The wise words of Amirul Mumineen SA have been compiled in several collections, one of which is al-Qadi al-Quda’i’s Treasury of Virtues. Al-Quda’i was a judge in Fatimid Cairo. His compilation has been critically edited and translated by Shehzadi Dr Tahera Baisaheba as part of New York University Press’s Library of Arabic Literature project. The edition was originally published in hardback with side-by-side Arabic and English and then due to popular demand it was again published in paperback.
The publishers recently also published an English-only-version of the Treasury of Virtues due to the broad readership of the book and the universality of its values. The edition is available for purchase on most online bookstores including amazon.com.
The foreword for the English only edition was written by the former Archbishop of Canterbury the Right Hon Rowan Williams. This is an excerpt of the foreword:
It is a commonplace among some modern commentators to say that in understanding Islam we should remember that it is a much “Younger" faith than Christianity or Judaism, and thus further back in what has been called the curve of civilizational development (this is sometimes expressed in the historically illiterate use of "medieval" to describe contemporary extremism). Well-meaning writers use this sort of description to recommend patience and tolerance towards a tradition that has not yet matured properly; not-so-well-meaning observers treat it as confirming what they believe to be the essentially "anti-modern" character of Islam.
But what both ignore is what might be called the sheer density of tradition: an accumulation of reflective life whose roots are deep in the Western Asian world before even the rise of the religion itself. Modern Muslim primitivism, whose excesses and atrocities are so regularly portrayed in our media, gives no sense whatever of this "density"—of the sophistication of moral and spiritual thought and the intense intellectual life of early Muslim communities. Alongside the radical newness of the Qur'an, Islamic culture built on an existing deposit of thought, often expressed in aphorisms and short narratives: the first great figures of Islam inhabited a world that was very far from the stereotype of simple desert-dwelling warriors beloved of contemporary essayists. The trade routes of the Western Asian world in the seventh and eighth Christian centuries were channels of intellectual as well as material exchange: texts, stories and sayings travelled with the traders of the day and mingled creatively in the various centers of commerce and conversation that punctuated these routes.
And this is the world we find in the extraordinary collection of stories, prayers and aphorisms that is presented to us in this elegant translation by Tahera Qutbuddin. It is certainly a world in which warfare is frequently present and in which the metaphors and idioms of the desert are omnipresent; a world in which a great intellectual figure can also be both a skilled military strategist and a poet of elegies and encomia woven around armed conflict: this collection contains poetry that, in its subject matter, would not be alien to the early medieval West, the heroic laments and celebrations of Welsh or Anglo-Saxon verse from roughly the same period. But this is only a small corner of a remarkably diverse palette. Ali ibn Abi Talib was of course a military leader among other things, but a military leader in the Western Europe of the day would have been most of unlikely also to have produced prayers of eloquence and intensity, philosophical considerations of the "grammar" of God's eternity and self-sufficiency, and "wisdom" sayings of profound economy and insight.
But what is striking and distinctive about Ali's sayings and teachings is, first (as Professor Qutbuddin has stressed), the formation of a superbly fluent and musical Arabic as the vehicle for this material and, second, the sense of an unselfconscious and natural movement between devotional and intellectual material (perhaps the nearest to him in this respect in the Christian world is the seventh century Maximus the Confessor, a figure equally important for his writings on the contemplative life and his technical theological texts). Ali is clear that wisdom, clarity of mind and heart, is at the center of the believer's experience, and more significant for entrance into paradise than any amount of external performance; and the texts preserved in the One Hundred Proverbs (another cross-confessional echo here of the "centuries" of spiritual instructions popular in Syrian and Byzantine monastic culture) plainly define the heart as the source and home of this clarity. Ali understands the life of the faithful as one of constant entry into the depths of created identity, confronting the selfish and idle habits that keep us from the truth and turning repeatedly towards the revelation of unbounded divine compassion and forgiveness.
Bound up in this also is meditation on our mortality and on the urgency of acquiring spiritual self-knowledge before we face the judgement. All of this is an aspect of what I earlier called the "density" of tradition: Ali and the transmitters of his teaching are constantly both reworking a range of intellectual and spiritual resources in the light of the Qur'an and generating fresh insights and challenges. And the wit and economy of these fresh articulations are notable: "Wisdom is the believer's lost camel" is worth several pages of more abstract exposition. And "Acceptance is a free man, anticipation is a slave" again crystallises brilliantly a broad range of reflection on the futility of trying to possess a future that is in God's hands alone and the supreme liberty that comes with the embrace of the present moment as the place where God is met.
Prominent at various points in these texts is a marked emphasis on forbearance and forgiveness. Faith rests on the pillars of "forbearance, conviction, justice and struggle against evil"; the believer begins with the resolve to mirror God's own forbearing attitude towards the human creation. Every other person is either Islam "a brother in religion or an equal in creation," and thus deserving of attention, service and patience. The forgiveness of enemies is a recurrent theme—and one that emerges in 'Ali's own life after the attack which proved fatal to him, he refused to order the death of his assailant (though providing that, should he himself die, the assassin should receive an equivalent blow, whether or not it proved fatal) and explicitly prohibited punitive measures against the group from which his killer had come. If an enemy is conquered, the victor should give thanks to God and be merciful. 'Ali has to negotiate the difficult territory where justice must be done and the community of faith protected but also God's mercy must be honored by human forbearance and willingness for reconciliation.
The importance of this in our present context is considerable. The typology popular with some which opposes "moderate" and "radical" Islam is singularly unhelpful in dealing with the realities of Islamic communities: the texts in this volume show that compassion and human realism about the cost of vengeance and sustained conflict are not a matter of some Islamic assimilation of Enlightenment values, but grounded in a self-aware and sophisticated discipline of spiritual growth and accountability to God for the human neighbour—a discipline whose roots go back to the very beginnings of distinctively Islamic thought. Nor was this simply an abstract ideal. The biographical sources all make clear that 'Ali was reluctant to assume the authority others wished him to take, though in the event he discharged that authority judiciously and decisively; and he consistently held back from activities that would deepen the divisions between factions within the Islamic community. It is significant that he remains a figure of veneration for Sunni and Shiah alike, acknowledged as a paradigm of faithfulness, wisdom and responsible leadership. The publication of this translation offers an opportunity for some overdue revision of many Western stereo-types; but it also prompts questions about where the ground might be identified for serious engagement within and between diverse Islamic communities. It could hardly be more timely.
The temptation to which both believers and secular analysts often succumb is to think of religious traditions as timelessly settled, frozen in a single moment of clarity and certainty, untainted by history or culture. But it is possible to believe uncompromisingly in the truth of revelation and yet to see that this both takes up a legacy of insight and teaching that goes back far before the emergence of a new and wholly distinctive scheme of thought, and also unfolds in the creation of a tradition in which wisdom and perception accumulate. In these pages we see a major thinker gathering up such a legacy and shaping such a tradition: 'Ali is a teacher whose extraordinary stature deserves full recognition by those outside the Islamic community, and whose genius as spiritual, practical and intellectual guide prompts many questions of wide general import in our current troubled global community. But perhaps- the most lasting impact will be through the briefest of aphorisms—the places where we encounter a rare distillation of immense truths into small compass. "What is the distance between the sky and the earth?" he asks, and replies, "An answered prayer." Sayings such as this amply explain why his work continues to be so valued by Muslims of all schools, and why it matters so much that it should be made available more widely.
Rowan Williams Magdalene College, Cambridge
We will inshaallah regularly publish extracts from the “Treasury of Virtues” on Fatemidawat.com. The first excerpt is in this week’s Sijill Article, "Kings Forever" on the censure of this world and the focus on the Hereafter.
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