The Nahj al-Balāghah collects the word of the Prince of the Believers, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. Ramaḍān 40/January 661), the first and foremost of the infallible imāms in the Shīʿah tradition. Muslims across the world have continuously revered the wisdom, courage, and eloquence of Imām ʿAlī.
The Nahj al-Balāghah consists of three parts, the first containing 239 orations, sermons, brief speeches, and supplications; the second comprising of 79 epistles; and the third collecting 472 aphorisms. The orations and sermons expound on many subjects, most importantly instruction and guidance (taʿlīm wa irshād), exhortation and admonition (mawʿiẓah wa tanbīh), asceticism and the world (zuhd wa dunyā), and theology and prophethood (ilāhiyyāt wa nubuwwah). The epistles were largely composed during the caliphate of Imām ʿAlī and are concerned with providing guidance and advice to his deputies and governors, regarding affairs of the state and the army, and his correspondence with various personalities, friend and foe, but they also include admonition and instruction on a host of topics and, last but not least, his testament. Similarly, the aphorisms deal with a wide variety of matters and have been described as an ocean of wisdom.
Influence and Acclaim
As the paramount source for the word of Imām ʿAlī, the Nahj al-Balāghah is a major foundation of the spiritual and intellectual heritage of Islam and its study and has provided guidance, inspiration, and religious understanding to Muslims for over a millennium.
The words of Imām ʿAlī have had a profound impact on the development of the Arabic language. Again and again, the great Arabic lexicons, such as Lisān al-ʿArab and Tāj al-ʿArūs, refer to complex phrases, idioms, and grammatical usages traced back to the Nahj al-Balāghah.
The language of Imām ʿAlī, the ‘Prince of Speech’, in its unity of sapientia and eloquentia, is reckoned amongst the most beautiful exemplars of Arabic literature, described as the most noble speech after that of God and His Prophet, the juncture between the earthly and the divine, and reflecting the hues of heaven.
Abū al-Ḥasan Muḥammad, known as al-Sharīf al-Raḍī (d. 406/1016), the compiler of the Nahj al-Balāghah, was born in Baghdad into a prominent Sayyid family. His family lineage is well documented and can be traced back to the seventh Imām, Mūsā al-Kāẓim. Like himself, al-Sharīf al-Raḍī’s father, Abū Aḥmad Ḥusayn b. Mūsā (d. 400/1009), and his brother, al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā (d. 436/1044), were noted personalities, jurists, and scholars of the Shīʿī Ithnā ʿAsharī Imāmī confession. His father was the first Imāmī Shīʿī jurist to hold the office of naqīb al-ashrāf; he was also in charge of the dīwān al-maẓālim, and held responsibility for the welfare of the pilgrims to the Kaʿbah. After his death, the office of naqīb was held by his sons in succession, first by al-Sharīf al-Raḍī and then his brother, al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā, who wrote extensively, including theological works such as al-Shāfī fī al-imāmah and works of jurisprudence such as al-Dharīʿah fī uṣūl al-sharʿīah. He established and financed a college in Baghdad known as the Dār al-ʿIlm that had a library of some 80,000 works.
Al-Sharīf al-Raḍī himself studied with the leading scholars of his day and his own students went on to become distinguished scholars of their time. His learned and literary works are extant and have been widely published. Al-Sharīf al-Raḍī was a luminary of Islamic scholarship and a man of faith and practice. He was deeply interested in many learned disciplines, including the study of literature and language.
In the centuries prior to the compilation of the Nahj al-Balāghah, many other compilations had been made of the words of Imām ʿAlī. Scholarly endeavour has established that there were some sixty-one authors who compiled or quoted the word of Imām ʿAlī before the time of al-Sharīf al-Raḍī and it may be that further research will uncover more examples yet. In the milieu of al-Sharīf al-Raḍī many works on the word of Imām ʿAlī were extant, which were well known and widely quoted, and certain orations were known by their given names, for example, al-Shiqshiqiyyah, al-Gharrāʾ, al-Ashbāḥ, and al-Qāṣiʿah, which are included in the Nahj al-Balāghah. Undoubtedly, al-Sharīf al-Raḍī had access to these and other sources in the great libraries of the day.
Since its compilation, the Nahj al-Balāghah has been the object of intensive study for every generation of Muslim scholarship and more than 370 major Arabic commentaries on it have been produced to date, firmly establishing the field of Nahj al-Balāghah studies in the Islamic world. However, the Arabic of the Nahj al-Balāghah is of the highest linguistic and literary complexity and beyond the comprehension of the average modern reader. Therefore it has not received serious attention in academia beyond the specialists of the Muslim world.
To date, no direct translation of the Nahj al-Balāghah from the original Arabic into English has been produced. The English versions that have been published since the 1960s are either based on existing Urdu and Persian translations or further edited versions of these; all current translations in Western languages are translations of translations, and as such are distorted, lack accuracy and do no justice to the Nahj al-Balāghah.
The study and research of Dr Sayyid Amjad Shah Naqavi on the Nahj al-Balāghah over the last decade or so aims to initiate the field of Nahj al-Balāghah studies by presenting a critical edition of the Arabic text based on the earliest extant manuscripts and a literary translation of the text into English. His authoritative translation of the Nahj al-Balāghah aims to bring this hidden gem of Islamic wisdom to a world readership.