Shehzadi Dr. Bazat Tahera baisaheba was invited by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to participate in a roundtable conference on “The contribution of Ali ibn Abi Talib's Thought to a Culture of Peace and Intercultural Dialogue.” It was held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France, on 20th November 2014. UNESCO is the cultural branch of the United Nations and this conference was organized by UNESCO’s Iraq office based in Jordan and Paris as part of UNESCO’s World Philosophy Day celebrations.
The conference opened with a welcome address by His Excellency Professor Dr. Mahmood Al-Mukhallaf, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Iraq to UNESCO. In addition to Shehzadi Tahera baisaheba, other invited speakers at the event included several scholars from Iraq: Hussain Obaid Al-Furaiji, Professor at the University of Baghdad; Ra'ed Shamseddin Al-Gaylani, Professor of Philosophy at University of Baghdad; and Shaikh Waleed Abdulhameed Khalaf Farajallah, Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Jurisprudence at the University of Kufa. Other speakers were diplomats and advisors to the Iraqi government: Professor Salah Mahdi Al-Fartousi, Director-General of the Ministry of Culture based in Baghdad; and Dr. Haider Saeed, Adviser at the Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies, Amman, Jordan. A third group of speakers included academics from US, European, and Far Eastern, scholarly institutions: Paul Heck, Professor of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, Washington DC; Abd Ali Sfayeh, Professor at the University of Bordeaux, France; and Karim Douglas Crow, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Advance Islamic Studies, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The conference was moderated by Yasser Tabbaa, Professor of Islamic Art at the University of Memphis, USA, and co-author of a UNESCO publication which was also launched at the conference titled Najaf: The Gate of Wisdom. History, Heritage & Significance of the Holy City of the Shi’a. The book includes photographs of Maulana Ali’s zarih mubarak built by Syedna Taher Saifuddin, and attributes the zarih to him in the publication. Shehzadi Tahera baisaheba mentioned to Dr. Tabbaa and to His Excellency Mahmood Al-Mukhallaf that, “my grandfather Syedna Taher Saifuddin, the 51st Dai al-Mutlaq of the Tayyibi Daudi Bohra community, was the one who had built and gifted the zarih.”
In attendance in the audience were Ambassadors and Permanent Delegates to UNESCO of from several Muslim and Arab countries. Shehzadi Tahera baisaheba met and talked with His Excellency Ahmad Jalali of Iran, His Excellency Huseyin Avni Botsali of Turkey, and the Ambassadors and Permanent Delegates of Libya and Qatar. She also met Iraq’s ambassador to France, His Excellency Fareed Yasseen, who was introduced to her by His Excellency Mahmood Al-Mukhallaf.
The conference was covered widely by the news media, and in attendance were a large number of members of television and print media from Iraq, Iran, and France, including Le Monde, the leading French newspaper.
The title of Shehzadi Tahera baisaheba’s presentation at the conference was “Imam Ali’s Preaching of Peace and Pluralism: Exhortations from the Nahj al-balagha (Path of Eloquence) and the Dustur ma’alim al-hikam (Treasury of Virtues).” The following is a summary of her presentation:
Ali ibn Abi Talib SA was acknowledged as a sage of Islamic wisdom and a master of Arabic eloquence. His sayings, sermons, letters, and verse have had enormous currency through the ages and continue to resonate today. Imam Ali’s exhortations to kindness, equity and justice are well known, and they work on multiple levels: of individual character building, on formulating a pluralistic society, and on effective and just government. And these add up to strong advocacy of peace and pluralism. In my presentation, I will discuss Ali’s preaching of peace and pluralism through a selection of his sayings, sermons, letters and verse. There are many things that could be said and many texts that could be discussed. Today, I will focus on five key categories of his teachings in this sphere.
- Imam Ali explains the meaning of the term “Islam” as peace, and links it with the name of God. In one text he says: “God created all things knowing about them. He then selected what he wanted, picking out what he loved; what he loved was Islam, which he favored and made into a path for his servants. He derived its name from his name, for he is al-Salām, Peace, and his religion is Islam (Treasury of Virtues, 5.14)
- Imam Ali’s ethical teachings in sermons and sayings emphasize kindness, piety, and helping each other, and preach brotherhood among all Muslims, and on a broader level, pertain to all God’s creatures. His teachings are universal, applicable to the lives of humans in different times and places; Ethical teachings are directed to all humans, and they are meant to be applied toward all humans; they are universal teachings. Although the majority of his sayings exhort individual piety and deeds, these transpose seamlessly in Ali’s vision into the public sphere. In a line of poetry attributed to Imam Ali, he says: (الناس من جهة التمثال اكفاء – ابوهم آدم والام حواء), “People are peers and equals—Their father is Adam, their mother is Eve.” He also said “Live among people in such a manner that when you die they weep over you and while you live they long for your company” (خالطوا الناس مخالطة إن متم معها بكوا عليكم، وإن عشتم حنوا إليكم) (Nahj hikma 9, p. 628)
- Imam Ali expresses appreciation of all creatures of God – including birds and animals – and exhortations to be kind to them. For example in Nahj, khutba 183, p. 376, he marvels at God’s creation of ant, locust, crow, eagle, pigeon, and ostrich; elsewhere, he marvels at bat and peacock. All are God’s creation and God’s creatures.
- Imam Ali frequently refers to the prophets Moses, Jesus, David and Solomon as exemplars alongside the Prophet Muhammad. For example, in the Treasury of Virtues 5.13, p. 131, we find the following report, where Ali exhorts his followers to follow the example of Jesus’s followers: Abū ʿAṭāʾ said: The commander of the faithful, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, came to us one day, troubled and sighing deeply, and said: How will you cope with a time that has almost come upon you, in which punishments for major crimes will be disregarded, and wealth will be the only thing for which people compete? A time in which God’s elite will be hunted down, and God’s enemies pledged allegiance to? If that time comes upon us, we asked him, what should we do? Be like the followers of Jesus, ʿAlī replied, who were hacked to pieces with saws and crucified on planks of wood for believing. Being killed for refusing to renounce God is better than being spared for capitulating.
- In governance, Imam Ali exhorts justice and compassion. Regarding his own practice he says “I would prefer to sleep on a bed of thorns rather than oppressing any of God’s servants.” Justice for the weak and downtrodden is a hallmark of Ali’s mode of rule. Ali’s letters to his governors instruct them to be fair and kind in governing their subjects, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and within Muslims all denominations of Muslims, and are thus exemplary for our time. He chastises his governors for fraud, enjoins his tax collectors to be gentle, and his army commanders to not attack anyone until they are attacked. In his letter of appointment for Malik al Ashtar as governor of Egypt, Ali exhorts him to be fair and kind to all his subjects, saying “they are either your brothers in faith or your peers in creation” (Nahj, kitab 291, p. 571) In Ali’s reign, a large proportion of the people in his realms were non-Muslim, Christians and Jews, and his directions for just and kind rule applied equally to all members of society. Among the Muslims in his realm, a large proportion of the people were not particularly attached to the family of the Prophet, yet he made no distinction between them in terms of rights in the state. Here too, his directions for just and kind rule applied equally to all. All were safe under his rule.
In addition to what is present in these texts, it is also important to note what is absent: any kind of rancor or malice toward any of God’s creatures. Pluralism is a modern concept, but we see it in action in the practice and teachings of Imam Ali.
In summary, if we look through the compilations of Imam Ali’s words, the vision that emerges exhorts peaceful coexistence among communities, just governance with a role for people of all denominations and faiths, and respect and caring for all God’s children.”
Shehzadi Tahera baisaheba’s talk was much appreciated by her fellow speakers and the members of the audience. Alhamdulillah.