The Regency

The Life of Imam Al-Rida

Immediately after setting the firm foundations of government and his becoming the sole caliph, al-Mamoon, according to the...

Immediately after setting the firm foundations of government and his becoming the sole caliph, al-Mamoon, according to the tradition started by Mu'awiya who secured the oath of allegiance for his son Yazid to succeed him on the throne, had to name his successor, and he had to be extremely careful about this weighty matter due to the precarious circumstances he underwent during his collision with his brother and thereafter. It was not easy for him to select just anyone from his immediate family or from others; rather, he had to subject each step he undertook in this regard to precise calculations linking past outcomes to future expectations and taking into consideration the sentiments of Shi'a Alawides who dominated Khurasan and the territories under its control. Among the latter party may be included men such as "Dhul-Riyasatayn" and his brother al-Hassan ibn Sahl who were among the most powerful elements that paved the way for him to survive the dangerous stage during his confrontation with his brother al-Amin, although we doubt such an inclusion which we will discuss later.

Al-Mamoon, however, did not find the idea of taking caliphate out of Banu al-Abbas and giving it to others, Alawides or non-Alawides, easy for he, despite his ideological inclination towards Shi'aism which lacked a practical implementation, would spare no effort to safeguard the legacy which he inherited from his forefathers in its framework and context. We can be acquainted with the accuracy of this theory if we research the plausible reasons which led him to force Imam al-Rida (A.S.) to accept regency.

Regency Between the Imam and al-Mamoon

While researching the motives which prompted al-Mamoon to force Imam al-Rida (A.S.) to be his heir to the throne, we will find out that they were far-sighted political motives al-Mamoon hoped thereby to achieve selfish gains for both himself and the Abbaside caliphate, for al-Mamoon was quite an intelligent man in selecting Imam al-Rida (A.S.) for this post since he represented the opposition group. But Imam al-Rida (A.S.), upon rejecting his selection for this post, proved to be more aware of al-Mamoon and his aims than al-Mamoon had thought. Al-Harawi quotes the Imam saying: "By God! Al-Rida did not accept this matter willingly, and he was transported to Kufa against his wish, then he was taken from there, passing by Basrah and Persia, to Marw."1

Why the Imam Rejected the Regency

The reason we understand as to why he rejected it is that the Imam realized that al-Mamoon, by selecting him, aimed at using him as a bargaining ticket between him and the Abbasides on one hand, between him and the Alawides on another, and between him and the Shi'as of Khurasan and other areas on yet another hand; otherwise, what is the wisdom in the insistence of al-Mamoon that al-Rida (A.S.) should accede, and why did he even threaten him if he insisted on his rejection?

Al-Irshad narrates that al-Mamoon discussed the subject of regency with al-Rida (A.S.), saying, "I have decided that you should be my successor." The Imam said: "Exempt me from that, O commander of the faithful, for I have neither the ability nor the strength for that." He said: "I have decided that you should be my successor." The Imam said: "Exempt me from that, O commander of the faithful." Al-Mamoon responded with a statement which was more of a threat than anything else; he said to him: "Umer ibn al-Khattab entrusted six persons to consult regarding caliphate, one of them was your grandfather Ali ibn Abu Talib (A.S.), and he preconditioned that anyone who went against their decision should be executed; therefore, you will have to accept what I have decreed for you, for I see no way that I can ever change my mind."2

The Imam, therefore, had to agree.3 It is also narrated that a lengthy discussion went on between both men in which al-Mamoon offered the Imam to be the caliph and the Imam refused to accept, then he offered him the regency and he refused too, so al-Mamoon said to him, "You always say what I hate to hear, and you think that you are safe from my might; therefore, I swear by God that you should either accept the regency willingly or I shall force you to do so; therefore, accept out of your own will; otherwise, I shall certainly strike your neck with the sword."4

Al-Mamoon Reveals His Intentions

Al-Mamoon himself revealed to us the far-sighted implication of his choice for regent in a letter to Banu Hashim answering their objections regarding the promise of regency to the Imam in which he said: "As regarding my intention behind choosing Ali ibn Mousa (A.S.) as the regent, although he is qualified for it, out of my own selection of him, the reason for that is my desire to safeguard your lives and protect your properties by establishing permanent friendly ties between us and them, and it is a method I employed to honour the descendants of Abu Talib and to heel their wounds with very little of what they are entitled to. You claim that I desired that they would be the recipients of benefits thereof and to be in charge, while I have in mind the interest of your posterity and children after you even while you are unaware, blindly stumbling, not knowing what plans others have in store for you."5

He does not wish to transfer the government from Banu al-Abbas to the descendants of Abu Talib, as the Abbasides imagined; rather, he aimed by such an action to contain the consequences which might cause a great deal of trouble for the government. In other words, he aimed by taking such a political action, to retain a position of strength for the Abbasides.

Al-Mamoon and the Astronomer Nawbakhti

What proves the fact that al-Mamoon was not serious in his offer to the Imam to be the regent is a narration stating that al-Fadl al-Nawbakhti, who was an astronomer thought to be Shi'a, wanted to test al-Mamoon's intentions, so he wrote him saying: "The order of the stars indicates that naming al-Rida (A.S.) as the regent at this time cannot be done; otherwise, the person named will suffer a catastrophe. Therefore, if al-Mamoon's intentions agree with what he proclaims in public, he ought to postpone this matter till a more conducive time." To this, al-Mamoon answered him warning him against discouraging Dhul-Riyasatayn from contracting that agreement at that time, and that if he did not, he would know that the postponement was instigated by al-Nawbakhti. He also ordered him to return his own letter back to him so that nobody else would come to find out about it. He then came to know that al-Fadl was aware of the fact that time was not ripe for contracting the regency because he himself had knowledge of the science of the stars; therefore, al-Nawbakhti feared that the change of mind of al-Fadl ibn Sahl was because of him personally, and he would thus be killed by al-Mamoon, so he rode to him and convinced him through his own knowledge of astronomy that time was indeed ripe for it, contrary to the reality, because he was more knowledgeable than him about astrology, and he kept confusing him till he finally convinced him.6

This leads us to conclude that the offer of regency to the Imam was nothing more than a trap al-Mamoon had set for him to achieve some political gains that would save his government a great deal of trouble, and he certainly was not sincere in his conduct towards the Imam; rather, that was only a transient stage he had to go through with precision in order to achieve his anticipated objectives.

Al-Mamoon's Objecive Behind Regency

As regarding his request that the Imam should accept to be the caliph after he himself abdicates, his objective was more than just proving to the public that the Imams from the Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) were certainly after the glory of this life, coveting it, and that their asceticism and distancing themselves therefrom was only because they were unable to reach their worldly goals as some stories claim7 and on which yet other conclusions are based.

The Imam, in fact, did not underestimate the power to rule nor did he willingly stay aloof from its responsibilities; how could he do so while viewing himself as more worthy of the post of the supreme ruler and more capable than him in managing its affairs with equity? The fact is that he was confident that such thing would not happen for him, and that the whole matter was a clever political trick performed by al-Mamoon which he wanted to carry out by using Imam al-Rida (A.S.) as a ploy. When al-Mamoon offered to abdicate the throne for the Imam, he was calculating the matter to end up with one of two cases: either the Imam would agree, or that he would refuse, and in either case, he would gain for himself and for the Abbaside government a victory, for the Imam's agreement would be preconditioned upon accepting that he, al-Mamoon, would be named the regent, thus securing the legitimacy of his own caliphate after the Imam before all parties; otherwise, al-Mamoon was not so naive or short-sighted to the extent that he would offer his own post on a silver platter to the Alawides and become a subject dealt with as such. If al-Mamoon came to be a regent, it would be easy for him to put an end to the life of the Imam in order to succeed him without anyone finding out, thus satisfying the ambitions of the Alawides for the government while convincing their Shi'as of his own legitimate caliphate. Al-Mamoon had his own particular methods in eliminating his political foes, and we will mention the mysterious method he employed to put an end to the life of Dhul-Riyasatayn al-Fadl ibn Sahl and his murder of those who killed him despite their admission that he was the one who incited them to assassinate al-Fadl.

As regarding the case of the Imam refusing to accept the caliphate, this, al-Mamoon calculated, would cause him to be very widely criticized by his own Shi'a followers and companions due to their own belief that caliphate was rightfully his and he had to accept it, but the Imam's companions were endowed with a great deal of political awareness to the extent that they would not be tricked by a trick like that carried out by al-Mamoon. Also, he would be excused by various Shi'a factions for not accepting it for himself and his family, and that he tried so but could not succeed and thus would silence those who might dispute with him in this regard from Shi'a opposition groups.

Forcing the Imam to Accept the Regency

Having failed to convince the Imam that he, al-Mamoon, would abdicate the throne for him, al-Mamoon requested him to accept to be the regent and to name him the succeeding caliph after him, but the Imam again insisted on refusing, so much so that al-Mamoon had to seek the assistance of some of his best aides despite the fact that they themselves were not convinced that it was such a good idea, thinking that al-Mamoon was serious. Al-Irshad states:

"A group of historians and court biographers who were contemporary to the caliphs say that when al-Mamoon wanted to name Ali ibn Mousa (A.S.) as his successor, and having thought seriously about the matter, he ordered al-Fadl ibn Sahl8 to come to him and he informed him of his intention, ordering him to seek the assistance of his brother al-Hassan ibn Sahl in this regard, and he did just that. So they met with him, and al-Hassan kept pointing out the magnanimity of the consequences of his idea, acquainting him with the outcomes resulting out of taking his family out of it and affecting his own life. Al-Mamoon, thereupon, said to him: `I pledged to God that if I lay my hand on the person who deposed me, I would hand the caliphate over to the best person among the progeny of Abu Talib, and I do not know anyone better than this man on the face of earth.' So, when both al-Fadl and al-Hassan saw his determination to carry out this matter, they stopped opposing him and he sent them to al-Rida (A.S.). They offered him caliphate, but he refused, and they continued pressing him till he finally agreed, so they went back to al-Mamoon and told him about his approval whereupon he was very pleased."9

Abul-Faraj al-Asbahani stated something similar to the above with this variation: "He dispatched them to Ali ibn Mousa al-Rida (A.S.) and they offered it to him, and they continued pressing him while he was refusing till one of them said to him, `If you agree, let it be so, but if you do not, we shall surely harm you,' and he threatened to kill him. Then one of them said, `By God he ordered me to strike your neck with my sword if you go against his wish.'"10

Imam's Awareness of al-Mamoon's Schemes

Imam al-Rida (A.S.) knew beforehand about al-Mamoon's intentions through his knowledgeable foresight of the circumstances which led al-Mamoon to vest the regency upon him, and he was contented that he would not actually accede to the throne in the future. Al-Madaini quotes one of his sources saying: "When al-Rida (A.S.) was seated during the regency celebration, with the orators and poets surrounding him and the flags fanning him, one individual who was present there and then said, `I was close to him that day, and he looked at me with an optimistic smile on his face regarding the event, and he beckoned for me to come close. When I did, he told me while nobody except me could hear him: `Do not let this excite you, and do not be overly optimistic, for it would never materialize.'"11

With Ahmed Amin

Before I present the actual reasons for the story of regency, according to the historical understanding of its circumstances, I would like to point out the superficiality of comprehension, or sectarian prejudice, which is more likely, of some researchers that led them to render the reason why al-Mamoon pressured Imam al-Rida (A.S.) to accept his nomination as the regent to the following:

"Alawide Imams claim that if they get to rule, they would rule with absolute justice, but there is always a difference between claim and reality. Al-Mamoon complained about this and observed how the Imams disappear from public eyes to commit sins without being seen and recognized by the public for what they really are; therefore, he said, `It is for the good of the people that these Imams should come out and people should know their liability to falling into sins so that they would not respect them anymore, nor would they hold them as holy, for when they appear on life's stage, and people clearly see how they rule and how they commit what God has ordained as prohibitive, they would no longer be respected by the public. But if they continue to be persecuted, hiding from positions of prominence, satisfied with preaching, people will maintain their sympathy for them,' he, therefore, decided to appoint Ali al-Rida (A.S.) as his successor..."12

The above is what professor Ahmed Amin states. This statement is not unusual coming from a man like him who is very well known for his prejudice and fanaticism and opposition to the concept of Shi'aism and allegiance to the Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.).


1. The experience of the Alawide government which was lived by the Muslim umma during the caliphate of Imam Ali (A.S.) proves that Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) are more worthy of ruling the subjects than others because their goal behind ruling is to establish a just and equitable society, and to rule the nation with the policy of absolute justice as brought forth by the message of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.).

2. When Shi'as say that the household of the Prophet (S.A.W.) are more worthy of being the caliphs, they mean only the Twelve Imams and nobody else.

We have the right to ask here: What sin or prohibitive act did any of the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) commit away from public eyes? Where are the historical facts which support such a claim? Does Ahmed Amin consider the stance of Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) towards the Umayyad and Abbaside dynasties and their opposition thereof a sin and a prohibitive act?

3. Al-Mamoon appointed Ali al-Rida (A.S.) as the heir apparent to the throne; what sins did this Imam commit, and what prohibitive acts was he guilty of and which caused him to lose public respect?

And what did Ahmed Amin and his predecessors discover of the deeds done by the Imam after becoming the regent which Ahmed Amin tries to project in a negative way out of his hatred for the Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) and in support for the Umayyads?

4. As regarding the example he tries to use and upon which he tries to build his conclusion regarding the conduct of the Fatimide government in Egypt, or regarding other intermittent Alawide governments during the various Abbaside periods, and the fact that they were not any better than other governments, Umayyad or Abbaside, in line or in scope, such an example is not realistic simply because Shi'as do not consider such governments to be legitimate, and they do not have any allegiance to them as long as they were distant from the pristine line of the Prophetic message called for by the Prophet (S.A.W.) and his Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) after him.

Whatever the case may be, statements like these made by Ahmed Amin are not considered out of the ordinary, for his degrading fanaticism and his deviation from the line of Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.) give him plenty of excuses for saying what he says...

Imam's Contempt for the Regency

The Imam (A.S.) expressed his contempt for the regency through statements he made which express his inner bitterness and pain and during times when he was suffering from emotional irritation. He was unable to do anything in the face of the stubborn insistence of the government to accept its designs without enjoying the freedom of choice, of expression, and of movement. Moreover, the Imam (A.S.) knew beforehand that the regency was only a transient step undertaken by the Abbaside government and dictated to it by circumstances of that period.

And when the government achieves its end objective, the beginning starts, and the Imam (A.S.) feels psychologically irritated for such disguised use of his own person, and such irritation is spelled out during times of extreme bitterness. Yasir the servant said: "Whenever al-Rida (A.S.) returned home from the mosque on Friday, his face washed with his sweat, stained with dust, he would raise his hands and supplicates saying, `God! If my deliverance from my suffering is by death, then I plead You to please hasten that hour,' and he remained distressed till he breathed his last, blessings of God be upon him."13

The companions of the Imam (A.S.) could not easily understand why he accepted the post of regent, although inwardly they were satisfied with the soundness of the Imam's stance and at the same time fully aware of the psychological agony the Imam (A.S.) was suffering from. The Imam's answers to their repeated questions were exciting in their way of expressing the political necessity which caused the government to force him to be the regent. Muhammad ibn Arafa narrated saying that he once asked the Imam (A.S.): "O Son of the Messenger of God! What caused you to be involved in the regency issue?" The Imam (A.S.) answered: "It is the same that caused my grandfather the Commander of the Faithful (A.S.) to be involved in the shura."14

A man, who seemed as if he was finding fault with the Imam's action, once asked him, "May God make you godlier, what forced you into this arrangement with al-Mamoon?" Abul-Hassan (A.S.) in turn asked him, "Who is better, man, the Prophet or the wasi?" The man answered, 'Well, of course, it is the Prophet." The Imam (A.S.) asked again, "Who is better, a believer or a disbeliever?" The man answered, "A believer, of course." The Imam (A.S.) then said: "Al-Aziz, Egypt's vizier, was a disbeliever, whereas Yousuf (Joseph) was a prophet; al-Mamoon is a Muslim whereas I am a wasi, and Yousuf asked al-Aziz to appoint him as a governor, saying, `And appoint me to take charge of the wealth of the land, for I am protector, knowledgeable,' whereas I was forced to accept it."15

Yasir, his servant, is quoted saying, "When al-Rida (A.S.) became heir to the throne, I heard him saying after having raised his hands to the sky in supplication, `Lord! You know that I am forced to accept; so, please do not hold me responsible just as You did not hold your Servant and Prophet Yousuf when he took charge in the government of Egypt.'"16

These narratives suffice us to highlight the Imam's viewpoint regarding the issue of regency, for he at times depicts his ordeal to us by invoking the Almighty to remove his distress and anguish from him even by death, and at another time he compares his situation with that of Prophet Yousuf (A.S.) who accepted a post under the government of Egypt's Pharaoh while, at the same time, he reveals to us the difference between the two situation: While Yousuf gladly accepted his post and clearly requested it, he, on the other hand, was forced to accept.

After all this, no doubt remains in our mind about the Imam's conviction that the whole matter was a farce, and that he did not agree to it in principle.

Political Motives Behind the Regency

We can summarize the causes which forced al-Mamoon to decide the issue of regency in the following:

1. In order to please the Shi'a public opinion in Khurasan and its territories which were credited with paving the road for al-Mamoon's accession to the throne and for a victory over his brother al-Amin, thus he would secure a legitimate stamp for his government when the Imam (A.S.) agreed to be his successor, since the Imam's agreement meant a recognition of the legitimacy of al-Mamoon's caliphate. Such recognition would guarantee for him the loyalty of his subjects in those regions, and I personally think that this is the most significant reason which caused al-Mamoon to do so because it would put an end to the argument of traditional opponents to the Abbaside government who used to always criticize such government and consider it illegitimate and baseless. For this reason, we can find no public discontent with the regency; on the contrary, it was a cause for elation and joyful endorsement in various circles.

It is not unlikely that al-Mamoon may have felt that some underground movement was preparing to assault his throne, snatch the government from him and hand it over to the Alawides; therefore, he tried to encircle that movement by making the Imam (A.S.) a partner with him in the forefront of the government by naming him his regent. Such an action may win him the sympathy of the Khurasanis especially after all the suffering they had to put up with and the persecution of the Abbaside caliphate which murdered them and pursued them throughout the country as fugitives in a manner which caused bitterness and agony. What supports this cause are some paragraphs of a letter al-Mamoon wrote to Banu Hashim in which he said: "You claim that I desired that they would be the recipients of benefits thereof and to be in charge, while I have in mind the interest of your posterity and children after you even while you are unaware, blindly stumbling, not knowing what plans others have in store for you."

What these ambiguous statements imply, especially after the writer admitted that the nomination of Imam al-Rida (A.S.) was something the man rightfully deserved due to his qualifications, is that al-Mamoon sensed the danger of the precarious political situation around him, and he feared losing his grip on the reins of government since the popular base was faithful to the Alawides. Add to this the fact that many leading elements in the political and military establishments were strong supporters of the Alawides. We can appreciate this fact by evaluating the extent of the public acceptance of the nomination of the Imam (A.S.) for the regency, and if there was any opposition, its voice was so weak it vanished amidst the tumultuous voice of overwhelming support.

Al-Mamoon did not wish the Alawides to take charge; rather, he only wished to preemptively encircle the crises which might uproot the Abbaside government if he let events shape themselves on their own.

2. To avoid a clash with the Alawides who always threatened the Abbaside government by their rebellions and uprisings during various epochs, presuming that the Abbasides had usurped the government from them, having stated that their call to uproot the Umayyads was on behalf of al-Rida (A.S.), descendant of the Progeny of Muhammad (S.A.W.), especially since al-Mamoon wanted his government to be stable and to avoid disturbances and crises which might weaken his position as the supreme ruler since he was still engaged in a political struggle of survival with Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate, and it was not a coincident that the issue of regency took place at the outset of that struggle.

But the Alawides had already succeeded in winning the sympathy and public support of the Islamic world and were able to maintain that to their credit. An excellent proof for that was the wide response their revolutions won among various Islamic circles. All of that was due to the violent persecution and merciless pursuits, to the murdering and banishment, and to the norms of torture and retribution from which they suffered at the hands of the ruling apparatus, so much so that even al-Mamoon testified to that in his letter to Banu Hashim quoted above.

But al-Mamoon in his afore-mentioned letter to Banu Hashim supports our argument in making this one of the causes of his decision regarding naming the Imam (A.S.) as his successor; he says, as we quoted above,"... The reason for that is my desire to safeguard your lives and protect your properties by establishing friendly ties between us and them which is a method I employ in being clement to the descendants of Abu Talib and to heel their wounds with very little of what they are entitled to."

When he ties the knot of regency for the Imam (A.S.), he wishes to put out the fire of rebellion in the souls of the Alawides and their followers and to keep the ghost of danger away should they oppose the Abbasides and try to compete with them in their bid for the government, and he did, indeed, achieve what he wanted.

3. To warn the Abbasides about what they had already done to him and how they reneged on their oath of allegiance to him, by their rebellion against him and removal from regency, that all of their actions would not disable him from overcoming them and subjecting them to his authority and, moreover, take the

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