As a Shi‘a but specifically Twelver Shi‘a myself, writing about the beliefs and religious practices of the faith harkens back to my own childhood. My most vivid memories of childhood are about going to the mosque on Thursdays, where we recited the beautiful supplication of Du’a al-Kumayl as taught by Ali bin Abi Talib. We paid respects to the Prophets, saints, Imams and friends of Allah, and regularly sent salutations to Prophet Muhammad and his family, the Ahl al-Bayt (the People of the Household). We mourned the death of Imam Husayn and the martyrs of the Massacre of Karbala during the Islamic month of Muharram. These are the memories I have grown up with and continue to observe, though now as an adult, in a more thoughtful and analytical manner. Looking back, I can see what facets of Shi’ism are central, even universal, and what components need criticism and reform.
The essence of Shi’ism has always been the personality and values of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. Why do the Shi‘a revere Ali so much? The answer is that the Prophet himself regarded Ali as his closest spiritual and intellectual companion. He famously said, ‘I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate’, and ‘Ali is with the Qur’an and the Qur’an is with Ali, the two will never separate even when they return to me at the pool (of kawthar in paradise).’ There are many incidents from the life of Ali that illustrate why the Shi‘a have fallen in love with him. For example, there is a story involving Ali and a knight, generally regarded to have taken place at the Battle of Khaybar in 629. Here is the story as told by Caner Dagli:
Ali had got the better of this warrior and was hovering over him about to kill him, whereupon the infidel knight spat upon the face of Ali. Quite to the knight’s surprise, Ali sheathed his sword, sparing his life… That champion was astounded by this act and by his showing forgiveness and mercy without occasion. He said, ‘You lifted your keen sword against me: why have you flung it aside and spared me? What did you see that was better than combat with me, so that you have become slack in hunting me down?