The question whether or not verse 100 of chapter 9 (al-Tawbah) has been revealed about Imam Ali (as) does not have any effect on his being the first Muslim because there is an all out consensus that the first lady to embrace Islam among women was Khadija, the devote and faithful wife of the Holy Prophet (s) and the first man – according to all Shia and Sunni scholars – to embrace Islam and accept the invitation of the Holy Prophet (s) was Imam Ali (as). For this reason, Ali is the first manifestation of this verse.
When it comes to the question why the words in the said verse are in plural, we must say that the application of plural forms to one or two individuals is not something uncommon because there are many instances in the Quran and Arabic literature where a plural word has been used to refer to a single individual. In the detailed answer to come, we will explain it further.
Before providing details into the meaning of verse 100 of chapter 9 ("وَ السَّابِقُونَ الْأَوَّلُونَ مِنَ الْمُهاجِرينَ وَ الْأَنْصارِ...") and regarding the occasion in which the verse was revealed, we wish to draw your attention to the following two points:
1. Was Imam Ali (as) the first person to embrace Islam and have faith in the Holy Prophet (s) not to mention this verse and other verses? In other words, do the historical realities prove the fact that Imam Ali (as) was the first man to believe in the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him and his family.
2. Assuming that verse 100 of chapter al-Tawbah was not revealed about a particular individual, can we apply the verse to Ali (as) as a verse revealed broadly, not exclusively, about him? Can’t we say that he is one of the manifestations of the verse?
Whoever refers to Tafsir (commentary) and hadith books and to the seerah (biography) of the Infallibles, he will come to understand clearly that the story of the first of those people who converted to Islam has special significance leaving no doubt in our mind especially when the verse in question is discussed.
As for the first question (i.e. Was Ali bin Abi Talib the first man to embrace Islam?), we would say that historians from both Shia and Sunni sects unanimously believe that the first lady to embrace Islam among women was Khadija, the devout and faithful wife of the Holy Prophet (s) and the first man – according to all Shia and most Sunni scholars – to embrace Islam and accept the invitation of the Holy Prophet (s) was Imam Ali (as).
Of course, some have ascribed this virtue and excellence i.e. preceding others in embracing Islam, to others saying that Ali (as) was a young boy. Indeed, in this article we are not going to focus on this narrow-mindedness on the part of some people because what is important is to prove whether or not Imam Ali (as) was the first man to believe in Islam. Thus, we will mention a number of reports and traditions in this regard.
1. The History of the Prophets and Kings (Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, popularly known Tarikh al-Tabari) says in this regard: The predecessors were differing as to who was the first person after Khadija to believe in the Messenger of Allah. Some say that the first man to believe in the Prophet and offer prayers behind him was Ali bin Abi Talib.
Tabari then writes: Ibn Hamid says, “Ibrahim bin Mukhtar reports from Shu’bah, he from Abi Balj, he from Amr bin Maymoon and he from Ibn Abbas that the first person to offer prayers behind the Messenger of Allah was Ali (as).
Tabari also narrates from Jabir that the Prophet (s) was appointed to the prophetic mission on Monday and Ali prayed (behind the Prophet) on Tuesday. He quotes Zaid bin Arqam as having said: “The first person to believe in the Prophet was Ali bin Abi Talib.”
2. Ibn Athir quotes Zaid bin Arqam as having said: Ali was the first person to make the declaration of faith in Islam.
Also Afif Kendy says: I was a business man and while doing business I arrived in Makkah during Hajj season. I saw Abbas. Then I witnessed a man coming to Ka’ba and offering prayers near it. Then a lady arrived and stood behind him to offer prayers behind him. Thereafter a youngster came up and offered prayers with him. I asked Abbas, “What is this religion?”
Abbas replied: “This man is Muhammad bin Abdullah, my nephew and that lady is his wife and that young man is Ali bin Abi Talib who have embraced his religion.”
Then he added, “By Allah, no one on earth other than these three people knows what this religion is. Afif said I wish I was the fourth individual among them.”
3. Ahmad bin Hanbal says: “Waki’ from Shu’bah, he from Amr bin Mara, he from Abi Hamzah confederate of Ansar and he from Zaid bin Arqam said that Ali was the first person to believe in the Messenger of Allah.”
4. Tirmizi writes in his Sunan: “I heard Zaid bin Arqam say that the first person to embrace Islam was Ali.”
5. Ibn Sa’d writes in al-Tabaqat: “Waki’ bin Jarrah, Yazid bin Harun and Affan bin Muslim narrated from Shu’bah, he from Abi Hamzah, from Zaid bin Arqam that Ali was the first man in Islam to accept the faith.
This issue became so well-known among Sunni scholars that a group of them are unanimous on it. Haakim al-Neishabouri is among them. Qurtubi quotes Haakim as having said: There is no difference among Muslims about Ali bin Abi Talib being the first Muslim. The discrepancy exists whether or not he believed in the Prophet (s) during his adulthood.
Ibn Abdul Bir says in Isti’ab: This is a social issue and there is consensus that the first person who believed in the Messenger of Allah was Khadija followed by Ali.
Abu Ja’far Iskafi says: “All people have narrated Ali’s honor of being the foremost in accepting Islam.”
What was so far mentioned was quoted from Sunni textual and historical sources in this regard. As for Shia sources, we will suffice to mentioning some of what the author of Tafsir al-Burhan has narrated:
1. It has been stated in a sermon delivered by Imam Hasan Mujtaba (as) following his truce with Muawiyah: “My father was the first to respond to Allah and His Messenger. He was the first to believe in Allah and His Apostle (a.s).”
Ibn Shahr Ashub Mazandarani says: “As for narrations about Ali being the foremost in accepting Islam, there are lots of books written about it.
Imam Sadiq (a) says: “The verse ‘the foremost, the first…’ has been revealed about Ali and those who obeyed the Messenger of Allah from the Muhajirs (migrants) and the Ansars (Medinites)…for whom Paradise with flowing rivers has been assured and made an eternal abode. This is the very mighty great fortune (great success).”
In this section, we suffice to telling that there is no doubt that Imam Ali (as) was truly the first person to embrace Islam and believe in the Messenger of Allah. As for those who say that the first person who converted to Islam was Abu Bakr, their arguments have been rejected by Shia scholars. One of those scholars who have rejected their arguments is the author of Tafsir Namunah. He says: “What is interesting is that a group of Muslims who have not been able to deny Ali (as) being the first person to embrace Islam, is trying for one reason or another to deny this fact in a different way downplaying Ali’s being the first person to accept Islam while a few others are trying to introduce Abu Bakr as the first Muslim.
At times they say that Ali (as) was a ten years old and naturally immature boy. Therefore, his acceptance of the religion of Islam did not have any effect on Muslims’ power and awe against the enemy. This is indeed very stranger because it is an objection to the Prophet (s) in the first place as we know that when the Prophet (s) gathered his close relatives and tribesmen in his house for the first time to present Islam, no one accepted the religion except Ali (s) who stood up and made the declaration of faith. The Prophet (s) accepted his declaration and even said to him: You are my brother and my successor!
Secondly, as we mentioned, a person’s being at a young age does not decrease of something’s importance especially that the Quran says about Prophet John, "وَ آتَيْناهُ الْحُكْمَ صَبِيًّا" (and We granted him wisdom while yet a child) We also read in the Quran about Jesus (s) that he started speaking in his infanthood and told those who entertained doubt about him, "إِنِّي عَبْدُ اللَّهِ آتانِيَ الْكِتابَ وَ جَعَلَنِي نَبِيًّاً" (Surely I am a servant of Allah; He has given me the Book and made me a prophet).
Thirdly, it is not certain historically that Abu Bakr was the third person to accept Islam. In fact, there are reports in history and hadith books according to which other people accepted Islam before him. In addition, Ibn Abil Hadid quotes Abu Ja’far Iskafi, the famous Sunni (Mu’tazilite) scholar as having said: “The fact that some claim that Abu Bakr embraced Islam before others is not true. Had it been true, why did he himself not make any reference to it in this regard when he spoke of his excellence (fazilat)? Moreover, none of his supporters from the companions has made such a claim.”
The author of Kashful Murad has responded to this misgiving as such: “If it is argued that Ali bin Abi Talib’s acceptance of Islam had been before the age of puberty and such an acceptance is not acceptable, I would say in his response:
1. Ali was 65 or 66 when he was martyred whereas the Holy Prophet (s) lived for 23 years after he was appointed to prophethood. Ali lived for 30 years after the demise of the Prophet (s). Thus the conclusion is that Ali (as) was 12 to 13 years old when the Prophet (s) was appointed to the prophetic mission, and puberty at this age is possible. Therefore, Ali is the manifestation of the Prophet’s saying to his daughter Fatima (sa): “I have married you to the first Muslim and the most knowledgeable of men.”
2. Sometimes a child happens to become mentally mature; they attain mental maturity before they become physically adult in which case they are duty-bound to do the religious obligations. That is why Abu Hanifa considers children’s faith in Islam as valid. If so, this ruling implies a child’s perfection and adulthood.
There are a few points to be noted in this regard:
Firstly, children’s nature is such that they are attracted towards their parents’ love and affection. In this case, if a child distances himself from his parents and is attracted towards God, the Exalted, it is a sign of his mental maturity.
Secondly, children do not tend to like rational and divine obligations; rather their instincts are commensurate with entertainments and anything that amuses them. For this reason, if a child distances himself from things which are congruent with his nature and tendency and gets attracted to something which is opposed to his nature, it is by itself a sign of the child’s mental maturity and perfection. Conclusively, this is a reason to prove that Ali was the first and foremost in embracing Islam.
If we admit that verse 100 of chapter 9 (And (as for) the foremost, the first of the Muhajirs and the Ansars) was not revealed about Imam Ali (as) because the exegetes of the Holy Quran have mentioned several occasions for the revelation of the verses, then these multiple occasions for the revelation of this verse do not cause the verse not to be applied to the clearest and the most outstanding manifestation i.e. Imam Ali (as) especially keeping in view that Ahmad bin Hanbal narrates from Ibn Abbas, and Suyuti narrates in Al-Durr al-Manthur from Abu Na’eim, he from Ibn Abbas that the Holy Prophet (s) said: "There is no verse in the Quran in which there is the term 'Believers', unless Ali is at the top of them and the chief of them and the more virtuous one among them. Surely Allah has admonished the companions of Muhammad (s) in Quran, but He did not refer to Ali except with honor."
When it comes to the objection concerning the words in the verse being plural, we must say:
Firstly, assuming that the verse in question was not revealed about Ali (as), we can apply it to Ali (as) as a verse revealed broadly, not exclusively, about him because of him being the foremost in embracing Islam. Then there will be left no room for any objection.
Secondly, even if we assume that the verse was revealed about Imam Ali (as), again there will not be any room for any objection because:
1. There are many arguments and evidence which leave no room for any doubt.
2. The application of plural forms to one or two individuals is not something uncommon because there are many instances in the Quran and in Arabic and non-Arabic literature where a plural word or a plural structure has been used to refer to a single individual. For instance there is a verse in the Quran which says:
"الَّذينَ قالَ لَهُمُ النَّاسُ إِنَّ النَّاسَ قَدْ جَمَعُوا لَكُمْ فَاخْشَوْهُمْ فَزادَهُمْ إيماناً..."
“Those to whom the people said: Surely men have gathered against you, therefore fear them, but this increased their faith, and…”
According to the exegetes of the Holy Quran, the word “people” in this verse refers to Na’eim bin Masud because it was he who received money from Abu Sufyan to frighten Muslims of the greatness of the number of pagans. Also there is another verse which says:
"لَقَدْ سَمِعَ اللَّهُ قَوْلَ الَّذينَ قالُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ فَقيرٌ وَ نَحْنُ أَغْنِياءُ..."
“Allah has certainly heard the saying of those who said: Surely Allah is poor and we are rich…” According to most exegetes of the Holy Quran, the word “those” refers to Haye bin Akhtab or Fanhas.
Sometimes, a person is spoken of or addressed in plural to show respect and admiration as we see in the case of Ibrahim: "إِنَّ إِبْراهيمَ كانَ أُمَّةً قانِتا" “Lo! Abraham was a nation obedient to Allah.”
The word “nation” in this verse is a collective noun used to refer to Prophet Ibrahim. There is a similar verse in the Quran which says: "يَقُولُونَ لَئِنْ رَجَعْنا إِلَى الْمَدينَة" They say, "If we return to Medina, surely the more honorable (element) will expel therefrom the meaner." But honor belongs to Allah and His Messenger, and to the Believers; but the Hypocrites know not.”
Here in this verse also, the word “یقولون” (they say) is in plural and the exegetes of the Quran are unanimous that it refers to a hypocrite named Ibn Ubai.
There are many more such verses in the Quran in which the words have been used in plural but they refer to a single person. Please refer to Commentary books to find details.
 Makarem Shirazi, Naser, Tafsir Namunah, vol.8, p. 103, Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyah, Tehran, first edition 1374 (1995).
 Tabari, Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, popularly known Tarikh al-Tabari, vol.2, p. 310, researched by Muhammad Abul Fazl Ibrahim, Beirut, Dar al-Turath, second edition, 1387/ 1967.
 Ibn Athir, ‘Izzuddin Abul Hasan, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, vol.2, p. 57, Beirut, Dar Sader, 1385/1965.
 Ahmad bin Hanbal, Musnad, hadith 18478, cited from Al-Maktabah al-Shamilah Software.
 Tirmizi, Sunan, hadith 4100, cited from Al-Maktabah al-Shamilah Software.
 Ibn Sa’d, Muhammad bin Sa’d bin Mani’ al-Hashemi al-Basri, al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, vol.3, p. 15, researched by Muhammad Abdul Qadir Ataq, chapter (Islam, Ali and His Prayers), Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah, first edition, 1410/1990.
 See Mustadrak al-Sahihayn and Kitab al-Ma’refah.
 Qurtubi, Muhammad bin Ahmad, al-Jami Le-Ahkaam al-Quran, vol.8, p.235, Nasir Khosro, first edition, 1406 A.H.
 Ibn Abdul Bir, Abu Umar Yusuf bin Abdullah, al-Isti’ab fi Ma’refat Al-Ashab, vol.3, p. 1092, researched by Ali Muhammad Al-Bajawi, Beirut, Dar al-Jeil, first edition, 1412/1992.
 Tafsir Namunah, vol.8, p. 104.
 Bahrani, Sayyid Hashim, Al-Burhan fi Tafsir al-Quran, vol.2, p. 829, Be’that Institution, Tehran, first edition, 1416.
 Ibid, 833.
 Fakhr Razi has brought this in his Tafsir under the above verse.
 Maryam, 12.
 Maryam, 30.
 Tafsir Namunah, vol.8, p. 100 – 107 (with summarization and editing).
 Zahabi, Tarikh al-Islam, researched by Umar Abdul Salam, vol.3, p. 638, Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, Beirut, second edition 1413/ 1993.
 - Subhani, Ja’far, Sharh Kashf al-Murad, p. 223.
 Jalaluddin Suyuti, Al-Durr al-Manthur fi Tafsir al-Ma’thur, vol.1, p. 104, Ayatollah Mar’ashi Najafi Library, Qom; Balaghi Najafi, Muhammad Jawad, Aalaa al-Rahman fi Tafsir al-Quran, vol.1, p. 11, Be’that Institute, first edition, Qom, 1420 A.H.
 Aal-e Imran, 173.
 Aal-e Imran, 181.
 Ibrahim, 120.
 Tafsir Namunah, vol.2, p. 588.
 Al-Munafeqoon, 8.
 Vide: Sayyid Muhammad Al-Kazemi Al-Qazvini, Al-Rad Alaa Rad Al-Saqifa, vol.1, p. 269, edited and annotated by Muhammad Amin Board, Al-Amin Library and Center, Qom, second edition, 2002.