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It goes without saying that caring for orphaned children is considered an essential element of a morally functioning society by most standards. In Islam, more than twenty verses in the Quran refer to the good treatment of orphaned children. But what do the lives of our historical leaders teach us about putting these verses into practice?
We know Imam Ali (as) as the ‘Father of Orphans’, a title that attests to his care for orphaned children like they were his own children. A closer look at the life of Imam Ali holds valuable lessons for us in caring for orphaned children.
Imam Ali began his life learning everything he was to know from the greatest of orphans, Prophet Muhammad (saww). The Prophet, whose father had died before he was born, was taken under the care of his uncle Abu Talib as a child thirty years earlier. In a similar way, Imam Ali grew up under the care and direction of the Prophet. Imam Ali’s education from the Prophet continued until the Prophet’s tragic death, after which Imam Ali would pass on and share teachings from his close time with the Prophet, to those around him.
We cannot know the precise wisdom behind the orphanhood of the Holy Prophet. What we do know is that the experience of being orphaned at a young age carries unique struggles that have the potential to teach us invaluable lessons on strength of character and resilience. Although this was emulated in the most perfect form in the Holy Prophet, we have an opportunity to pause and reflect on the stories of orphaned children of our age, and think about what important lessons they have to teach us to help build our character. We can learn to shift our perspective on orphaned children, from thinking of them as under-privileged members of society, to our educators who have unique experiences which we can learn from.
A number of traditions available to us describe how Imam Ali ensured orphaned children were taken care of, particularly during the period of his caliphate. These include narrations of Imam Ali visiting their homes under the cover of evenings to feed and cater to their needs. One such narration tells us of a time when honey and figs were brought to Imam Ali from Hamadan and Hulwan, a delicacy presented to him as the Caliph of the time.
Imam Ali’s first response was to order the authorities of all tribes to bring along the orphans of the city. The narration tells us that “he seated them above the leather containers of honey to eat from it”. When questioned, he responded “I am the father to the orphans. Indeed I had them eat honey as their father.”
Imam Ali’s insistence on prioritising the orphaned children when offered a delicacy teaches us all to present the very best we have to them. Imam Ali did not wait until his close family and friends had their turn before providing the children with leftovers, nor did he consider the delicacies a ‘non-essential’ that the orphaned children did not need. The lesson here extends beyond subsistence and clothing to include all aspects in life: if you think your children deserve the best-in-class education and access to opportunities, so do orphaned children.
Not only did Imam Ali make sure that orphaned children were fed and clothed well, but he went out of his way to play with them. One narration describes how Imam Ali visited the home of a widow and her children with a bag full of ingredients, and prepared a meal for them. When the children finished eating, Imam Ali “began to hop around the room (by mimicking a lamb) and bleating, making them laugh.” Qanbar, Imam Ali’s helper who had accompanied him, asked him later on, “Your carrying the food on your back was for earning good deeds, but I did not know the reason for your hopping around the room and baaing!’”, to which Imam Ali replied, “I liked to leave them while they were satiated and laughing, and I found no other way for making them laugh than how I did.’”
This teaches us the importance of play in every child’s life, including orphaned children. Just as Imam Ali did not want to leave the orphaned children with full bellies only but with smiles on their faces, so too should we strive to care for the orphaned children of our times beyond merely satisfying their need for food and shelter.
Imam Ali’s behaviour towards orphaned children as narrated to us through traditions demonstrates his feeling of duty towards their well-being. He did not consider his care for them as a charitable act. In one narration, Imam Ali comes across a woman carrying a goatskin of water on her shoulder and carries it off her to her house. He then learns that she is a widow of a soldier with orphaned children. This leaves him in great distress and he returns with bags of food. When helping the woman light a fire, Imam Ali chides himself saying, “O Ali! This is the punishment of the one who neglects the widows and the orphans.” When the woman later apologises for failing to recognise him, he replies, “I am ashamed of you, since I did neglect you.”
This teaches us that we are all collectively responsible for the well-being of orphaned children. In an age where charitable acts of kindness are sometimes considered secondary, we ought to remind ourselves that any care we offer to orphaned children is only responding to our duty to share our blessings.
Imam Ali instructed those around him to care for the orphaned during his lifetime as well as when approaching his death. During Imam Ali’s period of caliphate, he appointed Malik al-Ashtar as the governor of Egypt. His written instructions to Malik al-Ashtar included a call to take upon himself the upkeep of the orphans. Before his death, he instructed the care of orphaned children in his will. He wrote to his eldest son, Imam al-Hasan: “I remind you By God, By God, about the Orphans. Be consistent in attending to their nutrition, and do not forget their interests in the middle of yours.’’ For I heard the Prophet himself say “Whoever supported an orphan until independence is guaranteed heaven”.
We can learn from Imam Ali to leave the care of orphaned children in the legacy we leave behind in this life. Whether it is through including them in our will too, through passing on this sense of responsibility to the next generation.
Through ensuring we care for orphaned children during our lifetime as well, we can strive to respond to the call that our beloved Imam Ali left for us.
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