The Tragic Ending
Al-Mamoon Plans for Imam"s martyrdom
It was not politically feasible for al-Mamoon to reach Baghdad accompanied by Imam al-Rida (A.S.), for that would stir the winds of dissension against him and he might not be strong enough to withstand them. From this standpoint, our belief that al-Mamoon was the one who plotted to end the life of the Imam (A.S.) by giving him poisoned grapes is strengthened, and the historical environment at the time helps us confirm this belief even when Ibn al-Athir, in his Tarikh, thinks that that was not possible. Prominent scholars and historians such as Shaikh al-Mufid and others have also doubted it, while others such as Sayyid ibn Tawoos, Sibt ibn al-Jawzi, and al-Arbili in Kashf al-Ghumma, have all dismissed it outright. The latter strongly defended his view, but it was nevertheless no more than a simplistic and superficial defense. Al-Mamoon"s letter to the Abbasides and the residents of Baghdad, which he wrote after the demise of Imam al-Rida (A.S.), gives such an impression.
"He wrote the Abbasides and their supporters and to the people of Baghdad informing them of the death of Ali ibn Mousa and that they had resented his nomination of him as his successor, asking them now to go back to their loyalty to him.
This may be understood as a clear admission that the death of the Imam (A.S.) was not natural during those circumstances, and the text Ibn Khaldun provides in expressing the contents of this letter provides even clearer clues to accusing al-Mamoon of murdering him; he says in his Tarikh:
"... And al-Mamoon sent messages to al-Hassan ibn Sahl, to the people of Baghdad, and to his supporters apologizing for naming him his regent and inviting them to go back to his loyalty."
What can be understood regarding al-Mamoon"s regret and realization of his mistake regarding the regency arrangement is that such regret is meaningless if it had happened after the Imam"s death; rather, it must have occurred prior to that, so he paved the way to correct it by assassinating the Imam (A.S.) in order to please the Abbasides, their supporters, and the people of Baghdad. If we are to stay alone with just the political circumstances through which al-Mamoon was living during that shaky period of his reign, overlooking the historical texts whose contexts lead us to such a conclusion, we would still be able to point the finger to al-Mamoon regarding the crime of assassinating Imam al-Rida (A.S.) without being biased to any group or prejudiced against the accused.
Al-Saduq narrates saying, "While al-Rida (A.S.) was breathing his last, al-Mamoon said to him, `By God! I do not know which of the two calamities is greater: losing you and parting from you, or people"s accusation that I assassinated you...""
In another narrative by Abul-Faraj al-Asbahani, al-Mamoon said to him, "It is very hard for me to live to see you die, and there was some hope hinging upon your stay, yet even harder for me than that is that people say I have made you drink poison and God knows that I am innocent of that."
This exciting situation of al-Mamoon discloses the fact that the accusation of his own murder of the Imam (A.S.) was the subject of argument, maybe even of conviction, even then, for al-Mamoon asserts people"s accusation of him and he tries to extract an admission from the Imam (A.S.) clearing him of it, as Abul-Faraj mentions.
Simplistic Justification of al-Mamoon"s Situation
It is interesting how some people find it hard to believe that al-Mamoon would assassinate the Imam (A.S.) simply because of all the grief, crying, abstention from eating and drinking, which he feigned to show his distress at the Imam"s death, as if they expected al-Mamoon to show his happiness and excitement at his death in order to give credibility to the accusation others concealed. But the excuse of these folks is their superficiality in understanding history, and their shortsightedness.
How the Imam Was Murdered
Stories regarding the method al-Mamoon employed to kill Imam al-Rida (A.S.) are abundant. Abul-Faraj and al-Mufid say that he killed him by poisoned pomegranate juice and poisoned grape juice. In his Al-Irshad, al-Mufid quotes Abdullah ibn Bashir saying: "Al-Mamoon ordered me to let my nails grow as long as they could without letting anyone notice that; so I did, then he ordered to see me and he gave me something which looked like tamarind and said, `Squeeze this with both your hands," and I did. Then he stood up, left me and went to see al-Rida (A.S.) and said to him, `How are you?" He answered, `I hope I am alright." He said, `I, too, by the Grace of God, am alright; did any well-wisher visit you today?" He answered in the negative, so al-Mamoon became angry and called upon his servants to come, then he ordered one of them to immediately take the pomegranate juice to him, adding, `... for he cannot do without it." Then he called me to him and said: `Squeeze it with your own hands," and so I did. Then al-Mamoon handed the juice to al-Rida (A.S.) in person, and that was the reason for his death for he stayed only two days before he (A.S.) died.""
Abul-Salt al-Harawi is quoted saying, "I entered the house of al-Rida (A.S.) after al-Mamoon had already left and he said to me, `O Abul-Salt! They have done it...!" and he kept unifying and praising God." Muhammad ibn al-Jahm is quoted saying, "Al-Rida (A.S.) used to love grapes. Some grapes were said to be prepared for him; needles were pierced inside them at their very tips and were kept like that for several days. Then the needles were taken out, and they were brought to him and he ate some of them and fell into the sickness we have mentioned about him. The grapes killed him, and it was said that that was one of the most effective methods of poisoning."
Regardless of the method of assassination, what seems to be acceptable, having examined all texts and the historical background of the political circumstances at that time, al-Mamoon was indeed the one who killed Imam al-Rida (A.S.), and we do not have the slightest doubt or hesitation about that.
"His death occurred at Toos in a village called Sanabad, of the Nooqan area, and he was buried at the house of Hameed ibn Tahtaba under the dome where Haroun al-Rashid had been buried, and he was buried beside him facing the qibla."
"When al-Rida (A.S.) died, al-Mamoon did not disclose it when it happened, leaving him dead for one day and one night, then he called for Muhammad ibn Ja"fer ibn Muhammad and a group of descendants of Abu Talib. When they were present, he showed him to them; his corpse looked alright; then he started weeping and addressed the corpse saying, `O Brother! It is indeed very hard for me to see you in such a condition, and I was hoping to go before you, but God insisted on carrying out His decree," and he showed a great deal of agony and grief and went out carrying the coffin with others till he reached the place where it is now buried..."
"... So al-Mamoon was present there before the grave was dug, and he ordered his grave to be dug beside that of his father, then he approached us and said, `The person inside this coffin told me that when his grave is dug, water and fish will appear underneath; so, dig..." They dug. When they finished digging, a spring of water appeared, and fish appeared in it, then the water dissipated, and al-Rida (A.S.), peace be upon him, was then buried."
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Taken from: Imam al-Rida - A Historical and Biographical Research By: Muhammad Jawad Fadlallah, Translated from the Arabic by: Yasin T. al-Jibouri.
(1) Tabari, Vol. 8, p. 558, "Events of the Year 203 A.H."
(2) Ibn Khaldun, Vol. 3, p. 250
(3) Uyoon Akhbar al-Rida, Vol. 2, p. 242
(4) Maqatil al-Talibiyyin, p. 380
(5) Al-Irshad, p. 297. A similar narrative is mentioned in Maqatil al-Talibiyyin, pp. 377-378
(6) Uyoon Akhbar al-Rida, Vol. 1, p. 18
(7) Maqatil al-Talibiyyin, p. 378
(8) Ibid., p. 380
(9) Maqatil al-Talibiyyin, pp. 378-380