By: Ali Azhar Arastu
The time of the Imam, peace be on him, is famous for the debates and arguments which spread among the great figures of religions, of Islamic schools, and of other ideologies.
Al-Ma�mun, the Abbasid Caliph appointed Imam al-Ridha, (as), as his heir apparent. However, he was not sincere in this purpose nor did he believe that the Imam was more appropriate than him for the caliphate. He (al-Ma�mun) ordered all his governors in Islamic world to summon the great (religious) scholars, who were experienced in different kinds of science, to go to Khurasan in order to question the Imam about the most difficult scientific matters. When they came to him (al-Ma�mun), he mentioned the matter before them and promised to enrich those who would question the Imam and render him incapable of answering them. Generally speaking, he appointed him as his heir apparent for the following political reasons:
1. Al-Ma�mun intended to destroy the beliefs of the Shi�ites and to efface their traces. He wanted the religious scholars to render Imam al-Ridha, peace be on him, incapable of answering them, that he might use his incapability as means to cancel the beliefs of the Shi�ites, who maintained that the Imam should be the most learned of the people of his time and most knowledgeable of them in all kinds of science. Of course, if the Imam had been incapable of disproving the scholars� beliefs, he would have shaken the entity of the Shi’ites and abrogated their beliefs in the Imams of the members of the House, Ahl al-Bayt, peace be on them.
2. If the Imam had been unable to answer the questions of the religious scholars, al-Ma�mun would have been able to remove him from regency. In other words al-Ma�mun would have been able to achieve his political aims through the Imam, for he had told the people that he nominated him for that important office because he was the most learned of the community.
Meanwhile, his mass media would have announced that the Imam had fallen short of answering the scholars� questions so that it might respond to the Abbasid family�s feelings. Anyhow, the leading scholars had prepared the most difficult questions and asked the Imam about them, and he skilfully answered them. The narrators have mentioned: �He (Imam al-Ridha) was asked about more than twenty thousand questions in different times to the extent that al-Ma�mun�s palace became a scientific centre, that the leading scholars admired the Imam�s talents and abilities, that they announced to the people the Imam�s great abilities in knowledge and excellence, and that most of them believed in his Imamate. 76
The following are some extracts of some of the debates:
Debate with Abu Qurra
�Where is Allah?� asked Abu Qurra.
Imam al-Ridha (as) answered, �The �where� is a place. This is the question of one who is present about one who is absent. As for Allah, the Most High is not absent; nor was there an eternal thing before Him. He is everywhere. He is Director, Creator, Keeper, the Holder of the heavens and the earth.�77
Debate with the catholic
Among others, al-Ma�mun also invited Zoroastrian Priests, Rabbi�s, Catholic Archbishop to debate with Imam al-Ridha. When they all arrived in the palace, al-Fadl b. Sahl went in a hurry to the Imam (as) and said to him: �May I be your ransom, your cousin (i.e. al-Ma�mun) is waiting for you. The people have gathered. What is your view of going to him?�
The Imam answered him that he was ready to attend (the session) and that he was going to al-Ma�mun. The session was attended by the Ta�libiyyin, the Ha�shimites, the military commanders, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. When the Imam came, al-Ma�mun and all those who were in the session stood up for him and welcomed him with honour. The Imam sat while the people were still standing in order to show respect for him. Al-Ma�mun ordered them to sit and they sat down. All the people in the session kept silent as a sign of respect for the Imam, and then al-Ma�mun turned to the Catholic Archbishop and said to him: �Catholic, this is my cousin Ali b. Musa b. Jafar. He is one of the children of Fatemah, daughter of our Prophet (sawa) and of Ali b. Abu Talib (as). I would like you to debate with him on theology, argue with him, and show justice toward him.�
�Commander of the faithful, how can I argue with a man who argues with me through a Book which we have denied and a Prophet whom I do not believe in?� asked the Catholic.
The Catholic thought that the Imam, peace be on him, would produce evidence in support of his beliefs through some verses of the Holy Qur�an or through some words of the Messenger (sawa). As he had no faith in the Qur�anic verses and the Prophetic traditions, he asked the Imam to give proof of his beliefs from their own Books, and the Imam answered him saying: �Christian, if I give proof from your Gospel, will you admit it?�
�Yes,� retorted the Catholic, �By Allah, I will admit it. Can l repel what the Bible speaks about?�
Imam al-Ridha (as) proved to the Catholic from the Bible that Prophet Muhammad and his family has been mentioned in the Bible. He also named the disciples of Nabi Isa (as).
Later the Holy Imam al-Ridha (as) added, saying: �By Allah, we believe in �Isa who believed in Muhammad (sawa). We have nothing against �Isa except his weakness and the paucity of his fasting and prayer.�
When the Catholic heard the last words of the Imam�s statement, he shouted: �By Allah, you have corrupted your knowledge! Your affair has become weak! I thought that you were the most learned of the Muslims!�
The Imam faced him calmly, asking: �Why?�
The Catholic lost his mind, so he began saying: �Because of your statement (which is) that �Isa was weak with little fasting and praying, (while) �Isa never broke fasting by day and never slept by night. He always fasted by day and prayed by night.�
The Imam got ready to disprove the Christian belief which said that Nabi Isa (as) was a god other than Allah and was served! He asked the Catholic: �For whom did he (Nabi Isa) fast and pray?� (In other words Imam al-Ridha (as) asked the Catholic, �if you claim that Nabi Isa worshipped, then who did he worship? If you claim that he was a god?�)
The Catholic did not answer, not knowing what to say. So the Imam turned to him, saying: �I want to ask you a question.�
�Ask,� Said the Catholic, �I will answer you if I have knowledge of it.�
Imam al-Ridha (as) asked, �Did you not deny that �Isa gave life to the dead with Allah�s permission?�
�I had denied that before,� the Catholic answered, �he who gives life to the dead, heals the blind and the leprous is a lord worthy of being served.�
The Imam (as) disproved his statement, saying: �Indeed al-Yasa� did just as �Isa, peace be on him, did: he walked on the water, gave life to the dead, and healed the blind and the leprous. Why did his community not adopt him as a lord? Why did not anyone serve him (as a god) other than Allah? He gave life to thirty-five men sixty years after their death. This (statement) is in the Torah. None denies it except an unbeliever.�
The Catholic admired the Imam�s knowledge of their Books, and then he said: �We have heard of it and recognized it.�
Imam al-Ridha (as) continued, �If you have adopted �Isa as a lord, then it is permissible for you to adopt al-Yasa� and Hizqal as two lords, for they did just as �Isa b. Maryam did such as giving life to the dead. You cannot deny all these things which I have mentioned to you, for the Torah, the Bible, the Zabur (David�s Psalms) the Furqa`n (Qur�a`n) have mentioned them�.
The Imam criticized the Christians for their adopting Jesus (as) as a lord other than Allah, for he gave life to the dead, healed the blind and the leprous, while such miracles happened through the master of the prophets, the Messenger (sawa) and through some great prophets, but they were not adopted and served as lords other than Allah, the Most High.
After the Catholic Archbishop had heard these brilliant words of the Imam, he addressed him, saying: �My view agrees with yours, and there is no god but Allah.�78
Imam al-Ridha (as) continued and brought up a lot of points from the Bible. The Catholic admired the Imam and confessed to him that he had no knowledge of all that, saying: �This I did not know and now I have learned from you things with which I was familiar and to which my heart testifies to be the truth. I have, therefore, gained a better understanding.�79
Debate with Rabbi
Before starting the debate the Rabbi put forward a condition that Imam al-Ridha should base his arguments on the Torah, Bible and Zabur only. The Imam agreed to this condition, saying: �Do not accept any proof from me except what the Torah says by the tongue of Musa`, the Bible by the tongue of �Isa b. Maryam, and the Zabur by the tongue of Dawud, peace be on them.�
After proving that Prophet Muhammad is mentioned in the Torah and Zabur, Imam al-Ridha said to the Rabbi, �I want to question you about your prophet Musa`.�
�Question,� was the answer.
�What is the evidence for the Prophethood of Musa`?� asked the Imam.
The Rabbi began producing evidence in support of the Prophethood of Musa, saying: �He brought what the prophets before him had not brought.�
�Could you give me an example of what he brought?� asked the Imam.
The Rabbi replied: �He split the sea, turned the cane into a running snake, cleaved the rocks so that springs gushed forth from them, took out his hand shinning white for the onlookers, and other signs the like of which the creature are unable to bring.�
The Imam confirmed his statement, saying: �You are right; they are proof of his Prophethood. He brought the like of which the creatures were unable to bring. Is it obligatory on you to believe him who claims Prophethood and performs something which all creatures are unable to perform?�
The Jew denied the Imam�s statement, saying: �No, because there is none like Musa`, because of his position with his Lord and his nearness to Him. It is not incumbent on us to profess the Prophethood of him who claims it unless he brings us knowledge similar to that brought by Musa.�
The Imam disproved the Jew�s statement, saying: �Then how come you admit the prophethood of the other prophets who preceded Musa` who did not split the sea; nor did they cleave the stone so that twelve springs would gush forth from them; nor did they take their hands out shining white as Musa did; nor did they turn the rod into a snake running.�
The Jew replied: �I told you that if they performed signs as evidence for their Prophethood all other creation were unable to perform, if they brought something the like of which Musa had brought or they followed what Musa had brought, then it is incumbent on us to believe them.�
The Imam, peace be on him, disproved his argument, saying: �High Rabbi, what has prevented you from professing (the Prophethood of) �Isa b. Maryam who brought the dead to life, healed the blind and the leprous, determined out of dust like the form of a bird, then he breathed into it and it became bird with Allah�s permission?�
The Jew dodged and said: �It is said that he did that, but we did not see it.�
The Imam answered him with a conclusive argument, saying: �Did you see the signs which Musa performed? Weren�t Musa�s trustworthy companions who gave an account of that?�
�Yes,� came the answer.
The Imam forced him (to admit that) through a decisive argument, and then he said: �In this manner the successive accounts about what �Isa` b. Maryam had done also came to you. So why do you believe in Musa and do not believe in �Isa`?�
The High Rabbi kept silent, and feebleness appeared on his face, for the Imam had closed before him all avenues of argument and established a decisive proof against him. The Imam, peace be on him, added: �Such is the matter of Muhammed, may Allah bless him and his family, what he brought, and every prophet whom Allah sent. Among his (Muhammed�s) signs are: He was a poor orphan and wage shepherd. He did not learn (reading and writing); nor he studied under a teacher. Then he brought the Qur�an in which are the stories of the prophets, peace be on them, and their accounts letter for letter, and which reports about the bygone (communities) and those who will remain until the Day of Resurrection. Then it gives accounts of their secrets and what they did in their houses; therein are many verses (in this connection).�80
Some of them after the debate accepted Islam, for example al-Sabi�i.
Al-Sabi�i becomes Muslim
�Umran al-Sabi�i acknowledged the many scientific abilities of the Imam, peace be on him, such as his definitive answers to the most difficult philosophical questions, which none were able to answer except the divine successors of the prophets whom Allah endowed with knowledge and sound judgment. Accordingly, he embraced Islam and began saying: �I witness that Allah, the Most High, is as you have described, and witness that Muhammed, may Allah bless him and his family, is His Servant sent with guidance and the religion of the truth.�
Then he prostrated himself in prayer before Allah and submitted to Him. The religious scholars and the theologians admired the Imam�s knowledge and talents, hence they told the people about his excellence and abundant knowledge. As for al-Ma�mun, he drowned in pain, harboured malice against the Imam, envied him, and then left the session.81
Some points to ponder about
Are any such debates found in the history of the Ismaili/Fatimid Imams?
The divinely appointed Imams had thorough knowledge of not only Quran but the other heavenly books too! Any such examples found among the Ismaili/Fatimid imams?
The divinely appointed Imams could speak all languages. Any such examples found among the Ismaili/Fatimid Imams?
The divine Imams after Imam Ali al-Ridha (as) are as follows: Imam Mohammed Taqi (as), Imam Ali Naqi (as), Imam Hasan Al Askari (as) & the 12th Imam Mohammed Al Mahdi (atfs)
A simple study of the lives, sayings, and the worship of all these Imams is available easily now on the internet and in books and can suffice to prove that these are the divine leaders.
76. The Life of Imam Ali Ibn Musa al-Ridha, pp. 158-159
77. The Life of Imam Ali Ibn Musa al-Ridha, p. 195
78. The Life of Imam Ali Ibn Musa al-Ridha p 199 -204
79. The Life of Imam Ali Ibn Musa al-Ridha p 206
80. The Life of Imam Ali Ibn Musa al-Ridha, pp. 208-212
81. The Life of Imam Ali Ibn Musa al-Ridha, pp. 174-175