I’ve always been a little jealous of people who know exactly what they want to be when they “grow up.” I haven’t really had that luxury until recently and not even completely yet. Which is why I really, really treasure books like Reza Shah-Kazemi’s “Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali.” Of course there have been many books that have reaffirmed my interest in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, but none quite as much as this one.
As a Muslim, and a Shi’a Muslim in particular, we’ve been taught to have a certain reverence for Imam ‘Ali. Why? Well, up until recently, it was because I automatically called his name when I was in any kind of trouble. Climbing to that dangerously high, oh-my-God-I’m-going-to-die-Why-did-I-get-on-this-thing, top of the roller coaster? Ya ‘Ali, ya ‘Ali, ya ‘Ali. Bracing myself for the phone bill lecture from dad? Ya ‘Ali, ya ‘Ali, ya ‘Ali. And, of course, the classic right-before-my-final-exam prayer? Ya ‘Ali, ya ‘Ali, ya ‘Ali.
But after reading Kazemi’s explanation of the importance of Imam ‘Ali and his teachings throughout his life, I have come to a deeper conclusion about the reason for our respect for Imam ‘Ali:
He was basically awesome.
Kazemi relates a story about Imam ‘Ali that demonstrates his aforementioned awesomeness. It occurred right before the battle of the Camel (al-jamal) involving Imam ‘Ali and a bedouin. As the Imam and his supporters were about to enter the battle, the bedouin asked the Imam if he believed that God was one. While others began to reprimand the man for asking something that they saw to be inappropriate during the time of the battle, the Imam said, “Leave him, for surely what the bedouin wishes is what we wish for the people.”
So, let me get this straight. He STOPPED A BATTLE to answer a question. What a baller.
Throughout the book, Kazemi refers to “al-aqeel,” or the true intellectual. This is someone who is able to integrate his ‘aql (intellect), his ‘adl (justice) and his dhikr (remembrance) in order to truly practice Islam. This integration, according to Kazemi, is the essence of tawhid, which is generally defined as the concept that God is one.
Tawhid : the oneness of God. If you’ve been to any kind of religious education class, you’ve learned this. You’ve also learned that shirk, or denying the oneness of God, is one of the worst sins a Muslim can commit. But these terms are more than the definitions you’ve learned in class.
Tawhid, according to its Arabic, actually means “making one.” It’s not just saying “there is no god but God,” it’s actually living it. Making yourself reflect intellect, justice and remembrance. How do you do that? By remembering that every act of yours should be in the remembrance of Allah. Tall order? Yeah, I know.
Shirk, then, is understanding that anything you do that is done for yourself rather than for God places more importance on your ego than on Him, putting your ego on the same level as Him. Not good.
Example: “In one battle, Imam ‘Ali sheathed his sword, refusing to kill his defeated opponent who had spat at him as a last gesture of defiance. Had he killed him at that moment, he would not have acted out of the dispassionate spirit which motivated him to fight ‘in the path of God.’ Rather, it would have been out of personal anger, and thus for the sake of the slighted ego.” (page 203)
I love this story because it is possibly the best example of justice and remembrance. This is the action of a man who can give spiritual discourse on a battlefield. If that’s not true integration, I don’t know what is.