“He had a great status with Abi al-Hasan Musa b. Ja’far, peace be upon them. A great standing in the Ta’ifa (sect as a whole)”
Tusi’s summation of Ali b. Yaqtin
Sometimes, and through a curious mix of dedication and fortune, tangible evidence is found to make what we read in our old and musty textual sources come alive in front of our eyes.
The image below is of a recent archaeological find unearthed from the Arabian Desert. A milestone erected in the reign of the first Abbasid Caliph al-Saffah (r. 132-136) recording the official distance of a section along the pilgrimage route from Kufa to Mecca.
This marks twelve miles from the postal station of Aswad al-Usari (?)
The Family of Yaqtin
What catches the eye is the name of the official who undertook the task on behalf of the Caliph i.e. Yaqtin b. Musa. For this is the name of the father of a famous companion of Imam al-Kadhim by the name of Ali b. Yaqtin who occurs in numerous chains in our Hadith works.
Some back-ground about the family is in order.
Yaqtin was a Persian Mawla (client) of the Kufan Banu Asad and a trader of spice by profession. He played a key role in the underground revolutionary movement that led to the overthrow of the Umayyads and the coming to power of the ‘Abbasids. After the victory of the revolution, he was awarded various positions as a close and trusted confidant of the ‘Abbasid Caliphs.
His son Ali, who was born in Kufa in 124, went on to inherit his father’s standing in the eyes of the Abbasid rulers. He was appointed by the Caliph Mahdi as his chief of staff in 168, and as the keeper of the Caliphal seal by the Caliph Hadi in 169. He remained a high ranking official of the ‘Abbasid government for the rest of his life until his death in 182, and it was the crown prince, Muhammad al-Amin himself, who led the funeral prayer.
The summary above is what one would find when combing through the ‘official’ history of the rulers and viziers of the period. But if this is all that had survived about Ali then we would not have even begun to scratch the surface of the man’s life.
For you see, at some point in time, and we don’t know exactly why and how, Ali shifted his allegiance to the Alid Imam al-Kadhim – and essentially began leading a double life at the heart of the Abbasid court.
A Childhood in Medina
I would speculate that the ‘seeds’ for Ali’s ‘transformation’ date back to his childhood. al-Tusi records how when the father Yaqtin had to flee to Syria in the last years of Umayyad rule having been declared a wanted man in Kufa – the wife together with their two sons (Ali and a brother called Ubayd) relocated to Medina to avoid repression.
Of these days, Ali would later recall how he once saw the great man himself (i.e. al-Sadiq) in the Rawda (in the prophet’s Mosque) and the latter was:
Wearing an outer-garment made of Khazz (fur) of the colour of quince
Muhammad b. Isa b. Ubayd al-Yaqtini (a descendant of Ali’s brother Ubayd and a scholar in his own right) relates a family tradition from ‘the elders of my Household’ remembering how Ali and Ubayd, the two sons of Yaqtin, were made to enter upon Imam al-Sadiq.
The big man said:
Draw near to me the one with the two fore-locks (i.e. a childish hairstyle)
This was Ali, and when the child had been brought near the Imam hugged him to himself and prayed for good for him
The family returned to Kufa and were reunited with Yaqtin after the victory of the revolution in the year 132 when Ali would have been 8 years of age. They later relocated to Baghdad as the capital was shifted there by al-Mansur in the year 146.
Father Against Son
Ali’s change of heart was not matched by his father Yaqtin, and indeed the father (who outlived his son) remained a committed Abbasid supporter to the end, committing many terrible crimes for the regime throughout his career, among which we can number the brutal suppression of the rebellion of the Alid Husayn b. Ali (Sahib Fakhkh) whose beheaded head Yaqtin carried to Hadi in 169.
Yaqtin’s services for the Abbasids had even led al-Sadiq to curse him.
A reliable report records how Ali expressed his fear concerning this to al-Kadhim with these words:
I am fearful because of the supplication of Abi Abdillah against Yaqtin and his off-spring
The Imam put his heart at ease:
O Aba al-Hasan (i.e. Ali b. Yaqtin) – it is not as you think. Verily the believer who arises from the back-bone (lineage) of a disbeliever is like the stone in a clay brick, when rain comes it washes away the clay (dissolves it to mud) but does not harm the stone in any way
There is a fascinating dialogue between father and son that indicates that father had come to know of where the son’s true allegiance lay.
Yaqtin said to his son Ali once:
What is the case with us that it was prophesied about us (i.e. the Abbasids) and it came true (i.e. the Abbasids came to power), and it was prophesied about you but it did not happen (i.e. the Alids have not come to power).
What was prophesied about you and us originates from the same source, but your affair’s time came, so you were given it (i.e. power) in full and it happened as was prophesied about you.
But our affair’s time has not come, so we were mollified by hopes, for if we were told (the truth as it is) ‘this affair will not occur except after two hundred years or three hundred years’, the hearts would have hardened and most of the people would have turned away from Islam (i.e. Shi’ism), but they (i.e. the Imams) said (instead) ‘how swift will it be!’ and ‘how near at hand it is!’ so as to soften the hearts of the people and bring about relief
Although it is hard to give credence to this report because it was narrated by the notorious fabricator Sayyari, it still has utility in so far as it records the kind of deliberations the Shia were having in response to the delayed expectation, while also supporting the notion that father and son saw themselves (or were seen) as being on two different sides.
A Friend in High Places
Ali had found himself brought up in a house that was connected to the Abbasid ruling family through no doing of his own, and the Imam al-Kadhim allowed Ali to continue working for the illegitimate rulers because of the great good that he could accomplish in this position even though it must have been hard for Ali to do this.
Ali even pleaded with the Imam once:
Don’t you see my condition and what I am in (i.e. working for these people)!
O Ali – Verily Allah the Exalted has allies mixed in amongst the allies of the tyrants so that He can defend His (other) allies through them. And you – O Ali – are one among them
Ali would naturally have been terrified of being caught.
It is to assuage him that his Imam entered a pact with him saying:
Guarantee for me (assure me of) one characteristic and I will guarantee for you three
When Ali asked what these were the Imam replied:
The three that I guarantee for you are as follows: The heat of the iron will never inflict you by killing (you will not die by the sword), nor destitution (poverty will not inflict you), nor imprisonment in a prison
On his part, what the Imam wanted from Ali was a guarantee that:
A client of mine (a Shia) never comes to you except that you act generously with him
Being Generous with the Shia
Ali lived up to this pact for it seems that the bulk of Ali b. Yaqtin’s activities was geared to assisting the Shia financially.
Opportunity to do this came knocking via a fateful promotion.
With the expansion of the empire and the subsequent growth in complexity of the Abbasid bureaucracy, a decision was made to have a Zimam, a sort of internal control/audit office, within each Diwan or ‘department’ e.g. taxation, agriculture etc., so as to provide fiscal oversight by checking the accounts of the Diwan and supervising its business.
Now there needed to be a singular office which supervised all lesser Azimma (pl. of Zimam). This was the office of the Zimam al-Azimma whose head could be said to hold the reigns of the entire central financial administration in his hands.
And in the year 168, as Tabari informs us in an off-hand single-line statement, the head of the office of Zimam al-Azimma by appointment of the Caliph was one Ali b. Yaqtin
The ground-rule that the Imam had set for him when working for ‘them’ i.e. the illegitimate rulers was:
Beware of (usurping) the wealth of the Shia
The narrator reports that Ali’s practice was to:
Collect taxes from them (i.e. the Shia) in public and reimburse it (i.e. the amount collected) to them in private
Ali went a step further and began re-distributing the ill-gotten wealth collected by the illegitimate rulers (and which really belonged to the Imam) to those who were more deserving. But he had to tread carefully when doing this so as not to raise the suspicions of the authorities.
For this reason he devised an ingenious solution which was to send a large number of people to Hajj every year (to perform Hajj on his behalf) as was the practise of the nobility of those times. It just so happened that a significant number of those sent were secret Shias.
Ali b. Yaqtin’s son al-Husayn asserts that he:
Counted for Ali b. Yaqtin in one of the years 300 or 250 ‘proclaimers of Talbiyya’ (i.e. pilgrims deputizing him).
There was never a year when there would not be those who make the Hajj on his behalf.
He used to give some of them 20,000, some of them 10,000, every year for the Hajj. Men like al-Kahili and Abd al-Rahman b. al-Hajjaj and others. The one given the least would be given a 1000 silver coins
Ali b. Yaqtin sending in a contingent of Shia to the Hajj every year had a double benefit in that it was perfect cover for the Imam to meet his followers and impart knowledge to them including narration of Hadith. The name of Abd al-Rahman b. al-Hajjaj among those whom Ali b. Yaqtin would send to Hajj every year sticks out. This is because the former was a Wakil of the Imam and so Hajj gave him the opportunity to obtain answers for questions asked by the Shia.
Abd al-Rahman b. al-Hajjaj relates how he ‘set out in one of the years bearing a lot of wealth belonging to Abu Ibrahim (i.e. al-Kadhim) with me’. After attending to his duties he said:
May I be made your ransom, Ali b. Yaqtin requested me to ask you to supplicate for him
The Imam asked whether this was ‘for the hereafter’ and when Abd al-Rahman confirmed that it was the Imam ‘put his hand on his chest’ and said:
I guarantee for Ali b. Yaqtin that the fire will not touch him ever
It is any surprise then to find that Ali b. Yaqtin would be foremost in the mind of al-Kadhim every Hajj season?
Dawud al-Raqqi reports how he ‘entered in to meet Abi al-Hasan on the Day of Sacrifice (10th Dhu al-Hijja)’ at which the Imam said to him ‘without any prompting’:
No one came to my heart (my thinking) while I was in the precinct (place of standing) except Ali b. Yaqtin, for he did not stop being with me and did not leave me until I departed
In another occasion the Imam said to Yunus b. Abd al-Rahman:
Of the special distinction belonging Ali b. Yaqtin is the fact that I remembered him (supplicated for him) at the Mawqif (the plains of Arafa in the Hajj)
A son of the Imam by the name of Ismail b. Musa even preserves the rhymed supplication that the Imam made for Ali.
I saw the Righteous Servant upon the Safa (i.e. the hill) saying – Ilahi fi A’la Iliyyin Ighfir li Ali bin Yaqtin
Which to be translated means ‘My God in the Highest of the High – Forgive Ali b. Yaqtin’
Ali b. Yaqtin would also send money directly to the Imam himself. It is recorded, for instance, that Ali would sometimes forward upwards of a 100,000 and even 300,000 silver coins to the Imam.
How clandestinely this had to be done is indicated in an interesting report which has Ali b. Yaqtin instructing two of his confidants to:
Buy two horses and avoid the main road!
Until you hand-over what you have of wealth and letters to Abi al-Hasan Musa without anyone having discovered you!
The two men relate how they set off from Baghdad to Kufa, bought horses and gathered the required provision for the journey there, before heading out to Medina using a less-travelled route. They were surprised to glimpse a rider heading to them at a location quite some distance away from Medina only to discover that it was Abu al-Hasan Musa! They handed over what they had carried and received some letters to take back to Baghdad in turn.
The two men requested the Imam:
Our provisions are almost over – if you could permit us (i.e. now that our task is over) to enter Medina so that we can visit the Messenger of Allah (i.e. his grave) and restock our provisions?
The Imam asked to see the provision they had remaining, he turned it over in his hands and said:
This is enough to make you reach Kufa! …
I have prayed with ‘them’ (i.e. the non-Shia) the Fajr and want to pray with ‘them’ the Dhuhr! (i.e. so that the Imam’s presence is not missed)
When al-Kadhim wanted to marry off three or four of his sons, among them al-Ridha, he wrote to Ali b. Yaqtin:
I have made over (the payment of) their dowries to you
Ali b. Yaqtin’s son Hasan reports that his father immediately began collecting the amount required such that:
He sent (an instruction) for his female slave-girls and even carried away their (parting) gifts from those who sold them (i.e. money given to them by their former owners) and sent to him (i.e. al-Kadhim) …
He added 3000 gold coins for the Walima (festive lunch), so the total amount reached 13,000 gold coins in a single installment
The Imam would also at times direct Ali b. Yaqtin to look after some of his ‘excellent’ companions who were impoverished. An example of this is Abdallah b. Yahya al-Kahili.
Al-Kadhim said to Ali b. Yaqtin:
Guarantee for me (to take care of) al-Kahili and his family and I will guarantee for you paradise
al-Kahili’s nephew confirmed that:
Ali – may Allah mercy on him – did not cease sending them food, gold coins, and all requirements, making them free of need, until al-Kahili died.
This generous offer extended to al-Kahili’s whole family and his near relations
The same al-Kahili reports the Imam fulfilling his promise to his patron. He says he was ‘with Abi Ibrahim (i.e. al-Kadhim) when Ali b. Yaqtin approached’
The Imam declared:
Whoever would like to see a man from the companions of the Messenger of Allah should look at this one who is coming
A man in the group who heard this asked the Imam:
He is from the people of paradise then?
The Imam said:
As for me then I bear witness that he is from the people of paradise
The reports which record how the Imam miraculously saved Ali b. Yaqtin from the suspicions of Harun al-Rashid who wanted to kill him for discovering Ali’s Rafidism are both very weak in chain. It is also a cause for suspicion that both reports employ a stereotypical literary device that appears as a recurring motif (i.e. a jealous official informs on Ali to Harun and Ali is saved at the last moment because of the Imam’s intervention) but with major variation in detail.
It is possible that Ali b. Yaqtin would send secret information about the intentions of the Abbasid Caliphs to the Imam although there is no reliable evidence for this. He was certainly not able to stop Harun al-Rashid’s policy of terror against the Alids which culminated in the arrest and imprisoning of the Imam in Baghdad.
Ali b. Yaqtin died in the year 182 while the Imam was still in prison.
The Imam was poisoned in the year 183.
Yaqtin b. Musa died in the year 185.
It is a fitting epitaph to end this with the comment that al-Ridha once made when the son of Yaqtin’s name came up:
As for Ali b. Yaqtin then he left (this world) while his master (i.e. al-Kadhim) was pleased with him
Can there be a better example of Taqiyya than this? While early accounts from contemporaries of Ali b. Yaqtin preserved in ‘Sunni’ historiographies, such as Tabari, know him only as an official close to the Caliphs, there is a rich memory of him preserved among the close-knit community of the Imamiyya. Nor can one write-off all the pieces of data given above as part of a large-scale fabrication because the association of the family of Yaqtin with the Imamiyya lived on until it became public knowledge.
So for instance, both Ali b. Yaqtin’s two sons, al-Hasan and al-Husayn, are listed as Thiqa (trustworthy) companions of the next Imam i.e. al-Ridha. Al-Hasan, in particular, is described as an Imami Faqih (jurist) and a Mutakallim (theologian). Both brothers participated in transmitting the written work of their father Ali b. Yaqtin.
Yunus b. Abd al-Rahman (d. 208), an eminent theologian and polemicist, one of the Ashab al-Ijma and a prolific narrator of Hadith in our corpus, was a Mawla of this family and a known Rafidi. This is in keeping with the family’s patronage of Hisham b. al-Hakam’s Baghdadi school of Imami rationalism of which Yunus was a major proponent.
Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Isa b. Ubayd b. Yaqtin, a scion of this house, was one of the most prominent Imami scholars of the mid-third century, and became one of Kulayni’s most important sources in al-Kafi.
In the face of the accumulation of evidence such as this, unbiased readers will have to seriously consider the notion that the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt were indeed making elevated claims of authority to rule the Umma for themselves, and then the decision will be theirs, either to excommunicate them, just as they do those ‘pesky Kufan liars’, in order as to maintain the comfortable image of them as non-controversial ‘pious’ scholars, or to get real.