The Shi’a Community and the Sultan During Imam Rida’s Imamate

The belief that the caliph and anyone who holds a position on behalf of the caliph is essentially maintaining a role they have no right upon, and that these individuals are illegally managing the wealth and affairs of the community, naturally put the Shī‘ī Imami community during the time of Imam Riḍā (a) in opposition to the government.1

On the other hand, due to the teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt the Imami Shī‘a did not behave like the Khawarij by cutting themselves off from the general Muslim community, rather they always remained integrated within the general body. However, the natural consequence of this integration with the general populous put the Shī‘ī community in friction with the government. This friction did not always mean having to pay taxes to the government or that they were killed or tortured, rather at times this friction manifested itself in the form of prominent Shī‘ī figures being requested to work alongside the government and assist it. It is clear that informing the government of its illegitimacy and that the Shī‘a were not allowed to work alongside it would have led to troublesome consequences for the individuals involved and as well as the Shī‘a community in general.

It is for this reason that once the Abbasids came into power, the notion of “working with the Sultan” became a prominent theme within the Imami Shī‘a community, a relatively unheard of phrase during the Umayyad dynasty. This issue began from the time of Imam Ṣādiq (a) and only became more prominent during the time of Imam Riḍā (a). As per the community’s established principles, the Imami Shī‘a were not allowed to work with the government due to their belief in its illegitimacy and this principle can be seen very clearly in the words of Imam Riḍā himself. As an example, in one of the narrations, Sulaymān al-Ja‘farī asks the Imam about working with the Sultan to which the Imam responds:

يا سليمان الدخول في أعمالهم و العون لهم- و السعي في حوائجهم عديل الكفر، و النظر إليهم على العمد من الكبائر التي يستحق به النار

O Sulaymān, entering upon them during their work, assisting them and striving to fulfill their needs is tantamount to disbelief, and looking at them intentionally is from the great sins for which a person becomes deserving of hellfire.2

In another report the Imam cites a statement from the Prophet (p) who said:

Beware of mingling with the Sultan for it banishes religion, and beware of his assistance, for surely you should not praise his command.3

And yet in another report, the Imam has said that if you do end up having to engage with the Sultan, this engagement should be carried out with a lot of caution.4

The aforementioned narrations form the principle basis the community held with respect to the government, but at times due to certain circumstances, permission would be granted to work with the Sultan. However, when observing the reports where Imam Riḍā grants an individual such permission, one always finds a benefit or objective being mentioned signifying that taking up such a position was not an absolute leeway for the person concerned, rather one often finds this permission being granted in context of saving one’s own life or to repel harm from the Imami community. At times, permission was granted as the person would be able to repel oppression from the believers depending on the position they would hold. Consider the following report:

A man by the name of Ḥasan b. Ḥusayn al-Anbārī says: “I wrote to Abū al-Ḥasan al-Riḍā (a) for fourteen years asking his permission to work for the Sultan. In the last letter I wrote saying that I fear for my life if I do not work for the Sultan, because he calls me a Rāfidī saying, ‘We have no doubt that you have refused to work for the Sultan because of your rejection.’

Abū al-Ḥasan (a) wrote to me, ‘I have noted what you have mentioned in your letter and your fear for your life. If you know that on accepting to work for him you will not violate what the Messenger of Allah has commanded you to do and employ people from your creed to work for you as clerks and helpers, and if you gain anything you will assist the poor believers until your gains and help is equal, (then permission is granted) otherwise, it is not allowed.’”5

Perhaps the most prominent companion who took up a position in the Abbasid government was ‘Alī b. Yaqtīn, who has been praised by the Imams (a) in various reports. In one report, Imam Riḍā tells him to guarantee for him that if a walī (most likely a reference to an Imami Shī‘a) visits him that he will be respected and honoured.6 We also find that whenever the Imam himself – as Ma’mūn’s crown prince – got an opportunity to prevent the spilling of innocent blood, he would interfere.7

All the aforementioned stages and conditions for working with the Sultan are also specifically reflected in how the Imam (a) himself accepted the position of crown prince for Ma’mūn al-Rashīd. Some reports indicate that when the Imam was initially requested to take up the position, he rejected the offer until it was repeatedly offered. Initially, Ma’mūn wanted to hand over the caliphate to the Imam, but the Imam did not accept it. Then he suggested the role of crown prince, which the Imam accepted on certain conditions:

When the matter of the deposed caliph (Amīn) ended and the caliphate was established for Ma’mūn he wrote to al-Riḍā (a) asking to come to Khurāsān. Abū al-Ḥasan (a) in reply presented certain reasons to justify his disagreement with the proposal but Ma’mūn continued writing until the Imam found it unavoidable and that he would not leave him alone.

He (a) then decided to leave for Khurāsān and at that time Abū Ja‘far (a) was only seven years old. Ma’mūn wrote to him, ‘Do not travel through the mountains and Qom. Take the road through Basra, Ahwaz and Fars, until you arrive at Marw.’ Ma’mūn offered him to command and lead the caliphate but Abū al-Ḥasan (a) declined. He then offered the Imam to accept the position of a crown prince. The Imam said that he might accept it under certain conditions. Ma’mūn said, ‘Say whatever conditions you like.’

The Imam wrote, ‘I will assume this position with the conditions that I will not issue any order or prohibitions nor issue any religious verdict or judgment nor appoint or dismiss any officers or change anything in the current system. You must excuse me in all such matters.’ Ma’mūn agreed to all such conditions.8

Another report mentions how Ma’mūn not only insisted the Imam take up his offer but even came to the point of threatening the Imam’s life.9 In another report, the Imam says that Ma’mūn explicitly stated that if I do not take the position of crown prince, that he would strike the Imam’s neck with a sword, and because Allah (swt) has prohibited us from throwing ourselves into destruction – a reference to [2:195] – the Imam had no choice but to accept the role to save his life.10

At first, it may appear that if the Imam was to take up this position he’d be able to fulfill the rights of people, but it seems that he was aware that this would not have been possible and that the government would be trying its best to use him as a tool for their own policies. There came a time where Ma’mūn asked the Imam to help him in silencing some of the rebellions occurring during the time and the Imam reminded Ma’mūn of his conditions:

مُعَمَّرِ بْنِ خَلَّادٍ قَالَ قَالَ لِي أَبُو الْحَسَنِ الرِّضَا ع‏ قَالَ لِيَ الْمَأْمُونُ يَا أَبَا الْحَسَنِ لَوْ كَتَبْتَ إِلَى بَعْضِ مَنْ يُطِيعُكَ فِي هَذِهِ النَّوَاحِي الَّتِي قَدْ فَسَدَتْ عَلَيْنَا قَالَ قُلْتُ لَهُ يَا أَمِيرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِنْ وَفَيْتَ لِي وَفَيْتُ لَكَ إِنَّمَا دَخَلْتُ فِي هَذَا الْأَمْرِ الَّذِي دَخَلْتُ فِيهِ‏ عَلَى أَنْ لَا آمُرَ وَ لَا أَنْهَى وَ لَا أُوَلِّيَ وَ لَا أَعْزِلَ وَ مَا زَادَنِي هَذَا الْأَمْرُ الَّذِي دَخَلْتُ فِيهِ فِي النِّعْمَةِ عِنْدِي شَيْئاً

Imam Riḍā said: Ma’mūn said to me, ‘O Abū al-Ḥasan, if you could write to some of the ones who look up to you in certain areas, but their relationship with us is corrupt.’ I said to him, ‘O commander of the faithful, when you insisted me to take this position, I came into the commitment on the condition that I do not issue any commands, nor do I prohibit, nor do I appoint anyone, nor dismiss anyone, and this matter which I have entered into has not increased me in any favours.11

It is for this reason that we repeatedly see in the words of Imam Riḍā that accepting the position of crown prince was due to force. On some occasions, the Imam compares his position to that of Prophet Yusuf (a) who was pressured into taking the position of a crown prince for the minister of Egypt12, and at times he compares it to the participation of Imam ‘Alī in the committee of six people that was made to elect the third caliph after the murder of the second caliph.13


  1. Source: A selected paragraph from Political Thought in Imam Riā’s Teachings, by Dr. Ahmad Pakatchi, with some of my own additions and revisions to the original text. This is part of a larger article published by Dānisgh Imam Ṣādiq in vol. 1 of Ab‘ād Shakṣīyat wa Zindagī arat Imām Riā (Different Perspectives on the Personality and Life of Imam Riḍā) on pgs. 137-168.
  2. Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī, vol. 1, pg. 238.
  3. Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 10, pg. 368.
  4. al-Durrah al-Bāhirah by Shahīd Awwal, pg. 38.
  5. Al-Kāfī, vol. 5, pg. 111.
  6. Ikhtiyār Ma‘rifat al-Rijāl (Rijāl al-Kashshī), pg. 433.
  7. Nuzha al-Nāẓir wa Tanbīh al-Khāṭir, by Ḥusayn b. Naṣr al-Ḥulwānī, pg. 131.
  8. Al-Kāfī, vol. 1, pg. 488-489.
  9. Kitāb al-Irshād by Shaykh Mufīd, vol. 2, pg. 259.
  10. ‘Uyūn al-Akhbār, vol. 2, pg. 140.
  11. Al-Kāfī, vol. 8, pg. 151.
  12. ‘Uyūn al-Akhbār, vol. 2, pg. 139.
  13. Ibid., pg. 141.