read

6.9 – The 8th Imam [Tenth Ma’soom] – Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘A)

Birth And Characteristics

Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) was born 11 Dhu ‘l-Qa’da in the year 148 AH/766 AD. and was the son of Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a) and Najma Khatoon (r.a.).1

The name of Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) was Ali but was called Ridha for his satisfaction with God’s decree and for all creations were content with him. Like previous Imams (‘a), no one in Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) time could compare with him. Friends and enemies alike testified to the Imam’s (‘a) good morals and magnanimity, as well as his deep knowledge and devoted worship.

Becoming Imam

Due to the prevailing circumstances, Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a) took special precautions in the appointment of Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) as his successor. Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a) had many children and was aware of the Abbasids’ plans to create confusion as to whom the next Imam would be. Therefore, Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a) gathered his companions and wrote a will whom sixty of the elderly and respected people in Medina signed. The will be revealed that Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) was the successor of Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a), in accordance with the Prophet’s (S) proclamation. Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a) proclaimed Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) position and Imamah in other contexts as well.2

Governance During Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘A) Time

Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) Imamah which lasted a total of 20 years coincided with the rule of three Abbasid caliphs. The rulers during the time of Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) were:

1) Haroon Rashid (170 AH/786 AD – 193 AH/809 AD)

2) Muhammad Al-Amin (193 AH/809 AD – 198 AH/813 AD)

3) Abdullah Al-Ma’moon (198 AH/813 AD – 218 AH/833 AD)

Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘A) Time

Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) was over thirty years old when he took over the divine leadership and Haroon Rashid was still the caliph in governance. Haroon was even less tolerant of Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) than he was of his father Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a). But his government had lost its popularity among the people because of their long-standing oppression and assassination of Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a). This prevented Haroon Rashid from harassing Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) as much. Nevertheless, the local governors of Medina were still hateful to all Shias. The people could not visit the Imam (‘a) freely, and Haroon’s spies monitored all of Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) movements.

Towards the end of Haroon’s time, there was a political war waging beneath the surface between two of his sons. The conflict had spread and divided the kingdom into two parts. The older son, Amin, who was from an Arab mother and had an Arab nationalist agenda, received support from the Arabs, while the younger son, Ma’moon, who was from a Persian mother, had a Persian nationalist agenda and was supported by the Persians. Haroon Rashid, who hated that there was a rivalry between his sons, took a vow from both that after his death Amin would rule the western part of the empire while Ma’moon would rule the eastern side. When Haroon died, Ma’moon was with him and buried him while Amin, who was in Baghdad, declared that the entire kingdom was his and he immediately deposed Ma’moon. In order to regain power, Ma’moon sought to have Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) by his side as he knew many Persians were followers of Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a).

Due to the prevailing circumstances, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) was freer in spreading knowledge. Therefore, the Imam (‘a) clarified the concept of Imamah even more and introduced himself as the one whom it was obligatory to obey, without fearing the oppressors. However, the Imam (‘a) asked his followers to be careful in their actions and not to speak openly and publicly about this, in order not to be harmed.

Even in response to one of Ma’mon’s letters asking the Imam (‘a) to write something for him regarding the principles of Islam, the Imam (‘a) began to speak of the unity of God, the Prophet’s (S) prophecy, Imam Ali (‘a) and the eleven Imams (‘a) Imamah, he described their responsibilities as “those responsible for the affairs of the Muslims”.3

Ultimately, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) emphasised, on several occasions and with several prominent ahadith, inter alia through the famous hadith known as ‘the golden chain’, Imamah and its important role in protecting the faith.4

Y. The Authorities’ New Strategy

After a time of conflict and internal conspiracies, Ma’moon managed to win the conflict against his brother Amin, who was killed. Ma’moon became caliph, but the state of the kingdom was still unstable, and his rule was still shaky. On the one hand, half the empire had supported his brother Amin, and on the other hand, the popular uprising was a constant threat as there was much dissatisfaction among the people for the prevailing oppression in the empire. In addition, Ma’moon was afraid of Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) position and his enlarged influence among the people.

The rulers constantly considered the Imams (‘a) of Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a) as the greatest threat to their dominion. Albeit the fact that the Imams (‘a) did not revolt, they were treated as the most serious adversaries. Moreover, the Shi’a Muslims, and in fact, Imam Ali’s (‘a) followers, were the most disadvantaged group since the time of the Prophet (S) and paid a high price for their devotion to Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a). They were oppressed, persecuted, displaced, imprisoned, tortured and brutally murdered while their fortunes were confiscated. In the majority of cases, not even their families and relatives escaped the tyranny of the rulers and found themselves outcasts on the outskirts of society, and had to conceal their faith in order to survive. However, after Imam Al-Husayn (‘a), some of them rose against oppression. Although such movements were, sooner or later, brutally defeated and the people involved massacred, their cries and uprisings for justice left an impact on society and opened a path for other oppressed people. Consequently, Shi’a Muslim movements were always viewed as a threat, first to the Umayyad and then to the ruling empire of the Abbasid rulers.

Ma’moon was a sly person and did not afford to fight such movements publicly and openly spill blood; he wanted to stave off the threat strategically. He did this by showing affection to Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a), whom the Shi’a Muslims saw as their supreme leader and obliged to obey. Ma’moon appointed Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) as his successor, thereby accentuating himself as a supporter of the Prophet’s (S) household and gaining legitimacy. In doing so, he encouraged Shi’a Muslims and others who favoured Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a) to support him and strengthen his rule. By this plot, he intended to control the increased influence that the Imam (‘a) had received among the people. At the same time, he wanted to eradicate the Shi’a Muslim movements that were causing uprisings in the empire on a regular basis. He also sought to remove Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) from Medina where his followers surrounded him, and isolate the Imam (‘a). By bringing the Imam (‘a) closer to himself, Ma’moon could better surveil the Imam (‘a) and keep his movements and contacts under control.

Y1. The Enemies’ Solution: Exile

Ma’moon decided to force Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) into exile, so he brought him to Khorasan and presented him as a successor.

Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) was summoned to Khorasan without warning and was forced to accept in order to avoid bloodshed. The Imam (‘a) headed towards Khorasan in a caravan accompanied by Ma’mon’s representatives and soldiers, while the Imam’s (‘a) family and relatives were not allowed to join. On Ma’mon’s order, the caravan travelled to Khorasan via a special itinerary where large cities, in which Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a) had a strong following, were avoided. Instead, the Imam (‘a) was led through villages, cities and areas where Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a) were less well known or where the Abbasids had a stronghold and where tendencies of hostility towards Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a) roamed. The Imam (‘a) was constantly watched throughout the journey and the caravan, on the order of Ma’moon, travelled relatively unnoticed in order not to reveal the Imam’s (‘a) identity and not give him the opportunity to get in touch with people. But the Imam’s (‘a) outstanding personality shone like a bright light through the blanket of darkness, and sooner or later people became aware of his presence, gathered around him and found out his identity, prompting Ma’mon’s representatives to rush the caravan onward.

When the Imam (‘a) arrived in Khorasan, Ma’moon spoke about his plans to officially appoint the Imam (‘a) as his successor, whereby the Imam (‘a) refused and replied:

“If the caliphate is your legitimate right, you do not hold the right to bestow it, and if it is not your legitimate right, you are not entitled to bestow it.”5

In this way, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) questioned the whole foundation of the Abbasid caliphate and Ma’mon’s legitimacy as a caliph, in addition to shedding light on Ma’mon’s underlying purpose behind his proposal. Ultimately, Ma’moon threatened the Imam (‘a) that there was no other way but to accept the position as his successor. The Imam (‘a) accepted with the condition of not being involved in government-issued orders, and neither need to issue orders, prohibitions, or judgments nor appoint or set aside anyone for any service, which Ma’moon accepted.6 By doing so, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) clarified that the position was forced upon him and attested to the fact that he had nothing to do with Ma’mon’s rule. Additionally, the stipulation of the conditions ensured that Ma’moon would not use the Imam’s (‘a) title as successor against the Imam (‘a) for the purpose of deceiving the people.

Ma’moon hoped, after the Imam’s (‘a) acceptance, to avert several threats, including preventing Shi’a Muslims from rebelling against the regime by making them feel involved in the regime through the Imam (‘a). Ma’moon also believed that he could isolate Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a), make him lose contact with his followers and no longer be able to lead and influence people. In addition, he intended to give legitimacy to his regime and his decisions through the forced presence of the Imam (‘a) near the court. He also tried to challenge and question the Imam’s (‘a) knowledge in front of others to reduce the Imam’s (‘a) position. This was intended to be achieved by organizing gatherings where well-known ideologues and prominent scientists and scholars were invited to debate against Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) and ask “impossible” questions.

Opposite Effect – Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘A) Spreads The Truth And Gets More Followers

During his time in Khorasan, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) partook in many public discussions with people from different faiths and ideologies, where he prevailed by far. People, who either did not hitherto know of the Imam (‘a) or met him in a hostile manner, left the gatherings as his admirers and followers. The news of these discussions spread to the people, causing even the most unversed of them to open their eyes to Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) and Ahl Al-Bayt (‘a).

Ma’moon initially wanted to engage Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) in all kinds of debates, with the hope that the Imam (‘a) would someday be confounded. As such, the reputation and honour of the Imam (‘a) would weaken, not least in the question of having a uniquely divinely chosen position and knowledge. Therefore, the debates transpired in every possible field, from issues of monotheism and God’s justice to scientific questions. Ma’moon called in Christian and Jewish scholars as well as scholars from other Muslim branches to debate against the Imam (‘a). He made sure to invite the most prominent scholars in each field and from various schools and ideologies in the hope that one of them could surpass the Imam’s (‘a) knowledge or challenge him with a question he would not be able to answer. However, all who met Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) soon came to recognize the outstanding scientific superiority of the Imam (‘a), alongside his excellent piety and morality that illuminated the debates. They loved the arguments he put forth and the manner in which he dealt with his counterparties.7

Ma’mon’s plans were revealed once again when he asked the Imam (‘a) to lead the Eid prayer. He wanted to show the people that he had respect for the Imam (‘a) and gave him preference. The Imam (‘a) initially refused based on the condition of not participating in the governance. Thereof, disseminating the message that religion is not separate from governmental affairs. After Ma’mon’s insistence, the Imam (‘a) then asserted to lead the prayer on the condition of being allowed to do so in the same manner in which the Prophet (S) did.

People were used to seeing the caliph go to prayer accompanied by a large escort of lavish splendour with luxury and officials riding horses. But Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) began to walk towards the place where the prayer was to be performed barefoot while invoking the greatness of God with each step, the people then followed him and also began to walk barefoot behind him. Even the military commanders and the civil judges stepped down from their horses and began to walk barefoot. A huge crowd of people followed the Imam (‘a). When the Imam (‘a) called out in supplication to God prior to the prayer, all people did the same, and the situation became such that Ma’moon became afraid that a revolution would break out at any moment. Ma’moon, therefore, ordered that the Imam (‘a) be brought back immediately and did not even let the Imam (‘a) perform the prayer. Consequently, many people understood that the evil intentions that the government was assumed to hold were in fact, true.

Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘A) Becomes A Martyr

When Ma’moon finally realized that all his plans were unsuccessful and Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) following was growing, as was the reach of his message, the caliph decided to poison the Imam (‘a).8

In the Arab parts of the empire, many were dissatisfied with Ma’mon’s policies and proclaimed Abbasid Ibrahim Al-Mahdi as a caliph in Baghdad. Ma’moon decided to seize the opportunity and with the removal of Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) and the restoration of Baghdad as the capital of the kingdom, show that the caliphate will stay within his lineage and thereby receive the support of other Abbasids. On his way to Baghdad, Ma’moon poisoned Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) who became a martyr in 203 AH/818 AD.

Once he arrived in Baghdad, Ma’moon got the Arabs on his side, as Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) was no longer his successor. Ma’moon then returned to his father’s harsh manners towards Ahl Al-Bayt’s (‘a) followers.

Y2. Preparing For The Final Imam (‘Aj) – Difficult To Achieve

It was very difficult for Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) companions to meet and reach the Imam (‘a), owing to the geographical distance as well as the constrain on his movements by the regime. These conditions were further preparations for a time in which the final Imam (‘a) would be in occultation. Ma’moon wanted to separate Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) from his companions in order to weaken their relationship and spiritual contact. In effect, the separation became an important lesson and a great preparation for the final Imam (‘aj). The Shi’a Muslims gained the skillset needed for having an Imam (‘a) hidden from sight. They had to conjure up new methods while discovering the strengths and weaknesses that needed to be secured to cope in such a situation.

The system that preceding Imams (‘a) had established and expanded, of having Shi’a representatives around the Islamic world, played an important role during the time of Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a). As the Imam (‘a) moved to Khorasan and his contact with Ahl Al-Bayt’s (‘a) companions became even more limited, the system played a more significant role. Seeing as it was difficult to reach the Imam (‘a), it was important to be able to take responsibility, be independent and to act in accordance with the Imam’s (‘a) will without receiving direct orders. For this, a higher understanding of the Imam (‘a) and his path was required, in order to better appreciate what the Imam (‘a) himself would have done in different scenarios. This acted as a preparation even for those who had not themselves attained such level of insight, as they learned to seek out the Shi’a Muslim scholars who had the better insight and lived by to the Imam’s (‘a) teachings; a practise that still applies today.

Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) had an extremely important role in spreading Ahl Al-Bayt’s (‘a) doctrine and describing the concept of Imamah. He got the message to reach many more. He educated others through his actions, exemplified by the stance against Ma’mon’s schemes and the empire’s developments. As well as through his words, embodied when he officially and openly called himself an ‘Imam whose obedience is obligatory’.

Furthermore, one should not forget Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) political role. Admittedly, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) agreed to become the caliph’s successor under threat and with the condition of not being involved in state affairs. But through his presence, the Imam (‘a) created a political consciousness and movement within the people. The Imam’s (‘a) humble and good behaviour towards all people, was in itself a political stance. Further, the insistence of the Imam (‘a) to separate his path from Ma’moons showed the people that there was a clear difference between what they stood for. The imam (‘a) further proved this difference when he performed the Eid prayer similar to the Prophet’s (‘a), reminding the people of the Prophet’s (‘a) way and how it stood in stark contrast to the way of Ma’moon.

Finally, the movement that arose in connection with Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) exile to Khorasan was of immense importance. Many of the Imam’s (‘a) relatives and companions emigrated in their attempts to reach the Imam A) and with this, they spread within and beyond the Islamic empire. Many of Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) siblings, including his sister Sayyida Ma’sooma (‘a), were among those who started their journey towards Khursan. Despite being attacked by Ma’mon’s secret troops and becoming martyrs on the road, the sanctuary of this great endeavour came to form the heart of a holy city that has been the premise for the advancement and spread of Ahl Al-Bayt’s (‘a) teachings to the world ever since and to this day!

Did You Know?

On the road to Khorasan, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) stopped at the city of Qom for a few months and organized mourning ceremonies in memory of Imam Al-Husayn’s (‘a) tragedy. Even in Toos, where the Imam (‘a) stayed for over a year, he did the same. Mourning ceremonies in Imam Al-Husayn’s (‘a) memory had also been maintained by preceding Imams (‘a), however, due to the impending circumstances in society, they were restricted to their home and closest followers. The era and position of Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) enabled him to spread the gatherings more openly, even in Marv, which was the capital of the kingdom during the time and a central city where people from all corners of the world met. With the advent of the month of Muharram, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) initiated these mourning ceremonies, and an atmosphere of sorrow embossed the surroundings. The public participated and was reminded of the events that took place in Karbala and above all the values Imam Al-Husayn (‘a) upheld.

Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) personally called the people to these gatherings and began by narrating the events of Ashura, followed by other people portraying the story of Karbala. The Imam (‘a) encouraged two of the most famous poets of his time, Abdullah Ibn Thabit and De’bel Al-Khuza’i, who had dictated poetry in the description of the Ashura tragedy, to read their poems melodically in the gathering which evoked the cries of the Imam (‘a) and the people.

  • 1. Najma Khatoon (r.a.) was originally from Nubia, the territory of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and had been brought to Arabia as a slave. Some say that she also had roots in the islands of Marseille, today’s southern France. Imam Al-Sadiq’s (‘a) wife, Hamida (r.a.), took her into their home and Najma (r.a.) came to be Imam Al-Kadhim’s (‘a) wife. Najma (r.a.) was prominent in piety and it is stated that Hamida (r.a.) saw the Prophet (S) in a dream where he asked her to marry Najma (r.a.) to Imam Al-Kadhim (‘a) and proclaimed that the best child on earth will be born from this marriage.
  • 2. This is narrated in Al-Irshad volume 2 p.248 et al.
  • 3. This is narrated in Kafi by Kulayni volume 1 p.187 et al.
  • 4. Hadith Silsilat adh-Dhahab (the Golden Chain) is a well-known hadith whose witnesses and narrators are said to be between 10000-30000 people and are therefore among the frequently recounted and authentic ahadith of both Sunni and Shi’a. During his journey to Khorasan and in connection with a stay in Neyshaboor, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) narrated this hadith from his father as told from his father and on to the Prophet (S) who narrated from God. It is stated that when Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) caravan was ready for departure, while thousands of people had made their way to the site and gathered to see the Prophet’s (S) son, those present asked the Imam (‘a): O the Prophet’s (S) son, should you not render a hadith before leaving our city?

    Accordingly, Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) reported that he heard from his father Musa Ibn Ja’far Al-Kadhim (‘a) who heard from his father Ja’far Ibn Muhammad Sadiq (‘a) who heard from his father Muhammad Ibn Ali Baqir (‘a) who heard from his father Ali Ibn Husayn Al-Sajjad (‘a) who heard from his father Husayn Ibn Ali (‘a) who heard from his father Ali Ibn Abu Talib (‘a) who heard from the Prophet (S) from Jibrail (‘a) that God said: “ ‘La ilaha ill Allah’ (there is no deity except God) is My fort; so whoever enters My fort is protected from My punishment” and then the Imam (‘a) stopped the caravan and added:” ... with its conditions; and I am one of its conditions.”

    With a highly reliable narrative chain that went back to Imam (‘a) after Imam (‘a) all the way to the Prophet (S) and further to God, the hadith became known as hadith Silsilat ath-Thahab, while Imam Al-Ridha’ (‘a) emphasized the belief in Imamah as the central condition and path to tawhid and belief in God. The hadith is narrated in Yanabi ‘Al-Mawadda by Qandozi (print year 1422 AH) p.364; as-Sawa’iq Al-Muhriqa by Ibn Hijr Haythami (print year 1417 AH) volume 2 p.595; Al-Fosool Al-Mohamma by Ibn Sabbagh Maliki (print year 1409 AH) p.243; Jawaher Al-’Eqdayn (print year 1407 AH) p.334; and Ketab at-Tawhid by Ibn Babooye p.49; Ma’ani Al-Akhbar by Sheikh Sadooq p.371 et al.

  • 5. Imam Al-Ridha’’s (‘a) response is narrated in Bihar Al-Anwar volume 49p.129 et al
  • 6. The Imam (‘a) expressed his refusal to accept Ma’mon’s offer several times during the ongoing conversation, but in the end Ma’moon presented an embedded threat by referring to the assembly council as the second caliph Omar had arranged and how the refusal to accept would mean death. This is reflected in Irshad volume 2 p.259 et al.
  • 7. This is narrated in Iḥtijaj by Tabarsi volume 2 p.396; ‘Uyoon Akhbar Al-Ridha by Sheikh Sadooq volume 1 p.152 et al.
  • 8. This is narrated in i.a. Tarikh Yaʿqoobi volume 2 s 471; Al-Irshad by Sheilh Al-Mufid volume 2s s 270; ʿUyoon Akhbar Al-Ridha volume 2 s 245; Al-Hayat as-Siyasiyya li-l-Imam Al-Ridha of ‘Amili s 202; Al-Thiqat by Ibn Hibban Volume 8 s 456-457 et al.