He was born in 1907 in Eğridere township (now Ardino in southern Bulgaria) of the Sanjak of Gümülcine (now Komotini in northern Greece), in the Ottoman Empire. His father was an Ottoman officer, Selahattin Ali, and his mother Husniye. His father's family was from Of in Black Sea region. He lived in Istanbul, Çanakkale and Edremit before he entered the Teacher School in Balıkesir. His elementary and middle school education was interrupted by WWI and had a very difficult childhood. Then he was transferred from Balikesir to the School of Education in Istanbul, where he graduated in 1926 with teacher's certificate. His various poems and short stories were published in school student paper. After serving as a teacher in Yozgat for one year, he earned a fellowship from the Ministry of National Education and studied in Potsdam, Germany from 1928 to 1930. When he returned to Turkey, he taught German language in high schools at Aydın and Konya.
While he was serving as a teacher in Konya, he was arrested for a poem he wrote criticizing Atatürk's policies, and accused of libelling two other journalists. Having served his sentence for several months in Konya and then in the Sinop Fortress Prison, he was released in 1933 in an amnesty granted to mark the 10th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Turkey. He then applied to the Ministry of National Education for permission to teach again. After proving his allegiance to Atatürk by writing the poem "Benim Aşkım" (literally: My Love or My Passion), he was assigned to the publications division at the Ministry of National Education. Sabahattin Ali married Aliye on May 16, 1935 and had a daughter, Filiz. He did his military service in 1936. He was called back to military service twice during WWII, like most Turkish adult males at the time. He was imprisoned again and released in 1944. He also owned and edited a popular weekly newspaper called "Marko Paşa" (pronounced "Marco Pasha"), together with Aziz Nesin.
Upon his release from prison, he suffered financial troubles. His application for a passport was denied. He was killed at the Bulgarian border, probably on 1 or 2 April 1948. His body was found on June 16, 1948. It is generally believed that he was killed by Ali Ertekin, a smuggler with connections to the National Security Service, who had been paid to help him pass the border. Another hypothesis is that Ertekin handed him over to the security services, and he was killed during interrogation. It is believed that he was ultimately killed by the Turkish Government because of his political opinions.
His short novel "Madonna in A Fur Coat" (1943) is considered one of the best novellas in Turkish literature. Ali’s works are an inseparable part of Turkish culture, used in songs, film scripts, theater plays etc. Its translations have recently hit the best sellers lists and has sold record number of copies in his country of birth.