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The Major Occultation (Arabic:الغَيبَة الکُبری) is a term for the period of Imam al-Mahdi's (a) hidden life after the Minor Occultation. This period started from 329/940-941 and continues until today. In this period, Shi'as are not in direct contact with the Imam (a), and the leadership of the community rests with religious scholars.
The Beginning of the Major Occultation
From the beginning of his imamate in 260/874, Imam al-Mahdi (a) limited his contacts with the Shi'a to the relations through his specific deputies, the last of whom was 'Ali b. Muhammad al-Samuri who passed away in Sha'ban 15th 329/May 15th 941. He received the following letter from the Imam (a), one week before his death:
"O 'Ali b. Muhammad al-Samuri! May God reward your brothers for [being patient about] your loss, because you will pass away after six days. So prepare yourself, and do not designate anyone as your successor after your death, because the absolute occultation has occurred. There will be no appearance until God gives permission, and that will be after a long time when the hearts are hardened and the world is filled with injustice. Some of my followers will claim to have seen me, but know that whoever claims to have seen me before the uprising of the al-Sufyani and the heavenly cry he is indeed a liar and a slanderer."
In this way, after the demise of al-Samuri, contacts with the Imam (a) through specific deputies ended and a new phase of occultation started, which was called the Major Occultation in later sources.
The Role of the Imam in the Period of the Major Occultation
According to Shi'i beliefs, although the Imam (a) is in occultation, the world is receiving the blessings of his existence. The world needs the Imam (a) as the Proof of God for the continuation of its being. The Imam (a) not only has legislative wilaya but also existential wilaya over the world. This is why some major Shi'i hadith collections have a section entitled "On the Imams being the pillars of the earth."
As 'Allama Tabataba'i explains, the Imam's tasks are not limited to interpreting Islamic teachings and instructing people, but more importantly include his spiritual wilaya, that is, leading the people and their deeds towards God, for which task physical presence or absence is irrelevant.
Meeting with the Imam (a) During the Occultation
According to the Imam's last letter to al-Samuri, if someone claims before the uprising of al-Sufyani or the heavenly cry to have seen the Imam (a), he is a liar. The interpretation of this hadith has been a matter of discussion among the Shi'a, and there have been different viewpoints among them as to the possibility of meeting the Imam (a) during his occultation.
Those Who Have Allegedly Met the Imam
In different Shi'i sources, several stories have been recorded regarding the people who have been able to meet the Imam (a) in the period of the Major Occultation. Some of the most well-known stories include the stories of the meeting of 'Allama al-Hilli, Bahr al-'Ulum, Isma'il Hirqali, Hajj 'Ali al-Baghdadi, and 'Ali b. Ibrahim b. Mahziyar. These stories are narrated in Bihar al-anwar and Mafatih al-jinan and works like al-Najm al-thaqib.
After the demise of the fourth specific deputy in 329/940-941, Imam al-Mahdi (a) did not appoint any other specific deputies. In this way, all direct contacts between the Imam (a) and the people were cut. According to hadiths related to the occultation--including the one in which the Imam (a) refers people to religious scholars with regard to worldly and religious matters--religious scholars and jurists are generally introduced as the deputies of the Imam (a) in this period.
- The material for writing this article has been mainly taken from غیبت کبرا in Farsi wikishia.