The Lives of the Imams – al-Kazim and al-Rida

Compare the Twelver Shi’i accounts of the lives of al-Kazim and al-Rida to those of non-Shi’i sources. In the process, identify similarities or differences that you feel are particularly important

The non Shi’i and Shi’i discourse on the lives of the Imams can be distinguished in the tone and texture of each perspective, which is not to say that there is not any overlapping concensus between the two. There are many similarities in the Sunni and Shia accounts on the lives of Imam Musa Kazim and Imam Ali Rida. Both seem to be revered in the Shia and non-Shia agreed upon their forebearance and piety. (Mufid, Kohlberg)

However the non-Shia biographies are much less reverent and rationalized than the Shia ones. Cooperson for example talks about the ‘contentious atmosphere’ , ‘conflicting alliances and loyalties which arose over the successive claims of Imamate. From such accounts one gets a sense that there existed intense and common place debates over the nature and identity of the Imams. One does not really find this perspective in the Shi’i writings . Some of the generalized assertions made such as that the ‘Imam is interchangeable with his predecessors and successors’ and much of what one says could be attributed any other Imams or that the Twelver biography not grounded in historical accuracy and are ‘mythographic’, obviously diverge dramatically from the Shia narratives. In this sense Cooperson shows how the  Shia sources resemble Christian hagiography production with the difference being that Shi’i use precise dates and transmission (isnads) for ‘polemical purposes’.

The Shi’i narratives follow a more linear progression which sometimes seem to gloss over any discrepancies that would unsettle the offical narratives. They focus instead on the theological  aspects of the Imamate such as their knowledge (ilm), designation (nass) or their infalliability (isma). In the Shi’i narratives God had ordained the creation and succession of the Imamate before the universe was created, therefore it was not up for a human to question it. (Mufid) In the Shi’i narratives the Imam’s became manifestly more powerful and more powers became attributed to the Imam with the increased questioning of their positions. Such discussion is markedly different from the tone of the non-Shi’i accounts which assert that the Imam’s were met with ‘scorn and persecution’, the Imams  ‘struggled to give immediate proofs to their imamate’ or that they ‘exerted themselves to restrain the followers claims’ of their supernatural powers. (Cooperson)  

The Shi’i narratives surrounding the life of Imam Musa Kazim present him as a pious, restrained and forebearing man who had knowledge of the future. (Mufid) They also present a somewhat fatalistic view of the Imam in which he silently perseveres through the tragedies that befall him and turns his imprisonment into an agentative condition which protected the Shi’i from an unjust ruler. (Kohlberg, Mufid) In the non Shi’i accounts he is also portrayed as a learned man who is greatly respected , specially given his status as a transmitter of Prophetic traditions.(Kohlberg) In this regard his persona in historical terms is far less controversial that that of his son Imam Ali Rida, whose Imamate seems to be riddled with difficulties. The accounts of the circumstances surrounding his death however provide the most room for debate within both the Shi’i and non-Shi’i narratives. The Shia narratives are structured to portray his death as a willful act of subservience to God, while the non-Shia narratives question his fore-knowledge which seemed unlikely given the way that he is said to have died.  

It is really interesting to find that with regards to Imam Rida the early non-shiite or even Shi’i historians ‘say nothing about him’ and that there was manifest repudiation within the Imami Shi’i concerning his position.( Cooperson). Rida’s imamate was clearly a matter of dispute and his reputation went through different stages before it became crystalized in a canonical form. His  reputation apparently spread through the various efforts of his associates. This was specially so from a group of Kazim’s followers, the Waqifiya who  refuse to acknowledge him. This could possibly be because his transmitters were strictly Shiites and he was rejected by the Sunnis.( Madelung) Non-Sunni accounts show how he struggled to make his claim persuasive in that  ‘he strove to guide his followers, persuade doubters, refute opponents and bring malcontents back into the fold’. The Shi’i and non Shi’i sources also diverge over the assessment of the antagonists such as Caliph Mamun. While it has been pointed out that there was an absence of credible reports of Mamun’s guilt in the death of Ali Rida even in shia sources and that he held pro-Alid views until the end of his life. 

Many detailed traditions in the Shi’i accounts about Imam Rida are openly refuted by the non-Shia versions such as the fact that he visited Qom or made ‘miraculous visits’ to Kufa and Basra to visit his followers. (Mufid) Most non Shi’i versions deny Shia sources like Mufid and believe that he had not traveled from Medina until his trip to the Khorasan and even argue that the name Rida was given to him by Mamun not his father. ( Madelung)  Sunni historians have gone as far as to claim that the Shi’i had ‘fabricated lies’ about him. (Cooperson)

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