We Shia Muslims always consider Imam Ali (peace be upon him) our Imam and claim that we are his followers. Thus, we are celebrating his birth this week.
The question is: is there any criteria to be met by which we can hope that we are following Imam Ali and that he is our Imam, or is it just enough to say we are born Shia and love him, irrespective of any similarities between our lifestyle and that of his? There is a scholar who leads the congregational prayer in a certain mosque that I never go to. Can I claim that he is my imam of Jama'at although I never stay behind him in praying?!
This discussion aims at introducing some of the main characteristics of Imam Ali. As we will see after the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him and his progeny), he enjoyed the highest of those virtues, and hence he is indeed the Imam and the unique leading figure of those personalities. He is on the high peak of the Right Path and is the Imam and leader only of those who are on the same path, even on a very low level. Only those who look at the lifestyle of Imam Ali and attempt at getting closer to him in practice can really and truly claim that they regard him as their Imam.
Imamul-Mo'mineen (The Imam of the Believers)
Imam Ali is the first Imam and the leading figure of all believing Muslims. Historically it is an indisputable fact that he was the very first person who believed in Islam. The Imam himself expresses this fact, saying; "None preceded me except Ahmad." 
Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, narrated in his book from Iyas ibn Afif from his father: "I was a trader before Islam. Once I went for the Hajj ceremony to Mecca and stayed with my business counterpart, Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib. One day, as we were negotiating on a deal, a man came out of his room, looked up at the sun in the sky, and as soon as the sun inclined towards west, he began praying. Immediately after that, a woman and a young boy came out and joined him in prayer. I asked Abbas who they were, and he said: 'The man is Muhammad ibn Abdullah, my nephew, and she is his wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid, and the young boy is Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin.' I asked what they were doing, and he said: 'They are praying, and he thinks that he is a prophet, whilst no one follows him other than these two. He also claims that one day the treasury of Chosreos and Caesar will be opened to him.'" 
We must, however, remember that when we say Imam Ali was the first who believed in Islam, we do not mean before that time, he did not believe in God, or as if prior to that he was an idolater! Imam Ali never worshipped other than one God in his entire life, and thus Sunni Muslims admire him by praying for him, "May God honor his face." This tribute is used only for him, expressing the fact that his face was honored by God as, unlike many others, he never prostrated himself before any idol. Therefore, when we say Ali was the first Muslim, it is in the same context as when Prophet Abraham said: "And I am the first of the Muslims" (6:163) or when the Holy Qur'an says; "The Messenger believed in what was revealed to him from his Lord." (2:285)
Thus, Imam Ali is only the Imam and the leader of those who have faith in God and believe in the message of the Prophet of Islam. Those who do not believe in Islam in any form or shape cannot claim that he is their leader.
Imamul-Musalleen (Imam of Those Who Pray)
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Imam Ali was the first who prayed with the Messenger of God. Similarly, the history of Islam has not presented anyone after the Prophet of Islam worshiping the Almighty God more or better than Imam Ali.
Ibn Abil Hadid asserted: "Imam Ali was the most worshiping of all Muslims. He prayed to God and fasted for His sake more than anyone else. In fact, people learned the Night Prayer from him." 
His Salat: Prophetic Salat
Al-Bukhari narrates that Motraf ibn Abdullah said: "Omran ibn Hosayn and I prayed behind Ali ibn Abi Talib. When he was going for prostration, he was reciting 'Allahu-Akbar', and when he was sitting up from prostration, he was also reciting 'Allahu Akbar'. When we finished the prayer, Omran grabbed my hand and either said to me: 'His prayer reminded me of the Prophet's prayer', or he may have said: 'He offered a Prophetic prayer.'" 
His Punctuality in the Times of Salat
The Muslim daily prayers have set and fixed times. Muslims are bound to observe the time of each prayer and offer them in their first possible times. The Almighty God says in the Qur'an: "The prayer is enjoined on the believers at fixed hours." (4:103)
Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him) reported that every time Imam Ali used to stand up for Salat, the color of his face would change so much that it would be obvious. Imam Ali was asked about the reason behind it. He answered: "The time of 'the Trust that God offered to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they declined to bear it and were afraid of it, but man bore it' has arrived, and I am not sure if I would appropriately deliver the Trust or not." 
In the middle of the hardship of the battle of Siffin, as Imam Ali was fighting, he kept glancing at the sun in the sky. Ibn Abbas, one of the commanders of his army, noticed and asked what the Imam was looking at. Imam Ali replied: "I am watching the entering time of Salat." Ibn Abbas with a big surprise replied: "Now? In the middle of the war?!" Imam Ali calmly said: "What are we fighting them for other than Salat?!" 
Having read the above examples, can we begin to contemplate that a group of people hold a celebration for the birthday of Imam Ali, yet there is no Salat included in their program? Or some of us are so busy in preparation of food that they miss the congregational prayer? Can we truly regard Imam Ali our Imam?
His Presence of Heart in Salat
The presence of heart means that the heart and attention of the one who offers his prayer is with God during the pray. The presence of heart is more profound than mere attending the meaning of the words of Salat, although this may be a good start to reach the presence of heart.
Two she-camels were gifted to the Messenger of God. One was fatter than the other, but the other was bigger.
The Messenger of God announced to his companions that whoever can offer two units of prayer during which he does not think of any worldly affairs, he would gift one of the she-camels to him. No one nominated himself even after the Prophet repeated his offer three times. Imam Ali then stood up and said: "I will do that, O Messenger of God. From the time I recite Allahu Akbar until when I say my last Tasleem, I think of nothing other than God."
The Prophet of Islam asked him to get ready and offer a two-unit prayer under the supervision of the Prophet.
The challenge began, and as soon as Imam Ali finished his Salat, the Archangel Gabriel descended to the Prophet and said: "O Muhammad! Allah greets you and says: give one of the two camels to Ali!"
The Prophet said: "The condition was that he should not think of other than God, but in his Tashahud, he thought about which camel he should ask for."
Gabriel said: O Muhammad! Indeed God greets you and says: Ali was thinking which one would be better for charity. Thus, his thought was for the sake of God, not for a worldly pleasure!"
The Messenger of God gifted both of the she-camels to Ali while he had tears in his eyes. Upon this a verse was revealed to him: "Verily, therein is indeed a reminder for him who has a heart or gives ear while he is heedful." (50:37) 
The degree of Imam Ali's presence of heart was so high and strong that in one of the battles a piece of an arrow had remained in his foot. Having no anesthetic drugs, to remove the piece would have been too painful, and to leave the piece in his body would cause the wound to become infected and would also affect his mobility.
Lady Fatima al-Zahra (peace be upon her) suggested that the piece of stick be removed from his foot while he was praying, as the Imam would not be conscious of his physical body. The operation was a success whilst he was in prostration! 
His Extra Attention to the Night Prayer
The Night Prayer is a virtue but not an obligation unless for the Prophet of Islam himself. However, Imam Ali said: "Since I heard the Prophet saying: 'Night Prayer is light, I never left the Night Prayer.'" Ibnil Kawwa said: "Even on the Night of al-Harir?" The Imam said: "Yes, even on the Night of al-Harir." 
His Abundance in Salat
Imam Baqir (peace be upon him) said: "No one would tolerate the amount of worshiping that Imam Ali was offering, not even Imam Zainul Abideen." 
It is also narrated from Imam Sadiq: "Ali towards the end of his life used to offer one thousand units of prayer in every 24 hours." 
3. Imamul-Najin (The Imam of the Whisperers to God)
Supplication, invocation, and communication with God depend directly on the level of people's knowledge and trust in God. The more one knows about God, the more the person communicates with Him and approaches Him in his needs. From the Islamic point of view, it is recommended that any Muslim organizes his days into three portions:
- For communication with his Lord
- For his livelihood
- Halal and permissible pleasures
It is narrated from Imam Sadiq, "Ameerul Mo'mineen was a man who used to whisper a lot to God through supplications." 
Several years after the martyrdom of Imam Ali, Dherar ibn Dhamrah arrived in Muawiya's presence. Having seen one of the companions of Imam Ali, Muawiya asked Dherar to describe Imam Ali to him. Dherar requested that Muawiya excuse him on that but Muawiya insisted. Finally, Dherar opened his mouth and described his most beloved Imam. Part of his description reads, "I swear to God that one night I saw Imam Ali on his prayer mat holding his beard and moaning in tears like the one that a snake has bitten, as if the echo of his voice is still my ears saying; 'O my Lord. O my Lord.' Addressing the pleasure of this world he was saying; 'You want to deceive me? Are you trying to encourage me to yourself? How impossible! How impossible! You may deceive other than me. I have divorced you three times. How short your life is. How low your position is. How easy you can put one into danger. Ahhhh. Ahhhh. Because our provision is so little and the journey is so long and the path is so lonely.'"
As Dherar was narrating the holy words of the Imam, Muawiya along with his advisers were all in tears. He then said, "Indeed Abul Hassan (the father of Hassan) was like this. O Dherar! How is your life without him?" Dherar with a deep sorrow said: "Like the life of the one whose most beloved one is beheaded at his bosom, whose tears have no end, and whose grief cannot be eased." He then stood up and left. 
The supplications of Imam Ali are so many that books have been compiled as a collection of his supplications.  For nearly every occasion, there is a supplication narrated from Imam Ali, such as the famous Dua Kumayl, Munajaat Sha'baniyah, and numerous others. There are even specific supplications narrated from Imam Ali to be recited at the time of starting Salat, the wearing clothes, sleeping, waking up, eating, drinking etc.
Imamul Hakimeen (The Imam of the Rulers)
Political and high position in society is a rank that many wish to have. How many mischievous plots and deceits many people commit in order to achieve a political position. Campaign elections of the candidates of the presidency or even as simple as being a councilor of a local council are examples that we observe in our day to day transactions. Following the Machiavellian political philosophy of 'the end justifies the means', they involve themselves in any type of deceit and fraud and give false promises just to gain a mere seat.
Political position and the ruling of subjects were less valuable for Imam Ali than the sneezing of a goat (Nahjul Balagha Sermon 3) or a worn pair of shoes, unless the position would enable him to bring to ease the oppressed or implement social justice.
Ibn Abbas narrated: "I saw Ali ibn Abi Talib sitting and repairing his shoes. I said 'It is better you spend your time on repairing the social affairs.' He ignored me until he finished with his shoes and then asked me how much the value of his pair of shoes was. I said that it had no value. He insisted that I may price it as it was. I said: 'Well, a fraction of a dirham!' Imam Ali then said: "By Allah, this pair of shoes is more favorable to me than leading your political affairs, unless I can establish a right and diminish a falsehood!'" 
It was in the Land & Environment Court of New South Wales that I heard for the first time that a solicitor was addressing the judge as 'Your Honor!' I was then wondering if the 'honor' was really to the judge or his position. Would he be still honored if he had retired? What we usually don't realize is that the honor and respect that people offer to us is metaphoric; it is in fact the position that they honor, not the person. Thus, once we lack the position, the so-called honor also disappears. There are however few exceptions in history.
Abdullah, son of Ahmad ibn Hanbal said: "One day I was sitting with my father where a group of people were discussing the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. When my father noticed that their conversation was taking long, he turned around said: 'Indeed, the caliphate did not give any honor to Imam Ali; rather, he honored the position of caliphate.'" 
Indeed, such was the position for Imam Ali as Sir William Muir said: "It was rather thrust upon him than sought." 
During his reign, he was informed that the army of Muawiya had invaded a village and seized the ornaments of a Jewish lady. He felt so grieved and anguished with the news that he said: "If any Muslim dies of grief after all this, he is not to be blamed but rather there is justification for him before me." 
Imam Ali was the head of the then vast Islamic empire. Nevertheless, he went to the market with his servant Qanbar to buy two shirts, one for himself and one for his servant. He bought the shirts but gave the more elegant and expensive one to Qanbar and kept the simpler one for himself. When Qanbar surprisingly complained that he was a leader, and it would be more suitable for him to wear the more elegant one, Imam Ali replied: "But you are younger, and it is more becoming on you, and I can manage with the one I have chosen."
Where on earth can humanity find such leaders? The Muslims have such an exceptional role model, and unless we live on that line, we cannot reclaim that Imam Ali is our Imam.
His judicial system was one of the most just in existence. Thus, all citizens irrespective of their background felt safe to call to the court whoever they had a complaint about. The story of Imam Ali as the leader of the country and a Jewish subject on the issue of the stolen armor is well known. To cut the long story short, Imam Ali was so just during his political leadership that he is titled even by non-Muslim historians as "The Voice of Human Justice". Others have regarded his justice the actual cause of his martyrdom, as tyrants and mischief-makers could not tolerate and live with his justice.
Imamul Mutasaddiqeen (The Imam of the Charity Givers)
Man's duty in Islam is twofold. One in relation to him and his Lord in the sense of worshipping and other rituals, and the other in relation to his fellow humans and creatures around him.
The examples of Imam Ali's generous and sincere charity are more than what we can mention in here. Verse 12 in Sura al-Mujadila (58) in the Qur'an is solely practiced by Imam Ali. He is also the unique example of the one who gave charity whilst he was bowing in Ruku, about which verse 55 of Sura al-Ma'ida (5) is revealed. Verses 5 to 22 of Sura al-Insan (76) were revealed to the Prophet of Islam to eternally mark the sincere and generous donation of Imam Ali and his family.
Unlike nearly all people whose wish in their life is to extend their wealth and investments, Imam Ali's wish was to increase his ongoing charity. Ahmad ibn Hanbal narrated from Imam Ali: "At the time of the Prophet of Islam, I was starving so much that I had to firmly wrap my stomach with a stone, but today thanks to God, I can give forty thousand (dirham) for charity." 
Imam Sadiq described the amount of charity that Imam Ali used to give by saying: "By Allah, Amirul Momineen purchased one thousand slaves and freed them for the sake of God, and to be able to afford it, he worked even till his hands were badly worn and wounded." 
The aspects of the leadership of Imam Ali and his model characters are not limited to the above mentioned points. He is undoubtedly not just anyone's Imam. Rather, he is the Imam of al-Muttaqeen (the pious people), the Imam of al-Zahideen (those who don't desire worldly pleasures), and the Imam of al-Mowahhideen (the monotheists).
Editor's Note: Shaikh Mansour Leghaei studied for over a decade in the Islamic seminary of Qom under such notable teachers as Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli, and the late Ayatollah Jawad Tabrizi. Until recently, he served as the resident scholar of the Imam Husain Islamic Centre in Sydney, Australia.
 Al-Kaafi, vol. 1 p. 198
 al-Mosnad vol. 1 p. 448
 Sharh Nahjul-Balagha, vol. 1 p. 27
 Sahih al-Bokhari, vol. 1 p. 272
 Ibn Shahr Ashoob, al-Manaqib, vol. 2 p. 124. Imam's statement refers to the Ayah 72 of Chapter 33 of the Quran.
 Beharul-Anwaar vol. 83 p. 23
 Ibib, vol. 36 p. 161
 Kashani, al-Mahajatul-Baydaa, vol. 1 p. 397
 Ibn Shahr Ashoob, al-Manaqib, vol. 2 p. 123. The Night of al-Harir is the night during the Battle of Siffin in which it is said that more than 70,000 people were killed.
 Al Kafi vol. 8, p. 130
 Ibid. vol. 4, p. 154
 Ibid. vol. 2, p. 468
 al-Isti`aab, vol. 3, p. 209
 For instance, see al-Adiye al-Alawiyyah by Seyyed Hashim Rasooli Mahalati, in which he has complied about 150 supplications of Imam Ali.
 al-Irshaad, vol. 1 p. 247, and similar story is mentioned in Nahjul Balagha, sermon 33
 Mosoo`atul-Imam Ali, vol. 8, p. 409
 The Life of Mahomet, London 1877, p. 250
 Nahjul Balagha, sermon 27
 al-Mosnad, vol. 1 p. 334
 al-Kaafi vol. 8 p. 165