The Occultation of Imam al-Mahdi (Arabic:غيبة الإمام المهدي) refers to the belief that the last and twelfth Shi'a Imam, Imam al-Mahdi (a), was disappeared. The occultation was conducted at the permission and will of God and is one of the basic and mandatory teachings of the Twelver Shi'a sect. In Hadiths that have discussed the motives behind occultation, the idea of putting the Shi'a to test has been cited.
According to Shi'a teachings, Imam al-Mahdi (a) has had two occultations: The Minor Occultation, which lasted sixty nine lunar years, 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 exist and the Shi'a must refer to the scholars for their religious needs.
In order to explain occultation, Shi'a researchers have written numerous books on the issue, the most famous of which are al-Nu'mani's book on occultation (Al-Ghayba) and al-Shaykh al-Tusi's Book on occultation (Kitab al-Ghayba).
Defining the Topic
According to Shi'a belief, God never leaves the earth without His deputy, the ultimatum, and infallible Imam. After the martyrdom of the eleventh Imam (a) in 260/874, the twelfth Imam, Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-'Askari (a), who was born in 255/869, inherited the position. By God's knowledge and will, the twelfth Imam disappeared from sight in 260/874, although he is still alive and shall reappear one day to free the world from the violence and injustice that fills it, in order to place justice and fairness instead.
The word ghayba (غَيْبَة, occultation) is derived from the root "gh-y-b" (غ ی ب). Its definition is opposite to presence and is used to convey disappearance from sight and camouflage.
The Minor Occultation is the period when Imam al-Mahdi (a) was in occultation after his father's martyrdom, in 260/874, to 329/941. The Imam (a) helped his followers spiritually, and guided them through his deputies, who are called the Four Deputies.
The Major Occultation is the period when Imam al-Mahdi (a) went into the second phase of his occultation after the death of his fourth deputy, 'Ali b. Muhammad al-Samuri. There is no interval between Minor Occultation and Major Occultation, and the only difference is that contrary to the period of Minor Occultation, in this period, Imam (a) has no specific deputy, and Shi'a people should refer to the scholars for their religious affairs. The Occultation is divided into two periods to show the lack of connection with Imam al-Mahdi (a) in the second period.
According to Shi'a belief, although the Imam is in occultation, the world and those in it all benefit from the blessing of his existence. In other words, the world needs an Imam who has been chosen by God in order to exist. This Imam does not just hold the legislative wilaya (al-wilaya al-tashri'iyya) of this world, but also has the generative wilaya (al-wilaya al-takwiniyya) as well. Therefore, some of the dominant Shi'a sources have a chapter on انَّ الْأَئِمَّةَ هُمْ أَرْكَانُ الْأَرْضِ which means, the Imams are the pillars of earth.
Representatives at the Age of Occultation
According to Shi'a teachings, it is obligatory that God appoints an Imam. This belief results from two principles; Rational good and badness and the Principle of Grace. This is why the Imam, who has the duty to lead the worldly and religious lives of the human beings, must be chosen by God. At the era when the infallible and chosen Imam is not present in the community, the duty is put on the shoulders of the scholars whom have the conditions for this position to represent him. Leading the human race, according to the Shi'a, is a divine covenant and command, therefore, authority should be established from God, His Prophet, and the infallible successors who have been chosen by God.
Reasons and Philosophy of Occultation
Shi'a researchers believe that all the reasons and secrets for the occultation are not known, but the hadith emphasize on three things:
1. To Test the Faithful
Based on Islamic sources, testing the creation and choosing the righteous ones of them, is one of the constant traditions of God. Life is full of tests for the pious whom use it to nurture their faith, patience and obeying of God's commands and reach perfection by flourishing their talents and abilities. Imam al-Mahdi's (a) occultation is a means to test; as the facade falls from the people with unstable belief, their doubts and uncertainty shall take over, while those whose belief have rooted into their hearts, shall become more experienced and worthy in faith and reach higher levels of piety and divine reward, as they bear through the troubles of time, awaiting the Imam. A narration from Imam Musa b. Ja'far (a) clearly expresses that God tests his creatures, by occultation. The narrations declared that testing people in the time of occultation is of the most difficult testings. The troubles of this test are for two reasons:
First: When the period of occultation becomes lengthy, many people will face doubts and uncertainties. Some will doubt his birth, while others question whether he is still alive, but only the honest who have already passed their previous tests and have reached deep understanding will preserve their belief about the Imam. In a long hadith, the Prophet (s) mentions this issue and says, "Al-Mahdi shall disappear from the sight of the Shi'a and his followers, and no one shall stay stable on their belief, except those who God has put their hearts on the path of faith, and made it worthy."
Second: The troubles and pressures of the end of times will change the people to the extent that preserving faith and religion shall be a hard objective to achieve. The faith which the people hold will be seriously in danger.
2. To Save the Imam's Life
A loot into some narrations suggests that God saved the Imam from the danger of being killed, by occultation, for had he appeared from the very beginning of his life, he would have been killed. Based on the same logic, if he appears before the time is right, his life will be in danger and shall fail to fulfill his Godly objectives and the great reformations he was created to make.
3. Being Free from Accepting the Leadership of the Illegitimate Ruler
According to some narrations, the twelfth Imam shall not recognize any oppressive government, even as a dissimulation. He is not obliged to perform Taqiyya ( precautionary dissimulation) for any leader or king, and shall not live under the flag of any oppressor. He will perform God's rulings with no compromise, concern, or secrecy. In other words, he will be in occultation until he rises and thus be free from allegiance or loyalty to any leader or government.
- Sixty nine lunar years would be equal to 67 solar years
- Ibn Manzur, Vol.1, P.454; Mustafawi, Vol.3, P.353
- al-Kulayni, Vol.1, PP.196-7
- al-Kulayni, Vol.1, PP.196-7
- al-Kulayni, Vol.1, P.337; al-Tusi, P.204
- al-Tusi, PP.203-7
- Fayd Kashani, Chapter.1, Session.8, P.101
- al-Kulayni, Vol.1, P.337;al-Tusi, P.202
- al-Kulayni, Vol.1, P.337;al-Tusi, P.202
- al-Saduq, Chapter.44, P.480
- The material for this article is mainly taken from (غیبت امام زمان (عج in Farsi Wikishia.
- Ibn Manzur, Jamal al-Din Abu l-Fadl. 1414 AH. Lisan al-'Arab. Beirut: Dar Sadir.
- al-Kulayni, Muhammad b. Ya'qub. 1388 AH. 'Usul al-kafi Ed. 'Ali Akbar Ghaffari. Tehran: Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyya.