'Ali ibn al-Husayn was born on 11th Shaban in the year 33. When he was martyred on 10th Muhharram in the year 61, he was twenty-seven years and five months old. His mother was Layla bint Abi Murra ibn 'Urwa ibn Mas'ud al-Thaqafi. Urwa ibn Mas'ud had been an important intermediary between Mecca and al-Ta 'if. The grandmother of 'Ali's mother was Maymuna bint Abi Sufyan, the sister of Mu’awiya and the aunt of Yazid.
Ali ibn al-Husayn had the kunya of Abu al-Hasan. There is a report from Imam al-Rida that he married a slave-mother of his child (umm walad) but we doubt the authenticity of this report. However, in the prayer for his ziyara there is some evidence that he had children. It says, 'May God bless you, your offspring, your family, your fathers and your sons.' It is, nonetheless, possible that the words 'your sons' (abna' ika) may be an addition of a copyist or a misrepresentation of 'your fathers' (aba’ika).
The kunya (naming a man as father of so and so, in this case Abu al-Hasan) is not evidence that he was married and had children. It may have been given out of the appropriateness of the name, 'Ali to go with the kunya, Abu al-Hasan -this was the name and kunya of his grandfather, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib.
The custom was carried out of giving a child a kunya when he was born as being among some of the practices mentioned by legal scholars, in accordance with reports that have been handed down from the Imams of the Holy Family concerning this matter. In any case whether 'Ali ibn al-Husayn (al-Akbar) was in fact married is doubtful in our view.
Ali was given the nickname al-Akbar (the elder) to distinguish him from his brother 'Ali ibn al-Husayn Zayn al-'Abidin.
He was like the Apostle of God in form, temperament and speech and had a handsome face.
Ali al-Akbar was the first of the Hashimite martyrs after all the supporters of al-Husayn, from outside the Hashimite family, had been martyred. When only his family were left with al-Husayn, one after the other came to say farewell to him. 'Ali al-Akbar was the first to ask his father's permission to go into battle. Al-Husayn bowed his head and wept. Then he raised in supplication to God as he said:
O God, I testify against these people, against whom has advanced a young man who most resembles your Apostle in form, temperament and speech. When we used to long for Your Prophet, we used to look at him.
When he went forward to fight, he was offered security in view of his kinship with Yazid ibn Mu'awiya through the grandmother of his mother, Maymuna bint Abi Sufyan. He refused the offer of security which had been given to him, saying, 'Kinship with the Apostle of God has a greater right to be observed.'
He had directed himself into battle while suffering from severe thirst. He returned to the camp of his father, Imam al-Husayn, after having fought fiercely and having killed a great number. His thirst became unendurable. When he told his father about his thirst, the latter wept and said, 'Help will come for it. Soon you will meet your grandfather; he will give you a drink from his cup after which you will never be thirsty.' He took his tongue and licked it, and he gave him his ring to put in his mouth.
Ali al-Akbar returned to the battle and died a martyr.
Ali al-Akbar enjoyed the highest level of consciousness in faith. There is a text which gives clear evidence of this fact. A conversation took place between Imam al-Husayn and his son, 'Ali al-Akbar after al-Husayn and his followers had learnt of what had happened to Muslim ibn 'Aqil in Kufa.
The end to which the revolution was coming was clear to everyone. While al-Husayn was continuing the journey with his followers, he was heard to say: 'We belong to God and to Him we shall return. Praise be to God, Lord of the universe.'
'Ali al-Akbar asked him why he had recited the verse of return used for those who die.
The Imam replied, 'I became drowsy and my head nodded off. A horseman appeared before me, saying: "The people are advancing and death is coming towards you." Then I knew that our lives were bringing the news of our deaths to us.'
'God will not show evil towards us,' replied 'Ali al-Akbar. 'Aren't we in the right?'
'Yes,' he answered, 'it is to Him that all men must return.' 'Father,' declared' Ali al-Akbar, 'as long as we are in the right, we should have no cares.'
'May God reward you with the best reward a son can receive from his father,' exclaimed al-Husayn.44
Mention is made of 'Ali al-Akbar in all the lamentation poetry which has been composed about al-Husayn. Later poets of the Shi'a have also composed special poems of lament about him. In their odes they recall his qualities, the way he asked his father's permission to fight, his thirst and the sorrow, grief and distress of his mother, Layla, when he was martyred.
'Ali al-Akbar enjoys an outstanding place in the rites of remembrance for al-Husayn. One of the nights of the ten days to 'Ashura ' is devoted to him, when preachers on the pulpit tell the story of his martyrdom.
He has also been given a distinguished place in the rituals of ziyara; in all the rituals of ziyara to al-Husayn, his son, 'Ali-Akbar, is especially mentioned. In the prayers of his ziyara there are expressions calling for peace to be with him, expressions of honour and praise for his struggle and expressions of distress for what happened to him.
Everything which comes in the ritual of ziyara to him comes within the ritual of ziyara to Imam al-Husayn. As far as we know, there is no repetition of it in an independent ziyara as there is in the case of his uncle, al 'Abbas. Perhaps this results from the fact that his grave is nearby the grave of his father, Imam al-Husayn, in contrast to al-'Abbas whose grave is far from the grave of his brother.
Among the prayers of ziyara for'Ali al-Akbar which come within the prayers of ziyara for his father, Imam al-Husayn, is one which Abu Hamza al-Thumali has reported from Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, who said after he had taught him how to perform the ziyara to Imam al-Husayn that then he should pass on to the grave of'Ali ibn al-Husayn which is at the foot of al-Husayn's and say:
Peace be with you, O son of the Apostle, and the mercy and blessings of God, son of the successor (khalifa) of the Apostle of God, son of the daughter of the Apostle of God. May the peace, the mercy and the blessings of God be multiplied with you whenever the sun rises and sets. Peace be with you and the mercy and blessings of God.
I would sacrifice my mother and my father for you, that you were unjustly slaughtered and killed. I would sacrifice my mother and father for you, that when you came before your father, he reckoned Heaven would be yours and he wept for you, with his hearts burning with pain for you. He raised your blood in his hand towards the clouds in the sky.
No drop of it came back to him. No moaning comforted your father for your loss. He said farewell to you at your departure. Your place with God is with your fathers who have died and with your mothers in Heaven. Before God, I renounce those who killed and slaughtered you.
This section of the ziyara begins with a prayer for peace to be with him, in which the kinship of 'Ali al-Akbar is shown. This kinship involves the Apostle of God. 'Ali al-Akbar is the son (that is a direct great-grandson), of the Apostle of God and he is the son of the successor (khalifa) of the Apostle of God (that is, he is a grandson of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib).
The same description is frequently used about al-Husayn without mentioning him by name. This goes to show the position of sanctity which 'Ali al-Akbar enjoys in terms of the fact that all the descriptions of his kinship come together with the 'Apostle of God'.
The prayer of the ziyara conveys scenes from Karbala' in the emotional cry from the heart, 'I would sacrifice my mother and father for you'; the scene of 'Ali al-Akbar coming forward to his father to ask for permission to go into battle; the scene of al-Husayn bending over the prostrate body of his son, taking his blood into his hand and raising it to the sky. Then the pilgrim renounces those who have commited the crime of killing him.
The peace of God, the peace of His angels who bring men close to God, the peace of His prophets whom he has sent, the peace of his righteous worshippers be with you, my master, son of my master, and the mercy and blessings of God be with you. May God bless you, your offspring, your family, your fathers, your sons and your mother, the best of people, the pious ones from whom God has removed all evil and whom He has made pure.
Peace be with you, son of the Apostle of God, son of the Commander of the faithful, son of al-Husayn ibn 'Ali and the mercy and blessings of God. May God curse your killers. May God curse those of them who survived and those of them who died. May God curse those who scorned your rights and those who killed you. May God curse those of them who survived and those of them who died. May God and His angels bless you and grant you much peace.
In this passage, the pilgrim repeats his call for peace to be with 'Ali al-Akbar in another form. This peace is from God and a select group of humans: prophets and their sincere sons. During this call for peace, he shows that this elect group is one to which 'Ali al-Akbar belongs. In the same way the other form of this call for peace shows the relationships of kinship of 'Ali al-Akbar from another angle which differs from the previous passage.
Imam Ja' far al-Sadiq went on to tell Abu Hamza that he should put his cheek against the tomb and say:
May God bless you, O Abu al-Hasan (three times). I would sacrifice my father and my mother, I have come to you as a pilgrim, journeying to you and seeking refuge with you from the evil which I have inflicted upon myself and which I gathered up on my back. I ask God Who is Your authority (wali) and mine that He make my destiny be through my ziyara to you, freedom from the burden of Hell-fire.45
Perhaps Imam Jafar al-Sadiq's direction to put one's cheek on the grave is an allusion to what Imam al-Husayn did when he stood over the dead body of his son and put his cheek against his, saying, 'After you there is nothing left in the world .... What has made them so bold against God to commit sacrilege against the Apostle?'
The action of putting one's cheek against the grave is an expression of the emotions of love, sadness and devotion. The pilgrim finishes the prayer of his ziyara by praying to God that He forgives him his sins and frees him from the punishment of Hell-fire.
44. There is some confusion over this ‘Ali al-Akbar. According to Shaykh al-Mufid, he is 'Ali Zayn al-'Abidin, while, according to Shaykh Shams al-Din, he is the'Ali who was murdered at Karbala'. Nonethless, it still seems incorrect to attribute this conversation with Imam al-Husayn to him, for it actually took place between Imam al-Husayn and 'Ali Zayn al-'Abidin. (tr.)
45. Ibid., 139-140.