The main incident during the Imamat of Imam Reza (AS) was his appointment as Ma’mun’s Crown Prince. To fulfill his plot, Ma’mun, the Caliph, brought the Imam from Medina to his capital in Merv and threatened the Imam to accept his proposal to be his Crown Prince. The Imam’s nomination as the Crown Prince was a very unusual proposal, as the Imam was about 22 years older than Ma’mun. Everyone was expecting a younger person than the Caliph for the Crown Prince, as he would inherit the Caliphate after the Caliph. Ma’mun, with his well-planned and secret conspiracy, intended to eliminate Shi’ism entirely by showing the Imam as a worldly and materialistic individual, disgracing him in the eyes of Muslims. However, the Imam, with his wise decisions and behaviors, made Ma’mun’s conspiracy ineffective. Ma’mun realized that his plots against the Imam had failed, so he poisoned the Imam himself, martyring him after the Imam had been the Crown Prince for only about one-and-a-half years.
Imam Ali ibn Musa (AS), also known as Reza, was born on the 11th of Zu al-Qa’dah in the year 148 of Hijri in Medina. He was also known as ‘Abul-Hasan’. As per family traditions of the Ahlul-Bayt, Shia Imams with the name of Ali were also honored with Imam Ali’s title of ‘Abul-Hasan’. The Imam was born less than a month after the martyrdom of his grandfather, Imam Sadiq (AS), who had been eager to meet him. Imam Sadiq had frequently told his son, Imam Kazim (AS), “The scholar of the Prophet’s family will be from your lineage and I wish to meet him.”
Martyrdom of Imam Kazim (AS)
During the time of Haroon, there was an excessive amount of pressure and oppression on Imam Kazim by the government. Haroon ordered the imprisonment of Imam Kazim at various locations in Basrah and Baghdad for around four years. He eventually ordered the poisoning and martyrdom of Imam Kazim. Historical records suggest Imam Reza’s miraculous travel from Medina to Baghdad on the night of the martyrdom of Imam Kazim to take care of his father’s funeral rites. The Imam then returned to Medina on the same night, in hiding.
Beginning of Imamat
At the beginning of Imam Reza’s Imamat, he did not publicly declare his Imamat due to the extensive amount of pressure dominating the society following Imam Kazim’s imprisonment and martyrdom by Haroon. It was highly possible that Haroon would have been a threat for Imam Reza, so the Imam only revealed his Imamat to his family, as well as to his father’s loyal companions and representatives.
Confrontation with the Vaghefis
The main challenge Imam Reza faced in the beginning of his Imamat was from a few of his father’s representatives who refused to accept him as the Imam after Imam Kazim. They were among the representatives of Imam Kazim in his network of representatives across the Islamic territory. They were responsible for guiding the Shias according to the Imam’s teachings and advice, collecting their obligatory Islamic dues, and resolving issues among the Shias in their community. These individuals were among the Shia scholars spreading the narrations of the Shia Imams, and were qualified in their Islamic knowledge. For around four years, during the imprisonment of Imam Kazim, they did not transfer the collected obligatory Islamic dues from their communities to Imam Kazim, nor did they spend it according to his guidance. The stored wealth in their possession grew to a significant amount and was enough to entice them against their duties. When Imam Reza asked them to transfer the collected wealth to him as the next Imam, they refused. They instead denied the Imamat of Imam Reza by denying the martyrdom of Imam Kazim. They claimed that Imam Kazim was not martyred, but instead was the Mahdi promised by the Prophet and had simply disappeared from sight. These representatives were able to gather some support from their Shia communities and separated themselves from the majority of the Shias who accepted Imam Reza as the next Imam. This faction of Shia was known as the Vaghefi, or those who stopped at the Imamat of Imam Kazim.
While Imam Reza had not yet publicly declared his Imamat, he did not stay silent in confrontation with the Vaghefis who had branched from the Shia community. Imam Reza debated with the leaders and the followers of the Vaghefis on multiple occasions to guide them. The Imam proved to them that his father was no longer alive and that his inheritance had been distributed amongst his children. The Imam also corrected fabricated narrations by the Vaghefis and interpreted the true meaning of the vague narrations they misused. The Imam also provided them with the knowledge of the unseen to prove his divine knowledge, a sign of the Shia Imams. Consequently, the Imam was able to guide many of the Vaghefis to his Imamat.
Haroon and the Imam
Haroon did not regard the Imam as an immediate threat for his government. However, he was frequently advised by those close to him, particularly his minister, Yahya ibn Khalid Barmaki, to take action against Imam Reza who was being followed by the Shias as the Imam after Imam Kazim but Haroon rejected their wishes to act against the Imam. Haroon had appointed spies in Medina to closely monitor all aspects of Imam Reza’s activities.
Due to the frequent ill-talks against the Imam, Haroon once decided to kill him. He sent someone to bring the Imam into his presence. When the Imam saw Haroon, he quietly recited a supplication which had been passed down to him from the Prophet. When Haroon looked at the Imam, his decision suddenly changed. He told the Imam that he had ordered a large reward to be paid to him, and told the Imam to write down his family’s needs. When the Imam returned, Haroon consoled himself by saying that he had wanted something and God had wanted something else, and whatever God wants is better.
Declaration of Imamat
After a period estimated by some to be around four years, Imam Reza publicly announced his Imamat to the people. He was frequently warned by his close companions that the declaration of his Imamat might trigger Haroon to persecute him. The Imam dismissed their warnings and promised them that Haroon could not harm him, similar to how the Prophet had made a prophecy that Abu-Jahl, one of his prominent opponents in Mecca, would not be able to harm him. The Imam assured them that they could consider this prophecy a sign of his Imamat.
Amin and the Imam
There are no historical records about any communication between Amin and Imam Reza during the five years of Amin’s government. Amin was a corrupt pleasure-seeker who indulged in intoxication and other sinful behaviors. His confrontation and frequent wars against Ma’mun prohibited him from taking any action against the Imam.
The Imam: Source of Divine Knowledge
Imam Reza was known for his knowledge amongst the Islamic scholars. He was given the title of ‘Alim-e-Ale-Muhammad’ or ‘the scholar of the Prophet’s family’. The Imam was frequently referred to by the scholars of Medina for persuasive answers to their questions, which covered various aspects of Islamic faith and law. Almost two centuries after the demise of the Prophet, Muslims were surrounded by many challenging questions about their beliefs and needed guidance from a divine source. Towards the end of Haroon’s government, there was a great opportunity for Muslims to access Imam Reza and ask him their questions with relative freedom. For around five years, during the government of Amin, the Imam had a good opportunity. This was the calmest period of Imam Reza’s Imamat, and he used it effectively to guide Muslims and openly spread Shia theology.
The Alavid Uprisings
About five years after Haroon’s death, Ma’mun was finally able to oust Amin from power and take control over the entire Abbasid territory. However, his government remained unstable, and various uprisings and riots kept threatening his power. The main threat to his government was led by the Alavids, who had viewed the Abbasids as an illegitimate government since their establishment. The term ‘Alavids’ refers to the children of Imam Ali (AS), which also includes the Prophet’s descendants from his daughter, Lady Fatimah (SA). The Shia Imams were also from the Alavids.
The Alavid uprisings were initiated in Kufa by one of the descendants of Imam Hasan, known as Ibn Tabataba. Ibn Tabataba initially met Abul-Saraya, one of Ma’mun’s former military leaders who had separated from Ma’mun’s army due to a financial conflict. After seizing Kufa, Abul-Saraya sent delegates to the other cities to encourage them to join his uprising. Soon, his uprising expanded to the other cities including Mecca, Medina, Yemen, Basrah, Madain, and Ahvaz, and became a serious threat for Mamun’s newly established government. After nearly ten challenging months, Ma’mun was able to defeat these widespread uprisings.
Ma’mun’s Plot for the Imam
Although Ma’mun was finally able to defeat the widespread Alavid uprisings, he could not put an end to the long-standing conflict between the Alavids and the Abbasids, which had existed since the establishment of the Abbasid government for more than 60 years. During this time, the Alavids rose up against the Abbasid’s oppression in various uprisings, including those of Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya and his brother, Ibrahim, the uprising of Hossein ibn Ali, the martyr of Fakh, the establishment of the Idrisid government in North-Western Africa, and the most recent uprising by Ibn Tabataba, which quickly expanded to various cities in Iraq and Hijaz. The potential for future uprisings by the Alavids was a serious threat to Ma’mun’s government and the future of the Abbasids.
Ma’mun realized that years of restrictions, oppression, and enforcement upon the Alavids could not eliminate their threats. Thus, Ma’mun, who is known as the most strategic caliph among the Abbasid caliphs, decided to find an innovative solution for dealing with the potential threat of the Alavids. He decided to appoint one of the Alavids into his government. This person could not be anyone but Imam Reza, who was the most well-known person among the Alavids for all of the Muslims. Imam Reza was recognized for his divine knowledge among the Muslims due to his scientific work in Medina. He was the spiritual leader and the Imam for the Shia Muslims.
To implement his plot, Ma’mun sent a letter to Imam Reza in Medina and invited him to his capital, the city of Merv. Imam Reza was fully aware of Ma’mun’s conspiracy and plot, so he rejected his invitation. Ma’mun sent other invitations, repeatedly insisting that the Imam travel to meet him in Merv. The Imam rejected Ma’mun’s invitations each time, but could not change his decision. Finally, Ma’mun sent military delegates to Medina to bring the Imam to Merv. Imam Reza realized that Ma’mun would not give up and he was forced to travel to Merv with Ma’mun’s delegation.
Farewell to Medina
Before leaving Medina, Imam Reza made a series of unprecedented actions to make it clear to everyone that his invitation to Merv was a conspiracy against him, and that he did not want to travel there. When the Imam bid farewell to his family, he asked them to cry loudly for him and informed them that this would be their last meeting. Also, when the Imam visited the Prophet’s tomb to bid farewell, he cried loudly, and he repeatedly returned to the tomb while doing so. At that time, someone approached the Imam and congratulated him on his invitation by the Caliph. The Imam did not accept his greeting and told him, “I will be taken far away from the vicinity of my grandfather, the Prophet, and will pass away in a distant place and will be buried by Haroon’s tomb.”
Travel to Merv
Ma’mun had advised his military delegates to avoid passing by the Shia dominated cities of the time, Kufa and Qom. Therefore, the delegates avoided traveling on the common route of that time, which was from Medina to Merv, and passed by the cities of Kufa, Baghdad, and Qom. Instead, they travelled a more difficult route passing through the hostile deserts of central Iran. The Imam’s itinerary from Medina to Merv was about 3,450 kilometers, and the journey took approximately six months.
The Imam as Ma’mun’s Crown Prince
After the Imam had taken a short rest from the long journey, Ma’mun revealed his real intention for bringing the Imam to Merv. In a meeting, he told the people, “I found no one better than Ali ibn Musa (Imam Reza) for the Caliphate among the entire Abbasid and Alavid family so I want to pass the caliphate to him.” The Imam was aware of Ma’mun’s real intentions and refused to accept his offer. He responded to Ma’mun, “If the Caliphate belongs to you, you should not pass it to someone else; and if it does not belong to you, you do not have the right to pass it to someone else.” No one would believe that Ma’mun, who had fought for more than two years with his own brother and had killed him to gain power, would let his power go to someone else. Ma’mun wanted to make the Imam the spiritual leader for the Caliphate and to keep the real power for himself. He wanted to use the Imam’s name to make any decisions and to influence the hearts of the people.
Over the course of about two months, there were multiple discussions between Ma’mun and the Imam about his offer to the Imam for the caliphate. Ma’mun, who faced the Imam’s stern rejection, instead proposed to appoint the Imam as his successor, or the Crown Prince, in the Caliphate. Ma’mun had not chosen any of his sons as his successor since defeating Amin, so people were expecting him to choose someone for this position. However, the Imam’s nomination as the crown prince was very unusual for the public, because the Imam was about 22 years older than Ma’mun. Everyone was expecting a younger person than the Caliph to be chosen as the crown prince, since he was supposed to inherit the Caliphate after the Caliph. The Imam rejected the proposal to be the Crown Prince. However, Ma’mun, who had lost his patience, threatened to kill the Imam. He told the Imam, “The second Caliph formed a council with six of the Prophet’s companions in order to choose the third Caliph, and one of them was your forefather, Ali ibn Abi-Talib. The second Caliph ordered the beheading of anyone of the six who disagreed with the outcome of the council.” Ma’mun threatened to have similar treatment to the Imam if he refused to accept his proposal to be the crown prince.
Ma’mun left the Imam with only two choices, either accepting his offer or being killed. Thus, the Imam was forced to accept Ma’mun’s offer. However, he accepted with the following conditions. The Imam said he would not appoint or oust any governmental agents, and he would not change any governmental legislations. The Imam emphasized that his role would only be to observe governmental affairs from a distance, and would only serve as a consultant. Ma’mun immediately accepted the Imam’s conditions with the hope that he could later further involve him in the government.
The Imam as the Divine Leader
Three weeks after the Imam’s appointment as the Crown Prince, Eid al-Fitr was observed. Ma’mun asked the Imam to lead the Eid prayer for the people of Merv. The Imam refused by reminding Ma’mun of his condition for accepting the appointment, which was not to be involved in any governmental role. Ma’mun insisted by saying that his intention was for the people to see the Imam’s greatness and to confess to his merit. The Imam accepted Ma’mun’s offer with the condition of performing the Eid prayer according to the traditions of his forefathers, the Prophet and Imam Ali, which Ma’mun accepted. The news of the Imam leading the Eid prayer spread quickly in the city.
On the day of Eid, the Imam exited his house by sunrise in a simple outfit while he was barefoot. The Imam’s simple clothing and his loud tekbirs of the Eid prayer made an impact on the people. They had been expecting to see someone with luxurious clothing surrounded by bodyguards, similar to other high-ranking officials. Tears began to roll down from their eyes, and they followed the Imam by taking their own shoes off. The army leaders and soldiers waiting for the Imam also dismounted their horses, took off their shoes, and followed the Imam barefoot. The Imam would stop every ten steps and loudly recite the tekbirs of the Eid prayer. The people would then stop and recite tekbirs right after the Imam’s recitations. The loud tekbirs of the huge crowd following the Imam resonated across the city. Fazl ibn Sahl warned Ma’mun that if the Imam continued the Eid prayer, the people would become his devotees and it was better to have him return so Ma’mun sent someone to bring the Imam back. The Imam wore his shoes, boarded his ride, and returned before even starting the Eid prayer. The Eid prayer was performed as usual by someone who had led the prayers during the previous years. The Eid prayer was going to be performed with magnificence as a sign of Muslim unity, but instead was performed without much glory.
During the Imam’s stay in Merv, a severe drought hit the region. Many who had hatred for the Imam attributed the drought to the Imam’s presence and his appointment as the Crown Prince. As a result, Ma’mun asked the Imam to pray for rain. The Imam accepted Ma’mun’s request, and said that he would perform the prayer for rain after three days. On the promised day, the Imam exited the city and went to the desert with a crowd of Muslims following him. The Imam delivered a speech and addressed God. Among his words, he said “O’ God, You are the one who has rewarded us, the Ahlul-Bayt, with a great position. As You have ordered, these people have referred to us to fulfill their requests. They request Your Mercy and are seeking Your Blessings and Beneficence. O’ God, quench their thirst with a beneficial rain that does not harm them and send it after the people have returned from the desert to their homes.” After the Imam’s speech, strong winds began to blow, dark clouds covered the sky, and sounds of thunder filled the air. As per the Imam’s prayer, the rain did not begin until the people returned to their homes. Then a heavy rain covered the area. By witnessing this miracle, the people publicly admitted to the Imam’s dignity in the eyes of God. After the rain, the Imam delivered another speech in the city to the people. He advised them to be pious and urged them to admit the elevated rights of the Prophet’s family. He also advised them to practically appreciate and have gratitude for God’s blessings by helping the other Muslims.
The Imam’s Debates
Ma’mun arranged a series of debates in his palace between the Imam and the well-known Islamic and non-Islamic scholars. His intention was to defeat and disgrace the Imam during the scientific debates. If Ma’mun would have been able to fulfill his intention, he would have ruined the Imam’s reputation in the eyes of the Muslims, who respected the Imam for his endless knowledge. In the most famous debate, Ma’mun gathered the leaders of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabians in his palace. He held a grand official event for their debate with the Imam. Crowds of people and government officials attended. The Imam knew that there would not be a common ground with the leaders of the other religions for the debate, because they would deny the Imam’s reasoning with Quranic evidence and the traditions of the Holy Prophet. To everyone’s surprise, the Imam debated each of the leaders according to their respective holy books. The Imam demonstrated that his knowledge was not limited to Islamic resources, and that he was more knowledgeable than the leaders in their own teachings.
The Imam’s Scientific Contribution
The Imam’s stay in Merv was the golden period of his Imamat, as he had an exceptional opportunity to spread his knowledge, as well as Shia theology. The Imam’s role as Crown Prince had officially made him the second top person in the government. After around 160 years from the time of Imam Ali and Imam Hasan, who had both been able to publicly speak as Muslim caliphs, only Imam Reza from the Shia Imams spoke from a governmental position. Many of the Imam’s speeches, his responses to the questions, and his debates with the scholars had been witnessed by the people and are recorded in history. These records are currently regarded as precious resources in the Islamic seminaries. Many of these records are available in the book named ‘Oyoun Akhbar al-Reza’.
Ma’mun Defeated in his Plot
A year after appointing the Imam as his Crown Prince, Ma’mun realized that his plots against the Imam were unsuccessful. The only benefit from his decision during this time was a temporary halt in the Alavid uprisings against his government. Ma’mun could not defame the Imam nor justify his decisions using the Imam’s name, as the Imam always kept himself distant from Ma’mun and his government. With his wise actions, the Imam made his position an invaluable opportunity to spread Shia theology through the Islamic territory. Ironically, the main positive outcome from the Imam’s appointment as the Crown Prince was that after decades of hostility against the Shia Imams, for the first time, the Islamic caliph and the government had to confess to the elevated status of the Shia Imams. This outcome proved the authenticity of the Shia theology to the Muslims around the Islamic territory and accelerated their familiarity with it. Across the Islamic territory, the Imam was regarded with respect as the Crown Prince. The Shias, who had always hid their belief in fear for their lives, were now proudly declaring and spreading their belief. Ma’mun had hoped to disgrace the Imam’s divine character by affiliating him to his government, and was now witnessing the opposite outcome from what he had intended. The Imam’s interactions with the people filled their hearts with love and respect for him to an extent that many of the people believed that the Imam had much more merit for the caliphate than Ma’mun. Also, the Imam’s debates with the greatest Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of the time proved his divine knowledge to the people. Therefore, Ma’mun could not find any way to stop the Imam other than to kill him.
One reason Ma’mun rushed to kill the Imam was the instability in Baghdad, the former capital of the Abbasids. The Abbasid royal family was outraged by Ma’mun’s decision to appoint Imam Reza as his Crown Prince. They could not tolerate seeing the Abbasid government fall into the Alavid lineage in the future. Ma’mun decided to move to Baghdad to manage the instability in the city. He knew that the Abbasids would never approve of the Imam as the Crown Prince. Ma’mun believed that the Abbasids would still accept him as their caliph if he could address their excuse by killing the Imam.
Ma’mun wanted to prepare a favorable environment in Baghdad ahead of his arrival, so he decided to eliminate Imam Reza without delay. Ma’mun and his army continued on their way towards Baghdad. They stopped by his father, Haroon’s tomb, which was in a garden in the village of Sanabad near the city of Tus in Khorasan. At this place, Ma’mun decided to poison the Imam. He called the Imam into his presence and poisoned him with pomegranate juice or grapes. Imam Reza became the only Shia Imam who was directly poisoned by the hands of a Muslim caliph.
It can be inferred that the Imam was poisoned with a very detrimental and strong poison, because his poisoning was a political assassination and could not have been left incomplete. Ma’mun wanted to remove the Imam as soon as possible, since he wanted to continue his journey to Baghdad. The poison affected the Imam’s body almost immediately. When the Imam left Ma’mun, he returned directly to his residence. He told his companion, Abasalt Heravi, to close all of the entrance doors since he was sick and could not meet anyone. Imam Reza was martyred on the last day of Safar in the year 203 of Hijri at the age of 54. He was martyred after holding the position of Crown Prince for only about one-and-a-half years.