There is no doubt that, generally speaking, the Imams (A.S) were more distant than anyone else from the alluring wares of this vanishing world, and most distant from its ornamentations and allurements. But the concept of asceticism according to them was not limited to wearing modest coarse clothes or eating very simple food. Rather, its limits extended beyond that, for the ascetic person is the one who does not allow the pleasures of this world to take control over him without being able to take control of them, one who does not see this world as the ultimate goal he seeks; rather, when it comes towards him, the believer is entitled to enjoy its good things, and when it forsakes him, he contends himself that God’s rewards are more lasting.
Al-Aabi is quoted in Nathr al-Durar as saying: "A group of sufis visited Imam Rida (A.S) when he was in Khorassan, and they said to him, The commander of the faithful looked into the authority God Almighty entrusted to him, and he found you, members of the Prophet's Ahl-ul-Bayt (A.S), to be the most deserving of all people to be the leaders. Then he discerned you, members of the Prophet’s Ahl-ul-Bayt (A.S), and he found yourself the most worthy of leading the people, so he decided to entrust such leadership to you.
The nation is in need of one who wears coarse clothes, eats the simplest food, and visits the sick.' Al-Rida (A.S) was first leaning, and then he adjusted the way he was sitting and said: Joseph (Yusuf) was a Prophet who used to wear silk mantles brocaded with gold. He sat on the thrones of the Pharaohs and ruled.
An Imam is required to be just and fair; when he says something, he says the truth, and when he passes a judgment, he judges equitably, and when he promises something, he fulfills his promise. God did not forbid (an Imam) from wearing a particular type of clothes or eating a particular type of food.'Then he recited the Qur’ anic verse: Say: Who has forbidden the beautiful (gifts) of God which He has produced for His servants, and the good things, clean and pure (which He has provided) for sustenance?" Imam Jawad (A.S) was asked once about his view regarding musk. He answered: "My father ordered musk to be made for him in a ben tree in the amount of seven hundred dirhams.
Al-Fadl ibn Sahl wrote him saying that people criticized him for that. He wrote back: O Fadl! Have you not come to know that Joseph (Yusuf), who was a Prophet, used to wear silk clothes brocaded with gold, and that he used to sit on gilded thrones, and that all of that did not decrease any of his wisdom?' Then he ordered a galia moschata (perfume of musk and ambergris) to be made for him in the amount of four thousand dirhams."
Thus does the Imam prove that the outward appearance of asceticism has nothing to do with true asceticism; rather, it may even be a fake whereby someone tries to attract the attention of others. This is why Imam Rida (A.S) and other Imams did not see anything wrong with meeting the public with an appearance of luxury in what they put on or ate as long as it did not collide with the reality of asceticism which is the building of the self from within to renounce the world and its allurement and regard it as a vanishing display with a short span of life.
This does not forbid the believer from enjoying its pleasures in the way which God made permissible. God did not create the good things in this world for the disbeliever to enjoy while depriving the believers there from. Rather, God considers the believer to be more worthy of such enjoyment when he submits himself to God and expends it in His Path.
Ibn Abbad tells us the following about Imam Rida’s ascetic conduct: "Al-Rida used to sit on a leaf mat during the summer and on a straw sack during the winter; he used to put on coarse clothes, but when he went out to meet the public, he put on his very best." So, when he is by himself, away from public life, his soul finds harmony with denying what is fake, that is, the decorations and allurements of this life. But when he goes out to meet people, he puts on his best for them following their own nature of holding the appearances of this world as significant, enjoying its good things. This realistically ascetic conduct of the Imam provides us with a glorious example of the truth regarding the Ahl-ul-Bayt (A.S) and their pure view of life which is free from any disturbing fake or pretense.
* Source: About Imam Rida (A.S). By: Muhammad Jawad Fadlullah