The Praise of the Second Caliph

This article is the examination of Sermon 228 (227 of the English version) of Nahj al-Balāgha, in which Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd, a prominent seventh century exegete of the Nahj al-Bālagha, strongly argues that the narration of the Imam (A.S.) was in praise of the second caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattāb.

The discussion is important as it is one of many arguments used to prove that the Imam (A.S.) approved and was accepting of the caliphate. This essay will be a breakdown of the three arguments and sets of evidence used by Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd which led him to his conclusions. Thereafter the discussion will introduce the different arguments and refutations used by Shiʻa scholars to disqualify his claims and conclusions. The analysis therefore will be of three areas corresponding to each of Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd’s evidences. The first area will discuss an old manuscript followed by what Shiʻa scholars have said surrounding that. The second area will reference and explain the source of the narration followed by examining the opinions of different scholars who have refuted his conclusions, and also of those who have accepted it. The final area will discuss the contextual clues used by Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd, and by examining some historical events we will show that from this perspective, there is there is no possibility of the praise referring to the caliph.

Nahj al-Balāgha is a compilation of sermons, letters, and sayings of Imam Ali (A.S.) which had been compiled by Sayyid al-Radi in the fourth century. The scholar explains that all of the narrations were carefully chosen to bring forth the Imam’s superiority in eloquence and rhetoric. Hence the anthology was named, The Clear Path of Eloquence.

In Sermon 228 of Nahj al-Balāgha, Imam Ali (A.S.) eloquently praises an individual with very high regard. The text sermon is as follows;

لله بلادُ فُلاَن، فَلَقَدْ قَوَّمَ الاْوَدَ، وَدَاوَى الْعَمَدَ، وَأَقَامَ السُّنَّةَ، وَخَلَّفَ الْفِتْنَةَ! ذَهَبَ نَقِيَّ الثَّوْبِ، قَلِيلَ الْعَيْبِ، أَصَابَ خَيْرَهَا، وَسَبَقَ شَرَّهَا، أَدَّى إِلَى اللهِ طَاعَتَهُ، وَاتَّقَاهُ بِحَقِّهِ، رَحَلَ وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي طُرُق مَتَشَعِّبَة، لاَ يَهْتَدِي بِهَا الضَّالُّ، وَلاَ يَسْتَيْقِنُ الْمُهْتَدِي

May Allah reward such and such man, who straightened the curve, cured the disease, abandoned mischief and established the sunnah. He departed (from this world) with untarnished clothes and little shortcomings. He achieved good (of this world) and remained safe from its evils. He offered Allah’s obedience and feared Him as He deserved. He went away and left the people in dividing ways wherein the misled cannot obtain guidance and the guided cannot attain certainty [1].

Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd al-Muʻtazilῑ, a prominent exegete of the compilation, strongly argues that the individual referred to in this sermon is the second caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab.

Throughout the centuries, Shiʻa scholars have developed strong sentiments surrounding the concept of imamate and caliphate. They developed a consensus of the illegitimacy of the caliphate for many reasons. Subsequently, if the Imam did praise the second caliph as Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd claims, this would imply that the developed consensus is completely, or to a certain extent, wrong.

This discussion will therefore elaborate on the different ideas and opinions of Shi’a scholars and exhibit the different possibilities surrounding the authenticity and the history of the sermon.

Since Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd sources al-Tabarῑ, a renowned historian, the authenticity of this narration can be debated by Sunni scholars and subsequently used in the discussions of imamate and caliphate. An example is demonstrated by Shaykh Muhammed Abduh, one of the leading scholars in al-Azhar University, Cairo, who in his exegesis of Nahj al-Balāgha, accepted Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd’s conclusions [2], and in turn used the sermon to justify the legitimacy of the caliphate. This brings us to the core question: Was Imam Ali (A.S.) referring to Umar ibn al-Khattāb?

Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd presents three primary arguments which lead him to his conclusions. The first is surrounding the contents of an old manuscript, the second is with regards to the source of the narration and the final argument examines the content of the sermon itself.

Therefore the discussion will analyse each of these three arguments and the objections raised by Shi’a scholars.

  1. The old manuscript

Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd, stems his views from Fukhār al-Mūsawῑ, a poet who narrates that he found an original copy of the Nahj al-Balāgha, compiled by al-Radi himself, in which the name Umar had been written instead of fulān [3] in the sermon [4].

The objection against this statement is that even if the original manuscript had the name of Umar written within it, it does not serve as evidence nor give us any absolute certainty that al-Radi himself had written it. In fact, many things could have happened to the original manuscript in the two and a half centuries, between the time of al-Radi and Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd. It is argued that whoever owned the original manuscripts of Nahl al-Balāgha, may have purposely manipulated its content, expressing their own opinions and ijtihad [5], as indicated by Abd al-Zahrāʼ in his Sharh [6, 7].

Additionally, al-Rāwandῑ and al-Sarakhsῑ who were both cotemporaries of al-Radi, in their discussions of the sermon, have given no indication corroborating to the opinions of Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd, instead they indicate that not only was the individual a companion of the Holy Prophet, his identity is also unknown. If al-Radi had suggested that the praise was referring to the Caliph Umar, other annotators, namely the likes of these two specifically, would have either opposed it in their works or followed suit.

Furthermore, al-Naqawῑ comments that if under the assumption Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd is correct in what he has stated, and assuming the original copy of Nahj al-Balāgha which he uses is with us today, it does not prove anything. Al-Radi was first and foremost a compiler of the words of the Imam and if he were to present an opinion or an interpretation it is not upon us to accept it. Rather, we accept what corresponds with the Shiʻa theology and leave out what differs with it. In any case, if al-Radi had written Umar’s name, it does not indicate anything. It may not even imply his own view, instead he could have written it to suggest that this was a view amongst some. If however for argument’s sake this was truly al-Radi’s opinion, then this was his own ijtihād, i.e. his own research. In addition to this, since he has provided no evidence for his conclusions we have full right to reject his opinion [8].

  1. Source of the narration

The second evidence used by Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd is the narration found in al-Tabarῑ’s work – which he uses to justify his conclusions. The narration is as follows:

“It is related from al-Mughῑrah ibn Shuʻbah that when Caliph Umar died Bint abῑ Hathma said crying, ‘Oh Umar, you were the man who straightened the curve, removed ills, destroyed mischief, revived the sunnah, remained chaste and departed without entangling in evils.’”

Al-Mughῑrah related that “When Umar was buried I came to Ali and I wanted to hear something from him about Umar. So, on my arrival Ali came out in this state that was wrapped in one cloth after bathing and was jerking the hair of his head and beard and he had no doubt that the caliphate would come to him. On this occasion he said, “May Allah have mercy on Umar.” Bint abῑ Hathma has correctly said that he enjoyed the good of the caliphate and remained safe from its evils. By Allah, she did not say it herself but was made to say so.” [9]

The objections of the narration are of two areas, of which, the first will examine the narrator and the second will present the different opinions of Shiʻa scholars surrounding the authenticity of the narration.

  1. The narrator

Al-Mughῑra, the main narrator of the account, was known for his malice against the Imam (A.S.) [10] and he indeed knew the Imam’s true opinion of Umar. Therefore, it would not be surprising if al-Mughῑra intended to expose him, by creating an environment forcing the Imam to speak ill of Umar in public. Perhaps it can be said that his intention was to sabotage the Imam’s reputation in the electoral committee that was organised to elect the new caliph.

More importantly, one of the things which ruined his reputation and trustworthiness is his crime of adultery with a married woman, upon whom four witnesses were ready to testify against him. However due to his close friendship and connections with the caliphate, the testimony of the fourth was tainted and all charges were dropped [11]. As a result, his trustworthiness is questionable, and whatever he narrates should be taken with caution [12].

  1. Authenticity of the narration

Amongst the Shiʻa exegetes three groups were formed. There were those who held the opinion that the narration was not referring to the caliph Umar, then there were those who considered that maybe a part of the narration was referring to him. Lastly, only a few supported Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd’s opinion and entertained the possibility that the sermon fittingly refers to the caliph.

  1. Those who rejected the reference to the caliph Umar

Abd al-Zahrāʼ in his Masādir, explains that it is clear from the context and the flow of the conversation that this is not the full story. He comments that the Imam (A.S.) discredits what al-Mughira had reported from Bint abῑ Hathma, and swore that “She did not say it so, rather the words were falsely attributed to her.” [13] The word quwwilat, means to say someone had said something which they really did not. So according to the same narration these words were neither narrated by the Imam (A.S.) nor by Bint abῑ Hathma, and to ultimately attribute them to the Imam is nonsensical.

Others however, after scrutinizing the layout and the content of the narration, have indicated that the narration of al-Tabarῑ (as well as Ibn Athῑr in his al-Kāmil) [14] is tainted, and it is clear that certain parts or words have been omitted. The narration explains that al-Mughῑra wished to listen to the Imam’s opinion about Umar and approaches him. The Imam however, after completing his bath, on the spur of the moment, without any context whatsoever, says, “May Allah have mercy on Umar,” bearing in mind, al-Mughῑra had said nothing to the Imam, nor had he indicated his intentions of meeting with him [15].

It is therefore argued that when the narration says “he said” the pronoun refers to al-Mughῑra, who perhaps according to the context was informing the Imam what he had heard from Bint abῑ Hathma. And so, from the arrangement of the words, it seems as if the Imam may have been the narrator.

Additionally, with regards to al-Namῑrῑ [16] and Ibn Asākir in his Tārikh, (who has narrated two accounts with conflicting meanings) [17] their narrations are ambiguous and there is no clarity as to whether the Imam was the narrator or al-Mughῑra.

Consequently, to build an opinion based on ambiguity and guesswork is not appropriate.

  1. Those who partially accepted the reference

The fact that the words attributed to Bint abῑ Hathma in this narration are the same as those of the Imam in the sermon under discussion, the Imam may have narrated them intending it for someone else. It can be assumed that the lady was instructed to repeat them in praise of the second caliph. Perhaps it is why the Imam says, “She did not say it herself but was made to say so.

Ibn Kathῑr in his al-Bidāya, unlike other historians, in his version of the narration mentions the Imam by name [18], subsequently removing the cloud of ambiguity as to who the speaker could be. The second opinion stems from his research and explains that because the Imam (A.S.) repeated the words of Bint abῑ Hathma “…he enjoyed the good of the caliphate and remained safe from its evils…” it indicates that he agreed with it.

In reality, the statement does not convey any praise, rather it describes a man who through the power of the caliphate, protected himself from the evils of the world. This is reiterated in the sermon of the Camel’s Foam, al-Shaqshaqῑyya, in reference to the first two caliphs the Imam says, “…No doubt these two shared its udders strictly among themselves.” [19]

  • Those who accepted the reference

Al-Bahrānῑ briefly comments that some Shi’as have argued (not his own views) the legitimacy of the praise under the grounds that the Imam wished to create betterment for those who believed in the caliphate, and to attract their hearts with such words [20]. However this seems to be unreliable as the Imam was not someone who resorted to such methods. He further comments (as well as al-Mughnῑyya who further supports al-Bahrani’s opinions in the possibility of the praise), that it is a method of contrasting the governments of Abū Bakr and Umar to that of Uthmān ibn Affān. In turn the Imam uses this to exhibit his rebuke for Uthmān’s government.

It seems to appear that al-Mughnῑyya wanted to say that the Imam (A.S.) developed a general rule: ʻthe satisfaction of the people over the ruler.ʼ If the ruler does not oppress the people and they are satisfied with his ruler ship, then such a person is accepted by the Imam (A.S.). And since Umar had this quality, the Imam (A.S.) in turn praised him. This may be understood from Sermon 162 of Nahj al-Balāgha, which took place when a group of people came to the Imam (A.S.) and complained about the Caliph Uthmān, and requested the Imam to meet with him on their behalf. The Imam recognised the seriousness of the problems in Uthmān’s government and as explained by al-Mughnῑyya, the Imam too acknowledged that the government of the first two were better in contrast to the government of Uthmān ibn Affan [21].

Elaborating briefly on this idea; historically, the events surrounding the leadership of Umar, was mixed with both good and bad. Indeed, one of the major merits behind his leadership was that he did not misuse the public funds, bayt al-māl. He did not bribe anyone from it, nor did he favour the Muhājirs [22] over the Ansārs [23] or raise his tribe over others. However, in comparison to this, Uthmān, the third caliph, used the money of the public treasury to advance his tribe over others. He helped certain individuals who were exiled by the Prophet of Islam to return to the state and serve within the government. His actions angered many from both the Muhājirs and the Ansārs, which inevitably lead to his assassination. Uthmān was infatuated with the love of Banū Umayya and misused his power to excel them over others. His blind love for his own tribe was well known, hence when Umar spoke to ibn Abbas about Uthmān’s possible succession he says, “If he governs the caliphate, he will carry Abῑ Muʻit over the rest of the tribes. And if he does that, they will kill him.” [24]

If there is a possibility that the Imam (A.S.) narrated such words for Umar, it should be interpreted under the above context. The purpose of the sermon was to explain the leadership of the caliphate, to which direction it was heading, and how it would affect the Muslim world. It does not prove in any way that the Imam (A.S.) was satisfied with the caliphate, nor did he endorse it as explained by Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd

  1. Contextual analysis

Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd also uses contextual clues and hints from the content of the sermon to justify his findings. The sermon indicates that the fulān, whoever he may be, was one who served as the head of state [25]. In fact every segment of the sermon can be said to signal this. Al-Rāwῑndῑ explains in his exegesis that the sermon was meant for some pious companions of the Noble Prophet who passed before the demise of the Prophet [26]. However Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd refutes this and states that the Imam refers to one who was a leader or a person who may have had an important position within society. All those who passed away during the lifetime of the Prophet were civilians, not people in power.

The objections raised amongst the Shi’a scholars is defined from three perspectives:

  1. Contradicting views and sermons

Using the contents of the sermon of al-Shaqshaqῑyya – the third sermon in Nahj al-Balāgha – we can develop an overall idea of the Imam’s opinion towards Umar. The predicament is that in the 227th sermon the Imam praises a man with magnificent words surrounding his character, demeanour and leadership, but in the 3rd sermon he reprimands the exact same individual. As al-Shirazi explains, there is no possible reconciliation between the two sermons [27] and it is illogical for it to be directed towards the same individual.

  1. Innovations of Umar

The second, argues that the qualities mentioned in the sermon cannot be attributed to Umar, as it describes the individual as one who established the sunnah of the Prophet. Historical and ahādith books have explained and given numerous examples of how Umar swayed from the sunnah of the Holy Prophet. He instituted new practices which did not exist during the time of the Noble Prophet, nor the first caliph, Abū Bakr.  Changing the laws of divorce [28], instituting the Tarawῑh prayers [29], altering the laws of Adhān [30] are some examples.

Some of these practices made their way into the religion in such a way that when Imam Ali (A.S.) endeavoured to erase certain practices, notably the Tarawῑh prayers in Kūfa, he faced heavy backlash from the people and was unable to undo what Umar [31] Consequently, it is implausible for the Imam to actively try and stop an innovation of Umar, and at the same time praise him for preserving the precedence of the Noble Prophet [32].

  1. Other possibilities of fulan

Thirdly, there are multiple companions who were possibly deserving for such praise. It is argued by some that this sermon could well be implied for Abū Bakr, and Uthmān. However, from al-Tabarῑ’s report, the reference cannot be for Uthmān as some of the statements do not match with his system of government, nor can it refer to Abū Bakr since the timing of the narration was long after his caliphate.

Nevertheless, using the same criteria put forth by Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd, there is a strong likelihood that other companions may have also shared and deserved such noble praises from the Imam. Personalities like; Salmān al-Farsῑ, who not only served as a governor in al-Madāʻin but also upon whom the Imam personally attended and conducted his funeral prayers; Ammār ibn Yāsir, who briefly held the position of governor of Kūfa; Muhammed ibn Abῑ Bakr who for a brief time was the governor of Egypt, and Mālik al-Ashtar, all of whom were praised, and respected by the Imam, more so than the second caliph.


The general consensus amongst Shi’a scholars surrounding Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd’s opinions is that they are not valid and in turn they do not give conviction to his conclusions. He admits that his remarks were built on his dhann [33], which with the aid of al-Tabarῑ’s narration had become weighty. However, after having discussed his evidences, there are no legitimate connections which link the Imam (A.S.)’s words to Umar.


Anwar Jaffer,

Madrasah al-Mahdi,

Al-Mustafa International University,

Holy City of Qom,

Islamic Republic of Iran.



[1] Translation taken from;

[2] Abduh, Nahj al-Balāgha 2/465

[3] Fulān; such and such person

[4] Ibn Abῑ al-Hadῑd al-Muʻtazili, Sharh Nahj al-Balāgha 12/2

[5] Ijtihād; in this context; the giving of independent judgment concerning matters relating to religious sciences.

[6] Sharh; Exegesis

[7] Abd Al-Zahrāʼ, S. Masādir Nahj al-Balāghah 3/172

[8] Al-Naqawi, Miftāh al-Saʻada Fῑ Sharhi Nahj al-Balāgha 14/272

[9] Al-Tabarῑ, Tārῑkh 3/285; Translation from, Nahj al-Balāgha, under the commentary of Sermon 227.

[10] Al-Hākim, al-Mustadrak 1/385; Ibn Athῑr, al-Kāmil fῑ al-Tārῑkh 3/414; Ahmad, Musnad 1/188. Mughῑra actively engaged in the cursing of Alῑ ibn Abῑ Talib from the pulpits of Kūfa.

[11] For the full report, refer to al-Mūsawῑ’s, al-Nass wa al-Ijtihād, Chapter 57, Cancelling the penalty of al-Mughira and the Sunni sources therein.

[12] The Holy Quran 59:06

[13] Abd al-Zahrāʼ, Masādir Nahj al-Balāgha 3/173

[14] Ibn Kathῑr, Al-Kāmil fῑ al-Tārῑkh 2/437; It seems the narration in this print has been altered in comparison to the older 12 vol. 1966, Dār Sādir print. In the older print, It seems the author is unsure as to what exactly the Imam said.

[15] Al-Subhānῑ, Hiwār maʻ al-Shaykh Sālih ibn Abd al-Allah al-Darweish, 1/69

[16] Al-Namῑrῑ, Tārῑkh al-Madῑna 3/941

[17] Ibn Asākir, Tarῑkh Madῑna Damishq 44/457; The first seems to show that the Imam agreed to what the lady had said, the second shows that he rejected her comments completely.

[18] Ibn Kathῑr, al-Bidāya wa al-Nihāya 7/158

[19] Al-Shustarῑ, Bahj al-Sabāgha 9/482 referencing Nahj al-Balāgha Sermon 3

[20] Al-Bahrāni, Sharh Nahj al-Balāgha 4/672

[21] Al-Mughnῑyya, Fῑ Dhilāl Nahj al-Balāgha 3/329

[22] Mūhājῑr; the name given to those who migrated from Makka to Madῑna with the Prophet of Islam.

[23] Ansār; the name given to those who were residents of Madῑna during the time of the Prophet.

[24] Al-Balādharῑ, Ansāb al-Ashrāf 5/502 h.1291; Sharh Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd 12/259

[25] Sharh Ibn Abi al-Hadῑd 12/4

[26] Al-Rawῑndῑ, Minhāj al-Barāʻa fῑ Sharh Nahj al-Balāgha 2/402

[27] Al-Shirāzῑ, Tawdhῑh Nahj al-Balāgha 3/395

[28] Al-Muslim, Sahῑh, Bāb Talāq al-Thalāth, 4/183; alternatively  Chapter 2: Pronouncement of the Three Divorces, 9/3491-3

[29] Al-Bukhārῑ, Sahῑh, Kitāb al-Tarāwih 2/252; alternatively Praying at night in Ramadhān 3/32/227

[30] Al-Nass wa al-Ijtihād, Chapter 23 and 24, Changing the Adhān and the Sunni sources therein

[31] Al-Āmilῑ, Wasāʼil al-Shiʻa 8/46, hadith 10063; al-Tūsi, Tahdhῑb al-Ahkām Volume 3/70 Hadith 30

[32] For further references, one should refer to the works of al-Mūsawῑ; al-Nass wa al-Ijtihād, Chapter 2: Interpretation of Umar and his followers

[33] Dhann; an assumption, idea, or opinion.

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