A Survey in to the Intellectual Legacy of Imam al-Rida (ʿa) from the Viewpoint of  Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

A Survey in to the Intellectual Legacy of Imam al-Rida (ʿa) from the Viewpoint of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

The scientific debates and discussions held by Imam ʿAli ibn Musā al-Rida (ʿa) are not a historical matter which only pertains to the past; they are rather a main source which should be utilized today for the comprehensive defense of Islam.‌

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Rida(‘a), the Eighth Imam from the pure lineage of the Holy Prophet (s). He was born on the eleventh day of Dhīqaʿdah in the year 148 AH in the blessed city of Medina. When we look at the lives of the Infallible Imams (‘a), we find that they lived in a variety of different circumstances and so their lives all have certain particularities and characteristics. These different particularities had roots in the different political and social circumstances of their time. This indicates the necessity of delving in to these various aspects of the lives of the Infallible Imams (‘a), because the resulting information can be a veritable encyclopedia in civilization building from the perspective of Is-lam.

In any case, since it is the blessed birth anniversary of Imam al-Rida (‘a), we have an oppor-tunity to consider the viewpoints of  Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi in regards to this issue. Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi has gone on to explain the most important aspects in the intellectual life of Imam al-Rida (‘a), particularly during the third period in his life, meaning the period which pertained to his time in Iran as the successor of the caliph of that time…


Without any doubt, the life of Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Rida(‘a) enjoys many various facets; one of the more important facets in his life relates to his cultural and intellectual defense of Islamic thought against the heavy attacks from the different sects and schools of thought which were directed against the basic principles and branches of Islam during that time period. A study of these intellectual teachings and viewpoints as explained by the Imam (‘a) can be very valuable to us today in the particular environment and atmosphere which we live in. We can find very valuable and subtle guidance in these teachings, as well as in the methodology which the Imam (‘a) used in confrontation with the ideas of these various sects and schools of thought.

Factors which Gave Rise to the Abbasid Caliphate

By the uprising of the Iranians and the Khurāsānīs under the leadership of Abū Muslim, the Umayyads were finally uprooted[1] and passed in to oblivion.  The Abbasids rose in turn with the slogan of ‘Seeking the Satisfaction of the Family of Muhammad’, which was a famous slogan of all popular and Islamic revolts which had ever been led against the Umayyad caliphate. They used this slogan to mobilize the people to their leadership and overthrow the Umayyads.   In spite of this noble slogan, the Abbasids quickly revealed their true, evil nature, soon as they had established their rule.

They began to act just as the Umayyads had acted, and in time, they even surpassed them in tyranny, brutality, and oppression.   The Muslims later quickly realized their true nature  and the seeds of new revolutions against this tyrannical group were planted. This was particularly true in Iran, where Abū Muslim had risen up once before against the Umayyads.

Ma’mūn, and his Enmity against the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) Concealed under the Slogan of Seeking Knowledge

In time, Ma’mūn became the caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. As a ruler, he possessed a very powerful grasp of politics and he combined these skills with ruthlessness and severity. In order to prevent any revolution from taking place, he quickly changed his capital city from Baghdad to Khurāsān; in this way, he wished to suppress any potential rebellions from up close and to deny these movements the possibility of growth.[2]

Furthermore, he also knew that the people were looking up to Imam al-Rida (‘a) as the potential leader of this revolutionary movement. Thus, in order to neutralize this danger, he forced the Imam (‘a) to move to Khurāsān with the supposed intention of having him as his successor. The real reason behind this, however, was so he could keep a close watch over the Imam (‘a), as well as fool the revolutionaries in to thinking that a revolution was no longer necessary and they had already achieved their goals.[3]

When we examine the religion of Islam , it is clear that the religion highly encourages the pursuit of knowledge. In line with this pursuit of knowledge, the Muslims began to translate various texts which happened to be in other languages. Some of these texts were found in Greece, while others were originally Egyptian, Iranian, or even Roman in origin. These texts were taken from their original languages and translated in to the common language of the Muslim empire, which was Arabic. These valuable texts accelerated the process of intellectual growth and scientific advancement which was taking place in the Muslim community.  

Yet, what was worrying in that era was the reality that some of the translators of these texts belonged to certain radical sects or even to other religions, such as Zoroastrians, Sabeans, Nestorians, Brahmins, etc... These translators were busy translating these texts from languages such as Greek, Farsi, Syriac, Hindi, and Latin in to Arabic. Certainly, not all of these individuals had pure intentions in their works and a number of them attempted to ‘muddy the waters’, so to speak.

Their intentions in these translations were to i n s e r t various un-Islamic concepts in to the Muslim community, so that their own ideologies could gain currency. Some of them may have even wished to spread corrupt ideologies amongst the Muslims in order to actually spread cor-ruption for its own sake. In any case, various un-Islamic ideas were also being translated and spread amidst the so-called scientific books of other nations. In time, these various ideas spread and began to gain a foothold amongst the Muslims, particularly among a group of artless and naïve youth.  

In this very environment, a serious of debates were hosted by Maʾmūn where Imam al-Rida (‘a) was invited to participate in, in order to answer some of these pressing intellectual and religious questions which had come about. Maʾmūn’s intention in holding these debates was multi-faceted but it included such things as: creating a name for himself as the spreader of knowledge, diverting the people’s attention from the various social and political issues , and attracting the attention of the scholars towards the caliph. In essence, these debates were orga-nized in order to strengthen the foundations of Maʿmūn’s government.

At the same time, the intellectual atmosphere of the time and the various questions which had risen in the people’s minds entailed a very heavy responsibility for Imam al-Rida (‘a). The Imam (‘a) understood the situation very well and he found it to be quite dangerous. In light of these issues, the Imam (‘a) began a veritable intellectual revolution to neutralize these dangerous currents. Through this movement, he was able to preserve the pure Islamic teachings and save the Muslims from being misguided.  

The Establishment of Intellectual Gatherings with the Purpose of Undermining the Imamate

According to history, Maʾmūn forced Imam al-Rida (‘a) in to becoming his successor for the caliphate as a means of further legitimizing and establishing his own power and position. This issue has its own story with many details… In any case, the Imam (‘a) was forced to leave Medina and move to the city of Ṭūs in the Khurāsān region of Iran. Upon the Imam (‘a)’s arrival in the city, Maʾmūn began organizing a series of debate, in which all of the great Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of the time were present.[4] Needless to say that the ostensible reason (as claimed by Maʾmūn) for holding this debate and discussion was to prove the worthiness of the Imam (‘a) for the position of the successorship. However, there were other motives at play and these motives can be considered as the real motivation behind why Maʾmūn organized such events. These reasons are as follows:

1.    Degrading and Undermining the Imamate

Maʾmūn’s main goal was to degrade the position of the Imamate in the eyes of the people, and in particular the Iranians who had a very strong attachment to the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a), and thus undermine it as an institution.


2.    Distorting the image of the Imamate: the promotion of a secular version of Islam:

As his second goal, Maʾmūn also wished to limit the authority of the Imam (‘a) to purely intellectual issues so as to gradually exclude him from political issues. He wanted to have the people think that the Imam (‘a) was very good with intellectual issues, but he was not a man of politics. In this way, he would practically separate politics from religion and thus secure his own power and authority.


3.    Covering up the Weaknesses of His Government:

As his third goal, Maʾmūn wished to pursue his political goals with an ease of mind and these debates served as a means of distracting the people’s attention, and giving him a cover under which he could further operate without anyone noticing the shortcomings of his government.

A Reflection on the Essence of the Scientific Debates of Imam al-Rida (‘a)

Although Imam al-Rida (‘a) engaged in many different debates and discussions throughout his life, there were seven of these which are of greater significance than the others. These are as follows:
1.    His debate with the Catholicos (Jāthlīq)
2.    His debate with the Exilarch (Raʾs al-Jālūt)
3.    His debate with Herbez the Great
4.    His debate with ʿImrān the Sabean[5]
These four debates took place in one gathering with Maʾmūn present. In addition, there were many other great scholars and notables also present there.
5.    His debate with Sulaymān Marwazī[6]  which took place in an independent gathering with Maʾmūn and some of his high ranking officials
6.    A debate with Ali ibn Muhammad Jahm.[7]
7.    A debate with the leaders of various religious groups in Basra


All of these debates were very profound in nature and even today, after the passing of some 1200 years, they are still illuminating and highly educational. This is true both in terms of their content, as well as the skills used in the debate itself.  Let us look at some of what was debated about in further detail:

A Debate with the Catholicos (One of the Great Christian Scholars of that Time)

When Imam al-Rida (‘a) entered the hall where Maʾmūn was sitting, Maʾmūn ordered Faḍl ibn Sahl (his special vizier)[9] to gather Herbez Akbar (the leader of the Zoroastrians)[10] , the Catholicos (a great Christian leader), the Exilarch (a great Jewish leader), Nesṭūs Rūmī (another great Christian leader), the religious heads of the Sabeans, as well as a number of other theologians so that they could discuss and debate certain issues with the Imam (‘a). After these individuals had all gathered together, the Imam (‘a) began to speak and he said: Oh Christians, if you wish, I can use your Bible (the Injīl) in order to reason with you…

It was at this time that the Catholicos asked: Tell us about the disciples of Jesus the son of Mary: how many were they and how many scholars related to the Bible were there? The Imam (‘a) said to him: You have asked someone who is well aware and knows. He then said: The disciples were twelve in number and the most knowledgeable of them was Luke. In terms of the great Christian scholars, there were three: John (Yuḥnā Akbar) from the land of Bākh, another John from Circesium, and John of Dialam from Rajāz (who knew the name of the Prophet (s), the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a), and their nation). It was this last apostle who gave the glad tidings regarding the Prophet of Islam (s) to the people of Jesus (‘a) and to the Israelites.

At this time, the Exilarch, the leaders of the Sabeans, Herbez Akbar, and Nesṭūs Rūmī  all confirmed the truth of what Imam al-Rida (‘a) had told them. In the end, the Catholicos said to the Imam (‘a): We acknowledge what you have mentioned from the Bible (the Injīl).  The Imam (‘a) then began to answer other questions and he explained to them how the first Bible had been lost and then how four individuals had attempted to rewrite it.

These four were: Luke, John, Matthew, and Mark. This is more or less the same book which the Christians have in hand today. The Imam (‘a) also pointed out some contradictions which he had seen in the things which the Catholicos  had said.  Following his discussion with the Catholicos, Imam al-Rida (‘a) also had debates over various different points with the the Exilarch, the leaders of the Sabeans, Herbez Akbar, and Nesṭūs Rūmī (particularly with ʿĪmrān the Sabean who was a semi-materialist), and he answered their questions using their own sourcebooks.

Imam al-Rida (‘a) Debates with ʿImrān the Sabean

The Imam (‘a) also debated with ʿImrān the Sabean[8] and this debate is a particularly important one since it delves in to issues pertaining to theology and theism, such as Allah’s Essence, and His Attributes, and it resolves the various questions which ʿImrān the Sabean had expressed in regards to these matters.  During this debate, the Imam (‘a) explained the concepts of “creation from absolute nothingness”, Divine providence, and Divine Will, and that they were, in effect, a single reality with three different titles. He first began by explaining the concept of ‘creation from absolute nothingness’ in the world of existence and it is interesting to note that the Imam (‘a) explained that the first divine act of ‘creation from absolute nothingness’ was the creation of the letters of the alphabet, out of which all of the words are composed from. The Imam (‘a) explained that these individual letters have no meaning and it is only when they are combined that they take on any meaning.

ʿImrān the Sabean constantly asked the Imam (‘a) for more explanations and the Imam (‘a) continued to give him the answers he was seeking. At the end of their discussion, the Imam (‘a) said: Oh ʿImrān, have you understood these issues well? ʿImrān responded: Yes, I have understood well and I furthermore testify that Allah is as you have described him, the one and only God … I also testify that Muhammad is his servant and he has been sent to guide us to the Straight Path. He then turned towards the Qiblah, fell prostrate, and became a Muslim. All of those who were there were left deeply stunned and in surprise.

A Debate with the Followers of Various Schools of Thought in Basra

According to a detailed tradition which Quṭb al-Rāwandī has narrated in his book Al-Kharāʾij, when the flames of sedition flared in the city of Basra (in Iraq), the city became a base for the activities of various sects and schools of thought. In light of this issue, Imam al-Rida (‘a) sought to neutralize the dangers posed by that sedition and so he traveled to the city of Basra and engaged in debates with the various sects and schools of thought which existed there. He ended up inviting all of them to a single place, and these included the Christian and Jewish scholars, as well as scholars from many other groups. He then began to show how the Bible (the Injīl) had given glad tidings of the coming of the Prophet of Islam (s) and how the various chapters of the Torah and Psalms had given the same glad tidings as well.

The Imam (‘a) then addressed the Muslims who were present in that gathering and he said to them: Oh people, is not the one who speaks to a people according to their own divine books more just than any other individual? The Muslims all responded: Yes. The Imam (‘a) then continued: Then know that the rightful Imam and the successor of Muhammad (s) can only be one, who continues to further his cause based on his teachings, and the rank of the Imamate only befits one who debates with all of the nations and all of the various religions based on their own books. He satisfies the Christians through their Bible (Injīl), the Jews through their Torah, and the Muslims through their Quran. He is one who fluently speaks all languages and who speaks to every people in their own tongue.

In addition to all this, he is the most pious and he is totally infallible and incorruptible. He is also one who is just, fair, wise, kind, forgiving, affectionate, truthful, sympathetic, righteous, trustworthy, and resourceful in managing affairs.  In this way, Imam al-Rida (‘a) proved to the people of Basra the validity of the Imamate and he closed any doors to them in refusing to believe in this foundational precept of Islam.

A Final Word: Practical Lessons from the Life of Imam al-Rida (‘a)


1.    In general, the debates of Imam al-Rida (‘a) with members of other religions were primarily focused around the subject of monotheism. When he debated with the Exilarch (a great scholar of the Jews), he spoke in regards to the invalidity of the belief in the divinity of Jesus (‘a) and how the Christian sourcebooks had foretold of the coming of the Prophet of Islam (s). In his debate with the religious leader of the Zoroastrians, the Imam (‘a) spoke in regards to the justice and oneness of Allah. In his debate with Sulaymān Marwazī (a scholar of scholastic theology), the Imam (‘a) spoke about the concepts of Divine providence and Divine knowledge, as well as the all-seeing and all-hearing nature of Allah; he also spoke about the will and actions of Allah in this same debate, as well as proving monotheism and Divine Laws such as Badāʾ.[11]

2.    The debates of Imam al-Rida (‘a) are not merely historical events which pertain to the past; they are rather a spring of knowledge which continues to be relevant up until today and it will continue to be so in the future.

3.    It should be noted that since in those times there were no mass media, as they exist today, Imam al-Rida (‘a) would utilize the debates organized by Maʿmūn as one of the most effective means of spreading the genuine teachings of Islam and defending the religion. This is due to the fact that due to the importance of such debates and meetings, the news regarding them would quickly spread all over the Muslim countries. In this way, not only did the Imam (‘a) foil Maʿmūn’s plots, but he guarded the Muslim community of that time, which was in a critical condition due to the aforementioned reasons, against various kinds of deviation.    

4.    The methodology which the Imam (‘a) used in dealing with the members of other religions and schools of thought is something which contains very valuable lessons for us. The first lesson which we have learned here is that we must be logical when dealing with other religions and schools of thought; this is the most important element in dealing with people who are different or who think differently than you do. In addition, we must understand that when there is a conflict between two parties, they must utilize logic in order to resolve it. Unfortunately today, we see that some groups are quick to take up weapons in fighting others, but the Muslims should abstain from fighting and it should be their last option in such situations. Dialog and logic can help to resolve even the most difficult of situations.

5.    The logic of Islam is so compelling that it is able to dominate over other religions and ideologies. For this reason, when we look at the history of Islam, we find that there was always room for others to speak about their ideologies and even atheists were allowed to state their beliefs publicly. There was always a freedom of speech which existed throughout Muslim history.

6.    The scholars of Islam must be aware of the various sects and schools of thought which exist during their time. They must furthermore be able to use logic and clear rationale in dealing with them, with the purpose of proving the superiority of the Islam to the ideologies which they believe in.

7.    These scholars should be well versed in various languages as well so that they can converse with the people of various nations without the use of translators. Sometimes, translators can make mistakes or they can miss certain key points when acting as a medium. In other cases, they can even have ill intentions and purposely mistranslate various key points. In any case, it is essential that the scholars of Islam are able to converse in various different languages.

8.    The Muslim scholars must make full use of mass media and other forms of technology in spreading the message of Islam and the Quran to all corners of the world.  


In conclusion, there are various books which will prove useful for those who desire more detailed information about the life of Imam al-Rida (‘a). One such book is called: ‘The Historical Debates of Imam al-Rida (‘a) With the Followers of Other Sects and Religions’ which has been written by  Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi.


Read more:

A Reflection on the Key Teachings of Imam Al-Rida ('a) from the Viewpoint of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi

The Importance of Studying Imam Rida’s Role in the Emergence of Islamic Sciences


[1]. Surah Ibrāhīm, Verse 26.

[2]. It has been narrated that: Maʾmūn sent a group of his officers to some of the descendants of Abū Ṭālib (who lived in Medina). Imam al-Rida (‘a) was also amongst them. The officers, according to Maʾmūn’s orders, began to move the Alawīs towards Khurāsān and they were brought there through Basra. The man who was in charge of bringing this group to Khurāsān was a man named Julūdī. Eventually, this group reached Khurāsān and Julūdī brought them to Maʾmūn’s court. Maʾmūn in turn brought them to his house, while housing Imam al-Rida (‘a) in a separate home and he honored him greatly. Kitāb al-Irshād, p. 290.

[3]. Maʾmūn told the Imam (‘a) that he was going to depose himself and relinquish  the caliphate to him. The Imam (‘a) refused to accept his offer. Maʾmūn then stated that he was going to make him the successor the caliphate. When the Imam (‘a) heard this, he said: Excuse me from this. Maʾmūn then threatened to kill the Imam (‘a) if he refused…

[4]. Since many philosophical and rational texts had been translated from Greek and Syriac in to Arabic, many of the Muslims had devloped an interest in learning these subjects in greater detail. In addition, Maʾmūn, the Abbasid Caliph who ruled from 195-218 AH, was supposedly a Muʿtazilite in ideology and he favored intellectual and philosophical subjects. Due to these various reasons, these subjects became very popular during this time period…

[5]. Jāthlīq is a Greek word which denotes one of the great leaders of the Christians. It isn’t the name of a specific person but rather it is a title. It is also possible that it is the Arabicized version of the word Catholic.

[6]. Sulaymān Marwazī was one of the most well-known scholars of scholastic theology (Kalām) in Khurāsān during the time of Maʾmūn. In light of this, Maʾmūn would respect and honor him greatly.

[7]. Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Jahm was a Nāsibī (a diehard enemy of the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a).

[8]. ʿImrān the Sabean was a member of the Sabean religion and he defended his faith in the debate with Imam al-Rida (‘a). The Sabeans are a religious group who follow John the Baptist and they are divided in to two groups, one being monotheistic, while the other is polytheistic in ideology. One group worships stars and so they are known as ‘Star Worshippers’. Their religious center used to be the city of Ḥarān in Iraq but they moved to various other areas in Iraq and Khuzestan (in Iran). In accordance to their beliefs, they tend to live next to large river. Today, a number of them can be found in the city of Ahwaz in Iran.

[9]. Faḍl ibn Sahl was a well-known vizier of Maʾmūn. He had entered Maʾmūn’s court at an early age; in the year 190 AH, he was persuaded by Maʾmūn to leave Zoroastrianism and become a Muslim. He was well known by the name of Dhū al-Rīyāsatayn. He was a man of both politics and war, and he was eventually assassinated in the year 202 Hijri in the Bathhouse of Sarakhs (Wafīyāt al-’ayān, vol. 1, p. 413). Some historians are of the opinion that it was Faḍl ibn Sahl who compelled Maʾmūn to s e l e c t Imam al-Rida (‘a) as his successor. What this means in reality is that the successorship was forced upon Maʾmūn through social and political pressure exerted by the Iranians upon Faḍl ibn Sahl (Tārīkh Bayhaqī, p. 141). In spite of this, the historical context shows us otherwise.

[10]. Herbez Akbar (or Herbed Akbar) is a title which is specific to the great leader of the Zoroastrians. It denotes that one is a great leader and maintainer of the fire temple of the Zoroastrians.

[11]. This may refer to the idea that when Allah first created the world, he created the raw ingredients, which can be likened to the basic alphabets of a language. These raw ingredients are of no use by themselves but when they are brought together in the right combinations, they can give rise to various meaningful creations.