"It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteousness is this that one should believe in Allah," and the Verse ends emphasizing the value of serving God's creatures. But sometimes people go to excess and, as the poet Sa'di says: "Devotion is nothing but serving people", The next step is to negate the value of devotion, asceticism, knowledge or jihad, all of which are the exalted values for man in Islam.
Today some of our intellectuals imagine that they have found a very lofty principle called "humanity and humanitarianism". Serving people is fine and we should serve them. But if we provide them with food and clothes alone, we would be treating them like animals, especially if we suppose no higher values exist for them. If service is confined to this, what would be the difference between Abu Dhar and Muawiah? This is another example of going to excess, similar to the overvaluing of freedom.
Freedom is among the highest of human values which is above man's animal nature and material values. You can see that those who possess humanity are willing to bear hunger and nakedness, and live under hard conditions, provided they are not enslaved by another human being and can live freely. A story is told in the book of "The Mirror of Scholars", about Avicenna who held the rank of a minister for some time. One day, he was passing through a street with great pomp and show when he noticed a scavenger removing putrid stuff from a pit. Avicenna heard him murmuring to himself a couplet meaning that he honored his 'self' for finding his world easy. Avicenna laughed to hear a man who was doing the lowest task so contently. He drew the vein of his horsecalled the man to him and remarked sarcastically: "What a way to choose to honor the "self"! The man on recognizing Avicenna by his appearance said: "I have chosen this job so that I would not be the slave of another in the way you are! To enjoy freedom while being a scavenger is far better than your rank, assets and dependence," It is said that Avicenna became red in the face with shame and had no answer to give.
According to the worldly and animal aspirations, there is no point in forsaking the best food, and having servants and all that pomp and show and becoming a scavenger, and then speaking of freedom. Is freedom something tangible? No, but for a vigilant conscience, it is so worthy that a man prefers scavenging to slavery. This value is sometimes forgotten in some societies, but when it is awakened in them, they claim freedom to be the only value and forget about other values like justice, wisdom etc. Others may consider love as the only value, and forget the intellect, as the Gnostics do; while some go to the other extreme, thinking love to be a fancy, and intellect as the only worthy thing
Love, intellect, justice, freedom, service and devotion are all values. Who is a perfect human being? One who is an absolute devotee, or ascetic, or freeborn, or in love, or intelligent? None of these results in a perfect man. But if all these values are developed in him in a harmonious way, he may be considered perfect,
Imam Ali was such a man, In Nahjul-Balagha you meet mostly the eloquent side of him, and in reading this book, you get different pictures of him. Sometimes in reading the sermons, you suppose that Avicenna is there lecturing. At other times, you observe Rumi or Mohyedin Arabi speaking to you. Then you feel the epic of Ferdowsi, or a man of liberty, or an ascetic or a retiring devotee in a state of giving discourses. All human aspects show themselves in Aliâ€™s words, and then you discern how great he is, and how small we are.
In the past and until fifty years ago, our society was inclined, in religious matters, towards asceticism. Preachers often confined themselves to those sermons of Nahjul-Balagha which were related to ascetic matters, calling this world a transient place and the next world eternal, and advising people to prepare for the hereafter.
The rest of the sermons had no place because the society could not absorb them, as it had turned to a series of values only. For a period of a hundred years, no one read the decree of Imam Ali to Malik Ashtar, which is full of social and political injunctions. There, Ali speaks of an utterance of the Prophet that "no people can attain the degree of sanctity and freedom from defect until they reach a position where the weak stand against the strong and claim their right without stuttering". Fifty years ago the society could not understand this, because it was a society of a single value, while Aliâ€™s words contain all human values as shown in his biography and personality.
I do not intend to praise our present society, but fortunately some worthwhile values have appeared in it. I fear however that once more they may become single-dimensional and destroy other values. If we wish to have Imam Ali (as) as our model and a perfectly well balanced man, this should not happen. He is a man in whom all human values have developed harmoniously. At night and during the communion with God, no Gnostic can rival him in his divine ecstasy and his flight towards Him. He is so deep in his devotion that nothing can divert his attention, and this divine love seems to have taken him to another world. This is how he is in the altar of worship at night.
In daytime, he is a different man. Unlike many ascetics, he is cheerful sitting with his companions and even witty. Amr ibn Aas criticized him and termed him as unsuitable for the Caliphate since he was so cheerful, as if a caliph must always look glum to frighten people. In battle too he was cheerful and smiling, while in the altar he was tearful.
The Qur'an says in Chapter "Muzzamil", Verses 6-7: "Surely, the rising by night is the firmest way to tread and the most corrective of speech.. Surely, you have, in the day time, a long occupation."
The night is for worship, and the day for living and mingling with society. The poet Hafiz is sometimes alluded to a pretext to mislead the young, They say this great poet was addicted to wine, whereas in reality, his poems are wholly spiritual and mystical, and his wine is of a spiritual nature. He was a religious man who was an interpreter of the Qur'an, and, later on, became famous as a poet. He has expressed the above Verse of the Qur'an in a poem, saying that daytime is for work and effort, and nighttime for the wine of devotion.
Ali is such a man, and has been recognized in this way for over a thousand years. The compiler of "Nahjul-Balagha", Sayed Razi, says: "The amazing thing about this book is that you see Ali in so many different worlds as you read it, that is in the words of devotion, philosophy, mysticism, military affairs, court of justice, religious jurisprudence and so on, and he is never absent from any human world."
Safiyedin Hilli, a poet of the sixth century of the Hejira, says about Ali that he is a collection of all contraries; he is both a ruler and a sage, docile and brave, poor and generous, gentle and resolute, and a devotee and a man of action. He is a hero in all human spheres, something that we cannot be, but we can at least maintain a certain degree of equilibrium among all values to be called a true Muslim in different walks of life.