This Scented Air: Book Review of “The Prophet’s Heir: Ali Ibn Abi Talib”

by Maniza Naqvi

Hassan Abbas’s  book, “The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib,” provides an excellent basis for much research, reflection and conversations.

For many of us this poetic verse feels as though it were a statement of fact:

Ghalib Nadeem e dost sey ati hey bo e dost
Mashgul e Haq hon bandagee-ey boo Turab mein

From the fragrance of the divine friend comes the scent of the friend
I am immersed in search of Truth in my devotion to Ali.

Who are these friends and what is that scent? The Message of Islam is revealed onto the Prophet Mohammad at age 40. Alongside Mohammad is his unwavering constant dearest companion—one of the first to accept Islam— and born in the Kaaba, his 9 year old kid cousin Ali ibn Talib whose mother and father raised Mohammad as their own child, long before Ali was born. For Mohammad, peace be upon him, Ali is the loyal adoring kid brother, the protege, and in age difference the son. The Prophet chooses Ali, as his example of the path of Islam the Shariah—-he recognizes him and entrusts Ali as the exemplary embodiment of what Islam means. The Prophet is the Messenger and his closest companion Ali, who pledged his loyalty to Allah and his Prophet and his message is the essence of Islam, he is the Shariah—- lived. The Prophet peace be upon him proclaimed this essence as:

Man Kunto Maula fa hazaa Ali-un Maula 

For whom ever I am Leader and Teacher, Ali is his Leader and teacher too.

For most of us gathered here today this essence translates to exquisite beauty lit by splendor achieved through love and loss and longing and struggle. This beauty moves us inexplicably, —moves us towards justice and generosity and kindness.

Faithful companion of the Prophet, husband of Fatima Zehra, father of the zibay azeem. When it comes to Ali these are our personal unwavering facts—-how we react to his story—and his pledge to the Prophet. We have been shaped by his life’s story. The lion of God, who eases our burdens, our worries our pain. We fervently hope that our own trajectories guided by his example— bend towards justice and that heightened sense of emotion that takes us to the true elegant meaning of beauty which is-science, mathematics, poetry, art, music, medicine, astrophysics, sociology, philosophy, education, the desire to know the universe all in the service of humanity and earth.

Ali ibn Abi Talib is the teacher, that source of light— lit by light; spreading light upon light. That lamp which, no matter the intensity of the gale force,  remains unwavering. Singular. Lit. Courageous. Steadfast. Vulnerable. Fragile. Ali is the shining beacon in the darkness, pointing the way towards enlightenment for ages to follow. It was Ali ibn Abi Talib’s, sense of justice, courage, valor and integrity and his unfailing belief in the Oneness of the Creator and his love for the last Prophet of God Mohammad—- Peace be upon him, —that gives him the unquestioned and unchallenged status in our hearts that he is the pathway—He is the practice of the Message of the Prophet.

This Message of Islam——is a reminder of the message revealed to all the Prophets before him since  Abraham, Idris, Noah, Salih, Hud, Isaac, Ismail, Yusuf, Eliyas, Yahya, to Moses and Aaron, to David and Jesus.

Here in the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad and of Ali, in the lands of Arabia amongst the Arab pagan tribes this message had been ignored.

This message and the love of the Prophet and the love of Ali remains constant and growing in our hearts over fourteen centuries, the air of possibility and struggle and hope is intoxicatingly scented by him despite every possible carefully thought out malicious strategy to choke it.

The Poet Iqbal writes:

Muslim e awwal shahe mardan Ali

Ishq ra sarmaya e iman Ali

Ali is the first Muslim and the king of men, 

Love is Ali and this is the treasure, of the faith.

Az wilae dood manish zinda um

Dar jahan misle guhar tabinda um

Devotion to his family inspires me with life, 

so I am shining like a pearl.

Az rukhe uo faal Paighambar grift

Millat e Haq az shikohish far grift

From Alis face, the Prophet divined many a fair prophecy,

by his majesty the true religion is glorified.

Quwwat e deen e mubeen farmudaish

Kainaat aaen pizeer az doodaish

His commandments are the strength of Islam, 

all things pay allegiance to his House.

Mursal e Haq kard namish Bu Turab

Haq Yad Allah khawnad dar Ummul Kitab

The Apostle of God gave him the name Bu Turab (Father of soil), 

God in the Quran called him the Hand of Allah

Sher e Haq ien khaak ra taskheer kard

en gile tareek ra akseer kard

Ali, The Lion of God subdued the bodys clay 

and transmuted this dark Earth to gold.

Murtaza kaz taigh e uo Haq raushan ast

Bu Turab az fathe aqleem e tan ast

Murtaza(a), by whose sword the splendor of truth was revealed, is named

Bu Turab from his conquest of the empire of body (clay).

Hark e dar afaaq gardad Bu Turab

Baaz gardanad za maghrib aftaab

Whosoever in the world if become a Bu Turab, 

turns back the Sun from West.

Zaire paaish ienja shikohe Khyber ast

Dast e uo Unja khaseem e Kauser ast

Here the Might of Khyber is under his feet 

and in Hereafter his hand will distribute the water of Kauser.

Az khud aagahi Yadullahi kunad

Az Yadullahi shahinshahi kunad

Through self-knowledge, he acts as Gods Hand 

and by virtue of being Gods Hand/ he reigns over every thing.

Zaat e uo darwaza e shahre uloom

Zair e farmanish Hijaz o Cheen o Room

He is the Gateway of the City of Knowledge; 

Arabia, China, and Greece are under his governance.

Poets and writers from Iqbal, to Ghalib, to Mir Anees, to Mir Taqi Meer, to Josh, to Amir Khusro, Rumi and the list goes and on have written poetry in praise of Ali.  

And what is that exemplary embodiment of practicing Islam? If Ali’s life and his actions are the measure then it is to always be on the side of, and support of and help of the powerless, to shun worldly power and to be steeped in the sublime and divine knowledge——and to embrace the strength that flows from this—-the power to heal, and the power of justice, it is a path  fraught with trials and tribulations because all around there is immense corruption—there is worship of only wealth and power, there is the commoditization of faith for power—-—and a sneering at the power of faith. As if it were a trendy garment for branding, selling and discarding. 

In submission, Ali shows by his example of the lived Islam, that all the burdens and trials are acceptable to him because he is covered in the ecstatic knowledge of the divine, the ecstatic knowledge that humanity can be humane, when in submission to the oneness of the Creator. It is a submission to beauty itself.

Ali’s life lived, is forever within the divine cloak of truth, the  House of the Prophet Mohammad, the Ah’le Beyt. The arc of history in trajectory of corruption and violence and injustice bends towards justice towards Ali.

The Messenger brought us the divine message, and in the practice of the message—-Ali is indeed the Heir.

This book review is posted on the anniversary of Ali Ibn Abi Talib’s martyrdom on the 21st of Ramzan of the Islamic calendar which this year falls on Monday May 3rd. It is a month of splendor and grace.  It is the month when the revelation of the Quran was completed. On the 19th of Ramzan  Ali in Sajda was fatally wounded. He completed his life of submission at the age of 62 on the 21st of Ramzan. Ali was completed in the month that the message of the Quran was completed— five decades earlier. Of course it would be so. Sorrow and Splendor are intertwined in Ali’s life of pure grace. He is the epitome of sorrow, epitome of splendour and epitome of beauty. He is ecstasy.

Ali from his birth inside the House of Abraham, the Kaaba in Mecca, to his steadfast stewardship and service to the community of Islam, to his teaching and his sufferings and finally, his being the target of reactionary hate at the hands of a fanatic who inflicted the fatal wound in the Mosque in Kufa, to his enduring three days of agony followed by his secret burial is imbued in the same cloak of divine narrative associated with Christ. Ali is the father of the zibay azeem, revealed to Mohammad in an ayat in the Quran, as prophesy.

The Prophet, -and his cousin Ali and their family were in their integrity and their adherence  to the Prophet’s message catastrophic and disastrous for the family business of the House of Qureysh of making money off of pilgrims coming to worship the many gods housed in the Kaaba. Naturally, if you’re going to go break the many, many gods and disrupt a lucrative enterprise and assert the Oneness of the Creator as one God, expect endless animosity.

The Prophet’s Household, the Ahle Beyt, ever since then were immersed in faith but engulfed and besieged by the all powerful status quo against them—

But in that land now for the past 90 years, oil has been unearthed and worshipped as one of the new gods, and that land has been ravaged by imperialism where for so many decades the US has been waging endless war.

Hassan Abbas’s book, The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali Ibn Abi Talib seeks to present the reader with a portrait of the political Ali and the Spiritual Ali. Citing western authors of the last two decades, Hadith of the various schools of Islamic thought, poets—— and in particular Ali’s own words and writings in the Najul Balaga, these letters outline the principles of just and good governance and social protection.

Hassan Abbas, portrays Ali, a man—a leader— who has  no contradiction between his practice of spirituality and faith and his practice of governing policies as a leader. These words which he lived by are a glimpse into why Ali is loved as a spiritual inspiration, as a leader, as a warrior and a human being. He is considered divine and close to God, and loved by the Prophet Mohammad, loved by the defenseless, those who are in need of protection, poor and powerless. Ali is tolerance. Ali is mercy. Ali is humanity. For those who are immersed in Ali’s scent—He is the scent of love. For them Ali’s stories and greatness are understood, he is his own chapter and verse and no other book explaining his life is needed. Each ayat in the Quran  commands humanity  towards love and justice. And this is Ali’s life lived.

The author, Hassan Abbas, is the Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. He is also the author of —-The Taliban Revival—- and— Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism.

The National Defense University’s website boasts that it “educates joint Warfighters in critical thinking and the creative application of military power to inform national strategy and globally integrated operations, under conditions of disruptive change, in order to conduct war.”

In the Acknowledgements section of the book Hassan Abbas writes that his “extensive travels to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan among other destinations was largely supported by two institutions: the National Defense University in Washington DC—–and   New America and—the Harvard University Project on Shi’sim and Global Affairs at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.”

Hassan Abbas in his book The Prophet’s Heir, in reverential terms provides a portrait of the most storied personage in Islam Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and companion of the Prophet and —-the fourth Caliph of Islam, who commands the deepest loyalty and adoration of his followers.

Writing a book from a faith based point of view can be called a book of theology.  And if it provides many sources for what is essentially the same opinion it can be referred to as a book of praise.  Hassan Abbas has accomplished this task. The book, like many Shi’as, quotes angel Gabriel and divine and sublime verse, cites miracles to prove its points and as primary sources. And speaks in superlative adoring ways about its subject.

In the introduction the author lets us know that this is the story of Ali. And as rational thinkers we know that stories are what separate us from the rest of the species. Stories  help us create dearly held belief systems, they package our grievances and wounds and galvanize us and organize us into groups and then transmit and pass these sentiments and opinions on to generations to come.  The type of stories we tell, either create love and diminish divisions or they create the basis for further divisions. They have the power to liberate us or they can imprison us in our Gitmos of endless war.

Shi’a Muslims will recognize much of this book as very familiar ground a comforting validation of stories and superlatives we’ve heard since we were born—about the Prophet’s anointing words for Ali; Ali’s deeds; his heroism, his humility, the indignities, insults and humiliations suffered by the Ahle bait and Ali’s steadfast unwavering goodness and just stance.  It chronicles events which are well known to Muslims and are in the well worn grooves of theology that is held dear by Muslims.

But the book is not written for Muslims. It is written for a non Muslim western audience. They will surely see this as theology.  How else can they see it? As the stories of a family fight? In fighting between clans?

However, in the process  Muslims too will learn important details.The details along the way will hopefully trigger your desire to think about broader socio-economic imperatives and issues, which the book doesn’t really explore.

If you didn’t already know certain details of who is who in early Islamic history and how they were related to each other by kith, kin and killing and the incorporation of widows of important clan members as wives to the living important clan leaders then the book will shed some light on this for you—as it continues to assert Ali’s position as the heir to the Prophet in terms of his knowledge of the divine and the Prophet’s clearly identifying Ali as his successor to lead the flock.

The book raises more questions to think about. For example it provides a very useful and informative family tree of the House of Qureysh. But the tree begins from the House of Qureysh. And the reader is not informed about— through whom and how were the House of Qureysh connected to Abraham? This is not laid out.

And this is important to lay out because it would then connect the story of the Muslims  to the larger communities of the region. In that region around Mecca, there were also many pagan tribes but also the monotheistic Jewish villages, and Christian villages.

It was in pagan Mecca that Islam was revealed.  The larger family tree would illustrate the essential commonalities human and personal bonds and relationships that the monotheistic faiths share and how they were connected to each other through marriages, through love, through children and not only through divine messages communicated through angels. This is so important. Because building these connections diminishes and vanishes perhaps differences and endless war.

This schema of the House of Quresyh with one branch Banu Ummaya the other Banu Hashim made me want to know more through a lens of a socio-economic analysis of  incentives and disincentives for peace or conflicts—

Abu Sufiyan and after him Mawwiya and after him Yazid—from the Banu Ummaya are viewed by Shi’as and I would hope most Muslims as enemies of the Prophet and his family. Full-stop. They are considered so vile and so separate and distanced from the Prophet in their constant violent opposition to the Prophet and his household that they have no other meaning to most Muslims. And for most Muslims they do not have any other relationship or history with the Holy Prophet. This family tree in Figure 1 in the book very helpfully lets us see that both the Banu Ummaya and Banu Hashim are sub clans of the same clan of Quraysh. For Shi’as this is particularly important to reflect upon.

The book’s audience is the West (presumably understood as non Muslims but there are plenty of us in the West who are Muslims and Muslims have been in the West for over a thousand years. The book provides an important window on conflict but not enough.

How are the dynamics and motivations of the various parties and persons to be understood? On one level the history of Islam is a paradox of petty familial clan jealousies, the childish capricious and dangerous jealousies of relatives, and squabblings and on another level it is about profound schisms and differences due to a Message which disrupts everything social, economic and political within the prevailing power structure —giving all power to the One God as opposed to the One clan. On one side is the concept of the One God who sends prophecy of salvation and requires sacrifices only of its prophets and on the other side is the adherence to the concept of the one clan their many lucrative gods and profiteering.

The Prophet and his household tried to introduce an experiment that spoke in terms of the human community of humanity rather than in terms of the narrow economic interests of tribes, ethnicities, clansmen and clanswomen and class. This was the glory and beauty of Islam and Ali was its emblem.

Hassan Abbas’s book mentions several important women who shaped Ali’s trajectory. But the framework of the narrative presented to us only gives us a glimpse of their vital role in clans and faith and conflict. The relationships between clans, the political alliances through marriage and through wives is not explored. The book mentions the women in Ali’s life fleetingly  —-it would have benefited from narrating how they shaped him and safeguarded his legacy. And how they were strategically of the highest importance to safeguard a nascent Islam and to spread it.

And how the women in Ali’s life, his wife Fatima,  daughter Zainab, and then his wives later (Um-a-mah binte Zainab, Umme Al Bannin and Asma binte Umais) and their children created the unbreakable connections with other clans and sub clans and other faiths and other regions that were so vital in keeping the arc of history bending constantly towards justice, towards Islam, towards the Prophet, towards Ali. His wife Fatima is mentioned mainly in describing the injustices that she suffered-after the death of the Prophet.  But she is so much more

Maryam az yek nisbat-e-Isa aziz,

As seh nisbat Hazrat-e-Zahra aziz!

Noor-e-chashm-e Rahmat-Al-lil-‘Alaminﷺ

Un Imam-e-Awwalin-o-Aakhirin

Baanu-e aa’n taajdaar-e-Hal Ataa

Murtaza, mushkil kusha, sher-e-Khuda.

Maadar-e-aa’n markazey -parkaarey-ishq

Maadarey-aa’n kaarwa’n saalaarey-ishq

Rishtaey aa’een-e haq zanjeerey -pa-ast

Paasey-farmaaney  Janaabey Mustafa-ast

Warna girdey-turbat-ish gardeed mi

Sajdah ha bar khaakey-oo pasheed mi!

Mary is honored and dear to us for one reason; that she is the mother of Jesus,

Hazrat Zehra -is dear and honored for three relationships!

She is the daughter of him who is known as Rahmat-Al-lil-‘Alaminﷺ,

Who is the First and Last of the Prophets

She is the wife of Ali the one who was crowned with Hal Ataa [Ali],

He is the chosen one, solver of all problems, the lion of God.

Mother of Hussain   the centre of love and devotion,

Mother of the chief of the caravan of love.

I am bound by the law of Islam,

I am beholden to the sayings of Al-Mustafaﷺ.

Otherwise, I would have circled her gravesite,

And I would have performed Sajdah on her grave.

This is Iqbal writing his beautiful verse.

The mention is some detail of Ali’s wives is important. Why? Because it clarifies the alliances that were made all the time and there was never a clear “other” amongst the Arab clans. Marriages blurred lines of differences if never disappearing divides completely.

For example Ali’s second wife after the death of Fatima was the widow of Abu Bakr, Asma Binte Umais. But before she was the wife of Abu Bakr, his widow and the wife of Ali she was the wife and widow of Ali’s martyred elder brother Jaffar Ibn Abi Talib.  These familial clan connection went a long way in holding the firmament of relationships together and keeping disasters from becoming catastrophic. She kept the lines of communication cordial between Abu Bakr and Ali—-She was also the step mother of Aisha—Abu Bakr’s daughter and the prophet’s wife. Similarly Ail when he married Asma Bint Umais became the step father of Abu Bakr’s son Mohammad ibn Abu Bakr.

These marriages and marriages to widows created the intricate complex relationships that were indispensible in building the informal alliances and coalitions which often were far more important than other alliances. Fatima Binte Huzam al Kulabiyah better known as Umme al Banin, mother of sons was married to Ali after the death of Fatima and bore him four sons including Abbas, all of whom were killed at Kerbala, she was from the Banu Kilab tribe.

Umme Banin had a daughter Ruqqaya Bint Ali (It is said that she took refuge and was sent by Imam Husain away from Kerbela. Traditions say she was sent to Cairo and her shrine is there. While others say she was sent to South Asia and her shrine is in Lahore, Bibi Pak Daman is considered her tomb and shrine ( There is shrine in Cairo also) Shimr who killed Husain at Kerbela was from this tribe. Before the battle he tried to offer amnesty to Abbas and his brothers. But they refused.

Through out the  Arab world and into Yemen, Somalia and Sudan, clan and sub clan relationships and bloodlines are of paramount important in the body politic of everything.

So it is with a great deal of interest that I read this book, particularly as it is written by a scholar funded and housed in the National Defense University of  the country that has wreaked havoc and untold death and misery on the lands where Ali’s followers reside in majority and where countless shrines are devoted to him and his descendants and where in one such land he is buried.

I was intrigued that the Timeline  (pages xiv-xvi) notes the birth of his two sons Hasan and Husain but makes no mention of Zainab, Ali’s daughter who’s role in bearing witness to the upholding of Islam and in Shi’a Islam is pivotal. A man is indeed known by his offspring and their actions.

Zainab was Ali’s daughter. Without Zainab we would not have Shi’a Islam today. It would have died on the banks of the Euphrates, beheaded and unburied. The book itself makes scant mention of Zainab in a sentence or two on pages, 98, 153 and 170.

The Prophet was 63 and Ali 32 when the Prophet passed away. Through Ali the Prophet knew that his pure message would be unaltered, unadulterated protected and adhered to in its nascency and would be secured.

Ali, 31 years his junior was chosen by the Prophet as his heir to continue after him to be that steadfast disruptive force in the face of tremendous counter-forces who acted to appease the Prophet and his growing appeal but were committed to the status quo prevalent pre-Islam.

The Prophet chose Ali as his heir, because he would give longevity to the Prophet’s path—- safekeeping it protecting it and keeping it intact from the powers within Mecca undermining  the message of Islam. It was the same monotheistic message received by Judaism and Christianity. The same counter revolutionary motivations for status quo prevailed in Judaism, which persecuted many of the  Prophets including finally Christ, and these were the same motivations that persecuted Mohammad and his family and in fact killed them.

Importantly, for Shi’a readers the book is balanced on the position of the first three Caliphs and their reliance on Ali in decision making on all matters but particularly regarding Islam itself and Shariah law. But as do most Shi’as the book too spends considerable space litigating a moot point. Ali was the fourth Caliph. Shi’as insist he should have been the first. But the fact is he was not. And he shunned power. And he faithfully and ably and loyally served the first three Caliphs. Then why insist on litigating Ali’s position, when he did not.

It is interesting that the National Defense University has taken on the tasks of theology. Why? In the concluding chapter the author writes

“The impact of Kharijites and Muawiya’s brand of politics would centuries later be seen in the continuation and increase of the devious actions they had initiated—to an extent creating the modern day extremist groups knowns as al Qaeda and ISIS.”

Really? These groups were created now in the 21st century. Who financed, supported, nurtured, educated and trained  them? Was it not the greed for land, oil and water that unleashed endless war using every means possible to extend the stranglehold of imperialism?

How to remain unwavering and constant, submitting only to a constant truth? And what is that truth? That we are human and we are love. And hate—- that which divides, that story of hate that sows division— is the untruth.

In closing I will say in praise of the book that it agitated me and made me, of the East and of the West, or maybe of neither, think deeply and it increased my knowledge. The Prophet compared Ali as being to him as Aaron (Haroon) was to Moses. And declared that for whomever he the Prophet (peace and blessings on him) was a teacher and leader, Ali was a teacher and leader too.  For  who ever was a friend of Ali’s was a friend of the Prophet.

Ghalib Nadeem e dost sey ati hey bo e dost

Mashgul e Haq hon bandageeay boo Turab mein


Man Kunto Maula fa hazaa Ali-un Maula