ISLAM brought about a great revolution in the field of knowledge in Arabia where literacy was almost unknown and people took pride in their ancestry rather than in being cultured.

According to Tabari, the great historian and commentator on the Quran, there were no more than 17 people in pre-Islamic Makkah who could read and write.

It is against this backdrop that the Quran's emphasis on knowledge must be seen. The very first verse begins with the word ' iqra ' (read); the word ' ilm ' (knowledge) occurs more than 800 times in the Quran as against the word 'jihad', which occurs no more than 41 times. The Quran calls knowledge light and ignorance darkness.

It can be said that the early faithful looked to three principle sources of knowledge: the Quran, the Prophet (PBUH), and Ali after him. The Quran was the principal source which came as Allah's revelation to the Prophet. The Prophet's contribution was through his tradition and practice, hadith and sunnah. Ali's contribution to the field of knowledge has reached us through his compiled speeches.

His lectures were later collected under the title Nahj al-Balagha i.e. (Highway of Oration) and the letters he wrote as the caliph to his governors. The Prophet said, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate.” Such was the importance of Ali in the matter of knowledge. Ali contributed richly to Muslim intellectual advancement.

The Quran is a source of revelatory knowledge from Allah; thus, the Prophet's knowledge was innate rather than acquired but Ali's knowledge was based on what the Prophet (PBUH) passed on to him as his vision for a humane society. The Prophet (PBUH) was the perfect human being, and Ali stood next to him. Hence, for Sufis, both were great sources of inspiration.

The Prophet lived in this world and yet he was never attached to worldly gains. Ali, who always tried to closely follow the Prophet (PBUH), was also never attracted to the allurements of this world. He is reported to have said, “I divorce the world thrice”, i.e. never to be attracted to it.

Ali, like the Prophet, was a deeply spiritual person and yet, like his master, he was conscious of the fact that millions of people lived in this world, and that it should be such as to provide meaning and guidance to human life and minimise suffering. Renunciation of the world is no solution. This is possible only if one fulfills one's bodily needs without becoming a slave to those needs.

Ali kept away from any and all power struggle throughout his life until power was thrust on him after the assassination of the third caliph, Usman. Ali, while avoiding the temptation of power, was also conscious that one needed power, not to control others but to enforce the rule of law, morality and justice. The Quran provided the best guidance for this worldview which Ali embraced and tried to enforce during his caliphate while keeping all worldly temptations at bay.

Ali's priority was to mould Muslims into a living embodiment of Islam, as momin (believers), in this temporal world in keeping with Quranic teachings. The Quran tried to strike a balance between spiritual and bodily needs, between materialism and spiritualism, the Prophet being its perfect blend. Ali's exhortations in Nahj al-Balagha are a testament to this approach to life.

Since Ali never sought power to control others and to exercise his authority over them, when it was thrust on him he used it to enforce the rule of law and justice as rigorously as he could. In this process even his closest allies were alienated from him but he did not care. Abdullah bin Abbas was one of his closest allies and yet Ali wrote a stern letter to him when he took money from the treasury as the governor of Basra, which exceeded his share.

Ali's letter to another of his faithful lieutenants, Malik bin Ashter, the governor of Egypt, is considered a masterpiece of principles of governance. He advised Malik: “Do not say, 'I am your overlord and master and that you should, therefore, bow to my commands', as that will corrupt your heart … Let your mind respect through your actions the rights of God and the rights of human beings … for otherwise you will be doing injustice to yourself and to humanity.”

He also advised Malik bin Ashter to “care for them (the people) with the tenderness with which you care for your children, and do not talk before them of any good you might have done to them, nor disregard any expression of affection which they show in return….”

“The chief justice should be selected,” Ali wrote, “from the best of people who cannot be intimidated; he should be one who does not err too often; who does not turn his back on the right path; who is not self-centred or avaricious.”

Thus, it would be seen that Ali's ideal of wielding power was for the benefit of the people whom he was entrusted to rule, and not just to lord over. But his was not a perfect world that matched this noble idea of governance. He paid the price for it through his life, and became a martyr for the greater cause on the 21st of Ramazan.

The writer is an Islamic scholar, who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.