ʿALĪ AL-REŻĀ, ABU’L-ḤASAN B. MŪSĀ B. JAʿFAR, the eighth Imam of the Emāmī Shiʿites. In Shiʿite sources he is commonly referred to as Abu’l-Ḥasan al-Ṯānī in order to distinguish him from his father, Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓem, who is known as Abu’l-Ḥasan al-Awwal. He was born and grew up in Medina. The year of his birth is variously given as 148/765, 151/768, and 153/770. The first date appears least reliable and may have been deduced from a prediction ascribed to his grandfather, who died in that year, that the successor to his son Mūsā would be born soon. There are indications that ʿAlī may have been born as late as 159/775-76, since, according to Yaʿqūbī, he died at the age of forty-four and, according to Wāqedī, he began rendering fatwās in his twenties. His mother was a slave (omm walad), probably of Nubian origin, whose name is variously given as Toktam, Naǰma, Šaqrāʾ, Šahd, Omm-al-banīn, Ḵayzorān, Sakan, Arwā, or Sammān. His father, who died in prison in Baghdad in Raǰab, 183/September, 799, made him his legatee, and ʿAlī inherited his estate of Ṣorayyāʾ (?) near Medina to the exclusion of his many brothers. But the death of Imam Mūsā was denied by several of his wakīls; they withheld the money collected from the ḵoms and vows of Imam Mūsā’s followers and refused to recognize ʿAlī as Imam, promising the return of his father as the Mahdī. This led to a large-scale defection from the ranks of his father’s followers, especially in Kūfa and Baghdad; ʿAlī was later accused by them of diverging from the teaching of his ancestors in some points. Of his brothers, none seems to have claimed the imamate for himself, though some apparently furthered the belief in the survival of their father. According to Wāqedī, he transmitted Hadith from his father and his uncles and gave fatwās in the mosque of Medina. Though Wāqedī describes him as a reliable transmitter (ṯeqa), he was evidently shunned by Sunni traditionists in Medina, and his transmitters were strictly Shiʿite. There is no good evidence that he ever left Medina for an extended trip before his departure for Khorasan, though a Shiʿite report describes a miraculous visit by him to the communities of his followers in Baṣra and Kūfa after the death of his father. Several of his brothers and his uncle Moḥammad b. Jaʿfar participated in the ʿAlid revolts in Iraq and Arabia after the death of the caliph Amīn, but he refused any involvement. In 200/815-16, the caliph Maʾmūn wrote inviting him to come to Marv and sent Raǰāʾ b. Abi’l-Żaḥḥāk, cousin of the vizier Fażl b. Sahl, and the eunuch Fernās to accompany him on his trip. Shiʿite sources name in place of Fernās the eunuch Yāser, who later appears in the personal service of the Imam and, after the latter’s death, reported about him in Qom. The assertion by Abu’l-Faraǰ Eṣfahānī and Mofīd that the Imam was accompanied to Marv by the general ʿĪsā Jolūdī is definitely mistaken. The latter in this year suppressed the rebellion of Moḥammad b. Jaʿfar in Mecca and took him along to Iraq, where he was surrendered to Raǰāʾ b. Abi’l-Żaḥḥāk (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 993-95). Raǰāʾ thus conveyed both ʿAlids to Khorasan. The Imam seems to have made the pilgrimage to Mecca in this year accompanied by his five-year-old son Moḥammad. He set out for Marv early in 201/late summer, 816. His travel route was, according to most sources, via Baṣra, Ahvāz, and Fārs; this was natural since Baghdad and Kūfa at this time were in the hands of rebels. Yaʿqūbī’s statement that Raǰāʾ traveled via Baghdad and Nehāvand (Māh al-Baṣra) is thus erroneous. It is certain that the Imam did not pass through Qom. He visited Nīšāpūr, where the prominent Sunni traditionists like Ebn Rāhūya, Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā, Moḥammad b. Rāfeʿ, and Aḥmad b. Ḥarb came out to meet him, and he stayed for some time in the town. Shiʿite sources report that next to the house where he stayed he planted an almond tree whose fruit had miraculous healing power. A bath in the quarter of his residence was known in the time of Ebn Bābūya as Ḥammām al-Reżā and people used to come to wash in and drink from a spring there where he had washed himself and prayed. On a new summons of Maʾmūn, the Imam continued on to Marv. According to some Shiʿite accounts, Maʾmūn at first proposed to resign from the caliphate in favor of him. The Imam resisted his proposals for about two months but finally consented reluctantly to an appointment as heir to the caliphate. Maʾmūn gave him the title Reżā, which had previously been used in Shiʿite rebellions to refer to the descendant of the Prophet upon whose choice as caliph the Muslim community would agree. Shiʿite claims that the name had been given to him by his father appear to be without foundation. The bayʿa of the dignitaries and army leaders in Marv to the heir-apparent took place according to Ṭabarī on 2 Ramażān 201/23 March 817, according to Ṣūlī on 5 Ramażān/27 March. The first to pledge allegiance to Reżā, who was dressed in green, was Maʾmūn’s still minor son ʿAbbās. Among the poets who offered their eulogies to him on this occasion were Ebrāhīm b. ʿAbbās Ṣūlī and Deʿbel Ḵozāʿī. Both wore given 10,000 of the newly minted dirhams bearing the name of the ʿAlid. ʿAbbasids and ʿAlids then took turns in receiving gifts, the former led by ʿAbbās b. Maʾmūn, the latter by Moḥammad b. Jaʿfar. After the ceremony, on 7 Ramażān/30 March, an official letter of the caliph announcing the appointment was drawn up to be read in the mosques throughout the empire. Maʾmūn gave orders that the name of the crown prince be included in the ḵoṭba everywhere and that the color of the uniforms, official dress, and flags be changed from black, the official ʿAbbasid color, to green. The color green had not previously been associated with the ʿAlids and was probably intended to signify a reconciliation between ʿAbbasids and ʿAlids rather than a surrender to the claims of the latter.

The extraordinary decision of the caliph, which immediately aroused strong opposition, especial among the ʿAbbasids, was widely attributed, even in Khorasan, to the influence of the Persian vizier Fażl b. Sahl. Among the later historians, this view was supported by Sallāmī in his Aḵbār Ḵorāsān and by Ṣūlī, who quoted the Tahirid ʿObaydallāh b. ʿAbdallāh b. Ṭāher as affirming that Fażl proposed the appointment to Maʾmūn. In other accounts, however, the initiative is ascribed to the caliph himself and Fażl is reported to have at first resisted the appointment pointing out the grave danger of such a move. This version is clearly more in consonance with the known political views of the caliph and the vizier. According to some reports, the caliph made his decision in fulfillment of an earlier vow that he would turn over the caliphate to a descendant of ʿAlī if he were granted victory over his brother Amīn. In his official letter, he explained that he had found ʿAlī al-Reżā to be the most excellent and suitable candidate among the descendants of ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAbbās and ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb and expressed his hope that his choice would help to restore concord in the Muslim community. In his note of acceptance added to the document, Reżā expressed similar sentiments, commending Maʾmūn for his efforts to remedy the wrongs previously done to the ʿAlids and promising to treat the ʿAbbasids justly if he should succeed to the caliphate. That Fażl b. Sahl had to be reassured with respect to the caliph’s decision is indicated by the fact that Maʾmūn on the same day wrote another letter lauding the vizier’s past services and granting him and his brother Ḥasan unrestricted powers as well as additional compensation in money, jewels, and land and the right to retire with full honors at any time he might desire.

The relations between Maʾmūn and Reżā in Marv were close; Reżā is reported to have stayed in a house adjoining the caliph’s residence, and they appear to have visited each other daily. Maʾmūn evidently desired that Reżā should immediately share in the rule and in all official ceremonial. Reżā, however, is reported to have stipulated that he would not participate in the business of state. He was given his own police force (šoraṭ) and guard (ḥaras) under commanders belonging to the Khorasanian loyalists of Maʾmūn as well as a chamberlain (ḥāǰeb) and a secretary (kāteb). The caliph relied on his judgment in religious questions and arranged for debates between him and Muslim scholars as well as the leaders of other religious communities. At the beginning of the year 202/late summer, 817, the ties between the caliph and Reżā were further strengthened as marriages were contracted between Reżā and Maʾmūn’s daughter Omm Ḥabīb, between Reżā’s son Moḥammad (who was only six years old and remained in Medina) and Maʾmūn’s daughter Omm al-Fażl, and between Maʾmūn and Būrān, daughter of Ḥasan b. Sahl. Only the union between Reżā and Omm Ḥabīb took place immediately. Reżā’s relations with Fażl b. Sahl apparently were never good. According to several accounts, the vizier had been hiding from Maʾmūn the seriousness of the opposition in Iraq and it was Reżā who opened his eyes to it and urged him to return to Baghdad in order to restore peace by his presence. Reżā’s assessment of the situation being supported by several army chiefs, Maʾmūn decided to leave for Iraq. Fażl b. Sahl whose aim it had been to keep the capital in the east, offered his resignation, pointing out the extreme hatred of the ʿAbbasids in Baghdad for him personally and requested the caliph to leave him as governor in Khorasan. Maʾmūn again assured him of his complete trust and asked him to compose another letter in the caliph’s name confirming his exceptional privileges. The letter which affirmed the caliph’s unrestricted support of the vizier and his policy and contained the full text of the previous letter, was signed by Maʾmūn in Ṣafar, 202/August-September, 817 and, at the request of Fażl, formally confirmed by Reżā. It was then sent to be published throughout the empire. Six months later, as Maʾmūn slowly moved west with his court, the vizier was murdered in Saraḵs by several army officers, on 2 Šaʿbān 202/12 February 818. The caliph ordered their execution, while they claimed to have acted under his order. When he reached Ṭūs, Reżā fell ill and died after a few days, according to the most reliable accounts on the last day of Ṣafar, 203/September 818. Other dates mentioned range from Ṣafar, 202/September, 817 to Ḏu’l-qaʿda, 203/May, 819. The caliph asked a group of ʿAlid relatives of Reżā, including his uncle Moḥammad b. Jaʿfar, to examine his body in order to have their testimony that he had died a natural death and ordered that he be buried next to the tomb of his own father, Hārūn al-Rašīd, in the house of Ḥomayd b. Qaḥṭaba in Sanābād near Nawqān. He displayed extreme grief and is reported to have walked bareheaded in the funeral procession and to have stayed on the grave for three days. Nevertheless, most of the sources charge him with having poisoned Reżā. The sudden demise of both the vizier and the heir-apparent, whose presence would have made any reconciliation with the powerful ʿAbbasid opposition in Baghdad virtually impossible, must indeed arouse strong suspicion that Maʾmūn had had a hand in the deaths. This does not mean that his grief for the ʿAlid, towards whom he seems to have a deep sense of veneration and attachment, was insincere. But as on other occasions in his reign, cold political calculation appears to have outweighed his personal sentiments and ideal.

Emāmī tradition ascribes to Imam ʿAlī al-Reżā numerous miracles demonstrating his foreknowledge of deaths and other events, his ability to read the minds of his visitors, to interpret dreams, and to strike bars of gold out of the earth, his healing power, his knowledge of all human and animal languages, and the fulfillment of his prayers. Several short works are attributed to him:

1. Al-Resālat al-ḏahabīya (or al-moḏahhaba) fi’l-ṭebb, a treatise on medical cures and the maintenance of good health which is said to have been written for the caliph Manṣūr at his request (text edited in Bombay and fully quoted in Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār LXII, pp. 308-28). It was named “the golden treatise” because Maʾmūn ordered it to be written with gold ink. Among the Emāmī bibliographers of the 5th/11th century it was known through the initial transmission of Moḥammad b. Ḥasan b. Jomhūr ʿAmmī, a Basran Emāmī transmitter considered unreliable and extremist. A number of commentaries have been written to it and it has been translated into Persian and Urdu. 2. Ṣaḥīfat al-Reżā, a collection of 240 Hadiths initially transmitted by ʿAbdallāh b. Aḥmad b. ʿĀmer from his father Aḥmad, who stated to have heard it from Reżā in 194/809-10. ʿAbdallāh b. Aḥmad b. ʿĀmer is mentioned by Naǰāšī as the transmitter of a nosḵa from Reżā. 3. Feqh al-Reżā. This book was unknown among Emāmī scholars until the 10th/16th century, when a group of scholars from Qom brought a copy of it containing numerous eǰāzas to Mecca. It was judged to be authentic by the two Maǰlesīs but later Emāmī scholars were divided about it, the majority considering its authenticity as doubtful. It has been convincingly argued by S. Ḥ. Ṣadr that the greater part of the book is taken from the otherwise lost Ketāb al-taklīf of the Emāmī heretic Moḥammad b. ʿAlī Šalmaḡānī (d. 322/934; see his “Faṣl al-qażāʾ fi’l-ketāb al-moštahar be Feqh al-Reżā,” in Āšnāyī bā čand nosḵa-ye ḵaṭṭī I, Qom, 1396/1976, pp. 389-442). Other works attributed to Reżā are listed in Aʿyān al-šīʿa IV/2, pp. 180ff., and Sezgin, GAS I, p. 536. Shiʿite sources also contain detailed description of his debates on religious questions and quotations of his sayings and his poetry.


See also Ḵalīfa b. Ḵayyāṭ, Taʾrīḵ, ed., A. Żīāʾ ʿOmarī, Baghdad, 1386/1967, pp. 508ff.

Ebn Ḥabīb, Asmaʾ al-moḡtālīn, ed. ʿA. Hārūn, in Nawāder al-maḵṭūṭāt, 2nd ed., Cairo, 1393/1973, II, pp. 201f.

Yaʿqūbī, II, pp. 544f., 550f.

Nawbaḵtī, Feraq al-šīʿa, ed. H. Ritter, Istanbul, 1931, pp. 67-74.

Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1000, 1012ff., 1025ff., 1029ff.

Kolaynī, al-Kāfī, ed. ʿA. A. Ḡaffārī, Tehran, 1381/1961, I, pp. 311-19, 486-92.

Masʿūdī, Morūǰ II, pp. 3, 59-62.

Idem, Tanbīh, pp. 349ff.

Abu’l-Faraǰ Eṣfahānī, Maqātel al-ṭālebīyīn, ed. A. Ṣaqr, Cairo, 1368/1948-49, pp. 561-72.

Aḡānī1 IX, pp. 25ff.; XVIII, pp. 29, 42ff.

Baḷʿamī, Chronique IV, pp. 508-18.

Ebn Bābūya, ʿOyūn aḵbār al-Reżā, ed. M. Ḥ. Āḵūndī, Qom, 1377/1957-58.

Mofīd, al-Eršād, ed. K. Mūsawī Mīāmavī, Tehran, 1377/1957-58, pp. 284-96.

Samʿānī (Hyderabad), VI, pp. 139ff.

Ebn al-Jawzī, Taḏkerat al-ḵawāṣṣ, Naǰaf, 1383/1963-64, pp. 351-58.

Ebn Ḵallekān (Beirut) III, pp. 269-71.

Erbelī, Kašf al-ḡomma, ed. E. Mīānǰī, Tabrīz, 1381/1961-62, III, pp. 70-184.

Ebn Ḥaǰar, Tahḏīb al-tahḏīb, Hyderabad, 1325-27/1907-09, VII, pp. 387-89.

Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, Tehran, 1956-, XXXIX.

F. Gabrieli, Al-Maʾmūn e gli ʿAlidi, Leipzig, 1929, pp. 35ff.

D. M. Donaldson, The Shiite Religion, London, 1933, pp. 161-69.

H. E. Ḥasan, “al-Maʾmūn wa-ʿAlī al-Reżā,” Maǰallat kollīyat al-ādāb, Cairo, 1, 1933, pp. 84-94.

Aʿyān al-šīʿa IV/2, pp. 77-214.

D. Sourdel, “La politique religieuse du Calife ʿAbbaside al-Maʾmūn,” REI 30, 1962, pp. 33ff.

W. Madelung, “New Documents concerning al-Maʾmūn, al-Faḍl b. Sahl and ʿAlī al-Riḍā,” in Studia Arabica et Islamica: Festschrift for Iḥsān ʿAbbās, ed. W. al-Qāḍī, Beirut, 1981, pp. 333-46.

(W. Madelung)

Originally Published: December 15, 1985

Last Updated: August 1, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 877-880

Cite this entry:

W. Madelung, “ʿALĪ AL-REŻĀ,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/8, pp. 877-880, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ali-al-reza (accessed on 30 December 2012).