidding slander even of enemies. Others preach forgiveness and gentleness. The following is a sample of his sayings on these topics:

The true worth of a man is measured by the good he does.38

Gentle character is a sign of nobility.39

How you wish to be treated should be the measure of how you treat others.40

Do not let someone’s ingratitude stop you from doing good. The one who reaps no benefit from your generosity [i.e., God] thanks you.41

Believers are brothers: they should not cheat, slander, or hesitate to help one another.42

I dislike you slandering [our enemies]. It is better that you simply describe their deeds … and instead of name-calling, say: God, preserve our blood and their blood from being spilt, heal the relationship between us, and guide them out of their errant ways.43

Like Ali’s pluralistic conception of just governance, on the level of individual ethics we also find that he preaches brotherhood and affection among the human family. The tone is set for this stripe of preaching by a popular hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, “We are all children of God, and God loves best those who most benefit his children.”44 Morphing this idea with the Arabian reverence for illustrious genealogy, Ali is reported to have said in a verse of poetry, “All humans are peers and equals: Their father is Adam, their mother is Eve.”45 Moreover, although the majority of Ali’s sayings exhort personal piety and deeds, these transpose seamlessly into the public sphere. This is clear from the many sayings in which he connects individuals with society, and bridges a person’s personal traits into behavior with others. In a frequently quoted line, Ali says “Live among people in such a manner that while you live they long for your company, and when you die they weep over you.”46

In addition to his call for brotherhood among humans, Ali also exhorts his followers to be kind to birds, insects, and animals. Emphasizing that these animals are God’s own creation, he marvels at the physiognomy and living habits of the ant, the locust, the crow, the eagle, the pigeon, and the ostrich,47 and expresses amazement at the physical features of the bat and the peacock.48 Bringing this approach to bear on human virtue, he directs his followers, “Be gentle with your horses and camels. Do not keep them standing while loaded. Do not make them drink with their bits in their mouths. Do not load them beyond their capacity.”49

Comparison with Self-Oriented and Ascetic Approaches in Muslim Ethics

The study of virtue ethics in Islam has focused largely on the work of philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics;50 these draw directly on Ali’s ideas to some extent, or at least converge with them, while diverging from them in others. This is too large a topic to wrap our arms around adequately here, but a few cases of difference will serve as a foil to bring Ali’s ideas into sharper focus.

Ali’s conception of an ideal life, a life of happiness and meaning, is distinct from self-oriented approaches among certain Sufis. Sufism is not a monolith and not all Sufi individuals or groups are so minded;51 some even come close to Ali’s version. But the influential Sufis Junayd (d. 910) and Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (d. 801), for example, focus on a person’s love for God as an exclusive and personal phenomenon. Rabi’a’s ideas in particular could be construed as a rejection of the whole idea of living harmoniously and productively in human society.52 While in Ali’s conception as we have seen, we need to maintain a balance between striving for individual spiritual closeness with God, and between promoting a healthy, close-knit, and godfearing community. Similar to Aristotle’s promotion of the Golden Mean, Ali says, “Whoever leaves the middle road deviates,” and with echoes of the Greek philosopher’s concept of Eudaimonia, he advocates a life of engaged productivity. 53 Ali strongly encourages reflection and contemplation, but solitude for thought is different than leading a solitary life. Ali’s approach is also different from certain ascetically oriented presentations of Islam, which, in some ways, come close to the Buddhist advocacy of unequivocal detachment for the spiritual elite and monasticism54—such as the Sufi master Qushayri’s (d. 1074) approach which lauds hunger, poverty, and celibacy.55 In contrast, Ali advocates living a joyous life on earth with family and community, in accordance with God’s law and Islam’s moral code. One should enjoy and give thanks for God’s temporal and spiritual blessings, while all the time worshipping the creator and practicing virtue in action—thus, ultimately leading to a joyous life in the hereafter. In one celebrated sermon, he says,

The pious partake of the joys of this world and those of the next…In this world, they reside in the most splendid of residences and consume the finest of delicacies…Yet, when they depart, they leave with full provisions and a large profit.”56

In this, as in other ideas, Ali echoes the balance promulgated by the Qur’an, which directs, “Through the blessings that God has granted you, seek the abode of the hereafter; but do not forget to enjoy your share of this world.”57

To complicate things further, however, Ali preaches that for those who gain deep knowledge, the world progressively becomes anathema, even though, paradoxically, they are more and more at peace.58 Moreover, as noted earlier, Ali’s sermons contain strong criticisms of worldliness. But Ali himself is described in the historical reports as only engaging in ascetic practices—eating coarse grain, wearing patched garments, sleeping in the mosque—in the last few years of his life.59 During his early years with the Prophet, there are no reports of such austerities. Most importantly, even in his final years of strict self-denial, Ali was actively engaged in the community, governing the Islamic empire, commanding in various battles, engaging in trade, farming his land, caring for his family, and all the while preaching piety and virtue. Ali encourages detachment from temporal desires, yet, as we have seen, he simultaneously preaches positive social engagement for the spiritual novice as well as the spiritual adept. He strongly advocates responsibility of the individual for the well-being of family and community, for just and compassionate governance, for coming together in earthly living and communal worship; in other words, an appropriate balance between detachment and attachment.

Among present-day Muslims, there are some who choose to foreground one or the other, virtue or piety. Over the past decade, I have conversed anecdotally with individuals from practicing Muslim families who have said they want to focus on “just being good human beings.” The unspoken implication is, of course, that they no longer wish to commit to an organized faith denomination. Many continue to love and revere Muhammad, Ali, and other prominent and pious Muslim leaders as part of their traditional legacy, but they choose to deliberately let go, to a smaller or larger extent, the practice and laws they also inherited from their forebears. There are others on the further end of the spectrum who are steadfast practitioners, but whose focus on religious ritual downplays the importance of inculcating virtue. In Ali’s vision, this is a false dichotomy. As we have seen in the texts analyzed in this article, he advocates an inseparable combination of both piety and virtue as two indivisible sides of the same coin.

Concluding Remarks

Ali’s teachings have resonated with Muslims through the fourteen centuries since the coming of Islam, and they continue to hold immense consequence today. As a system of values, they have the potential to promote a just and compassionate vision of Islam. Especially in several strife-torn Muslim-majority countries, I believe they could unify Shia and Sunni in their common creed of Islam, and Muslims and people of other faiths in their common humanity. The divide between Shiism and Sunnism in Islam is largely based—to put the issue simplistically—on the perception of Ali’s role as first Imam vs. fourth Caliph. His own words and his example can and should be used not to create divisions between groups, but to heal, to bring people together.

Centered in a distinct Islamic and Qur’anic worldview, Ali’s ethics are also universal, applicable to the lives of humans in different times and places. At the heart of his teachings, we find the promotion of virtues such as justice and compassion, in conjunction with consciousness of the creator. In Ali’s vision, piety is not only about worship of God, but it is also about translating that worship into righteous behavior. Conversely, Ali also preaches that full virtue is only attained through consciousness of God, and that virtue, like piety, is learned through the divine guidance of his prophets. In short, true piety cannot be attained without virtue, and true virtue cannot be attained without piety.

            In Ali’s vision, it is this combination of piety and virtue that generates meaning in life, and I close with a final quote. Offering his companion Nawf al-Bikali a simple yet profound formula for self-realization, Ali conjoins prayer with justice, devotion with detachment. He predicates on both, on piety and virtue, an individual’s path to happiness in this world and the next:60

Happy are those who reject worldliness and focus their desire on the hereafter. They take God’s earth for a carpet, its dust for a bed, its water for perfume, the Qurʾan as their garment, and prayer as their robe. They cut their bonds with the world in the manner of the Messiah, son of Mary. God revealed to his servant, the Messiah: “Command the children of Israel that they should not enter any of my houses except with pure hearts, eyes cast down, and unsullied hands. I do not answer the prayer of any who has rendered an injustice to one of my creatures.”

For Ali, ultimate happiness is in the next life with God. But in this world too, the pious and virtuous are always connected to God, and thus truly happy; as stated in the Qurʾanic verse he cited at the head of his “Description-of-the-Truly-Pious” sermon, “God is with those who are pious and perform good deeds.” As we have seen, Ali parses in the body of that sermon what it means to “be pious and perform good deeds” in a list of eighty religious and humanitarian virtues; to repeat a few here, it means being compassionate and generous, as well as performing good deeds, taking the teachings of the Qurʾan to heart, praying the ritual prayer, and supplicating God. In his “Pillars-of-Faith” sermon, Ali preaches a further twenty virtues—forbearance, conviction, justice, and struggle against evil, and many supporting character traits. In both the sermons we see that among the virtues one must acquire to become truly pious and faithful, virtues that transcend the self play a crucial role. To be sure, many also focus inward, but as in everything else, Ali advocates a balance; in addition to cultivating one’s individual betterment, worldly and spiritual, one must also do all one can to help others. If you are not just and compassionate, you are not truly pious. Just as virtue is incomplete without piety, piety is incomplete without self-transcendent virtue, and the combination of both leads to complete happiness. Taking the middle ground between secular humanism and insular faith, Ali propagates a holistic model for happiness, combining individual devotion and betterment with virtuous and dynamic social engagement.


Tahera Qutbuddin (Harvard University, PhD 1999) is Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago and winner of 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Arabic Culture in Other Languages category. Her latest book is Arabic Oration: Art and Function (Brill, 2019).

This essay was originally published as: Tahera Qutbuddin (2018). Piety and Virtue in Early Islam: Two Sermons by Imam Ali. In J. Frey and C. Vogler (Eds.), Self-Transcendence and Virtue: Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology in the series Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory (pp. 125-153). London, England, and New York, NY: Routledge. A link to the original version of the article can be found here.


Image Credit: Soroush Zargar, Unsplash



* (i) All translations in the article are my own. (ii) To balance accessibility with clarity, diacritical marks are not used for the names of people and places in the text of the narrative, but they are used for titles and terms therein, and for authors and titles in the Notes and Bibliography.

1 Qurʾān: ʿAnkabūt 29:45. From the vast field of Qur’anic studies, the following are some general suggestions for further reading: For overviews, see McAuliffe, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Qurʼān, and Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an. For Qur’anic ethics, see Isutzu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʾān, Rahman, “Some Key Ethical Concepts of the Qur'ān,” Reinhart, “Ethics and the Qur’ān,” and Abou El Fadl, “Qurʾanic Ethics and Islamic Law.”

2 Qurʾān: Baqara 2:43, “Stand up for the ritual prayer, and pay the alms-levy”; and passim.

3 Quḍāʿī, Light in the Heavens, §2.96. I am not aware of any dedicated overviews of ethics in the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, but two primary sources are Quḍāʿī’s compilation and Nawawī’s Gardens of the Righteous.

4 Primary and secondary works on Ali abound. For a brief biography and further references, see Qutbuddin, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Introduction to Qutbuddin, ed. and trans., A Treasury of Virtues, xii-xv.Sunni sources include Ṭabarī, Taʾrīkh, trans. as The History of al-Tabari: vol. 16: The Community Divided, and vol. 17: The First Civil War; and Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt, 3:13-29. Shia sources include Nuʿmān, Sharḥ al-akhbār, vols. 1-2 passim, Mufīd, Irshād, vol. 1, and Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār (for volume and page nos., see Index vol. 3:133-54). The Shia view of Ali’s role is supported and documented by Madelung, The Succession to Muhammad, the Sunni view by Afsaruddin, Excellence and Precedence.

5 Cited widely, including: Nuʿmān (Shia), Sharḥ al-akhbār, 1:89, 97; Tirmidhī (Sunni), Sunan, §3720, §3725, §3730, §3731; Ibn Saʿd (Sunni), Ṭabaqāt, 3:16-18; Ibn Māja (Sunni), Sunan, §121.

6 For an overview of the orality, authenticity, aesthetics, and themes of Ali’s oeuvre, see Qutbuddin, “Introduction,” Treasury, xvi-xvii, xx-xxii. For further sources of materials quoted, see ʿAbd al-Zahrāʾ, Maṣādir. On aesthetics and themes of Ali’s oration, see Qutbuddin, “Sermons of Ali: At the Confluence of the Core Islamic Teachings of the Qur’an and the Oral, Nature-Based Cultural Ethos of Seventh Century Arabia,” “A Sermon on Piety by Imam ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib: How the Rhythm of the Classical Arabic Oration Tacitly Persuaded,” and “ʿAlī’s Contemplations on this World and the Hereafter in the Context of His Life and Times.” In addition to Ali’s prose, a Dīwān of ad hoc verse is also compiled by Kaydarī. For an overview of the genre of oration in early Islam, see Qutbuddin,

Arabic Oration: Art and Function; idem, “Khoṭba” in EIr, and idem, “Khuṭba: The Evolution of Early Arabic Oration.” For a list of primary historical and literary sources for Ali’s words, see Qutbuddin, “ʿAlī’s Contemplations,” 334, n. 4.

7 The Path of Eloquence is one of the most influential works of Arabic literature and has generated hundreds of commentaries, among them a 20-volume commentary by the Sunni-Mu’tazili scholar Ibn Abī l-Ḥadid (d. 1257); for a list of 210 commentaries, see ʿĀmilī, Shurūḥ Nahj al-balāgha. See extended comments Ali’s virtues and eloquence in the commentators’ introductions.

8 Many scholars have commented on the broad reach of Ali’s teachings. Raḍī writes in the introduction to the Nahj (30): “If a person were to ponder [Ali’s] words about renunciation and counsel …—while putting aside the knowledge that they were spoken by one such as Ali whose stature was lofty, whose commands people followed, and whose rule encompassed a multitude—he would have no doubt that these are the words of one who knows nothing but renunciation, who has no occupation other than worship, who has withdrawn to a lonely corner of his house, or leads a solitary life at the base of a mountain, hearing no other voice, and seeing no other person. He would never imagine that they could have been spoken by one immersed in war.” Rowan Williams—Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England—writes in a “Foreword” to the Treasury (xii): “ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib was of course a military leader among other things, but a military leader in the Western Europe of the day would have been most unlikely also to have produced prayers of eloquence and intensity, philosophical considerations of the ‘grammar’ of God’s eternity and self-sufficiency, and ‘wisdom’ sayings of profound economy and insight.”

9 Raḍī, Nahj, wisdom §30 (the text following it explains the four pillars of unbelief and doubt); Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §5.14 (preceded by an explanation of the meaning of Islam). Ḥarrānī, Tuḥaf al-ʿuqūl, 122-23. Further sources cited in ʿAbd al-Zahrāʾ, Maṣādir, 4:214-15.

10 Ancient Roman rhetors such as Cicero and Quintillian described the method of loci as a means of organizing and remembering points in speeches. A number of examples are found in Ali’s speeches, e.g., Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §7.19, §7.20.

11 Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §2.10.3

12 Qurʾān, Aḥzāb 33:21. See also Qurʾān, Mumtaḥana 60:4, 6: “You have a beautiful exemplar in [the Prophet] Abraham and those who were with him … They are a beautiful exemplar for you.”

13 Qurʾān, Qalam 68:4.

14 For a Sufi-oriented presentation of Ali’s justice, see Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance, and Lakhani et al, The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam.

15 References include Nuʿmān (Shia), Sharḥ al-akhbār, 1:91; Ibn Māja (Sunni), Sunan, §154.

16 Raḍī, Nahj, epistle §265.

17 Ibid., oration §221.

18 Ibid., wisdom §431.

19 Raḍī, Nahj, epistle §291. UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan quoted these lines in his address at Tehran University in 1997 (Press Release SG/SM/6419 OBV/34, https://www.un.org/press/en/1997/19971209.SGSM6419.html).

20 Raḍī, Nahj, wisdom §184.

21 Jāḥiẓ, One Hundred Proverbs, appended to Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §1.

22 Citations include Qālī, Amālī, 2:147; Nuʿmān, Sharḥ al-akhbār, 2:391-92.

23 Raḍī, Nahj, wisdom §147; Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §4.3.

24 For a discussion of the earliest contexts of jihad, including its usage in the Qur’an and hadith, see Afsaruddin, Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought.

25 Citations include Bayhaqī, Zuhd, §373.

26 Qurʾān, Naḥl 16:128.

27 Raḍī, Nahj, oration §191 (and section in oration §86); Ibn Qutayba, ‘Uyun, 2:380-81; Ibn Abī l-Dunyā, Tawaḍuʿ, 1:52; Abū Nuʿaym, Ḥilyat al-awliyāʾ, 1:79, 6:52-53, 306; Ibn ʿAsākir, Ta’rīkh, 4:493; Qurṭubī, Jami‘, 1:230; Ibn Kathīr, Bidāya, 7:6; Ḥarrānī, Tuḥaf al-ʿuqūl, 119-21.

28 E.g., Raḍī, Nahj, oration §159, §186, §193, §194.

29  Qurʾān, Baqara 2:197 ﴿ .

30 Lane, Lexicon, s.v., F-Ḍ-L. Other Qurʾanic terms denoting virtue-ethics include birr, ṣāliḥ, khayr, maʿrūf, akhlāq/khuluq, and iḥsān. Additional terms in classical Arabic denoting virtues/merits include manāqib, maʾāthir, and mafākhir. Each has a slightly different flavor.

31 The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning of “godfearing” as “characterized by deep respect for God; deeply or earnestly religious” (Oxford University Press; accessed on May 1, 2018).

32 In “Two Moments in the Biography of Holiness (Qedushah),” (paper presented at Virtues, Happiness and Meaning of Life workshop, University of Chicago, 2017), Joseph Stern discussed the perspectives of Maimonides and Nahmanides on the biblical prescription in Lev. 19, 2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

33 Exegetes explain the word taqwā in the Qurʾān (Baqara 2:197) as: “fearing the performing of evil deeds” (Zamakhsharī); “fearing God’s punishment which is meted out to those who disobey Him” (Ibn Kathīr); and “good deeds” (Qurṭubī). Altafsir.com: Accessed May 9, 2018.

34 E.g., Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §1.279: “Whoever gallops forward loosening the reins of his hopes (amal) will stumble into death.”

35 See comments on translation method in Qutbuddin, “Note on the Text,” Treasury, xxxii-xxxiii, and Light in the Heavens, xxxiv-xxxv.

36 Raḍī, Nahj, oration §82.

37 Thaʿālibī, Tamthīl, 30.

38 Jāḥiẓ, One Hundred Proverbs, §5, in Quḍāʿī, Treasury.

39 Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §1.115.

40 Ibid., §4.1.9.

41 Ibid., §4.1.100.

42 Ibid., §1.127.

43 Raḍī, Nahj, oration §204. See also Ali’s instructions to the commander of his vanguard at Siffin, “Fear God, whom you will have to meet … do not attack any except those who attack you …” (Ibid., epistle §250).

44 Quḍāʿī, Light in the Heavens, §9.54.

45 Kaydarī, Anwār, 95.

46 Raḍī, Nahj, wisdom §9.

47 Ibid., oration §183

48 Ibid., oration §153, §163.

49 Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §4.1.60

50 Overviews of Islamic ethics include Fakhry, Ethical Theories in Islam; and Vadet, Les idées morales dans l’Islam. For a discussion of how Muslim philosophers combined Greek philosophical ideas and Islamic precepts in theorizing virtue, see Qutbuddin, “Healing the Soul.” A primary philosophical text dedicated to the theory of virtue is Miskawayh, Refinement of Character. For a medley of articles on Islamic ethics relating to various disciplines, see Carney, et al. Focus on Islamic Ethics: Foundational Issues, special issue of The Journal of Religious Ethics 11(2), including Reinhart, “Islamic Law as Islamic Ethics.”

51 For a broader spectrum of Sufi ethics, see Heck, “Mysticism as Morality: The Case of Sufism.”

52 See, e.g., Junayd, “On Annihilation,” and anecdotes about Rābiʿa, in Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism, 257-265, 151-170.

53 Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §1.250. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, §1106a-§1109a, §1095a-1999a, and passim. It should be noted that this is a case of intersection, not stimulus. Although Greek thought had great influence on the development of Islamic philosophy and science, it was not until the Baghdad translation movement of the 8th-10th centuries—a century after Ali—that their ideas came systematically into the Islamic world. For more on the translation movement, see Gutas, Greek thought, Arabic culture.

54 See, e.g., “Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Homeless Life,” trans. Maurice Walshe, in [Buddha], The Long Discourses, 91-109.

55 See, e.g., Qushayrī, “On Sorrow,” “On Hunger and the Abandonment of Lust,” and “On Spiritual Poverty,” in The Risalah, 167-172, 327-335.

56 Raḍī, Nahj, epistle §265.

57 Qurʾān, Qaṣaṣ 28:77.

58 See, e.g., Ali’s censure of the world in Raḍī, Nahj, oration §223.

59 Regarding Ali’s asceticism, see, e.g., report of his patched garments in Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt, 3:20, and the eulogy by his son Hasan in which he said Ali left neither gold behind nor silver, in ibid., 3:28. See also the report of Dirar quoted earlier in the article.

60 Quḍāʿī, Treasury, §4.6.1; the first half is also cited in ibid., §2.5, and Raḍī, Nahj, wisdom §105. Translated here as “happy” (and in the Treasury as “blessed”), Arabic ṭūbā is a complex word which may be rendered variously (including as the name of a tree in paradise), but which in all renderings signifies deep and eternal bliss.

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