Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Caliph and the Imam


A Shocking Decision

Sometime in 816 CE – year 200 in the Hijri calendar of Islam – the seventh Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun made a very strange decision. If near-contemporary historical narratives are to be believed, he offered his throne – and thus power over lands from India to Morocco – to the leader of his fiercest opponents, the Shi’a. It was a breathtakingly audacious decision – so audacious that it failed almost immediately. The eighth infallible Imam of the Shi’a, ‘Ali bin Musa al-Rida, was not interested.  Al-Mamun had to recalibrate, and he did so by nominating Ali al-Rida as his successor. The Imam demurred again, but this time the Caliph was adamant: The Imam must accept or he and his family would suffer. Imam Ali al-Rida’s family was no stranger to suffering. Almost all of his ancestors – direct descendants to the Prophet himself – had been persecuted, many martyred or imprisoned. His own father, the seventh Imam Musa al-Kadhim, had perished as a prisoner of al-Mamun’s father, the famous Harun al-Rashid of A Thousand and One Nights. Whatever the reasons, Ali al-Rida acquiesced, and on the 27th day of Ramadan in 201 AH (April 18, 817 CE), he was proclaimed “wali ‘ahd al-muslimin” – the designated successor to the 31-year old al-Mamun. Coins were soon minted asserting this new designation – the standard way of declaring authority – and the traditional black flags of the Abbasids were replaced by the green flags of the Shi’a Imams. A little more than a year later, the Imam was dead. Al-Mamun would rule for another fifteen years.


The Historical Preamble

This strange chapter in Muslim history – so central to the Shi’a and so little known among the non-Shi’a Muslims – began long before the events of 201 and 202 AH. It could be said to have begun when, after the death of the Prophet of Islam in 632, some Muslims disputed the succession, asserting that the new title of “amir al-mu’minin” – Commander of the Faithful – should go to the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi-Talib. Twenty-four years later, it did, but by then the rift had festered, and upon Ali’s death in 661 CE, resulted in Islam’s most fundamental sectarian split, with the supporters of Ali’s cause – the Shi’a, or partisans, of Ali – and the rest, termed Sunni, heading into centuries of hot-and-cold conflict.

Or perhaps one could say that it all began in 743 CE, when the death of the powerful ruler Hisham bin Abdul Malik threw the ruling Umayyad dynasty of Islam into utter disarray. It was not a situation conducive to ruling an empire that stretched from the Guadalquivir in Spain to the borderlands of India. As Caliphs came and went quickly in Damascus, rebellions broke out all over, but nowhere more dangerously than in the northeastern part of the empire in what is now called Central Asia. This region had a long and storied history of revolts and insurrections going back centuries, and had been a hotbed of esoteric faiths – some militant, others peaceful – for millennia. It is said that Zoroaster himself was from this region. Now it became the center of a Shi’a rebellion against their hated enemies, the Umayyads. Not one but several such rebellions broke out in Central Asia as well as Persia, which already had a significant Shi’a presence. The obvious leaders for these rebellions were the direct descendants of Ali b. Abi Talib, but they were not the ones who succeeded. Instead, a clan descended form al-‘Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet, took up – some would say hijacked – the Shi’a cause, using an almost certainly fabricated story of a grandson of Ali having, on his deathbed, secretly designated the Abbasid clan as his successors. The Abbasids were able to harness not only Shi’a discontent but also the simmering frustrations of the non-Arab populations of Persia and Central Asia, who resented Arab domination of their ancient cultures. Led by the Abbasid clan and fueled by a charismatic figure, Abu Muslim of Khurasan, the so-called Abbasid Revolution had slowly been gathering force in the Khurasan province of Central Asia for several decades. Now, in a matter of three years from 747 to 750, flying the black flag of the Khurasanis, its armies routed the Umayyads across the whole empire except Spain, and took over the rule of the great Muslim empire, thus ending the third civil war – the Third Fitnah – of early Islam. Ever vigilant and supremely ruthless, one of the first things the new rulers did was to destroy the power of Abu Muslim and the Shi’a. The former was executed in 755 and his army that had led the Abbasid Revolt disbanded. And so, once again, the Shi’a fell into their familiar cycle of persecution and rebellion, this time with their erstwhile champions as the antagonists.

Though Harun al-Rashid has the romance of the Arabian Nights, it is the reign of his son, Abdullah al-Mamun that is generally regarded as the peak of the great Islamicate civilization. But al-Mamun did not come to it easily. Succession generally being a hazardous matter in empires, the Abbasid Caliphs often designated two successors to follow them in a specific order – trying to ensure that the second successor would bide his time instead of fighting immediately for power. Harun al-Rashid was extra-careful: He designated three successors from among his sons. Under the influence of his favorite wife, Zubaydah – an Arab – he chose Muhammad al-Amin has his first successor and al-Mamun – six months older than al-Amin but born of a Persian mother – second. The third designee, al-Rashid’s son al-Qasim, given the title al-Mu’tamin, never made it to caliph and has disappeared from history. As was the custom, each of the successors was given part of the empire to govern. Crucially, al-Mamun was given the governorship of Central Asia, the cradle of the Abbasid Revolution, and many before it. It did not disappoint.

In 808 CE, a revolt broke out in Central Asia and Harun al-Rashid himself found it necessary to travel there to quell the revolt, with al-Mamun accompanying him. But, upon reaching the area around Tus in modern northeastern Iran, he fell ill and died on 24 March, 809. He was buried in the small village of Sanabad, which was to play an important role in the history of al-Mamun’s audacious move.


The Choice

Crucially, the rebels Harun al-Rashid had gone to quell did surrender – to al-Mamun. Meanwhile, al-Amin, who had remained in Baghdad, took power as designated by his father. Almost immediately, he sought to change the succession by removing his brothers from it and adding in his sons, who were still children. Predictably, al-Mamun revolted, initiating the Fourth Fitna of Islam. The empire remained divided until his largely Khurasani forces took Baghdad again in 813 and al-Amin was summarily executed. Al-Mamun became Caliph at that point but, perhaps wary of Arab power in Baghdad, chose to rule from the ancient city of Merv in Khurasan – the origin of his ancestors’ revolution. Thus, it was to Merv that, in early 816 CE, he summoned Imam Ali al-Rida. The decision to offer him the throne had probably been made in 815, and there must have been some understanding for the Imam, who lived in Madinah in modern Saudi Arabia, to travel two thousand miles to Merv. He arrived sometime in late 816, and was proclaimed the successor to al-Mamun in March 817.

By this time, it was becoming untenable for al-Mamun to rule from afar. His designated governor in Baghdad had been overthrown and a rebellious faction of troops had taken control. In the spring of 818, the Caliph set off for Baghdad. A character who played a central role in all these affairs was the Grand Vizier, al-Fadl bin Sahl. So much did al-Mamun trust him that he had been made head of the civil administration and commander of the army. He has thus gone down in history with his title, Dhul-Riyasatayn – the holder of two commands. There is some indication that he influenced al-Mamun’s decision to appoint Ali al-Rida, though the evidence is far from clear. What is clear is that he died in mysterious circumstances in the town of Sarakhs while accompanying al-Mamun on his march to Baghdad. Son of a Zoroastrian convert, he had become quite unpopular among the established elite in Baghdad, and rumors were fomented about al-Fadl conspiring to bring the Shi’a to power or to re-establish Zoroastrian rule in Persia and Central Asia. Some have speculated that he was killed by al-Mamun because of this unpopularity, and possibly because the appointment of Ali al-Rida had, by then, become a liability for al-Mamun and he blamed al-Fadl. Whatever the truth of that, it is significant that a few months later, when the Caliph’s entourage was resting near Sanabad – the burial place of Harun al-Rashid – Imam Ali b. Musa al-Rida also fell ill and died. In one of history’s great ironies, he was buried in the same tomb as Harun al-Rashid, his father’s nemesis. Today, that village has grown into Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad – the place of martyrdom – a central pilgrimage site for the Shi’a faithful who believe firmly that the eighth Imam was poisoned by the man who had just appointed him his successor. Thus closed one of the most remarkable chapters in Muslim history.


A Piece of History

Apart from reports in (often unreliable) contemporary history texts, the only concrete testament to this episode are the coins al-Mamun minted declaring Ali al-Rida as his successor. Today, these coins are quite hard to find. Fortunately, I was able to add one to my collection last month. For an 1,100-year old object, it has survived very well – perhaps buried in a horde by a careful saver or given as payment to a Viking trader.


Most of the text on the coin is fairly standard for Abbasid coinage, but some parts are interesting:

On the obverse, below the standard shahadah “There is no god but Allah, unique, He has no associate”, we see the word al-mashriq – “the East”. This refers to the fact that, when the coin was issued, al-Mamun was ruling from the eastern province of Khurasan.

Also on the obverse, the inner margin says: bism allah duriba hadha’l-dirham bi-muhammadiyya sana ithnatayn wa mi‘atayn, “in the name of God this dirham was struck in Muhammadiyyah (in) the year two and two hundred”. The 202 AH year corresponds to the announcement of Imam al-Rida’s nomination. Al-Muhammadiya was the name the Abbasids gave to the ancient city of Rayy near modern Teheran in Iran. The name referred to the third Abbasid Caliph, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who was al-Mamun’s grandfather. The outer margins on both sides quote verse 33 from the 9th chapter of the Qur’an, al-Tawbah, which states: muhammad rasul allah arsalahu bi’l-huda wa din al-haqq li-yuzhirahu ‘ala al-din kullihi wa law kariha al-mushrikun,  “Muhammad is the messenger of God who sent him with guidance and the religion of truth that he might make it supreme over all other religions, even though the polytheists may detest it” (the obverse only has a part of this). This famous line was first added to the Islamic coinage by the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik when he reformed Islamic coinage in 696 CE – possibly as a jab to the Christian Byzantines. At the bottom of the field on the reverse, we see the word dhu’l-riyasatayn, “holder of two commands”, referring to al-Mamun’s powerful prime minister, al-Fadl bin Sahl.

But the key inscription is in the center of the reverse field, reading: lillah / muhammad rasul allah / al-ma’mun khalifat allah / mimma amara bihi al-amir al-rida / wali ‘ahd al-muslimin ‘ali ibn musa / ibn ‘ali ibn abi talib, “for God, Muhammad is the messenger of God, al-Ma’mun is the Caliph of Allah, among the things ordered by the Prince al-Rida, Recipient of the Oath of the Muslims ‘Ali ibn Musa ibn ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib”. Several things are notable here. First, al-Mamun is named on the coin as the “Caliph (deputy) of Allah”, which was not the universal practice – most early Abbasid coins are anonymous. Perhaps, using the name was thought to lend more significance to the statement. Second, Imam al-Rida is cited both by his title (al-Rida) and name, but referred to as “the Prince” (al-amir), not as the Imam. Third, the lineage of Imam al-Rida is specified by naming his father, Imam Musa al-Kadhim, and then ‘Ali ibn Abi-Talib, the first Imam. The clear implication is that Imam al-Rida had the right to rule because he was the direct descendant of ‘Ali – a nod to the Shi’a.


Explanations and Speculations

Why did al-Mamun go through this cruel farce? There are many theories, all of which are plausible. Not surprisingly, there is a gulf between Shi’a and Sunni opinion on this, though the vast majority of ordinary Sunni Muslims today are unaware of the event. The mainstream Shi’a belief is that Imam al-Rida was killed on al-Mamun’s orders, and that the entire gambit was a political move by the Caliph to break the Shi’a resistance to Abbasid tyranny. Within this general framework, there are several different views. The first – and the simplest - is that al-Mamun drew the Imam to his side so he could be assassinated at an opportune time. The fact that he died in Sanabad and was buried in Harun al-Rashid’s tomb would seem to support the idea of a planned assassination. Another view is that al-Mamun wanted to get the Imam out of his power-base in Madinah and curtail his ability to organize his followers into any sort of movement that could trouble the Caliph. A related idea is that, by co-opting Imam al-Rida into the Abbasid political structure, al-Mamun was trying to undermine his legitimacy among Shi’a true believers. There is a report that al-Mamun tried to humiliate the Imam by staging a debate between him and his doctrinal adversaries (including non-Muslims), but the attempt failed because of the Imam’s brilliant arguments. This increased al-Mamun’s fear that the Imam could still become the center of a revolt, and he decided that assassination was the only way out. A lot of detailed stories – apocryphal or otherwise – have become attached to these events within Shi’a sacred history.

Most mainstream Sunni historians such as Ibn Kathir and Ibn al-Jawzi have dismissed the entire assassination theory, and have seen al-Mamun’s move as a well-meaning – though still self-serving – attempt to bring together the Shi’a and Sunni factions, thereby solving the perpetual problem of Shi’a revolts. Historians from al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir through Ibn Khaldun to Madelung and Crone have investigated this unique event in Muslim history. One interesting and quite plausible narrative that one can construct from the various sources (including Shi’a ones) revolves around the Prime Minister, al-Fadl bin Sahl. It has been argued convincingly that al-Fadl was deeply involved in the scheme to nominate Imam al-Rida. Indeed, it may have been his idea all along. There is much debate about his motives: Some see it as a move to strengthen al-Mamun’s position by nullifying the Shi’a opposition; others – especially at the time – saw it as a conspiracy by a crypto-Shi’a al-Fadl to hand over the empire to the Shi’a, or even as a way to reinstate Zoroastrian rule, since al-Fadl was a convert from that faith. Whatever the truth of the matter, we know two things. First, the appointment of Imam al-Rida as the Caliph’s successor was received very poorly by the powerful Arab elite in Baghdad, who saw it as a big loss of their power. They rebelled and overthrew al-Mamun’s governor, al-Hasan bin Sahl, who happened to be the Prime Minister’s brother, and replaced him with an Abbasid figure. For al-Mamun a thousand miles away in Merv, this was a calamity, and it precipitated his return to Baghdad. Second, we know that al-Fadl suddenly decided to retire from his prime ministership to, as might be said today, “spend more time with his family”. Of course, this did not come to pass because he died during the march back to Baghdad, quite possibly assassinated on al-Mamun’s orders. It is quite plausible that this fall from grace – and from life – was because al-Mamun blamed al-Fadl for his new troubles. This same problem made it impossible for him to show up in Baghdad with Imam al-Rida – hence the need for a second assassination. An excellent and detailed analysis of the historical sources and narratives surrounding all these events is provided by Buyukkara, though his conclusion is that al-Mamun acted with benign intentions.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the remarkable story of the Caliph and the Imam remains one of the strangest, most mysterious, and most tragic events in the long and complicated history of Islam. Twelve centuries have passed since these events transpired, but for millions of Shi’a around the world, they are refreshed in memory as thousands upon thousands of the faithful make pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mashhad to pay their respects to the Imam who was briefly designated for secular monarchy.

Today – 11 Dhul-Qa’da in the Islamic calendar, is his birthday.


  1. Excellent article, very informative.

  2. Excellent write up. Here's another interesting bit from an entry in the Grove Music Dictionary now known as Oxford Music Dictionary: ibn al-Mahdī ( b Baghdad , July 779; d Samarra’ , July 839 ). Arab musician. He was a son of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdī and a Persian slave at court called Shikla. He became famous for his fine and powerful voice with its range of four octaves, and first took part in court concerts during the reigns of Hārūn al-Rashīd (786–809) and al-Amīn (809–13). Proclaimed caliph in 817 in opposition to al-Ma’mūn (813–33), he had to abdicate after barely two years and went into hiding. In 825 he was pardoned and became a court musician once more under al-Ma’mūn