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Major Occultation

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Shia Islam
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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 329/941 and continues until today. In this period, Shi'as are not in direct contact with the Imam (a).

Occultation of Imam al-Mahdi (a)

The disappearance of Imam al-Mahdi (a), the last and twelfth Shi'a Imam, is called the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a). According to Shi'a teachings, Imam al-Mahdi (a) has had two occultations: The Minor Occultation, which lasted sixty nine lunar years[Note 1], and the Major Occultation, which continues to the present day. During the Minor Occultation, Imam al-Mahdi (a) communicated with the Shi'a through the four deputies, but during the Major Occultation this communication does not exits and the Shi'a must refer to the scholars for their religious needs.

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 15, 329/May 20, 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.

Most Shi'a sources mention 329/941 as the year in which the fourth deputy passed away, but al-Shaykh al-Saduq and al-Fadl b. al-Hasan al-Tabrisi have recorded the year 318/930.

The Role of the Imam in the Period of the Major Occultation

According to Shi'i beliefs, although Imam Mahdi (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 (administration) but also creative wilaya over the world.

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 guardianship (wilaya), that is, leading the people and their deeds towards God, for which task physical presence or absence is irrelevant.

Meeting with the Imam During Major Occultation

Meeting with Imam al-Mahdi (a) in the period of the Major Occultation has been a challenging issue for Shi'a scholars. Some scholars, such as Muhammad b. Ibrahim al-Nu'mani, al-Shaykh al-Mufid, Fayd Kashani and Kashif al-Ghita' believe that it is impossible to meet the Imam (a) during the Major Occultation. The most important evidence in this regard is the last letter by Imam al-Mahdi (a) addressed to his Fourth Deputy according to which whoever claims to have met the Imam (a) is called a liar.

Yet the interpretation of this letter 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 this occultation. Some people believe that this letter is restricted to those who claim that they met the Imam (a) along with being his deputy or representative. Therefore, a group of scholars such as al-Sharif al-Murtada, al-Shaykh al-Tusi, Muhammad b. 'Ali al-Karajuki and Mirza Husayn Nuri have considered meeting Imam al-Mahdi (a) to be possible during Major Occultation. Many Shiite scholars have also talked about their meetings with Imam al-Mahdi (a) during the Major 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.

General Deputyship During Major Occultation

After the demise of the fourth specific deputy in 329/941, 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.

References

  • The material for writing this article has been mainly taken from غیبت کبرا in Farsi wikishia.

Notes

  1. Sixty nine lunar years would be equal to 67 solar years