The most unique aspects of the Imamat of Imam Askari (AS) were his efforts to protect the life of his son, Imam Mahdi (AS), and preparing the Shias for Imam Mahdi’s occultation. Imam Askari kept the birth of Imam Mahdi a secret, even from his family members. Even after his son’s birth, the Imam only showed him to certain members of his family and his most trusted companions. The Abbasids, who had received the news of the last Shia Imam, were afraid of his justice and feared for their government. They put Imam Askari’s life under intense surveillance. The Imam was imprisoned multiple times by every Abbasid caliph who ruled during his Imamat, and he was finally martyred after his brief period of leadership, which lasted for less than six years.
The Imam in Confinement
Imam Hasan ibn Ali (AS), also known as Askari, was born on the 8th of Rabi’ al-Thani, in the year 232 Hijri, in Medina. Similar to the second Shia Imam, Imam Hasan Mujtaba (AS), Imam Askari was also given the title of “Aba Muhammad”. He was also known by the title of “Ibn al-Reza” or “the son of Reza”, as he was from the lineage of Imam Reza (AS). Imam Reza had become very well-known among the Muslims after becoming Mamun’s Crown Prince, and thus the next Shia Imams from his lineage were known as “Ibn al-Reza”.
Migration to Samarra
Imam Askari was about two years old when Mutawakkil forcefully relocated Imam Hadi and his family to Samarra. Imam Askari left Medina forever, and never had an opportunity to return to Medina or Mecca. As a result, Imam Askari is the only Shia Imam who did not perform the Hajj.
Similar to his father, Imam Hadi, Imam Askari was given the title of “Askari”, which means ‘the army’. This title referred to the Imam’s residence in the city of Samarra, which was originally built to accommodate Mu’tasim’s Turkish army. “Askari” also referred to the name of the city’s neighborhood where the Imam was living, which was within the army bases and government offices. Therefore, the Imam’s activities during his Imamat were intensely monitored by the government, and his interactions with his representatives and the people were significantly limited.
Demise of Syed Muhammad
Muhammad was the oldest son of Imam Hadi. He was very pious and had a great character. Many of the Shias thought that he would be the Imam after Imam Hadi, because the eldest son often inherited the Imamat. However, about two years before Imam Hadi’s martyrdom, his son, Muhammad, passed away while he was travelling. He fell sick and passed away close to the city of Balad, between Samarra and Baghdad. His demise brought great sorrow and grief to his father and his younger brother, Imam Askari. After Muhammad’s demise, Imam Hadi had become more deliberate in introducing Imam Askari, his eldest son alive, as the next Imam.
Martyrdom of Imam Hadi (AS)
Upon gaining power, Mu’tazz followed his father, Mutawakkil’s policy in dealing with the Alavids. He treated the Alavids harshly. He could not tolerate Imam Hadi’s noble character, and feared the Imam’s social popularity as a threat to his government. Two years into his caliphate, Mu’tazz ordered the poisoning and martyrdom of Imam Hadi. Imam Hadi was martyred in Samarra after he had lived there with his family for around 20 years. Imam Askari took care of his father’s funeral rites, including washing and praying over his body.
Beginning of Imamat
At the age of 22, Imam Askari took on leadership of the Shia community after his father, Imam Hadi’s martyrdom. At that time, Shi’ism was a well-established and growing theology with a strong scientific backbone. The influence of the Shias and their leader, Imam Askari, were undeniable and could not have been ignored by any of the Abbasid Caliphs. There was another important reason for the Abbasids to increase their pressures and surveillance on Imam Askari. The Abbasids, like the Shia Imams, were from the Prophet’s clan of Banu Hashim. They had received the news of the Prophet’s prophecy about the last Shia Imam, Imam Mahdi, who would establish justice on earth. They feared Imam Mahdi would endanger their government and were actively looking to seek and eliminate him.
Imam Askari’s circumstances were an opportunity for him to train the Shias for his son, Imam Mahdi’s minor occultation, during which the Shias would not have direct access to their Imam and would have to communicate with him through writing. This is the reason why the majority of Imam Askari’s communications with his Shia followers and representatives were through exchanging letters. Thus, Imam Askari became the first Shia Imam who primarily communicated with the Shias by letters, rather than in person. The Imam would respond to their questions in writing and guide them on their religious and political affairs. The Shias found the Imam’s answers in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet and the previous Imams. However, it was still difficult for some to connect with the Imam when they could not physically access him. Imam Askari had described his situation by saying that the Shias were not in doubt about the Imamat of any of his forefathers as much as they were in doubt of his Imamat. To remove these doubts and prove his Imamat, the Imam would often inform his Shias about future events in his letters to them. Many of the Imam’s prophecies are recorded in history. The Imam’s policy was effective in strengthening the hearts of the Shias and uniting them toward his leadership.
Mu’tazz and the Imam
Historical records suggest that the Imam was under relatively less pressure at the beginning of his Imamat. Mu’tazz, who had just martyred Imam Hadi, did not perceive Imam Askari as an imminent threat to his government. During this time, the Imam had the chance to meet some of the Shia representatives and elders in his residence. Some Shias also had the chance to have a short conversation with the Imam outside of his residence when the Imam was commuting.
However, soon after, Mu’tazz became suspicious of and hostile towards the Imam and changed his policy towards him. During the short caliphate of Mu’tazz, which lasted only for a year after Imam Askari’s Imamat had begun, Mu’tazz imprisoned the Imam. Also, once, during his short government, Mu’tazz decided to martyr Imam Askari. He told his doorkeeper to take the Imam towards Kufa and kill him in secrecy. The plot was exposed, and the Imam’s Shias found out about it. A companion of the Imam contacted him to inform him about Mu’tazz’s plot. The Imam responded to his concern by writing, “You will be relieved from your concern in three days.” Three days after the Imam’s response, the Turks ousted Mu’tazz from the Caliphate. Shortly after, Mu’tazz was killed, and the Imam’s prophecy had come true. Thus, Mu’tazz never got the chance to implement his plot against the Imam.
Imam’s Scientific Contribution
The Imam was the true source of divine knowledge in society. Many people referred to him with their questions about various aspects of Islamic sciences. 149 names of those who narrated the Imam’s sayings are recorded in history. Due to the intense surveillance and pressure on the Imam, he could not always meet with his representatives and followers in person. Thus, Imam Askari became the first Shia Imam who primarily communicated with the Shias through letters. Whenever the Shias had a disagreement about any of their Islamic beliefs, they would send a letter to the Imam and ask for his guidance. Tens of letters from the Imam are recorded in history and are still available. Historical records show that the Imam was in continuous communication with his followers and representatives until his martyrdom.
The Imam would respect and pay high regards to the Shia scholars for guiding people to the true teachings of the Prophet and the Imams, for defending the Shia beliefs, and for their direct role in spreading Shi’ism. The Imam wanted to prepare the Shias for the upcoming time during which they would have to refer to Shia scholars for their Islamic affairs.
Muhtadi in Power
Before killing Mu’tazz, the Turks had selected Muhtadi, Mu’tazz’s cousin, as the next Caliph. Upon assuming the Caliphate, Muhtadi became concerned about the limited power of the caliph, which he had seen among his predecessors. To stabilize his power and build his social status among the Muslims, he decided to adopt a different ruling strategy from his predecessors. He followed Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz’s policy, which was fair compared to the other Umayyad Caliphs’ strategies. In an attempt to gain social popularity, he adopted a simple lifestyle in his eating, clothing, and expenses. He banned serving alcohol and holding musical parties in the palace. He also made himself available for the public to fulfill their judicial requests.
Muhtadi and the Imam
Although Muhtadi had adopted a fair ruling strategy compared to his predecessors, his policy against the Imam and his Shia followers remained as hostile as the other Abbasid caliphs. His hostility towards the Imam was to such an extent that he swore by God to exile the Imam and the Alavids from every land on the earth they settled. One of Muhtadi’s military leaders, Nasr ibn Ahmad, also agreed to implement his decision against the Imam, but Muhtadi’s short government did not allow him to exile or kill the Imam. Around this time, problems in Muhtadi’s government intensified. Muhtadi had to send Nasr ibn Ahmad to a war in which he was killed. In a letter, the Imam had referred to Nasr ibn Ahmad’s death as a sign of God’s power.
Around this time, one of the Imam’s companions wrote a letter to him and told him what Muhtadi had sworn against the Imam. He praised God for keeping the Caliph busy in government affairs so that he was distracted from harassing and killing the Imam. The Imam responded to him by writing, “Muhtadi’s life is shorter than what you even can imagine.” The Imam informed him that Muhtadi would be humiliatingly killed in just six days. Muhtadi was killed six days later, and the Imam’s prophecy had come true.
Network of Representatives
Imam Askari, led this hidden organization and took on its responsibility from the day that Imam Hadi was martyred in such a way that the Shias and the representatives felt Imam Hadi’s presence even after his martyrdom. Imam Askari would respond to the questions raised by the Shias, and would guide them for their religious and political affairs. The names of 21 of the Imam’s representatives are recorded in history. The Imam’s leadership led to the expansion of the Shia community and prepared them for Imam Mahdi’s occultation, a time during which they would not have direct access to their Imam.
Due to the intense surveillance and pressures on Imam Askari, there were times when communication with the Imam would endanger the lives of his followers and representatives. During those difficult times, any communication with the Imam was done in secret using undercover methods. Uthman ibn Saeed al-Amri was the Imam’s top representative in Samarra. He would manage the other representatives in the Imam’s network organization. He was often the point of contact for the Imam’s representatives who wanted to transfer the collected Islamic dues or letters to the Imam and get his response. His cover up job was as an oil seller. He would often hide the collected Islamic dues and the letters to the Imam inside oil containers. He would then send those oil containers to the Imam’s house. The Imam would also communicate with Uthman ibn Saeed al-Amri using other secretive means.
Birth of Imam Mahdi
During his Imamat, one of Imam Askari’s main concerns was to protect the life of his only child, Imam Mahdi. Imam Mahdi would inherit the Imamat after Imam Askari as the last Shia Imam. Imam Askari kept Imam Mahdi’s birth a secret, even from his close family members. By God’s miracle, Imam Mahdi’s mother, Narjis Khatoon, did not show any sign of an expectant mother. This miracle was similar to the miracle of Prophet Moses’ mother, who had also not shown any sign of an expecting mother because God had wanted to save Prophet Moses from the Pharaoh. On the night of Imam Mahdi’s birth, Imam Askari asked his aunt, Hakimeh, who was Imam Hadi’s sister, to stay at his home and help with Narjis Khatoon’s delivery. Hakimeh was shocked, as she had not known that Narjis Khatoon was expecting. Hours later, at dawn, Imam Mahdi opened his eyes to this world and was born secretively. Even after Imam Mahdi’s birth, Imam Askari continued to keep his son’s existence a secret. He only showed Imam Mahdi to certain trusted companions.
Mu’tamid and the Imam
Like his predecessors, Mu’tamid was concerned about the Imam for his government for two main reasons. First, Imam Askari was the leader of the Shias, who did not accept the legitimacy of the Abbasid government. By this time, the Shias were large in number and were widespread in the Abbasid territory. Second, the Abbasids had received the news about the last Shia Imam, Imam Mahdi, who would establish justice on the earth. They feared Imam Mahdi for their unjust government. Thus, Mu’tamid, who wanted to closely monitor the Imam, ordered to imprison him in a few occasions. While in prison, the Imam’s condition and interaction with some Shia elders imprisoned with him remained under surveillance by the government through spy prisoners. The Imam once identified a spy prisoner to the Shia elders, and they confiscated the spy’s report to the Caliph.
Mu’tamid had known that killing the Imam in prison would endanger his government, as he would be blamed. Thus, he released the Imam from prison. Within a month, he ordered the Imam’s poisoning. He wanted to eliminate the Imam before the Imam could have any offspring to inherit the Imamat from him.
After about eight days of illness, the Imam’s soul ascended on the 8th of Rabi’ al-Awwal, in the year 260 Hijri, in Samarra, at the age of 27. He was martyred after a short Imamat of less than six years. Thus, Imam Askari had the shortest duration of Imamat compared to the other Shia Imams. Historical records show Imam Mahdi’s presence by his father’s deathbed before his father’s martyrdom. By God’s decree, his presence was miraculously hidden from the government agents who were monitoring the Imam.