2. the Central Issue

In order to understand this goal, one must study the social, political and legal aspects of the life of each of the Infallible Imams (A). Here we will study one aspect of the political life of al-'Imam 'Ali al Rida (A), his designation to the heir apparency of the 'Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun - which was perhaps the most significant phase in his political life - and the issues related to it.

We will see that al-'Imam al-Rida (A) played the role of an active leader in giving direction to the events even in his situation where he could only react, for his responses stemmed from a precise and universal plan that enabled him not only to counter the problem that he faced but also to carry out his duties of supreme leadership in the Ummah.

Here the discussion revolves around the question of succession, which was the central problem of the Islamic polity after the demise of the Prophet (S). This problem had grown steadily in significance until it reached a climax following the martyrdom of Amir al-Mu'minin 'Ali (A). It exploded with the revolution of al-Husayn (A) into a series of crises of political legitimacy throughout the era of the Imams (A) up to the occultation of the Awaited Imam (A). In the period of occultation it assumed other forms of expression.

In the Umayyad and 'Abbasid regimes - as well as other regimes contemporaneous with the 'Abbasids, such as the Umayyad regime in Andalusia, the Fatimid caliphate in North Africa - and other regimes that came after them in various parts of the Islamic world through the ages up to the time of the Ottoman caliphate and the Safavid sultanate - all the rulers identified their regimes, in character and origin, as being Islamic. They ruled in the name of Islam and governed over the people in matters of peace and war, the economy, politics, the judiciary, social organization and other matters of socio-political life on the basis of their governments being Islamic systems which implemented Islamic laws. The legitimacy of these governments was based on the claim of their being derived from Islam. But what was the source of the legitimacy of actual leadership?

On a theoretical and abstract level, the issue is dissolved, for all claim to be Islamic and apply Islam according to their own understanding of it, in different ways, without being faithful to the Qur'anic text and often disgracefully violating the spirit of the Qur'anic text.

However, on a practical level, there are two very different view-points about the source of the legitimacy of leadership: firstly, the view based on designation ( nass ); secondly, the view which disregards designation (nass) and is based on the principle of allegiance (bay'ah) . The conflict between these two views dominated the Islamic Ummah after the demise of the Noble Messenger (S) up to the end of the Umayyad era, when the 'Abbasid missionary activity ( da'wah) began.

The principle of designation ( nass ) had been firmly established in the minds of the Ummah as a result of the activities of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (A) and their companions in educating them, firstly, about the issue of designation, secondly, about the cause of the perverseness of the Umayyad regime and its deviation from Islam on a theoretical and practical level, and thirdly, about the reason for the Umayyad rulers implementing the principle of designation ( nass ) in their own particular way. For example, Mu'awiyah implemented it by means of designating his heir apparent and seeking prior allegiance (bay'ah) for him. Due to all that, the principle of nass became the sole basis in the minds of a large section of Muslims, and came to be regarded as the most preferable choice among the rest as the source of the legitimacy of rule on the basis of actual and practical leadership. The principle of bay'ah became invalid as the only source of legitimate rule and was no longer anything but a complementary aspect of the principle of nass.

When 'Abbasid da'wah began, it confronted this reality in the political domain as well as in the mind of the Ummah. It also used all the suggestions and concepts of the past to allude to the principle of nass , without making an explicit commitment to it, for the fear that such a commitment would entail handing over power to the legitimate ruler.

Thus the 'Abbasid missionaries exploited the names of the 'Alids and the Ahl al-Bayt (A), and the term 'itrah (progeny). They constantly used an ambiguous expression which had been used earlier by certain people who had revolted against the Umayyads after the revolution of al-Husayn (A): the call to "al-rida min aal Muhammad".

This expression was a new endorsement of the position based on the principle of nass - and it was aimed to exploit all the political potential that this principle carried with the Ummah - without explicitly committing to it. This would enable them to make an about-face in a massive publicity operation aimed to misguide the Muslim public opinion. The 'Abbasid missionary activity advanced under this banner, and when it implemented its political plan to overthrow the Umayyad regime and establish the 'Abbasid state, it was based on the principle of nass .

From the very first speech of Abu al-'Abbas al-Saffah, after he was acknowledged as the leader in Kufah, the 'Abbasids claimed that they had implemented the political plan of the Ahl al-Bayt (A), the family of 'Ali (A), the Banu Hashim and the descendants of the Prophet (S).

With the implementation of the 'Abbasid plan, three different ideas in the Islamic political thought were alternately used, in order to address the main question in the Islamic political problem during the era of the Infallible Imams (A). The question dealt with the source of the legitimacy of actual leadership after the expiry of all Islamic political entities which traced their origins to Islam and claimed to practise it.

  1. The principle of nass. This was the principle of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (A) who devoted themselves to establish it firmly in the mind of the Ummah and to create an awareness in it through it, so that it became, as mentioned, generally acceptable to all the Muslims, whether as the sole formula for legitimacy of rule or as the most preferable one.

  2. The principle of bay'ah. It completely ignored the principle of nass and did not acknowledge it, directly or indirectly.

  3. The principle of "al-rida min aal Muhammad". It was the formula on which the 'Abbasid missionary activity was based and which was politically implemented. This principle, which in essence was the principle of bay'ah, was actually, as we have said, a distortion of the principle of nass aimed to exploit its political potential on one hand, and to escape from its political implications on the other. The political implication of the principle of nass is government by the Infallible Imam. This was what the 'Abbasids did their utmost to prevent. However, for the success of their missionary activity, they urgently needed the political benefits of the principle of nass; hence the slogan of "al-rida min aal Muhammad".

Other expressions used by them were: "'Alids", "Hashimites", "Ahl al-Bayt," "the Offspring of the Prophet" (dhurriyyat al-Nabi)", and "the Progeny" ( 'itrah ). These were the ideological and political tools they used to achieve their aim, and they accomplished it in the following way. In the mind of the Ummah the principle of nass was associated with the Ahl al-Bayt (A). Mentioning nass would make one immediately think of the pre-eminent right of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (A), and speaking of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (A) in a political context would call to mind the principle of nass.

The 'Abbasid missionary activity took advantage of this association and connection between nass and the Ahl al-Bayt (A), who were regarded as being the embodiment of the principle of nass in Islamic society. After their victory, the 'Abbasids developed the ideology that served as the basis of vindicating their rule in order to counter the difficulty created by the discovery of the truth by some of the senior leaders of the da'wah, who believed that they were active against the Umayyads on the basis of the principle of nass . The 'Abbasids had used the slogan 'revenge for the family of Muhammad (S)', as a justification for holding on to political power. They also used the terms 'right' (al-haqq) and 'inheritance' (irth) to vindicate their ideological stand. This was a political message understood by the people, and it suggested the principle of nass to certain groups of people who did not have strong links with the Ahl al-Bayt (A). The evil 'ulama' and venal thinkers were able, by intellectual and theological maneuvering, to misguide the people about the true meaning of the principle of nass .