Shafqna: Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī
The twelfth Imam is the Mahdī. He was born in 868 AD in Samarra. His real name is Muḥammad and his tektonym is Abū al-Qāsim. The tyrannical regime of that time felt threatened by the very possibility of his existence. To that effect, they kept watch over all births so that any new born could be killed. To be safe from threats, he went into hiding following the martyrdom of his father, Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī. He contacted his close aides only. Imam al-Mahdī had two periods of occultation: a lesser one and a greater one. The Lesser Occultation started in 260 AH and lasted up to 329 AH when the Greater Occultation began. The Imam will reappear whenever God deems fit to usher in an era of divine governance and fulfil the ultimate missions of all the Prophets.
During the Lesser Occultation, the Shīʿa could contact the Imam via four deputies: ʿUthmān b. Saʿīd al-ʿAmrī, Muḥammad b. ʿUthmān b. Saʿīd al-ʿAmrī, Abū al-Qāsim Ḥusayn b. Rūḥ Nawbakhtī and ʿAlī b. Muḥammad Samarī.
The last deputy died in 329, which is when the Greater Occultation began. During this time, the Imam could no longer be contacted and he is only represented by the jurists in a general sense.
Imam al-Mahdī’s characteristics
Based on some of our traditions, the characteristics of Imam al-Mahdī could be listed as follows:
He belongs to the family of the Messenger of God.
He is a descendant of Imam Ḥusayn.
He is the twelfth successor to the Prophet.
He is the son of Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī.
He will usher in justice in the world.
He will establish a global government.
He will bring relief to the oppressed.
He will end all wars and establish peace and stability. (Muntakhab al-Āthār)
Imam al-Mahdī and his global government
Thinkers and policymakers hold out the possibility of the United Nations turning into a central governing body for the entire world to bring together all human nations. The formation of an international body like UN shows that the possibility of a single united world government cannot be discounted. A group of thinkers announced in a declaration (Tokyo Congress, 1963) that they favour a global government based on the following bodies:
Supreme Executive Council
International Court of Justice
These attitudes show that the divine plan the Prophets and the Imams had reported is taking roots and the ideal enshrined in the Mahdī is slowly becoming a reality. Efforts under way to unite cultures and civilizations could easily be seen as portents of the Imam’s return.
Peace and friendship to replace war and bloodshed
Human history is marked by wars, occupations and injustices perpetrated by tyrants, dictators and oppressive regimes. Everyone wonders if one day such bloodshed will finally come to an end; will a day come in which people can live together in fraternity? Philosophical and social calculations make clear that the human being is moving towards a higher degree of perfection. However, mankind can only reach the highest degree of perfection if its orientation is not restricted to material considerations and they incorporate spirituality too. Scientifically speaking, the material growth of humanity is undeniable and the expansion of his power on sea and land is clear to all. But can this material perfection guarantee his happiness and prosperity? Definitely not! Genuine perfection will only be realized when spiritual achievements such as kindness, affection, morality and humanity match humanity’s scientific and industrial achievements like spaceships, rockets, submarines, skyscrapers and industry. If not, the society will be like a bird with only one wing that will fall before flying.
Recognition of mankind’s potential for perfection leads us to anticipate the coming of a day when there will be no injustice left on the earth. ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾī says: ‘Due to his God-given nature, mankind always searches for true happiness; true happiness depends on meeting both his physical and spiritual needs, in which both this world and the Hereafter are considered. When we see mankind deviate from the path of happiness, it is not because he has not heard the call of humanity but because he is searching in the wrong places for it. Mankind is looking for happiness and perfection, but they imagine that their deviation will bring them this….’
The Qur’an and the future of human society
The Qur’an has spoken about the future of human societies in clear terms:
The good will inherit the Earth
It is only prudent that human beings should seek news about the future of the world. As God says in the Qur’an: ‘And We alternate these days of varying conditions among the people.’ (Q3:140)
According to the Qur’an, the divine habit (sunna ilāhiyya) decrees that only worthy persons will inherit administration of world affairs in the future. Then, a unified world will be formed under a single flag: ‘Certainly We wrote in the Psalms, after the Torah: ‘Indeed My righteous servants shall inherit the earth.’’ (Q21:105) Also, ‘Allah has promised those of you who have faith and do righteous deeds that He will surely make them successors in the earth, just as He made those who were before them successors, and He will surely establish for them their religion which He has approved for them, and that He will surely change their state to security after their fear…’ (Q24:55) Moreover, ‘It is We who provide for you, and the outcome will be in favour of Godwariness.’ (Q20:132)
The establishment of Islam and global peace
The Qur’an says that God will finally establish the religion He desires for His servants. This religion disavows any form of idolatry. The day this religion will be established will be marked by peace and safety across the world. Then, believers will worship God without any fear as no evil group will be left: ‘…He will surely establish for them their religion which He has approved for them, and that He will surely change their state to security after their fear, while they worship Me, not ascribing any partners to Me…’ (Q24:55)
Islam will spread across the world
The Qur’an has on two occasions predicted about the establishment of Islam world and its triumph over all other religions. It will happen after the advent of Imam al-Mahdī, who will spread the true teachings of Islam throughout the world:
‘They desire to put out the light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah shall perfect His light though the faithless should be averse. It is He who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth that He may make it prevail over all religions though the polytheists should be averse.’ (Q61:8–9)
The success of the mission of the Prophets
Throughout history, the Prophets strove to spread their teachings, but they were never able to fully institute them due to opposition from certain groups that opposed their efforts. However, the Qur’an says that this situation is temporary and their teachings will indeed spread throughout the world: ‘Indeed We shall help Our Messengers and those who have faith in the life of the world and on the day when the witnesses rise up.’ (Q40:51) Also: ‘Certainly Our decree has gone beforehand in favour of Our servants, the Messengers, that they will indeed receive [Allah’s] help, and indeed Our hosts will be the victors.’ (Q37:171-173) And: ‘Allah has ordained: ‘I shall surely prevail, I and My Messengers.’ Indeed Allah is all-strong, all-mighty.’ (Q58:21)
Good will triumph over evil.
The Qur’anic verses maintain that good will eventually triumph over evil and polytheism will be replaced by monotheism:
‘Rather We hurl the truth against falsehood, and it crushes its head, and behold, falsehood vanishes!’ (Q21:18) In another verse, the Qur’an draws a parallel between good and evil and water and foam: ‘He sends down water from the sky whereat the valleys are flooded to [the extent of] their capacity, and the flood carries along a swelling scum. And from what they smelt in the fire for the purpose of [making] ornaments or wares, [there arises] a similar scum. That is how Allah compares the truth and falsehood. As for the scum, it leaves as dross, and that which profits the people remains in the earth. That is how Allah draws comparisons.’ (Q13:17)
The role of hidden divine help in the future of human societies
The Qur’an maintains that in every society, courageous people will emerge to sacrifice their lives for the dignity of Islam. And it warns that any deviation from monotheism will have no other result than annihilation. Throughout history, there are people whom God loves. These people are humble in front of believers, but stern in the face of unbelievers:
‘O you who have faith! Should any of you desert his religion, Allah will soon bring a people whom He loves and who love Him, [who will be] humble towards the faithful, stern towards the faithless, waging jihad in the way of Allah, not fearing the blame of any blamer. That is Allah’s grace which He grants to whomever He wishes, and Allah is all-bounteous, all-knowing.’ (Q5:54)
The future of human societies as depicted in Prophetic traditions
Now, it is important to see how these promises made in Qur’an will be realized. The answer to this question lies in Prophetic traditions which foretell the realization of these promises with the reappearance of Imam al-Mahdī. The aḥādīth speak about the development of wisdom and technology. They also predict the establishment of justice and monotheism.
The perfection of human intellects
The passage of time and its vicissitudes bring spur developments in human consciousness. Mankind will understand that human organizations are no longer capable of resolving conflicts and problems without divine assistance. Hence, they will immediately respond positively to Imam al-Mahdī’s call and every human being will join his revolution. Imam al-Bāqir says: ‘When Imam al-Mahdī rises up God will put His hand of grace and compassion on the head of His servants to unite their intellects.’ (Muntakhab al-Āthār)
The perfection of technology
A global revolution could not happen without a technological revolution. A revolutionary leader who intends to have his voice heard across the globe will need advanced technical facilities. Prophetic traditions say after the advent of Imam al-Mahdī, technological progress will reach a point that the world will be like a single city and those living in the East will see those living in the West.
Imam al-Bāqir says: ‘During the time of Imam al-Mahdī, a believer living in the East will see his brother living in the West.’ (Muntakhab al-Āthār) Another ḥadīth is clearer to that effect: ‘When Mahdī rises up God will empower his followers to see and hear their leader without moving from their places.’ (Muntakhab al-Āthār)
Islam will spread across the globe
The Prophetic traditions attribute Qur’anic promises to the reappearance of Imam al-Mahdī. Imam al-Bāqir says: ‘His power and dominance will expand on the East and the West and God will complete His religion through him although polytheists may be averse.’ (Muntakhab al-Āthār)
As we mentioned earlier, genuine human evolution must have both material and spiritual aspects. According to Prophetic traditions, a characteristic of Imam al-Mahdī will be his promotion of justice and destruction of tyranny. This perfection is epitomised in the tradition: ‘He will fill the earth with justice’.
The Prophetic traditions all herald development of the world and mankind’s discovery of hidden treasures after the advent of Imam al-Mahdī: ‘The treasures hidden deep underground will be in possession of the Imam who will use his material and spiritual influence and strength to develop ruins inherited from periods of tyranny.’ All intellectual calculations about the future of societies are confirmed by the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions which attribute them to the reappearance of Imam al-Mahdī.
The benefits of Imam al-Mahdī’s occultation and the duty of awaiting him
In this section, we will discuss the benefits of awaiting the return of Imam al-Mahdī and how awaiting his appearance contributes to the reconstruction of the Islamic society.
Since Imam al-Mahdī went into Occultation, numerous questions have occupied minds of curious people. These questions are not new, as they were raised as early as the 4th and 5th century AH and they have been answered accurately at even that time. Shaykh al-Ṣadūq (306-381 AH) is a senior Shīʿa ḥadīth collector. In his book, Kamal al-Dīn, he speaks about the Occultation, as does Nuʿmānī (410 AH) and Shaykh al-Ṭusi (385-460 AH).
One such question pertains to the benefits of the existence of Imam al-Mahdī while he is in occultation. We all know that the Imam is a leader and guide. But how can a hidden Imam handle this task? The Qur’an says: ‘We made them imams, guiding by Our command…’ Q21:73) How can a hidden the Imam be expected to guide people? A leader can be helpful only if he is in contact with his followers. So how can Imam al-Mahdī be of help to his? As long as the Imam is in hiding, his presence is unseen while a leader needs a social presence. So someone might legitimately ask what advantage this divine guide can have for people while he is in this state?
Imam al-Mahdī is like a pure spring of life. Does the Imam’s Hiding mean that his existence is less than that of an invisible spirit or waves and rays? Is it compatible with scientific findings? This is an important question which has been answered by our scholars.
First and foremost, the occultation of Imam al-Mahdī does not mean his existence is invisible or imaginary. Imam al-Mahdī is living a natural life like others, the key difference being his longevity. However, he lives in different places and exists amongst the people, in human society as an unknown figure. There is a big difference between ‘unknown’ and ‘invisible.’
However, one could still ask how such an existence is justified for a divine guide?
The Sun behind the clouds
The advantages of Imam al-Mahdī’s existence while he is in occultation could be summarized in a single sentence: ‘Like the Sun behind the clouds.’ Different aḥādīth have underscored the advantage of existence of the Awaited Imam. These traditions could be key to understanding how Imam al-Mahdī continues to benefit the world even while in occultation.
Asked how Imam al-Mahdī will be of help during his occultation, the Prophet said: ‘I swear by the God who sent me that people will benefit from the light of his leadership while he is absent. It will be like the Sun covered by clouds.’ (Biḥār al-Anwār)
Protecting the religion
With the passage of time, religious issues have become mixed up with personal views and sometimes religious teachings have been distorted by schools of thought that have gone astray. In that case, some teachings will lose their basis. The narrow-mindedness of certain individuals will cover up the facts and then it will be then difficult, if not impossible, for people to know the true teachings of the faith. In this regard, a poet has recited the following verses for the Prophet: ‘They are trimming your religion, they are trying to eradicate your religion’ and ‘They have distorted it to the point that even you cannot recognize it.’
Is it not necessary for Muslims to have someone among them to preserve the original teachings of Islam? This person is the Imam, who is aware of all of these teachings in totality which means that God’s authority over His creation will never be invalidated.
Training particular outstanding individuals
Despite popular belief, the Imam is not entirely incommunicado during his occultation. According to Prophetic traditions, a small group of pious and pure people are in touch with him at any given time and working under his guidance to reform the world. The Imam’s absence does not mean that he is an invisible spirit or force. The Imam is living his natural life and is communicating with people he has chosen to prepare the world for his return. Some people have the chance to be in touch with him for a few moments, others for days and some for years. It would be wrong to think that in order to see the Sun we must remove the clouds; we need to fly above the clouds if we want to see the Sun.
We know the Sun has visible rays which together create seven colours as well as ultraviolet and infrared radiation. A divine leader, whether he is a prophet or the Imam, has automatically received a sort of spiritual station known as ‘cosmic guardianship’ (wilāya takwīniyya) which gives them the ability to influence the world.
Stories of prophets and Imams recount cases in which some corrupt people have changed direction in their life under the influence of divine messengers. Such quick transformations and revolutions of character under the influence such persons are the result of their innate charisma. Many people have experienced such a change in their lives; they might have been influenced by certain individuals due to certain energies emitting from their spirits.
Throughout history, there have been a large number of these cases for which there is no other justification.
Asʿad b. Zurāra was an idol-worshipper in Mecca who changed completely after a chance meeting with the Prophet in the vicinity Kaʿba. The enemies of the Prophet spoke about the Prophet’s charisma, called it sorcery and warned people not to approach him.
Imam Ḥusayn influenced Zuhayr b. al-Qayn on the road to Karbala. As he heard the Imam’s message, he did not even eat the morsel he held in his hand. Hurr b. Yazīd Riyahi also inclined to Imam Ḥusayn, despite being on the opposite side. He ultimately joined Ḥusayn’s camp and gave his life to protect him.
A wealthy young man lived in Abū Basīr’s neighborhood. He spent his wealth in the service of the Umayyad dynasty by organizing parties. His life changed when Imam al-Sādiq sent him a message. He returned whatever property he had taken unjustly to its rightful owners and even spent his own money for religious purposes.
Harūn al-Rashīd sent a beautiful songstress to the prison where Imam al-Kāẓim was held in a bid to corrupt him. However, after some time, the woman was influenced by the Imam and her attitude and way of speaking frightened Harūn.
These are all signs of the ‘cosmic guardianship’ that has been granted to the Prophet and Imams. What is important here is not only words and sentences, but the spiritual influence and charisma they possess. But this charisma and influence is not limited to the Prophets and Imams. There have also been pious people who have been given this gift. However, the influence of ordinary people cannot be compared with the influence enjoyed by the Prophet and the Imams. The presence of Imam al-Mahdī, even when he is in occultation, will still influence people’s hearts and help them become ready under his guidance. We cannot see the magnetic poles of the earth but we see their influence on compasses, in the planes, in the skies, in the deserts and everywhere. Thanks to these magnetic waves, millions of people travel around the world without getting lost.
Is it really so surprising if Imam al-Mahdī guides people through waves of his spiritual influence during his occultation? However, it is important to keep in mind that magnetic waves of the earth do not influence any material and they are effective only on magnetic ones. Therefore, the Imam will be influential only on people whose hearts are receptive to his guidance.
Revealing the purpose of creation
No wise man will take steps aimlessly and any wise movement will be directed towards a specific goal or outcome. The difference is that while human beings seek to meet their own needs God’s objective is to meet the needs of others.
Suppose that we are planting an orchard on fertile ground. Weeds will definitely grow in the midst of trees and flowers. When we water the trees, the weeds will also benefit. In this case, we are actually meeting two goals: The primary goal is to water fruit trees and flowers, but the subsequent goal is that the useless weeds are watered. But the subsequent goal is not the primary motivation.
Now if all the trees die except for a single one we must still water it, even though many weeds might have grown and benefit as a result. But if that single tree is felled, we will stop watering the garden even if all the weeds will die.
Those people who are moving towards perfection are fruit trees and the corrupt people are like weeds in the garden. Therefore, the goal of creation cannot be the spread of tyranny, ignorance and corruption by a group of corrupt people. The sky and the earth have not been created to serve these people. This world and all its blessings are supposed to be for the benefit of pure and pious persons. One day, this world will be seized from usurpers: ‘Indeed My righteous servants shall inherit the earth.’ (Q21:105)
The Creator of this world will continue to bestow blessings upon all human beings just for the sake of this group of pure people. Weeds are also likely to be watered, but they are not the primary goal. However, if one day the last group of competent people are wiped off the surface of the earth, there will be no reason for continuing to continue the flow of blessings. On that day, the earth will withhold human beings any benefit and Heaven will stop sending down God’s mercy.
The Prophet and the Imam represent the perfect human being, the same target group of creation. Therefore, the presence of the Prophet or an Imam, whether on his own or at the head of righteous people, will justify the creation’s continued existence.
All other good persons are also the goal of creation, but they are only part of the main objective and they benefit from heavenly blessings thanks to the presence of the last Imam.
To that effect, a tradition says: ‘Thanks to his existence, people are bestowed with blessings. The sky and the earth remain only for his sake’.
In one qudsi tradition, God tells the Prophet that ‘We would not have created the skies had you not existed.’
The point of this is that the Prophet is the ultimate goal of creation and others are part of this goal. Those who have closed their eyes to higher truths and think the existence of the hidden the Imam has no purpose are mistaken. There are many signs showing the effectiveness of the Awaited Imam.
God’s representatives depicted in the Qur’an and Nahj al-Balāgha
Imam ʿAlī says God’s representatives are either visible or hidden. ‘My Lord! The Earth will not be without a representative (ḥujjah) who establishes Allah’s proof for Him, whether visible and known, or fearful and hidden, lest Allah’s proofs and authority be invalidated’ (Nahj al-Balāgha, sermon no. 147)
In this saying, Imam ʿAlī can only be talking about the Final Imam who has gone into occultation due to the unfavourable conditions. He will return when the world is ready for his movement. We can refer to at least three cases of occultation before that of Imam al-Mahdī. These involved Khidr, who was the teacher of Moses, Moses himself and Jonah.
The Qur’an refers to a guide whom people, even the messenger of God at that time, did not know. God describes him as follows:
‘They found one of Our servants whom We had granted a mercy from Ourselves, and taught him a knowledge from Our own. Moses said to him, ‘May I follow you for the purpose that you teach me some of the probity you have been taught?’ He said, ‘Indeed you cannot have patience with me! And how can you have patience about something you are not in the know of?’’ (Q18:65–68)
The prophet Moses has asked permission to follow him and, therefore. he must have been a man of great learning and a pure servant of God.
The presence of this man, identified as Khidr, reminds us of the following points:
Nobody knew this man and had God not introduced him nobody would have known him. Therefore, there is no condition requiring people to know the divine guides.
This divine guide, even when he is hidden from public view, never neglects societal conditions. God had granted him authority to intervene based on certain principles. He was so strict in his mission that he did not let a tyrannical governor seize the ship of a group of poor people. His authority was even expanded that he was allowed to kill a human being and erect a wall to protect orphans. (Q18:71-82)
The interesting point is that not only was he hidden, but even his actions were hidden. Had people seen him they would never allowed him to damage the ship because they were not aware of his goal in doing so. Had people seen him kill someone they would not have let him escape. He did all these things in the society without anyone having knowledge of them. People saw neither him nor what he did.
Most important, however, is his role as a guide and a leader. He was a guide and he accomplished this function both on the theoretical and practical level.
Taking into account the striking parable of this divine guide, one can easily understand that whether God’s representatives are hidden or visible depends on the conditions at the time.
The main task of the Twelve Imams is guidance and leadership. This can be achieved in more ways than one; it is not necessary that the Imam be famous as he can even perform this function in secret. Perhaps God’s representative needs to guide a single person or perhaps a whole society. It depends on the conditions at the time.
A hidden Imam can do whatever Khidr did; the Imam watches-over the mundane and religious affairs of people, contacts worthy individuals and educates them. Is it still possible to question the usefulness of the existence of the hidden the Imam? The Qur’anic verse ‘guiding by Our command’ shows that all God’s representatives guide people based on His command. God may decide for them to lead people overtly or covertly depending on the circumstances. Either way, the point is that any guidance undertaken by the Imam is in accordance with God’s commands.
At the beginning of his mission, the Prophet used to guide people individually. After three years of covert preaching, God ordered him to announce his mission publicly. Our Prophet is not the only figure to have adopted this method of guidance. It is a divine tradition which is enacted depending on the circumstances a prophet finds himself in: ‘Again I summoned them aloud, and again appealed to them publicly and confided with them privately.’ (Q71:8–9)
So with this in mind, why should it be necessary for the Imam to guide everyone openly? The significant point is that the Imam should guide people in accordance with God’s command. The prophets Noah and Muḥammad have already guided people in secret. So why can Imam al-Mahdī not do likewise? We must always keep in mind the verse ‘guiding by Our command.’ This verse does not say that the representatives of God are always leading people openly, rather they are guiding them by whatever means is suitable at the time.
Moses absence for forty days
If we imagine that the Imam’s occultation contradicts his role as a guide, what shall we say about Moses? The Qur’an clearly says that this prophet was absent for forty days. (Q7:142) Was he still fulfilling his purpose as a prophet during this time or not? Was he a guide or not? If we accept that he was still a guide, one may ask what benefit there was to his existence. If we say he was no longer a guide then we will be speaking baselessly because we all know that he underwent this retreat to receive the Torah from God. Someone might argue that the absence of Moses is different from the Occultation; Moses went into hiding while there was another guide present among people. But it should be remembered that, as we mentioned above, the Imam also has representatives who lead the people on his behalf.
The Qur’an has also mentioned the story of Jonah, who was in the whale’s stomach for some time. Jonah was a divine guide, but he was away from his own nation. How can we justify his absence? The Qur’an is clear in this regard: ‘We sent him to a [community of] hundred thousand or more.’ (Q37:147) This verse makes it clear that he was sent as a prophet before his confinement. But he was there for specific reasons. We must first know what exactly the ‘hundred thousand’ refers to. Does it refer to the entire population who lived before Jonah or only to those who had repented to God when faced with punishment?
The Qur’an also speaks about a prophet who was appointed as a guide while he was but an infant: ‘He said, ‘Indeed I am a servant of Allah! He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed, wherever I may be, and He has enjoined me to [maintain] the prayer and to [pay] the zakat as long as I live,’ (Q19:30-31) The prophet made this remark in the first days of his life, while still a baby in his mother’s arms, but his mission began when he was thirty. The parallel between the prophets Noah, Jesus, Moses, Khidr and Imam al-Mahdī is clear for all to see.