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Hazrat Imam Musa al-Kazim (AS)

The legacy of forbearance and spiritual leadership in Islamic History

Syed Ali Shabbar Naqvi

Imam Musa ibn Ja’far al-Kazim AS), widely known as Imam Musa al-Kazim AS), stands as an eminent figure in the tapestry of Islamic history, serving as the seventh imam in Twelver Shia Islam. Born in the holy city of Medina in 745 CE to Ja’far al-Sadiq (AS), the sixth Shia imam, Musa al-Kazim’s lineage traces back to the revered Islamic prophet Muhammad (PBUH). His epithet, al-Kazim, meaning ‘forbearing,’ aptly reflects his notable patience and mild temperament.
The early life of Musa al-Kazim (AS) unfolded against the backdrop of a succession crisis within the Shia community following the passing of his father in 765 CE. Ja’far al-Sadiq (AS), in a bid to protect his heir from the political turmoil, refrained from publicly designating a successor. This decision led to a divergence within the Shia community, ultimately resulting in the formation of the Isma’ilis. However, Musa al-Kazim (AS) emerged as the chosen successor, navigating the complexities of this transition.
Opting to stay in Medina after his father’s death, Musa al-Kazim (AS) dedicated himself to religious teachings and spiritual guidance. Despite his withdrawal from political entanglements, he faced severe constraints imposed by the Abbasid caliphs, spending a substantial portion of his adult life incarcerated in their prisons. Undeterred by these challenges, al-Kazim (AS) established an undercover network of local representatives to oversee the affairs of his followers across the Abbasid empire and manage their religious contributions.
His final imprisonment around 795 concluded with his death in 799 in a Baghdad prison, with speculations of possible poisoning at the hands of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. The shrine of al-Kazim (AS), alongside his grandson Muhammad al-Jawad (AS), has become a revered pilgrimage site for Twelver Muslims in Kazimayn, Baghdad.
Beyond his political and historical significance, Musa al-Kazim (AS) played a pivotal role in purging extreme views and exaggerations (ghuluww) from Twelver thought. His responses to legal queries endure in Wasiyya fi al-aql, and he is acknowledged for numerous supplications. Surprisingly, his influence extends beyond the confines of Shia Islam, as he is held in high esteem for his piety in Sunni Islam, where he is regarded as a trustworthy transmitter of prophetic sayings. Additionally, within Sufism, he is recognized as a link in the initiatic Golden Chain, with some Sufi saints frequently associated with him. Various non-prophetic miracles are ascribed to al-Kazim (AS), often highlighting his precognition. Notably, his son, Ali al-Reza (AS), succeeded him in the imamate.
Imam Musa al-Kazim (AS), believed to have been born on 8 November 745 CE (7 Safar 128 AH), hailed from a distinguished lineage. His father, Ja’far al-Sadiq (AS), was a respected descendant of Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS) and Fatima (SA), connecting Musa (AS) directly to the lineage of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The debate surrounding Musa’s birthplace includes possibilities such as Medina or al-Abwa’, situated between Medina and Mecca. Additionally, alternative birth dates ranging from September 745 CE to 746-747 CE have been suggested.
His mother, Hamida Khatun (SA), a Berber slave-girl known as al-Musaffat, played a crucial role in Musa’s upbringing. Renowned for her religious knowledge, she reportedly taught Islamic jurisprudence to women in a Medina seminary. Musa had elder half-brothers, Abd-Allah al-Aftah and Isma’il, along with a younger full brother, Muhammad al-Dibaj. At the tender age of four, Musa Kazim (AS) witnessed the Abbasid revolution in 750, which saw the ousting of the Umayyad Caliphate. He continued residing in Medina under the guardianship of his father until Ja’far al-Sadiq’s (AS) alleged poisoning in 765 CE, a result of the political machinations of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur.
Choosing to remain in Medina, Musa al-Kazim (AS) adopted a path of non-involvement in political affairs, a practice mirrored by his predecessors. Like his father, he devoted himself to teaching religious sciences in Medina. Additionally, recognizing the challenges posed by the Abbasid caliphs, he organized an underground network of representatives (wukala) to manage religious donations and affairs on behalf of his followers.
The Abbasids, having initially garnered Shia support against the Umayyads in the name of Muhammad’s (PBUH) family, faced discontent when the Abbasid caliph al-Saffah declared himself caliph. Many Shias hoped for an Alid leader, directly descended from Muhammad (PBUH), rather than an Abbasid. The Abbasids eventually turned against the Shias, especially after the failed 762-763 CE revolt led by the Alid pretender Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya.
Imam Musa al-Kazim (AS) lived through the reigns of Abbasid caliphs such as al-Mansur, al-Hadi, al-Mahdi, and Harun al-Rashid. In contrast to his father’s freedom in teaching, Musa faced severe restrictions under the caliphs and spent a significant portion of his adult life in Abbasid prisons in Iraq. According to Shia accounts, he even discouraged public greetings from followers under the watchful eyes of the Abbasids.
The Challenging Years for Imam Musa al-Kazim (AS) under Abbasid Rule
Reign of al-Mansur (754-775 CE): Shia sources attribute the demise of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (AS) to al-Mansur, who allegedly orchestrated the killing of the heir without a public designation, possibly due to fear of Abbasid reprisals. According to Shia accounts, the caliph instructed his Medina governor to carry out the act, a plan thwarted when it was discovered that al-Sadiq had appointed multiple legatees. The resulting succession crisis was ultimately resolved in favor of al-Kazim, although it weakened the mainstream Shia.
Surprisingly, al-Mansur initially treated al-Kazim (AS) mildly, possibly contributing to the Shia leader’s relative safety under surveillance.
Reign of al-Mahdi (775-785 CE): Throughout al-Mahdi’s ten-year reign, al-Kazim (AS) remained under close watch in Medina. The caliph arrested him at least once, briefly imprisoning him in Baghdad around 780 CE. According to Sunni historian al-Tabari, al-Mahdi released al-Kazim (AS) after a dream in which Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS) rebuked him for imprisoning his kin. Al-Kazim (AS) pledged not to rebel against the caliph in exchange for his freedom.
Reign of Musa al-Hadi (785-786 CE): Despite the 786 revolt led by Alid pretender al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Abid, al-Kazim did not support the uprising, even warning al-Husayn of the consequences. Accused of complicity by Abbasid caliph al-Hadi, al-Kazim was spared from execution due to the intervention of Judge Abu Yusuf. Following the caliph’s death, al-Kazim (AS) expressed gratitude by composing the supplication Jawshan.
Reign of Harun al-Rashid (786-809CE): Under Harun’s caliphate, Shia persecution peaked, with hundreds of Alids reportedly killed. Harun arrested al-Kazim (AS), initially intending to kill him but released him after a dream, possibly provoked by a confrontation during a visit to Hazrat Muhammad’s (PBUH) tomb. The final imprisonment of al-Kazim (AS), in 793 or 795, may have been orchestrated by Harun’s vizier, Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmaki. Threatened by the influence of Ja’far ibn Muhammad, Yahya allegedly informed the caliph about the Shia allegiance of Ja’far (AS) and coerced a relative of al-Kazim (AS) to testify against him. Despite initial orders for execution, al-Kazim’s (AS) life was spared due to the governor’s admiration for his piety. Eventually, he was placed under house arrest in Baghdad, where he continued to oversee Shia affairs. Harun, dissatisfied with this arrangement, issued a written order for al-Kazim’s (AS) execution, carried out by the prefect of police, al-Sindi ibn Shahik, who allegedly poisoned the Shia imam.
The Death and Legacy of Musa al-Kazim (AS): A Historical Perspective
Musa al-Kazim (AS), a prominent figure in Islamic history, met his demise in 799 in the al-Sindi ibn Shahiq prison of Baghdad.
The Death of Musa al-Kazim:
Musa al-Kazim’s (AS) death is shrouded in historical debate. According to Twelver tradition, as conveyed by al-Mufid, he was murdered, possibly through poisoning orchestrated by the Abbasid caliph Harun. The caliph’s discontent allegedly stemmed from al-Kazim’s (AS) son, Fadl, disobeying orders to assassinate al-Kazim (AS). Conversely, the sources, such as al-Tabari, do not specify the cause of death, hinting at natural causes.
Harun’s Response and Public Display:
In an attempt to quell speculations, Harun orchestrated a public display of al-Kazim’s (AS) body in Baghdad, accompanied by the testimonies of public figures affirming a natural death. This spectacle aimed to dispel rumors of al-Kazim (AS) return as the Mahdi, a Messianic figure in Islam. Despite these efforts, the Twelver Shia community maintains that al-Kazim (AS) was unjustly murdered.
Burial and Shrine:
Following these events, al-Kazim (AS) was laid to rest in the Quraysh cemetery in northwest Baghdad. The location, now known as Kazimayn, reflects the significance of both al-Kazim (AS) and his grandson, Muhammad al-Jawad (AS), who rests alongside him. The shrine, initially established during the Buyid dynasty, gained prominence during the Safavid era. Over time, it evolved into a revered pilgrimage site, with a reputation for fulfilling prayers, as noted by Sunni scholar al-Shafi’i.
Redemptive Suffering:
Shia accounts propose a unique perspective on al-Kazim’s (AS) death, suggesting that he sacrificed himself for the sins of his followers. A tradition attributed to him implies a divine choice, wherein he shielded the Shia with his own life. Twelver traditionist al-Kulayni elaborates on the sins, including disloyalty and abandoning taqiya (religious dissimulation), which purportedly led to al-Kazim’s (AS) imprisonment.
Hazrat Musa al-Kazim’s (AS) death remains a complex historical event, marked by conflicting narratives. The subsequent establishment of his shrine and the enduring significance in Shia tradition underscore the lasting impact of this pivotal moment in Islamic history. His life reflects resilience, dedication to religious teachings, and enduring patience in the face of political adversity. Musa al-Kazim’s (AS) legacy endures through his contributions to Twelver thought, supplications, and the succession of his son Ali al-Rida. The shrine in Kazimayn stands as a testament to his enduring significance, attracting pilgrims and scholars alike across generations.