SHAFAQNA | by Dr Chris Hewer: After the massacre at Karbala, Ali the young son of Hussain (AS), who was ill on the day of the battle, became the fourth Imam. He is usually known by the name Zayn Al-Abidin (AS) “the embellishment of the worshippers”. He lived a quiet non-political life in Medina marked by piety and spiritual wisdom. He died in c.713 and designated his son, Muhammad Al-Baqir (AS) as his successor, the fifth Imam. He also lived a non-political life in Medina at a time when there was a power-struggle between the Umayyads and the Abbasids, which drew attention away from the Ahlul-Bayt (AS).
This allowed Al-Baqir (AS) to pass on the divinely-inspired knowledge that he had received and thus he was widely noted for his wisdom, hence he was called Baqir Al-Ilm (“the opener of knowledge”). The probable date of his death is c.733 and he designated his son, Ja’far Al-Sadiq (AS) (“the upright one”) as his successor, the sixth Imam. Ja’far (AS) excelled in spreading the knowledge with which the Imams (AS) had been endowed and was principally responsible for establishing the Shia code of living, called after him, the Ja’fari School of Sharia. He too lived in Medina and, after his death in 765, was buried there alongside three of his predecessors (Hassan (AS), Zayn Al-Abidin (AS) and Muhammad Al-Baqir (AS)) in the cemetery of Al-Baqi.
After the death of Zayn Al-Abidin (AS), there was a division within the Shia community caused by a dispute about the rightful successor. The majority held that he had designated his son Muhammad as his successor but a minority group held that another son, Zayd ibn Ali, was the rightful fifth Imam. This minority group came to be called the Zaydis (or Fivers, as the dispute arose concerning the fifth Imam). Another dispute arose about who should be the seventh Imam. Ja’far’s (AS) eldest son Isma’il (d.755) died before his father. As the position of Imam had gone to the eldest son in the previous few cases, this led to a dispute amongst the Shia. Because the political situation was extremely tense (the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids), Ja’far had not openly announced the designation of his successor.
In these circumstances, Ja’far’s (AS) second eldest son, Abdullah Al-Aftah (d.766), who was known amongst the Shia for his lack of knowledge, claimed the Imamate for himself. Those who believed that Ja’far (AS) had designated Isma’il held that the designation then passed to his son, Muhammad ibn Isma’il, as the rightful seventh Imam. They were a minority and are called the Isma’ilis (or Seveners). The majority did not believe either in the apparent designation of Isma’il by his father or in the claim to the Imamate made by Abdullah Al-Aftah. They held that Ja’far had designated his third son, Musa Al-Kadhim (AS), as the rightful seventh Imam.
MusaAal-Kadhim (AS) (“the reserved one”) lived in his birth city of Medina until the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid had him brought to Iraq where he could be kept under surveillance in Basra and Baghdad. He was repeatedly imprisoned for long periods and is alleged to have been poisoned by order of the Caliph and died in Baghdad in 799. He was buried in the cemetery there, which was to be called Al Kadhimiya until the death and burial there of the ninth Imam, from which time it was also called Al-Kadhimayn (“the two Kazims”); it remains to this day an important centre of pilgrimage. Musa Al-Kadhim (AS) designated his son Ali Al-Ridha (AS) (“the agreeable one”) as the eighth Imam. He was still living in Medina, where he remained until he was brought to Merv in eastern Iran by the Caliph Ma’mun in 816. He was probably killed on the Caliph’s orders in 818 in Tus, where he was buried. The city was later re-named Mashhad (“the martyr’s shrine”).
Ali al-Ridha (AS) designated his young son Muhammad Al-Taqi (AS) (“the God-conscious”) as the ninth Imam. He grew up in Baghdad but later was allowed to settle in Medina. Eventually he was brought back to Baghdad and died in the same year 835. He designated his son, Ali al-Naqi (also known as al-Hadi “the guide to what is right”), as the tenth Imam. He grew up in Medina but was brought to Iraq by the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 848. He was required to live in the city of Samarra, where he died and was buried in 868. He designated his son Hasan al-Askari (“the one forced to live in the army camp of Samarra”) as the eleventh Imam. He died in Samarra in 874 and was buried there; again Samarra became an important pilgrimage centre.
The importance of the sites associated with the burial of the Imams as pilgrimage centres should be noted. They have been treated with great respect by the Shia and remain important centres of pilgrimage until the present time. The same Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who brought Ali Al-Hadi (AS) and Hassan Al-Askari (AS) to Samarra, also ordered the destruction of the shrine of Imam Hussain (AS) at Karbala in 850; much to the annoyance of the Shia. Such centres of pilgrimage acted as focal points for Shia faith and identity and thus were feared by the rulers. A new shrine was built to Imam Hussain (AS) at Karbala in 977, where a domed mausoleum was erected. This dignified way of marking the burial sites of the Imams became a standard practice and in later centuries such a shrine was built to the second, fourth, fifth and sixth Imams in the cemetery of Al-Baqi in Medina, which was destroyed by the followers of Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (d.1792) in 1925.
The Twelfth Imam, Imam Al-Mahdi (AJ)
Hassan Al-Askari feared that his young son Muhammad Al-Qa’im, the designated twelfth Imam, would be harmed by the Caliph and so he was kept in hiding in Samarra so that few knew of his existence. He was present for the funeral of his father and then disappeared from the sight of people. Some reported that he entered a well beneath a mosque in Samarra. In this way he entered his existence as the Hidden Imam. He was never seen by the masses again. There were a series of four men who were appointed by him as his trustees (wakil) or mediators (Safir). They were in contact with the Hidden Imam and were able to take petitions to him and receive his answers in guidance. This time was known as the Lesser Occultation. This continued until the death of the last of these trustees, Abu’l-Hussain Ali ibn Muhammad Al-Sumari, in 941. The Imam had ordered him not to appoint any successors as he was severing contact with the world from this time onwards. This Greater Occultation, as it was called, continues to the present day.
We should recall the Hadith of Muhammad [PBUH] that he would leave after him two precious things, the Quran and the Ahlul-Bayt (AS), which would never separate and would act as guidance to the world until the Day of Judgement. The world cannot be left without the presence of an Imam as guide to humankind and so the Hidden Imam, during the period of the Greater Occultation, is understood to be present on earth but hidden from human sight. He is thus spoken of as the Imam of the Present Age. He is out of human contact and all guidance of the Shia community in his absence is based on the premise that the community should be guided along the lines established by the Quran and the Ahl al-Bayt so that it is found to be on the correct path when he returns.
There was a Hadith of the Prophet in which he spoke of his community being guided by twelve righteous successors after his death. Muhammad [PBUH] was possessed of knowledge revealed to him by God; therefore he could see certain things that would happen in the future. The symbolism of the number twelve is significant for the Shia as it reminds them of the twelve tribes of Israel who succeeded Moses, and the twelve apostles of Jesus, who succeeded him. On this basis, this majority school amongst the Shia are called the Ithna’ Ashari (or Twelvers).
The twelfth Imam will one day come out of occultation and take his rightful place as leader of humankind. This is made clear by some of his titles: Al-Muntazar (“the awaited one”), Al-Mahdi (“the rightly guided one”) and Al-Qa’im (“the one who arises”). His return is eagerly awaited, longed for and prayed for by Ithna’ Ashari Shia to this day. When he returns, he will fill the earth with justice and rule humanity in peace according to the guidance of the Quran and the Ahlul-Bayt (AS). He is expected to reappear in Mecca between the Kaaba and the Stone of Abraham but the year is unknown. He will then be hand-in-hand with Jesus, who will also return as the Messiah (in Arabic Al-Masih “the purified one”). The earth will be cleansed from impurities and unbelievers will repent or be killed. A time of correct belief and justice will come upon the earth as foretold by the Quran [Q. 24:55]. The earth will take on something of the character of paradise, in which there will be no more poverty, hunger or want. This will continue for an unknown period of time leading up to the Day of Judgement.
The centrality of the Imamate
The Quran refers to certain people as being “drawn close to God” [Q. 56:7-11]. These are spoken of in the same verses as “the Foremost Ones.” Amongst those drawn close to God was Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is spoken of in the Quran as being purified, truthful, a witness and a blessing to humankind [Q. 3:42]. Indeed, the Quran speaks of four groups of people who are truly blessed by God and the most excellent companions: the Prophets, the truthful, the witnesses (those who bear testimony, e.g., through martyrdom) and the righteous [Q. 4:69]. From this list, the Imams are considered to be “the truthful”; as such, they have knowledge of good and evil but shun evil to live sinless lives worshipping God out of pure love alone. They are persons of spiritual excellence. They are not Prophets but the next in rank to them.
The Prophets received direct revelation from God (Wahy) whereas the Imams receive inspiration (Ilham), which comes from the same source of divine light and knowledge, but it is the gift of interpretation and authoritative guidance rather than the direct revelation of a scripture. They are thus similar to the mysterious figure of Al-Khidr, who had been given knowledge by God to be the guide to Moses [Q. 18:65]. The Imams are “firmly grounded in knowledge” given to them by God so that they can interpret the ambiguous or metaphorical verses of the Quran [Q. 3:7; 34:6]. Only people of the highest spiritual order, who are pure in heart and protected from sin and error, can guide the community aright; such are the Imams. God has removed the veils of their hearts so that they can access the inner dimensions of faith.
Imams (AS) are not elected by people but divinely appointed; just as Ali (AS) was appointed by God and designated by the infallible Muhammad (PBUH). As the Imams are also protected from error, when they designate their successors it is the appointment from God that is proclaimed. The Imams command both spiritual and temporal authority, even if circumstances mean that they cannot assume political leadership of the community. Thus they guide the community in every way. They are not in need of any human guidance because they are guided directly by God; only in such guides can humankind repose complete trust.
They are the representatives of God on the earth (Khalifat-Ullah). Just as the Hadith of Muhammad [PBUH] serve as sound guidance for living the Muslim life, so the teachings of the Imams have the authority of their impeccable status, thus their teaching is preserved and handed down within the community as a source of authority in drawing up the Sharia. This means that the Shia have the benefit of a further three hundred years of infallible guidance after the death of Muhammad and the end of the revelation of the Quran.