Nahjul Balagha (The Peak of Eloquence) uniquely sheds light on and has an impact on our lives from many aspects. Three areas were chosen to be looked at at our study circles: societal, familial and individual. The following article, part one of three series, will explore how it relates to concepts and practices at a societal level.
Nahjul Balagha (NB) is a collection of letters, sermons and sayings of Imam Ali (AS) compiled by Sayed Sharif Razi 300 years after Imam Ali’s death. Although controversial to many at the time of its publication due to the omission of the chain of narration, much effort has been made in recent years to trace the chain for purposes of authentication, using both traditional Sunni and Shia sources.
There are a wide variety of topics discussed in NB: one very important concept which is emphasised throughout is that of justice. This includes both God’s justice as well as social justice. We are told in the Quran that Allah (SWT) has sent messengers so that people can rise for justice;
“We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidences and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice.” 57:25
Imam Ali (AS) was renowned for many things, most of all the severity of his justice, much to the distress of corrupt individuals around him. Throughout NB he promotes the concept of justice in terms of self, family, society and environment.
The United Nations has taken Imam Ali (AS) as an example in establishing a government based on democracy and justice, and in fact, their 2002 Arab Human Development Report listed a number of sayings from Imam Ali (AS) relating to ideal governance:
“He who has appointed himself an Imam (ruler) of the people must begin by teaching himself before teaching others. His teaching of others must be first by setting an example rather than with his words, for he who begins by teaching and educating himself is more worthy of respect than he who teaches and educates others.” 1
This saying reminds leaders of the importance of leading by example, and rejecting hypocrisy. It is important to remember that he took a position in government only in order to serve the people and deliver justice. He reminds us that each member of society has a responsibility to fulfill their duty, but none more so than those who have taken positions of power and leadership. The duty of a leader is to provide justice and maintain the rights of the individual and society as well as to ensure that there is no oppression.
There is an emphasis on leadership protecting the rights of citizens, and for a leader to place him or herself with those that are most vulnerable within society. Only then can true justice be obtained. A leader who associates only with the rich and powerful has oppressed those who are not privy to those assets or that power. This is made clear in a letter written to Othman ibn Hunaif, who was the governor of Basrah. On hearing that he attended the invitations of the rich but failed to attend those of the poor, Imam Ali wrote:
“I never thought that you would accept the feast of a people who turn out the beggars and invite the rich.”2
Imam Ali (AS) emphasises the importance of awareness that, especially in a position of power, one is under constant scrutiny and will be judged according to his actions. Therefore he must prioritise fair and equal treatment of all. Imam Ali (AS) was well known for his uncompromising stance on the importance of social justice for all, and often placed himself with those who had the least,
“realise that your Imam has contented himself with two shabby pieces of cloth out of the (comfort of the) world, and two loaves for his meal…support me in piety, exertion, chastity and uprightness…Shall I lie with a satiated belly while around me there are many hungry bellies and thirsty livers?”2
Imam Ali (AS) wrote a beautiful letter with a document of instructions to Malik Al-Ashtar, when Malik was appointed as the Governor of Egypt and the surrounding areas. It reads as a perfect to-do list for those who wish to govern, and is relevant to anyone who is about to take a position of authority or power.
He reminds Malik that:
“people will now watch your dealings as you used to watch the dealings of the rulers before you, and they (people) will criticise you as you criticised them (rulers)”3
reminding those in power that they will be scrutinised and judged on their actions.
He reminds Malik that human beings are:
“of two kinds. Either your brothers in faith, or in humanity,”3
emphasising the importance of equality for all of humankind irrespective of gender, socio-economic status, or personal beliefs.
Mercy is also highlighted as essential; Imam Ali (AS) states:
“extend to them your forgiveness and pardon, in the same way as you would like Allah to extend his forgiveness and pardon to you”3. Dictatorship and brutality is condemned, “do not say ‘I have been given authority, I should be obeyed when I order’, because it engenders confusion in the heart, weakens the religion and takes on near ruin.”3
Ultimately, we should:
“do justice for Allah and do justice towards the people”3 whilst being careful not to prioritise or promote favouritism and special favours for close ones or “you will be oppressive” and “Allah hears the prayer of the oppressed and is on the lookout for the oppressors.”3
There are endless wisdom and lessons to be learned from our great Imam within NB, and I have only touched upon its relation to our existence within society. All individuals have a responsibility to promote and maintain justice, whilst remembering that the largest responsibility befalls those in positions where they can directly affect the outcome and maintenance of a just society.
Written by Sarah Al-Timimi, based on the Nahjul Balagha Study Circle series organised by IUS London in April 2016.
1 Arab Human Development Report 2002. (UN development programme)
2 Letter 45- To ‘UthmanIbn Hunayf Al-Ansari who was Imam Ali’s Governor of Basrah, when he came to know that Uthman had attended a banquet held by the people of Basrah
3 Letter 53- Written for Malik Al-Ashtr An-Nakhari, when he was appointed as the Governor of Egypt and its surrounding areas, and reads as a set of instructions.