Ali Ibn Musa ar-Rida (a.s.)
Agnomen: Abu 'l-Hasan
Father's name: Musa al-Kazim
Mother's name: Ummu 'l-Banin Najmah
Birth: In Medina, on Thursday,11th Dhu 'I-qi'dah 148 AH
Death: Died at the age of 55, in Mashhad (Khurasan), on Tuesday, 17th .Safar 203 AH; poisoned by al-Ma'mun, the 'Abbasid caliph; buried in Mashhad, Iran
Imam Ali ar-Rida was brought up under the holy guidance of his father for thirty-five years. His own insight and brilliance in religious matters combined with the excellent training and education given by his father made him unique in his spiritual leadership. Imam ar-Rida was a living example of the piety of the great Prophet and the chivalry and generosity of Imam 'Ali ibn Abi Talib.
Imam Musa al-Kazim was well aware of the aggressive designs of the government in power against the Imamate and therefore, during his lifetime he declared Imam ar-Rida as his successor in the presence of hundred and seventy-one prominent religious divines and called upon his sons and his family to submit to him and refer to him in all matters after him. He also left behind a written document declaring the succession of Imam ar-Rida duly signed and endorsed by not less than sixteen prominent persons. All these necessary steps were taken by the great Imam to avoid any confusion that may have arisen after his death.
Imam Musa al-Kazim was poisoned while he was still in prison and expired on 25th Rajab 183 AH, and on the same day Imam ar-Rida was declared as the Eighth Imam of the Muslim world. Imam ar-Rida had the great task before him of coming out with the correct interpretation of the Holy Qur'an; specially under the most unfavourable circumstances prevailing under the government of Harun ar-Rashid. Many belonging to the faith were imprisoned and those who were free and could not be jailed faced untold atrocities and sufferings.
Imam ar-Rida, of course, stamped his impression upon his age by carrying on the mission of the Great Prophet in a peaceful manner even during the most chaotic periods, and it was mostly due to his efforts that the teachings of the Holy Prophet and his descendants became widespread. Imam ar-Rida had inherited great qualities of head and heart from his ancestors. He was a versatile person and had full command over many languages. Ibnu 'l-Athir al-Jazari penned very rightly that Imam ar-Rida was undoubtedly the greatest sage, saint and scholar of the second century (AH). Once, on his way to Khurasan, when he (the Imam) was brought by force by the guards of al-Ma'mun from Medina, he arrived on horseback at Nayshabur.
Myriads of people gathered round him and all roads were over crowded as they had come to meet and see their great Imam. Abu Dhar'ah ar-Razi and Muhammad ibn Aslam at-Tusi, the two great scholars of the day, stepped out of the crowd and begged the Imam to halt there for a moment so that the faithful may be able to hear his voice. They also requested the Imam to address the gathering. The Imam granted the request and in his brief address told the mammoth gathering the real interpretation of la ilaha illa Allah. Quoting Allah, he continued to say that the kalimah is the fortress of Allah and whoever entered the fortress saved himself from His wrath. He paused for a moment and continued that there were also a few conditions to entitle the entrance to the fortress and the greatest of all conditions was sincere and complete submission to the Imam of the day; and very boldly and frankly explained to the people that any disloyalty to the Prophet and his descendants would withdraw the right of the entrance to the fortress.
The only way to earn Almighty Allah's pleasure was to obey the Prophet and his progeny and that was the only path to salvation and immortality. The above-mentioned incident speaks clearly of the great popularity of Imam ar-Rida, and the love, loyalty and respect the Muslims gave their beloved Imam. al-Ma'mun, the king, was conscious of the fact that he would not survive for long if he also did not express his loyalty to the great leader and his intelligence department had made it clear to him that the Iranian people were truly and sincerely loyal to the Imam and he could only win them over if he also pretended to give respect and sympathetic consideration to Imam 'Al; ar-Rida. al-Ma'mun was a very shrewd person. He made a plan to invite Imam ar-Rida and to offer him the heirship to the throne. The Imam was summoned by a royal decree and was compelled, under the circumstances, to leave Medina - where he was living a quiet life - and present himself at the royal court of al-Ma'mun.
On his arrival, al-Ma'mun showed him hospitality and great respect, then he said to him: "I want to get rid of myself of the caliphate and vest the office in you." But ar-Rida refused his offer. Then al-Ma'mun repeated his offer in a letter saying: "If you refuse what I have offered you, then you must accept being the heir after me." But again ar-Rida refused his offer vigorously. al-Ma'mun summoned him. He was alone with al-Fadl ibn Sahl, the man with two offices ( i. e., military and civil). There was no one else in their gathering. al-Ma'mun said to ar-Rida, "I thought it appropriate to invest authority over the Muslims in you and to relieve myself of the responsibility by giving it to you." When again ar-Rida refused to accept his offer, al-Ma'mun spoke to him as if threatening him for his refusal. In his speech he said, " 'Umar ibn al-Khattab made a committee of consultation (shura) (to appoint a successor). Among them was your forefather, the Commander of the faithful, 'Al; ibn Abi Talib. ('Umar) stipulated that any of them who opposed the decision should be executed. So there is no escape for you from accepting what I want from you.
I will ignore your rejection of it." In reply, ar-Rida said: "I will agree to what you want of me as far as succession is concerned on condition that I do not command, nor order, nor give legal decisions, nor judge, nor appoint, nor dismiss, nor change anything from how it is at present." al-Ma'mun accepted all of that. On the day when al-Ma'mun ordered to make the pledge of allegiance to ar-Rida, one of the close associates of ar-Rida, who was present, narrates, "On that day I was in front of him. He looked at me while I was feeling happy about what had happened. He signaled me to come closer. I went closer to him and he said so that no one else could hear, 'Do not occupy your heart with this matter and do not be happy about it. It is something which will not be achieved.' " Quoting al-'Allamah ash-Shibli from his book al-Ma'mun, we get a very clear picture of how al-Ma'mun decided to offer his leadership to Imam ar-Rida. "Imam ar-Rida was the Eighth Imam and al-Ma'mun could not help holding him in great esteem because of the Imam's piety, wisdom, knowledge, modesty, decorum and personality.
Therefore, he decided to nominate him a the rightful heir to the throne. Earlier in 200 AH he had summoned the 'Abbasids. Thirty-three thousand 'Abbasids responded to the invitation and were entertained as royal guests. During their stay at the capital he very closely observed and noted their capabilities and eventually arrived at the conclusion that not one of them deserved to succeed him. He therefore spoke to them all in an assembly in 201 AH telling them in categorical terms that none of the 'Abbasids deserved to succeed him. He demanded allegiance to Imam ar-Rida from the people in this very meeting and declared that royal robes would be green in future, the color which had the unique distinction of being that of the Imam's dress. A Royal decree was published saying that Imam ar-Rida will succeed al-Ma'mun. Even after the declaration of succession when there was every opportunity for the Imam to live a splendid worldly royal life, he did not pay any heed to material comforts and devoted himself completely to imparting the true Islamic conception of the Prophet' s teachings and the Holy Qur'an.
He spent most of his time praying to God and serving the people. Taking full advantage of the concessions given to him by virtue of his elevated position in the royal court, he organized the majalis (meetings) commemorating the martyrdom of the martyrs of Karbala'. These majalis were first held during the days of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir and Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq, but Imam ar-Rida gave the majalis a new impetus by encouraging those poets who wrote effective poems depicting the moral aspects of the tragedy and the suffering of Imam Husayn and his companions. al-Ma'mun had been very scared of the growing popularity of the Imam and he had appointed him as his heir to the throne only for the fulfillment of his own most ambitious and sinister designs and getting the Imam's endorsement to his tricky plans.
But the Imam naturally refused to give his endorsement to any such plans which were against the teaching of Islam. al-Ma'mun therefore became very disappointed with him and decided once and for all to check his growing popularity and ensuring his own survival by acting according to the old traditions of killing the Imam. Wanting to do it in a more subtle manner, he invited the Imam to dinner, and fed him poisoned grapes. The Imam died on 17th Safar 203 AH, he was buried in Tus (Mashhad) and his Grand Shrine speaks well for the great personality the Imam possessed. Myriads of Muslims visit his Shrine every year to pay their homage to this Imam.
al-Imam ar-Rida, peace be Upon him, said:
Doing seven things without doing the seven other things is self-mockery: asking for forgiveness from Allah verbally without repenting with the heart; asking for Allah's help without undertaking any effort; making a firm resolution to do something without taking due precautions; asking Allah for Paradise without enduring the related hardships; beseeching deliverance from the Hell-fire without refraining from lusts; remembering Allah without anticipating to encounter Him.
(A Brief History of The Fourteen Infallibles, p. 137-143)
The Tragic Ending
It was not politically feasible for al-Mamoon to reach Baghdad accompanied by Imam al-Rida (A.S.), for that would stir the winds of dissension against him and he might not be strong enough to withstand them. From this standpoint, our belief that al-Mamoon was the one who plotted to end the life of the Imam (A.S.) by giving him poisoned grapes is strengthened, and the historical environment at the time helps us confirm this belief even when Ibn al-Athir, in his Tarikh, thinks that that was not possible. Prominent scholars and historians such as Shaikh al-Mufid and others have also doubted it, while others such as Sayyid ibn Tawoos, Sibt ibn al-Jawzi, and al-Arbili in Kashf al-Ghumma, have all dismissed it outright. The latter strongly defended his view, but it was nevertheless no more than a simplistic and superficial defense. Al-Mamoon's letter to the Abbasides and the residents of Baghdad, which he wrote after the demise of Imam al-Rida (A.S.), gives such an impression. "He wrote the Abbasides and their supporters and to the people of Baghdad informing them of the death of Ali ibn Mousa and that they had resented his nomination of him as his successor, asking them now to go back to their loyalty to him.(1)
This may be understood as a clear admission that the death of the Imam (A.S.) was not natural during those circumstances, and the text Ibn Khaldun provides in expressing the contents of this letter provides even clearer clues to accusing al-Mamoon of murdering him; he says in his Tarikh:
"... And al-Mamoon sent messages to al-Hassan ibn Sahl, to the people of Baghdad, and to his supporters apologizing for naming him his regent and inviting them to go back to his loyalty." (2)
What can be understood regarding al-Mamoon's regret and realization of his mistake regarding the regency arrangement is that such regret is meaningless if it had happened after the Imam's death; rather, it must have occurred prior to that, so he paved the way to correct it by assassinating the Imam (A.S.) in order to please the Abbasides, their supporters, and the people of Baghdad. If we are to stay alone with just the political circumstances through which al-Mamoon was living during that shaky period of his reign, overlooking the historical texts whose contexts lead us to such a conclusion, we would still be able to point the finger to al-Mamoon regarding the crime of assassinating Imam al-Rida (A.S.) without being biased to any group or prejudiced against the accused.
Al-Saduq narrates saying, "While al-Rida (A.S.) was breathing his last, al-Mamoon said to him, `By God! I do not know which of the two calamities is greater: losing you and parting from you, or people's accusation that I assassinated you...'"(3)
In another narrative by Abul-Faraj al-Asbahani, al-Mamoon said to him, "It is very hard for me to live to see you die, and there was some hope hinging upon your stay, yet even harder for me than that is that people say I have made you drink poison, and God knows that I am innocent of that." (4)
This exciting situation of al-Mamoon discloses the fact that the accusation of his own murder of the Imam (A.S.) was the subject of argument, maybe even of conviction, even then, for al-Mamoon asserts people's accusation of him and he tries to extract an admission from the Imam (A.S.) clearing him of it, as Abul-Faraj mentions.
Simplistic Justification of al-Mamoon's Situation
It is interesting how some people find it hard to believe that al-Mamoon would assassinate the Imam (A.S.) simply because of all the grief, crying, abstention from eating and drinking, which he feigned to show his distress at the Imam's death, as if they expected al-Mamoon to show his happiness and excitement at his death in order to give credibility to the accusation others concealed. But the excuse of these folks is their superficiality in understanding history, and their shortsightedness.
How the Imam Was Murdered
Stories regarding the method al-Mamoon employed to kill Imam al-Rida (A.S.) are abundant. Abul-Faraj and al-Mufid say that he killed him by poisoned pomegranate juice and poisoned grape juice. In his Al-Irshad, al-Mufid quotes Abdullah ibn Bashir saying: "Al-Mamoon ordered me to let my nails grow as long as they could without letting anyone notice that; so I did, then he ordered to see me and he gave me something which looked like tamarind and said, `Squeeze this with both your hands,' and I did. Then he stood up, left me and went to see al-Rida (A.S.) and said to him, `How are you?' He answered, `I hope I am alright.' He said, `I, too, by the Grace of God, am alright; did any well-wisher visit you today?' He answered in the negative, so al-Mamoon became angry and called upon his servants to come, then he ordered one of them to immediately take the pomegranate juice to him, adding, `... for he cannot do without it.' Then he called me to him and said: `Squeeze it with your own hands,' and so I did. Then al-Mamoon handed the juice to al-Rida (A.S.) in person, and that was the reason for his death for he stayed only two days before he (A.S.) died.'"
Abul-Salt al-Harawi is quoted saying, "I entered the house of al-Rida (A.S.) after al-Mamoon had already left and he said to me, `O Abul-Salt! They have done it...!' and he kept unifying and praising God." Muhammad ibn al-Jahm is quoted saying, "Al-Rida (A.S.) used to love grapes. Some grapes were said to be prepared for him; needles were pierced inside them at their very tips and were kept like that for several days. Then the needles were taken out, and they were brought to him and he ate some of them and fell into the sickness we have mentioned about him. The grapes killed him, and it was said that that was one of the most effective methods of poisoning." (5)
Regardless of the method of assassination, what seems to be acceptable, having examined all texts and the historical background of the political circumstances at that time, al-Mamoon was indeed the one who killed Imam al-Rida (A.S.), and we do not have the slightest doubt or hesitation about that.
"His death occurred at Toos in a village called Sanabad, of the Nooqan area, and he was buried at the house of Hameed ibn Tahtaba under the dome where Haroun al-Rashid had been buried, and he was buried beside him facing the qibla." (6)
"When al-Rida (A.S.) died, al-Mamoon did not disclose it when it happened, leaving him dead for one day and one night, then he called for Muhammad ibn Ja'fer ibn Muhammad and a group of descendants of Abu Talib. When they were present, he showed him to them; his corpse looked alright; then he started weeping and addressed the corpse saying, `O Brother! It is indeed very hard for me to see you in such a condition, and I was hoping to go before you, but God insisted on carrying out His decree,' and he showed a great deal of agony and grief and went out carrying the coffin with others till he reached the place where it is now buried..." (7)
"... So al-Mamoon was present there before the grave was dug, and he ordered his grave to be dug beside that of his father, then he approached us and said, `The person inside this coffin told me that when his grave is dug, water and fish will appear underneath; so, dig...' They dug. When they finished digging, a spring of water appeared, and fish appeared in it, then the water dissipated, and al-Rida (A.S.), peace be upon him, was then buried." (8)
Imam is Eulogized
When al-Rida (A.S.) died, poets composed eulogies and mourned in him the hope that entertained the conscience of the nation that one day he would be the caliph so that equity might restore its shining light after being put out by the caliphs who employed cheating and deception as their methods to mislead and confuse the nation. When they set the limits of conduct for others, they themselves at the same time trampled upon them by committing every act prohibited by God in His Book and by His Prophet (S.A.W.), far from the eyes of the people, and maybe even in public. Among those who eulogized him was Da'bal ibn Ali al-Khuza'i, the renown poet of the Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) and their advocate. He composed many eulogies about Imam al-Rida (A.S.). Among them is what Abul-Faraj quotes:
"Ali ibn Sulayman al-Akhfash recited verses for me by Da'bal ibn Ali al-Khuza'i in which he mentioned al-Rida (A.S.) and the poison he was given and mourning one of his sons and chastising the Abbaside caliphs:
Unwillingly did you part with Ahmed, and the earth
Engulfed a building, sublime and dignified,
You housed him in a place mean in wares
And I against my wish compromised,
A fugitive just for loving him...
Had I not been consoled by the Prophet
And by his near in kin, I would have
Poured my tears for him abundantly;
I loved myself, but I loved even more
The family of Muhammad whose love resides
In my heart, living with me, being in me.
The Prophet's legacy availed them naught,
For Death in it with them has a share,
And a share for the hope for death...
Hunted and pursued for many a year
By foxes from Umayya, time and again.
Banu Abbas played havoc with the creed,
Reaping oppression, miserliness and greed.
Named `Rashid' who was never to wisdom keen,
Named this `Mamoon' and named that `Amin'!
Never did I accept them to be for
Wisdom a name, but for guidance a shame.
Nor to their trusts were they ever true,
Their `Rashid' is misguided and his sons
One with sins more than the other's impudence.
O grave in the foreign land of Toos!
Mourned are you by caravans shunning daylight...
I am in doubt... Should I offer a drink
Of water to one, so I remember you and cry?
Or is in the cup my remedy so I die?
Either I meant, when I say a drink,
If it is death, then let it be swift.
How marvellous they call you Pleased!
For they never made your life eased.
Is it odd when rogues distort the light
Of God's Creed, though it is bright?
Your favours miracles made for them and me,
But who is among them that can ever see?"
Thus does Da'bal expose in these verses the memories of horrible tragedies to which Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) were exposed, and the woes they suffered from at the hands of the governments of both Umayyads and Abbasides, chastising al-Rashid and both his sons, then going after that to eulogize Imam al-Rida (A.S.) in a style which shows genuine distress and agony, including the same accusation that al-Mamoon had murdered him.
Among others who eulogized him was Amr al-Salami who says in his eulogy:
O you, caravan singer, singing at the reins!
Listen, and let others tomorrow listen to thee...
Recite Salam on a grave at Toos and do not
Recite Salam or wish well the people of Toos,
Terror did the hearts of Muslims fill,
And fear of Iblis now has hatched at will,
For silence now is the best man that lived
So, what a loss, and what a loser!
Should Death come to rule the throne,
He will face men with faces of stone.
Away with Toos for never were its homes
Telling of misery to come and to be
A wedding for the dead, not a life for the doer.
How long the flute, how merry the wedding!
Fates reached him with the claws,
While troops throng and hard to count
Death found the most gentle cub in his den,
And death meets the father of cubs in the den.
Still deriving light from his father,
Reaching the Prophet, light without fire.
In soil their branches stood tall and high
Of lofty trunk, in the King's land thrives.
Branches stand when roots are firm
And the world by sure faith lives.
No day is more fit for grief
For beating, for tearing the sleeve
For wounding cheeks, for cutting the nose
More than the day of Toos
When mourners mourned, scribes cried,
`Is it really true al-Rida died?'
Death takes only the envied away.
That who lived for two minutes or a day
Is lying like one who will join and stay
Maybe in two days..., who can say?
When the sun shone, his own did set,
The day had come when he was to rest.
Why? Give the garb of death please to me,
Why take him into a grave, woe unto me?
Victim of a day that couldn't dare to be
Victimized. Wrapped him in the garb of death,
Let me be the wearer, please, not he,
Of a garb never sewn or worn before.
Greets you the One you did worship and adore,
On days of heat, nights of chill, in the plains,
Had things in life not stood in contrast
In virtues, none would have ever passed
A judgement in it that could endure.
The Almighty has welcomed thee to a place
That is everlasting with bliss and grace
To His Messenger you are now near,
A place so lovely, a place so dear.
In his Maqatil, Abul-Faraj indicated that when this poem won publicity and became well known, Ashja' altered it and made it in praise of al-Rashid! (9)
Da'bal al-Khuza'i said: "When the news of the death of al-Rida (A.S.) reached me, I was at Qum and I recited one my poems; some of its verses were:
I see the Umayyads excused if they were to kill,
But I see no reason why the Abbasides should at will;
Sons of Harb, Marwan and their breed
Banu Ma'eet, grudge and hate is their creed.
People whom you had to fight in early days
Of Islam to bring them to His ways.
When they became in charge and did rule,
They reverted to Kufr and left the usool.
Head towards Toos, to the grave site
Of the pure one, of the faith that is right,
If you ever wish to remember Islam like me,
Pristine, Islam of Muhammad and Ali.
Two graves in Toos: one for the best of all,
And the worst man people will ever recall.
No good will reach the villain who is lying nigh
In grave to one whose virtues reach the sky,
Nor will the pure suffer any harm
When near the soul that will never calm.
No indeed! Every soul shall reap what it did earn
So take what you will, or leave it to burn!"
Da'bal composed many eulogies about Imam al-Rida (A.S.), using his poetry as a vehicle to disseminate the mission in whose principles he strongly believed which were: to attract the nation's attention to the injustice done to the Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) and to the transgression upon their rights, to the corruption of self-imposed government systems which went beyond all reasonable limits in their iniquity and despotism. Da'bal is considered the greatest poet of that time and the most articulate in defending his beliefs and the principles in which he believed. In his poetry, he provides us with an honest picture of the reality of the oppressive government system which was followed by the Abbaside dynasty then, and of the tragedies the Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) underwent because of their oppression.
Among others who eulogized the Imam (A.S.) was Ali ibn Abu Abdullah al-Khawwafi who said:
May God's Grace water thee, O land of Toos!
What treasures has your land down deep?!
In the world your lands are called good
Made good by one in Sanabad asleep,
A man whose murder was hard on Islam
A man wrapped and drenched in God's mercy.
O the grave of his! In thee are clemency,
Knowledge, purity, and glory abound.
O envied grave! Angels do thee guard!
Abu Firas al-Hamadani said:
Sinned and killed al-Rida (A.S.) and were not kind,
Men whose hatred of him made them blind.
First pleased then distressed for eternity
A band that perished after its safety.
No allegiance, kinship, or mercy did indeed
Stop the rogues from committing the foul deed.
What the poet mentions here is nothing but the bitter truth about the tragedy which was represented in the regency and the stance taken by the same ones who arranged it, for they were happy with it when they first nominated him as the successor to the caliph, the last step towards caliphate which, according to the Divine Will, was the natural right of Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.), but they became distressed when the rogues deliberately assassinated the Imam (A.S.) despite their oath of allegiance to him and despite the assurances, the promises, and the sacred oaths they had sworn...
There are many eulogies in which the poets mentioned the tragedy the Imam (A.S.) lived due to the oppression of the caliphs of his time suffices us what we have quoted of them because to elaborate means to unnecessarily prolong the discussion.
Taken from: Imam al-Rida - A Historical and Biographical Research By: Muhammad Jawad Fadlallah, Translated from the Arabic by: Yasin T. al-Jibouri.
(1) Tabari, Vol. 8, p. 558, "Events of the Year 203 A.H."
(2) Ibn Khaldun, Vol. 3, p. 250
(3) Uyoon Akhbar al-Rida, Vol. 2, p. 242
(4) Maqatil al-Talibiyyin, p. 380
(5) Al-Irshad, p. 297. A similar narrative is mentioned in Maqatil al-Talibiyyin, pp. 377-378
(6) Uyoon Akhbar al-Rida, Vol. 1, p. 18
(7) Maqatil al-Talibiyyin, p. 378
(8) Ibid., p. 380
(9) Maqatil al-Talibiyyin, pp. 378-380