Imam al-Rida's (a) Debate with Imran al-Sabi

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Imam al-Rida’s debate with ʿImran al-Sabi is a theological debate concerning God’s existence and attributes. The debate is cited in a hadith according to which Imam al-Rida (a) debated with prominent Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Sabian scholars at the request of al-Ma'mun the Abbasid caliph. In this conversation, the Sabian scholar ʿImran asks many questions about God, to which Imam al-Rida (a) replies.

According to the transmitter of this hadith, ʿImran al-Sabi finds Imam al-Rida’s replies convincing, cites the two testimonies, and converts to Islam. The hadith is cited in al-Tawhid and 'Uyun akhbar al-Rida by al-Shaykh al-Saduq (b. after 305/917-8 — d. 381/991-2).

Background of the Debate

Imam al-Rida’s debate with ʿImran al-Sabi is cited in a hadith in which his debate with scholars of other religions is reported. Hasan b. Muhammad al-Nawfali, the immediate transmitter of the hadith, narrates the formation of the debate as follows: When Imam al-Rida (a) went from Medina to Merv to al-Maʾmun the Abbasid caliph, al-Maʾmun summoned scholars and theologians of different religions, including the Catholicos (the senior Christian scholar), the Exilarch or raʾs al-jalut (the leader of the Jewish community), senior figures of Sabians, and Hirbidh (the great Zoroastrian priest), asking them to debate with Imam al-Rida (a).

He then told Imam al-Rida (a) to attend the debate if he wished to do so. Imam al-Rida (a) accepted the request, and the next day he went to al-Maʾmun. In this debate, Imam al-Rida (a) had debates with the Catholicos, the Exilarch, and Hirbidh, and after repudiating them, he asked others to present their questions if they opposed Islam. At this time, ʿImran al-Sabi said that he had debated with many Muslim theologians in Kufa, Basra, Levant, and the Peninsula, but no one could convince him. He asked Imam al-Rida (a) to have a conversation with him, and the Imam (a) agreed.

ʿImran al-Sabi’s Questions

In Imam al-Rida’s debate with ʿImran al-Sabi, ʿImran asked many questions concerning God, including:

  • What is the first entity in the being?
  • Is that entity known by itself to itself?
  • How is God’s creation? What kinds of creation are there?
  • Does God change when He creates?
  • By what means do we know God’s existence?
  • What is God?
  • Is God in the creatures or are creatures in God?
  • Is God’s unity (or oneness) known through knowledge of His essence or through knowledge of His attributes?
  • In what is God located? Is He surrounded by anything? Does he change locations?

The Debate’s Conclusion

According to Hasan b. Muhammad al-Nawfali, the narrator of this debate, when Imam al-Rida (a) answered all questions asked by ʿImran al-Sabi, he was convinced, saying that God is as described by Rida. He then asserted the two testimonies and converted to Islam. Moreover, Imam al-Rida (a) invited ʿImran for dinner in his house, giving him clothes, a vehicle, and ten thousand dirhams as gifts.

According to this hadith, after the debate, different theologians went to ʿImran al-Sabi, debated with him, and he defeated them in all those debates. After this, al-Ma'mun gave him ten thousand dirhams, and Imam al-Rida (a) appointed him as the collector of charities in Balkh.

Sources of the Hadith

The text of the debate was first cited by al-Shaykh al-Saduq (b. after 305/917-8 — d. 381/991-2) in his al-Tawhid and 'Uyun akhbar al-Rida (a). A summary of the debate is cited in al-Ihtijaj by Ahmad b. 'Ali al-Tabrisi (alive in the sixth/twelfth century). It was also cited in al-'Allama al-Majlisi’s Bihar al-anwar as quoted from the two books by al-Shaykh al-Saduq.

See Also