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Back You are here: Home Ma'sumeen Ali Ibn Musa ar-Reza Biography of Imam Reza The Attitude of Imam Reza (AS) towards the Alid Revolt against al-Ma'mun

The Attitude of Imam Reza (AS) towards the Alid Revolt against al-Ma'mun

The Attitude of Imam Reza (AS) towards the Alid Revolt against al-Ma’mun


When al-Amin became caliph, Iraq was the centre of his power. It was here that he maintained the support of the Arabs, and especially that of the Murji'ite scholars (al-amma, later called the Sunnites), while his brother al-Ma’mun was governor of Khurasan and gained the support of its military leaders and senior administrators, especially the Persian vizier al-Fadl b. Sahl and his partisans, who eventually helped him to overthrow al-Amin[210].
Al-Ma’mun's success in gaining the caliphate was contrary to the political and economic interest of al-Amm's supporters. Therefore many regional revolts took place in Syria, al-Jazira, Yemen and Iraq, headed by the local `Abbasid governors[211].

At the same time the `Alids used their underground propaganda which was influential in the Yemen, Hijaz and Iraq, to exploit al-Ma’mun's difficulties in Iraq and to cause a revolt in Kufa in 199/815. Thus these regions fell out of al-Ma’mun's control.

Although reports about the ideological identity of the `Alid uprising and the events surrounding it are confused, apparently it was a Zaydite revolt[212] maintained with the support of some Imamite sects. These included the followers of Ahmad b. Musa al-Kazim and the sabtiyya, the followers of Muhammad b. Ja’far al-Sadiq[213], along with some of the Imamites, but without the direct order of the eighth Imam, al-Riďa[214].

The spiritual leader of this revolt was Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. Tabataba, while its military leader was Abu al-Saraya. It broke out under the slogan "We invite people to rally around the most suitable leader from the progeny of Muhammad and to practice the teachings of the Qur'an and the sunna'[215] in Kufa on the 10th Jumada 199/26th January 815, where the rebels had the support of the people of the environs of Kufa and of the bedouins. Abu al-Saraya minted coins in his own name in Kufa, managed to defeat three `Abbasid armies and occupied Mada'in[216].

Moreover he dispatched many successful campaigns under the leadership of al-Riďa's brothers and relatives to extend his authority in Iraq, al-Ahwaz, Fars, the Hijaz, and Yemen. They fulfilled their tasks and became the governors of these regions. For example, Zayd b. Musa al-Kazim became the governor of alAhwaz and Basra, Fars came under the control of Isma'il b. Musa al-Kazim, and Yemen came under the control of his brother Ibrahim, Wasit was ruled by Husayn b. Ibrahim b. al-Hasan b `Ali. Abu al-Saraya appointed Sulayman b. Dawud in Medina, and nominated al-Husayn al-Aftas as governor in Mecca, authorising him to be the leader of the pilgrims and to provide the Ka'ba with a white kiswa[217].

The authority of Abu al-Saraya increased after the mysterious death of the spiritual leader of the revolt, Ibn Tabataba on the 1st Rajab 199/15th February 815, and the refusal of the eminent `Alid, `Ali b. 'Ubayd Allah, to accept the position of Ibn Tabataba. Abu al-Saraya, in order to evade the interference of any strong spiritual leader, nominated for this post a young `Alid called Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Zayd b. `Ali[218], and monopolised all affairs of the leadership of the revolt.

Abu al-Saraya's full control in Iraq did not continue, because the `Abbasid army defeated him at Qasr b. Hubayra near Kufa and forced him to withdraw towards Basra along with 800 horsemen. But news came to him that his governor in Basra, Zayd b. Musa al-Kazim, had also been defeated after hard combat and had been captured by the `Abbasid troops. Thus he went towards al-Ahwaz, but was defeated by the `Abbasid governor of that city and his followers dispersed. A few months later the troops of al-Hasan b. Sahl captured him at Jalawla' and on 10th Rabic I 200/18th October 815 they beheaded him, after which his body was impaled in Baghdad[219].

It is worth mentioning that the failure of this revolt caused some Imamites to hold that Musa al-Kazim, the seventh Imam, was al-Qa’im al-Mahdi They had considered his son Ahmad' as the lawful successor of his father. But since he had participated with Abu al-Saraya, they rejected his Imamate and denied the death of al-Kazim[220].

This fact reveals the general attitude of the Imamites towards any militant action and indicates that they had Hadiths concerning the rise of an Imam with the sword, whose uprising would never be defeated, for he could not die without establishing the government of the People of the House[221].

This may be the reason behind the quiescent attitude of those followers of al-Riďa who did not take any open or active part in the revolt of Abu al-Saraya.
On hearing of the military defeat of their comrades on the Iraqi front after the death of Abu al-Saraya, the rebels in Mecca, who had full control of the Hijaz and the Yemen, made overtures to Muhammad b. Ja`far al-Sadiq, asking him to be their leader and finally persuading him to accept their offer. They swore the oath of allegiance to him as their caliph and called him Amir al-Mu'minin on 6th Rabi` II 200/13th November 815[222].

He himself claimed that he was al-Qa’im al-Mahdi, and based his claim on prophetic traditions[223]. But the eighth Imam al-Riďa denied his claim, although he endeavoured to save him from a military defeat by advising trim to postpone his revolt against the `Abbasids[224].

The installation by the rebels of an `Alid caliph in Mecca with the epithet al-Mahdi threatened the authority of al-Ma’mun. Having failed to subdue the revolt by force, al-Ma’mun decided to resort to political methods, by conciliating the eight Imam al-Riďa. He dispatched an army under the leadership of 'Isa b. al-Juludi to Medina for this purpose[225].

But this army was badly defeated at the hands of Muhammad b. Ja’far al-Sadiq. Therefore al-Juludi asked al-Riďa to contact Muhammad and ask him to end his resistance, but he rejected al-Riďa's mediation and insisted on continuing his rebellion. This led to skirmishes between the `Abbasid troops and the rebels until the end of the year 200/815, when the `Abbasid army captured Muhammad b. Ja’far al-Sadiq and forced him to renounce his claim publicly[226].

Because his arrest did not return the areas of revolt into the hands of the authorities, al-Juludi returned with him and al-Riďa to Merv. According to al-Kulayni, al-Ma’mun welcomed al-Riďa and offered him the caliphate, but he refused. However, after a few. months of negotiation with al-Ma mun, al-Riďa agreed to be his successor[227].

The caliph announced his acceptance. on 5th Ramadan 201/28th March 817 and called him "al-Riďa mini Al Muhammad'. At the same time he ordered his soldiers to wear green clothes instead of the black which was the emblem of the `Abbasids. Then he strengthened his relations with al-Riďa by marrying his sister Umm Habiba to al-Riďa[228].

The installation of al-Riďa was in reality a political step arranged by the Persian vizier al-Fadl b. Sahl and associated with other policies aimed at consolidating his Persian support and harming the interests of his Arab opposition in Baghdad. This can be concluded from the points mentioned below:

Firstly, the fact that al-Ma’mun continued to reside in Merv caused complaints amongst the military and administrative groups in Iraq, who had been the courtiers of Al-Amin (193-198/808-814) and who then had to struggle for their economic and regional interests against the Persian vizier of al-Ma’mun, al-Fadl b. Sahl, and his brother al-Hasan b. Sahl[229].

Because he was busy with this conflict, al-Ma’mun failed to subdue completely the `Alid rebellion in the Hijaz and Yemen. Therefore, with the encouragement of his vizier, al-Ma’mun installed al-Riďa as his successor to the caliphate in order to divide the rebels by gaining the support of al-Riďa's adherents and those who were hoping for the appearance of an inspired `Alid leader[230].

Secondly, al-Ma’mun changed the colour of the `Abbasid emblem from black to green. The latter colour was associated with the Sasanids, whereas the `Alid emblem was white[231].
Such a step suggests the influence of the Persian vizier al-Fadl b. Sahl.

Thirdly, by installing al-Riďa as his successor, al-Ma’mun succeeded in splitting the rebels by gaining the support of al-Riďa's brothers, who accepted the conciliation of al-Ma’mun and mentioned his name in the khutba along with the name of al-Riďa. According to al-Tabari, al-`Abbas b. Musa al-Kazim accepted the governorship of Kufa on behalf of al-Ma’mun, a fact which encouraged some of the rebels to mentions the names of al-Ma’mun and al-Riďa in the khutba. But the majority of the Kufans insisted on mentioning only al-Riďa's name or that of any prominent person from the descendants of 'Ali[232].

Such attitudes indicate the Zaydite inclination of the Kufans. However, the leader of the rebels in Mecca, Ibrahim b. Musd al-Kazim agreed to mention both his brother al-Rida and al-Ma’mun in the khutba. For this reason, al-Ma’mun confirmed his office and authorised him to lead the pilgrimage in Mecca[233].

But a year later, in 202/817, the caliph gave the governorship of Mecca to an `Abbasid leader, `Isa al-Juludi, and dispatched Ibrahim to Yemen to subdue the rebellion there. He also granted him Yemen's governorship. After he had fulfilled this task, Ibrahim set out for Mecca, but during his return he was arrested, as was his brother Zayd, and sent to al-Ma’mun[234].

Moreover, al-Nawbakhti mentions that a considerable body of the muhaddithun and Zaydites (the non-revolutionary branch) became Imamites after the installation of al-Riďa. But the accounts of al-Kashshi and al-Saduq suggest that these same people, for example Hisham b. Ibrahim al-Rashidi, had been used by al-Ma’mun to watch the partisans of al-Riďa, and this might explain why they returned to their previous faith directly after the death of al-Riďa in 203/817.[235]

Fourthly, after he had quashed the 'Alid rebellion, al-Ma’mun decided to go to Baghdad, taking with him al-Riďa and Muhammad b. Ja`far al-Sadiq. During his advance, his vizier. al-Fadl b. Sahl was assassinated, then al-Riďa was martyred in Tus by poisoning[236], and Muhammad b. Ja`far al-Sadiq passed away and was buried in Jurjan[237]. Their mysterious deaths seem to indicate that al-Ma’mun, having used them to fragment the `Alid opposition, was now moving on to a more rigorous anti- 'Alid programme.

Fifthly, the numerous measures initiated by al-Ma’mun after his arrival at Bahgdad on Rabi` I 204/819 revealed the political aim of his previous policy. He cast aside the green banner and ordered his subjects to wear the black colour of the `Abbasids[238]. He granted al Riďa's successor, al-Jawad, two million dirhams[239], and gave back the `district of Fadak to prominent `Alids, Muhammad b. Yahya b. al-Husayn and Muhammad b. `Ubayd Allah b. al-Hasan[240].

Furthermore, the land-tax (al-kharaj) of the sawad was adjusted in favour of the tax-payer. The share of the treasury was to be two-fifths instead of half of the produce[241].
Through these actions, al-Ma’mun wanted to cut the support given by the prominent `Alids and the peasants of the sawad to the revolutionary 'Alid activities, which, according to Abu al-Fida, he had brought to an end. He was also endeavouring to work against his Arab opposition in Baghdad. When he entered the city everything there returned to normal as if the uprising had never occurred.[242]

Finally, in 205/820 al-Ma mun started to hold symposiums between the Imamites and the Zaydites, and encouraged them to discuss the question of the Im ama in his presence. It is worth mentioning that the non-revolutionary Zaydites believed in the Imamate of the inferior (al-Mafdul) in spite of the presence of the superior (al-Afdal). This view was based on the belief that even though `Ali b. Abi Talib was the most excellent of the community after the Prophet, he fully recognized the caliphate of Abu Bakr and `Umar.

Because of this belief of the Zaydites, in the discussions with the Imamites, al-Ma’mun often agreed with the viewpoints of Zaydite scholars such as `Ali b. al-Him, as regards the Imamate[243].

Then al-Ma’mun managed to capture the 'Alid rebel `Abd al-Rahman b. Ahmad b. `Abd Allah b. Muhammad b. `Umar b. `Ali b. Abi Talib, who rose in arms in Yemen. By subduing this rebellion, al-Ma’mun ended the last military opposition of the `Alids during his rule. Finally, in 206/821 his real attitude towards the `Alids was revealed when he ordered them to wear black, and announced that all the descendants of Imam `Ali b. Abi Talib and their close kindred (al-Talibiyun) should be prevented from entering his palace[244].


[210] Watt, Formative Period, 176; al-Fakhri, 159-61; al-Kamil„ VI, 227.
[211] Ibn A`tham al-Kufi, op. cit., VIII, 312-3. The most dangerous revolt was the rebellion of Nasr b. Shabth in al-Jazira. Another serious revolt was the protest of the populace (al-Amma) of Baghdad against the installation of al-Riďa as heir-apparent by al-Ma’mun. Thus they installed Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi as a caliph there; Bidaya, X, 280-2; al-Kamil, VI, 230.
[212] It is clear from the reports of al-Tabari and al-Najashi that the rebels did not believe in the Imamate of a specific `Alid Imam, but they supported the Imamate of him who would rise in arms in order to establish his rights to this office (Tabari, III, 979, 1019; al-Najashi, 194). They wrote on the coins which they mined in Kufa a Qur'anic verse (al-Saff LI, 4) revealing their, revolutionary inclination. Al-Isfahani and al-Sahib b. `Abbad considered it a Zaydite uprising; Maqatil, 347, 350;`Uyun, II, 235; Ibn `Abbad, op. cit., 222.
[213] Muruj, VII, 56.
[214] A considerable body of the followers of al-Riďa participated in this revolt without his instruction. Perhaps they noticed that the brothers of their Imam were prominent leaders of the revolt, and thought that al-Riďa was behindtheir participation. Hence they joined it. There were men like Muhammad b. Muslima al-Kufi (Tabari, III, 989), who was regarded by al-Najashi as trustworthy (al-Najashi, 286;`Uyun, II, 234-5). It seems from al-Riďa's interpretation of a dream of one of his partisans concerning an expected uprising that he already knew of the activities of his kinsmen; al-Kafi, VIII, 257.
[215]al-Da`wa li-l-Riďa min Al Muhammad wa-`Amal bi-l-Kitab wa-l-sunna.
[216] Tabari, III, 976-79.
[217] al-Kamil, VI, 214-16; Maqatil, 355; Tabari, III, 981-3, 988. Al-Azraqi reports that Abu al-Saraya sent a kiswa of silk to the Ka`ba in two colours, white and yellow, the former of which was the colour of the`Alids' standard. Between the two parts was written: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. May God bless Muhammad and his progeny, the noble descendants, the pure, and the best of the human race. Abu al-Saraya, he who invites people to rally behind Al Muhammad has ordered that this kiswa be made for the holy House of God." al-Azraqi, Akhbar Makka (Mecca, 1965), I, 263, 264.
[218]al-Najashi, 194; Maqatil, 354; Gibb, H. A. R., "Abu al-Saraya", E.I2
[219]Maqatil,363-6;Tabari, III,985-6.
[220] Al-Kulayni reports several traditions on the authority of `Ali b. al-Husayn and al-Sadiq regarding this point, al-Kafi, VIII, 264, 310.
[222] Tabari,III,990.
[223]Maqatil, 359; Uyun, 155.
[224]al-Kafi, I, 491; Maqatil, 360.
[225]al-Kafi, I, 488-9; `Uyun, II, 146; Tabari, III, 1000.
[226]Maqatil, 360; al-Yafi`i, al-`Iqd al-Thamm, I, 444-5.
[227] al-Kafi, I, 489, VIII, 151; `Uyun, 138-40; Tabari, III, 1012-3.
[228] Khatib, X, 184. Concerning Umm Habiba, al-Tabari thinks that she was al-Ma’mun's daughter (Tabari, III, 1029), but Ibn Tulun reports that she was his sister. The age of al-Ma’mun at that time was 30; therefore one is inclined to accept Ibn Tulun's report; Ibn Tulun, op. cit., 97.
[229] al-Ya`qubi, III, 185; al-Kamil VI, 227.
[230] Watt, Formative Period 176. Al-Kulayni reports that al-Ma'mnn asked al-Riďa to write to his followers in the areas of revolt, askingthem to stop their support of the rebels; al-Kafi, VIII, 151.
[231] Several anecdotes indicate that the `Alids' standard was white. The followers of Abu al-Saraya were called "al-Mubayyida" in reference to the standard of `Ali (al-Azraqi, op. cit., I, 263-4). Na un b. Khazim, an Arab advisor of al Ma’mun, warned the latter against adopting the advice of al-Fadl b. Sahl in installing al-Riďa. He pointed out to him that his vizier was not sincere to the `Alids, because he suggested the green colour, the sign of his ancestors, the Sasanids, instead of the white, the standard of `Ali and his sons (J. Wuzara', 313). When al-Ma’mun asked al-Riďa to perform the Friday prayer, the latter wore a white turban and white clothes (`Uyun, II, 149). Finally the Imamites narrate that the banners of the followers of al-Qaim al-Mahdi would be white (Najm al-Din al-`Askari, al-Mahdi al-Maw'ud al-Muntazar [Beirut, 1977], I, 177).
[232] Tabari, III, 1019-20; also al-Kamil, VI, 242.
[233]Tabari, III 1029; al-Kamil, VI, 248.
[234] al-Ya`qubi, III, 184, 190.
[235]N. Firaq, 72-3; Ikhtiyar, 501-2; `Uyun, II, 151-2.
[236] Ibn Hibban, Kitab al-Majruhin (Halab, 1976), II, 209-10.
[237]al-Kafi, I, 486, 490; Muruj, VIII, 57, 61; `Uyun, I, 186, 188; Shaban, op. cit., 47.
[238]al-Kamil, VI, 253; Ahmad b. Tahir b. Tayfur, Tarikh Baghdad (Cairo, 1949), 10.
[239] `Uyun, II, 188.
[240] al-Ya`qubi, III, 204; according to the account of al-Kulayni both were Imamites and the father of the first, Yahya b. al-Husayn, supported the Imamate of al-Riďa (al-Kafi, I, 316). Al-Najashi reports that the grandson of the second, Yahya b. Ahmad b. Muhammad, was a prominent Imamite in Nishapur; al-Najashi, 345; Abu al-Fida, al-Mukhtasar fi Akhbar al-Bashari, II, 32.
[241]Tabari, III, 1039; al-Kamil, VI, 253.
[242]Abu al-Fida, op, cit., II, 25-6.
[243] Tabari, III, 1040.
[244] Tabari, III, 1062-3; al-Kama’l, VI, 269.

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