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Imam Rida in the Words of the Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei

Despite availability of thousands of books, old and new, on the life of the Imams, still most of their life is obscure and little known to the people.

Imam Rida (p.b.u.h), the captain of the ship of Islam in the Turbulent Marv (Khorasan) Note: In a message issued to the First International Congress on Imam Rida (p.b.u.h), held at Razavi Islamic University in Mashhad, the Supreme Leader of Iran described one of the most important political periods in the life of the Imam, as follows:

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent the Merciful

Arranging a congress on the life of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) in Mashhad, where his holy shrine is located, and at his birth anniversary is a new step in shedding light on the life of our infallible Imams so that people become more acquainted with the epic as well as difficult life of these great figures. Regrettably, the life of the infallible Imams has not been studied and scrutinized even by the Shi’a Muslims, let alone other people.

Despite availability of thousands of books, old and new, on the life of the Imams, still most of their life is obscure and little known to the people. This problem is more serious about their political life which encompasses about 250 years of one of the most significant periods of Islamic history; a period ignored due to bias, indifference or misunderstanding of researchers and/or authors. This is why we are deprived of a detailed record of the ups and downs of their life.

The life of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) (the eighth Imam) comprises about 20 years of this important, determining era and is one of the most significant periods that is worth investigation and contemplation. The most important point in the Imams’ life which has been mostly ignored is “their intense political campaign”. In the second half of the first century A.H., when the Islamic caliphate and Imamate was nearly replaced by an imperial tyranny, the Shi’ite Imams intensified their political campaign according to the requirements of the new situation.

The main goal of their campaign was to establish an Islamic government and state based on Imamate. Definitely a significant goal of their campaign was to interpret Islam according to the viewpoints and doctrines of the Prophet’s household and removing distortions and misunderstandings about Islamic teachings. Nonetheless, undeniable proofs bear out that the ultimate reason for this campaign was to establish a divine and just Islamic government; hence, the difficulties and pains that the Imams and their followers endured. The Imams had set the goal since the time of Imam Sajjad (the fourth Imam) and after the Ashura disaster in 61 A.H.

From Ashura up to Imam Rida (p.b.u.h)’s acceptance to become the successor of Ma’mun spans about 140 years during which followers of the Imams, i.e. the Shiites, were always the biggest and the most dangerous enemies of caliphs and their fellowship. Throughout this period, the Shiites’ campaign, which can be called the Alavid Movement (pertaining to Imam Ali, the first Imam), came close to great victories.

But there were always obstacles on the way to final victory and mostly it was the axis of the movement, the Imam, who received the greatest blow. Martyring or imprisoning Imam was the solution adopted by caliphs in different eras. Moreover, restrictions were made and pressures were exerted by the caliphs on the Imams; therefore it took a long time for the next Imam to prepare the necessary grounds for achieving the goal.

It was the Imams who guided with courage and intelligence, through the rough and dangerous conditions, the Shiites as a small but deep-rooted and resistant group to attain their goal. The Ummayad and the Abbasid caliphs were never able to put an end to Imamate by martyring an Imam. The imamate continually worked as a sword thrust in the side of the caliphate, threatening them constantly.

When Harun, the Abbasid caliph, poisoned and martyred Imam Musa Ja’far (the seventh Imam) after a long period of imprisonment, there was a widespread repression all over the Abbasid territory. In the horrible situation that, as a follower of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) reports, “Harun was constantly thirsty for blood”, the leadership capacity of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) was manifested in his dexterity to save the Shi’a school of thought amid the stormy conditions of the time, keep the Shiites united and confident, save his own invaluable life that was the axis and soul of the Shiites, by precaution (al-Taqqiyah), continue the deep struggle of the school of Imamate during the reign of the most powerful Abbasid caliphs; hence, continuation of the political campaign of the Shiites. History has failed to provide us with a fair and crystal-clear account of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h)’s life during a decade of Harun’s reign and then the 5-year civil wars between Baghdad and Khorasan.

But one may infer that Imam Rida (p.b.u.h), like his predecessors, continued the same campaign that commenced after the Ashura event with the same direction and goal. Having won the war against his brother, Amin, and become the unrivalled caliph in 198 A.H., Ma’mun set himself the primary goal to crack down and solve the problem of Shiites’ uprising. He was well aware of his predecessors’ experiences in this matter which showed not only they were unsuccessful in defeating the Shi’a movement, but also that it had become more powerful, widespread and was well-received in the Islamic world.

Man’mun had witnessed that even his father’s great dominion and power could not stop the political, military and intellectual propaganda campaign of the Shiites, even after martyring the seventh Imam in prison. Then and there, when Ma’mun did not enjoy the dominion of his father and forefathers, and when the Abbasid Empire had been threatened and weakened by the civil war, so he had to be more vigilant about the possible threat that the Shiites could raise for his government and to take them more serious. He analyzed the situation realistically: 15 years had passed since the martyrdom of the seventh Imam, and a 5-year period of civil war had provided a suitable chance for the Shiites to regain strength for establishing an Alavid government.

Ma’mun had wisely predicted this threat; hence his invitation of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) from Medina to Khorasan and obliging him to accept his successorship, an unprecedented situation in the entire history of Imamate.

Let’s try to discuss briefly the phenomenon of Imam’s successorship.

The event of successorship:

In this event, Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) confronted an important historical experience as well as a secret political conspiracy which would have serious consequences for the future of the Shiites depending on the success or failure of the Imam in managing the issue. In this conflict, Ma’mun was the opponent and the main conspiracy planner. Having taken the initiative, he had entered the scene well-equipped. Talented, determined and perspicacious, Ma’mun had arranged the scene in his own way. If he managed to guide the event the way he intended, he would have gained a victory that none of the Omavid and the Abbasid caliphs could attain since 41 A.H. and martyrdom of Imam Ali (the first Imam): extermination of the Shiites who were always an obstacle in the way of tyrant caliphs.

But Imam Rida (p.b.u.h), with a divine plan, defeated Ma’mun in his political conflict and as a result, not only the Shiites did not experience any loss or weakness but rather the year 201 A.H., when Ma’mun announced that the Imam was his successor, happened to become a turning point in the history of the Shiites because it marked a new start for and breathed new life into the struggles of the Alavid. This was all due to the divine and wise decision of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) and the way the infallible Imam acted in this crucible.

In order to shed some light on different aspects of this complicated event, let’s briefly discuss Ma’mun’s plots and the Imam’s sagacity.

Ma’mun’s Plot and Imam’s Sagacity

Ma’mun had set for himself certain intentions when he invited Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) to Khorasan:

The first and the foremost was to change the intense political campaign of the Shiites to a safe, peaceful political movement. As pointed out before, the Shiites had long-lasting struggles with the Khalifs in disguise. The struggles had undeniable influences on the termination of the caliphate. The struggles were marked with two major characteristics: being oppressed and holiness.

Based on these two influential factors, the Shiites were successful to spread the Shi’a Islam, as an interpretation and description of Islam according to the Imams’ viewpoints, more and more during the history of Islam; hence loyal Shiites were organized to form armed rebellions against the caliphs and their tyranny.

Ma’mun intended to terminate the secrecy and clandestinity and change the revolutionary state of the Imam to a political one so that it would mitigate the rising efficiency of the Shi’a movement. By executing this plot, Ma’mun was able to take away the two characteristics from the Alavid movement because a group whose main leader (Imam Rida (p.b.u.h)) is an important member of the caliphate system, the successor of a tyrant caliph and a counselor to the administration of te country is, by no means, neither oppressed nor holy. The plot could put the Shi’a thought on a par with other doctrines with some followers, making it just a school of thought that was not appealing to the people, especially the poor, although it was banned and restricted.

The second intention was to grant legitimacy to the Omavid and Abbasid caliphates and denigrate the Shiites’ claim of illegitimacy of the caliphates. As such, Ma’mun could prove that the basic belief of the Shiites about illegitimacy of the Caliphate system was merely due to their weakness and inferiority complex: Were the previous caliphs illegitimate and tyrant, then Ma’mun as their inheritor would not enjoy legitimacy as well; however, accepting a position in his government, Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) had acted in favor of Ma’mun and therefore legitimized his reign. This meant that all previous caliphs, as well as Ma’mun, were legal and all claims of the Shiites about the issue were false.

Moreover, it was intended to prove that the claim of the Shiites about piety and disinterest of Imams toward the worldly benefits was just a sham. Ma’mun could have proved that Imams were pious in worldly matters only because of their inability to reach them; they, like others, wouldn’t hesitate as soon as they find a chance to do so.

The third intention was to monitor and control every movement of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) who was the central figure in the opposing movements of the time. By executing his plot, Ma’mun not only controlled the Imam but all the other high-ranking Shiites as well, and this was such an unprecedented victory in the long history of the Omavid or Abbasid caliphates.

The fourth intention was separate the Imam from the people who knew him as the source of hope and guide. In this way, the Imam’s popularity would fade out gradually and their love for him would be weakened.

The fifth intention of Ma’mun was to gain a moral and spiritual prestige. It was obvious that the people would admire him for choosing someone from the Prophet’s household to become his successor and refusing to pass it to his brothers or sons. It is commonly acknowledged that affinity of religious leaders with secular rulers would decrease the moral prestige of the former and elevate the repute of the latter.

The sixth intention was to take advantage of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) to justify whatever the government wished to do. Because the Imam was a member of the Prophet’s household and famous as a pious and learned person, inducting him in the government would cease any type of oppositions and conceal all the evil-doings of the caliphate system.

Ma’mun had other intentions as well. As one can see, this plot was so complicated that certainly no one other than Ma’mun was able to execute it, and that is why even his friends and relatives were unaware of its consequences. Some historical reports indicate that even Fazl ibn Sahl, Ma’mun’s vizier, chief commander, and the closest person to Ma’mun did not know the real intentions behind the plot. Ma’mun even made up false stories about his intentions to confuse others in this case.

The fourth motive behind Ma’mun’s plot was to surround the Imam so that he would no more be a popular reference figure to be asked and to listen to people’s complaints about the government. As such the Imam would gradually become less popular and more disconnected and separated from people.

The fifth motive could be the spiritual prestige that Ma’mun was seeking to obtain. It was natural that people would praise him for choosing one of the descendents of the Prophet and a religious and spiritual figure as his successor and depriving his own brothers and children from the privilege. It has always been the case that when the faithful approach world-seekers, the former will lose and the latter will gain fame and prestige.

Six, Ma’mun thought that the Imam would thus justify the caliphate. The pious, knowledgeable Imam who enjoyed a unique prestige and holiness as the descendent of the Prophet could certainly function as an impenetrable fortress and conceal all the evils and wrongdoings of the caliphate government if he accepted the position offered.

One must admit that Ma’mun’s plot was well-though of and complicated; Nonetheless, one must keep in mind that his rival was Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) and this was why all his vicious plots were foiled and turned into childish moves. Ma’mun spent a lot of time, energy and wealth for the measures he took, but not only did they yield no results but also brought about negative consequences and worked to the reverse. Due to unexpected, negative consequences that his measures lead to, Ma’mun had to act like his ancestors and appeal to the same technique against the Imam, namely to kill him. Ma’mun who made a great deal of efforts to introduce himself as a pious, wise and legitimate caliph, fell into the same dark valley of tyranny, corruption and excessive luxury and worldly leisure just as the prior caliphs did..

Ma’mun died 15 years after the event of successorship and during these years one could see several instances of his hypocrisy, such as appointing a dissolute and corrupt judge like Yahya bin Aksam as the chief judge; keeping company of Ibrahim bin Mahdi, his singer and musician cousin and arranging drinking and dancing parties in his Dar-al-Khelafeh (the Khalif’s palace) in Baghdad.

Now let’s give an account of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h)’s plans and policies in this event.

Describing Imam’s Plans and Policies

1) When Imam was invited from Medina to Khorasan, he let the news of his dissatisfaction and skepticism to spread all over the city so that all who knew him became sure of Ma’mun’s evil intention. When visiting the Prophet’s shrine for the last time, bidding farewell to his family, leaving Medina, going on the last pilgrimage to Mecca, in all these scenes, he proved for everybody with his words and actions that this will be his final, death journey. All those who were expected by Ma’mun to become optimistic toward him and pessimistic toward the Imam – because of accepting Ma’mun’s invitation – were filled with enmity towards Ma’mun as why he is separating their Imam from them with this cruelty, taking him to the altar.

2) When in Merv, Ma’mun offered Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) to become his successor; The Imam definitely rejected the offer first but accepted it when he was directly threatened to death. The news was spread like wild fire that Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) had rejected Ma’mun’s offers to become the caliph and the successor. The news was spread even by Ma’mun’s own officers and administratives who were unaware of his plot. Even once Fazl bin Sahl, in a circle of governors and officials, told that he had never seen the caliphate so much humiliated to be offered to the Imam and definitely rejected!

Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) himself also made use of all opportunities to tell everyone that he was forced and threatened to death to accept the successorship. Anyone who would hear about this strange political event would be astonished, because some time earlier Ma’mun had started a war with his brother Amin, only because his successorship was canceled by Amin. Ma’mun killed a lot of people in the war, beheaded his brother and took his head all around the Islamic territory to show his wrath. Now a person like Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) did not accept the same position unless he was threatened to death. The comparison people made between the Imam and Ma’mun had a completely different result from what Ma’mun had invested for.

3) Anyway, the Imam accepted successorship on condition that he would not interfere in war or peace, dismissing or appointing officials, making decisions about government issues.. Ma’mun accepted the condition in the belief that the condition was manageable and that he could later on persuade the Imam to participate in the affairs of government. It is clear that the condition would neutralize a considerable number of Ma’mun’s intentions.

Although the Imam was entitled the successor and consequently all the caliphate facilities were available for him, nonetheless he took the position of a remonstrator: he neither issued orders nor made prohibitions; he accepted no responsibility and made no justification of the government.

Obviously when a member of government deliberately denies the responsibilities offered to him, he could not be in favor of that system. Understanding the situation, Ma’mun tried a lot to make Imam accept a governmental duty and stop Imam’s negative activity but each time he failed due to Imam’s awareness.

One of the situations is the one Mu’ammar b. Khallad narrated from Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) himself that once Ma’mun asked the Imam to write a letter to the insurgents who knew and would obey him. but the Imam rejected it and reminded him of his own conditions. Another important and interesting instance was Ma’mun inviting the Imam to the Eid Prayer under the pretext that “so may people appreciate thee and tranquility returnth to their hearts”! The Imam first rejected the invitation. But upon Ma’mun’s insistence, the Imam accepted to go but on the condition that he would perform the Prayer according to the practice of the Prophet and Imam Ali; then the Imam exploited the situation to the full in a way that Ma’mun regretted his insistence and had the Imam return mid way, which was a blow to the hypocrisy of the khalif.

4) The Imam directed this event into a more useful direction; by accepting successorship, the Imam made a move that was unprecedented since 40 A.H.: to reclaim the Imamate of the descendents of the Prophet (s.a.) all over the Islamic territory and to put an end to the tense  condition of dissimulation.

Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) used all the facilities available to the caliphate to spread the words and speeches that were told just in secrecy and to very close and trusted followers during the past 150 years; but now it was a time for every Muslim to hear them. Imam’s dialogues and discussions with scholars in the presence of Ma’mun in which he described all reasons behind the Imamate; a letter known as Jawame’-al-Shari’a to Fazl b. Sahl in which he describe all Shi’a doctrins and juridical issues; the famous tradition (hadith) known as “Imamate  hadith” that he narrated to Abdolaziz bin Moslem in Merv; a good number of odes and poems which were composed in praise of the Imam after his acceptance of successorship among which one can find two of great Arabic odes by De’bel and Abou Nowass.

For 90 years the Prophet’s household was obviously being cursed in tribunes, and no one could speak out the virtues of the Ahl al-Bayt. But now after the announcement of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h)’s successorship a great chance was created for the followers of the Ahl al-Bayt to speak publicly about the virtues of the Ahl al-Bayt. The instance was a point of encouragement for the friends of the Ahl al-Bayt, made the iognorant aware of and inclined towards the Ahl al-Bayt, and weakened their enemies. Shi’ite narrators and traditionalists or scholars of Hadith had a chance at their disposal to discuss publicly a number of doctrines that then were told just in secret till then.

5) Despite Ma’mun’s intention to cut the Imam’s spiritual and emotional bonds with the people and keep him isolated, the Imam used every chance to expose himself to the people. Ma’mun had already determined which route the Imam had to take for his travel from Medina to Merv so that he would not cross the cities like Kufa or Qum whose people were known for their love of the Ahl al-Bayt. Nonetheless the Imam exploited every opportunity to establish relations with the people. In Ahwaz, he described the Qur’anic verses on Imamate; in Basra, he behaved so kindly with those who were unkind to him that they became his followers; in Neyshabur he narrated the Golden Chain Tradition (Selsela al-Zahab). Moreover, he manifested a number of other signs and miracles and made best of him time to guide people on the long trip. In Merv, the then center of government, he used every chance not to abide by the restrictions imposed by the government and to accompany people.

6) Not only the Imam did not advise Shi’ite leaders to be silent and compromise with the government, but rather evidence indicates that the Imam’s new position made them hopeful. A number of opponents of the Caliphate who had spent most of their difficult lives in remote villages and hard-reaching mountains were now respected by government officials in different cities due to the Imam’s support. For instance, the poet De’bel with his ironic language and a never-yielding character not only never helped the government but rather criticized all Caliphs, viziers and commanders. Carrying his own cross, he was wanted and under legal pursuit; however, such a person had the chance to to meet the Imam freely and safely and compose his most famous and eloquent ode, making strong claims against the Omavid and Abbasid caliphates. His ode became very wide-spread in no time; on returning from Merv, De’bel himself heard it recited by the chief of a group of brigands.

Now let us illustrate the general conditions of this conflict that Ma’mun had started and had forced Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) into it with the aforementioned intentions.

Situation after the Announcement of Successorship

One year after the announcement of successorship the situation was like this: Ma’mun had praised Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) in both the successorship decree he issued and his speeches as a pious, learned and noble person. Consequently, those people who had just heard his name, and some who may have even felt a kind of enmity towards him, considered him as a man of grandeur and respect who deserved Caliphate more than the Caliph himself on grounds of age, knowledge, piety and kinship with the Prophet’s household. Not only couldn’t Ma’mun stop the Shi’ite opponents from criticizing him and to make them optimist rather the presence of the Imam encouraged them and strengthened their resolve.

In Mecca, Medina and other Islamic centers not only wasn’t Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) defamed by accusation about longing and accepting government positions but rather his greatness and spiritual dignity increases. After decades, the spiritual greatness and nobility of the Prophet’s household was praised and respected.

To sum up, not only didn’t Ma’mun win the gamble to keep power but rather he lost a lot in this conflict, and more loss was yet to come. The moment he felt his loss and failure, he decided to compensate for it: After so much investment in combating the unyielding opponents and enemies of the Calphate, i.e. the Prophet’s household, Ma’mun had to appeal to the same method that all previous tyrants had exploited: MURDER.

Obviously he could not kill the Imam easily when he had achieved the important position of successorship. Evidence indicates tat Ma’mun tried other ways to prepare the condition for his last move. Most probably, it was not incidental that suddenly a rumor spread in Merv like wild fire that Imam Rida (p.b.u.h) considered all human beings his own slaves! When Aba Salt, the Imam’s servant, informed the Imam of the rumor, his holiness said, “O Lord! Thou art the Creator of the earth and heavens, Thou art aware that neither my fathers nor me ever speak such words and this is an instance of people’s injustice to us”.

Arranging discussion sessions with different scholars who were thought to defeat the Imam eventually did not end up the way Ma’mun expected. When the Imam won the debates and defeated the debaters in public, making his fame spread like wild fire, Ma’mun thought of asking all debaters and theologians to come to a debate session in the palace so that one may defeat the Imam. However, as history says, the more such sessions were held, the clearer the knowledge of the Imam and the more disappointed Ma’mun became.

It is narrated that once or twice Ma’mun’s agents tried to execute the murder plot and once he imprisoned the Imam in the city of Sarakhs; yet, the outcome was nothing but stronger belief in the spirituality of the Imam. Completely helpless and irritated, Ma’mun could do nothing but to poison the Imam in person. He committed this unforgivable crime in the month of Safar, 203 A.H., about two years after bringing his holiness from Medina to Khorasan and one and a half years after announcing the Imam as his own successor.

The most important and yet neglected point in the lives of the Imams was the principle of  “intense political campaign”. During the 140-year period between the Ashura event and that of Imam Rida (p.b.u.h)’a successorship, the Shi’ites were always regarded the most important enemies of the caliphs.

About Ali Teymoori

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