Glimpses of Christ in ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib

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August 10, 2019

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

Alī b. Abī Ṭālib is often compared to Jesus Christ in Muslim sources. This article explores the similarities between Christology and Imamology.

In his article “Muḥammad le Paraclet et ʿAlī le Messie”, Dr. Mohammad-Ali Amir-Moezzi proposed a connection between the theological station of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and the Christological Jesus. Amir-Moezzi posits that the Prophet Muḥammad considered himself to be living in the latter days and chose for his kinsman ʿAlī to fulfill a messianic role. According to the article, the Prophet was regarded as the foretold paraclete (“Comforter” or “Advocate”) of John 14-16 who would guide mankind into all truth. Whilst Jesus was undoubtedly the Messiah in Muslim tradition,[1] Amir-Moezzi argues that the role of the paraclete is to announce the Parousia of the Messiah; and that ʿAlī was the locus of manifestation of Jesus, and thus, functionally, a messiah-figure.[2]

In Muḥammad’s first public proclamation, he announced that the End Times were imminent.[3] Many of the Meccan chapters of the Quran deal with the apocalypse and the subsequent Judgment. Messianic fervour at this time was not unique to Islam: some Jewish texts from the seventh century, like Nistarot Shimon b. Yohai and Sefer Zerubabbel, also suggest the impending coming of the Messiah.[4] [5] The revolt of Nehemiah ben Hushiel (d. 619 CE)[6] against Emperor Heraclius of Byzantium[7] was messianic in character. With the assassination of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib in 40 AH, messianic expectations were mostly passed onto his offspring. Still, some remnants of this fervour were retained in the Imamology of ʿAlī in Shī’ism. This article will be highlighting points of comparison between traditional Christology and Shī’ī teachings about ʿAlī.

The first to liken ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib to Jesus was likely the Prophet Muḥammad himself. Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal[8] narrates in his Musnad that the Prophet said to ʿAlī, “In you is a similarity to Jesus: the Jews despised him until they accused his mother, and the Christians loved him until they attributed him to a station that was not rightfully his.”[9] According to the same reference, ʿAlī interpreted this to mean that both those who exaggerate his status and those who hate him will be punished. On one hand, most Christians viewed Jesus to be God-incarnate, the son of God, and a member of the Trinity. On the other hand, Jesus and Mary are alluded to in disparaging ways in the Talmud. Similarly, ʿAlī was worshiped as the embodiment of God by some extremists (ghūlāt) and was cursed on the pulpits by the Umayyads.

A similar tradition is echoed in the Amāli of al-Ṣadūq in which the Prophet tells ʿAlī after the battle of Khaybar,

قال له رسول الله (صلى الله عليه وآله): لولا أن تقول فيك طوائف من أمتي ما قالت النصارى للمسيح عيسى بن مريم، لقلت فيك اليوم قولا لا تمر بملا إلا أخذوا التراب من تحت رجليك ومن فضل طهورك يستشفون به … فقال النبي (صلى الله عليه وآله): لولا أنت لم يعرف المؤمنون بعدي

“If sects from my nation would not claim for you what the Christians have claimed for the Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, I would have said something about you today that would cause the people to take the dust from beneath your feet and seek treatment from it due to the excellence of your purity … were it not for you, the believers after me would not be known.”[10]

Since the hatred of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib was seen by the Ansār as a sign of hypocrisy or disbelief,[11] it would be a logical extrapolation that proper affection for him would be a part of the faith. The imagery of ʿAlī’s feet in this tradition may remind one of John the Baptist’s famous description of Jesus in John 1:27, “He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

The polarization of ʿAlī’s allies and foes is perhaps best encapsulated in a prominent ḥadīth in which ʿAlī is called “the divider of heaven and hell” (qasīm al-janna wa n-nār). This title is recorded by Ibn Quṭayba, Ibn al-Athīr, al-Khawarizmī, Ibn Abī Yaʿla, and Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd.[12] It is also narrated by Shī’ī authorities and it implies that the true lovers of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib will be granted Paradise whilst his detractors would will be “cast into the Fire.” This epithet is curiously similar to the description of the Son of Man in Matthew 25: he would sit on the throne, with all nations gathered before him, and “separate the people” into the kingdom of heaven and eternal hell. Hence, both ʿAlī and Jesus are given a central role on the Judgment in each respective tradition.

Some of Christ’s titles are mirrored in ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib in the Islamic tradition. ʿAlī is most famously referred to as mawlā in the Sermon of Ghadīr Khumm; a word that means, among other things, “master”. It is used in the same sermon to refer also to the Prophet, and it is used in the Quran to refer to God (2:286, 8:40, 9:51). The related word walī – which means friend, patron, guardian, ally – is also used in reference to God (42:9, 2:257) and to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib in exegeses of 5:55. A mawlā in a spiritual context can therefore refer to both God and His emissaries, who are all part of the same divine hierarchy. There is a similar word used frequently in the Greek New Testament for Jesus: kurios (κύριος), which is usually translated as “lord”, also refers to both human masters and God.[13] For example, God is referred to as kurios in Matthew 1:20, and Jesus is referred to as kurios in Matthew 7:22. While mawlā can be used simultaneously in human and divine contexts, ʿAlī rejected being called rabb,[14] which is more easily confused with Lord God.

Christ as Judge on the Day of Judgment.

Among other shared epithets: Jesus is referred to as the Lion of Judah in Revelations 5:5. This is an apocalyptic reference to Jesus being from the monarchal tribe of Judah, as Judah was called a lion by his father in Genesis 49:9. Similarly, Saḥīḥ Muslim records ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib as saying, “I am the one whose mother named him ‘lion’ (ḥaydar), like a lion in a forest that strikes fear.”[15] Furthermore, in John 14:6, Jesus is called “the way”, and in al-Kāfi, ʿAlī is called “the Straight Way” (1:6).[16] In both contexts, they are the means to God.

In Ibn Shahr Ashūb’s Manāqib Āl Abī Tālib, in an exegesis of 43:57, the Prophet said to his companions, “A man who resembles Jesus the most out of the whole creation will enter this door.” Then, ʿAlī entered, and the companions laughed aloud.[17] In another ḥadīth from al-Kāfi attributed to Muḥammad al-Bāqir, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib “was upon the tradition (sunna) of Jesus.”[18] As for allusions to the apostles of Jesus, in some narrations, the apostles are likened to the Imams, and in other narrations, they are likened to the Shīʿā.[19] Just as Jesus is referred to as “the good shepherd” in John 10, the Imams are frequently referred to as shepherds.[20]

A subtle way in which the Shī’ī tradition compares Jesus and ʿAlī is in their asceticism and esotericism. ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib describes Jesus in Nahj al-Balāgha, saying,

وَإِنْ شِئْتَ قُلْتُ فِي عِيسَى بْنِ مَرْيَمَ(عليه السلام)، فَلَقَدْ كَانَ يَتَوَسَّدُ الْحَجَرَ، وَيَلْبَسُ الْخَشِنَ، و يَاْكُلُ الجَشِبَ، وَكَانَ إِدَامُهُ الْجُوعَ، وَسِرَاجُهُ بَاللَّيْلِ الْقَمَرَ، وَظِلاَلُهُ في الشِّتَاءِ مَشَارِقَ الاْرْضِ وَمَغَارِبَهَا، وَفَاكِهَتُهُ وَرَيْحَانُهُ مَا تُنْبِتُ الاْرْضُ لِلْبَهَائِمِ، وَلَمْ تَكُنْ لَهُ زَوْجَةٌ تَفْتِنُهُ، وَلاَ وَلَدٌ يَحْزُنُهُ، وَلاَ مَالٌ يَلْفِتُهُ، وَلاَ طَمَعٌ يُذِلُّهُ، دَابَّتُهُ رِجْلاَهُ، وَخَادِمُهُ يَدَاهُ

“He used a stone for his pillow, put on coarse clothes and ate rough food. His condiment was hunger. His lamp at night was the moon … He had no wife to allure him, nor any son to give grief, nor wealth to deviate [his attention], nor greed to disgrace him.”[21]

The tradition depicts an image of Jesus that criticizes wealth in religion,[22] neglects worldliness,[23] eats little,[24] and lives a modest lifestyle. Similarly, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, even more than the other Imams, is depicted as an ascetic, wearing rough tunics worth only four dirhams.[25] ʿAlī famously “divorced” himself from the world three times;[26] saying that he had no interest in the fleeting frills of life.

Additionally, the Islamic Jesus is one who elaborates on the inner spirit of the law, in contrast to the legalism of Moses. In one tradition, Jesus says, “Moses, the prophet of God, commanded you to abstain from fornication, whereas I command you to abstain from thinking about fornication, in addition to not fornicating. One who thinks about fornication is like one who kindles a fire in a decorated house. The smoke ruins the decorations, even if the house does not burn.”[27] While the Mosaic law focused on bringing order to a budding nation, Jesus is depicted as one who came to bring religion back to its moral principles. Likewise, as Amir-Moezzi delineated in his Spirituality of Shi’i Islam, the usage of dīn ʿAlī (“the religion of ʿAlī”) in early Islamic history evokes the image of an ʿAlī that actualizes the principles of prophetic revelation. As the Prophet Muḥammad reportedly said in Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s Musnad, ʿAlī would be fought regarding the fulfillment (ta’wīl) of the Quran, just as the Prophet was fought regarding its revelation (tanzīl).[28] Muḥammad is often presented as the “prophet like unto Moses” of Deuteronomy 18:18, and Moses is most cited prophet of the Quran – perhaps the above ḥadīth alludes to ʿAlī being like Jesus, in that he would fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17). ʿAlī and the Imams, after all, would be referred to as the Speaking Quran.[29]

When ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib was assassinated, he was eulogized by his son and successor Ḥasan b. ʿAlī (d. 670 CE). In his speech in Kufa, Ḥasan stated that his father passed away on the same night that Jesus ascended to heaven.[30] He also noted that ʿAlī only left behind seven hundred dirhams in gifts; revealing that his livelihood was humble despite being the caliph and cousin of the Prophet. According to the heresiography of ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī, ʿAbdullāh b. Saba’, the early extremist, claimed that ʿAlī did not die, but was elevated to heaven, just as Jesus was saved from the cross in the Islamic tradition.[31] Although this view was not adopted by the Shī’ī masses, it reveals that there were messianic expectations surrounding ʿAlī, so much so that some could not accept his worldly death. One must not forget that ʿAlī was worshiped as God by extremists in his lifetime.[32] This was not the case with Muḥammad, and it is another point of comparison with Jesus.

ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib plays a vital role in Shīʿī eschatology. Although he is not considered to be the Mahdi in normative Shīʿism, he appears in exegeses pertaining to the Beast of the Earth of 27:82. The Beast in the Islamic tradition is a character that will appear in the End Times with the staff of Moses and the ring of Solomon.[33] The Beast would mark the believers and the disbelievers with the staff. Of course, in Shīʿism, the inheritors of these prophetic relics are none other than the family of the Prophet Muḥammad.[34] In ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qummī’s Tafsīr, a report has Muḥammad calling ʿAlī “Beast of the Earth” when he was resting his head on a mound of sand.[35] The same ḥadīth says, “O ʿAlī, in the End Times, God will raise you in the best form, and you will have a staff with which you will strike your enemies.” This narration may be related to the aforementioned theme of ʿAlī being the judge of good and evil. An anomaly here is that the Beast in these traditions is a force of good, while the Beast(s) of the Book of Revelations is a force of evil. Still, the rajʿa[36] of ʿAlī and other Imams parallels the resurrection of Christ and his second coming in the latter days.

The similarities between Christology and Imamology are numerous. In many ways, all of the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt could be compared to the Christian and Islamic Jesus in their salvific function, priestly and kingly dimensions, asceticism and mysticism, dazzling miracles, and their relationship to the divine. However, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib certainly stands out among the prophetic household as the one most compared to Christ. Further research needs to be done on the anthropology of the early Shī’ī community and its relationship with Judeo-Christian sects, including the Gnostics, Manichaeans, Elchasaites, Mandeans, and others. There may also be a relationship between the supposed Christophanies of the Old Testament and ʿAlī’s status as āḥib al-karrāt[37] – the one who appears repeatedly throughout prophetic history. Another area that requires investigation is whether Islamic or Christian eschatology was evoked during the schisms between ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and his foes. As the “gate to the City of Knowledge”,[38] perhaps ʿAlī can be considered a bridge between the two great world religions.


[1] Mohammad-Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Ésotérisme Shi’ite, “Muhammad le Paraclet et `Ali le Messie”, Brepols Publishers, page 36.

[2] Ibid, page 41

[3] Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari, Tarikh at-Tabari, Volume 2, page 62. https://bit.ly/2GO4KFo

[4] John C. Reeves, Nistarot (Secrets of) R. Shimon b. Yohai. https://pages.uncc.edu/john-reeves/research-projects/trajectories-in-near-eastern-apocalyptic/nistarot-secrets-of-r-shimon-b-yohai-2/?fbclid=IwAR3lddBggPyWHGzWsH4Qbzlbxiar9VDoKQeJpUEdPULXB2cKrigVGEbCtL4

[5] John C. Reeves, Sefer Zerubabbel, https://pages.uncc.edu/john-reeves/research-projects/trajectories-in-near-eastern-apocalyptic/sefer-zerubbabel/

[6] Nehemiah ben Hushiel was the leader of the Jewish revolt against Emperor Heraclius. He was seen as a harbinger of the awaited Messiah.

[7] Heraclius was the emperor of Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire) from 610 CE to 641 CE.

[8] Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855 CE) was one of the Four Imams of Sunni Islam. He was a jurist and a compiler of early Islamic oral tradition.

[9] Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad, hadith 1326 https://library.islamweb.net/hadith/display_hbook.php?bk_no=121&hid=1326&pid=60219

[10] Saduq, al-Amali, page 156, https://bit.ly/2YL1kJw

[11] Muhammad b. `Isa, Jami` at-Tirmidhi, Vol. 1, Book 46, hadith 3717. https://sunnah.com/urn/635960

[12] http://kingoflinks.net/ImamAli/7Qseem.htm

[13] Dan Stewart, What Does the Greek Word Kurios (Lord) Mean? https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_1307.cfm

[14] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol. 7, Page 259. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0985.html

[15] Muslim b. al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim, Book 19, hadith 4450. https://sunnah.com/muslim/32/160

[16] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol. 1, page 417. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0979.html

[17] Ibn Shahr Ashub, Manaqib Al Abi Talib, Vol. 3, page 53. https://bit.ly/31l33Xy

[18] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol. 1, page 532.

[19] Ibid, Vol. 8, page 268. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0986.html

[20] Ibid, Vol. 1, page 184. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0979.html

[21] Sharif ar-Radi, Nahj al-Balagha, Part 1, Sermon 160. https://www.al-islam.org/nahjul-balagha-part-1-sermons/sermon-160-allahs-verdict-judicious

[22] Saduq, al-Khisal, Part 3. https://www.al-islam.org/al-khisal-numeric-classification-traditions-characteristics-shaykh-saduq/part-3-three-numbered

[23] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol. 2, page 137. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0980.html

[24] Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Khalid al-Barqi, al-Mahasin, Vol. 6, page 447. https://bit.ly/2M2l2yB

[25] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol. 1, page 411. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0979.html

[26] Sharif ar-Radi, Nahj al-Balagha, Part 2, hadith 77. https://www.al-islam.org/nahjul-balagha-part-2-letters-and-sayings/selections-sayings-and-preaching-amir-al-muminin-ali

[27] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol.5, page 542. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0983.html

[28] Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, hadith 1152. https://www.islamweb.net/hadith/display_hbook.php?bk_no=121&pid=60293&hid=11562

[29] Mohammad-Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Ésotérisme Shi’ite, “Muhammad le Paraclet et `Ali le Messie”, Brepols Publishers, page 53.

[30] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol. 1, page 457. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0979.html

[31] Mohammad-Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Ésotérisme Shi’ite, “Muhammad le Paraclet et `Ali le Messie”, Brepols Publishers, page 44.

[32] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol. 7, Page 259. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0985.html

[33] Muhammad b. Yazid b. Maja, Sunan ibn Maja, Vol. 5, Book 36, hadith 4066. https://sunnah.com/ibnmajah/36/141

[34] Muhammad b. Ya`qub al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, Vol. 1, page 231-232. http://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m012/09/no0979.html

[35] Ali b. Ibrahim al-Qummi, Tafsir al-Qummi, Volume 2, page 130. https://www.yasoob.com/books/htm1/m016/20/no2008.html

[36] Raj’a is a contentious concept associated with the early Shi’a Muslims. Raj’a refers to the physical return of former persons to life in the End Times. According to some reports, the Imams and their enemies would be resurrected, and the former would be given a chance to punish the latter.

[37] Literally “the Master of Cyclical Returns”, āḥib al-karrāt is a title of Ali b. Abi Talib referring to his pre-existent earthly appearances.

[38] In a famous report, the Prophet Muhammad referred to himself as the “City of Knowledge” and to Ali as “its Gate”.

2019-08-11T21:31:17-08:00
Published Date: August 10, 2019

Bilal Muhammad

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.
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