After the martyrdom of al-‘Imam al-Husayn (A) the objective of the AhlulBayt (A), as we see it, was two-fold. Firstly, their goal was to protect Islam against corruption, forgery and mis-interpretation. This was done in several ways. The foremost of them was to establish the authentic Sunnah in the face of other claims which were influenced, to a lesser or greater degree, by the inclinations of existing regimes and the heresies of those in control of them during the Umayyad and the ‘Abbasid eras. Since the corruption on the Qur’anic text was out of question, the most dangerous phenomenon that confronted Islam from within was the narration of forged and corrupted traditions ascribed to the Prophet (S).
This paper was presented by the author, a well-known Lebanese scholar, at the
first international seminar held on al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) at Mashhad from August
10 to 14, 1984.
1. Goals and Methods:
After the martyrdom of al-‘Imam al-Husayn (A) the objective of the AhlulBayt
(A), as we see it, was two-fold. Firstly, their goal was to protect Islam
against corruption, forgery and mis-interpretation. This was done in several
ways. The foremost of them was to establish the authentic Sunnah in the face of
other claims which were influenced, to a lesser or greater degree, by the
inclinations of existing regimes and the heresies (ahwa’) of those in control of
them during the Umayyad and the ‘Abbasid eras.
Since the corruption (tahrif) on the Qur’anic text was out of question, the most
dangerous phenomenon that confronted Islam from within was the narration of
forged and corrupted traditions ascribed to the Prophet (S). The meanings of
certain Qur’anic verses were distorted – particularly those concerning the most
important political and social concepts – by the means of fabricated and
corrupted hadith. Therefore, the Imams (A) did their best to spread the hadith
among the people and employed all the means to extend the range of its
circulation throughout the various regions.
Secondly, their objective was to protect the followers of the authentic Islamic
path, and those who were close to it in various degrees, from ignorance,
deviation and the danger of physical liquidation. Their protection from
ignorance was secured by strong emphasis on the diffusion of Islamic teachings
among them, through dispatching missionaries to them, founding centres of
religious instruction in various regions, and establishing a rightly-guided
authority for them, and these affiliated them to the path of the AhlulBayt
(A). This affiliation was a conscious one, based on knowledge (ma’rifah) and
conviction, which guaranteed continuity and resistance in the face of trials and
difficulties, not one based only on emotional attachment or merely on taqlid,
for that could not ensure the perpetuity and invincibility of a revolutionary
political and ideological movement as sought by the AhlulBayt (A).
They were protected from deviation (fitnah) by being persistently and repeatedly
prohibited from being assimilated into the infrastructive of an oppressive and
irreligious political authority, and by being enjoined to keep aloof from it
without dissociating themselves from the rest of the Islamic community. They
were instructed to keep close relations with all the Muslims, on the basis of
coexistence with the authorities while abstaining from entering their
organization or participating in its establishment so far as it did not harm the
general order of the society or go against the basic vital interests of the
community following the path of the AhlulBayt (A). They were also protected
from deviation by being constantly prohibited to take sides with this or that
rival party from among the oppressors who struggled for power.
They, as individuals or groups, were protected from being persecuted in their
districts or from being exiled or executed by the prescription of taqiyyah. We
basically understand taqiyyah as being an ordinance aimed at the protection of
the lives of individuals and their personal interests, so long as that does not
violate the basic principles and political commitment to society. However, when
taqiyyah leads to the abandonment of the principles or deviation from them in a
political issue, or when it goes against political commitment to society, then
it is not lawful, because it was introduced to protect the individuals upholding
and defending the principles. Thus it should be noted that taqiyyah was
prescribed to safeguard the principles and to insure their success in the
future. It is not reasonable, therefore, that it should become a cause of the
weakening or even the destruction of those very principles for the sake of
protecting the interests of the individuals.
This objective manifested itself on the plane of practice and reality, after the
martyrdom of al-Husayn (A), in the form of a balance between three elements: (1)
taqiyyah on the individual level, (2) preservation of the general order of the
Islamic society and the Muslim community in respect of administration and public
services, (3) refusal to grant political legitimacy to the oppressive regime.
The Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) dealt with the existing regimes within these
limits. This balance resulted in the Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) working with
the existing system on an administrative level, in so far as that would preserve
the general order of society and provide an atmosphere conducive to safety and
freedom of movement for them and their followers. Thus the goal of safeguarding
the ultimate prophecy from corruption would be achieved while preserving the
political stand opposing the oppressive regimes, which characterized the path of
the AhlulBayt (A), in a live and active state.
A situation such as this has always been a painful one for those Islamic
activists who, by virtue of their stand, have various responsibilities towards
the society and yet work at a socio-political stage in history during which
immediate and complete revolution is not possible. It was necessary for them to
ensure, firstly, that political opposition does not damage the foundations of
society and upset its general order.
On the other hand, it was necessary to exercise thorough vigilance at every
stage so that the fulfilment of those requirements would not lead to the
granting of political legitimacy to the oppressive or irreligious government.
The guidance offered by the lives of the Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) in
direction of political activism, either at the level of the Ummah or that of
specific communities within it, will protect the activist from errors and
confusion while considering the limits within which he must remain.
When we examine the nature of this goal, the characteristic of both aspects of
which have been recorded and demonstrated in the lives of the Imams of the
AhlulBayt (A), we find that, on the one hand, it has the fundamental
characteristic of propagating the ultimate prophetic message and safeguarding
Islam from distortion. On the other hand, we find that it has a defensive
characteristic shown in the protection of the followers of the AhlulBayt (A)
from the afore-mentioned dangers.
The most profound significance of both the aspects of this goal lay in the
preparation of the Ummah and the renewal of its foundations, after its relapse
in the early period of Islam and the consequent deviation in political matters
and issues pertaining to government, which in turn were followed by deviation on
the legal front. This deviation was regarding the source and authority of the
Sunnah, which is the second source of legislation in Islam after the Book of
Allah, the Mighty and Sublime.
The object of this preparation was to safeguard the healthy nucleus constituted
by the followers of the AhlulBayt (A) and to enable it to expand by attracting
a larger number of Muslims to its circle. This would facilitate the
establishment of a state on the basis of Islam, following the creation of a
wider Islamic base for it. This base would be committed to the idea of the
Islamic state; it would promote it and serve as the point of departure towards
it, until God, the Exalted, fulfils His ultimate promise through the appearance
of the Mahdi (Baqiyyat Allah), may God’s peace be upon him and may He hasten his
2. The Central Issue:
In order to understand this goal, one must study the social, political and legal
aspects of the life of each of the Infallible Imams (A). Here we will study one
aspect of the political life of al-‘Imam ‘Ali al Rida (A), his designation to
the heir apparency of the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun – which was perhaps the most
significant phase in his political life – and the issues related to it.
We will see that al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) played the role of an active leader in
giving direction to the events even in his situation where he could only react,
for his responses stemmed from a precise and universal plan that enabled him not
only to counter the problem that he faced but also to carry out his duties of
supreme leadership in the Ummah.
Here the discussion revolves around the question of succession, which was the
central problem of the Islamic polity after the demise of the Prophet (S). This
problem had grown steadily in significance until it reached a climax following
the martyrdom of Amir al-Mu’minin ‘Ali (A). It exploded with the revolution of
al-Husayn (A) into a series of crises of political legitimacy throughout the era
of the Imams (A) up to the occultation of the Awaited Imam (A). In the period of
occultation it assumed other forms of expression.
In the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid regimes – as well as other regimes contemporaneous
with the ‘Abbasids, such as the Umayyad regime in Andalusia, the Fatimid
caliphate in North Africa – and other regimes that came after them in various
parts of the Islamic world through the ages up to the time of the Ottoman
caliphate and the Safavid sultanate – all the rulers identified their regimes,
in character and origin, as being Islamic. They ruled in the name of Islam and
governed over the people in matters of peace and war, the economy, politics, the
judiciary, social organization and other matters of socio-political life on the
basis of their governments being Islamic systems which implemented Islamic laws.
The legitimacy of these governments was based on the claim of their being
derived from Islam. But what was the source of the legitimacy of actual
On a theoretical and abstract level, the issue is dissolved, for all claim to be
Islamic and apply Islam according to their own understanding of it, in different
ways, without being faithful to the Qur’anic text and often disgracefully
violating the spirit of the Qur’anic text.
However, on a practical level, there are two very different view-points about
the source of the legitimacy of leadership: firstly, the view based on
designation (nass); secondly, the view which disregards designation (nass) and
is based on the principle of allegiance (bay’ah). The conflict between these two
views dominated the Islamic Ummah after the demise of the Noble Messenger (S) up
to the end of the Umayyad era, when the ‘Abbasid missionary activity (da’wah)
The principle of designation (nass) had been firmly established in the minds of
the Ummah as a result of the activities of the Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) and
their companions in educating them, firstly, about the issue of designation,
secondly, about the cause of the perverseness of the Umayyad regime and its
deviation from Islam on a theoretical and practical level, and thirdly, about
the reason for the Umayyad rulers implementing the principle of designation (nass)
in their own particular way. For example, Mu’awiyah implemented it by means of
designating his heir apparent and seeking prior allegiance (bay’ah) for him. Due
to all that, the principle of nass became the sole basis in the minds of a large
section of Muslims, and came to be regarded as the most preferable choice among
the rest as the source of the legitimacy of rule on the basis of actual and
practical leadership. The principle of bay’ah became invalid as the only source
of legitimate rule and was no longer anything but a complementary aspect of the
principle of nass.
When ‘Abbasid da’wah began, it confronted this reality in the political domain
as well as in the mind of the Ummah. It also used all the suggestions and
concepts of the past to allude to the principle of nass, without making an
explicit commitment to it, for the fear that such a commitment would entail
handing over power to the legitimate ruler.
Thus the ‘Abbasid missionaries exploited the names of the ‘Alids and the
(A), and the term ‘itrah (progeny). They constantly used an ambiguous expression
which had been used earlier by certain people who had revolted against the
Umayyads after the revolution of al-Husayn (A): the call to "al-rida min aal
This expression was a new endorsement of the position based on the principle of
nass – and it was aimed to exploit all the political potential that this
principle carried with the Ummah – without explicitly committing to it. This
would enable them to make an about-face in a massive publicity operation aimed
to misguide the Muslim public opinion. The ‘Abbasid missionary activity advanced
under this banner, and when it implemented its political plan to overthrow the
Umayyad regime and establish the ‘Abbasid state, it was based on the principle
From the very first speech of Abu al-‘Abbas al-Saffah, after he was acknowledged
as the leader in Kufah, the ‘Abbasids claimed that they had implemented the
political plan of the AhlulBayt (A), the family of ‘Ali (A), the Banu Hashim
and the descendants of the Prophet (S).
With the implementation of the ‘Abbasid plan, three different ideas in the
Islamic political thought were alternately used, in order to address the main
question in the Islamic political problem during the era of the Infallible Imams
(A). The question dealt with the source of the legitimacy of actual leadership
after the expiry of all Islamic political entities which traced their origins to
Islam and claimed to practise it.
1. The principle of nass. This was the principle of the Imams of the AhlulBayt
(A) who devoted themselves to establish it firmly in the mind of the Ummah and
to create an awareness in it through it, so that it became, as mentioned,
generally acceptable to all the Muslims, whether as the sole formula for
legitimacy of rule or as the most preferable one.
2. The principle of bay’ah. It completely ignored the principle of nass and did
not acknowledge it, directly or indirectly.
3. The principle of "al-rida min aal Muhammad". It was the formula on which the
‘Abbasid missionary activity was based and which was politically implemented.
This principle, which in essence was the principle of bay’ah, was actually, as
we have said, a distortion of the principle of nass aimed to exploit its
political potential on one hand, and to escape from its political implications
on the other. The political implication of the principle of nass is government
by the Infallible Imam. This was what the ‘Abbasids did their utmost to prevent.
However, for the success of their missionary activity, they urgently needed the
political benefits of the principle of nass; hence the slogan of "al-rida min
Other expressions used by them were: "’Alids", "Hashimites", "AhlulBayt," "the
Offspring of the Prophet" (dhurriyyat al-Nabi)", and "the Progeny" (‘itrah).
These were the ideological and political tools they used to achieve their aim,
and they accomplished it in the following way. In the mind of the Ummah the
principle of nass was associated with the AhlulBayt (A). Mentioning nass would
make one immediately think of the pre-eminent right of the Imams of the
(A), and speaking of the Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) in a political context
would call to mind the principle of nass.
The ‘Abbasid missionary activity took advantage of this association and
connection between nass and the AhlulBayt (A), who were regarded as being the
embodiment of the principle of nass in Islamic society. After their victory, the
‘Abbasids developed the ideology that served as the basis of vindicating their
rule in order to counter the difficulty created by the discovery of the truth by
some of the senior leaders of the da’wah, who believed that they were active
against the Umayyads on the basis of the principle of nass. The ‘Abbasids had
used the slogan ‘revenge for the family of Muhammad (S)’, as a justification for
holding on to political power. They also used the terms ‘right’ (al-haqq) and
‘inheritance’ (irth) to vindicate their ideological stand. This was a political
message understood by the people, and it suggested the principle of nass to
certain groups of people who did not have strong links with the AhlulBayt (A).
The evil ‘ulama’ and venal thinkers were able, by intellectual and theological
maneuvering, to misguide the people about the true meaning of the principle of
3. New Distortions, and the Dilemma of the ‘Abbasid Regime:
After the triumph of the ‘Abbasids and the realization of their plan, the Imams
of the AhlulBayt (A) and their companions did not give up their political
activity, based on the principle of nass, in the Ummah. Now, they did not only
have to deal with the principle of the bay’ah. A new, political concept had
entered the scene; it was the notion of ‘al-rida min aal Muhammad (S)’. The
legitimacy claimed by the ‘Abbasids had been acquired on the basis of this
formula on the instructions of Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah.
The Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) and their followers faced these new conditions
with vigour. A penetrating study of the texts concerning Imamate pertaining to
the period following the establishment of the ‘Abbasid state will reveal a
development in the quantity of these texts, their intellectual and ideological
content, and the increased emphasis on the central position of the Imamate in
the belief of the Ummah.
The activity of the Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) and their followers in
educating and making the Ummah aware of the political question on the basis of
nass, in revealing the fabrications of the ‘Abbasid regime regarding the
legitimacy of actual leadership, and disclosing the ambiguity which was
exploited in the slogan ‘al-rida min aal Muhammad (S)’ – all that re-awakened
the consciousness of the Ummah with regard to the principle of nass and the
conception of Imamate.
This education on the one hand, and the injustices committed by the ‘Abbasid
government on the other, served to nurture an atmosphere of revolution in the
Ummah based on the principle of nass. This was often done with the slogan of
‘al-rida min aal Muhammad (S)’ – the same slogan on whose basis the ‘Abbasid
state had been established and by which it acquired its legitimacy. This means
that the legitimacy of ‘Abbasid rule had completely disappeared and the idea of
a radical change, instead of one of mere reform, was put forward.
Thus it is evident that the problem which began to seriously trouble the
‘Abbasid state regarding the basis of legitimacy of rule was a second political
problem resulting from the political and military conflicts within the state
between the major forces which formed the caliphal state, as well as the
conflicts among the ‘Abbasids themselves. From the reign of al-Mansur, in the
early stages of their rule, the ‘Abbasids had faced the problem of legitimacy
with the policy of suppressing the ‘Alids by measures unheard of in history.
They also employed legal notions to bear upon the political question, such as:
‘right’ (haqq), ‘inheritance’ (irth), ‘kinship’ (qarabah), and priority of
paternal cousins over daughter’s sons.
Jurisprudence (fiqh), speculation, literature and theology were all used in this
political battle, and some heretical theological sects emerged which put forward
certain concepts and expressions that were employed in it. However, bitter
experience had proved that these repressive measures not only failed, but
further nourished the propagation and continuance of revolutionary trends which
rejected the ‘Abbasid regime.
Al-Ma’mun realized the futility of this method in facing the problem caused by
the principle of nass. He realized that he could deal successfully with the
problem arising from the struggle of factions among the ‘Abbasids and the
struggle of the major powers in the regime through political and military means.
However, he could not deal with the first problem – that of the nass – with the
same measures, since it was of a different nature and would not yield to such
measures. Political measures would not be of any use, and military measures
would only aggravate the problem.
The ‘Abbasids were very aware of the ineffectiveness of political measures in
this kind of predicament and of the counter-productive effects of military
measures. It was enough to recall how the Umayyads dealt with the problem of
Khurasan at the beginning of the ‘Abbasid revolution, in order to learn a lesson
Al-Ma’mun confronted both the problems together. He continued to deal with the
second problem using the customary military and political methods, but he faced
the first fundamental issue of legitimacy through an understanding of the nature
and method of its treatment. Al-Ma’mun realized that this problem had to be
dealt with in a way that was in keeping with its nature. An ideological problem
had political effects, so it was not reasonable to treat the effects without
treating their cause. The appropriate method should also be ideological. Thus,
he conceived the idea of an ideological solution for the ideological problem,
and that was to make al-‘Imam ‘Ali ibn Musa ibn Ja’far (A), called al-Rida, the
The solution was brilliant, for it revived the ‘Abbasid da’wah and restored
effectiveness and credibility to the slogan "al-rida min aal Muhammad" by
embodying it in the person who represented that slogan in the mind of the Ummah.
Thus the slogan remained no longer vague or obscure; rather it was now portrayed
in a particular person who represented the principle of nass in its complete
purity. The brilliance of the idea was that it presented an exemplary solution
to the problem, which realized the goal of al-Ma’mun’s greatest desire.
On the one hand, it gave legitimacy to the leadership, thus putting an end to
the political and ideological problem and legitimating all military and
political confrontations with the revolutionary movement. On the other hand, it
deferred returning the right (to the Imam of the AhlulBayt [A]), for it was
succession and not a transfer of power that was offered. It was doubtful that
the heir apparency offered would result in sovereign rule, since al-‘Imam al-Rida
(A) was twenty-two years older than al-Ma’mun.
The idea was also brilliant since, apparently, it completely altered the balance
in al-Ma’mun’s favour, for the ideological problem which was earlier than the
problem of al-Ma’mun and the ‘Abbasid regime now became the problem of the
followers of the principle of nass and the figure who was its embodiment:
al-‘Imam al-Rida (A).
4. The Problematical Aspect of Heir Apparency:
One aspect of this problem is that it is completely natural and understandable
that a ruler who unlawfully holds power, as a result of which he is plagued by
dangers and difficulties, should authorize the handing over of power after him
to the rightful and lawful nominee who is twenty-two years older than him. This
would be carried out in a carefully planned operation by the actual ruler who
wished to overcome his difficulties in this way. The explanation of this aspect
of the problem is simple after the circumstances, aims and precautions are
clarified in light of our knowledge of the central issue in the Islamic
However, that which is difficult to understand is why the lawful, older nominee
should accept this succession. Such an acceptance may imply an acknowledgement
of the legitimacy of the de facto ruler, helping to put an end to his
difficulties, in exchange for the promise of handing over the government.
Naturally, it was not possible to fulfil such a promise in view of the
difference in the ages of the ruler and his heir apparent, in view of the
constant possibility of assassination, and especially in view of what was
indicated by al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) when he said: "It is a matter that will not be
accomplished" and his awareness that al-Ma’mun’s moves were not motivated by any
conviction that the right to rule should be returned to those worthy of it, but
only out of necessity. This is the problematic aspect of the issue.
To solve this problem, we must return to the fundamental aim of the Imams of the
AhlulBayt (A) after the martyrdom of al-Husayn (A). In the light of that we
will understand why al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) first refused and then accepted the
bay’ah of succession to al-Ma’mun.
As we said, this aim was twofold: firstly, to protect Islam from being
distorted, falsified and misinterpreted; secondly, to protect the followers of
the authentic Islamic path, the followers of the principle of nass and those
Muslims close to it, from ignorance, deviation and liquidation. Al-‘Imam al-Rida
(A) in his refusal and acceptance, and in his term as the heir apparent, adopted
a stand appropriate for this aim and took steps which led towards its
fulfilment, in the midst of the varying reactions of amazement, resentment and
He was aware that the allegiance offered to him was the allegiance of death. He
was aware of the difficulty of al-Ma’mun and the ‘Abbasid caliphate, of the aims
of al-Ma’mun in offering him the heir apparency, and of his own dilemma in this
offer, which held the danger of acknowledging the legitimacy of al-Ma’mun’s rule
and thus acknowledging the legitimacy of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. He was aware of
the traps which would be set in his way, not the least dangerous of which would
be the attempt to involve him in the apparatus of a government and an
administration which he had not himself set up, and which were not in keeping
with his views, his policies, and his character.
He was aware of all that. That is why his first stand towards the offer was to
reject it. Al-Ma’mun and his party continued their efforts to persuade him, and
he continued to refuse it until he faced veiled and open threats of death,
whence he accepted the heir apparency, "tearfully and sorrowfully", according to
many reports. This was how al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) explained his acceptance at
various times to some of his companions.
The refusal was understandable. It was in keeping with his general situation,
since he was aware of al-Ma’mun’s aims and of his own aims in his lifetime.
However, the acceptance requires an explanation. The threat of death, inasmuch
as it was a threat to a personal life, was not a sufficient reason, in our view,
for the acceptance. The position of al-Rida (A) resembled in certain aspects the
position of al-Husayn (A), in a form that was in conformity with al-Ma’mun’s
personality and era, and al-Husayn (A) had made the choice of martyrdom. We must
discover the reason, deeper than that of preservation of personal life, which
lay behind al-‘Imam al-Rida’s acceptance of the heir apparency and which was
more fitted to his personality as an Infallible Imam and more in keeping with
the firm aim of the Infallible Imams. In fact, we see that preserving personal
life was not one of the real reasons for the acceptance, for al-Ma’mun’s offer
of heir apparency itself amounted to a sentence of death for al-‘Imam al-Rida
(A). We believe that the Imam was aware of it, and perhaps because of that, he
did not take any of his family to Marv, presuming that the same fate that was in
store for him would befall them.
He was under a sentence of death if he did not accept, and he was under a
sentence of death if he did. The difference between the two conditions was that
either the sentence would be put into effect or postponed. We believe that his
refusal was aimed to reveal further elements of al-Ma’mun’s plans and intentions
as well as the network of contacts which directed the operation of succession (wilayat
al-‘ahd). His rejection of the heir apparency was not merely a simple reaction.
We believe that al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) in his stand – taking into account the
difference in eras and the nature of the opposition -strongly resembled the
stand of al-‘Imam al-Hasan (A). The difference between the two was that al-Hasan
(A) faced an immediate or deferred death sentence by witholding what was in his
power to give. Al-Rida (A) faced immediate or deferred sentence, on the basis of
the false offer that he would gain his usurped rights in the future. But in
order to negate the legitimacy of this right, he chose deferment – like al-‘Imam
al-Hasan (A) – since it was more suited to the aim of the Imams (A). Al-‘Imam
al-Husayn (A) chose immediate death since it was more in keeping with his
circumstances and the circumstances of the Ummah of his time, more closely
connected to the firm aim of the Infallible Imams, and more destructive of his
enemy, Yazid and the Umayyad regime.
5. The Causes:
In order to understand the underlying cause for al-‘Imam al-Rida’s (A)
acceptance of the fatal allegiance, we must look for the answers on two levels.
Firstly, what might have happened if he did not accept, and secondly, what was
his aim when he did accept?
Firstly, what might have happened if al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) did not accept the
fatal allegiance? We believe that which might have happened is as follows:
a. Death. It was necessary for him to avoid being killed, not to preserve his
own life, for the Imams did not value their own lives and consider them
important except as a means of serving the Ummah. His death would open the door
wide for tribulations for the followers of the AhlulBayt (A), who would then
have no refuge or guide. We must link the avoidance of death with the essence of
the issue of Imamate and its timing, when we note how young al-‘Imam al-Jawad
(A) was at the time the offer of heir apparency was made. His life was committed
to achieving the aims and to avoiding the dangers.
He explained his acceptance to one of his companions who asked him about it,
saying: "I chose acceptance over death." To another companion who asked him:
"What made you become involved in the (matter of) heir apparency (wilayat al-‘ahd)?"
he answered: "That which made my grandfather (i.e. ‘Ali [A]) to become involved
in the council (shura)?"
We must note that he (A) was compelled to give this simple explanation,
acceptable to the people, that he being on his guard against being killed, or
the ambiguous explanation in which he made al-‘Imam ‘Ali (A) his precedent. We
must also note that he gave explanations of saving himself from being killed in
some of his other discussions. However, we must be aware that he was compelled
to give this kind of explanation, for he was not in a position to speak openly
about the reasons underlying his acceptance, in order not to disclose his plan,
the reasons why it was necessary, and his actual objective.
He was under surveillance; his conversations and his letters were controlled. He
lived in the same conditions as al-‘Imam al-Hasan (A) and bore its agonies, as
when he heard someone say to him: "Peace be on you, O humiliator of the
believers", without being able to explain his ordeal to the people, not even to
many of his confidants. He had to suffer martyrdom every day while he still
lived, protecting those whom he loved and defended with his life, while they
misunderstood and misinterpreted his actions!
This and other similar situations reveal to us how forlorn the responsibility of
leadership was, isolated as he was even from the people closest to him, sad and
distressed even in the radiant moments when difficult decisions were taken
without being able to explain their reasons. How many agonies and pains did the
Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) suffer because of that, especially Amir al-Mu’minin
‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (A) who had the greatest share of this kind of suffering!
b. It was possible that he might not have been killed, but even then it was
certain that there would be an increase in the repression, persecution and exile
of the followers of the AhlulBayt (A). In this way, al-Ma’mun would be able to
put pressure on him and take his revenge.
c. It was possible that his rejection of the heir apparency might have led al-Ma’mun’s
enemies to exploit the situation, which would have added to the stormy
revolutionary reactions on the Islamic scene at that time. Moreover, al-Ma’mun’s
overthrow was in the interests of the hard-line ‘Abbasids, the party of al-‘Amin,
with their attitude to the ‘Alids and their hatred of the Iranians; for the
followers of the AhlulBayt (A) did not have the ability to take over the
government and replace al-Ma’mun after his downfall.
d. It was possible that the refusal might have led to a wide-ranging propaganda
against the Imam (A), to the effect that he had let a valuable opportunity pass
by, and that in turn might have led to confusion and disarray among the people
following the AhlulBayt (A), who would have been subjected to persecution,
exile, and intimidation. The inevitable question would have been raised in this
dilemma: ‘Why didn’t he accept when the caliphate was offered to him?’, instead
of the question:
‘Why did he accept?’ We may recall circumstances similar to this in the issue of
the arbitration after Siffin and that which took place in regard to the issue of
the truce (sulh) with al-‘Imam al-Hasan (A).
e. Finally, we may ask: Had al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) insisted on refusing the offer,
wouldn’t al-Ma’mun have been able to find an ‘Alid substitute, an important
member of society, whom he could appoint as successor? There were personalities
among the Zaydis who were prepared for such an undertaking. There were also
independent ‘Alid personalities ready to accept this position. If this occurred,
it was certain that the results would have been totally negative, and no new,
positive achievements would have been realized by rejecting the offer. This is
what such an occurrence could have led to, together with the disagreement that
could arise among the followers of the principle of nass.
Secondly, what was his aim when he did accept?
a. It was to avoid all the negative results which would have ensued from his
refusal. He had removed the sentence of death on himself, thus avoiding the
occurrence of a change in the leadership of the AhlulBayt (A) during a
critical period. He had also avoided a new wave of terror, exile and execution
against the followers of the AhlulBayt (A), and prevented the hardline
‘Abbasid faction from taking full control of the regime. In fact, he had created
circumstances suitable for destroying this faction and had neutralized its
capacity for political activity and its influence on the course of events.
He had prevented confusion and disorder among the followers of the AhlulBayt
Finally, he had prevented al-Ma’mun from substituting him with ‘an ‘Alid
successor, through whom he could exercise a policy of repression against the
followers of the AhlulBayt (A), using the principle of nass as an excuse.
b. By his acceptance, he was able to get in touch with people who would not have
dared to communicate with him, had he not been the heir apparent. Thus, there
gathered around him the Murji’ites, the Ahl al-Hadith, the Zaydis, the Ahl
al-Sunnah and all the Shi’ite sects.
Through this contact, he was able to work with them on the basis of the
principle of nass. Through it, he also enabled the traditionists and theologians
on the path of the Imams of the AhlulBayt (A) to come into safe and free
contact with these opposing sects, and put forward intellectual and political
issues for calm, objective, and learned discussion. Al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) himself
practised this kind of wide-flinging intellectual activity. We should not
underestimate the positive intellectual and political results which were
achieved in the interest of the followers of the AhlulBayt (A) from this
contact and interaction.
c. He enabled the intellectual leadership on the path of the AhlulBayt (A) to
communicate and interact, freely and safely, with all classes of people, on the
basis of the principle of nass. Thus the principle of nass became more deeply
rooted in the minds of the people and more effective in confronting the evil and
misleading designs of the government and the corrupt religious scholars who
aided it. It also gained greater acceptance among the upper classes. These
positive and negative causes were not all defensive, but were a combination of
defensive and offensive. Some of them were defensive and precautionary, while
others were aggressive and penetrative.
Thus, after knowing the reasons for al-Ma’mun’s offer, these are the possible
causes for al-‘Imam al-Rida’s (A) acceptance of the offer of the heir apparency.
What were the results, as far as achievement of the aims was concerned?
6. The Results:
Al-Ma’mun had achieved his immediate and urgent objectives but had failed to
achieve his strategic objective. Al-Rida (A) had achieved his immediate and
urgent objectives, and was successful in achieving his strategic objective as
1. Al-Ma’mun had achieved his aim of restraining revolutionary activities
against the ‘Abbasid regime, whether within groups following the principle of
nass, or within the dissenting opposition who did not accept that principle.
Providing the revolution with revolutionaries depended, in both the cases, on
the hostile Muslim population. They saw in the acceptance of the heir apparency
by al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) a clear sign for the need to establish a truce between
themselves and the regime, and so realized that armed revolutionary activity
during that period was unreasonable. Perhaps some revolutionary leaders had also
reconciled with that because they no longer had the means to arouse the people
and to mobilize them for the revolution.
2. Al-Ma’mun had achieved his aim of creating a wider base for the political
acknowledgement of his caliphate, since the allegiance to al-Rida (A)
necessitated a renewal of allegiance to al-Ma’mun and an allegiance by many who
had not previously acknowledged him. Thus, as a result of the allegiance to the
successor, a united stand was taken by all during al-Ma’mun’s rule. We may
notice here what al-Ma’mun wrote in the document of heir apparency: "The family
(AhlulBayt) of the Amir al-Mu’minin (i.e. al-Ma’mun) paid allegiance to the
Amir al-Mu’minin and to al-Rida (A) after him, as did the commanders and troops
of the city, and all the Muslims."
He clearly asked for a renewal of allegiance to himself on this occasion, not
only for allegiance to the heir apparent. However, he demanded sole obedience to
himself from those who paid allegiance, as he stated in his document: "And
hasten to obedience to Allah and obedience to the Amir al-Mu’minin". He did not
include his successor in this statement and this reveals some of the hidden
aspects in his plan.
3. He achieved his aim of creating great confusion among his enemies in the
‘Abbasid household and their Arab supporters, who were partisans of al-‘Amin.
This made them too weak to resist him and struggle against his regime. They
became fragmented, since the people moved away from them, and the popular base
which no longer had an issue to fight over, broke up.
These were the urgent and immediate aims of al-Ma’mun on which the survival and
stability of his rule depended. The continuance of revolutionary activities
against him, the existence in many regions of the empire of many groups of
Muslims who had not paid allegiance to him, and the conspiracies of the ‘Abbasid
household against him – these were factors which could have led to the downfall
of his regime. Al-Ma’mun achieved these aims and ensured the stability and
survival of his regime. Al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) also achieved his urgent and
immediate aims by accepting the heir apparency, the allegiance of death. His
aims justified this, and all or most of them were realized.
On the strategic level, however, al-Ma’mun had failed while al-Rida (A) had been
7. Success and Failure:
Al-Ma’mun’s strategic aim had been to make his own caliphate, and the caliphate
of the ‘Abbasids in general, an expression of the principle of nass in the minds
of the Muslims in general, and in the minds of the followers of the Imams of the
AhlulBayt (A) in particular.
This was one of the oldest plans on which ‘Abbasid missionary activity (da’wah)
and thereafter the ‘Abbasid state were based, for among the claims which were
the basis of the da’wah and the state was the declaration about the wasiyyah
from ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (A) to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah, to Abu Hashim ‘Abd
Allah ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah, to ‘Ali ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn al-‘Abbas, to
his son Muhammad ibn ‘Ali, to Ibrahim, the Imam. Al-Saffah referred to this
declaration in his first speech after allegiance was paid to him in Kufah. It
was also quoted in Kufah, Madinah, and other places by Dawud ibn ‘Ali and
various other ‘Abbasid leaders.
This was al-Ma’mun’s strategic aim. When that was impossible for him to achieve,
there was a substitute strategic aim, i.e., to remove the principle of nass as
an ideological, doctrinal principle bound to the core of religious belief, and
to turn it into a mere political formula devoid of any ideological or doctrinal
content – a formula like that of other political and religious groups and
parties fighting on the Islamic stage.
This aim of al-Ma’mun is evident in the many debates arranged by him between
al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) and the many groups of religious scholars, theologians,
philosophers, and men of letters. He summarized it in a statement of his to
al-‘Imam al-Rida (A): "I consider the differences of our Shi’ah concerning that
– the legitimacy of rule – to be a result of heresy (hawa) and bigotry."
The first aspect of this aim made use of the unity of the Hashimite house with
its ‘Alid and ‘Abbasid branches, and then its political unity, to make it, in
its appearance and meaning, a firmly rooted reality in the mind of the Ummah.
The second aspect of the aim tried to, show al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) as a political,
wordly, and maneuvering figure.
The achievement of this aim enabled political interaction with the principle of
nass, and made it possible to make an alliance with it, enter into settlements
with it, and to shape it like any other political formula. This was the
strategic aim of al-Ma’mun, while the strategic aim of al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) was
to prevent al-Ma’mun from achieving his objective.
All al-Ma’mun’s actions in the issue of succession were directed towards
achieving this aim. The negative stand adopted by al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) was to
frustrate al-Ma’mun’s conspiracy regarding the principle of nass while his
positive stand was to firmly root the principle of nass in the mind of the
Ummah, as it was closely linked to Islamic belief and was not merely a political
We find in the life of al-‘Imam al-Rida (A), before and after the fated
allegiance, attitudes and statements which illustrate his plan of protecting
himself from falling into the trap of al-Ma’mun’s plan and which are the signs
of confrontation in this silent battle about the strategic aim of each one of
them. In what follows, we will present some of these signs. To form a complete
or an approximate picture of the efforts of al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) in this battle,
we need to make a comprehensive examination of all his words and deeds in the
legal field and in the field of intellectual guidance.
1. We come across following statements in history concerning al-Rida’s continued
rejection and then his acceptance of the heir apparency after al-Ma’mun and his
aides began to make death threats: "He accepted the heir apparency, woefully and
sorrowfully"; "He was in severe distress and under a great trial"; "He remained
saddened and grieved until his death." "He would pray: ‘O Allah, if my release
(from suffering) lies in death, then hasten the hour for me.’ ""He said to one
who rejoiced at the ceremony of allegiance: ‘Do not rejoice, for it is a matter
which will not be accomplished.’"
This is the picture of the Imam’s condition as seen by the traditionists and
historians after his decision to accept, and these were some of his statements.
In this and similar ways, he expressed his dislike and distaste of this matter,
and spread it among the people by speaking and writing of it to his confidants,
so that everyone became aware of it. Historians and traditionists have reflected
its wide knowledge among the people.
2. His stand in Neyshapur when he dictated the famous hadith to thousands of
religious scholars and traditionists, and to the rest of the people:
"The declaration (kalimah), ‘There is no god but Allah’, is My stronghold;
whoever enters My stronghold is secure from My punishment." Then he (al-‘Imam
al-Rida) said: "On its conditions (i.e. conditions of the ‘kalimah’), and I am
one of its conditions."
In this way he made a public announcement, while on his way to the heir
apparency, of the principle of nass and his position on it. It is for us to
estimate the profound and wide-spread reactions caused among the masses and the
political and educated circles by such an announcement.
3. When he was paid allegiance to as the heir apparent, he stipulated its
conditions to al-Ma’mun completely divesting the heir apparency of its power and
political content, which al-Ma’mun had hoped al-Rida (A) would exercise so that
he could achieve his strategic aim. He imposed the following conditions on
al-Ma’mun: "That he would not appoint or dismiss anyone, or abolish a practice,
or alter anything in existence, and that he would be an advisor on the matter
from a distance."
After being appointed heir apparent, the Imam resisted all attempts of al-Ma’mun
to force him into activities of power and draw him into the administrative
affairs of the ‘Abbasids. The climax of those attempts of al-Ma’mun was his
offer to al-Rida (A) to go to Iraq, in order to manage the affairs of the
caliphate from there. The conditions laid down by the Imam reflected a profound
and comprehensive awareness of the nature of the situation from its objective,
ideological and political aspects.
As regards the objective aspect, the ‘Abbasid regime was made up of ruling and
administrative organizations controlled and linked by a network of alliances
which had become corrupt. These organizations and alliances guarded themselves
against all intervention from the outside and either absorbed such intervention
or destroyed it, or, if that were not possible, removed it. When they were
unable to absorb the Imam, they tried to destroy him or remove him from their
As regards the political and ideological aspects, the participation of the Imam
would mean his receiving instructions and guidance from al-Ma’mun, and
recognizing the latter as "Amir al-Mu’minin" and the legitimate ruler of the
Islamic Urnmah. This is what al-Ma’mun wanted in order to achieve his aim of
being included in the nass formula so as to apply and regulate it himself, with
the Imam as a representative of the political formula with which the existing
government would be allied.
The conditions laid down by al-Rida (A) had frustrated al-Ma’mun’s plan. We
believe that al-Ma’mun did not expect these conditions, for the success of his
plan depended on the Imam entering the network of the alliances of power and
becoming entangled in its problems and hostilities. This would result in people
making accusations against him and directing their anger towards him, thus
tarnishing his pure and sacred image among them. In this way al-Ma’mun would
achieve his aim of transforming the formula of nass, if he could not be included
in it, into a mere political formula, and he would display the Imam as a worldly
person and political maneuverer. Al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) had avoided falling into
this trap by setting these conditions, which transformed him from being a
partner of al-Ma’mun – as the heir apparency made necessary – to being a witness
against him and one of his victims.
4. In his speech made before al-Ma’mun and important state officials,
influential people, notables from among the leaders of public opinion, and
others after the Imam was paid allegiance to as heir apparent, the Imam (A)
confined himself to saying:
We have a right over you through the Messenger of Allah, and you have a right
over us through him; so if you have fulfilled that (our right) towards us, we
must (fulfil) the right towards you.
The substance of this statement was repeated in many of his replies and
discussions, like his comparison of his own and al-Ma’mun’s positions to those
of the Prophet Joseph and the king of Egypt, and like his statement:
Whosoever follows the Messenger of Allah is entitled to receive from him.
5. His many letters and discussions in which he constantly affirmed the formula
of nass, of which is a letter about the articles of faith which he had written
in answer to a request from al-Ma’mun:
The Imam is the proof of Allah over His creation and the source of His
knowledge, and obedience to him is incumbent.
These are some examples of his statements and actions with which he confronted
al-Ma’mun’s plan, and a researcher will certainly come across many others. In
order to clarify this and other issues in the life of al-‘Imam al-Rida (A), it
would be very useful to examine, classify and analyze all the legislative and
instructive texts which originated from him during the heir apparency, and to
compare them with those which pertain to the period before it. That will reveal
new aspects of this luminous and noble life.
The statements and actions with which the Imam (A) confronted al-Ma’mun’s plan
in order to achieve his strategic aim, together with the reasons for acceptance,
led to the following results:
a. They firmly established the formula of nass in the mind of the Ummah.
b. They created an opposition within the regime on an ideological, political and
popular level (we can regard the popular sentiments, expressed during the
incident of the prayer of the festival (‘Id) as an indication of this
c. They led al-Ma’mun to adopt a defensive attitude, for he felt that the
principle of nass would have a popular reaction in society.
We will give an important example of the extent of actual influence that
al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) had on a public level. During the public outburst following
the death of al-Fadl ibn Sahl and the attack of the commanders and troops on
al-Ma’mun’s residence, the latter took refuge from them and asked the Imam (A)
to intervene and save him. The Imam came out to meet them and instructed them to
disperse, which they did. A historical report describes this scene: "He
approached the people and by Allah, they fell over each other, and he did not
signal to anyone except that he ran and continued (running) and did not stop."
This incident shows the strong influence which the Imam had over the commanders
and troops and those who were with them, despite the fact that in accordance
with the conditions that he had laid down he did not intervene in any matter
related to political authority so that he might be an object of hope or fear on
that account. Thus, he was influential due to a cause which was not political or
governmental but ideological, i.e., the belief in the nass and the obedience
which that entailed.
Al-Ma’mun realized through his political experience that the appearance of these
reactions demanded an end of this experiment, the experiment of heir apparency.
He discovered that he had failed to realize his strategic aim as regards nass
and that it was the Imam who had been victorious in this field. So he preferred
to be content with the achievements of his immediate and urgent aims, before
there was a reaction to the Imam’s victory regarding nass. This would have
created an irredeemable situation, in which the caliphate of al-Ma’mun and the
‘Abbasids would have fallen into turmoil and swept away in a revolution which
upheld the banner of nass in its purity.
Thus, he ended the allegiance of death by poisoning al-‘Imam al-Rida (A).
In this way, al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) became another one of those for whom Allah
seeks retaliation (tha’r) in the battlefield between Islam and error. Tears were
shed for him, hearts grieved for him, and he became an excellent model for those
striving in the way of Allah and the oppressed.
When we see the similarity between al-‘Imam al-Rida’s acceptance of the heir
apparency and al-‘Imam al-Hasan’s (A) acceptance of it, and then the similarity
between al-‘Imam al-Rida’s acceptance of the allegiance of death and the
decision to embrace martyrdom by al-‘Imam al-Husayn (A), we are in the final
stage of the study. When estimating the effects on Islamic society during the
era of al-‘Imam al-Rida (A), of its immediate and urgent aims, and the greater
goals of the Islamic movement in the history of the Imams of the AhlulBayt
(A), we also see a resemblance between the acceptance of heir apparency by the
Imam and the treaty of Hudaybiyyah. The Messenger of Allah (S) complied with the
offer of the Quraysh – just as al-Rida (A) accepted al-Ma’mun’s offer – which
amazed many of his companions, angered others, and was accepted by those among
them who possessed awareness. Some saw in the action of the Messenger of Allah
(S) a granting of undeserved concessions to the Quraysh, but the outcome of the
treaty of Hudaybiyyah was a victory, in the near future, of the strategic
objectives of Islam. The acceptance of the heir apparency resulted in a victory,
in the near future, of immediate and urgent aims, and of the strategic objective
of al-‘Imam al-Rida, in view of his being the guardian of Islam.
The former was one of the battles of Islam against disbelief (kufr) on the level
of revelation (tanzil), and the latter was one of the battles of Islam against
disbelief on the level of interpretation (ta’wil).
May Allah’s blessing be on al-‘Imam al-Rida (A) and his fathers and his
descendants, the pure, among the former people and the latter. Praise be to
Allah, the Lord of the worlds.