Source: “Shia Islam AT A Glance” BY: Sheikh Abdul Jalil Nawee; and Shia Youth Inc. Website:

 Imam Alī ibn Mūsā al-Rezā (a.s.)  is commonly known as Ali al-Ridha (a.s.). He was a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and  was an Imam of an extra ordinary knowledge according to the Shia scholars and Sufis.

On the eleventh of Ziqaad 148 AH (December 29, 765 CE), a son was born in the house of Imam Musa al-Kadhim (a.s.) (the seventh Imam) in Medina, who took over the position of the Imamate, after his father. He was named Ali and titled al-Ridha, however, in the Shia sources he is commonly called Abu’l-Ḥasan al-Sānī in order not to be confused with his father, Imam Musa al-Kadhim (a.s.), who was known as Abu’l-Ḥasan al-Awwal. He was born one month after the death of his grandfather, Imam Ja’far as-Sādiq (a.s.) and brought up in Medina, under the direction of his father, Imam Musa al-Kadhim (a.s.). His mother, Najmah, was also a pious and distinguished lady in Medina. It is said that the boy al-Ridha required a great deal of milk, so that when his mother was asked whether her milk was sufficient, she answered, “it is not because my milk is not sufficient, but he wants it all the time, and consequently I am falling short in my prayers.” She was originally a Berber (from the Maghreb i.e. Northwest Africa). She was purchased and freed by Bibi Hamidah Khatun, the wife of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (a.s.), and, like Bibi Hamidah, Najmah Khatun was also a notable Islamic scholar.


The eighth Imam had received the Imamate, after the death of his father, through Divine Command and the decree of his forefathers, especially Imam Musa al-Kadhim (a.s.), who would repeatedly tell his companions that his son Ali Reza would be the Imam after him.  As such, Makhzumi, a scholar says one day Imam Musa al-Kadhim (a.s.) summoned and gathered us and entitled him as “his executor and successor.”

Another scholar, Yazid ibn Salit, has also related a similar narration from the seventh Imam when he met him on his way to Mecca“Ali, whose name is the same as the First and the fourth Imam, is the Imam after me.” said the Imam (a.s.). However, due to the extreme choking atmosphere and pressure prevailing in the period of Imam Musa al-Kazim (a.s.), he added, “What I said must remain (restricted) up to you and do not reproduce it to anybody unless you know he is one of our friends and companions.” The same is narrated by Ali bin Yaqtin, from Imam Musa al-Kazim (a.s.) who has said “Ali is the best of my children and I have conferred on him my epithet”  .  According to Wāqedī, even in his youth, Ali al-Ridha would transmit Hadith from his father and his uncles and give Fatwa in the mosque of Medina. Imam Ali al-Ridha (a.s.) was not looked upon favorably by caliph Hārūn Rashīd; and the people of Medina were disallowed from visiting and learning from him. 


 According to Shia scholars, he was twenty or twenty-five years old when he succeeded his father as Imam in Medina, and it was about eighteen years later, when the Caliph Al-Ma’mun “undertook to ingratiate himself with the numerous Shia parties by designating Ali ar-Ridha as his successor to the Caliphate.”

After the death of Harun al-Rashid in 809, Harun’s two sons began fighting for control of the Abbasid Empire. One son, Al-Amin, had an Arab mother and thus had the support of Arabs, while his half-brother Al-Ma’mun had a Persian Shia mother and the support of Persia.  After defeating his brother, al-Ma’mun faced many insurrections from the followers of the Holy Prophet’s (pbuh) family in many areas.

The Shia of al-Ma’mun’s era, like the Shia of today’s Iran, made up a large population of al-Ma’mun’s Iran. They regarded the Imams as their leaders who must be obeyed in all aspects of life, spiritual and terrestrial. They believed in Imams as the real caliphs of the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad (pbuh). The Abbasids, like the Umayyads before them, realized this as a big threat to their own caliphate, since the Shias saw them as usurpers. Allamah Tabatabaei writes in his book Shi’ite Islam, that in order to quiet the many Shia rebellions around his government, al-Ma’mun summoned Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) to Khorasan and wanted to offer him the role of Crown Prince.  The main reasons for this offer were: (1) to prevent the Shias and relatives of Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) from rebelling against the government, seeing as they would then be fighting their own Imam; (2) to cause the people to lose their spiritual belief and inner attachment to the Imams, because the Imam would then be associated with the corrupt government of al-Ma’mun.  Thirdly, he intended it to fool other Shias into believing that his government was not so bad after all, because Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) would then come into power after Ma’mun. And fourthly, he wanted to keep a close watch over the Imam of the Shias himself, so that nothing could happen without al-Ma’mun’s knowledge.


Word spread quickly among al-Ma’mun’s circles that al-Ma’mun was not sincere in his offer to make Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Ridha (a.s.) the Crown Prince, and it was a political move. Al-Ma’mun also became paranoid and thought that Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) would see through it as well, and so would his Shias. In order to quiet the doubts of the people, al-Ma’mun first offered Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) the caliphate itself. Al-Ridha knew the real reason of this offer, and politely refused it, and said:

“If this caliphate belongs to you, then it is not permissible for you to take off the garment in which Allah has clothed you and to give it to other than you. If the caliphate does not belong to you, then it is not permissible for you to give me that which does not belong to you.” Al-Ma’mun kept trying to make his offer seem sincere and kept re-offering the caliphate, and finally moved on to his real plan to make him Crown Prince. When Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) also declined this position, al-Ma’mun threatened him saying, “Your ancestor Ali was chosen by the second caliph to be in a six member council to elect the third caliph, and ordered to kill any one of the six who didn’t comply. If you do not accept the position of Crown Prince in my government, I will follow through on the same threat”. Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) said he would accept, under the condition that none of the affairs of government would be his. He would neither appoint anyone, nor dismiss anyone. He would not rule, or pass laws. He would only be Crown Prince in name. Al-Ma’mun became happy that Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) had accepted and would stay out of his way in governing, and agreed to the condition. Al-Ma’mun even changed the black Abbāsid flags to green,  the traditional color of Shia, Prophet Mohammad‘s (pbuh) flag and Imam Ali‘s (a.s.) cloak. He also ordered to mint coins with names of both Al-Ma’mun and Imam Ali al-Ridha (a.s.) on them.


When Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) was summoned to Khurasan and reluctantly accepted the role of successor to al-Ma’mun,  al-Ma’mun summoned the Imam’s brother, Zayd, who had revolted and brought about a riot in Medina to his court in Khorasan. Al-Ma’mun kept him free as a respect and honor to Imam Ali al-Ridha (a.s.) and overlooked his punishment. One day, however, when Ali al-Ridha (a.s.) was delivering a speech in a grand assembly, he heard Zayd praising himself before the people, saying I am so and so. Imam Ali al-Ridha (a.s.) asked him saying:

“O Zayd, have you trusted upon the words of the grocers of Kufa and are conveying them to the people? What kind of things are you talking about? The sons of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (a.s.) and Fatimah Zahra (s.a.) are worthy and outstanding only when they obey the command of Allah (swt), and keep themselves away from sin and blunder. You think you are like Imam Musa al-Kadhim (a.s.), Imam Ali ibn Husain (a.s.), and other Imams? Whereas, they took pains and bore hardships on the way to Allah and prayed to Allah day and night. Do you think you will gain without pain? Be aware, that if a person out of us the Ahl al-Bayt performs a good deed, he gets twice the reward. Because not only he performed good deeds like others but also that he has maintained the honor of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). If he practices something bad and does a sin, he has performed two sins. One is that he performed a bad act like the rest of the people and the other one is that he has negated the honor of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). O brother! The one who obeys Allah is from us, the Ahl al-Bayt, and the one who is a sinner is not ours. Allah said about the son of Noah who cut the spiritual bondage with his father, “He is not out of your lineage; if he was out of your lineage, I would have (saved) and granted him salvation.”


Al-Ma’mun was very interested in working on various sciences translated into Arabic. Thus he arranged debates between the Imam and Muslim scholars and the leaders of religion sects who came in his presence.   One of the discussions was on Divine Unity with Sulaiman al-Mervi; a scholar from Khorasan; another discussion with Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-Jahm was devoted to the sinlessness of the Prophets, which led to another debate on the same subject which Ma’mun took a great part in it himself. Many of these debates are recorded in the collections of Shia hadiths, like Oyoun Akhbar Al-Ridha. The following is an example of these debates which took place between the Imam and an unbeliever(Zindīq).

(The Imam) said to him (Zindīq), “Dost thou see that if the correct view is your view then are we not equal? All that we have prayed, fasted, given of the alms and declared of our convictions will not harm us. If the correct view is our view then have you not perished and we gained salvation?” the Man said. “Then let me know, how is He and where is He?” Abu-l-Hasan (the Imam) (a.s.) answered, “surely the opinion thou hast adopted is mistaken. He determined the ‘where’, and He was, when there was no ‘where’; and He fashioned the ‘how’, and He was, when there was no ‘how’. So He is not known through ‘howness’ or ‘whereness'” The man said, “So then surely He is nothing if He cannot be perceived by any of the senses.”Imam Abu-l-Hasan (a.s.) said, “when our senses fail to perceive Him, we know for certain that He is our Lord …” The man said, “Then tell me, when was He?” Imam Abu-l-Hasan (a.s.) said, “Tell me when He was not, and then I will tell you when He was…” The man said, “Then why has He veiled Himself (from men)?” Imam Abu-l-Hasan (a.s.) replied, “Surely, the veil is upon creatures because of the abundance of their sins. As for Him, no secret is hidden from Him during the day or the night…”

This is a long debate, entitled, The Veil, full text of which could be found in the A Shiite Anthology translated by William Chittick.
  According to some accounts, Ma’mun’s main objective from holding the meetings was that he was hoping that the Imam won’t be able to give an answer to every question asked of him. It is related from al-Nawfali who quoted the Imam as saying, “Would you (al-Nawfali) like to know when al-Ma’mūn will feel remorseful? …When he hears me argue with the people of the Torah quoting their own Torah, with the people of the Gospel quoting their own Gospel, with the people of the Psalms quoting their own Psalms, with the Zoroastrians arguing in their Persian language, with the Romans in their own Latin… then al-Ma’mūn will realize that he will not achieve what he aspires…”

Selected Sayings of the 8th Imam:

  • “Everyone’s friend is his reason; his enemy is his ignorance.”
  • “Worship is not abundant prayer and fasting; rather it is abundant reflecting on the affair of Allah, the Great and Almighty.”
  • “Faith is a degree above Islam; Allah-fearingness is a degree above faith; and nothing less than Allah-fearingness has been divided among men.”
  • “Faith is four pillars: trust in Allah, satisfaction with Allah’s decree, submission to Allah’s command, and entrusting (affairs) to Allah.”
  • “If one lacks five attributes, do not expect to gain anything good out of him for your life in this world or your life to come: if his lineage is known to be untrustworthy, if his nature lacks generosity, if his temper lacks balance, if he lacks a noble conduct, and if he lacks fear of his Lord.”[


Caliph Al-Ma’mun thought he would solve the problems of Shia revolts by naming Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) as his successor. After finally being able to persuade Imam al-Rida (a.s.) to accept this position, al-Ma’mun realized his mistake, for Shia began to gain even more popularity. Moreover, the Arabs in Baghdad were furious when they heard that al-Ma’mun had not only appointed the imam as his successor, but had sent out commands that the Abbasid‘s black flag should be changed to green in honor of the Imam. They were afraid that the empire would be liberated from them. They got together, therefore, to depose Ma’mun and gave allegiance to Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, who was the uncle of Ma’mun.  When Ma’mun heard this, Imam al Ridha (a.s.) advised him to solve the problem by dismissing him from his position but he (Ma’mun) did not heed and decided to return to Baghdad and assert his rights.    However, when they reached the town of Sarakhs, his vizier was assassinated, and in a couple of days, when they reached Tus, Ma’moon poisoned imam al Ridha (a.s.). Then Muhammad Taqi (a.s.), imam’s son, was designated and became the 9th Imam. Ma’moon ordered that he (Imam al Ridha (a.s.) be buried next to the tomb of his own father, Harun al-Rashid, and showed extreme sorrow in the funeral ritual and stayed at the place for three days.  According to Madelung, the unexpected death of both the vizier and the successor, “whose presence would have made any reconciliation with the powerful ʿAbbasid opposition in Baghdad virtually impossible, must indeed arouse strong suspicion that Ma’mun had had a hand in the deaths.” The more popular record about his death is that he passed away on 17 Safar, 202 AH, at the age of 50. However, the precise day is not agreed upon among the scholars. The Imam was buried in a village in Khorasan, which afterwards gained its new name, Mashhad, meaning the place of martyrdom.


Imam Al-Ridha (a.s.) received significant praises from Shia as well as Suni scholars. Shams ad-Din adh-Dhahabi, a Syrian Islamic historian praised Imam al-Ridha by saying “He (Imam al-Ridha) is Imam Abu’ al-Hasan. He was the master of the Hashemites of his time; he was the most clement and the noblest of them. Caliph al-Ma’mun honored him, yielded to him, and magnified him to the extent that he appointed him as his successor. Millions of Shia Muslims visit every year to Mashhad (Iran) pay tributes to the Holy shrine of Imam al-Ridha (a.s.), which is at present one of the most visited holy sites in Shi’ite Islam.

Following are the 8th Imam’s noteworthy works:

Al-Risalah al-Dhahabiah (The Golden Treatise) is a treatise on medical cures and the maintenance ofgood health, which is said to have been written in accordance with the demand of al-Ma’mun. It is regarded as the most precious Islamic literature in the science of medicine, and was known as Golden Treatise because Ma’mun had ordered it to be written in gold ink.

Sahifah is a collection oh hadith attributed to Imam Ali al-Ridha (a.s.).

Uyun al Akhbar ar Reda is a book which contains every thing including all important events that have been related and gathered together about the 8th Imam.

Feqh al-Reza, also called al-Fiqh al-Radawi, is also attributed to Imam al-Ridha (a.s.). It was not known till made authentic by Mohammad Baqir Majlisi in 1000 AH.


Imam al-Ridha (a.s.) although borne in Medina (Arabia) but spent most of his life in Mashhad (Persia). He married twice, first with Sabikah, and afterwards with aka Khayzuran. He had six children, five sons and one daughter, namely Mohammad  al-Taqi, Hasan, Husain, Jafar, Ibrahim, and Fatima. 


 Next Week, A Brief Life History of The 9th Imam – Part #11, inshaAllah.
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