Imam Ali bin Mousa al-Reza (PBUH), the eighth Imam of Shiites , is of the progeny of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) and his eighth successor. At age 35 he became the leader of the Islamic union. His life was contemporary to the Abbasid reign and therefore, he suffered great difficulties made by the Abbasids. Finally, he was martyred by Ma’moon (the contemporary Abbasid Caliph) at the age of 55. This article will briefly discuss an overview of his life.
His name, title and honorary name
His name is Ali, his title is Abu al-Hassan, and his most famous honorary name is “Reza”, meaning “Satisfaction”. According to his son, Imam Muhammad Taqi (PBUH), the ninth Imam, “The glorious and mighty Lord named him Reza because Allah was pleased with him in the heavens and the Prophet of Allah and the Imams of guidance were pleased with him on earth”. Also, his friends and relatives and even his enemies were satisfied with him (because of his great moral qualities)”.
One of his famous titles is Alim Al Muhammad (scholar of Prophet’s progeny). His success in the different disputes with the scholars of various religions indicates his high knowledge. We will discuss some incidents in this article. This ability and superiority in knowledge is a proof for his Imamat, as it can be inferred from his sayings, all this knowledge is revealed.
His father and mother
His father was Imam Mousa al-Kadhim (PBUH), the seventh Imam. He was martyred by Haroon on 138 (AH). His mother was Najmah.
Imam Reza (PBUH) was born on in the year 148 on the 11th of Ziqadah in Medina. It is narrated from his mother that: “When I was pregnant, I didn’t feel overweighed. When I was asleep, I heard the sound of praising Allah and the word of “La Ilaha Illa Allah” from my womb, but when I got up, I heard nothing. When my baby was born, he put his hands on the floor and raised his head up and moved his lips, as he was saying something”2.
Similar happenings have been narrated for other Imams or prophets, such as Jesus (PBUH), who according to the Quran, talked to the people although he was in a cradle.3
His life in Medina
Before traveling to Marv, Imam Reza (PBUH) lived in Medina; city where the shrine of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) and his father’s grave exists. He was occupied with guiding people, indicating Islamic educations and Prophet’s (PBUH&HP) Sirah (manner and behavior). People of Medina loved him and assumed him as their father. Although he had spent most of his life in Medina, he had many followers throughout the Islamic counties. He points out this fact on a discussion about succession: “In fact succession didn’t make a distinction for me. When I was in Medina, people in east and west obeyed me and nobody was superior to me. They told me their requirements and I granted their requests and they treated me as a magnate.”
His Imamate was announced repeatedly by his father, grandfathers, and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP). Especially Imam Kazem (PBUH) mentioned him as the Imam after himself several times. For instance, one of his followers narrates, “One day Imam Kazem (PBUH) came to us, holding his son’s (Ali) hand. We were 60 people. He said:” Do you know me?” I said: “You are our leader.” He said:” Say my name and title.”
I said:” You are Mouse bin Jafar bin Muhammad. ”He said:” Who is this with me?”
I said: “Ali bin Mouse bin Jafar.”He said: “So profess that he is my representative during my life and my successor after my death.”4 He is further introduced as the eighth Imam in a saying of Prophet (PBUH&HP) narrated by Jaber. Also, Imam Sadegh (PBUH) told Imam Kazem (PBUH&HP) that the knowledge of Prophet’s (PBUH&HP) progeny is of your sons and he is your successor.
Imam Reza’s (PBUH) Imamate lasted eight years, which can be divided into three periods:
1-The first ten years was contemporary to Haroon’s caliphate.
2-The next five years was contemporary to Amin’s caliphate.
3-The last five years was contemporary to Ma’moon’s caliphate.
It was during the first period that great disasters, especially the martyrdom of Imam Kazem (PBUH), happened to the Alavi people (the children of Imam Ali (PBUH)). Haroon was instigated to kill Imam Reza (PBUH), but had not found the opportunity. After Haroon, Amin became the caliph. At that period, the government was weakened. Amin was drowned in his corruption and paid no attention to Imam and his followers. This period was peaceful for Imam and his followers.
However, Ma’moon killed his brother, Amin, and became the caliph. He suppressed the objectors and gained the control of all the Islamic countries. He gave the leadership of Iraq to one of his agents and settled in Marv. He then chose Fazl ibn Sahl, who was a great politician, as his minister. But the Alavi people were a threat to his government. After suffering murder, plunder and torture for a century, they had found the opportunity to object the government and to overthrow it. They were successful in gaining people’s support, because they also had suffered great losses from the Abbasid Caliphate. Therefore, Ma’moon decided not to confront them and wanted to bring back peace and security to strengthen his government.
So, after consulting Fazl, he came up with a treacherous plan. He decided to offer the caliphate to Imam Reza (PBUH) and withdraw himself. Because whether the Imam accepted or not, it would still be a victory for Ma’moon. If Imam accepted, and became Caliph allowing for Ma’moon to be the vice-caliph, that would guarantee the legitimacy of Ma’moon’s government. Thus Ma’moon decided to force the position of Caliph on Imam. It was then easier for him to eliminate
Imam Reza (PBUH) and become the legal leader. In this case, the Shiites would consider his government to be legitimate and would be satisfied with it and accepted him as Imam’s successor. Furthermore, the risings made against his government would lose their attraction and legitimacy.
However, if Imam didn’t accept the caliphate, he would then oblige Imam to be his successor and guarantee the legitimacy of his government through this to weaken the uprisings. On the other hand, he could make Imam settle near himself to control Imam and suppress his followers. In addition, Imam Reza’s (PBUH) Shiites and followers would criticize him for not accepting the caliphate and he would lose his respect among them.
The journey to the Khurasan
To accomplish his mentioned goals, Ma’moon sent some of his special agents to Imam Reza (PBUH) in Medina to force him to set on a journey to Khurasan. He also ordered to take Imam Reza (PBUH) through a path that has the least number of Shiites. The main roads in those days were the roads to Kufa, Jabal, Kermanshah, and Qom, which were all mainly Shiite cities. It seemed probable to Ma’moon that Shiites may get excited when they see Imam and prevent him to continue his travel to stay with them instead. To prevent these troubles, Ma’moon made Imam Reza (PBUH) travel through the paths of Basreh, Ahvaz, and Fars to Marv. His agents also watched Imam continuously and reported to Ma’moon on all of Imam’s activities.
The Selselah al-Zahab (The Golden Chain) tradition
Wherever he stopped, during his journey towards Marv, he caused for many blessings upon the people. At one point on his way, he entered the city of Neishaboor. A large crowd of people gathered to welcome his entrance. Meanwhile two learned men who had recorded many prophetic traditions came with scholars of Hadith, took the halter, and said: “You, the great Imam and you, the son of great Imams, for the sake of your innocent fathers and your great grandfathers, show us your shining face and narrate us a tradition from your fathers and your great grandfather, the messenger of Allah, to be as a reminder for us”. Imam ordered to stop and the people obeyed. Once they saw his face, they became so happy that some of them start crying and some who were close to him kissed his carriage. A big clamor was made throughout the city so, the elders of the city wanted people to be quiet so they could hear a tradition from Imam Reza (PBUH). After a while the crowd got silent and Imam dictated this tradition word by word from his honored father which was narrated from his pure grandfathers and from the messenger of Allah (PBUH & HP) and from Gabriel and from Almighty Allah that: “The word of La IlahaIlla al-Allah5 is my fortress (then whoever says this has entered my fortress) and whoever enters my fortress will be saved from my punishment”. Imam paused for a while and then said, “But on some conditions and I am one of its conditions.”
This tradition indicates that one of the necessities of saying the word of ,La Ilaha Illa al-Allahwhich is to strengthen the principle of divine unity, is confirming his Imamat, obeying, and accepting his words and deeds that has been specified by the Almighty Allah. In fact Imam believes the Oneness of God (Towhid) as a condition of being safe from Allah’s punishment and the acceptance of leadership and Mastership (Imamat and Wilayat) as the condition of believing in Oneness of Allah.
Succession to Caliphate
When Imam Reza (PBUH) entered Marv, Ma’moon welcomed him royally and publicly through a speech in front of all the key characters of government. He said: “All should know that I do not know anyone better and more deserving on succession than Ali ibn Moosi al-Reza in descendants of Abbas or Ali (PBUH)”. After that he turned his face to Imam and said: “I have decided to dethrone myself and announce you as the Caliph”. Imam Reza (PBUH) said: “If Allah has specified Caliphate for you then it is not permitted to give it to another one and if it is not yours then you do not have the authority to give it to another one.”
Ma’moon insisted on what he wanted but Imam said: “Never will I accept that”. When Ma’moon got disappointed, he told Imam: “Then accept to be the Caliph after me, and successor of me”. The insistence of Ma’moon on his wants and Imam Reza’s (PBUH) refusal lasted for two month. He did not accept and said, “I have heard from my fathers that I will die before you and will be martyred with poison and angles of the earth and skies will cry for me and I will be buried in the land of nostalgia beside Haroon al-Rashid”. But Ma’moon insisted on succession of Imam Reza (PBUH) in such way that he threatened Imam to death in a secret and private ceremony. Thus Imam said: “Now, since I am obliged, I accept it but on the condition that I do not appoint or depose anyone and do not change any custom or rule and control affaires imperceptibly”. Ma’moon had no choice but to accept this condition. After that Imam raised his hands and said: “O, my God, you know that they opposed me under duress and I chose it by force. So please do not take me to task just as your two prophets, Yousef and Danial, when they accepted the leadership position of the kings of their time. O! My God, there is no vow except yours and no Mastership except of yours. So please help me to establish your religion and to follow your prophet’s custom. Indeed, what a good master and a good assistant you are”.
The scientific aspect of Imam
When Ma’moon saw the anxiety of people toward Imam considered that his credit among them might discredit his own position among people. One of his plans to discredit Imam instead was through holding debates between Imam and the scholars from allover the world. He was hoping that maybe the scholars would be able to win the debates and defeat Imam in science to question his scientific knowledge. One of the debates goes as follows:
Ma’moon ordered Fazl ibn Sahl to invite all the philosophers and learned men from all over the world to debate with the Imam. Fazl then invited the Christian scholars, the learned of Jewish scholars, headmasters of Saebin (followers of the prophet Yahya (PBUH)), the great Zoroastrian priests, and other speakers of that time. Ma’moon greeted them and asked them to debate with his cousin (Ma’moon was of descendants of Abbas, the Prophet’s (PBUH&HP) uncle, and so Imam’s cousin) that has come here from Medina. Tomorrow morning Ma’moon held a glorious ceremony and sent a man to Imam Reza (PBUH) to invite him to that ceremony. Imam accepted his invitation and told him: “Do you want to know when Ma’moon will repent of his deed?” He said: “Yes, dear Sir”. Imam said: “When Ma’moon hears my reasons for disproving Jewish from torah, Christians from Bible, followers of Zaboor from Zaboor, Saebin in their language, Fire-worshipers in Farsi, and Romans in their language and sees that I disapprove each of them and they leave aside their beliefs and believe in my words. At that time Ma’moon will know that he is not able to do what he wants and will repent. And there is no power except from Almighty Allah”. Then he went to the Ma’moon’s ceremony. By his entrance, Ma’moon introduced him to the crowd and then said: “I want you to debate with him”. Imam Reza (PBUH) discussed them about their religion through their books. Then he said: “If there is someone amongst you who is against Islam ask me without shame”. Umran Sa’ebi, who was one of the speakers, asked Imam many questions and Imam answered him all one by one and convinced him. After hearing the answers of his questions from Imam, Umran Sa’ebi recited the testimony (Shahadatain) and converted to Islam. The ceremony ended with Imam’s victory and the crowd scattered. The day after, Imam asked to see Umran Sa’ebi and honored him very much. Since then he became one of the missionaries of Islam.
Raja ibn Zahak, who was ordered by Ma’moon to move Imam from Medina toward Marv, said: “Every city he entered, people came to him from everywhere and asked him their religious questions. In turn, he answered them their questions and quoted many traditions from the prophet (PBUH&HP) and Imam Ali (PBUH). When I came back from that journey, I went to Ma’moon. He asked me about Imam’s behavior during the journey and I told him whatever I saw from him during the journey. Ma’moon said: “Yes, son of Zahak! He is the best, the most learned and the most pious person on the earth”.
Imam’s manner and behavior
His moral virtues and piety was such that besides his followers and companions his enemies were attracted to him. He treated people as respectfully and kindly as possible and never separated himself from the people.
One of his companions say: “I never remember him, talk badly to anyone and interrupt someone while speaking. If he afforded to help, he would never reject any poor and never stretched his legs in front of people. I never remember him talk badly to his servants. He always smiled instead of laughing loudly. While having a meal, he invited all the servants to have the meal with him. He slept little at nights and was used to staying up and saying prayer during almost all nights. He always performed three fasts in the month. He helped the poor secretly in the dark nights.”6
One of his other companions says: “His carpet was of sackcloth in winter and a mat in summer. He wore rough and coarse clothes at home, but he wore nice clothes in public parties. (He wore nice and common clothes.)”7
One night while Imam was talking to his guest, there was a problem with the light. The guest wanted to correct it, but Imam did not let him to do so. He fixed it himself and said: ‘We are the ones who do not put our guests to work.’”8
A man told Imam: “By Allah I swear that no one on earth equals your ancestors in superiority and nobleness.’ Imam said:” Taqwa gave them nobleness and obedience to Allah gave them superiority.”9
A man from Balkh says:” I was with Imam Reza (PBUH) during the travel to Khurasan. One day while having a meal Imam invited all the servants including the Blacks to have the meal with them. I told Imam:” It is better they (the servants) sit somewhere else. Imam said:” Be quiet! The creator of everyone is the same. The father and mother of all are the same and reward is according to deeds.”10
The servant of Imam -Yaser – says:” Imam Reza (PBUH) had told us that if I was above your head (and ordered you to do something) and you were having a meal, do not stand up till you finish it. Therefore it frequently happened that Imam called us for a work, and he was responded that he (the servant) is busy having a meal; then Imam would say:” Let him finish his food.”11
One day a stranger came to visit Imam Reza (PBUH). He said hello and continued:” I love you and your fathers and ancestors. I have come back form Hajj and have run out of money. If it is possible give me some money so that I could go back to my house. I promise to spend the same amount there as Sadaghah, for, I am not poor in my city. Imam stood up and went to another room. Then he came behind the curtain and said:” Get this 200 Dinar and spend it for your travel, there is no need to pay the same back as Sadaghah. The man got the Dinars and went. Imam was asked for the reason of his secret help, he answered:” I did such, in order not to see the shame of need in his face.”12
Our infallible and great Imams guided their followers both by sayings and behavior. In other words by their behavior, they taught their Shiites the true way of behaving.
One of Imam’s companions said:” One day I was with Imam on the way to his home. At home his servants were busy repairing the house. Imam saw a stranger among them and asked of him. They answered:” He helps us and we pay him.” Imam asked:” Have you defined the amount of payment?” They answered:” No, but he accepts whatever we pay him.” Imam was disturbed and told me:” I have told them many times that before you bring anyone, define the amount of payment and contract. The one, who works without any contraction, thinks that you have paid him little, even if you give him three times more. But if you contract and give him according to the contraction, he will be pleased with receiving his right. Now if you pay more even just a little, he will understand you have paid more and will be thankful to you.”13
Imam’s servant says:” One day his servants were eating fruits. They ate some and through out the rest. Imam Reza (PBUH) told them:” Subhanallah! If you do not need it, give it to someone who needs.”
A little from Imam’s wise words
Imam said:” The friend of everyone is his wisdom the enemy of everyone is his ignorance and silliness.”
Imam said:” Science and knowledge are like treasures, and the key to them is question, so ask and Allah may bless you, because by this question four groups benefit: 1.The asker 2.The teacher 3.The listener 4.The answerer”
Imam said:” Liking people and friendship is half of wisdom.”
Imam said:” There is a piece of advice in everything your eyes see.
Imam said:” Cleanliness and neatness is of virtues of the prophets.”
Ma’moon had told one of his servants not to cut his nails, and ordered him to put some poisons in his nails and prepare a pomegranate and pollute it with the poison. The servant obeyed his master and prepared the pomegranate. Ma’moon offered the poisonous pomegranate to Imam. Imam rejected, Ma’moon insisted and threatened Imam that he would kill him if he didn’t eat. Imam ate some pomegranate under obligation. After a few hours the poison polluted Imam’s body and he became ill. The morning of the next day (29th of Safar of year 203 H.G.) Imam Reza (PBUH) was martyred.
By divine will and power, Imam’s son, Imam Jawad (PBUH) washed his father’s body and said prayer for him. Imam’s body was buried in Mashhadwith the accompaniment of many of his Shiites and followers.
Though centuries pass from the life of Imam Reza (PBUH), his holy shrine is the cause of blessing and honor for the Iranians.