Glimpses of the Nahj al-Balaghah

Introduction

Perhaps it may have happened to you, and if not, you may still visualize it: someone lives on your street or in your neighbourhood for years; you see him at least once every day and habitually nod to him and pass by. Years pass in this manner, until, one day, accidentally, you get an opportunity to sit down with him and to become familiar with his ideas, views and feelings, his likes and dislikes. You are amazed at what you have come to know about him. You never imagined or guessed that he might be as you found him, and never thought that he was what you later discovered him to be. 

After that, whenever you see him, his face, somehow, appears to be different. Not only this, your entire attitude towards him is altered. His personality assumes a new meaning, a new depth and respect in your heart, as if he were some person other than the one you thought you knew for years. You feel as if you have discovered a new world. 

My experience was similar in regard to the Nahj al-balaghah. From my childhood years I was familiar with the name of this book, and I could distinguish it from other books on the shelves in my father's library. Years later, during my studies, first at the theological school of Mashhad, and later at Qum, when I was finishing the last stages of the preliminary education in theology called "sutuh", during all those days the name of the Nahj al-balaghah was heard more often than that of any other book after the Quran. Some of its sermons on piety I had heard so many times that I almost remembered them by heart. Nevertheless, I must admit, like all of my colleagues at the theology school (Hawzah 'ilmiyyah), I was quite ignorant of the world of the Nahj al-balaghah. We had met as strangers and passed by each other in the manner of strangers. This continued until the summer of 1325 (1946) when in order to escape the heat of Qum, I went to Isfahan. A trifling accident brought me into contact with a person who took my hand and led me somewhat into the world of the Nahj al-balaghah

When this happened, I realized that I knew little about this book until that time. Later I wished that I would also find someone who would introduce me into the world of the Quran. Since then, the countenance of the Nahj al-balaghah was transformed in my eyes. I became fond of it, and gradually my fondness grew into love. It was now a different book from the one I had known until that moment. I felt as if I had discovered an entirely new world. Shaykh Muhammad 'Abduh, the former mufti of Egypt, who edited and published the Nahj al-balaghah with a brief commentary, and for the first time introduced this book to the Egyptians, says that he had no knowledge of this book until he undertook its study far from home in a distant land. 

He was struck with wonder and felt as if he had discovered a precious treasure trove. Thereupon, he immediately decided to publish it and introduce it to the Arab public. The unfamiliarity of a Sunni scholar with the Nahj al-balaghah is not surprising; what is amazing is that the Nahj al-balaghah should be a stranger and alien in its own homeland and among the Shi'ah of 'Ali ('a) and that too in the Shi'i theological schools in the same way as 'Ali himself has remained isolated and a stranger. Evidently, if the content and ideas of a book or the feelings and emotions of a person do not harmonize with the mentality of a people, that book or person practically remains isolated as a stranger in an alien world, even though the name of such a person or book may be mentioned with great respect and admiration. 

We, the theology students, must confess our estrangement from the Nahj al-balaghah. We have built a mental world of our own which is alien to the world of the Nahj al-balaghah. As I write this preface, I cannot abstain from recalling with sorrow the memory of that great man who introduced me for the first time into the world of the Nahj al-balaghah, and whose acquaintance I treasure as one of the most precious experiences of my life, which I would not exchange for anything. No day or night passes without my remembering him or mentioning him with feelings of gratitude. I dare say that he was a divine scholar ('alim-e rabbani) in the true sense of the word, though I dare not claim that I was "a learner of the path of deliverance" (muta'allim 'ala sabil al-najat). [1] I remember that in my meetings with him, I was always reminded of the following verse of Sa'di: 

The devout, the ascetic, and the Subi,
All are toddlers on the path; 
If there is any mature man, 
It is none other than the 'alim-e rabbani. 

He was a faqih (jurisprudent) [2], a philosopher, a man of letters and a physician, all at once. He was well versed in fiqh (jurisprudence), philosophy, the Arabic and Persian literature and the traditional medicine, and was considered a specialist of the first order in some of these fields. He was a masterly teacher of Bu 'Ali's al-Qanun, the treatise of Ibn Sina in medicine, which does not find a teacher these days, and many scholars of the theology school attended his lessons. However, it was not possible for him to confine himself to one field and his spirit revolted against any kind of restrictions. Of his lectures the most that interested him were those on the Nahj al-balaghah, which threw him into ecstasies. It seemed as if the Nahj al-balaghah had opened its wings and he, having mounted on its wings, was taken on a journey through strange worlds which were beyond our reach. 

It was evident that he lived by the Nahj al-balaghah; he lived with it and breathed with it. His spirit was united with that book; his pulse throbbed and his heart beat in harmony with the Nahj al-balaghah. Its sentences were always on his lips and their meanings had been engraved upon his heart. When he quoted its passages, tears would flow from his eyes and soak his white beard. During lessons, his encounter with and involvement in the Nahj al-balaghah would make him totally oblivious of his surroundings. It was a very educative as well as an attractive spectacle. Listening to the language of the heart from someone whose great heart is full of love and wisdom has altogether a different affect and attraction. He was a living example of the saints of the bygone days. The words of 'Ali fully apply to him: 

Had it not been that the Providence had decreed the years of their life the passionate earning for Divine reward and fear of chastisement would not have permitted their souls to remain in their bodies even for a moment. Their realization of the greatness of the creator has made everything besides Him insignificant in their eyes. [3] 

This refined man of letters, the speculative philosopher, the great faqih, the adept man of medicine and the excellent master of theology was the late Hajj Mirza 'Ali Aqa al-Shirazi al-'Isfahani, sanctified by God, a man of truth and wisdom, who had attained deliverance from the finite self and selfhood and had merged with the Infinite Truth. 

In spite of his high scholarly status and eminent social standing, his sense of commitment to society and his burning love for al-Imam al-Husayn ('a) had impelled him to deliver sermons from the minbar

His sermons, since they came from the heart, had a deep effect on the hearts. Whenever he visited Qum, the scholars of the first rank would persuade him to deliver sermons from the minbar. [4] His sermons were charged with a passionate purity and sincerity that made them profoundly effective. They were not just words to be heard, but a spiritual state to be experienced. 

However, he abstained from leading prayers. One year, during the holy month of Ramadan, after much persuasion, he accepted to lead prayers at the Madraseh-ye Sadr for that month. In spite of the fact that he did not come regularly and refused to stick to any regular schedule, unprecedented crowds of people would come to attend the prayers led by him. I heard that strength declined in the jama'at in the neighbourhood mosques and he, too, did not continue. 

As far as I know, the people of Isfahan generally knew him in person and liked him. He was also loved at the theology school of Qum. The 'ulama' of Qum would go forth eagerly to see him at the news of his arrival in the city. Like all other restrictions, he also refused to be bound by the conditions set for having murids and followers. May Allah shower His infinite mercy upon him and raise him with His awliya' on the Day of Resurrection. 

With all his merits, it is not my claim that he was familiar with all the worlds that the Nahj al-balaghah embraces and had set his foot in all the domains encompassed by it. He had explored only a portion of its realms and that part of the Nahj al-balaghah had been incarnated in his person. The universe of the Nahj al-balaghah includes numerous worlds: the world of zuhd (abstinence, piety) and taqwa (God-fearing), the world of 'ibadah (worship, devotion) and 'irfan (mystic knowledge), the world of hikmah (wisdom) and philosophy, the world of moral preaching and guidance, the world of eschatology (malahim) and mysteries (mughayyabat), the world of politics and social responsibilities, the world of heroism and bravery ...; too many worlds to be conquered by any individual. Hajj Mirza 'Ali Aqa al-Shirazi had explored only a part of this great ocean and knew it well. 

Nahj al-balaghah and the Present-Day Islamic Society:

The alienation from the Nahj al-balaghah was not confined to me or others like me, but pervaded through the Islamic society. Those who understood this book, their knowledge did not go beyond the translation of its words and explanatory notes on its sentences. The spirit and the content of the book were hidden from the eyes of all. Only lately, it may be said, the Islamic world has begun to explore the Nahj al-balaghah, or in other words, the Nahj al-balaghah has started its conquest of the Muslim world. 

What is surprising is that a part of the contents of the Nahj al-balaghah, both in Shi'ite Iran and Arab countries, was first discovered either by atheists or non-Muslim theists, who revealed the greatness of the book to the Muslims. Of course, the purpose of most or all of them was to utilize the Nahj al-balaghah of 'Ali ('a) for justifying and confirming their own social views; but the outcome was exactly opposite of what they desired. Because, for the first time the Muslims realized that the views expressed grandiloquently by others had nothing new to offer and that they cannot surpass what is said in the Nahj al-balaghah of 'Ali ('a), or translated into action through the character (sirah) of 'Ali and his disciples like Salman al-Farsi, Abu Dharr, and 'Ammar. The result of it was that instead of supporting the pretentious views of those who wished to exploit the Nahj al-balaghah, 'Ali and his book defeated their purpose. Nevertheless, it must be accepted that before this occurred, most of us had little knowledge of the Nahj al-balaghah and it hardly went beyond appreciation of few sermons about virtues of piety and abstinence. Nobody had yet recognized the significance of the valuable epistle of Mawla 'Ali to Malik al-'Ashtar al-Nakh'i; nobody had paid attention to it. 

As mentioned in the first and second chapters of this book, the Nahj al-balaghah is a collection of sermons, precepts, prayers, epistles and aphorisms of 'Ali ('a) compiled by al-Sayyid al-Sharif al-Radi about one thousand years ago. However, neither the recorded words of Mawla 'Ali are confined to those collected by al-Sayyid al-Radi, nor was he the only man to compile the sayings of Amir al-Muminin. Al-Masudi, who lived a hundred years before al-Sayyid al-Radi, in the second volume of his work Muruj al-dhahab, writes: "At present there are over 480 sermons of 'Ali in the hands of the people," whereas the total number of sermons included by al-Sayyid al-Radi in his collection is 239 only. 

There are, at present, two kinds of work that must be accomplished with respect to the Nahj al-balaghah, so that 'Ali's thought and his views on various important issues expressed in the Nahj al-balaghah, which are still relevant and are direly needed by the present-day Islamic society, may be brought to light. The second kind of work required in relation to the Nahj al-balaghah is research on the sources (asnad) and the documents related to its contents. Fortunately, we hear that Muslim scholars in various parts of the Islamic world are devoting themselves to both of these important tasks. 

This book is a collection of a series of articles that originally appeared in the journal Maktab e Islam during 1351-52 (1972-73), now presented to the learned readers in the form of the present book. Formerly, I had delivered five lectures on this topic at the Husayniyyah Irshad. [5] Later, I took up with the idea of writing a series of articles to deal with the subject in greater detail. 

From the outset, when I chose to call it "Sayri dar Nahj al-balaghah" ('A journey into the Nahj al-balaghah'), I was aware that my attempt does not deserve to be called more than a journey, or a short trip. This work, by no means, can deserve to be called a research study.  I neither had the time and opportunity for a research study, nor did I consider myself fit for this task. Moreover, a profound and comprehensive research study of the contents of the Nahj al-balaghah, exploration of the thought of 'Ali, and, besides it, research about documentation of its contents, is the job of a group and not of a single individual. But as it is said, that which cannot be attained in entirety is not to be abandoned in entirety [6]. And since humble attempts open the way for great tasks, I started on my trip. Unfortunately, even this journey was not completed. The project that I had prepared for, and which the reader shall find mentioned in the third chapter, remained unaccomplished on account of many preoccupations. I do not know whether will ever get the opportunity to continue my journey through the Nahj al-balaghah. But it is my great desire to be able to do so. 

Notes:  

[1] This is a reference to the following words of Ali, taken from Nahj al-balaghah, (ed. Subhi al Salih, Beirut 1387), Hikam, No 147 "O Kumayl, the mankind consists of three kinds of people: the sage adept in the knowledge of the Divine (alim rabbani), the novice of the path of deliverance (muta'allim 'ala sabili najat) and the vulgar populace'. 

[2] Faqih means an expert in Islamic Law, the Shariah, whose study is called fiqh. Equivalent terms are mufti, mujtahid, and ayatullah. (Tr.) 

[3] Nahj al-balaghah, Khutab, No. 193 

[4] Minbar is a raised platform with steps, the Islamic pulpit. Traditionally as a rule, the function at speaking at mourning gatherings, the majalis, has been performed in Iran by the Mullahs, or ruhaniyyun, as they are called in Iran. (Tr.) 

[5] Husayniyyeh Irshad is a building in Tehran founded by the late Dr. Ali Shariati. (Tr.) 

[6]This is in reference to an Arabic maxim: That which cannot be attained in entirety is not to be abandoned completely