What a wonderful story, that a 10-year-old boy should be one of the very first to embrace Islam and then go on to become one of its great leaders and champions. One of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, `Ali ibn Abi Talib was a cousin of the Prophet (peace be upon him) married to the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah. `Ali was a warrior for Islam and a wise counselor and loyal disciple in those early years when Islam was taking hold in the Arabian Peninsula. What is more important about him, though, is that in his early years he lived as a member of the Prophet’s household. On one occasion, he was even prepared to offer his life for the sake of the Messenger of Allah.
`Ali was born around the year 599 CE. His father was Muhammad’s uncle and a member of the powerful tribe of Quraish. The Prophet’s own father had died just before his son was born, and Muhammad lost his mother and then his grandfather while still young, so he was taken into the care of his paternal uncle Abu Talib. When Muhammad grew to manhood, he married Khadijah, and five years later, his cousin `Ali was born. Muhammad became the boy’s guardian and was to have a profound effect on the boy’s life.
We could write at length about `Ali’s life, of his acceptance of Islam, and then of the great role he played at the side of the Prophet while Islam was being established. We could further talk about the role he played after the Prophet’s death, assisting Abu Bakr and the other leaders of the Muslim faithful, before being called upon himself to assume the leadership. And we could talk about his role as caliph and how he kept the Muslim community together before being assassinated at the age of 62.
Of greater importance to us here, though, is `Ali’s journey to Islam and how that journey can teach us and help us to be better Muslims ourselves.
The first thing to note is that when `Ali was a boy, he was taken under the care of Muhammad and brought up in his household. This took a financial burden off the shoulders of Abu Talib, who had a very large family. But it had another effect too. It meant that the young boy was brought up in an atmosphere of virtue and prayer. Although the first revelations of the Qur’an had not been given, Muhammad was an upright and religious man, known to the people of Makkah as Al-Amin, the Trustworthy, and he was given to frequent periods of prayer and fasting. The young boy learned goodness from his cousin and learned to trust his words.
When `Ali was 10, Muhammad received the first revelations. Seeing his cousin and Khadijah in prayer, the boy asked what they were doing. “We were worshiping Allah, the One,” he was told, and Muhammad explained to him in a very simple way about Islam. With a wisdom rare for one of such tender years, `Ali replied that he needed to think this over, and he went away to ponder and reflect on what he had heard and seen. The next morning he returned with his mind made up and he accepted Islam. “My eyes are sore and my legs are thin,” he said, “but I’ll stand by you, Messenger of Allah.”
So, not only was the young boy brought up in the Prophet’s house, but he also made the decision of accepting Islam on his own. He did not just do as he was told, as many boys of his age might do, but he embraced Islam with his mind and his heart. Do we, as Muslims, need the example of a 10-year-old boy to teach us that we should, every day, make Islam our own and declare Shahadah not only with our lips, but with our minds and our hearts too?
After accepting Islam, `Ali was brave and courageous in its defense. On one occasion, he risked his life by impersonating the Prophet and sleeping in his bed to foil the plot of the Makkans who wished to kill him, so that Muhammad could escape to Madinah in safety. `Ali was distinguished, too, as a warrior of Islam, becoming a champion at the Battle of Badr and joining almost all of Muhammad’s battles. `Ali was publicly praised by the Prophet and given his daughter Fatimah’s hand in marriage.
Are we similarly brave in defending the name and the message of Allah’s Prophet? Yes, it is easy for us to cry out loud that we are prepared to die for the Prophet, but are we prepared to live for him too? Crying out of love for the Prophet is not enough. Do we follow the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet with such eagerness? Do we devote our whole lives to the message of Islam?
After accepting the message of Islam, the young `Ali’s journey as a Muslim had only just begun. He was to learn each day, for the rest of his life, what Islam means. It is so easy for us to declare with our lips that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger, but living out that declaration is another matter. All his life, `Ali grew as a Muslim, becoming the servant of Allah, not just in words, but by how he lived his life.
It is for us, too, to grow as Muslims every day. Whether we were born into Islam or we came to Islam later in life, we need to struggle each day to live as Muslims. Anyone can shout words out loud, condemning aggression against Muslims or refuting falsehood in others or telling others how they should behave. Living as a real Muslim, devoted to prayer and to the welfare of our brothers and sisters, infinitely attentive to the words and the example of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) is a life’s work. Let the example of a little 10-year-old boy, `Ali ibn Abi Talib, inspire us to greatness and help us, in sha’ Allah, to become pious servants of Allah.