Alī ibn Mūsā al-Riḍā (PBUH), the eighths Imam of Shias, is the progeny of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his eighth successor. At the age of 35, he became responsible as the leader of the Islamic Shia union. His life was contemporary to the Abbasid reign and therefore, he suffered great difficulties made by the Abbasids. Finally, he was martyred by Ma’mun (his contemporary Abbasid Caliph) at the age of 55. In what follows, we briefly review some aspects of this holy Imam’s life.
His name, title and honorary name:
His name is Ali, his title is Abu al-Hassan, and his most famous honorary name is Reza, meaning Satisfaction. According to his son, Imam Muhammad Taqi (PBUH), the ninth Imam,
“the glorious and mighty Lord named him Reza because Allah was pleased with him in the heavens and the Prophet of Allah and the pure Imams were pleased with him on the earth and were happy with his leadership. Also, his friends and relatives and even his enemies were pleased with him because of his great moral characteristics”.
One of his famous titles is A’lim Al Muhammad ]The Knowledgeable of Prophet’s progeny[. This title shows the manifestation of knowledge and science in him. His success in different debates with his contemporary scientists, especially the scholars of various religions is a proof of such a fact. We will discuss some parts of these debates in “Scientific Aspect of Imam Reaz’s Character” later in this article. This ability and superiority in knowledge is a proof for his Imamat . As it can be inferred clearly from his sayings in these disputations, this knowledge and those sciences only can come from a resource belonging to revelation and inspiration.
His father and mother
His father was Imam Mousa al-Kazim (PBUH), the seventh Imam of Shia union, who was martyred by Harūn, the Abbasid caliph, in 138 A.H. His mother was Najmah.
Imam Reza (PBUH) was born in 148 A.H. on the 11th of Ziqadah in Medina. It is narrated from his mother that, “When I was pregnant, I didn’t feel overweighed. When I was asleep, I heard the sound of praising Allah and the word of “La Ilaha Illa Allah” from my womb, but when I got up, I heard nothing. When my baby was born, he put his hands on the floor and raised his head up and moved his lips, as he was saying something”.
Similar happenings have been narrated for other Imams or prophets, such as Jesus Christ, who, according to Quran, by will of God, talked to people, though being just an infant in a cradle.
Imam’s life in Medina
Before traveling to Merv, Imam Reza (PBUH) lived in Medina, a city where the shrine of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was located and his fathers rested in peace. He was occupied with guiding people and explaining Islamic educations and Prophet’s Sirah ]Manner and behavior[. People of Medina loved him and assumed him as their kind father. Although he had spent most of his life in Medina, he had many obedient followers throughout the Islamic territory.
He points out this fact on a discussion about becoming the crown prince with Ma’mun: “In fact becoming the crown prince is not a privilege for me. When I was in Medina, people both in the east and the west obeyed me, there was no one as respected as me living in Medina and nobody was superior to me. People always told me their needs and I granted their requests and they treated me as their noble man.”
His Imamate and succession was announced repeatedly by his father, grandfathers, and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Especially, Imam Kazem (PBUH) mentioned him as the Imam after himself several times. Some examples are as follows:
One of his followers narrates, “One day Imam Kazem (PBUH) came to us, holding his son’s (Ali) hand. We were 60 people. He said, ‘Do you know me?’ I replied, ‘You are our master and leader’ he said, ‘Say my name and title’ I said, ‘You are Mousa the son of Jafar, son of Muhammad’ he said, and ‘Who is this with me?’ I replied, ‘Ali, the son of Mousa, son of Jafar’. He said, ‘So, bear witness that he is my representative during my life and my successor after my death’”. He is further introduced as the eighth Imam in a saying by Prophet (PBUH) narrated by Jaber. Also, Imam Sadegh (PBUH) has repeatedly told Imam Kazem (PBUH) that, “the knowledgeable of Prophet’s (PBUH) progeny is your son and he is your successor”.
The Political Situation:
Imam Reza’s Imamate lasted eight years, which can be divided into three periods:
1-The first ten years, he was contemporary to Harun’s caliphate.
2-The next five years, he was contemporary to Amin’s caliphate.
3-The last five years, he was contemporary to Ma’mun’s caliphate and his ruling over the Islamic territory.
It was during the first period that the sad story of martyrdom of Imam Kazem (PBUH) and other sorrowful disasters occurred to the Alawid people (the children of Imam Ali (PBUH)). Harun was incited to kill Imam Reza (PBUH) and finally he made the decision to kill him but did not find the opportunity. After Harun, his son, Amin became the caliph. At that period, the government was weakened because of Harun’s death. Amin was drowned in corruption, so he and his governors paid no attention to Imam and his followers. Therefore, this period was peaceful for Imam and his followers.
Finally, Ma’mun killed his brother, Amin, and became the caliph. He suppressed the rebellions and gained the control of all the Islamic territory. He gave the leadership of Iraq to one of his agents and himself settled in Merv. He then chose Fazl ibn al-Sahl, who was an experienced politician, as his minister and counselor. But the Alawid people were a threat to his government. After suffering torture, murder and plunder for a century, they had found the opportunity of division in government: any chance they got, secretly or openly, they opposed Ma’mun and wished to overthrow Abbasid government. In addition, they were successful in attracting general public opinion and gaining Muslims’ support. That was why whenever Alawid people rose in revolt against Abbasid dynasty, lots of people from any social class answered their call because people, especially Shias, had suffered great losses and painful tortures from the Abbasid Caliphate.
Therefore, Ma’mun decided not to confront them, especially considering that he had decided to handle challenges and crises which weakened his government and his aim to bring back peace and security to strengthen it. So, after consulting Fazl, his minister, he came up with a treacherous plan. He decided to offer the position of caliph to Imam Reza (PBUH) and withdraw himself in favor of Imam. Because he knew that whether Imam accepted it or not, it would still be a victory for Ma’mun and Abbasid regime. If Imam accepted, and became Caliph, inevitably Ma’mun was to be the crown prince (according to the condition he intended to add) and this would assure groups and sects about the legitimacy of Ma’mun’s government after Imam. This is evident that it was then easier for Ma’mun as the vice-caliph to eliminate Imam Reza (PBUH) secretly to reach power again, legally and lawfully ]this time[. In this case, the Shias would be happy with his government and considered his caliphate to be legitimate and accepted him as Imam’s successor. On the other hand, because people would consider his government confirmed by Imam, the risings made against his government would lose their charisma and legitimacy.
It was in his mind that if Imam did not accept the caliphate, he would then oblige Imam to be his crown prince to justify the legitimacy of his government among people and Shias and therefore through this, he could weaken the philosophy of protests and rebellions for cruelty and usurping the caliphate by Abbasids, and these movements would not please people and followers of Imam anymore. On the other hand, he could make Imam settle near himself to control Imam and his followers and to suppress their movements. In addition, Imam Reza’s (PBUH) Shias and his followers would challenge and criticize him for not accepting the caliphate and he would lose his respect among them.
The Journey to Khorasan
To accomplish his mentioned goals, Ma’mun sent some of his special agents to Imam Reza (PBUH) in Medina to force him to set on a journey to Khorasan. He also ordered to take Imam Reza (PBUH) through a path that has the least number of Shias to face on his way. The main roads in those days were the roads to Kufa, Jabal, Kermanshah, and Qom, which were all mainly Shia cities and their power centers. It seemed probable to Ma’mun that Shias may get excited when they saw Imam and would prevent him to continue his journey and to stay with them instead, something that could make more problems for his government. To prevent these problems, Ma’mun made Imam Reza (PBUH) travel through the path of Basra, Ahvaz, and Fars to Merv. His agents also watched Imam all the time and reported to Ma’mun all his activities.
The Selselah al-Zahab (The Golden Chain) Tradition
Wherever he stopped, during his journey towards Merv, Imam caused many blessings upon the people of that region. At one point on his way, when he entered the city of Nishapur riding on a camel back passed through the city. A large crowd of people who have heard of his coming gathered to welcome his entrance. Meanwhile two scholars who had recorded many prophetic traditions came with scholars of Hadith, took the halter of the camel, and said, “You, the great Imam and you, the son of great Imams, for the sake of your innocent fathers and your great grandfathers, show us your shining face and narrate us a tradition from your fathers and your great grandfather, the messenger of Allah, so that it will remain as a memorial to us”. Imam ordered to stop. Once they saw his blessed face, they became so happy that some of them excitedly started crying and some who were close to him kissed his carriage. A big clamor was made throughout the city so, the elders of the city wanted people to be quiet so that everyone could hear a tradition from Imam Reza (PBUH). After a while, the crowd got silent and Imam dictated this tradition word by word from his honored father which was narrated from his pure grandfathers and from the messenger of Allah (PBUH) and from Gabriel and from Almighty Allah that, “The word of La Ilaha Illa al-Allah is my fortress then whoever says this has entered my fortress and whoever enters my fortress will be saved from my punishment”. Imam then said, “But on some conditions and I am one of its conditions.”
This tradition indicates that one of the conditions of confessing the word of La Ilaha Illa al-Allah which is to strengthen the principle of divine unity in Islam, is confirming his Imamat, obeying, and accepting his words and deeds that has been specified by the Almighty Allah. In fact, Imam believes the Oneness of God (Towhid) as a condition of being safe from Allah’s punishment and the acceptance of Leadership and Mastership (Imamat and Wilayat) as the condition of believing in Oneness of Allah.
Succession to the Caliphate:
When Imam Reza (PBUH) entered Merv, Ma’mun welcomed him royally and publicly through a speech in front of all the key characters of government and said, “All should know that I do not know anyone better and more deserving on succession to the caliphate than Alī ibn Mūsā al-Riḍā in the family of Abbas or Ali (PBUH)”. After that, he turned his face to Imam and said, “I have decided to dethrone myself and announce you as the Caliph”. Imam Reza (PBUH) said, “If Allah has specified Caliphate for you then it is not permitted to give it to another person and if it is not yours then you do not have the authority to give it to another person”. Ma’mun insisted on what he wanted and urged him to accept, but Imam said, “Never, will I accept that”. When Ma’mun got disappointed, he told Imam, “Then accept to be the successor of me and the Caliph after me”. The insistence of Ma’mun on his demand and Imam Reza’s (PBUH) refusal lasted for two months. He did not accept and said, “I have heard from my fathers that I will die before you and will be martyred with poison and angles of the earth and heavens will cry for me and I will be buried in foreign lands beside Harun al-Rashid”. But Ma’mun insisted on succession of Imam Reza (PBUH) in such way that, in a secret and private meeting, he threatened Imam to death. Thus Imam said, “Now, since I am obliged, I accept it but on the condition that I do not appoint or depose anyone and do not change any custom or rule and not get involved in governmental affairs”. Ma’mun had no choice but to accept this condition. After that, Imam raised his hands and said, “O, my Lord, you know that they obliged me under duress and I chose it by force. So please do not reprove me just as your two prophets, Joseph and Daniel, when they accepted the position of the kings’ authority of their times. O! My Lord, there is no vow except yours and no Mastership except of yours. So please help me to establish your religion and to follow your prophet’s custom. Indeed, what a good master and a good supporter you are!”
The Scientific Aspect of Imam
When Ma’mun saw great eagerness and enthusiasm of people towards Imam, he decided to weaken Imam’s sacred and respectful position. One of his plans to discredit Imam was through holding debates between Imam and scholars of different sciences from all over the world. He was hoping that maybe the scholars would be able to win the debates and defeat Imam in science and would challenge his scientific knowledge. One of the debates went as follows:
Ma’mun ordered Fazl ibn Sahl to invite all the philosophy and theology scholars from all over the world to debate with Imam. Fazl then, invited the Christian bishop scholars, the learned of Jewish scholars, headmasters of Sabean (followers of the prophet John), the great Zoroastrian priests, and other theologians of that time. Ma’mun received them well and asked them to debate with his cousin (Ma’mun was of descendants of Abbas, the Prophet’s (PBUH) uncle, and so Imam’s cousin) who has come there from Medina to be with him. Tomorrow morning, Ma’mun held a glorious ceremony and sent a man to Imam Reza (PBUH) to invite him to that ceremony. Imam accepted his invitation and told him, “Do you want to know when Ma’mun will regret his decision?” “When? My dear Sir”, he replied. Imam said, “When Ma’mun hears my reasons for disproving Jewish from Torah itself, Christians from Bible itself, followers of David from Psalms of David itself, Sabeans in their own language, Fire-worshipers in Persian, and Romans in their own language and sees that I disapprove each of them and they leave aside their beliefs and believe in my words. At that time Ma’mun will recognize that he is not able to do what he wants and will regret. And there is no power but in Allah the High, the Great”. Then Imam went to the Ma’mun’s ceremony. By his entrance, Ma’mun introduced him to the people there and then said, “I want you to debate with him”. Imam Reza (PBUH), discussed with them about their faith and religion through their own books. Then he said, “If there is someone amongst you who is against Islam can ask me without shame”. Umran Sa’ebi, who was one of the theologians, asked Imam many questions and Imam answered him all of them one by one and convinced him. After hearing all of the answers to his questions from Imam, Umran Sa’ebi recited the testimony (Shahadatain) and converted to Islam. The ceremony ended with Imam’s victory and superiority and the crowd scattered. The day after, Imam asked to see Umran Sa’ebi and honored him very much. Since then he became one of the missionaries of Islam.
Raja ibn Zahak, who was responsible to move Imam from Medina towards Merv by Ma’mun’s order, said, “Every city he entered, people came to him from everywhere and asked him their religious questions. In turn, he answered them their questions and quoted many traditions from prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Imam Ali (PBUH). When I came back from that journey, I went to Ma’mun. He asked me about Imam’s behavior during the journey and I told him whatever I saw during the journey. Ma’mun said, “Yes, son of Zahak! He is the best, the most knower and the most pious person on the earth”.
Imam’s Manner and Behavior
His moral virtues and piety was such that he even attracted and captivated his enemies besides his friends. He treated people with courtesy, respect and kindness as much as possible and never separated himself from people.
One of his companions said, “I never remember him talking badly to anyone and interrupt someone while speaking. If he afforded to help, he would never reject any poor and never stretched his legs in front of other people. I never remember him talking badly to his servants. He always smiled instead of laughing out loudly. While having a meal, he invited all the people in the house to have the meal with him, even the janitor and the groom, and they all ate with him. He slept a little at nights and was used to staying up and saying prayers during almost all nights. He used to fast a lot. He always performed three fasts in a month. He spent out in charity a lot and helped the poor secretly in the dark nights”.
One of his other companions says, “His carpet was a mat in summer and a sackcloth in winter. He wore rough and coarse clothes at home, but he decorated himself in public meetings. (He wore nice and common clothes)”.
One night while Imam was talking to his guest, there was a problem with the light. The guest wanted to fix it, but Imam did not let him to do so. He fixed it himself and said, ‘We are the ones who do not put our guests to work”.
A man told Imam, “By Allah, I swear that no one on the earth equals your ancestors in superiority and nobleness.’ Imam said, “Taqwa gave them nobleness and obedience to Allah gave them superiority”.
A man from Balkh says, “I accompanied Imam Reza (PBUH) during the travel to Khorasan. One day while having a meal Imam invited all the servants including the Blacks to have meal with him. I told Imam, “It is better they (the Blacks) sit somewhere else. Imam said, “Be quiet! The creator of everyone is the same. The father and mother of all are the same and reward is according to deeds.”
The servant of Imam, Yaser, said, “Imam Reza (PBUH) had told us that if he were above our heads (and ordered us to do something) and we were having a meal, not to stand up till we finish it. Therefore it frequently happened that Imam called upon us for a work, and he was responded that he (the servant) was busy having a meal; then Imam would say, “Let him finish his food”.
One day, a stranger came to visit Imam Reza (PBUH). He said hello and continued, “I love you and your fathers and ancestors. I have come back from Hajj and have run out of money. If it is possible give me some money so that I could go back to my hometown. I promise to spend the same amount there as Sadaghah , for, I am not poor in my city, and I am just in need in this journey. Imam stood up and went to another room. Then he, from behind the curtain, reached the man and said, “Get this 200 Dinars and spend it for your travel, there is no need to pay the same as Sadaghah in my name”. The man got the Dinars and went. Imam was asked for the reason of his secret help, he answered, “I did so, in order not to see the shame of need in his face”.
Our infallible and honorable Imams were not content in educating and guiding their followers only through speeches but also especially cared and considered their deeds and behavior.
One of Imam’s companions said, “One day, I accompanied Imam to his house. There, his servants were busy repairing the house. Imam saw a stranger among them and asked about him. They answered, “He helps us and we pay him”. Imam asked, “Have you defined the amount of payment?” They answered, “No, but he accepts whatever we pay him”. Imam was disturbed and told me, “I have told them many times that before you bring anyone, define the amount of payment and sign a contract. The one, who works without any contract and defined payment, thinks that you have paid him less, even if you give him three times more. But if you make a deal and pay him according to the contract, he will be pleased with receiving his right. Now, if you pay more even just a little, he will understand you have paid more and will be grateful to you”.
Imam’s servant said, “One day, his servants were eating fruits. They ate some and throw out the rest. Imam Reza (PBUH) told them:” Subhanallah! If you do not need it, give it to someone who needs it more”.
A Little from Imam’s Wise Words
Imam said, “The friend of everyone is his wisdom and the enemy of everyone is his ignorance, lack of knowledge, and stupidity.”
Imam said, “Science and knowledge are like treasures, and the key to them is question, so ask and Allah may bless you, because by this question four groups benefit: 1.The questioner 2.The teacher 3.The listener 4.The answerer”.
Imam said, “Liking people and friendship is half of wisdom”.
Imam said, “There is a piece of advice in everything your eyes see”.
Imam said, “Cleanliness and neatness are the virtues of the prophets”.
It has been narrated that, Ma’mun had told one of his servants not to cut his nails, and ordered him to smear his nails with poison, then peel and prepare a pomegranate with his poisoned hands. The servant obeyed his master and prepared the pomegranate. Ma’mun offered the poisonous pomegranate to Imam to eat. Imam rejected, Ma’mun insisted and threatened Imam that he would kill him if he didn’t eat. Imam ate some pomegranate under this obligation. After a few hours, the poison affected Imam’s body and he became sick. Next day morning (The 29th of Safar , 203 A.H.), Imam Reza (PBUH) was martyred.
By divine will and power, Imam’s son, Imam Jawad (PBUH) washed his father’s body and said prayer for him, but not publicly known. Imam’s body was buried in Mashhad with in the company of many of his Shias and followers and it is for centuries that Imam Reza’s (PBUH) holy shrine is the cause of blessing and honor for Iranians.