Hasan ibn Ali ibn Muhammad (c. 846 – 874) was the 11th Imam of Islamic history, after his father Ali al-Hadi. He was also called Abu Muhammad and Ibn al-Ridha. Because Samarra, the city where he lived, was a garrison town, he is generally known as al-Askari (Askar is the word for military in Arabic). Al-Askari married Narjis Khatun and was kept in house arrest or prison for most of his life until, according to some Shia sources, he was poisoned at the age of 28 on the orders of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tamid and was buried in Samarra. It was known that many Shia were looking forward the succession of his son, Muhammad al-Mahdi, as they believed him to be the twelfth Imam, who was destined to remove injustice from the world.
Birth and early life
Hasan al-Askari was born during a period when his father Ali al-Hadi, the tenth Imam, was suspected of being involved in a conspiracy against the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil. There is doubt as to whether al-Askari was born in Medina or Samarra. According to authentic shia hadith he was born in Medina on the 10th of Rabuil Akhar 232 Hijri (6.12.846 AD) and died in Samarrah Iraq on 8th of Rabiul Awwal 260 Hijri (4.1.874) aged 28. Period of imamate was 6 years. He was taken along with his family to Samarra in the year 230, 231 or 232 A.H., and was kept there under house arrest. In Samarra, al-Askari spent most of his time perusing the Quran and the Sharia. According to Donaldson, al-Askari must also have studied languages, for in later years it was known that he could speak Hindi with the pilgrims from India, Turkish with the Turks, and Persian with the Persians. According to Shia accounts, however, it is part of the divine knowledge given to all Imams to be able to speak all human languages.
It is said that even as a child, al-Askari was bestowed with divine knowledge. One day a man passed by him, and saw that he was crying. The man told him he would buy a toy that he might play with. «No!» said al-Askari, «We have not been created for play.» The man was amazed at this answer and said, «Then, what for have we been created?» «For knowledge and worship.» answered the child. The man said «Where have you got this from?» Al-Askari said, «From the saying of God, Did you then think that We had created you in vain.» The man was confused, so he said, «What has happened to you while you are guiltless, little child?» al-Askari said, «Be away from me! I have seen my mother set fire to big pieces of firewood, but fire is not lit except with small pieces, and I fear that I shall be from the small pieces of the firewood of the Hell.»
Al-Askari’s mother, as in the case of the majority of The Twelve Imams, was a slave girl who was honoured after bearing children with the title Umm walad (mother of offspring). Her own name was Hadith, though some say she was called Susan, Ghazala, Salil, or Haribta. Al-Askari had other brothers, and among them was Ja’far who was also known as Ja’far al-Zaki or Jaffar-us-Sani. His other brother was Husayn, and together he and al-Askari were known as «as-Sibtayn», after their two grandfathers Hasan and Husayn, who were also called as-Sibtayn.
Shia believe that Hasan al-Askari gained the Imamate after the death of his father through Divine Command, as well as through the decree of the previous Imams, at the age of 22. During the seven years of his Imamate, Hasan al-Askari lived in dissimulation (taqiyah), without any social contact, as the Abbasid Caliphs were afraid of Shia due to increasingly popularity at the time. The Caliphs also came to know that the leaders among the Shia believed that the eleventh Imam would have a son who was the promised Mahdi. Due to these fears, the Caliphs of the time had decided definitely to put an end to the Imamate in Shiism once and for all.
Under the rule of the Abbasid Caliphs
Hasan al-Askari lived almost his entire life under house arrest in Samarra and under supervision of Abbasid caliphs. He criticized the rulers for appropriating the wealth of the nation and extorting the people under their rule by not communicating with or cooperating with the kings of his time. The state remained in a political crisis, as the Abbasid Caliphs were considered puppets of the Turks, who were seen as ruling through terrorism. After the death of al-Askari’s father, Ali al-Hadi, the Caliph Al-Mu’tazz summoned him to Baghdad, where he was kept in prison during the short rule of the next Caliph, Al-Muhtadi. Most of his prison experiences, however, were at the time of the succeeding Caliph Al-Mu’tamid, who is known in Shia sources as the main oppressor of the Imam. The cause of the Imam’s death has largely been speculated to be due to poison administered by al-Mu’tamid.
During their lifetimes, the Shia Imams trained hundreds of scholars whose names and works can be found in biographical books. During the time of the Eleventh Imam, however, some Shia saw Islamic religious life as being in shambles. The Imam was under house arrest and many non-believers took advantage of this to question religion, in spite of his continuing to speak out against those who questioned the Qur’an. The account of this could be found in a Tafsir ascribed to him. This can also be seen when a philosopher by the name of Al-Kindi, who is considered as the first Muslim Philosopher, wrote a book entitled «The Contradiction of the Quran». The news came to al-Askari, who met one of al-Kindi’s disciples and said to him, «Is there no wise man among you to prevent your teacher, al-Kindi, from that which he has busied himself with?»
The disciple answered that they were al-Kindi’s disciples and were not able to object. Later on Hasan al-Askari instructed the disciple how to question al-Kindi.
«Go to him, be courteous with him, and show him that you will help him in what he is in. When he feels comfortable with you, you say to him, ‘If someone recites the Quran, is it possible that he means other meanings than what you think you understand? He shall say that it is possible because he is a man who understands when he listens. If he says that, you say to him, How do you know? He might mean other than the meanings that you think, and so he fabricates other than its (the Qur’an) meanings…».
The disciple did as al-Askari advised him; and Al-Kindi was shrewd enough to say, «…no one like you can get to this. Would you tell me where you have got this from?» And when he heard the true story said «Now you say the truth. Like this would not come out except from that house (the Ahlul Bayt)…». It is said that al-Kindi burnt his book afterwards.
Despite being confined to house arrest for almost his entire life, Hasan al-Askari was able to teach others about Islam, and even compiled a commentary on the Quran that became known as Tafsir al-Askari. However, there was much suspicion regarding whether it truly was his or not. The Tafsir was accused by some to be weak in its chain of authorities (Sanad), which is an essential part of the transmission of a tradition. The Tafsir was also questioned because it contained a few inconsistencies and lacks eloquence, which some claim ruin its validity by default. The main reason people questioned the validity of the Tafsir was the fact that the Imam was under constant watch by the Abbasid government, who prevented any contact between him and the Shia so that it would be impossible for such knowledge to be transferred.