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Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem
Published on 26th March, 2003

Historical Period During The Life of Eighth Holy Imam ('a)

By Masooma Ali

Imam Redha's shrine in Mashad, Iran


Name and Lineage

His name was Ali, appellative Riza and kunniyat Abul Hasan. Imam Musa Kazim was his father and, therefore, his full name was Imam Abul Hasan Ali bin Musa Al-Riza ('a). His mother was known by her kunniyat, Ummul Baneen and appellative Tahira. She was a pious lady very much devoted to the worship of God.


He was born in Madinah on 11th of Dhil Qadah 148 A.H. The demise of his esteemed grandfather Imam Jafar Sadiq ('a) had taken place about a month earlier on 15th of Shawwal. The arrival of this pious baby soon after that great calamity must have given some solace to the entire household.


He was reared and brought up under the benign shadow of his esteemed father Hazrat Imam Musa Kazim ('a). Successive stages of childhood and youth passed in this very pious environment and thus he completed thirty-five years of his age. Although the last few years of this period were those when Imam Musa Kazim ('a) was undergoing the hardships of captivity and persecution in Iraq yet prior to this Imam Riza ('a) had the privilege of passing twenty-eight or twenty-nine years of his life in the company of his father.


Imam Musa Kazim ('a) was aware that the government of the day will not allow him to breath freely and that during the later part of his life when he would be about to leave the world, such conditions might come to prevail that would not even let the devotees of Ahle Bait ('a) see him and find out from him the identity of their future guide. He therefore had deemed it necessary to acquaint the followers of Ahle Bait ('a) of their would be Imam after him during that very period of respite when he was still in Madinah. With this end in view, he had called an assembly of seventeen distinguished personalities from amongst the progeny of Ali ('a) and Fatima ('a) and made a formal announcement of the name of his son Imam Ali Riza ('a) as his vicegerent and successor. He also arranged for a will executed in writing on which sixty notable personalities of Madinah affixed their signatures as witnesses. Such arrangements do not seem to have been made in respect of other Imams simply because they were not confronted with such conditions in the last moments of their lives.

Tenure of Imamate

Imam Ali Riza ('a) was thirty-five years of age when his esteemed father Imam Musa Kazim ('a) left this world and the responsibilities pertaining to Imamate devolved upon him. This was the time when Haroon Rasheed was reigning, as caliph in Baghdad and the conditions were extremely unfavourable for the progeny of Fatima ('a) It was in such a hostile environment that the Imam began discharging silently his obligations towards the genuine Islamic Shariat.

Scholastic Perfection

Amongst the pious progeny of Muhammad ('s), every single individual was blessed by God with the highest degree of knowledge which friends and foes alike had perforce to acknowledge. It is another matter that the circumstances favoured some with lesser and others with greater degree of opportunity to disseminate the bounties of knowledge. Amongst these pious personages it was Imam Riza ('a) who got the utmost opportunity in this respect after Imam Jafar Sadiq ('a) even prior to his formal assumption of the Imamate, his father Imam Musa Kazim ('a) used to advise all his sons and members of the household to seek his guidance saying: “Ali Riza is the most knowledgeable person amongst the present progeny of most knowledgeable person amongst the present progeny of Muhammad ('s). Get all your problems relating to religious maters solved by him and commit to memory whatever he says.”

After the demise of Imam Musa Al-Kazim, while Imam Riza was in Madinah and used to sit at the shrine of the Prophet, Islamic scholars came to him for the solution of their difficult problems pertaining to the faith. Muhammad bin Yaqtin says that when he collected together the written replies given by Imam Riza to question put to him in writing, their total went up to eighteen thousand. (Author's note: at the very time of the death of his father, Imam Riza was recognized by scholars as the depository of the Divine Knowledge)

Vicissitudes of Life

After the death of Imam Musa Kazim ('a), Haroon’s tenure of caliphate lasted for ten years. Surely, he could hardly bear the existence of Imam Ali Riza ('a)  in this world just as he did not tolerate that of his esteemed father, but no aggressive steps were taken openly against Imam Riza ('a). It could be either because the government had been publicly discredited as a result of the continued torture and persecution of Imam Musa Kazim ('a) for a long duration that culminated in his death while still in captivity, or because of the realization by the tyrant himself of his own cruel conduct that led his own conscience to reprimand him. Whatever might have been the reasons, the fact is that no open action was taken against the Imam. It is even reported that with a view to strengthening his position and influence Yahya bin Khalid Barmaki once said to Haroon Rashid that after his father Ali ibne Musa ('a) was also laying claim to Imamate like his father. To this Haroon replied: “Was there left anything wanting in the treatment that we meted out to his father that you now want me to exterminate the entire lineage?”

Even then in view of the intense antipathy that Haroon had been showing towards the descendants of the Prophet and the treatment that he had hitherto meted out to the Sadaat in keeping the ruler pleased at all costs, could not be expected to have an amicable disposition towards the Ahle Bait ('a). Moreover, neither the people could visit the Imam freely for seeking knowledge nor he himself had the opportunity to freely propagate the genuine Islamic tenets.

The last days of Haroon passed most unpleasantly due to the internecine wrangling between his two sons, Ameen and Mamun. Ameen was from his first wife, who belonged to the royal family, being the granddaughter of Mansoor Diwaniqi. Therefore he enjoyed the favour of all the nobles of Arab descent. Mamun was born of a Persian maid slave and hence the Persian section of the court entertained affection for him. The mutual tug of war between the two was a continuous source of mental agony for Haroon. Thinking that the division of the territory between the two sons would finally settle the dispute, he partitioned the country in such a manner that the capital of Baghdad and Arab territories around it viz., Syria, Egypt, Hijaz and Yemen were allotted to Muhammad Ameen and the Eastern regions viz., Iran, Khurasan and Turkestan etc, were assigned to Mamun. But this settlement could have worked only if both the parties had any inclination to follow the maxim ‘live and let live’.

But if the lust for power could lead the Bani Abbas to commit all sorts of atrocities and oppression on Bani Fatima, there was no reason as to why the two warring brothers of the same clan Bani Abbas should not gear themselves up for aggressive action against each other. A clash between any two forces is inevitable when none of them possesses that spirit of compassion selflessness and concern for the welfare of the people in general that Bani Fatima always had before them as their main objective and for which they used to forsake even their rightful claims. The result was that soon after the death of Haroon, fierce fighting broke out between the two brothers. Ultimately after four years of continuous struggle and carnage, success embraced Mamun and Ameen was put to death in Muharram 198 A.H. Thus Mamun finally established his away over the entire Abbasid Kingdom.

As Heir Apparent

Ultimately, after Ameen was killed, the Islamic domain in a way did come under the control of Mamun. It has already been stated that from the mother’s side Ameen was of Arab descent and Mamun of Persian. The assassination of Ameen further alienated the Arabs of Iraq, the Arab nobles in general from Mamun. There was anger and resentment in their hearts against him, at the same time Mamum was also apprehensive of a sizable section of Bani Abbas that was favouring Ameen, besides there was also another class of people which in its heart of hearts felt disgusted with the Abbaside regime although it was not in a position to do any harm to it, these were the supporters of the progeny of Fatima ('a), a large number of whom had confronted Bani Abbas from time to time and some of whom were massacred some exiled from their hearths and homes and some confined to prison.

It was by recalling to their memory the atrocities perpetrated by the Umayyads on Imam Husain ('a) and others from the progeny of Fatima ('a) that Abu Muslim Khurasani had incited the people of Iran against them. It was but natural that a feeling of compassion should have been generated in Iran towards this household. However, the Abbasids exploited this feeling to their advantage. This must have opened the eyes of the Iranians to some extent. They must have felt defrauded by the fact that against all that was said to them the power had been grabbed by other people. It is quite possible that these reports regarding the leanings of the Iranians might have also reached the ears of Mamun. After the assassination of Ameen he could no longer repose his trust in the Arabs and more particularly in the tribe Bani Abbas. Thus every moment he apprehended an uprising among them against him. He, therefore, thought it politically expedient to win the favour the Iranians against the Arabs and that of Bani Fatima against Bani Abbas. If the intention behind one’s conduct appears to be based on political expediency it is not deemed as sincere and therefore, has no positive impact on the people in general. It was thus considered necessary by Mamun to adopt a religious posture and publicly propagate his Shiite leanings and his love for the Ahle Bait and also to demonstrate to the world that he genuinely intended to follow the maxim: Restore to one what rightfully belongs to one”, and entrust the Caliphate to the progeny of the Prophet ('s).

As recorded by Sheikh Saduq, Mamun gave wide publicity to the story relation to the pledge, which he had allegedly made to the Almighty whole facing Ameen, and was in a very critical situation. Just then there was an uprising against him in Seestan and Kitrman as well and a deep unrest was also prevailing in Khurasan. According to him his financial condition too was in a bad shape. Moreover, he was not sure if he could trust his army. In this most difficult and trying situation he had made a supplication to God with a solemn pledge that if all these troubles came to an end and he got hold of the caliphate, he would restore it to its rightful claimant i.e. to the person most deserving from amongst the progeny of Fatima ('a). Immediately after he had made this pledge all his affairs got smoothly sorted out and eventually he attained success against his enemies.

Surely, this event was widely publicized by Mamun to create an impression that whatever he did was based on sincerity of purpose and good intentions. Although even the most virulent and open enemies of Ahle Bait were fully aware of their real worth and their virtues and superiority but only knowing this much does not mean Shiism. It also involves love and obedience. It is evident from the actions of Mamun that, in spite of all his propaganda about his claim regarding Shiism and his love for Ahle Bait he did not have the least intention to obey the Imam. Instead, he wanted to make the Imam act according to his wishes. With regard to his installation as the heir apparent the Imam was denied the right to have any say, he was forced to accept the assignment. It is clear from this that his appointment as the heir apparent was an act of despotic aggression against the Imam under the deceptive guise of Shiism.

The acceptance of heirship by the Imam was in no way different from the imprisonment of Imam Musa Kazim ('a) at the behest of Haroon. That is why when Imam Riza ('a) was leaving Madinah for Khurasan his grief pain and distraction knew no bounds. At the time of bidding adieu to the Prophet’s shrine his state of mind was similar to that of Imam Husain, when he was leaving Madinah. Eye witnessed saw him going inside the shrine in an agitated state moaning and sighing and complaining against the Ummah, and then coming out with the intention of going to his house. But then again, forced by his restless heart, he would enter the shrine and embraced the Prophet’s grave. This happened several times. Mahawal a narrator says that the Imam told him that he was being forcibly banished from his forefather’s shrine and that he would never come back to that place again.

Imam Raza departed from Madinah for Khurasan in the year 200AH. He left his family and other dependents in Madinah  itself. At that time (his son) Imam Muhammad Taqi was just five years old. He (Imam Taqi) remained in Madinah. When Imam  Riza arrived at Merve, the then Capital of the government, Mamun, after showing respect and honour to him for a few days, proposed to him to accept the Caliphate. The Imam declined to accept it just as Ameerul Momineen Ali ('a) had done when the office of the caliphate was offered to him in the fourth round (after the demise if the third Caliph). As a matter of fact Mamun had no intention of giving up the caliphate, otherwise he should have persisted in pressurizing the Imam to accept it. But he did nothing like that. After the Imam  had refused the office of caliphate, Mamun next placed before him the offer to be the heir apparent. Imam knew what was going to happen to it. Moreover, to accept willingly any office offered by a despotic regime was against the tenets of his faith. The Imam therefore declined this offer also. But Mamun's insistence reached the stage of coercion and he plainly told him that his non acceptance of the office shall cost him his life.

Danger to life can be acceptable only when preservation of the interests of the faith depends on the giving away of one’s life. Otherwise protection of life is the basic tenet of the Islamic Shariat. Hence the Imam said: “ In that case I accept the offer under compulsion but on the condition that I will have nothing to do with the affairs of the state. Of course if my opinion is sought in a particular case, I shall be always ready to give my advice.” After this the Imam heir ship amounted to nothing more than a gimmick of the government of day. It is possible that this might have helped achieve certain amount of success in respect of some political objective for some space of time. But the position of Imam with regard to the discharge of his responsibilities was similar to the one adopted by his forefather Ali in respect of the people in power in his time. Just as mere tendering of advice now and then by him did not pout the seal of validity on those regimes, similarly the acceptance of heir ship by Imam Riza in the way it was done in no way validated the rule of Mamun. It was nothing mere than the satisfaction of the pertinacity of a despot. The Imam as he had determined kept himself strictly aloof from the activities and the administrative steps of the tyrannical regime.

Still the Bani Abbas were not at all agreeable to this decision of Mamun. They tried to disrupt the process but Mamun explicitly challenged them to name anyone better than Ali Riza ('a). There was no answer to this. In this connection several momentous sessions of disputations were also held but obviously there was no one who could establish his scholastic supremacy over the Imam. The decision of Mamun was inflexible and he was not prepared to deviate from his stand. Nor there was any one who could convince him through reasoning to change mind.

On the first of Ramazan 201 AH. the ceremony of the installation of the Imam as heir apparent was held. The event was celebrated with great pomp and show, grandeur and glory. First of all Mamun beckoned his son Abbas who took the oath of allegiance. Others followed him. Gold and silver coins were thrown over the head of Imam as mark of offering and awards were given to all the nobles and employees of the State Mamum issue the order that the coins be minted in the mane of the Imam.. Accordingly his name was engraved on Dinars and Dirhams and these coins were put in circulation throughout the realm. His name was included in orations of the Friday prayers.

Morals and Attributes

“The lady is virtuous for want of veil” is a well known saying and it is applicable to those worldly –minded people who euphemistically call their life of constraint and helplessness as one of contentment and renunciation. But to live like a destitute when endowed with power and wealth and resources is the prerogative of God’s chosen ones only. The noble personalities from amongst the infallible progeny of the prophet A.S who did not ostensibly enjoy a status of authority and (and most of them belong to that category) used to put on decent clothes and lived in a dignified manner. This was because if they had lived like indigent people their adversaries would have attribute it to their helplessness and also would have invited taunts and insults. That would have hurt the honour that goes with righteousness. But such of those noble souls who by chance found themselves apparently in the seats of power the manifestation of their simple mode of living and their self denial increased proportionately so that their life may be a source of consolation for the poor Muslims and serves as a model. It was just in accordance with the life pattern of Ameerul Momineen Ali ('a). As he was acknowledgement as the ruler of the Islamic domain both his clothing and his diet were the simplest like those of an anchorite. A parallel of his life style cannot be found even among the other infallible personalities of own line. This was exactly the case with Hazrat Ali Riza. He was appointed heir apparent of that great Muslim empire whose vastness had obliterated the memory of the grandeur of the Roman and Persian empires. There whenever a cloud passed by the caliph would loudly address it saying it could go and rain wherever it chose to in any case the tax proceeds of the harvest of that place would ultimately come to his coffers.

The ascension of Imam Ali Riza to the office of the heir apparent of the regime provides an example of how religious men conduct them selves when they gain worldly power. In this case realizing his religious obligations, it was necessary for the Imam to demonstrate much more prominently his innate qualities of renunciation and self-denial in proportion to the imperatives of his august opposition and grandeur of status. Accordingly, the history repeated itself and the world witnessed again the life style of Ali Murtaza in the person of Ali Riza ('a). He disapproved of having expensive carpets laid out in his house. Instead the floor was covered with coarse rugs in the winter and ordinary mats in summer. He used to have his food along with his doorkeeper the groom and the slaves. One day, a man from Balkh accustomed to the imperial etiquette and manners said: “Sire, what is the harm if food is served to these people separately?” The Imam replied: “Allah is the creator of everyone will get recompense or punishment in accordance with his deeds. Why then should there be discrimination amongst them in this world?”

The Imam had become a component of that regime of the Abbasids who on the basis of a single source of relationship with the Prophet ('s) had laid claim to rule over the creations of God without looking into their own character to fine out what actually they were and how they should conduct themselves. Matters went so far that it came to be generally asserted that the Abbasids is not lag behind the Umayyads either in their tyranny and atrocious behaviour or in their vicious and immoral mode of living. In fact in some respects they had even surpassed them. Still they were proud of their relationship in comparison to the deeds. This was apparently a demonstration of modesty and civility by an individual, which in itself is a noble attribute. But far beyond that it was in fact a proclamation of the true Islamic tenets against almost a century old Abbasid mentality. It assumed greater significance as it was being made by a very important member of the state. Accordingly we fine various significant examples of the behaviour of Imam Riza. Once a man said to Imam : "by God no one can surpass you with respect to your ancestry.” 

The Imam replied: “the eminence attained by my ancestors was also by virtue of their fear of God, their piety and their devotion to God only.” 

On another occasion a man said to the Imam: "I swear by God that you are the best of his creations.” 

The Imam told him: “Do not affirm so on oath because whosoever has greater fear of God and is much more pious he is superior to me.”

Ibrahim bin Abbas has narrated that the Imam used to assert: “I would set free all my slaves both male and female if it is otherwise then that only on the basis of my relationship with the Prophet ('s). I do not consider my self superior to this black slave ( at this he pointed some noble deed) then I shall be superior to him in the estimation of God.”

Short sighted persons might have attributed these things to the Imam personal humility but the despotic ruler of the Abbasid regime would not have been so stupid as not to have felt the floggings that were being inflicted on his dynastic system of autocratic governance by the mute action and such utterances of Imam Ali Riza ('a). In his own conceit he had appointed the Imam as his heir apparent to serve a temporary political purpose that is the strengthening of his rule. But very soon the realization dawned upon him that if the Imam continued to live for long that would bring about a revolution in the thinking of the people in general and cause the overthrow of the Abbasid regime.


The unfulfilment of his expectations obliged Mamun to be after the life of the Imam. The same secret weapon, which had been used several times in the past against these infallible personages, was again put to use. The grapes that were offered to the Imam (A) as a present were poisoned and because of them, the Imam embraced martyrdom on 17 of Safar 203 A.H. Mamun, outwardly, exhibited much sorrow and grief and got the body of the Imam buried ceremoniously by the side of his father Haroon Rasheed.

The sacred city of Mashad, where the crowned potentates of the world prostrate themselves in reverence before the shrine of Imam Raza ('a) is also the burial place of the greatest emperor of his time, Haroon Rasheed , but the visitors to the holy shrine do not even know where his grave is.

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