Nahjul Balagha, or the Peak of Eloquence, contains a large number of sermons, letters and sayings of Imam Ali ibn abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and the fourth of the rightly-guided Caliphs in mid-7th century Arabia.
The compilation offers fine nuggets of advice on a whole range of matters relating to just and proper conduct.
Addressed also as Hazrat Ali, his birth anniversary was celebrated this year on 21 April. Ali is deeply venerated in most forms and firqas, sects, of Islam, particularly in Shia and Sufi traditions; the qawwali musical practices especially invoke his charisma for creating powerful emotions and ecstasy.
Just close your eyes and listen to music maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s emotionally-charged rendition of “Haq Ali Ali Ali Maula Ali Ali”, for a blissful escape from the miseries of life, with a feeling of mercy and kindness for all the beautiful creations of God and for some relief to one’s own heart.
Hazrat Ali’s sermons recorded in Nahjul Balagha seem eternally relevant and one of them on the “Tongue as the Medium of Habitual Hypocrisy” is particularly instructive: “Remember that you are passing through the sad times, in which there are only a few people who speak the truth; when speeches seldom contain the truth, and when those who speak out truth are humiliated and degraded. People are now bent upon vices and sins. Their habitual hypocrisy and pretension make them indulge in fake amity and friendship among themselves. The youth are ill-natured and wicked, and the elders are vicious sinners. Learned among them are divisive pretenders. Preachers among them are flatterers. Their young do not respect their elders. Their rich do not help the poor and have-nots.”
Such insights on moral lapses and violations in times of political crisis that Hazrat Ali had to endure and which ultimately consumed him, are a reminder of how blind following of religious and spiritual leaders of our own time such as gurus, babas and other wily pedlars of faith cannot take a society very far; their approach is generally narrowly sectarian and conservative, with no scope for critical thinking or questioning.
This is especially true when religious leadership is usurped by people of dubious credentials, who do not hesitate to abuse political power and exploit popular sentiments to reinforce their claims to authority.
In such a situation and always, it is better to be a liberal in a broad-based political and cultural context facilitated by responsible governance, providing space for tolerance of difference, guaranteeing freedom of speech and basic human rights—as we generally like to say, irrespective of caste or creed.
On the other hand, the powers-that-be have the option of rising above religious or sectarian control to sustain a just kind of political order or get caught by the need for religious legitimacy for their illegitimate actions.
Hazrat Ali would have warned: Remember that every period has an end and every action a reaction; therefore, it is not only advisable but also imperative for you to separate truth from falsehood.
He would emphasise: Remember in bad times society will be composed of ignoble and avaricious people, and generous and noble-minded people will be reduced to a small minority; people in such times will be like hungry wolves; the rulers will be like carnivorous beasts, ravenously devouring the middle classes and recklessly killing the poor; only lip service will remain because hypocrisy and hidden enmity will have a firm hold on the minds of people.
It is indeed time to rise above religious and sectarian differences and reflect on the kind of society we want to live in: violent and unjust or peaceful and with space for justice for all. There is a message for all here: rulers have to be responsible and committed to the idea of justice and good governance; inter-religious wars need to be checked once and for all; and sectarian struggles, including of the Shia-Sunni kind, which weaken Muslim communities from within and fill them with ill-will, disrespect and dissensions, have to be abandoned in favour of peaceful co-existence.
All these would require some sense of forgiveness, respect for and responsibilities towards all human beings as creatures of God.
As medieval saints and bhakts would appeal: there is need to cleanse one’s heart and discover a kind and merciful God within ourselves.
And as Sufis devoted to Hazrat Ali would put it: service to humanity is the best kind of worship.
Thus, all one needs to do is to show some small mercies for benefiting, at least, one’s own heart.
(Reference: Nahjul Balagha or the Peak of Eloquence, Sermons, Letters and Sayings of Imam Ali ibn abi Talib, English translation by Askari Jafri, part I, Alwaaz International, 2010).