|Birth and DemiseHistorians disagree a great deal about the year of his birth and even in determining the month as well, and they also disagree about determining the year and the month of his death. Their disagreements are not confined to the limit of a short span of time but they may be five years apart, and the disagreement is so confusing that it is very difficult to determine clearly such matters; however, we shall point out the statements recorded in this regard without favouring any of them due to the lack of purpose of such favouring which naturally requires research and investigation and a proof for selecting what seems to be the most accurate.
He was born in Medina on Friday, or Thursday, Zi-Qadah 11, or Zil-Hijjah, or Rabi’ul-Awwal, of the Hijri year 148 or the year 153. He died on Friday, or Monday, near the end of the month of Safar, or the 17th of Safar, or Ramzan 21, or Jamadi-al-Awwal 18, or Zil-Qadah 23, or the end of Zi-Qadah, of the year 202 or 203 or 206. In his ‘Uyoon Akhbar al-Rida, al-Saduq states: “What is accurate is that he died on the 13th of Ramadan, on a Friday, in the year 203.”
What is most likely is that his death took place in the year 203 as stated by al-Saduq. It is the same year in which al-Mamoon marched towards Iraq. To say that he died in 206 is not to agree with the truth because al-Mamoon marched towards Baghdad in the year 204, and the Imam died while he was heading in the same direction.
His early Life
Imam Ali ar-Riza(a.s.) lived in the care of his father for almost 35 years. He imbibed from his father his knowledge, morals and good manners. He was, thus, the most acknowledged scholar and the most qualified to be the leader and the guide of Muslims. He would later lead and feed the school of Ahl al-Bayt(a.s.) with knowledge and religious sciences.
Every Imam made public the name of the Imam who would succeed him so that Muslims would know and follow him, ask him about what they did not know from the shari’ah and Islamic sciences, and receive his guidelines and teachings. Imam Musa Kazim(a.s.), accordingly, explained the position of his son Imam Ali ar-Riza(a.s.), emphasizing that he was the inheritor of his office, the trustee of his school and the Imam to whom Muslims should refer after him. Imam Musa al-Kazim(a.s.) was well aware of the aggressive designs of the government in power against the Imamate and therefore, during his lifetime he declared Imam al-Riza(a.s.) as his successor in the presence of 171 prominent religious men and called upon his sons and his family to submit to him and refer to him in all matters after him. He also left behind a written document declaring the succession of Imam ar-Ridha duly signed and endorsed. by not less than 16 prominent persons. All these necessary steps were taken by the great Imam to avoid any confusion that may have arisen after his death.
Period of Imamate and conditions
The period of his imamate coincided with the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and then his sons Amin and Ma’mun. After the death of his father, Ma’mun fell into conflict with his brother Amin which led to bloody wars and finally the assassination of Amin, after which Ma’mun became the caliph. Until that day the policy of the Abbasid caliphate toward the Shi’ites had been increasingly harsh and cruel. Every once in a while one of the supporters of Imam Ali(a.s.) (alawis) would revolt, causing blood wars and rebelions which were of great difficulty and consequence for the caliphate
The Shi’ite Imams would not cooperate with those who carried out the these rebellions and would not interfere with their affairs. The Shi’ites of that day, who comprised a considerable population, continued to consider the Imams as their religious leaders to whom obedience was obligatory and believed in them as the real caliphs of the Holy Prophet(pbuh&hf). They considered the caliphate to be far from the sacred authority of their Imams, for the caliphate had come to seem more like the courts of the Persian kings and Roman emperors and was being run by a group of people more interested in worldly rule than in the strict application of religious principles. The continuation of such a situation was dangerous for the structure of the caliphate and was a serious threat to it.
Government’s Attitude Towards the Imam
The attitude of the then rulers towards Imam al-Rida(a.s.) and the other Imams may provide us with a clear view of the distinctions which raised their personalities to the zenith. And it is essential to explain the phenomenon of the government’s attitude towards them which manifested itself in the surveillance imposed upon them rather than upon other distinguished dignitaries or chiefs of the Alawides, monitoring their movements and counting their steps in all their social and personal encounters. What we can mention here to explain this phenomenon are the following reasons:
1) The belief of a large number of Muslims in their Imamate and in their being the most worthy of the caliphate, and their conviction that all other caliphs are considered usurpers of authority, trespassers upon the rights ordained by God to others. This is why the politicians of the time considered them their competitors whose mere presence increased the dangers surrounding them and jeopardized the security of the very existence of their government structure.
2) Their being the magnet which attracted leading scholars and thinkers who shrank in their presence despite their intellectual advancement and distinction in the fields of the arts and knowledge and despite their genius and intellectual prowess. This caused the caliphs to feel a stronger animosity towards them and be more grudgeful towards them due to the public fascination by them and to their attempts to be close to them and to being emotionally distant from the center of the government.
3) Their being the better alternative from the public’s political standpoint to take charge of the responsibilities of government, bear its burdens, carry out its obligations and doing all of that most efficiently. This frightened the rulers and made the obscure future seem to their eyes even more so.
4) The vicious incitements about them by their opponents who bore animosity towards them and who wished thereby their elimination, and the tell-tales of even some of their own kin whose judgement was blinded by jealousy, so they kept fabricating stories and attributing them to those Imams and telling them to the rulers who were pleased to hear them since they became outlets to the grudge they felt towards those Imams and, at the same time, found in them the pretexts for annihilating and harassing them and in the end a justification to put an end to their lives and rid themselves of the complex they were suffering from due to their existence.
By these and by others can we explain the phenomenon of the rulers pursuing them and desperately trying to alienate them from the stage of events affecting the nation in order to secure a distance from the ghost of competition which could haunt them had they permitted the Imams to do as they pleased. Thus can we understand the general characteristics of the significant distinctions the personalities of those Imams enjoyed in all sectors of the society in its various centers of activity and in its various aspirations; otherwise, how do you explain this phenomenon, and why should those rulers pay the Imams so much attention?
He inherited the knowledge of his grandfather the Messenger of Allah(pbuh&hf), thus becoming its pioneering fountainhead that quenched the thirst of those who were thirsty for knowledge. History narrates a great deal of his scholarly stances and intellectual discourses in which he achieved victory over those who opposed the Divine Message, excelling in various branches of scholarship with which he provided the seekers of knowledge and the thinkers of the time.
Ibrahim ibn al-Abbas al-Suli is reported to have said: “I never saw al-Riza(a.s.) unable to provide the answer to any question he received, nor have I ever seen any contemporary of his more learned than he was. Al-Mamoon used to put him to test by asking him about almost everything, and he always provided him with the answer, and his answer and example was always derived from the Holy Qur’an.”
Rajaa ibn Abul-Dahhak, who was commissioned by al-Mamoon to escort Imam Riza(a.s.) to his court, said: “By God! I never saw anyone more pious than him nor more often remembering God at all times nor more fearful of God, the Exalted. People approached him whenever they knew he was present in their area, asking him questions regarding their faith and its aspects, and he would answer them and narrate a great deal of hadith from his father who quoted his forefathers till Ali(a.s.) who quoted the Messenger of Allah(pbuh&hf). When I arrived at al-Mamoon’s court, the latter asked me about his behaviour during the trip and I told him what I observed about him during the night and during the day, while riding and while halting; so, he said: `Yes, O son of al-Dahhak! This is the best man on the face of earth, the most learned, and the most pious.'”
Al-Hakim is quoted in Tarikh Nishapur as saying that the Imam(a.s.) used to issue religious verdicts when he was a little more then twenty years old. In Ibn Maja’s Sunan, in the chapter on “Summary Of Cultivating Perfection,” he is described as “the master of Banu Hashim, and al-Mamoon used to hold him in high esteem and surround him with utmost respect, and he even made him his successor and secured the oath of allegiance for him.”
Al-Mamoon said this once in response to Banu Hashim: “As regarding your reaction to the selection by al-Mamoon of Abul-Hassan al-Riza(a.s.) as his successor, be reminded that al-Mamoon did not make such a selection except upon being fully aware of its implications, knowing that there is no one on the face of earth who is more distinguished, more virtuous, more pious, more ascetic, more acceptable to the elite as well as to the commoners, or more God-fearing, than he (al-Riza,a.s.) is.”
Abul-Salt al-Harawi is quoted saying: “I never saw anyone more knowledgeable than Ali ibn Mousa al-Riza(a.s.). Every scholar who met him admitted the same. Al-Mamoon gathered once a large number of theologians, jurists and orators and he (al-Rida, A.S.) surpassed each and every one of them in his own respective branch of knowledge, so much so that the loser admitted his loss and the superiority of the winner over him.”
He is also quoted saying: “I have heard Ali ibn Mousa al-Riza(a.s.) saying, `I used to take my place at the theological center and the number of the learned scholars at Medina was quite large, yet when a question over-taxed the mind of one of those scholars, he and the rest would point at me, and they would send me their queries, and I would answer them all.”
Al-Manaqib records the following: “When people disputed regarding Abul-Hassan al-Riza(a.s.), Muhammad ibn ‘Isa al-Yaqtini said, `I have collected as many as eighteen thousand of his answers to questions put forth to him.’ A group of critics, including Abu Bakr the orator in his Tarikh and al-Tha’labi in his tafsir and al-Sam’ani in his dissertation and in al-Mu’tazz in his work, in addition to others, have all quoted hadith from him.”
We do not need the testimony of anyone to convince us of the distinction enjoyed by Imam al-Riza(a.s.) due to his knowledge over all others. Suffices us to review the books of hadith which are filled with his statements and dictation in various arts which every individual, regardless of the loftiness of his degree of knowledge, became dwarfed upon meeting him, feeling his inferiority and the superiority of Imam al-Riza(a.s.).
Ma’mun’s Problem and tactics
Ma’mun thought of finding a new solution for the rapid growth of Shiaism and revolt of the Alawis which the seventy-year old policy of his Abbasid predecessors had not been able to solve. To accomplish this end he thought of choosing the eighth Imam as his successor, hoping in this way to overcome two difficulties: first of all to prevent the descendants of the Prophet(pbuh&hf) from rebelling against the government since they would be involved in the government themselves, and secondly, to cause the people to lose their spiritual belief and inner attachment to the Imams. This would be accomplished by having the Imams become engrossed in wordly matters and the politics of the caliphate itself, which had always been considered by the Shi’ites to be evil and impure. In this way their religious organization would crumble and they would no longer present any dangers to the caliphate. Obviously, after accomplishing these ends, the removal of the Imam would present no difficulties to the Abbasid.
Al-Ma’mun was also conscious of the fact that he would not survive for long if he also did not express his loyalty to the great leader and his intelligence department had made it clear to him that the Iranian people were truly and sincerely loyal to the Imam(a.s.) and he could only win them over if he also pretended to give respect and sympathetic consideration to Imam al-Riza(a.s.). AI-Ma’mun was a very shrewd person. He made a plan to invite Imam al-Riza(a.s.) and to offer him the heirship to the throne. The Imam(a.s.) was summoned by a royal decree and was compelled, under the circumstances, to leave Medina where he was living a quiet life and present himself at the royal court of al-Ma ‘mun.
On his arrival, al-Ma’mun showed him hospitality and great respect, then he said to him: “I want to get rid of myself of the caliphate and vest the office in you.” But Imam al-Riza(a.s.) refused his offer. Then al-Ma’mun repeated his offer in a letter saying: “lf you refuse what I have offered you, then you must accept being the heir after me.” But again Imam al-Riza(a.s.) refused his offer vigorously. Al-Ma’mun summoned him. He was alone with al-Fadhl ibn Sahl, the man with two offices (i.e., military and civil). There was no one else in their gathering. Al-Ma’mun said to Imam al-Riza(a.s.), “I thought it appropriate to invest authority over the Muslims in you and to relieve myself of the responsibility by giving it to you.” When again Imam al-Riza(a.s.) refused to accept his offer, al-Ma’mun spoke to him as if threatening him for his refusal. In his speech he said, “Umar ibn al-khattab made a committee of consultation (shura) to appoint a successor. Among them was your forefather, the Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. (Omar) stipulated that any of them who opposed the decision should be executed. So there is no escape for you from accepting what I want from you. I will ignore your rejection of it.”
In reply, Imam al-Riza(a.s.) said: “I will agree to what you want of me as far as succession is concerned on condition that I do not command, nor order, not give legal decisions, nor judge, nor appoint, nor dismiss, nor change anything from how it is at present.” al-Ma’mun accepted all of that. This event occurred in 200 AH/814 AD.
On the day when al-Ma’mun ordered to make the pledge of allegiance to al-Redha, one of the close associates of al-Redha, who was present, narrates, “On that day I was in front of him. He looked at me while I was feeling happy about what had happened. He signalled me to come closer. I went closer to him and he said so that no one else could hear, Do not occupy your heart with this matter and do not be happy about it. It is something which will not be achieved. Quoting al-Allamah ash-Shibli from his book al-Ma’mun, we get a very clear picture of how al-Ma’mun decided to offer his leadership to Imam al-Redha (a.s.)
Even after the declaration of succession when there was every opportunity for the Imam to live a splendid worldly royal life, he did not pay any heed to material comforts and devoted himself completely to imparting the true Islamic conception of the Prophet’s teachings and the Holy Qur’an. He spent most of his time praying to God and serving the people.
Taking full advantage of the concessions given to him by virtue of his elevated position in the royal court, he organized the majalis (meetings) commemorating the martyrdom of the martyrs of Karbala. These majalis were first held during the days of Imam Muhammad Baqir(a.s.) and Imam Jafar Sadiq(a.s.), but Imam al-Riza(a.s.) gave the majalis a new impetus by encouraging those poets who wrote effective poems depicting the moral aspects of the tragedy and the suffering of Imam Hussain(a.s.) and his companions.
decided once and for all to check his growing popularity . , he was buried in Tus (Mashhad) and his Grand Shrine speaks well for the great personality the Imam possessed. Millions of Muslims visit his Shrine every year to pay their homage to this Imam.
Soon Ma’mun realized that he had committed an error, for there was a rapid spread of Shi’ism a growth in the attachment of the populace to the Imam(a.s.) and an astounding reception given to the Imam by the people and even by the army and government agents. Al-Ma ‘mun had been very scared of the growing popularity of the Imam and he had appointed him as his heir to the throne only for the fulfilment of his own most ambitious and sinister designs and getting the Imam’s endorsement to his tricky plans. But the Imam(a.s.) naturally refused to give his endorsement to any such plans which were against the teaching of Islam.
Ma’mun sought to find a remedy for this difficulty and to ensure his own survival by acting according to the old traditions of killing the Imam. Wanting to do it in a more subtle manner, he invited the Imam to dinner, and fed him poisoned grapes. The Imam died on 23rd Zi-Qadah 2O3 AH. After his death the Imam(a.s.) was buried in the city of Tus in Iran, which is now called Mashhad.