The history of social and political life of Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) is associated with many ups and downs which have been discussed by historians and different views have been expressed about their causes and qualities. Inviting the Imam (P.B.U.H.) to Marw and offering caliphate to him and then the quality of accepting the vice-regency of Abbasid caliphate are of among these waves of change which are regarded as the most significant issues of Islamic history at the beginning of 9th century C.E.
Although Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) coming to Marw and accepting the vice-regency of Ma'mūn were done reluctantly, this act of the Imam (P.B.U.H.) expresses his social and political characteristics which have manifested itself in the life of his holiness. This essay seeks to reveal part of social and political characteristics of His Holiness.
Imamate is an ideological principal and a strong pillar of our Islam. Since in Shiite culture, Imamate is the symbol of monotheistic sovereignty, the continuation of prophetic mission and policy. These are Immaculate Imams (P.B.U.T.) who took up this burdensome mission and tried to accomplish their mission by understanding the prevailing difficulties and challenges of the Islamic society in their own times. And to do this important task, they allocated their existential assets. Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) described this fact in the following words:
"Imam [P.B.U.H.] is the head of the religion, the basis for Muslims' uniting and organizing, the cause of the reformation of the world and respectfulness of the faithful. Because this is Imam [P.B.U.H.] who observes the limits set by Allah, defends Allah's religion and calls people to his Creator with good exhortations and clear proofs."
It needs to be said that it is this universal and comprehensive mission that all Imams (P.B.U.T.) have undertaken and depended on the circumstances of their time accomplished their own missions; but among them all, Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) life had special conditions which caused the social and political life of his holiness to be prominent. Now we want to turn to these two aspects of his life separately as far as we can.
First Part: Social Character of Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.)
Studying Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) social and political characteristics from the beginning of the period of Imamate until his martyrdom, which coincide with the reigns of Hārūn, Amīn and Ma'mūn, are remarkable. However, since political events and Imam's (P.B.U.H.) strategies against them are mostly seen during the reign of Ma'mūn and the period of Vice-regency, his holiness' political character will be discussed in this very part of time; as the social character of his holiness can be discussed mostly during the reigns of Hārūn and Amīn and also during his historical emigration to Marw and his debates with theologians and scholars from different schools of thought.
1. The Social Standing of Imam (P.B.U.H.)during the Reign of Hārūn
Until the beginning of the reign of Ma'mūn, Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) lived in Medina and was occupied with such activities as science dissemination and religion propagation. It was in Medina where the friends and Shiites referred to him and benefited from his holiness' presence. Abāsalt Hirawī has said, "I heard Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) said, 'I sat in the Prophet's (P.B.U.H. & H.F.) Mosque and there were many scholars in Medina. Whenever they were unable to answer a question, they referred to me and I would answer them.'" 
According to the historical records, Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) had a relative freedom during Hārūn's reign and as long as he was alive, he did not bother his holiness. Maybe the reason for this relative freedom of his holiness and the reduction of Hārūn's pressure were his being worried about the consequences of assassination of Imam Kāzim (P.B.U.H.).
Safwān bin Yahyā relates that Yahyā bin Khālid Barmakī was deprecating Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) before Hārūn and said, "After Mūsā bin Ja'far (P.B.U.H.), now his son, ‘Alī, has succeeded him and claims to be Imam …," although he was not done yet, Hārūn interrupted him and said, "What we did with his father wasn't enough? Do you want me to unsheathe the sword and slaughter ‘Alī's followers all?"
This record shows that after the martyrdom of Imam Kāzim (P.B.U.H.), Hārūn was tired of killing the descendents of ‘Alī and mostly rejected the malevolent words and gossips about them.
Ibn Sabbāgh Mālikī also quotes form Safwān bin Yahyā to have said, "When Mūsā bin Ja'far [P.B.U.H.] was martyred and his son, Riḍā [P.B.U.H.], revealed his Imamate, we got worried about him and told him, 'You expressed an important point and we are worried about you over this cruel person,' Imam (P.B.U.H.) said, 'Tell him to do what he wants. He can't hurt me'." 
2. Imam's (P.B.U.H.) Standing during the Reign of Amīn
Hārūn's death in 809 C.E. triggered the quarrels over the power between Amīnand Ma‘mūn. Troubled relationship and discord between them provided Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) this opportunity to carry out his religious duty and Islamic mission. Shiites also took advantage from this opportunity by going to him and benefitting from his guidance.
In this period of time, his holiness took effective steps so as to strengthen his standing and extend his influence through Islamic territory. This can be understood from Imam's (P.B.U.H.) saying to Ma'mūn about his disinterestedness in Caliphate:
By Allah, caliphate is something that I have never even thought about. When I was in Medina, I would ride my mule through the allies of Medina and others asked their necessities from me and I provided them with their needs, my orders were observed in the east and the west and you added nothing to what my Creator has conferred upon me.
It can be understood from this narration that Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) had an extraordinary social standing and influence among people at that time.
Moreover, historical sources have not reported any conflicts between Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) and the agents of Abbasid regime during the reign of Amīn. It is needless to say that Abbasid dictatorial regime did not have time to irritate and annoy the followers of ‘Alī [P.B.U.H.] in general and Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) in particular, so we can say that the reign of Amīn was the time of Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) relative freedom and a suitable time for his activities. Therefore Imam's (P.B.U.H.) activities in this time were focused on reforming people's minds, generation and in general, awakening Muslims and cultural transformations. By propagating Islam publicly and informing people about their Islamic rights, Imam (P.B.U.H.) tried to teach the principal strategies of Shiism as pure prophetic teachings to a special group and make them the stockpile of Islamic world and the religious authorities. Through his guidance, Imam (P.B.U.H.) tried to organize people's lives and teach them policy making and managing affairs. Through these plans, he paid attention to the world and focused on hereafter and led people to do good insofar as this positive and purposeful action of Imam (P.B.U.H.) enlightened many of the followers of other religions such as Christians, Jews and even atheists and star worshipers and caused some of them to turn to Islam and accept it as their new religion.
3. Imam's (P.B.U.H.) Policy in Treating Islamic Denominations
When Imam (P.B.U.H.) faced deviated groups such as Waqifites which appeared in his holiness' time, he did his best to bring them back to the right path, the path drawn by the Noble Prophet [P.B.U.H. & H.F.] and the path of Wilāya and thus to correct their deviation. For doing that, Imam (P.B.U.H.) did not spare any reasoning to acquaint them with the truth. But unfortunately some of them did not get reformed and kept on their deviation and caused religious and intellectual chaos in the Islamic society by their controversial words and actions.
The chaotic atmosphere and unstable condition of Amīn's reign also further these deviations. Notwithstanding, by seizing the opportunities, Imam (P.B.U.H.) could perform his role and carry out his mission in the society and endeavored to disseminate Islamic and pure prophetic teachings. The outcome of these endeavors, except from propagating religion and Islamic genuine teachings, was the upbringing of the pupils who shined in all times and places.
4. The Crystallization of Imam's (P.B.U.H.) Social Standing in His Journey to Marw
The assassination of Amīn by Ma‘mūn's army, tackled the first obstacle from the Ma‘mūn's way to viceregency, and somewhat quenched his thirst for the power.
Ma‘mūn, who was preoccupied with power and caliphate before and more than anything else, had to get rid of all obstacles and problems on the way of his reign and the Abbasid regime and put an end to the widespread chaos in Islamic territory. One of the significant challenges was the frequent uprisings of the ‘Alīds and the high standing and the phenomenal social influence of Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) that needed his holiness to be brought from Medina to Marw. And then Ma‘mūn could reach his goals by following previously hatched plots.
Anyway, the historical migration of Imam (P.B.U.H.) to Marw was done. What is important in this story is the crystallization of Imam's (P.B.U.H.) social standing and the manifestation of his popularity during this journey.
Although Ma‘mūn thought that he had chosen a side path for Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) and his companions lest Shiites and Wilāya lovers should get excited by seeing the luminous face of his holiness that could aggravated the problems of the regime and might weaken the government and its collapse become more probable than ever. Nevertheless, love and affection of friends and Shiites of Prophet's Household (P.B.U.T.) caused a tumultuous reception of Imam (P.B.U.H.) in all cities and districts. And thus Ma‘mūn's plot was foiled. The climax of this high standing and strength can be seen when Imam (P.B.U.H.) entered Neyshābūr.
The Second Part: Political Character of Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.)
1. Humiliating Caliphate by Rejecting Ma‘mūn's Suggestion:
When Ma‘mūn came to the power, a new phase of Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) life began; furthermore, the assassination of Amīn and the caliphate of Ma‘mūn, spurred the chaos including the ‘Alīds' uprising. It was at this time that citizens of different cities rose against the caliph among which, the ‘Alīds' uprising was of an extreme significance. The assassination of Amīn, the dismissal of Tāhir bin Husain (the conqueror of Bagdad) from the rule of Iraq and appointing Hasan bin Sahl in his place and even more important, the rumor that suggested Faḍl bin Sahl's dominance over Ma‘mūn. These worried the Abbasids and also caused chaos and expanded uprisings and the ‘Alīds' revolution. The ‘Alids took advantage form the political chaos to liberate Kūfa, Hijāz and parts of Yemen from Abbasids' control.
What could help Ma'mūn out of these problems was offering the caliphate and the government to Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.). Then he offered the caliphate to Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) and his holiness who was aware of Ma'mūn's plot did not accept it. He knew that this proposal is a two-edged sword that Ma'mūn has unsheathed against him and choosing each edge could help Ma'mūn with his goals. It means that if Imam refused Ma'mūn's proposal, this rejecting could help Ma'mūn with his goals more, since he could tell the ‘Alids and their followers, "I was ready to leave the government for ‘Alī bin Mūsā (P.B.U.H.), but he was unwilling to take caliphate and knows me more deserving to rule the government." On the other side, if Imam (P.B.U.H.) accepted the government, Ma'mūn's power got legitimized and accepted and also Imam got accused of being worldliness and gained notoriety.
Although Ma'mūn was astute and an experienced politician and had an elaborate plot about offering caliphate to Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) in his mind, we need to have it in mind that on the other side of the scene, there was Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.), a special person with divine politics, who could foil Ma'mūn's evil plots. Humiliating caliphate with not accepting it by Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) was of his foresight that could neutralize Ma'mūn's mysterious and evil policy. The following remark by Faḍl bin Sahl, who was then called Dhū al-Ryāsatayn, is an evidence that substantiates this fact: "It is a surprise that I have not seen the caliphate so humiliated. It is wonderful that Ma'mūn offers the government to ‘Alī bin Mūsā al-Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) and he refuses to accept it.
2. Imam's Foresight in Accepting the Viceregency
Ma'mūn offered the caliphate to Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) numerous times and his holiness always rejected it. Imam (P.B.U.H.) and Ma'mūn discussed over this for a long time but it was of no avail and Imam answered Ma'mūn decisively and clearly; he said, "If caliphate is truly yours and Allah has bestowed it upon you, it is not fair to keep away from it and take off the clothes that Allah had dressed you with and dress others with it; and if it is not yours, you are not allowed to give me what is not yours."
Ma'mūn that had nothing in his sleeve to say in response to Imam (P.B.U.H.), threatened Imam (P.B.U.H.) to accept the Viceregency unless he shall be beheaded. And his holiness accepted that for the benefits of the Islamic society and Muslims and under special conditions.
After the document of viceregency was signed in a special meeting by the participants, Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) did two separate reactions. At first, in that party he officially announced that he had to accept it and was reluctant to it. Sheikh Sadūq relates from Yāsir Khādim who has said that after Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) signed the Viceregency document, he started to pray and said:
"O' Allah, you surely know that I am reluctant to do this and I have to, so do not reprove me for this so as you did not reprove Yusuf, your servant and prophet, when accepted to the trusteeship of Egypt."
The other reaction was when Ma'mūn, after the viceregency document had been signed and his holiness was appointed to it, asked him to say something that shows his satisfaction.
Ma'mūn surely expected Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) to praise him and glorify him because he has appointed Imam (P.B.U.H.) to viceregency; but regardless of Ma'mūn and his expectations, Imam (P.B.U.H.) briefly said: "since we are descended from the Apostle of Allah (P.B.U.H. & H.F.), we are benefactors to you; and because of his holiness, you aye benefactors to us; when you give us our due, we have to give your due too, that is all about it.
3. Responding to the Illusion of Separation of Religion and Politics.
It is noteworthy about Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) acceptance of the vicegerency that it rejected the rumor that some of naive people thought Immaculate Imams (P.B.U.T.) to be evasive, who shrink from politics and do not like to enter this field. They thought that Imams (P.B.U.T.) only dealt with religious affairs and by dissimulating their faith, left politics and social management to the others and had nothing to do with the good and the evil of Muslims' affairs. But they did not know that Imam's (P.B.U.H.) acceptance of Ma‘mūn's invitation and his viceregency, was something special in the history of Imams' (P.B.U.T.) life. Nothing was comparable to it since the end of Imams' (P.B.U.T.) apparent caliphate in 655 C.E. until then. It was revealing Imamate throughout vast Islamic territory and putting aside the dissimulation and disseminating Shiites message to all Muslims across the great Islamic country of the time.
If Imam (P.B.U.H.) had not accepted Ma‘mūn's viceregency, Islamic society would have thought that Imams (P.B.U.T.) did not want to hold the power; therefore they thought that politics was separated from religion and their combination is not confirmed by Islam. But Imam (P.B.U.H.) entered the politics and broke apart this ideology.
4. Unveiling Ma‘mūn's Hypocritical Personality
Although Ma‘mūn adopted an elaborate and complicated policy in inviting Imam (P.B.U.H.) to Iran and giving him the power and toiled and paid a lot to put this into reality; but not only did not he take any advantage from it, but because of Imam's (P.B.U.H.) wise strategy, Ma‘mūn's plots were foiled and his politics turned against him. The bullet, by which he aimed Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) sacredness and holiness, ricocheted and hit himself.
Ma‘mūn got so hopeless about it that when he noticed his soft and sacred-like policy did not work, he had to leave his old strategy and take his ancestors' policy which was the avarice, cruel severity, murder and plunder and finally put aside the hypocrisy and show other aspects of himself; and got caught in corruption, adultery, luxury, promiscuity and pride which had tied down the pervious caliphs.
When Ma‘mūn saw that he has lost everything in this big gamble, and got conquered so badly that he could not retrieve the situation, tried to return from his path and redeem his obvious failure and treat the Prophet's Household (P.B.U.T.) with his ancestors strategy. The following words by Ma‘mūn proves this fact:
"Now that we have made a mistake and jeopardize ourselves by glorifying him, we should neglect him but we should gradually ruin his face before people so that he does not deserve the caliphate to the people. Then we may think how to avoid his threats."
5. Sustaining Himself and Shiites
Although Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) already knew that going to Iran and entering the Abbasid regime would cost his life, he accepted Ma‘mūn's invitation and went to Iran and by accepting the viceregency pursued his obligations within caliphate system. This was because Imam (P.B.U.H.) knew the fact that rejecting Ma‘mūn's invitation, would not be at the cost of his own life but all the ‘Alīds and his friends would be in danger.
It was necessary for Imam (P.B.U.H.) to sustain his own and his students lives, because Islamic society really needed them. They had to stay alive to lead people and help them with their problems and doubts.
To stipulate the fact that the acceptance of viceregency was with reluctance and for saving his life, in response to Ahmad bin Zyād Hamadānī who asked surprisingly, "O' the son of Apostle of Allah (P.B.U.H.), although you are a pious man and are not interested in the world, why did you accept Ma'mūn's Viceregency?" Imam (P.B.U.H.) said, "Allah knows that I was reluctant to accept it but since I had to choose between death and that, I chose that."
Having said these, we can conclude that Imam Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) social and political life is considered one of the most prominent periods of Imamate history; since the Imamate of his holiness is coincident with the reigns of Hārūn, Amīn and Ma‘mūn and Imam (P.B.U.H.) kept the social standing and according to the conditions of the time and by considering the interests of the Islam and Muslims continued his political life. While during a hundred and forty years between the disastrous incidents of Āshūrā to the viceregency of Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.), the 'Alids and groups related to the Prophet's Household (P.B.U.T.) were always chased, irritated, and annoyed by Umayyad and Abbasid regimes. That is where Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) could survive Shiites from the danger of Abbasid regime by his divine politics and also could use government facilities for propagating pure Islamic culture and through debates, answered many doubts in different ideological fields which are great successes for his holiness.
1. The Holy Qur'an
2. Ibn Athīr, ‘Alī bin Abī al-Karam, al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh, Beirut, Dār al-Sadīr, 1955 C.E.
3. Ibn A'sam Kūfī, Ahmad, Kitāb al-Futūh, Researched by 'Alī Shīrī, Beirut, Dār al-Aḍwā'.1990 C.E.
4. Ibn Bābiwayh Qumī, Muhammad bin 'Alī (Sheikh Sadūq), Al-Amālī, Qum, Al-Bi'tha Institute, 1996 C.E.
5. Ibn Bābiwayh Qumī, Muhammad bin 'Alī (Sheikh Sadūq), Uyūn Akhbār al-Riḍā, Beirut, Al-'Ālamī Institute.1984 C.E.
6. Ibn Shu'bi Harānī, Hasan bin ‘Alī, Tuhaf al-'Uqūl 'an Āl al-Rasūl, Trans. ‘Alī Akbar Qafārī, Tehran, Islāmīyah, 1985 C.E.
7. Ibn Sabbāgh Mālikī, al-Fusūl al-Muhimma fī Ma'rifat al-A'imma, Researched by Sāmī al-Gharīrī, Qum, Dār al-Hadīth, 2001C.E.
8. Arbalī, Alī bin 'Isā, Kashf al-Ghumma fī Ma'rifat al-A'imma, Beirut, Dār al-Aḍwā', no date.
9. Ash'arī, Abul Hasan, Maqālāt al-Islāmyīn wa Ikhtilāf al-Musalīn, Beirut, no place, 1985 C.E.
10. Sayyid Hāshim Bahrānī, Madīnat al-Ma'ājiz, Qum, Ma'ārif Islāmī Institute, 1995 C.E.
11. Tabarsī, Faḍl bin Hasan, A'lām al-Warā bi-A'alām al-Hudā, Qum, Āl al-Bayt institute, 1997 C.E.
12. Tabarī, Muhammad bin Jarīr, Dalāil al-Imāmah, Qum, Al-Bi'sa Institute, 1993 C.E.
13. 'Atarudī, Azīz Allah, Musnad al-Imam al-Riḍā (P.B.U.H.), Mashhad, International Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.) Congress, 1986 C.E.
14. Faḍl Allah, Muhammad Jawād, Tahlīlī az Zindigānī Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.),, Trans. Muhammad Sādiq 'Ārif, Mashhad, Āstān Quds Raḍawī, Vol. 8, 2004 C.E.
15. Quraishī, Bāqir Sharīf, Hayāt al-Imam al-Riḍā (P.B.U.H.), Qum, Sa'eīd bin Jubair publication, 1993 C.E.
16. Kuleinī, Muhammad bin Ya'qūb, al-Kāfī, Trans. and Commented by: Jawād Mustafawī, Tehran, 'Ilmīya Islāmīya publication.
17. Majlisī, Muhammad Bāqir, Bihār al-Anwār, Researched by Yahyā 'Ābidī, Beirut, Al-Wafā Institute, 1983 C.E.
18. Mufīd, Muhammad bin Muhammad, al-Irshād fī Ma'riaft Hujaj Allah 'ala al-'Ibād,Rresearched by Āl al-Bayt institute, Beirut, Dār al- Mufīd,1994 C.E.
19. Hasan bin Mūsā Nubakhtī, Firaq al-Shī'a, Najaf, Matba'a Heidarīya, 1976 C.E.
20. Neyshābūrī, Muhammad bin Fatāl, Rawḍat al-Wā'izīn, Qum, Sharīf al-Rāzī publication.
Ibn Shu'bī Harānī, Hasan bin Alī, Tuhaf al-'Uqūl, pp. 460-461.
 Faḍl bin Hasan Tabarsī, A'lām al-Warā bi-A'alāmal-Hudā, vol.2, p.64;Bāqir Sharīf Quraishī, Hayāt al-Imam al-Riḍā (P.B.U.H.), vol.1, p. 37.
‘Alī bin Muhammad bin Ahmad bin Sabbāgh Mālikī, al-Fusūl al-Muhimma fī Ma'rifat al-A'imma, vol.2, p. 975.
Ibn Bābiwayh Qumī, Muhammad bin 'Alī (Sheikh Sadūq), Uyūn Akhbār al-Riḍā, vol.1, p. 177.
Hasan "After his holiness Mūsā bin Ja'far (P.B.U.H.) was martyred, due to the conditions of the time, his holiness' disciples were divided on the Imam's successor into two groups: One group that consisted of the great number of Shiites, based on the will of Imam Kāzim (P.B.U.H.) and sufficient reasons, accepted the Imamate of his son ‘Alī bin Mūsā al-Riḍā (P.B.U.H.)and endorsed him as the eighth Imam. This group which included great disciples of Imam Kāzim (P.B.U.H.) was called Qaṭ'ya" see Hasan bin Mūsā Nubakhtī, Firaq al-Shī'a, p. 82.
Hasan" Another group of his holiness' disciples, considering worldly aims, did not confirm ‘‘Alī bin Mūsā al-Riḍā's (P.B.U.H.) Imamate and stopped at Imamate of Imam Kāzim (P.B.U.H.). They said that Mūsā bin Ja'far (P.B.U.H.) is the last Imam and has not appointed anyone as Imam or at least we are not aware of it. This group, that are divided to several groups because of their different ideas, was called Waqifites" see Abul Hasan Ash'arī, Maqālāt al-Islāmyīn wa Ikhtilāf al-Musalīn, vol.1, p.85.
Muhammad Jawād Faḍl Allah, Tahlīlī az Zindigānī Imam Riḍā (P.B.U.H.), pp. 132-133.
Ibn Athīr, 'Alī bin Abī al-Karam, al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh,vol. 6, p. 302.
Ibn A'sam Kūfī, Ahmed, Kitāb al-Futūh, vol.8, pp. 417- 428; Tabarī, Muhammad bin Jarīr, Dalail al-Imamah,vol.7, pp.116-132.
Mufīd, Muhammad bin Muhammad, Al-Irshād, vol.2, p. 259.
Arbalī, Alī bin 'Isā, Kashf al-Ghumma fī Ma'rifat al-A'imma, vol. 3, P. 70.
Mufīd, Muhammad bin Muhammad, Al-Irshād, vol.2, p. 260.
Ibn Bābiwayh Qumī, Muhammad bin 'Alī (Sheikh Sadūq), Uyūn Akhbār al-Riḍā, vol.1 p. 151.
Ibid., p.152; Neyshābūrī, Muhammad bin Fatāl, Rawḍat al-Wā'izīn, p. 224.
Ibn Bābiwayh Qumī, Muhammad bin 'Alī (Sheikh Sadūq), Al-Amālī, p. 757.
Majlisī, Muhammad Bāqir, Bihār al-Anwār, vol.49, p. 146.
Tabarī, Muhammad bin Jarīr, Dalāil al-Imamah, p. 375; Sayyid Hāshim Bahrānī, Madīnat al-Ma'ājiz, vol. 7., p.142.
Ibn Bābiwayh Qumī, Muhammad bin 'Alī (Sheikh Sadūq), Al-Amālī,p. 130.