Debate of Imam al-Rida (a) with Ra's al-Jalut

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This article is an introduction to the Debate of Imam al-Rida (a) with Ra's al-Jalut; to read its text see text:Debate of Imam al-Rida (a) with Ra's al-Jalut.

Imam al-Rida’s (a) debate with Ra’s al-Jalut (exilarch) is a theological dialogue on the subject of proving the prophethood of the Prophet of Islam (s). In this debate, Imam al-Rida (a) has quoted phrases from the Torah, the Bible and the Psalms to prove the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad (s). This debate is mentioned in a hadith quoted by al-Shaykh al-Saduq, based on which, at the invitation of the Abbasid Caliph, al-Ma'mun, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian and Sabean scholars debated with Imam al-Rida (a).

Al-Shaykh al-Saduq has reported the text of this debate in the books of al-Tawhid and Uyun akhbar al-Rida (a). According to this narration, Ra’s al-Jalut in this debate was unable to respond to the arguments of Imam al-Rida (a).

The Context of the Debate

The debate between Imam al-Rida (a) and Ra’s al-Jalut was conducted by the order of al-Ma'mun, the Abbasid caliph. According to al-Shaykh al-Saduq, when Imam al-Rida (a) went from Medina to al-Ma'mun in Merv, he asked Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Sabean scholars to debate with Imam al-Rida (a). Ra’s al-Jalut was a Jewish scholar, and in addition to him, Jathaliq (the chief of Christians), the elders of the Sabeans, Hirbidh (Herbad, the chief of Zoroastrian), and ‘Imran Sabi’i were also present at the meeting and debated with Imam (a). Hasan b. Muhammad al-Nufili, the narrator of the debate, said that al-Ma'mun’s purpose in holding the debate was to test Imam al-Rida (a).

Subject of the debate and its outcome

At the heart of this conversation is the issue of the prophethood of the Prophet of Islam (s). Ra’s al-Jalut asks Imam al-Rida (a) to prove this issue and says that he accepts only words from the Torah, the Bible, the Psalms or the books of Abraham (a) and Moses (a). Imam al-Rida (a) accepts and quotes phrases from these books to prove the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad (s). Some of these evidences are as follows:

  • The Prophet Moses (a) said to the children of Israel: “A prophet will come to you concerning him. Believe in him and hear from him” Considering that the only brothers of the Children of Israel are the children of Ishmael (a), and among the children of Ishmael (a), only Muhammad b. Abdullah (s) was a prophet, it is proven that he (a) was a prophet of God.
  • In the Torah it is quoted from Isaiah (a): “I have seen two riders to whom (He) illuminated earth. One of them was on (the back of) a donkey and the other was on (the back of) a camel.” Then Imam (a) said: the Rider of the Donkey, is Jesus; and the Rider of the Camel, is Muhammad (s).
  • In the Psalms, it is quoted from David (a): “'O Allah, send him who will establish the Sunna (practice) after the cessation (of the prophets)” The only person who revived the tradition of God after a lapse of time was the Prophet of Islam (s). This prophet could not have been Jesus (a); because, he (a) did not oppose the tradition of the Torah.
  • In the Bible it has been written that: The son of the pious woman, i.e. Jesus, will go, and the Paraclete will come after him. It is he who will preserve the bonds, explain everything to you, and testify to my truth just as I testified for him. I have brought you the examples, and he will bring you the interpretations.

Sources of Hadith

The text of the debate has been reported in the books of al-Tawhid and Uyun akhbar al-Rida (a), written by al-Shaykh al-Saduq (d. 381/991-2). Ahmad b. Ali al-Tabrisi (lived in the 6th/12th century) also quoted a summary of this narration in his al-Ihtijaj. Allama al-Majlisi in Bihar al-anwar has also quoted the hadith from two books of al-Shaykh al-Saduq.

Validity of the Hadith’s Chain of Narration

Rijal scholars disagree about the order of the narrators of this hadith. Some have considered all of its narrators thiqa (trustworthy) and some others have considered some of them non-thiqa (unreliable). In addition, the hadith’s chain of narration is mursal; meaning that, some people in the chain of its narrators are not mentioned. Therefore, the hadith is considered weak in terms of the chain of narration. Nevertheless, some believe that this hadith is weak but acceptable; meaning that, despite the weakness in the chain of narration, it is admissible; because a reputable scholar such as al-Shaykh al-Saduq has narrated it and he narrated only narrations that he trusted as being issued by the Infallibles (a).