4. the Problematical Aspect of Heir Apparency
One aspect of this problem is that it is completely natural and understandable that a ruler who unlawfully holds power, as a result of which he is plagued by dangers and difficulties, should authorize the handing over of power after him to the rightful and lawful nominee who is twenty-two years older than him. This would be carried out in a carefully planned operation by the actual ruler who wished to overcome his difficulties in this way. The explanation of this aspect of the problem is simple after the circumstances, aims and precautions are clarified in light of our knowledge of the central issue in the Islamic political problem.
However, that which is difficult to understand is why the lawful, older nominee should accept this succession. Such an acceptance may imply an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the de facto ruler, helping to put an end to his difficulties, in exchange for the promise of handing over the government. Naturally, it was not possible to fulfil such a promise in view of the difference in the ages of the ruler and his heir apparent, in view of the constant possibility of assassination, and especially in view of what was indicated by al-'Imam al-Rida (A) when he said: "It is a matter that will not be accomplished" and his awareness that al-Ma'mun's moves were not motivated by any conviction that the right to rule should be returned to those worthy of it, but only out of necessity. This is the problematic aspect of the issue.
To solve this problem, we must return to the fundamental aim of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (A) after the martyrdom of al-Husayn (A). In the light of that we will understand why al-'Imam al-Rida (A) first refused and then accepted the bay'ah of succession to al-Ma'mun.
As we said, this aim was twofold: firstly, to protect Islam from being distorted, falsified and misinterpreted; secondly, to protect the followers of the authentic Islamic path, the followers of the principle of nass and those Muslims close to it, from ignorance, deviation and liquidation. Al-'Imam al-Rida (A) in his refusal and acceptance, and in his term as the heir apparent, adopted a stand appropriate for this aim and took steps which led towards its fulfilment, in the midst of the varying reactions of amazement, resentment and expectation.
He was aware that the allegiance offered to him was the allegiance of death. He was aware of the difficulty of al-Ma'mun and the 'Abbasid caliphate, of the aims of al-Ma'mun in offering him the heir apparency, and of his own dilemma in this offer, which held the danger of acknowledging the legitimacy of al-Ma'mun's rule and thus acknowledging the legitimacy of the 'Abbasid caliphate. He was aware of the traps which would be set in his way, not the least dangerous of which would be the attempt to involve him in the apparatus of a government and an administration which he had not himself set up, and which were not in keeping with his views, his policies, and his character.
He was aware of all that. That is why his first stand towards the offer was to reject it. Al-Ma'mun and his party continued their efforts to persuade him, and he continued to refuse it until he faced veiled and open threats of death, whence he accepted the heir apparency, "tearfully and sorrowfully", according to many reports. This was how al-'Imam al-Rida (A) explained his acceptance at various times to some of his companions.
The refusal was understandable. It was in keeping with his general situation, since he was aware of al-Ma'mun's aims and of his own aims in his lifetime. However, the acceptance requires an explanation. The threat of death, inasmuch as it was a threat to a personal life, was not a sufficient reason, in our view, for the acceptance. The position of al-Rida (A) resembled in certain aspects the position of al-Husayn (A), in a form that was in conformity with al-Ma'mun's personality and era, and al-Husayn (A) had made the choice of martyrdom. We must discover the reason, deeper than that of preservation of personal life, which lay behind al-'Imam al-Rida's acceptance of the heir apparency and which was more fitted to his personality as an Infallible Imam and more in keeping with the firm aim of the Infallible Imams. In fact, we see that preserving personal life was not one of the real reasons for the acceptance, for al-Ma'mun's offer of heir apparency itself amounted to a sentence of death for al-'Imam al-Rida (A).
We believe that the Imam was aware of it, and perhaps because of that, he did not take any of his family to Marv, presuming that the same fate that was in store for him would befall them.
He was under a sentence of death if he did not accept, and he was under a sentence of death if he did. The difference between the two conditions was that either the sentence would be put into effect or postponed. We believe that his refusal was aimed to reveal further elements of al-Ma'mun's plans and intentions as well as the network of contacts which directed the operation of succession (wilayat al-'ahd). His rejection of the heir apparency was not merely a simple reaction.
We believe that al-'Imam al-Rida (A) in his stand - taking into account the difference in eras and the nature of the opposition -strongly resembled the stand of al-'Imam al-Hasan (A). The difference between the two was that al-Hasan (A) faced an immediate or deferred death sentence by witholding what was in his power to give. Al-Rida (A) faced immediate or deferred sentence, on the basis of the false offer that he would gain his usurped rights in the future. But in order to negate the legitimacy of this right, he chose deferment - like al-'Imam al-Hasan (A) - since it was more suited to the aim of the Imams (A). Al-'Imam al-Husayn (A) chose immediate death since it was more in keeping with his circumstances and the circumstances of the Ummah of his time, more closely connected to the firm aim of the Infallible Imams, and more destructive of his enemy, Yazid and the Umayyad regime.