Who Was Ali ibn Hussain?

Ali ibn Hussain is the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and someone who has been vastly understudied by Muslims. There’s so much to learn from Ali. Learn more about his life and legacy.

Ali ibn Hussain is the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and someone who has been vastly understudied by Muslims. There’s so much to learn from Ali. Learn more about his life and legacy.

Imam Ali ibn Hussain is the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He is someone whose life all Muslims should study. His piety is immense, and his contributions to Islam worthy of mention. In this article, we look at his biography, character traits and key moments of his life.

The Family Tree of Imam Ali ibn Hussain

Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Holy Prophet, had three boys. Ali al-Akbar, Ali ibn Hussain and Ali al-Asghar. Ali ibn Hussain was the middle child, sandwiched between the ‘big’ Ali and ‘small’ Ali. His mother goes by the name of Shahrbano.

Ali ibn Hussain was born on the 5 Shabaan 38AH (although historians disagree on the exact date/year) and died either in 94/95AH.

The Prophet Predicts Imam Ali ibn Hussain’s Birth

The famous companion Jabir ibn Abdullah Ansari reports the following:

While I was sitting with Allah’s Apostle, may Allah bless him and his family, he put al-Husayn on his lap and played with him, and then he, may Allah bless him and his family, said: ‘Jabir, a son will be born for him, and the son will be called ‘Ali.

[Wasilat al-Mal fi ‘Add Manaqib al-Al]

Imam Ali ibn Hussain’s Titles and Nicknames

Zainul Abideen

Zainul Abideen is arguably his most well-known title and translates to the ‘ornament of worshippers’. He was given this title because nobody worshipped Allah (SWT) as much as him during his time.


Sajjad comes from the word sujood, which means to prostrate. Ali ibn Hussain always found an excuse to prostrate to Allah (SWT). So much so that his forehead bore the mark of prostration. His son, Muhammad ibn Ali describes his father’s worship in the following words:

When ‘Ali b. al-Husayn mentioned Allah’s favors toward him, he prostrated himself in prayer. (When he) read a verse with prostration of the Book of Allah, the Great and Almighty, he prostrated himself in prayer. When Allah drove away from him a misfortune which he was afraid of, he prostrated himself in prayer. (When he) finished his obligatory prayers, he prostrated himself in prayer. The marks of prostration were prominent on the parts on which he prostrated, so he was called al-Sajjad.”

[‘Ilal al-Sharaiya‘]


It was a great honour for Imam Ali ibn Hussain to possess the same nickname as his great-grandfather. Al-Amin means trustworthy.  Imam Ali ibn Hussain was known for being trustworthy. He reportedly said the following lines to illustrate his trustworthiness:

If the killer of my father al-Husayn deposited with me the sword with which he killed him, I would return it to him.”

[Al-Nu`ri, Da`r al-Sala`m]

Imam Ali ibn Hussain’s Notable Character Traits

From the title awarded to him, it can be said Imam Ali ibn Hussain was someone who people in Medina respected and had a fondness towards. Here are some more notable character traits he displayed throughout his life, which can serve as a blueprint to us all on what it means to be a good Muslim.

Controlling his Anger for the Sake of God

It is reported in Tarikh Dimashq that Imam Ali’s maid was pouring him some water so that he may perform wudhu. The maid accidentally dropped the jug on his hand, injuring him. Now, if that were us, we’d probably get angry and shout at the person. And maybe we’d have good reason to. Yet Imam Ali ibn Hussain chose the better option of strengthening his mercy over anger/retribution (which he was rightfully entitled to). After the jug landed on his land, he looked at his maid and said the following:

I have restrained my anger. May Allah forgive you. Go you are a free woman in the face of Allah.”

Nowadays, the phrase “kill them with kindness” is a popular anecdote used in western societies. Imam Ali ibn Hussain did the exact same thing when a person addressed him with abuse. Here’s the story related by Ibid:

An ignoble person aggressed against the Ali and cursed him, but Ali turned his face away from him, so the ignoble person became angry and said to him: “I mean you!” However, Ali said to him: “Still, I will forgive you!” Then Ali left the ignoble person and went away. He did not return the insult, thus the ignoble person burst into anger!”

Exercising Patience At All Times

Ali ibn Hussain saw horrors that would break most people. Firstly, he saw his father Hussain beheaded and trampled by horses in Karbala. Imam Ali ibn Hussain himself, along with his sister Zaynab and small children, were taken as prisoners. He also had to witness the tragedy of Hurrah, where the Caliph Yazid sent an army to ransack the city of Medina. Despite these horrible events, Imam Ali ibn Hussain did not despair and maintained patience. On this, he would say:

Patience is the source of obedience to Allah.”


Paying Other People’s Debt

A unique quality that was not seen in anyone else was that Imam Ali ibn Hussain would rush to pay off people’s debts. In Abu` Zahra, it is reported that he would pay off the debt of anyone who loved him. In fact, he would even pay off the debt/meet the needs of his enemy if there was an opportunity! His philosophy of doing so is fascinating. Imam Ali ibn Hussain says:

My enemy sometimes came to me (and ask me) to satisfy his need, so I hasten to satisfy it for fear that someone should satisfy it before me or my enemy should be in no need of it; therefore I would be deprived of the reward for it.”

Nasikh al-Tawarikh

Instead of denying his enemy in order to get back at them, he’d be more interested in helping them in order to secure a reward from Allah (SWT). SubhanAllah!

According to his biography written by Imam an-Nawawi, AImam Ali ibn Hussaini maintained approximately 100 families and met their needs. He was especially attentive to the needy and the poor.

God Consciousness

There is so much more that can be said about Ali ib Hussain’s character. Amongst his many good traits, he was God-conscious. It is said that Imam Ali ibn Hussain would become pale at the time of wudhu because of his fear and awe of Allah (SWT), whom he is about to stand in front of in prayer [Mustadarkul Wasa’il].

Key Events in the Life of Ali ibn Hussain

For the most part, Ali ibn Hussain’s led a difficult life.

The Battle of Karbala

Ali ibn Hussain was with his father Hussain ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala but was unable to fight due to illness. On account of his illness, the opposing army led by Umar ibn Saad opted not to kill him but take him as captive to Kufa and Damascus. Imam Ali ibn Hussain was chained and taken as a prisoner to the court of Yazid.

Where Yazid intended to mock up and ridicule Imam Ali ibn Hussain, the latter delivered a sermon which began with praise of Allah (SWT) and a reminder to Yazid of who’s family he had killed i.e. the Prophet’s kin. Yazid tried to interrupt the speech by asking the muezzin to recite the adhan , but that only made Imam Ali ibn Hussain’s point stronger. Because in the adhan we testify to the Prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). So, when it got to that part of the adhan Imam Ali ibn Hussain sarcastically asked Yazid who’s grandfather was being mentioned here, thus aiming to illustrate to the masses the gravity of Yazid’s crime of killing the children of the Prophet.

Imam Ali ibn Hussain was eventually allowed to return to Medina, where he lived the rest of his days.

The Tragedy of Harrah

The Hanafi scholar and historian Shaykh al-Hadith Muhammad Zakaria narrates the events of the battle of Harrah:

The army that Yazeed had sent to Medina comprised of 60,000 horsemen and 15,000 foot soldiers. For three days they shed blood freely, 1000 women were raped and 700 named Quraysh and Ansar were killed. Ten thousand women and children were made slaves. Muslim bin Uqba forced people to give bayya to Yazeed in such a manner that people were enslaved and Yazeed could sell them as he pleased, none of the Sahaba that were present [with the Prophet (saws)] at Hudaibiya were spared”.

Yazid was widely known to be an alcoholic and someone who did not even believe in Islam. And when the people decided they had had enough of him, Yazid did the following (described above).

Imam Ali ibn Hussain and his family were not harassed. In fact, his house served as a sanctuary for people. Nevertheless, he had to witness a horrifying turn of events only two years after the events of Karbala.

Ali ibn Hussain’s Contributions to Islam

In addition to his character, akhlaq and how he conducted his life, which in itself serves as a great testimony of what it means to be a Muslim, Imam Ali ibn Hussain left behind two important works that scholars continue to study until the present day.

Sahifa Sajjadiyya

Sahifa Sajjadiyya is a collection of duas recited by Ali ibn Hussain. In total, the book contains approximately 68 supplications and various munajaats (intimate conversations with Allah (SWT)).

The duas are recited by millions of Muslims around the world. The duas cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • Prayers to be said at specific times of the year
  • Duas when one is feeling a certain way, i.e. fearing enemies or feeling the guilt of sin
  • General duas that expound on his love and admiration of Allah (SWT).

Risalat al-Huquq

Translated as the treaties of rights, this incredible book describes the rights people have over each other. No stone is left unturned. Amongst many things, Imam Ali ibn Hussain describes the following rights things, and people have over us, including:

  • Our organs
  • Allah (SWT)
  • The rights of various family members and people in society including
  • The right our acts of worship

The book goes into a lot of detail. For instance, in the section on the rights of people, Imam Ali ibn Hussain describes:

  • The rights owed to a sitting companion
  • The rights owed to someone who has wronged you
  • The rights of neighbours
  • The rights of those to who you owe money
  • The rights of people older and younger than you

And much more. Nearly every scenario is considered, and the specific rights that are owed. The book can serve as a great manual for improving our akhlaq and conduct with Muslims.

Imam Ali ibn Hussain in the Words of His Contemporaries

The words of other notable people who lived at the same time as Imam Ali ibn Hussain say a lot about his legacy and character.


Muhammad al-Zuhri, was a jurist, one of the leading Imams and religious scholar of Syria and Saudi Arabia. Although much older than Imam Ali ibn Hussain, he said the following about Imam Ali ibn Hussain:

I sat with ‘Ali b. al-Husayn many times. I have never seen a person more knowledgeable than him in jurisprudence.”

[Khulasat Tahdhib al-Kamal]

Zayd bin Aslam

Zayd, who himself was an interpreter of the Quran and a jurist, made the following observation about Imam Ali ibn Hussain:

I have never seen a person better than ‘Ali b. al-Husayn in understanding and memorizing (the Qur’an).”

[Tabaqat al-Fuqaha]

Hammad bin Zayd

A jurist based in the city of Basrah, Hammad had high words of praise for Imam Ali ibn Hussain:

Ali b. al-Husayn was the most meritorious Hashimi I met.”

[Tahdhib al-Lughat wa al-Asma’]

Imam Ali ibn Hussain in the Words of Historians

Historians from all schools of Islam had high praise for Imam Ali ibn Hussain too. Below we list a few:

Ibn Asakir

The Sunni scholar ibn Asakr says:

Ali b. al-Husayn was trustworthy and trusted. He had many traditions and was high, lofty, and pious.”


Al-Yaqubi, a historian who lived during the time of the Abbasid empire, mentioned the following about Imam Ali ibn Hussain:

He was the most meritorious of all the people in worshipping. He was called Zayn al-‘Abidin (the ornament of the worshippers). He was also called Dhu’ al-Thafanat (the one with calluses) because there were marks of prostration on his forehead.”

[Al-Yaqubi, Tarikh]

Similar comments from over 40 historians can be found on the merits of Ali ibn Hussain.

Death and Burial of Ali ibn Hussain

By the time he died, Imam Ali ibn Hussain had accumulated approximately 162 students and companions from who he taught various religious sciences. The popularity of Imam Ali ibn Hussain became a threat to the Ummayad empire. In some circles within the empire, it was felt his popularity could be a threat to their power. He was subsequently poisoned and rests in Jannatul Baqi, in Saudi Arabia.

Ali ibn Hussain: A Man Who Needs Further Studying

Given the life led by Ali ibn Hussain, his character traits and what historians and contemporaries have to say about his personality, this is a man whose life and works need further studying as we can derive many lessons from it. It is undeserving that such a personality is not more readily discussed in Muslim circles and at our mosques.



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