Was Ma’mun al-Abbasi Shia?

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SHAFAQNA – via WikiShia : Abu l-ʿAbbās ʿAbd Allāh al-Maʾmūn (Arabic:ابوالعباس عبدالله المأمون), (b. 170/786 – d. 218/833) the son of Harun al-Rashid, was the 7th caliph of Abbasid dynasty who forced Imam al-Riza (a.s.), the eighth Imam of shia muslims, to accept his succession, but later one, martyred the Imam.

The 17 of the month of Rajab is the anniversary of his death. On this occasion, SHAFAQNA reviews one of the controversial issues around his personality, i.e. his possible shiisme.

Al-Ma’mun’s tendency to Shiism has been a controversial issue between Shiite and Sunni historians as well as Orientalists. The Shi’as have always been pessimist about Abbasid caliphs, including al-Ma’mun, although he was more knowledgeable than other Abbasid caliphs and displayed Shiistic tendencies. Thus, they reject his Shiism as believed by Shiite Imams. However, some Sunni sources have emphasized al-Ma’mun’s Shiism. For instance, al-Dhahabi, Ibn Kathir, and Ibn Khaldun explicitly held that al-Ma’mun was a Shi’a. In some cases, they regarded the Abbasid government as a Shiite government. Al-Suyuti has also cited that al-Ma’mun was a Shi’a.

It was not only after his death that al-Ma’mun was considered as a Shiite. Even during his caliphate, his tendency towards some Shiite beliefs led to the thought that he was a Shiite. In some cases, his policies and actions in favor of Imam Ali’s (a.s.) progeny werer followed by accusations that called him a Rafidi, made by his own Abbasid relatives residing in Baghdad.

 

Arguments proving al-Ma’mun’s Shiism

In historical sources, there are reports about al-Ma’mun’s policies and actions during his caliphate which imply his Shiistic tendencies. Here are some of such actions:

Offering the caliphate and succession to Imam ‘Ali’s (a) progeny: those who claim that al-Ma’mun was a Shiite believe that the offer to assign the caliphate to Imam al-Rida (a) by al-Ma’mun was grounded in his approximately Mu’tazili and Shiite mindset, especially the belief in the superiority of Imam ‘Ali (a). Moreover, al-Ma’mun’s mother was Persian and believed in Imam ‘Ali (a) and his progeny and al-Ma’mun was raised among Persians, especially people of Khorasan, and this led to his Shiistic tendencies. Advocates of this view claim that al-Ma’mun pledged to God that if he defeats his brother, he will assign the caliphate to the most virtuous person from ‘Ali’s (a) progeny. Thus, after defeating al-Amin, he kept his promise and selected Imam al-Rida (a) as his successor. This action by al-Ma’mun led some historians, such as al-Suyuti, to take him to be an extremist shiite.

 

Returning Fadak to the progeny of the dame Fatima (a): after returning to Baghdad and fully establishing his government, al-Ma’mun decided to return Fadak to the progeny of Fatima (a), despite severe oppositions. Thus, he invited 200 scholars to a meeting and asked them to express their views about Fadak. After hearing different views, they concluded that Fadak belonged to Fatima (a) and should, thus, be returned to its original heirs. Pressures by opponents led al-Ma’mun to hold another meeting with a greater number of scholars comng from the whole Islamic territory. The conclusion was still the same. Thus, in 210/825, he wrote to Qutham b. Ja’far, the ruler of Medina, to return Fadak to the progeny of Fatima (a). According to some researchers, beacuse the usurpation of Fadak was always a political instrument by caliphs to exert pressure on Ahl al-Bayt (a) and Shi’as, returning Fadak by al-Ma’mun shows his tendency to Ahl al-Bayt (a).

 

Permitting temporary marriage: mut’a or temporary marriage is a matter of dispute between Shiites and Sunnites. When ‘Umar b. al-Khattab prohibited temporary marriage, subsequent caliphs as well as many Sunni scholars prohibited it, but al-Ma’mun permitted temporary marriage, despite oppositions. When Yahya b. Aktham, al-Ma’mun’s chief justice and a Sunni scholar, told al-Ma’mun that Imam Ali (a) also had prohibited temporary marriage, he withdrew from its permissibility out of respect for Imam Ali (a).

 

Official announcement of the superiority of Imam Ali (a) over caliphs: according to reliable Shiite and Sunni sources, al-Ma’mun held a meeting with 40 prominent Sunni scholars of the time and debated the superiority of Imam ‘Ali (a) over other caliphs with them. He won the debate and they admitted the superiority of Imam ‘Ali (a) after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad (s). Moreover, in 212/827, al-Ma’mun announced the superiority of Imam ‘Ali (a) over Abu Bakr b. Abi Quhafa and ‘Umar b. al-Khattab. Aversion to praising Mu’awiya: in 211/826, al-Ma’mun expressed his antipathy to those who praised Mu’awiya b. Abi Sufyan, and punished such people.

 

Admission of his and his father’s Shiism: some historians reported that al-Ma’mun himself expressed his belief in Shiism. According to some reports, he told his companions that he learned Shiism from his father. He was asked: “if your father, Harun, was a Shiite, then why did he killed Ahl al-Bayt (a)?” He replied that reign is blind to fathers and children, let alone others.

 

Arguments disproving al-Ma’mun’s Shiism

Shiistic tendencies of al-Ma’mun grounded in his Mu’tazili thoughts: some opponents of the claim that al-Ma’mun was a shiite, believe that al-Ma’mun’s Shiistic tendencies were grounded in his Mu’tazili views. In that period, some of the Mu’tazila were very close in their views to Shi’as and ‘Alawis.. Like Shi’as, they believed in the superiority of Imam ‘Ali (a) over other caliphs and supported the succession of Imam al-Rida’s (a) after al-Ma’mun. According to this theory, al-Ma’mun did not offer caliphate to Imam al-Rida (a) on the basis of his belief in Twelver Shiism; rather, he did so to pretend his love of the progeny of Imam ‘Ali (a) so as to continue to have the support of Persians who loved Ahl al-Bayt (a) and to prevent ‘Alawi uprisings.

 

Al-Ma’mun’s Shiism as a general Shiism: some people have distinguished between two kinds of Shiism: Shiism as Twelver Shiism (belief in all 12 Imams); and General Shiism, that is, the belief that Imam ‘Ali (a) was the immediate successor of the Prophet (s), without following Ahl al-Bayt (a) in other beliefs and practices. Thus, the Shiism of al-Ma’mun, his father, Harun, and the rest of the Abbasids was a general Shiism.

 

Imam-killing Shia: Morteza Motahhari held that al-Ma’mun’s debate with Sunni scholars regarding the superiority of the caliphate of Imam ‘Ali (a) was unique and said: “surely no religious scholar has argued about the problem of caliphate as nicely as did al-Ma’mun. He debated about the problem of the caliphate of Amir al-Mu’minin (a) and defeated everyone”. Motahhari holds that al-Ma’mun’s Shiite tendencies are undeniable, but he was an Imam-killing Shiite, comparing it to the Shiism of people of Kufa in the period of the imamate of Imam al-Husayn (a) who ended up martyring him.

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