A letter from ʿAlī on the history of the caliphate: A key source text

Sometime after the murders of two governors and close companions of Islam’s fourth caliph, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661), Shīʿī and non-Shīʿī (Muʿtazilī, Sunnī) literary sources allege that a dispute between soldiers in ʿAlī’s army compelled him to discuss his views on the history of the caliphate. If ʿAlī previously refrained from publicly addressing this contentious history to preserve the integrity of his army, the army’s collapse and the loss of his closest companions are described as the contexts that led him to finally change course. ʿAlī reportedly prepared a written statement that his governors were instructed to share with the public on Fridays. The lengthy epistle that ʿAlī allegedly produced is an eloquent and sophisticated pro-ʿAlid analysis of the history of the caliphate that avoids any appeals to doctrines particular to medieval Ismāʿīlī, Twelver, or Zaydī Shīʿism. As in the case of other letters transmitted in the second/eighth century (and attributed to leading personalities), the epistle writer aims to persuade the reader of the righteousness of his cause with appeals to verses of the Qurʾān, prophetic statements, justice, and by detailing the offenses of his rivals.

The document is preserved primarily in Twelver Shīʿī sources. Key authorities in its transmission include ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qummī, al-Kulaynī, Ibn Rustam al-Ṭabarī, and Raḍī al-Dīn Ibn Ṭāwūs. However, the non-Shīʿī historian al-Balādhurī also came into possession of the alleged epistle and attests to its existence well before it was reproduced in Twelver Shīʿī works. Excerpts from the epistle also variously appear as orations or written statements made by ʿAlī in collections such as the Nahj al-balāgha.

This study examines both the transmission and the contents of this pro-ʿAlid epistle, interrogates the relationship between the oral and the written, and the ways in which such texts represent foundational sources for understanding pro-ʿAlid sentiment and early Shīʿism. An annotated English translation of the epistle is then provided.

Speaker bio

Dr Nebil Husayn is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Global Black Studies at the University of Miami. He will be a Visiting Research Fellow at Al-Mahdi Institute between May and June 2023. His research explores authoritarianism in the Middle East, debates on the caliphate, and the development of Islamic thought. Husayn also serves as a Senior Research Advisor for Mipsterz, an arts and culture collective curating, enabling, and amplifying artists of marginalized backgrounds through illustration, film, and music. He is the recipient of a Fulbright award and the University of Miami Fellowship in the Arts and Humanities. Husayn obtained his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University and an M.A. in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Harvard University. He is the author of Opposing the Imam (Cambridge University Press, 2021), which examines the history of early Muslims who were hostile to Islam’s fourth caliph, Ali, and his descendants.

Seminar details

  • Date: May 31st 2023
  • Time: 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM GMT
  • Location: Inhouse – Al-Mahdi Institute (Seminar Room 1) and online (click here to join through Microsoft Teams)
  • Format: 30 – 40 minutes presentation followed by a Q&A session.
Please note that the session will be recorded and published on al-Mahdi Institute’s YouTube channel.