ArticlesNahjul Balagha

Part I – Marvellous Book

Glimpses of the Nahj al-Balaghah

A Literary Marvel 

The Nahj al-balaghah is a magnificent collection of the inimitable sermons, invocations (du’a), wills or advices, epistles and aphorisms of Amir al-mu’minin, Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (‘a), compiled by al-Sayyid al Sharif al-Radi (may God be pleased with him) about one thousand years ago. Time and years have not only failed to diminish the impressive freshness of this work, but have added constantly to its value as new concepts and ideas have emerged.

‘Ali (‘a) was undoubtedly a man of eloquence and delivered a large number of speeches that became famous. Likewise, numerous sayings containing philosophic wisdom were heard from him. He wrote many letters, especially during the days of his caliphate, which his admirers recorded and preserved with remarkable interest and zeal. Al-Mas’udi (d. 346/955-6), who lived almost a hundred years before al-Sayyid al-Radi (d. 406/1115), in the second volume of his Muruj al-dhahab, under the heading “Fi dhikr luma’ min kalamihi, wa akhbarihi, wa zuhdih, says:

That which has been preserved by people of ‘Ali’s sermons, delivered on various occasions, exceeds 480 in number. ‘Ali (‘a) used to deliver his sermons extempore without any previous preparation. The people recorded [7] his words and practically derived benefit from them. [8]

The testimony of an informed researcher and scholar like al-Mas’udi bears out the large number of ‘Ali’s speeches that were extant during his time. Only 239 of these have been handed down to us in the Nahj al-balaghah, whereas their number, as mentioned by al-Mas’udi, was more than 480.

Moreover, al-Mas’udi informs us about the extraordinary dedication and ardour of various groups of people in recording and preserving ‘Ali’s words.

Al-Sayyid al-Radi and the Nahj al-balaghah: 

Al-Sayyid al-Sharif al-Radi, or al-Sayyid al-Radi, as he is commonly called, was an ardent admirer of ‘Ali’s speeches. He was a scholar, a poet and a man of cultivated taste. Al-Tha’alibi, his contemporary, says of him:

He is the most remarkable man among his contemporary and the noblest amongst the sayyids of Iraq. Family and descent aside, he is fully adorned and endowed with literary excellence. He is the most remarkable poet among the descendants of Abu Talib, though there are many distinguished poets among them. To say that of all the Quraysh no poet could ever surpass him would not be an exaggeration. [9]

It was on account of al-Sayyid al-Radi’s earnest love of literature in general, and admiration for ‘Ali’s discourses in particular, that his interest was mainly literary in compiling ‘Ali’s words. Consequently, he gave greater attention to those passages which were more prominent from the literary point of view. This was the reason why he named his anthology “Nahj al-balaghah“, [10] which means the “path of eloquence” giving little importance to mentioning his sources, a point rarely ignored by compilers of hadith (traditions). Only at times does he casually mention the name of a certain book from which a particular sermon or epistle has been taken. In a book of history or hadith, it is of primary importance that the sources be precisely specified; otherwise, little credence can be given to it. The value of a literary masterpiece, however, lies in its intrinsic beauty, subtlety, elegance and depth. Meanwhile, it is not possible to assert that al-Sayyid al-Radi was entirely oblivious of the historical value and other dimensions of this sacred work, or that his attention was exclusively absorbed by its literary qualities.

Fortunately, after al-Sayyid al-Radi, others took up the task of collecting the asnad of the Nahj al-balaghah. Perhaps the most comprehensive book in this regard is the Nahj al-sa’adah fi mustadrak Nahj al-balaghah by Muhammad Baqir al-Mahmudi, a distinguished Shi’ah scholar of Iraq. In this valuable book, all of ‘Ali’s extant speeches, sermons, decrees, epistles, prayers, and sayings have been collected. It includes the Nahj al-balaghah and other discourses which were not incorporated by al-Sayyid al-Radi or were not available to him. Apparently, except for some of the aphorisms, the original sources of all the contents of the Nahj al-balaghah have been determined. [11]

It should be mentioned that al-Sayyid al-Radi was not the only man to compile a collection of ‘Ali’s utterances; others, too, have compiled various books with different titles in this field. The most famous of them is Ghurar al-hikam wa durar al-kalim by al-Amudi, on which Muhaqqiq Jamal al-Din al-Khunsari has written a commentary in Persian and which has been recently printed by the University of Tehran through the efforts of the eminent scholar Mir Jalal al-Din al-Muhaddith al-‘Urumawi.

‘Ali al Jundi, the dean of the faculty of sciences at the Cairo University, in the introduction to the book ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, shi’ruhu wa hikamuh cites a number of these collections some of which have not yet appeared in print and exist as manuscripts. These are:

1. Dustur ma’alim al-hikam by al-Quda’i, the author of the al-Khutat;

2. Nathr al-la ‘ali’; this book has been translated and published by a Russian Orientalist in one bulky volume.

3. Hikam sayyidina ‘Ali. A manuscript of this book exists in the Egyptian library, Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyyah.

Two Distinctive Characteristics: 

From the earliest times, two distinct merits have been recognized as characterizing ‘Ali’s discourses: firstly, literary elegance (fasahah) and eloquence (balaghah); secondly, their characteristic multi-dimensional nature. Any of these two qualities is sufficient for estimating ‘Ali’s words as valuable, but the combination of these two qualities (i.e. matchless eloquence, literary elegance, and their multi-dimensional nature-in that they deal with diverse and occasionally incompatible spheres of life) has made it almost miraculous. For this reason, ‘Ali’s speech occupies a position in between the speech of the human being and the Word of God. Indeed, it has been said of it that ‘ it is above the speech of creatures and below the Word of the Creator.” [12]

Literary Beauty and Elegance: 

This aspect of the Nahj al-balaghah requires no introduction for a reader of cultivated literary taste capable of appreciating the elegance and charm of language. Basically, beauty is a thing to be perceived and experienced and not to be described or defined. The Nahj al-balaghah, even after nearly fourteen centuries, has retained the same attractiveness, freshness, charm, and beauty for the present-day audience that it possessed for the people of earlier days. Here we do not intend to give an elaborate proof of this claim. Nevertheless, as a part of our discourse, we shall briefly describe the marvellous power of ‘Ali’s words in moving hearts and infusing them with the feeling of wonder. We shall start with ‘Ali’s own times and follow the effect of his discourses through the changes and variations in tastes, outlooks, and modes of thought during different successive ages up to the present day.

The companions of ‘Ali (‘a), particularly those who had a taste for language and literary grace, greatly admired him as an orator. ‘Abd Allah ibn al-‘Abbas is one of them, who himself, as al Jahiz points out in his al-Bayan wa al-tabyin, [13] was a powerful orator He did not conceal his passion for listening to ‘Ali speak or the enjoyment he derived from it. Once, when ‘Ali was delivering his famous sermon called al-Shiqshiqiyyah, [14] Ibn al-‘Abbas was also present. While ‘Ali (‘a) was speaking, an ordinary man of Kufah handed him a paper containing some questions, thus causing ‘Ali to discontinue his speech. ‘Ali, after reading the letter, did not continue his speech in spite of Ibn al-‘Abbas ‘urging him to continue. Ibn al-‘Abbas later expressed the deep regret he felt on that occasion, saying, “Never in life was I ever so sorry for interruption of a speech as I was for the interruption of this sermon.” [15]

Referring to a certain letter that ‘Ali had written to Ibn al-‘Abbas, he used to say: “Except the speech of the Holy Prophet, I did not derive so much benefit from any utterance as from this one.” [16]

Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, ‘Ali’s most contumacious enemy, also acknowledges his extraordinary eloquence. When Muhqin ibn Abi Muhqin forsook ‘Ali and joined Mu’awiyah, in order to please Mu’awiyah, whose heart surged with ill-will and bitterness towards ‘Ali, he told him, “I have left the dumbest of men and come to you.” The flagrancy of this kind of flattery was so obvious that Mu’awiyah himself reproached him, saying: “Woe to you! You call ‘Ali the dumbest of men? The Quraysh knew nothing about eloquence before him. It was he who taught them the art of eloquence.”

Influence of ‘Ali’s Oratory: 

Those who heard ‘Ali speaking from the minbar were very much affected by his words. His sermons made hearts tremble and drew tears from the eyes. Even today, who can hear or read ‘Ali’s sermons without a tremor passing through his heart? Al-Sayyid al-Radi, after narrating ‘Ali’s famous sermon al-Gharra’, [17] says:

As ‘Ali delivered his sermon, tears flowed from the eyes of the listeners and hearts quivered with emotion.

Hammam ibn Shurayh, one of ‘Ali’s companions, was a man with a heart full of God’s love and a soul burning with spiritual fire. At one time, he requested ‘Ali to describe the qualities of pious and God-fearing men. ‘Ali, on the one hand, did not want to turn down his request, and on the other, he was afraid that Hammam might not be able to bear what ‘Ali would say. Therefore, he eludes this request giving only a perfunctory description of piety and the pious. Hammam is not only unsatisfied with this, but also his eagerness is heightened and he beseeches ‘Ali to speak with greater elaboration. ‘Ali commences his famous sermon and begins to describe the characteristics of the truly pious. He enumerates about one hundred and five [18] qualities of such human beings and goes on to describe more. But as ‘Ali’s words flow in fiery sequence, Hammam is carried to the very extreme of ecstasy. His heart throbs terribly and his spirit is driven to the furthest limits of emotion. It advances in eagerness like a restless bird trying to break out of its cage. Suddenly, there is a terrible cry and the audience turn around to find that it came from no other man than Hammam himself. Approaching, they find that his soul has left its earthly mould to embrace everlasting life. When this happened, ‘Ali’s remark, which carries both eulogy and regret, was: “I feared this would happen. Strange, yet this is how effective admonition affects sensitive hearts.” [19] This is an example of the kind of influence ‘Ali’s sermons had over the minds and hearts of his contemporaries.

The Opinions of Ancient and Modern Scholars: 

After the Holy Prophet (S), ‘Ali (‘a) alone has the distinction of being one whose speeches and sayings were recorded and preserved by the people with particular care.

Ibn Abi al-Hadid quotes ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Katib, the great master of Arabic prose [20] who lived during the early part of the second century of the Hijrah, as saying, “I learnt by heart seventy sermons of ‘Ali, and from that time onwards my mind always overflowed [ with inspiration ].”

‘Ali al Jundi also relates that when ‘Abd al-Hamid was asked about what had helped him most in attaining literary excellence, he replied, “Memorizing of the discourses of the ‘bald one’.” [21]

In the Islamic period of history the name of ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Nubatah is proverbial for oratory among Arabs. He acknowledges that his intellectual and artistic attainments are indebted to ‘Ali. Ibn Abi al-Hadid quotes him as saying:

I committed to memory about a hundred discourses of ‘Ali; since then this has served me as an inexhaustible treasure [of inspiration].

Al Jahiz was a celebrated literary genius of the early third century of the Hijrah, and his book Al-Bayan wa al-tabyin is regarded as one of the four main classics of Arabic literature [22]. Often, in his book, he expresses his great wonder and immense admiration for ‘Ali’s discourses. From his remarks it is evident that a large number of ‘Ali’s sermons were commonly known to the people of his day. In the first volume of his Al-Bayan wa al-tabyin, [23] after mentioning that some people praise precision in talk or rather prefer silence and disapprove profusion in speech, al-Jahiz writes:

The profuseness of speech that has been regarded with disapproval is futile talk not that which is fruitful and illuminating. Otherwise, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and ‘Abd Allah ibn al-‘Abbas were men of prolific speech.

In the same volume of his work, he quotes this famous sentence of ‘Ali (‘a): [24]

The worth of a man lies in what he has mastered. [25]

Al Jahiz then devotes half a page to expressing his admiration for this sentence, and writes further:

If our book did not contain anything but this sentence, it would suffice it. The best speech is one little of which makes you dispense with much of it and in which the meanings are not concealed within words but are made manifest.

Then he remarks:

It appears as if Allah the Almighty has enveloped it with His glory, and covered it with the light of wisdom proportionate to the piety and taqwa of its speaker.

Al Jahiz, in the same work, where he discusses the oratory of Sasa’ah ibn Suhan al-‘Abdi [26], says that:

No greater proof of his excellence as an orator is required than the fact that ‘Ali occasionally came to him and asked him to deliver a speech.

Al-Sayyid al-Radi’s following remarks in appreciation and praise of the speech of Imam ‘Ali (‘a) are famous:

Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali (‘a) was the reservoir and fountainhead of eloquence which derived its principles from his speeches and revealed its secrets through him. Every orator of mark tried to imitate him and every preacher learned from him the art of eloquence. Nevertheless, they lagged far behind him while he excelled them all. His speech (alone) bears the imprint of Divine Wisdom and the fragrance of the Prophet’s eloquence.

Ibn Abi al-Hadid is a Mu’tazilite scholar of the 7th/13th century. He was a masterly writer and an adept poet, and, as we know, was an adorer of ‘Ali’s discourses. Accordingly, he expresses his profound admiration for ‘Ali recurringly throughout his book. In the introduction to his famous commentary on the Nahj al-balaghah, he writes:

Rightly has ‘Ali’s discourse been regarded as being only inferior to that of the Creator and superior to that of all creatures. All people have learnt the arts of oration and writing from him. It suffices to say that the people have not recorded even one-tenth of one-twentieth from any other Companion of the Prophet (S) of what they recorded and preserved of ‘Ali’s discourses, although there were many eloquent persons among them. Again, it is sufficient that such a man as al Jahiz is all praise for ‘Ali in his book al-Bayan wa al-tabyin.

Ibn Abi al-Hadid, in the fourth volume of his commentary, commenting on Imam ‘Ali’s letter to ‘Abd Allah ibn al-‘Abbas (written after the fall of Egypt to Mu’awiyah’s forces and the martyrdom of Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, in which ‘Ali (‘a) breaks the news of this disaster to ‘Abd Allah, who was at Basrah) writes: [27]

Look how eloquence has given its reins into the hands of this man and is docile to his every signal. Observe the wonderful order of the words coming one after the other to bow in his presence, or gushing like a spring that flows effortlessly out of the ground. Subhan Allah! An Arab youth grows up in a town like Mecca, has never met any sage or philosopher, yet his discourses have surpassed those of Plato and Aristotle in eloquence and profundity. He has no intercourse with men of wisdom, but has surpassed Socrates. He has not grown up among warriors and heroes but amongst traders and merchants for the people of Mecca were not a warrior nation but traders, yet he emerges as the greatest warrior of supreme courage to have walked upon the earth. Khalil ibn Ahmad was asked: Of ‘Ali, Bistam, and ‘Anbasah, who was the more courageous? Replied he, “Bistam and ‘Anbasah should be compared with other men; ‘Ali was something superior to human beings.” He came from the Quraysh, who were not the foremost in eloquence, for, the most eloquent among Arabs were Banu Jurhum, though they were not famous for wisdom or wit, yet ‘Ali surpassed even Sahban ibn Wa’il and Qays ibn Sa’dah in eloquence.

Modern Perspectives: 

During the fourteen centuries that have passed since ‘Ali’s times, the world has seen innumerable changes in language, culture and taste, and one may be led to think that ‘Ali’s discourses, which although might have invoked the adoration of the ancients, may not suit the modern taste. But one would be surprised to learn that such is not the case. From the point of view of literary form and content, ‘Ali’s dis-courses have the rare quality of transcending the limits imposed by time and place. That ‘Ali’s discourses are universal in their appeal to men of all times we shall discuss later. Here, after quoting the views of the classical writers, we shall quote the relevant views expressed by our contemporaries.

The late Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh, formerly Mufti of Egypt, is a man who came to know the Nahj al-balaghah by accident. This preliminary acquaintance grew into a passionate love for the sacred book and led him to write a commentary on it. It also prompted him to endeavour to make it popular amongst the Arab youth. In the preface to his commentary, he says:

Among all those who speak the Arabic language, there is not a single man who does not believe that ‘Ali’s discourses, after the Quran and the discourses of the Prophet (S) are the noblest, the most eloquent, the most profound and the most comprehensive.

‘Ali al-Jundi, the dean of the faculty of sciences at the Cairo University, in his book ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, shi’ruhu wa hikamuh, writing about ‘Ali’s prose, says:

A certain musical rhythm which moves the innermost depths of the soul is characteristic of these discourses. The phrases are so rhymed that it can be called ‘prose-poetry’.

He then quotes Qudamah ibn Ja’far as saying:

Some have shown mastery in short sayings and others in long discourses, but ‘Ali has surpassed all others in both of these, even as he has surpassed them in other merits.

Taha Husayn, the contemporary Egyptian writer of renown, in his book ‘Ali wa banuh (‘Ali and His Sons), recounts the story of a man during the Battle of al-Jamal. The man is in doubt as to which of the two sides is in the right. He says to himself, “How is it possible that such personalities as Talhah and al-Zubayr should be at fault?” He informs ‘Ali (‘a) about his dilemma and asks him whether it is possible that such great personalities and men of established repute should be in error. ‘Ali answers him:

You are seriously mistaken and reversed the measure! Truth and false hood are not measured by the worth of persons. Firstly find out what is truth and which is falsehood, then you will see who stands by truth and who with falsehood.

What ‘Ali means to say is that you have reversed the measure. Truth and falsity are not measured by the nobility or baseness of persons. Instead of regarding truth and falsehood as the measure of nobility and meanness, you prejudge persons by your own pre-conceived notions of nobility and meanness. Reverse your approach. First of all find out the truth itself, then you will be able to recognize who are truthful. Find out what is falsehood, and then you will identify those who are wrong. lt is not significant which person stands by truth and which sides with falsehood.

After quoting ‘Ali’s above-mentioned reply, Taha Husayn says:

After the Revelation and the Word of God, I have never seen a more glorious and admirably expressed view than this reply of ‘Ali.

Shakib Arsalan, nicknamed “amir al-bayan” (the master of speech), is another celebrated contemporary writer. Once in a gathering held in his honour, in Egypt, one of the speakers mounted the rostrum and in the course of his address remarked: “There are two individuals in the history of Islam who can truly be named amir al-bayan: one of them is ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and the other is Shakib.” At which Shakib Arsalan (1871-1946), irritated, left his seat and walked to the rostrum. Deploring the comparison his friend had made between ‘Ali and himself, he said: “What comparison is there between ‘Ali and me! I am not worth even the strap of ‘Ali’s sandals!” [28]

Michael Na’imah, a contemporary Lebanese Christian writer, in the introduction to the book al-Imam ‘Ali by George Jurdaq, also a Lebanese Christian, writes:

‘Ali was not only a champion on the battlefield but was also a hero in all other fields: in sincerity of heart, in purity of conscience, in the spellbinding magic of speech, in true humanitarianism, in the finnness and warmth of faith, in the height of tranquility, in readiness to help the oppressed and the wronged, and in total submission to truth wherever it may lie and whichever form it assumes. He was a hero in all these fields.

I do not intend to quote more from those who paid tributes to ‘Ali, for the above-quoted remarks are sufficient to prove my point. One who praises ‘Ali extols his own merit, for:

He who admires the Sun’s brilliance extols himself:

My two eyes are bright and my vision is not clouded

I conclude my discourse with ‘Ali’s own statement about himself. One day, one of his companions attempted to deliver a speech. He couldn’t as he found himself tongue-tied. ‘Ali told him:

You should know that the tongue is a part of man and under the command of his mind. If the mind lacks stimulation and refuses to budge, his tongue will not assist him. However, if the mind is ready his speech will not give him respite. Indeed we (the Ahl al-Bayt) are the lords of (the domain of) speech. In us are sunk its roots and over us are hung its branches. [29]

Al Jahiz, in the al-Bayan wa al-tabyin, relates from ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali that ‘Ali (‘a) once said:

We (the Ahl al-Bayt) are superior to others in five qualities: eloquence, good looks, forgiveness, courage, and popularity with women. [30]

Now we shall take up another characteristic of ‘Ali’s discourses, which is in fact the main theme of this book; that is, their multi-dimensionality.

The Nahj al-balaghah Among Literary Classics: 

Most nations possess certain literary works which are regarded as ‘masterpieces’ or ‘classics’. Here we shall limit our discussion to the classics of Arabic and Persian literature whose merits are more or less perceptible for us, leaving the other classics of the ancient world, Greece and Rome and so on, and the masterpieces of the modern age from Italy, England, France and other countries, to be discussed and evaluated by those who are familiar with them and qualified to discuss them.

Of course, an accurate judgement about the classics of Arabic and Persian is possible only for scholars who have specialized in the classical literature; but it is an accepted fact that every one of these masterpieces is great only in a particular aspect, not in every aspect. To be more precise, every one of the authors of these classics displayed his mastery only in a single, special field to which their ingenuity was confined, and occasionally if they have left their special field to tread other grounds they failed miserably.

In Persian there are numerous masterpieces in mystical ghazal, general ghazal, qasidah, epic, spiritual and mystical allegorical verse, etc; but as we know, none of the Persian poets of world renown has succeeded in creating masterpieces in all these literary forms. Hafiz is famous for mystical ghazal, Sa’di for anecdotes and general ghazal, Firdawsi for epic, Rumi for his allegorical and spiritual poetry, Khayyam for his philosophic pessimism and Nizami for something else. For this reason it is not possible to compare them with one another or prefer one over the other. All that can be said is that each one of them is foremost in his own field. If occasionally any of these poetic geniuses has left his special field to try another literary form, a visible decline in quality is readily perceptible. The same is true of Arab poets of the Islamic and pre-Islamic periods. There is an anecdote in the Nahj al-balaghah that once ‘Ali (‘a) was asked the question, “who is the foremost among Arab poets?” ‘Ali replied:

To be sure all poets did not tread a single path so that you may tell the leader from the follower; but if one were forced to choose one of them, I would say that the foremost among them was al-Malik al-Dillil (the nickname of Umru’ al-Qays). [31]

In his commentary, Ibn Abi al-Hadid cites with asnad (authentic sources) an anecdote under the above-mentioned comment. Here is what he writes:

During the holy month of Ramadan, it was ‘Ali’s custom to invite people to dinner. The guests were offered meat, but ‘Ali himself abstained from the food which was prepared for the guests. After the dinner, ‘Ali would address them and impart moral instruction. One night, as they sat for dinner, a discussion commenced about the poets of the past. After the dinner, ‘Ali in the course of his discourse said: “The faith is the criterion of your deeds; taqwa is your shield and protector; good manners are your adornment; and forbearance is the fortress of your honour.” Then turning to Abu al-‘Aswad al-Du’ali, who was present and moments ago had taken part in the discussion about poets, said, “Let us see, who in your opinion is the most meritorious of poets?”

Abu al-‘Aswad recited a verse of Abu Dawud al-‘Ayadi adding the remark that in his opinion Abu Dawud was the greatest among poets. “You are mistaken; such is not the case,” ‘Ali told him. Whereupon the guests, seeing ‘Ali taking an interest in their discussion, pressed him to express his opinion as to whom he considered the best among poets. ‘Ali said to them: “It is not right to give a judgement in this matter, for, to be certain, the pursuits of the poets are not confined to a single field so that we may point out the forerunner amongst them. Yet, if one were forced to choose one of them, then it may be said that the best of them is one who composes not according to the period inclinations or out of fear and inhibition [but he who gives free rein to his imagination and poetic inspiration] . Asked as to whom this description would fit, ‘Ali replied, “Al-Malik al-Dillil, Umru’ al-Qays.”

It is said that when inquired as to who was the most eminent poet of the Jahiliyyah (the pre-Islamic period), Yunus ibn Habib al Dabbi (d. 798 A.D.), the famous grammarian, answered:

The greatest of poets is Umru’ al-Qays when he mounts his steed, [i.e. when he composes epic poetry motivated by the feelings of courage and bravery, and the passions roused on the battlefield]; al-Nabighah al Dhubyani when he flees in fear [i.e. when he expresses himself on the psychological effects of danger and fear]; Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma when he takes delight [in something]; and al-‘A’sha, when he is in a gay and joyful mood.” Yunus meant to say that every one of these poets had a special talent in his own field in which his works are considered to be master pieces. Each of them was foremost in his own speciality beyond which his talent and genius did not extend.

‘Ali’s Versatility: 

One of the outstanding characteristics of Imam ‘Ali’s sayings which have come down to us in the form of the Nahj al-balaghah is that they are not confined to any particular field alone; ‘Ali (‘a), in his own words, has not trodden a single path only, but has covered varied and various grounds, which occasionally are quite antithetical. The Nahj al-balaghah is a masterpiece, but not of the kind which excels in one field such as the epic, the ghazal, sermon, eulogy, satire or love poetry; rather it covers multifarious fields, as shall be elaborated.

In fact, works which are masterpieces in a particular field exist, nevertheless their number is not great and they are countable on fingers. The number of works which cover numerous subjects but are not masterpieces is quite large. But the characteristic that a work be simultaneously a masterpiece without restricting itself to any one particular subject is an exclusive merit of the Nahj al-balaghah. Excepting the Quran, which is altogether a different subject to be dealt with independently, what masterpiece is comparable to the Nahj al-balaghah in versatility?

Speech is the spirit’s envoy and the words of a man relate to the sphere in which his spirit dwells. Naturally, a speech which pertains to multiple spheres is characteristic of a spirit which is too creative to be confined to a single sphere. Since the spirit of ‘Ali is-not limited to a particular domain but encompasses various spheres and he is in the terminology of the Islamic mystics, al-‘insan al-kamil (a perfect man), al-kawn al jami’ (a complete microcosm) and jami’ kullal-hadarat, [32] the possessor of all higher virtues, so his speech is not limited to any one particular sphere. Accordingly, as we should say, in terms current today, that ‘Ali’s merit lies in the multidimensional nature of his speech, that it is different from one-dimensional works. The all-embracing nature of ‘Ali’s spirit and his speech is not a recent discovery. It is a feature which has invoked a sense of wonder since at least one thousand years. It was this quality that had attracted the attention of al-Sayyid al-Radi a thousand years ago, and he fell in love with ‘Ali’s speeches and writings. He writes:

Of ‘Ali’s wonderful qualities which exclusively belong to him, nobody sharing in it with him, is that when one reflects upon his discourses regarding abstinence (zuhd), and his exhortations concerning spiritual awakedness, for a while one totally forgets that the speaker of these words was a person of highest social and political calibre, who ruled over vast territories during his time and his word was command for all. Even for a moment the thought does not enter the reader’s mind that the speaker of these words might have been inclined to anything except piety and seclusion, anything except devotion and worship, having selected a quiet corner of his house or a cave in some mountain valley where he heard no voice except his own and knew nobody except himself, being totally oblivious of the world and its hustle and bustle. It is unbelievable that those sublime discourses on asceticism, detachment and abstinence and those spiritual exhortations came from somebody who pierced the enemy’s ranks and went fighting to the very heart of their forces, with a sword in his hand, poised to sever the enemy’s head, and who threw many a mighty warrior down from his steed, rolling into blood and dust. Blood drips from the edge of his sword and yet he is the most pious of saints and the most devoted of sages.

Then, after this, al-Sayyid al-Radi adds:

Frequently I discuss this matter with friends and it equally invokes their sense of wonder.

Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh, too, was profoundly moved by this aspect of the Nahj al-balaghah, and it made him marvel at its swiftly changing scenes, which take the reader on a journey through different worlds. He makes a note of it in the introduction to his commentary of the Nahj al-balaghah.

Aside from his speech, in general, ‘Ali (‘a) had a spirit that was universal, all-embracing, and multidimensional, and he has always been eulogized for this quality. He is a just ruler, a devotee who remains awake all night worshipping God; he weeps in the niche of prayer (mihrab) and smiles on the field of battle. He is a tough warrior and a soft-hearted and kind guardian. He is a philosopher of profound insight and an able general. He is a teacher, a preacher, a judge, a jurist, a peasant, and a writer. He is a perfect man whose great soul envelops all spheres of the human spirit.

Safi al-Din al-Hilli (1277-1349 A.D.) says of him:

Opposites have come together in thy attributes,

And for that thou has no rivals.

A devout, a ruler, a man of forbearance, and a courageous one,
A deadly warrior, an ascetic, a pauper, and generous to others,
Traits which never gathered in one man,
And the like of which none ever possessed;

A gentleness and charm to abash the morning breeze,
A valour and might to melt sturdy rocks;

Poetry cannot describe the glory of thy soul,

Thy multifaceted personality is above the comprehension of critics.

Apart from what has been said, an interesting point is that in spite of the fact that ‘Ali’s discourses are about spiritual and moral issues, in them his literary charm and eloquence have attained their peak. ‘Ali (‘a) has not dealt with popular poetic themes such as love, wine and vainglory, which are fertile subjects for literary expression in prose and poetry. Moreover, he did not aim at displaying his skills in the art of oratory. Speech for him was a means and not an end in itself. Neither did he intend to create an object of art nor he wished to be known as an author of a literary masterpiece. Above all, his words have a universality which transcends the limits of time and place. His addressee is the human being within every person, and accordingly, his message does not know any frontier; although, generally, time and place impose limits on the outlook of a speaker and confine his personality.

The main aspect of the miraculous nature of the Quran is that its subjects and themes are altogether at variance with those current during the time of its revelation. It marks the beginning of a new era in literature and deals with another world and a different sphere. The beauty and charm of its style and its literary excellence are truly miraculous. In these aspects too, like in its other features, the Nahj al-balaghah comes closer to the Quran. In truth it is the offspring of the Holy Quran.

The themes of the Nahj al-balaghah: 

The variety of topics and themes discussed in the Nahj al-balaghah unfolds a wide spectrum of problems that give colour and hue to these heavenly discourses. The author of this dissertation has no pretension to possessing the capacity to do the book full justice and analyse it in depth. I just intend to give a brief account of the variety of its themes, and it is my firm belief that others will come in the future who shall be able to do justice to this masterpiece of human power of speech.

A Glance at the Varied Problems Covered by the Nahj al-balaghah: 

The various topics found in the Nahj al-balaghah, everyone of which is worthy of discussion, can be outlined as follows:

  1. Theological and metaphysical issues;
  2. Mystic path and worship;
  3. Government and social justice;
  4. The Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) and the issue of caliphate;
  5. Wisdom and admonition;
  6. The world and worldliness;
  7. Heroism and bravery;
  8. Prophecies, predictions, and eschatology;
  9. Prayers and invocations;
  10. Critique of contemporary society;
  11. Social philosophy;
  12. Islam and the Quran;
  13. Morality and the discipline of self;
  14. Personalities;

and a series of other topics. Obviously, as the titles of the various chapters of the present book indicate, this author does not make any claim that the topics cited above are all that can be found in the Nahj al-balaghah. Neither does he claim that he has done an exhaustive study of these topics, nor has he any pretension to being considered competent for such work. That which is offered in these chapters is no more than a glimpse. Perhaps, in future, with Divine assistance, after deriving greater benefit from this inexhaustible treasure, the author may be able to undertake a more comprehensive study; or others may be blessed with the opportunity to accomplish such a job. God is wise and indeed His assistance and help is the best.


[7] Here it is not clear whether al Masudi means that Ali’s sermons were recorded in writing, in books, or if he implies that people preserved them by memorizing them, or if he means both.

[8]al Masudi, Muruj al dhahab, (Beirut, 1983), vol II, p. 431

[9] al Tha’alibi quoted by Muhammad Abduh, Sharh Nahj al-balaghah, Introduction, p. 9

[10]Nahj means open way, road, course, method or manner; balaghah means eloquence, art of good style and communication, rhetoric etc

[11]Here the author adds that ’till now four volumes of this have been published’.

[12]The arabic is: fawq kalamil makhluq wa duna kalam ul khaliq

[13]al Jahiz, al-Bayan wa al-tabyin, vol. I p. 230

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


 [16] Ibid., Rasail, No. 22

[17]Ibid., Rasail, No. 83

[18]According to my own counting, if I have not made a mistake

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

[20]Abd al Hamid was a scribe (katib) at the court of the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan ibn Muhammad. Of Persian origin, he was the teacher of the famous Ibn al Muqaffa. It was said of him, ‘the art of writing began with ‘Abd al Hamid and ended with Ibn al Amid’. Ibn al Amid was a minister to the Buyids.

[21]Asla means someone whose frontal position, portion of the head is bald. Abd al Hamid while confessing the greatness of Imam Ali, mentions him in a detracting manner due to his attachment to the Umayyad court

[22]The other three being: Adab al kitab of Ibn Qutaybah, al Kamil, of al Mubarrad, and al Nawadir of Abu Ali al Qali: quoted from the introduction to al-Bayan wa al-tabyin by Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddamah.

[23]al-Bayan wa al-tabyin, vol. I p. 202

[24]Ibid, Vol. I p. 83

[25]Nahj al-balaghah, Hikam, No. 81. See also al Sayyid al Radi’s comment on this aphorism.

[26]Sasa’ah ibn Suhan al Abdi was of the eminent companions of Imam Ali. When after the death of the third Caliph, Ali became the Caliph, it was Sa’sa’ah who said to him: You [by assuming the caliphate] have given it beauty,  while caliphate has not added lustre to your personality. You have raised its worth, and it has not raised your station. It stands in greater need of you than you need it.

[27]Nahj al-balaghah, Rasail, No. 35

[28]This anecdote was related by Muhammad Jawad Mughniyyah, a contemporary Lebanese scholar, at the occasion of a reception party given in his honor in the holy city of Mashad.

[29]Nahj al-balaghah, Khutab, No. 230

[30]al Jahiz, op. cit., vol. II p. 99

[31]A poetic form much popular in classical Arabic and Persian poetry. Ghazal is also another poetic form.

[32]Umru al Qays (500-540 AD) the famous poet of the pre-Islamic era (Jahiliyyah), the author of the first Mu’allaqat. Al Malik al Dillili is his nickname.

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