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Imam 'Ali Ar-Rida (a) [Lecture 13]

Hamid Algar



-A discussion regarding the Kunya of the 8th Imam [AS]

-The influence of the 8th Imam [AS] and his tendency to quietism and emphasis on the cultivation of spirituality and knowledge.

-His influence on fiqh (Islamic Law) and medicine

-The Imam [AS] is regarded as the Mujaddid (the renewer) by Sunni Islam

-His influence of Sufism

-His wide ranging knowledge of other religions demonstrated by the debate at Marw arranged by al-Ma’mun.

-The attempt by Ma’mun to combine the Imamate and the Caliphate and the possible reasons for him doing so.

-Ma’mun backtracks on his appointment of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] as his successor and has him killed

- The influence of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] to the sacred geography of Iran.

A discussion regarding the Kunya of the 8th Imam [AS]

The life and legacy of the 8th Imam – Imam Ali al-Rida [AS]. As was always the case, the death of the preceding Imam [AS] Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS] was accompanied with a degree of uncertainty and division within the community about the identity of the successor. On this occasion however the disagreement and confusion was relatively minor and short lived, almost the entirety of the Shi’i community came to accept Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] as the 8th Imam [AS] and as the successor to Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS]. He was born in 153 AH, 770 AD, in the city of Madinah which it can be recalled before the forced removal from the city of Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS] was still a place of residence of the Imam [AS]. Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] has a number of subsidiary names which are worth considering briefly for a variety of reasons. The Imams [AS] in keeping with the traditional practise of Arabic nomenclature have also a secondary name which is known as a ‘kunya’ – it is a name indicating the fatherhood of a real or hypothetical male offspring. In other words the first element in the kunya is ‘Abu’ meaning father, this would then be followed by the name of a male offspring, typically the eldest – in the event of someone not having a son simply an imaginary name would be included there. Sometimes there is an alternative instead of the name of the son, an attribute or quality would be supplied instead indicating a close relationship between the person in question and the attribute. Generally it is found in some of the Shi’i sources particularly in the books of tradition, in the books of Shi’i hadith, the Imams [AS] are identified not by the first name with which we commonly recognise them but rather by means of the Kunya. Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] has as his kunya, Abu Hassan. Sometimes this leads to confusion because we have other Imams [AS] in the line of the twelve who have the same kunya. Therefore if it is related in the sources that it is related from Abu Hassan ‘such and such’ was said, there is the possibility of confusion. There is also interestingly enough another Kunya which is attributed to Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] – Abu Bakr – this is in the first light surprising because Abu Bakr was the name of the first Caliph of Islam, that person who is the view of Shi’ah Islam was at the origins of much of the misfortunes in early Islamic History, by accepting the caliphate in place of Imam Ali [AS]. It is already demonstrated with respect to the ancestry of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] that these considerations of legitimacy and succession to rule had not yet lead to a profound mutual hostility, the maternal grandfather of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] was a descendant of Abu Bakr. Therefore genealogically there was a linkage of the two lines. The fact that Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] had as a kunya the name Abu Bakr signifies again that the split had not yet degenerated into mutual hostility and rejection. On the contrary however ideas of unity and conciliation were in the air in the time of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS], therefore the fact that he had this kunya is significant in this way as well. Even later names which came to be associated exclusively with the first three caliphs, and therefore from the Shi’i point of view having a pejorative flavour to them were still in use. For example we find that right till the end of the period of the twelve Imams [AS], that is to say when the 12th Imam [AS] was still on earth the name ‘Umar and Uthman being used by some of the Shi’ah. It is only later when separation lead to mutual rejection and hostility that there is a segregation even in terms of name. With certain names becoming off limits for Shi’is. This does not mean to say that every name from the early period of Islamic history was acceptable and mutual – for example we do not find anyone called Mu’awiyah and Yazid – not even amongst Sunnis until very recent times, the names Mu’awiyah and Yazid would have been a gross disfavour to one’s child to impose such a name upon him. But the names of the first three caliphs were not seen as having an inherently negative quality.

Ali, is the name of the 1st Imam [AS], Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib [AS], it is also the name of the 4th Imam [AS], Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS]. Therefore by way of distinguishing this particular Imam (the 8th Imam [AS]) he is known as Ali al-Rida [AS]. Since he is buried in Iran, one often pronounces his name with the persianised version (Reza). Rida means in Arabic – satisfaction, satisfaction specifically with that which Allah (SWT) predestines for man and as a result of that satisfaction a learning of the Divine Satisfaction. There is a two-fold satisfaction, man’s satisfaction with what God decrees for him, and God’s satisfaction with a man who has made that acceptance (i.e. becomes satisfied with what God has decreed). You might expect that the name is in the adjectival form, it is not, al-Rida is an abstract noun, which in a way is more emphatic, in other words he is not simply one who is satisfied with that which has been decreed or predestined for him, he is satisfaction itself. He is satisfaction with Divine Will and Fate personified. This name was interestingly enough bestowed upon him by the Abbasid caliph who after a series of intricate events brought about the martyrdom of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS]. There is therefore a certain irony in the fact that the person who bought about the death of this Imam [AS] should also have been the one who bestowed upon him, the name or title by which he is most commonly known.

The influence of the 8th Imam [AS] and his tendency to quietism and emphasis on the cultivation of spirituality and knowledge

Imam Ali al-Rida [AS], like his father Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS] had a mother who was African, it is not known the precise place of her origin except that she was from that area that is described today as the horn of Africa, the North-Eastern point of Africa. He held the office of the Imamate for twenty years during part of which his ability to interact with followers, and with the broader Islamic community was severely circumscribed by the policy of the Abbasid Caliphs. The first decade of his Imamate he spent in relative freedom in Madinah. In fact it can be said that to begin with he enjoyed a greater freedom than Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS] had, in Madinah before his forcible removal to Iraq. Taking advantage of this freedom he taught and lectured in the courtyard of the Prophet’s [sAW] Mosque in Madinah, that mosque known as the Masjid al-Nabawi. Bearing in mind that Madinah at this point was still a major centre of scholarship and of piety, therefore the ability of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] to teach and to lecture there carried with it a high degree of interaction with all segments of the community. It would not also be those resident in Madinah that had taken up residence there, but also the pilgrims. Because then, as in fact now – in fact throughout the ages the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Makkah has as it’s concomitant a period spent also in Madinah praying in the mosque of the Prophet [sAW] and visiting his tomb. Therefore it can be presumed that Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] during his early years had the opportunity to interact with pilgrims coming from a wide variety of regions in the Muslim world, as well as scolars resident in Madinah.

From the earliest part of his life he showed exceptional talent in the religious sciences it is said of him that he memorised the Quran in no fewer than three days. Whether this feat be believed or not what is certain is that the belief that he did in fact memorise the Quran in three days, underlines the close connection between the Ahl al-bait [AS] and the Quran. It is not an entirely improbably claim, there are examples in the present day of children who memorised the entirety of the Quran and internalised it’s contents maybe not in three days but in a remarkably short period and not merely memorised the Quran but also come to understand it’s meaning and be able to respond to questions concerning it. There is a young boy in Iran, already at the age of 3 he had memorised the entirety of the Quran. At the age of 5 he was able to respond intelligently to questions concerning the contents of the Quran. If this be the case for someone who is of ultimate descent from the Imams [AS] but not one among them then the priori does not seem impossible that one of the Imams [AS], one of the ma’sumin should have memorised the Quran in an extremely short period. In any event the people of Madinah and those visiting the city would come to consult him on a variety of matters and above all interpretation of the Quran, and also questions of law. Interestingly enough when he was consulted on questions of Islamic law– he would respond in the first place with a citation from the Quran, which is important from at least two points of view. First of all it demonstrates quite precisely his thorough internalisation of the Quran. And secondly it shows in a more practically and a more immediately comprehensible fashion the links between the Imams [AS] in general, Ahl al-bait [AS] and the Quran. Although they possessed the quality of ‘Ismah, inerrancy, and from the point of view of Shi’i doctrine were entitled to without reference to any source, without reference to the Quran itself to pronounce verdicts of compelling veracity – nonetheless, Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] chose in the first place to cite a relevant verse from the Quran in answer to questions of legal content. Then if necessary or useful he would supplement his answer with hadith, hadith from the Prophet [sAW] or from his predecessors from amongst the Imams [AS] clarifying the legal import of the verses that he had just cited. This activity he seems to have begun, this public activity of teaching, of answering questions on fiqh by means of Quranic citations – roughly at the age of 20 in other words before he had acceded to the office of the Imamate.

It is possible and maybe even helpful to draw a comparison between him and among his predecessors Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] – one sees in fact parallels on more than one occasion between one of the Imams [AS] and his predecessor. For example as already mentioned Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS] can in some sense be compared to Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] the 4th Imam [AS] in that both of them excelled in piety and devotion that is to say in constant worship beyond the minimum required by the Shariah – precautionary and supplementary prayers and so forth. Likewise Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] can be compared suitably to Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] in that he left his mark primarily through learning, teaching and instruction. And in just the same way as books little trace of which survive, have been ascribed to Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS], likewise there are books that have been attributed to Imam Ali al-Rida [AS]. Some of these have survived unlike the earlier texts. There is a total of eight books attributed to Imam Ali al-Rida [AS], they deal essentially with three different but interrelated disciplines – firstly hadith – he transmitted hadith to a large number of scholars – Shi’i and Sunni alike – during the period in which he was giving instruction in Masjid al-Nabawi. When the transmission of hadith is spoken of, it should be clarified that more is involved that the simple mechanical transmission of a text – the transmission of a hadith whether in the Shi’i or Sunni context implies also the inscription of the recipient in a chain of authority. In other words to receive a hadith from a previous authority implies that that authority regards you as a trustworthy and a pious person, who can be relied upon, accurately and faithfully to transmit the hadith to others. There is more here than a simple transmission of a text from one person to the next, irrespective of the personality. In other words there must be some kind of congruity between the character and piety of the recipient of the hadith and the religious message contained in the hadith itself. So the transmission of hadith is an extremely important part of the intellectual and spiritual life of Muslims both Shi’i and Sunni, particular in the early era in question.

In addition to transmitting hadith in this fashion Imam Ali Al-Rida [AS] also wrote some clarifications of hadith. There is one case which deserves some examination because the hadith is in terms of it’s contents was somewhat problematical and also because it is very widespread. This is a hadith which the Sufis in particular are very fond of. The hadith in question runs as follows, and is very simple:-

‘Allah (SWT) created Adam [AS] in His form’

If we understand the antecedent of the possessive adjective ‘his’ to refer back to Allah (SWT) that means in effect that Allah (SWT) has a form. Allah (SWT) created Adam [AS] in his form i.e. Allah (SWT) created Adam [AS] in His (Allah’s own form), this of course is problematic in the least, in that form implies limitation, it implies quantity, and is therefore incompatible with the absoluteness – the transcendence of Allah ÓÈÍÇäå æÊÚÇáì. The form by necessity is not unique, the form by definition attains it’s separate identity with respect to other forms, therefore this would also entail a denial of the unity of Allah ÓÈÍÇäå æÊÚÇáì. It would open the door for the possibility of other Gods with other forms. To look at it from a different point of view, the hadith might be also be regarded as problematic in that it involves the Divinisation of Adam [AS], or of the descendants of Adam [AS] – of man. In other words to say that man is himself a Divine Being – the form of man is the very form of Allah (SWT) himself, so that the essential distinction upon which Islam is based, the distinction between Allah (SWT) and his creation – between the transcendent Creator and the contingent creation – this is essentially abolished. Despite these problems the hadith in question has been very current and is frequently cited especially by the Sufis, they have attempted to get around the problem by as it were redefining the word form to mean other than it’s obvious sense. They have argued for example that the Divine Attributes have attained manifestation in man, which is an arguable position – it is a plausible position, in that the Quran establishes certainly not identity between a man and God, but a degree of closeness between man and God which is not found in any other of the creation. However according to the explanation put forward by Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] all of these explanations are misplaced because the antecedent in the possessive adjective ‘his’ is not Allah (SWT) but rather Adam [AS] so we can dispense with this possibility. Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] says that in fact Allah (SWT) created Adam in his form is an incomplete citation and the hadith in its totality runs approximately as follows – in the time of the Prophet [sAW] two individuals, two Muslims were quarrelling with each other, the subject of their disagreement is unknown and unimportant. It seems that matters between them reached such a point that they themselves seem to have forgotten what the quarrel was about. In any event one of them in an excess of anger said to the other, ‘May Allah (SWT) curse you and whoever He has created in your form.’ (in other words may Allah (SWT) curse you and anyone else like you, people like you and akin to you). Thereupon the Prophet [sAW] became aware of this unseemly dispute admonished them and said, ‘Allah created Adam [AS] in his form.’ That is to say in the form of the person that you are cursing, in effect you are cursing this individual implies a cursing of the entirety of humanity – because Allah (SWT) created everyone in the form of this person that he was cursing. And this also implies disrespect to Allah (SWT) because the creation of that form is a Divine Act. Therefore ‘his’ goes back to the individual being cursed. Although this explanation dissolves the various problematic aspects of the hadith understood in the other form, the popularity of the hadith continued in Sufi circles unabated. In order to emphasise the closeness between man and God this hadith without paying particular attention to problematic implications – has continued to be constantly cited.

His influence on fiqh (Islamic Law) and medicine

The second area of scholarship in which Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] left written works was in law, jurisprudence. He made clarifications of certain particular problems, and dealt therefore on the foundations established by his predecessors particularly Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. There is a book surviving from Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] entitled ‘Fiqh al-Rida’ ‘The Jurisprudence of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS]’. Thridly – medicine, a somewhat surprising category of knowledge to be encountered and cultivated by one of the Imams [AS]. There can however be found treatises on medicine attributed to Imam Ali al-Rida [AS], here to we find an echo to a predecessor Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS], on whom are ascribed also a number of treatises on medicine. Those treatises however have been lost. If you go even further back in history, the Prophet [sAW] stood at the origin of a discipline which we know as ‘Tibb al-Nabawi’‘Prophetic Medicine’. We should bear in mind however that what we mean here by medicine in conjunction either with the Prophet [sAW] or the Imams [AS] is not a fully fledged science of medicine. It is rather an accumulation of particular remedies, and of preventive measures which taken together form a body of medical knowledge, not however a fully fledged medical system, they are however incorporated in traditional Islamic medicine. That is to say that precepts on medical matters stemming from the Prophet [sAW] and the Imams [AS] are to be found incorporated in the discipline of traditional Islamic medicine. It is not accidental at least from the Shi’i point of view that it is precisely at least two of the Imams [AS] who continued the tradition of medical knowledge established by the Prophet [sAW]. If you bear in mind that the Imamate defines itself in part at least through the inheritance and the propagation of the knowledge of the Prophet [sAW], then this fits perfectly into that picture – that is that the tradition of medical knowledge established by the Prophet [sAW] is pursued by them in particular.

The Imam [AS] is regarded as the Mujaddid (the renewer) by Sunni Islam

In these various areas Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] whilst in Madinah had a widespread appeal and influence beyond the immediate Shi’i community. One token of this is that he was regarded by many of the Sunni scholars of the age as the ‘renewer’ as the mujaddid. The concept of the Mujaddid or the renewer goes back to a hadith ascribed to the Prophet [sAW], found only in Sunni sources and not in Shi’i sources that

‘At the end or at the beginning of each period of 100 years Allah (SWT) will send to the Muslim community one who will renew for it, it’s religion (the religion in that age).’

Hence the title Mujaddid, renewer. Why this pair of alternatives – at the end or the beginning, because the word used in Arabic is ambiguous and could convey either meaning – ra’s. This most commonly means head and therefore you would think that this means the beginning but it is one of those words in the language which can convey two entirely opposite meanings, depending on the context – ra’s may mean the beginning or the end. In fact in the dispassionate and precise meaning of this hadith you find some scholars saying that what is meant is the end of each century and others saying the beginning of each century. In practical term however it makes very little difference. You may paraphrase it to say ‘at the turn of each century’ in other words either at the end of the outgoing century or the beginning of the new century a renewer will appear.

The idea of periodic renewal is an important one in Sunni religious history, it is worth emphasising that in the hadith it says ‘Allah (SWT) will send...’ this person will be sent. In the Quran there is the same word being used for the Prophet [sAW], this individual is therefore sent by Allah (SWT) and therefore has authority in a way comparable to the Prophet [sAW] himself, the mujaddid is not self appointed and nor is he appointed by his fellows, his contemporaries – he is sent just like his Prophet [sAW]. For reasons that are obvious this concept does not fit with the doctrinal positions of Shi’ism, because the functions of the innateness of the religious life of the community after the person of the Prophet [sAW] are fulfilled in a different fashion by different persons, namely the Imams [AS] of the Ahl al-bait [AS]. The relevance however to the topic today is the following, the Sunni scholars of the period had such high respect and veneration for Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] that they regarded him from their own particular doctrinal point of view as the mujaddid as the renewer of the 2nd century of the Islamic era. Of course this did not extend to the Shi’ah community since the function and the position of the Imam [AS] as ma’sum is higher than that of the mujaddid.

His influence of Sufism

One other illustration of the radiation of his influence outside the Shi’ah community, strictly speaking, is the involvement of Sufis with him. Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib [AS] stands at the line of origin of most lines of Sufi descent, as is Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] to be found at the origin of a large number of lines – especially the Naqshabandiyyah, Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS] the father of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] had links to two of the Sufis that were contemporary to him. We find this pattern repeated with Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] he is linked in both Sufi and Shi’i sources with a certain Ma’ruf al-Karkhi, al-Karkhi is an adjective indicating that he was from the Baghdad neighbourhood of Karkh – which at that time had become established as an area of Shi’i population in the Caliphal capital. Ma’ruf al-Karkhi was to begin with not a Muslim, he was a Christian and it was after an encounter with Imam Ali-al-Rida [AS] that he embraced Islam, and according to some accounts remained in his following for the remainder of his life, at least for the remainder of his life in Baghdad. The details of the meeting between Ma’ruf al-Karkhi and Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] differ from one account to another it is impossible to say precisely how the relationship was established but there seems not to be any reason to doubt the essential veracity of the relationship existing between them. On the other hand it is worth pointing out the Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] is the last of the Imams [AS] to appear in the initiatic chains of Sufism. The reason being is that from the time of his successor the 9th Imam [AS] onwards, the conditions of surveillance and house arrest imposed upon the Imams [AS] made it virtually impossible for them to communicate with their own community let alone with the general body of Muslims. For this reason we do not find the presence of any of the names of the Imams [AS] after Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] in the initiatic chains of the lines of the Sufis. It is worth pointing out that a line of descent from Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] implies descent from all of his ancestors aswell going back to Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib [AS] – the lineage of the line of descent of the Imams [AS] is known in Sufism as the golden chain ‘Silsilah al-Dhahab’ i.e. although there are other chains of descent from the Prophet [sAW] – the chain which includes the first eight of the Imams [AS] has a particular value and is therefore designated as the golden chain. We have here an indication of how within the world of Sunni Islam respect for an awareness of the Imams [AS] of the Ahl al-bait [AS] was preserved and cultivated primarily by the Sufis.

His wide ranging knowledge of other religions demonstrated by the debate at Marw arranged by al-Ma’mun

One final point about the wide range and influence he seems to have had a wide knowledge not merely of every doctrinal and sectarian group amongst the Muslims but of non-Islamic religions also. This became plain when under the auspices of the Caliph Ma’mun a kind of debate between the dignitaries of different religions was organised in the city of Marv, it is now a decrepit village between the frontier of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan but in it’s day up till the Mongol invasions of the 13th centuries was a major centre of culture and commerce in the eastern Islamic world. Ma’mun organised the debate between Muslim scholars, Sunni as well as Shi’ah, also Rabbis – there was something of a Jewish presence at this point in some regions of Central Asia – for example the city of Herat in now what is Western Afghanistan, which had a substantial Jewish community right down until the middle years of the 20thcentury, Zoroastrianism which was very much a minority persuasion by this time but still had it’s representatives and adherents, also present were a variety of Christian sects – all of these were represented in the debate. When it is said ‘debate’ it should be clear what was at issue here, it was in fact a debate not an equanimical dialogue as in modern times in which alleged points of common belief are stressed in an atmosphere of vague mutual good will. The participants sought to vindicate their own positions and to demonstrate the fallacy of competing positions. There are no other accounts extant from the other participants of the debate, there are accounts in Abbasid histories, as well as the accounts in Shi’ah tradition – they show Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] to have a clear and detailed knowledge not only of Islamic teaching and doctrines, but the teaching and traditions of the other religions.

The attempt by Ma’mun to combine the Imamate and the Caliphate and the possible reasons for him doing so

The Abbasids made efforts to provide themselves with a base for religious legitimacy one way that they did this was the adoption of codenames hinting at a particular relationship between themselves and God. Then also they patronised the codification of Islamic law, extended that patronage to individual scholars in an attempt to show that they were infinitely more pious than their predecessors but also in an attempt to detract from the continuing appeal of the Imams [AS] and the cause that they represented a view that was widespread amongst the Muslim community in general. They were continuously unsuccessful in this attempt to provide for themselves a firm base of religious legitimacy, they were plagued continuously by a perception of lack of religious legitimacy. Therefore Ma’mun in a surprisingly and imaginative although ultimately unsuccessful enterprise conceived of the idea of uniting the Abbasid lineage with the lineage of the Imams [AS] and thereby also uniting the institutions of the Imamate and the Caliphate which until then had remained separate in a state of uneasy coexistence. In the year 816 AD, when Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] was 46 years of age he received an invitation from the Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun to go to the city of Marw where the caliph was at that point resident. Initially the Imam [AS] was reluctant to go – partly because he had an idea of what was going to happen, an attempt on the part of the Caliph to co-opt him and to essentially integrate the institution of the Imamate in the tradition of the Abbasid Caliphs. He no doubt also had in mind what had befallen his father Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS] when he under the auspices of the Abbasid Caliph had been compelled to leave Madinah.

Ma’mun however insisted and Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] left Madinah accompanied by agents of the Caliph, clearly to regulate and limit his interaction with the Muslims as he travelled from one city to another. From Madinah the party first went to Makkah. From Makkah they went across the desert and came to the traditional centres of Shi’ism in Southern Iraq – to Kufah and Basrah, then crossed what is today present day Iran and came to Nishapour. We know that he [AS] stayed a while there engaging in debate, discussion and scholarly interchange with the scholars of the city both Sunni and Shi’ah. Nishapour in Eastern Iran, is again at this point like Marw – an important place. Today it is probably secondary ranking city in Iran, according to population and in terms of population and general importance, at that period in time it was an extremely important place. Interesting to note that relations between the Sunni and Shi’ah communities in Nishapour where friendly enough and amicable enough for them to come jointly and engage in respectful discussion and scholarly interchange with Imam Ali al-Rida [AS]. From Nishapour he went to city of Sarakh, and from there to Marw. This journey of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] into what is of course now called Iran (of course no political unit of Iran existed at that time), the Iranian cultural sphere, marked the first presence of any of the Imams [AS] in Iran. The term Iran here is used as an anachronism, and not a clearly demarcated, political and geographical unit – the term is used in the cultural sphere indicated by the presence of the prevalence of the Persian language and a certain number of associated cultural traditions. Iran in fact considerably later about seven centuries later under the auspices of the Safavid Dynasty became the principle homeland of Shi’ism which it remains down till the present. But before Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] there had been no presence of the Imams [AS] however fleeting in Iran. There is only one exception to this and that is a legendary one – according to folklore in precisely the region of Nishapour Imam Ali [AS] had made a miraculous visit to this city at some point during his Imamate, and on the side of a mountain outside Nishapour there is a cavity in the rock which seems to resemble the shape of a human foot, and people say that this is the miraculous mark left by Imam Ali [AS] when he came to Nishapour. This is legendary, it however does have significance in that it can be taken to indicate a desire on the part of the Iranian people once they had made their definitive association with Shi’ism to project it back into the past i.e. to make a material and palpable link with the very first of the Imams [AS], Imam Ali [AS]. There are a large number of comparable examples in regions of the Islamic world that embraced Islam at a relatively late point in Islamic history – the desire to concoct some kind of link with the very earliest period. For example in China, there are tombs which are said to be tombs of the companions of the Prophet [sAW] who are said to have reached China already in his lifetime. Also in West Africa there is a tradition that a companion of the Prophet [sAW] made his way there and began the propagation of Islam already in the lifetime of the Prophet [sAW]. Both these cases do not have historical foundation – but they speak of a desire to be associated with the very 1st century of Islamic History, before the actual introduction of Islam, that came somewhat later in those regions.

But the first thorough introduction of Iran, into what can be called the sacred geography of Shi’ism comes with Imam Ali al-Rida [AS], with this particular journey – which proved to be a journey without return. When he reached Marw he was respectfully greeted by the Caliph al-Ma’mun, and in the presence of a large number of members of the Abbasid family al-Ma’mun declared him [AS] to be his successor, saying:-

‘In my family, I can see no-one worthier of succession than Imam Ali al-Rida [AS]’

This may have been an accurate statement of fact, but this was not the intentions of the Caliph. Why did al-Ma’mun attempt this imaginative venture of uniting the two lineages – the lineage of the Imams [AS] and the Abbasid lineage? And thereby a merging of the two offices of the Imamate and the Caliphate. Not because of sincere conviction, the proof of the absence of sincere conviction on the part of Ma’mun lies primarily in the ease with which he abandoned the project after substantial opposition from within the Abbasid house began to make itself apparent. The purpose was no doubt something political, designed to benefit Ma’mun himself. At this point in time there is an open and apparently uncomplicated declaration by Ma’mun that Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] is to succeed him. Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] in keeping with the policy established by his ancestors the policy of quietism, not pressing the claim for actual political leadership hesitated for a full two months – but ultimately after a period of hesitation, signed a document indicating designation of himself to be Caliph after the death of Ma’mun. In some ways this is an interesting rehearsal of what happened between Mu’awiyah and Imam Hassan [AS]. In the case of Mu’awiyah and Imam Hassan [AS], in the pressure of circumstances Imam Hassan [AS] abdicated and agreed to accept the actual exercise of power by Mu’awiyah until Mu’awiyah himself should pass away whereupon the caliphate would revert to Imam Hassan [AS]. Although of course this did not happen. In this case we see that the Caliph obliges the Imam [AS], to accept being his successor – an outward similarity but interesting differences also between both cases. In order to underline this supposed alliance the future merger between the Caliphate and the Imamate – Ma’mun had two marriage alliances contracted – the sister of the Caliph became married to the Imam [AS], the daughter of the Caliph was married to the son of the Imam [AS]. And for good measure certain other changes were brought about, the official colour of the Abbasid state banner and the military uniform worn by the troops of the Abbasids was changed from black to green. Black having been the distinctive colour of the Abbasid banner since they first emerged in opposition against the Umayyads, and green being the distinctive colour of the Ahl al-bait [AS]. Coins were minted by Ma’mun which bore the name of Ma’mun and also the name of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] as his designated successor. This was a very elaborate project for the merger of the two lines.

Opposition emerged fairly quickly within the Abbasid family. It is necessary to look at the circumstances which had arisen for the presence of Ma’mun being in Marw, far away in Eastern Iran and at a distance from the Caliphal capital in Baghdad. After the death of Harun al-Rashid the caliph who had planned the death of Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS] a civil war had broken out between the Abbasids – between two of the sons – Amin and Ma’mun. Amin in Baghdad was more successful and gained control of the capital and was acknowledged as Caliph by most of the Abbasid family and was able to secure his rule over the western territories. Ma’mun by contrast fled eastwards, just like many of the descendants of the Imams [AS] had fled the Abbasids, the same path of flight was chosen by Ma’mun himself. He established himself in Iran, as a counter-Caliph as a rival to the Caliph in Baghdad. It may also be of some relevance that the mother of Ma’mun was Iranian so that there were some ancestral ties linking Ma’mun to Iran. It was not a clean division of territories between the two brothers, war continued between them and ultimately Ma’mun succeeded in overthrowing his brother. He captured Baghdad and established himself as the more or less undisputed Abbasid Caliph. It was at this point at which he had ridden himself of his brother and taken Baghdad that he came up with this project of uniting Imamate and Caliphate and appointing Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] as his successor.

It can be imagined that there were various reasons for him to do this. Firstly, it would enhance the legitimacy of the Abbasid Dynasty in the eyes of the pious members of the community. Instead of being the perennial enemies and persecutors of the Ahl al-bait [AS] they would now appear to be their protectors, even to defer to them in matters of succession. Also, insofar as Amin had been overthrown but nonetheless still had his supporters, to espouse the cause of the Imam [AS] provided him (Ma’mun) with an alternative base of support. For this reason alone it would be advantageous of Ma’mun to rely upon the goodwill of the followers of the Imam [AS]. The whole project however eventually comes to nothing, Ma’mun backtracks very quickly when opposition becomes furious – but a hypothetical question is worth raising at this point, if Ma’mun had not gone back on his promise to make Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] his successor at this relatively early point in Islamic history would the whole Sunni, Shi’ah question have been settled? Let us suppose that Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] had succeeded to the caliphate, could we say that this gap which had opened up and was gradually growing wider could actually have been closed? This question is only hypothetical and cannot be answered with any certainty – we can say that the difference would have persisted, however it would not have had the same sharp and divisive nature that it subsequently acquired in the way that history actually did work out, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the Imams [AS] enjoyed a widespread support throughout the communities even those that did not accept the entirety of the Shi’i doctrine concerning the Imamate – if the Imam [AS] had begun the actual exercise of power, moreover not through insurrection but by nomination by the existing caliph, then his position with respect to the whole community would have become stronger still as a matter of practicality. However this would have not defaced the difference between Sunnism and Shi’ism, because certain developments in law and theology had already taken place which certainly went back directly or indirectly to the whole question of successorship but not exclusively to that question, there were a large number of other considerations involved. The differences which had survived, the difference between Sunni and Shi’ah would have been differences not on the essential and overpowering issue of the actual present exercise of rule but differences on relatively secondary nature many of the details of law, interpretation of Quran and so forth. The difference would have remained but the divisiveness of it which was unfortunately to increase in later centuries might well have been avoided. This is supposing of course that Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] would have acceded to the Caliph Ma’mun but his descendants in turn would also have been able to exercise rule which is a very large assumption.

Ma’mun backtracks on his appointment of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] as his successor and has him killed

Although the motivations of Ma’mun, were of a political nature – the very fact that he thought there was a feasible notion that Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] could be his successor this indicates that at the time some kind of union of reconciliation, a lessening of differences between the Sunni and the Shi’ah was a real possibility otherwise Ma’mun would not have entertained the idea in the first place. However none of this was to be, although it is an interesting question, it is entirely hypothetical. The supporters of Amin, the deposed brother of Ma’mun staged a comeback whilst Ma’mun was absent from Baghdad to depose him and install in his place his uncle Ibrahim, this took place in 817 AD. Less than a year after the appointment of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] to the succession. Once Ma’mun found out what was underway in Baghdad he set out to depose of his uncle Ibrahim. He realised that the initiative that he had undertaken was not from a political point of view workable – the opposition in the Abbasid house was too strong. Almost immediately he effectively abandoned Imam Ali al-Rida [AS]. It is worth noting that when he left Iran to return to Baghdad he insisted on taking Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] with him. The party reached what used to be the city of Tus, roughly halfway between Marw and Nishapour. There Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] fell sick, three days later September 5th 818 AD – Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] suddenly passed away. In just the same way as the appointment of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] to the successorship can be exaplained entirely in terms of political expediency, likewise his death comes at a suspiciously convenient juncture for the Caliph Ma’mun. Because, Ma’mun realised that the project of the reunion, of merging of the two lineages was unworkable for no other reason than the opposition of the Abbasid Caliph. He could not impose his wishes upon them. On the other hand he could hardly revoke the nomination of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] as his successor. This would imply a loss of face towards the members of his own family, that he had been acting under duress, this would have compromised the image that he wanted to project when he was returning to Baghdad to overthrow his uncle. Also, revoking the nomination of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] would have been a provocation of the Shi’i community but also of a wider circle of believers that revered the Imams [AS] of the Ahl al-bait [AS]. Therefore the assassination of the Imam [AS] was from a political point of view an expedient measure to take.

There are varying versions of the fashion in which the Imam [AS] met his death according to the sanitised history provided by Abbasid historiographers he died because of an excessive indulgence of grapes, or it is said that he drank a glass of pomegranate juice which had been poisoned and served to him personally by the Caliph. It is the nature of things that the veracity of one particular account cannot be ascertained in the face of competition, the timing of the incident given all the political considerations suggests that he too was poisoned – one more Imam [AS] martyred by the Caliphs. The fact that Ma’mun was with overwhelming probability the murderer of the Imam [AS] did not prevent him from manifesting great sadness and mourning over the death of the Imam [AS]. In fact he insisted the following day after the death of the Imam [AS] of himself leading the funeral prayers. He had the Imam [AS] buried in the place of his death, by an interesting coincidence of history – next to the tomb of Harun al-Rashid. The place of burial of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] gave rise to the present day city of Mashhad, which is a major city in north-Eastern iran – Mashhad is a noun in Arabic meaning place of martyrdom. Originally the Mashhad – the place of burial of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] was a shrine, gradually however the shrine and environs expanded to such a degree that it completely effaced the former city of Tus. Now the city of Tus is a heap of ruins outside the city of Mashhad – and Mashhad is the major city of the area. The Mongols here also made their contribution in just the same way that they destroyed Marw – they also destroyed Tus so that is was never able to regain it’s former glory. Whereas the originally restricted area of Mashhad because of the continuing appeal of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] continually expanded until it became a city.

The influence of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] to the sacred geography of Iran

As for the tomb of Harun al-Rashid which stood close to the tomb of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] this went out of existence because of the concepts of Tabarra and Tawalla, a practical expression of Tawalla and Tabarra for those in the early years making pilgrimage to the tomb of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] was not only to pay homage and respect to carry out a Ziyarah to Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] but also the opposite with respect to the tomb of Harun al-Rashid. Gradually the tomb of Harun al-Rashid thanks to the energy of generations of Shi’i pilgrims was destroyed and there is nothing left of it today. The significance of Mashhad for the religious history of Iran is considerable in that this was the first Imam [AS] that was to be buried on what subsequently becomes Iranian territory. It is worth pointing out that despite the generally negative developments of Sunni – Shi’ah relations in subsequent centuries the tomb of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] was expanded and attained it’s present architectural glory first under the rule of Sunni dynasties. The core of the architectural complex dates back to pre-Safavid times till the Timurid period. Even today it is found that some Sunni pilgrims from the easterly regions of Iran, from western Afghanistan would also come for pilgrimage to the tomb of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS] to Mashhad. So it has become an extremely importance centre of pilgrimage for many Muslims.

The hostility between the Ottomans and the Safavids is of course well known, it began in the early 16th century when the two empires were rivals and went constantly to war with each other and invoked scenes of sectarian hostility on virtually every occasion they did. In other words although the contest was about territory and resources, nonetheless each side came to be defending the true understanding of Islam. The Ottomans invoking Sunni Islam, and the Safavids invoking Shi’ism. One of the interesting continuities consists of the following, there was an Ottoman admiral commanding a fleet on his way to India in the Indian Ocean and his fleet was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean – they were compelled to make their way back to Turkey overland through Iran. When the Admiral in question and his party reached Mashhad, he went on pilgrimage to the tomb of Imam Ali al-Rida [AS], and composed a very interesting poem in Turkish pondering the Imam [AS], which showed that even though the centuries of sectarian warfare were underway – did not entirely eradicate this broad based veneration for the Imams [AS].


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