He was the son of Imam Mūsā bin Ja'far and his blessed name was 'Alī. His noble mother, lady Taktum- also named Najma- was one of the pious ladies of her time. His blessed title was Abulhasan and his well-known name was 'Riḍā' which had been revealed to his noble ancestors by Allah. His birthplace was Medina, the Prophet's (P.B.U.H. & H.H.) city, and his only child was Imam Muhammad Taqī (P.B.U.H.). However, there has been a dispute over the number of his children.
It is widely narrated that the Imam (P.B.U.H.) became poisoned and martyred by Ma’mūn 'Abbāsī at the end of Safar, 203 A.H. [on Sept. 9th, 818 C.E.], at the age of 55. Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) Holy Shrine in the holy city of Mashhad has won worldwide fame.
Date of Birth
Traditionists and historians believe that this holy Imam (P.B.U.H.) was born on Dhīqa'da 11th, 148 A.H. [on Jan. 2nd, 766 C.E.], the very year of Imam ṣādiq's (P.B.U.H.) demise. Some have also narrated the Imam's (P.B.U.H.) birth, five years after Imam ṣādiq's (P.B.U.H.) demise.
His Noble Mother
After Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) birth, his noble mother was named Tāhira -meaning the pure lady. She was a chaste and wise lady from non-Arab aristocrats. According to the narration, lady Taktum, Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) mother, asked for a wet nurse to help her in breast-feeding her son. She was asked whether her milk was little and answered, "No, but after giving birth to my son, I do not manage my routines of worship and prayers".
There has been a dispute over the number of Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) children among historians and traditionists. It is widely believed that Imam Jawād (P.B.U.H.) is the Imam's (P.B.U.H.) only child. According to Sheikh Mufīd and some narrations, this idea is true. Some have mentioned he had other children including a daughter named Fātima. A man named Hannān bin Sadīr said, "I asked Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.), 'Is It possible for the Imam [P.B.U.H.] to have no child or successor?' Imam replied, 'No, be aware that I will have only one child. But according to divine providence, there will be so many descendents of him'".
Childhood and Youth
History has really kept silent on the childhood and youth of ahl al-bait (P.B.U.T.) for several reasons; famous events and figures of public renown are mostly of interest to historians. The then government intended to isolate ahl al-bait (P.B.U.T.) from the rest of the society and the scientists of their time would also try to devalue the contributions of ahl al-bait (P.B.U.T.) for religious objections. These reasons left the following generations deprived of knowing about ahl al-bait's (P.B.U.T.) lives and virtues whether after their Imamate or prior to it. History tells that Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) was the center of attention of his beloved father in his childhood. Mufaḍḍal, one of the companions of Mūsā bin Ja'far (P.B.U.H.), said, "I met the Imam while his son, ‘Alī, was sitting on his lap. He hugged, kissed and put him on his shoulders and said, 'May your father be your ransom. What a pleasant scent and behavior you have! And how obvious are your virtues!' I said, 'May I be your ransom. I feel such a love for this child that I've never felt for anyone except you.' The Imam said, 'Mufaḍḍal! His position toward me is the same as my position toward my father and Allah is All-Hearing Wise.' I asked, 'Is it he who is entrusted with the affairs after you?' Imam said, 'Yes, whosoever obeys him finds the truth and whosoever disobeys him is a disbeliever' ".
Being a Religious Authority in His Youth
Being such a virtuous and knowledgeable person in his youth, Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) was the religious authority of people. Imam Kāẓim (P.B.U.H.) referred people to him and said, "This is my son whose writing is my writing, whose words are my words and whose messenger is my messenger. Everything he says is the mere truth".
Once a person told the Imam (P.B.U.H.), " 'I have a question.' The Imam said, 'Ask your Imam.' He said, 'Who do you mean? I do know no Imam except you.' The Imam said, 'He is my son, ‘Alī. I granted him my title, Abulhasan' ".
Ibn Hajar, one of the Islamic scientists of that time, said, "Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) passed judgment in the Prophet's (P.B.U.H. & H.H.) mosque when he was in his mid-twenties." Dhahabī, another Islamic scientist, said, "Imam Riḍā [P.B.U.H.] passed judgment in his youth while Mālik bin Anas, one of the four jurisprudents of the Sunnis, was one of his contemporaries".
Ethical and Social Behavior
It is narrated that when Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) wanted to meet someone, he prepared himself in the best way. Talking to people, he never disturbed them by his words or interrupted them but let them finish. The Imam (P.B.U.H.) did his best to fulfill people's desires. He did not laugh aloud but usually smiled. Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) paid lots of attention to being fragrant when he was among people. He did people so many favors and gave alms to the poor in the pitch dark. The Imam (P.B.U.H.) was really modest and humble. It is narrated that once the Imam (P.B.U.H.) was in a public bathroom when a man who did not know Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) asked him to help him bathe. The Imam (P.B.U.H.) started helping him. The people around them found that the man did not know Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) and made him aware of it. The man excused but the Imam (P.B.U.H.) went on while consoling him.
Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) treated people, specially his guests, with respect. It is narrated that once he had a guest at home. Suddenly the lantern fell over. The man wanted to repair it but the Imam (P.B.U.H.) did not let him do it and he himself repaired it and said, "We do not let our guests work".
Generosity & Magnanimity
The Imam (P.B.U.H.) was famous for his generosity. In an 'Arafa Day, he bestowed all of his properties upon people. Faḍl bin Sahl said, "This is a great loss". The Imam (P.B.U.H.) answered, "Never consider loss something which brings you reward and respect and gives you dignity". Once a man told Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.), "Grant me money as much as your own generosity". The Imam (P.B.U.H.) said, "I am not able to do so." Then the man said, "So grant me as much as my generosity''. The Imam (P.B.U.H.) answered, "I can do this". Then he ordered to grant him 200 dinars." Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) paid special attention to the needy. It is a point strongly emphasized and recommended in Islam. Fulfilling the requirements of the needy is strongly recommended in the Holy Qur'an and the Infallibles' (P.B.U.T.) words, and its merits are also preached. A brief glance at Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) biography is indicative of this fact that the Imam (P.B.U.H.) had particular attention to helping the poor. Mu'ammar bin Khallād said, "At mealtimes, Imam Riḍā [P.B.U.H.] was used to put a plate beside him, serve some of the best food, order to give it to the poor".
Clemency and Patience
The Imam's (P.B.U.H.) clemency and patience with Ma’mūn, the 'Abbāsīd caliph, and his mysterious and hypocritical politics after passing the vice-gerency to him by force, represents the enormous patience of the Imam (P.B.U.H.).
Yāsir, the domestic servant of one of the tradition narrators, said, "On a Friday, when the Imam [P.B.U.H.] was coming back from the mosque with beads of sweat and dust on him, he raised his hands to pray and said, "O' Allah! If death brings me relief from the current situation, hurry to bring me death at this very moment".
This tradition shows how mournful and unhappy Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) felt for aggressive behavior of Ma’mūn and his political system, during his vice-gerency. To obey Allah's command, the Imam (P.B.U.H.) kept silent on all pain and misery with forbearance and fortitude.
It is narrated that Muhammad Ibn 'Ibāda asked the Imam (P.B.U.H.), "Why did you postpone and refuse to do what Amīr al-Mu'minīn [Ma’mūn] told you?" The Imam (P.B.U.H.) answered, "What do you mean by that? If governmental affairs are returned to us [their rightful owners], as you say, and you will be as you are now, you will not take any advantage and will be like others".
By giving such an answer, Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) made him aware of the fact that there is no advantage to accept the vice-gerency as long as the caliphate would not be totally passed to him. Finding a sad expression on his face by the answer, the Imam (P.B.U.H.) indicated to his own governing principles in case of taking power. The Imam (P.B.U.H.) let him know that, in his time, nobody would be given an advantage over the others. He also considered it essential that equality, justice, and rules would be enforced by the government itself.
Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) Noble Personality in Thinkers' Words
Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) leadership (Imamate) makes us aware of his great status but quoting words of popular thinkers also has a great effect on getting people more familiar with the Imam (P.B.U.H.). Ma’mūn 'Abbāsī was a great scientist of his time and the Imam's (P.B.U.H.) enemy but he said about him, "I know no one superior to this man on earth." Jamāl al-Dīn Ahmad ibn 'Alī Nisāba known as Ibn 'Inaba said, "Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) whose title was Abulhasan was unique among Abū Tālib's (P.B.U.H.) descendents, in his time". Dhahabī whose deviation from ahl al-bait's (P.B.U.T.) path is obvious said, "He was the master of Banī Hāshim [the clan of Hāshim] and the wisest and most patient of all, in his time". Abāṣalt Hirawī, a famous scientist of his time, said, "I've seen no one more knowledgeable than ‘Alī Ibn Mūsā al-Riḍā [P.B.U.H.]. There was no scientist to meet him and not to confirm what I said".
The Imam's (P.B.U.H.) Knowledge
Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) inherited his knowledge from his ancestor, the Prophet (P.B.U.H. & H.F.). He was the reliable source of knowledge and virtues who the people thirsty for knowledge could enjoy his merits, quench their thirst and solve their dilemmas. History tells about the Imam's (P.B.U.H.) scientific debates and intellectual challenges that have led Islam to victory over its enemies. It is narrated by Ibrāhīm Ibn 'Abbās ṣūlī, "I've never seen Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) was asked a question that could not answer and I've never ever seen anybody wiser than him".
There is no doubt that the Infallibles (P.B.U.T.) were most uninterested in this material world and led an austere life. This made them avoid caring about wealth and power. In their views, austerity is not just limited to wearing plain uncomfortable (rough) clothes or having simple meals but it is something wider in concept. A real pious is one who never lets ephemeral pleasures, or worldly joys persuade him and prevail upon his soul. The narrator of Nathr al-Durar said, "A group of Sufis visited Imam Riḍā [P.B.U.H.] in Khurāsān and claimed, 'Contemplating what he is entrusted by Allah, commander of the faithful (Ma'mūn) realized that no one can best deserve the leadership of the nation but, you, ahl al-bait (Muhammad's descendants). He then selected you as the most deserving one among them and decided to return caliphate to you. Now, the nation needs a leader to wear rough clothes, have simple meals, and such like' ". The narrator added, "Leaning back, the Imam sat up straight and said, 'Joseph was a prophet but he was wearing the silk robe with gold buttons and leaning back on the cushion in pharaohs' meetings. Woe on you! The Imam is expected nothing but justice, isn't he? If he says a word, it is right .If he makes a judgment, it is on the basis of justice, and if he makes a promise, he fulfils it ' ".
Being Aware of His Martyrdom and His Resting Place
His holiness frequently made people aware of his martyrdom by Ma'mūn in detail. Sometimes, the Imam (P.B.U.H.) stated, "I go on a trip to Khurāsān in which there is no return". The narrator said, "Called by Ma'mūn from Medina to Merv to be his vice-gerency, Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) went to the Prophet's (P.B.U.H. & H.F.) shrine weeping aloud to bid farewell to him". The narrator also added, "I said hello to the Imam and congratulated him on his vice-gerency". The Imam (P.B.U.H.) said, "I will be taken away from my beloved ancestor, the Prophet (P.B.U.H. & H.F.). I will die in loneliness [exile] and will be buried beside Hārūn". It was why he ordered to cry for him while leaving Medina. Ma’mūn pretended that he was interested in the Imam and defended Imam ‘Alī's leadership (Imamate) in various circles. Imam Riḍā [P.B.U.H.] told his friends, "You should not be deceived by Ma'mūn's words. I swear to Allah nobody kills me except him. There is no remedy except following divine providence". The narrator wrote somewhere else, "I saw Hārūn, the 'Abbāsīd caliph, and the Imam leaving through two different doors of Masjid al-Harām and the Imam (P.B.U.H.) said, "How far from home and how soon will be the meeting! Țūs will bring me and him together". We know that Hārūn's tomb is beside the Imam's (P.B.U.H.). Sometimes, when Hārūn delivered a speech in Medina's mosque, Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) said, "Once you will find me and him buried in a room. Putting his index finger and the middle one together, sometimes, he said, 'Hārūn and I are the same as these two'. I did not understand what the Imam [P.B.U.H.] meant until when the Imam [P.B.U.H.] was buried beside Hārūn".