Calligraphic representation of his
name as it appears
|Born||c. 29 July 869 CE|
c. 4 January 874 (aged 4)
|Monuments||Maqam e Ghaybat, Iraq|
|Other names||Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Ali|
|Agent||The Four Deputies|
|Term||874 CE – present|
- 1 Muhammad al-Mahdi
- 2 Birth and early life according to Twelver Shi'a
- 3 The Occultation
- 4 Significance of the Twelfth Imam
- 5 Reappearance
- 6 Titles
- 7 Sunni view
- 8 Scholarly observations
- 9 Consequence of occultation of Twelfth Imam
- 10 Historicity of Muhammad al-Mahdi
- 11 Qur'aan
Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdī (Arabic:حجت بن الحسن المهدي) is believed by Twelver Shī‘a Muslims to be the Mahdī, an ultimate savior of humankind and the final Imām of the Twelve Imams who will emerge with Isa (Jesus Christ) in order to fulfill their mission of bringing peace and justice to the world. Twelver Shī‘a believe that al-Mahdī was born in 869 (15 Sha‘bān 255 AH) and assumed Imamate at 5 years of age following the death of his father Hasan al-Askari. In the early years of his Imamate he would only contact his followers through The Four Deputies. After a 72-year period, known as Minor Occultation, a few days before the death of his fourth deputy Abul Hasan Ali ibn Muhammad al-Samarri in 941, he is believed to have sent his followers a letter. In that letter that was transmitted by al-Samarri he declared the beginning of Major Occultation during which Mahdi is not in contact with his followers.
Followers of Sunni Islam and other minority Shias believe that the Mahdi has not yet been born, and therefore his exact identity is only known to Allah. Aside from the Mahdi's precise genealogy, Sunnis accept many of the same hadiths Shias accept about the predictions regarding the Mahdi's emergence, his acts, and his universal Caliphate. Sunnis also have a few more Mahdi hadiths which are not present in Shia collections.
The messianic belief in Mahdi helped Shias to tolerate unbearable situations to the level that without it the Shia religion might not have been able to survive persecutions in the course of history. It also acted as a moderating force among them by postponing political activities until the future coming of the Awaited Mahdi.
Birth and early life according to Twelver Shi'a
In the biographies of Mahdi written by Shias themselves, it is hard to draw a line between hagiographical and historical works. In Shia sources, even in historical works of Ibn Babuya, the birth of Imam was miraculous which must be considered as hagiography. Aside from Shi'as works almost nothing is known about the life of this Imam. According to Yaan Richard some even cast doubt on his actual existence.
Most scholars say Al Mahdi was born in 869 AD. His mother was Narjis. There are a couple of narrations regarding the origin of his mother. One is that Narjis was a Byzantine slave. Another narration says she was a black slave from Africa. Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi states that names like Sawsan, Narjis or Rayhana were common names for slaves at that time and his mother's name supports this narration. Other narration says that she was a Byzantine Princess who pretended to be a slave so that she might travel from her kingdom to Arabia. Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, in Encyclopedia of Iranica, suggests that the last version is "undoubtedly legendary and hagiographic".
To support Imam Mahdi's claim, Twelver Shi'as along with some other Muslim sects quote the following Hadith: "I and `Ali are the fathers of this nation; whoever knows us very well also knows Allah, and whoever denies us also denies Allah, the Unique, the Mighty. And from `Ali's descendants are my grandsons al-Hasan and al-Husayn, who are the masters of the youths of Paradise, and from al-Husayn's descendants shall be nine: whoever obeys them obeys me, and whoever disobeys them also disobeys me; the ninth among them is their Qa'im and Mahdi."
Main article: The OccultationTwelver Shi'as believe that the Imam did not suffer death, but that, for various reasons, has been concealed by Allah from mankind. This event is known as The Occultation.
The period of occultation (ghaybat) is divided into two parts:
- Ghaybat al-Sughra or Minor Occultation (874–941), consists of the first few decades after the Imam's disappearance when communication with him was maintained through his deputies.
- Ghaybat al-Kubra or Major Occultation began 941 and is believed to continue until a time decided by Allah, when the Mahdi will reappear to bring absolute justice to the world.
Main article: Major OccultationAccording to the last letter of al-Mahdi to Ali ibn Muhammad al-Samarri "from the day of your death [the last deputy] the period of my major occultation (al ghaybatul kubra) will begin. Hence forth, no one will see me, unless and until Allah makes me appear." Another view is that the Hidden Imam is on earth "among the body of the Shia" but "incognito." Numerous stories exist of the Hidden Imam "manifesting himself to prominent members of the ulama."
Significance of the Twelfth Imam
There was a well-known statement attributed to the Prophet by the Sunnite transmitters of hadith according to which he predicted that there would be twelve caliphs after him, all from his tribe, the Quraysh. One version of the statement spoke of twelve caliphs during whose reign the Islamic community would be united. In other versions, it was also predicted that anarchy would prevail after the reign of those twelve. It is almost certain that the statement was in circulation in the time of Walid II (125-126 Hijri) when the first signs of the anti-Umayyad revolution had already emerged, and the rebel forces joined by Yazid b. al-Walid and the Qadarites, were threatening the long-established Umayyad orthodoxy. It might even have started to circulate in the final years of the reign of Hisham b. Abd al-Malik (105-125 Hijri), the ninth Umayyad ruler to whom the Muslims universally submitted as they had done to the first three Rashidun, the years were already clouded by troubles concerning the succession. The statement had thus been in circulation long before the beginning of the occultation of the Twelfth Imam in 260 (Hijri). It was already on record as early as the middle of the second century in, for instance, the Amali of the Egyptian scholar Layth b. Sa'd later in teh Musnad of Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi and in others. No one can therefore claim that the statement was in any way authored by the Imamites in the post-Occultation period. In fact, there is no evidence in any work written before the last decades of the third century that suggests that this statement had ever attracted the attention of the Shite traditionists or that anyone in the Shite community had ever thought that this might concern them.
A hadith from the Shi'a text (Kitab Al-Kafi) containing a conversation between the first Shia Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib and a man named al-Asbagh ibn Nubata, as well as a Hadith in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim in which Muhammad speaks of Twelve Successors.
|“||I heard Muhammad saying, "Islam will continue to be strong to twelve Muslim rulers." He then said a sentence which I did not hear. My father said, "All of them (those rulers) will be from Quraysh."||”|
—Jabir bin Samura, Prophet Muhammad
|“||Even if the entire duration of the world's existence has already been exhausted and only one day is left before the Day of Judgment, Allah will expand that day to such a length of time, as to accommodate the kingdom of a person out of Ahl al-Bayt who will be called by my name and my father's name. He will then fill the Earth with peace and justice as it will have been filled with injustice and tyranny before then.||”|
Twelver Shi'as cite various references from the Qur'an and reports, or Hadith, from Imam Mahdi and the Twelve Imams with regard to the reappearance of al-Mahdi who would, in accordance with Allah's command, bring justice and peace to the world by establishing Islam throughout the world.
Mahdi is reported to have said: Shi'as believe that Imam al-Mahdi will reappear when the world has fallen into chaos and civil war emerges between the human race for no reason. At this time, it is believed, half of the true believers will ride from Yemen carrying white flags to Makkah, while the other half will ride from Karbalaa', in the `Iraq, carrying black flags to Makkah. At this time, Imam al-Mahdi will come wielding `Ali's Sword, Zulfiqar (Arabic: ذو الفقار, ðū l-fiqār), the Double-Bladed Sword. He will also come and reveal the texts in his possession, such as al-Jafr and al-Jamia. Shi'as believe that `Îsâ (Jesus) will also come (after Imam Mahdi's re-appearance) and follow the Imam Mahdi to destroy tyranny and falsehood and to bring justice and peace to the world. This will also be accompanied by the raj'a (return) of several other personalities for retribution of the previously oppressed against the oppressor.
The 12th Imam is known by many titles in Shia Islam, including:
- Al-Mahdi (the Guided one)
- Al-Muntadhir (the Awaited one)
- Al-Qa'im (the Rising one)
- Sahab az-Zaman (the Master of the Age)
- Imam az-Zaman (the Leader of the Age)
- Wali al-'Asr (the Guardian of the Era or alternatively, the Guardian in the Twilight [of man])
- Al-Hujjah (the Proof [of Allah's justice])
The majority of Sunni Muslims do not consider the son of Hasan al-Askari to be the Mahdi nor to be in occultation. However, they do believe that the Mahdi will come from Muhammad's family. Sunnis believe that the Mahdi has not yet been born, and therefore his true identity is known only to Allah. Aside from the Mahdi's precise genealogy, Sunnis accept many of the same hadiths Shias accept about the predictions regarding the Mahdi's emergence, his acts, and his universal Khilafat. Sunnis also have a few more Mahdi hadiths which are not present in Shia collections, such as the following:
Abu Sa'id al-Khudri narrated that Muhammad said: Our Mahdi will have a broad forehead and a pointed (prominent) nose. He will fill the earth with justice as it is filled with injustice and tyranny. He will rule for seven years. —Abu Sa'id al-Khudri, Shia books do not explicitly mention the Mahdi having a pointed (prominent) nose.
However, the Shi'a traditions do state (about Imam Mehdi's nose): "His Nose; Abu Sa‘īd al-Khidri narrates from the Messenger of Allah (a.s) that he said, 'The Mahdi is from us the Ahl al-Bait, a man from my Ummah. He has a high nose. He will fill the earth with equity as it will be full of corruption.'"
Other Sunni hadith regarding the Mahdi are virtually identical to their counterparts in Shia books:
Umm Salamah said: I heard the Messenger of Allah say: "The Mahdi is of my lineage and family". —Umm Salamah,Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri said: The Messenger of Allah said: "He is one of us". —Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri, In the light of traditions and interpretations, the personality of the Promised Mahdi would be as such:
It is said "predictions and lore concerning the Mahdi abound" Among them are that the promised Mahdi would be a Caliph of God and that to make a covenant with him is obligatory. He would belong to the House of Muhammad and would be in the line of Imam Hassan. His name would be Muhammad and his family name would be Abul Qasim, his father's name would be ‘Abdu’llah [rather than Hassan], and he would appear in Mecca. He would protect the Muslims from destruction and would restore the religion to its original position.
Sunnis also believe that Jesus will return alongside the Mahdi, with the only difference being that they disagree with the Shia regarding exactly who the Mahdi is.
Some scholars, including Bernard Lewis also point out, that the idea of an Imam in occultation was not new in 873 but that it was a recurring factor in Shia history. Examples of this include the cases of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah (according to the Kaysanites Shia), Muhammad ibn Abdallah An-Nafs Az-Zakiyya, Musa al-Kadhim (according to the Waqifite Shia), Muhammad ibn Qasim (al-Alawi), Yahya ibn Umar and Muhammad ibn Ali al-Hadi (according to the Muhammadite Shia).
On causes of development occultation doctrine among Shi'as, Yaan Richard suggests, "the last Imams were confronted with a difficult situation: theoretical claimants to power, politically important, backed by discontented supporters of Omayyad and Abbasid caliphs, taking refuge in an esoteric justification of their quietism, the Immam were embarrassment to everyone. When they were physically present, they gave the lie to certain of the allegations made about them by Shiites. When they were absent, their eschatological "efficacy" could no longer be questioned and the desire for a return of their reign of justice became almost at reality. The occultation is therefore a convenient solution". «Both Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja'far al-Sadiq were at various times approached by their followers and assured of their support if they wanted to rise against the existing regime. The Imam had to appease the impatience of their Shi'a by saying that while it was true that all the Imams were Qa'im and thus capable of overthrowing unjust rule, the eschatalogical Qa'im would appear after concealment to wipe out injustice only when God would command him to do so» Many historians, Sunnis, Ismaili and Zaidiyyah argue that the 11th Imam, of the Twelver Shia, Hassan al-Askari, did not have a son. Twelver Shias say his birth was concealed. Others argue that even if he had a son, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan could not live for over a thousand years.
Hasan al-Askari’s estate was divided between his brother Jafar and his mother.
Moojan Momen writes in "An Introduction to Shi’i Islam" (London, 1985, p. 162): "Jafar remained unshakeable in his assertion that his brother (Hasan al-Askari) had no progeny.". According to Sachadina, "sources describe Ja'far as a worldly and pleasure-loving man who in order to become the Imam had used various repressive means in the presence of al-Mu'tamid and more than once has tried to slander those who upheld the Imamate of the infant son of al-Askari in concealment." «The period which gave rise to this confusion began with the caliphate of al-Mu'tamid and continued up to the time of al-Muqtadir. During this time, the agents of the dead Imam persisted in upholding the belief that there existed a son of al-Askari in occultation who would rise when God commands him to do so. The upholders of this belief were under attack from all sides and met with severe opposition. The Abbasids were particularly concerned about the messianic successor of al-Askari in concealment. Al-Mutamid for this reason ordered the house of the Imam to be investigated, and all the rooms were locked after being searched. Efforts were made to find out if the Imam had left a son, and midwives were appointed in the harem of the Imam in order to detect any pregnancy. One of the slave girls was suspected to be pregnant and isolated in a room in a special house where she was kept under surveillance. On one occasion al-Askari's wife (Sayqal, mother of the infant Imam) was imprisoned on refusing to reveal the whereabout of her son. ... This situation continued until the caliphate was caught in the political disturbances caused by the Zanj and provincial leaders in Iran, Egypt and Syria. The Abbasid had also supported Ja'far a brother of al-Askari and claimant to the office of the Imamate in order to create a dispute within the Imam's family. Our sources describe Ja'far as a worldly and pleasure-loving man who in order to become the Imam had used various repressive means in the presence of al-Mu'tamid and more than once has tried to slander those who upheld the Imamate of the infant son of al-Askari in concealment.» The Occultation of the Twelfth Imam: A Historical Background, by Dr. Jassim M. Hussain, p. 143 says: "The majority of the Imamites denied his birth or even his existence, and mocked those who believed in him. According to al-Nu’mani the bulk of these groups abandoned their belief in the hidden Imam. In fact those who continued to hold a firm belief in his Imamate were a small minority belonging to the circles of narrators, like Ibn Qubba and al-Nu’mani himself, who based their belief on the traditions of the Imams (i.e. Hadith about twelve Imams)." Jassim Hussain mentions, however, several books written before the minor Occultation predicting the event of the twelfth Imam being the Mahdi and his going to occultation. By the third and fourth decades of the 10th century(i.e. the closing years of the Lesser Occultation), the majority of the Shiis were agreed about the line of the Twelve Imams.
Consequence of occultation of Twelfth Imam
The occulation of 12th Imam left a considerable gap in leadership of Shia's. According to Shia' beliefs the Imam was both the spiritual and political head of the community. Although during the lesser occultation the network of Imam deputies (wokala) claimed to have the right to handle Shia communities issues, this system was not continued during the Greater Occultation. After the greater occultation, the role of Imam as the head of community left vacant, which did not theoretically matter at the beginning of Occultation because Shia`s had no political power at that time. However, when Shia' states arose in later centuries, since the hidden Imam was alive and was the leader of Muslims, the role of Shia' state among Shia' communities were in question. This problem has caused continuing tension between government and religion throughout the Shia's history.
The occultation has resulted in many people claiming to be the returned Mahdi. According to seminary expert, Mehdi Ghafari, more than 3,000 fake Mahdis were in prison in Iran in 2012. «For more than a millennium the idea of the future coming of the Mahdi has provided Shi'i piety with a unique aspiration in the redemption through the appearance of the twelfth Imam.», «The belief in the appearance of Hidden Imam as the Mahdi helped Shi'ites to endure under unbearable situations and to hope for a just future pending the return of Mahdi. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that without such a belief in the role of the twelfth Imam the Imammite religion might not have been able to survive persecutions under different dynasties in the course of Islamic history before it becomes established as the official creed of the Safavid empire at the beginning of the sixteenth century...Thus, the ghayba (occultation) of the Imam has acted as a creative force in the lives of the Imamites in order not only to help them bear with patience the difficult times, but also to prepare them to fulfill their historical responsibility of establishing a true Islamic rule even before Imam assumes the leadership of the Imamiyya. », «The hope in future coming of the Imam thus became the moderating force among the Imamiya who postponed any political action pending the appearance of the Awaited Mahdi and al-Qaim... (Twelver Messianism:) the quietist movement which aimed at peaceful existence within the Muslim community at large while retaining its peculiarity regarding the Imamate especially the Imamate of the HIdden Hujja.»
Historicity of Muhammad al-Mahdi
The historical existence of the twelfth imam has been long debated since the death of eleventh Imam. Even though Shi’ite Scholars admit that the Twelfth Imam is an actual person, the Eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, was kept more or less a prisoner by the Abbasids in the camp at Samarra, about 100 kilometres north of Baghdad, and died there in 874 A.D at the age of twenty-eight. It appears that none of the Shi'i notables knew of the existence of the son of eleventh Imam. The only possible occasion the son of eleventh
Imam is said to made a public appearance was at the time of his death, then as a child and the boy was seen no more.
It was believed that the twelfth Imam was connected to his community through four agents, giving his commands via letter; Momen doubts the historical accuracy of these accounts, mentioning that there is no indication that the number of agents was limited to four and several others are mentioned. It seems likely that after the death of the eleventh Imam, for the duration of a natural lifespan (i.e. seventy years) this system had continued to operate. The brother of eleventh Imam remained firm in his assertion that his brother had no progeny and there were legal dispute over the ownership of his bother’s estate with the supposed agents.
Henry Corbin in contrast believed that the question of historicity is irrelevant admitting that the idea of the hidden Imam was shaped around the person of twelfth and considering the extensive body of literature about him, saw the birth and his occultation as archetypal and symbolic, describing it as “sacred history”. In his History of Islamic Philosophy He writes: “..The simultaneity of these (birth and occultation) is rich in meanings from the mystical point of view… here above all, our approach should be that of the phenomenologist: we must discover the aims of Shi’ite awareness..”.
There are numerous Qur'aanic references discussing the coming Mahdi. Sayyid Hashim Al-Bahraani's work "The Qaem in the Qur'an" analyzes several Qur'aanic verses and their discussion about the hidden Imaam. Some examples of these Qur'aanic verses include:
(4:69) And whoever obeys Allah and the Messenger - those will be with the ones upon whom Allah has bestowed favor of the prophets, the steadfast affirmers of truth, the martyrs and the righteous. And excellent are those as companions.
"The Prophets" in this verse refer to the Messenger of Allah; "The truthful ones" refer to Ali ibn Abi Taleb ; "The martyrs" are Hassan and Hussein ; "The righteous" are the Imams ; and "The Excellent" companion is the Mahdi.
(4:159) And there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death; and on the Day of Judgment he (Isa) will be a witness against them
Tafseer Al Qummi (1:158) cites through the chain of Muhammad Al Baqir and others that this verse describes that Mahdi will appear before the Day of Judgement and all Christians and Jews will be among his followers and the Spirit Of Allah, The Prophet Isa will pray behind the Mahdi.
(10:24) The likeness of the life of the present is as the rain which We send down from the skies: by its mingling arises the produce of the earth- which provides food for men and animals: (It grows) till the earth is clad with its golden ornaments and is decked out (in beauty): the people to whom it belongs think they have all powers of disposal over it: There reaches it Our command by night or by day, and We make it like a harvest clean-mown, as if it had not flourished only the day before! thus do We explain the Signs in detail for those who reflect.
The command that comes by night or by day refers to Al Qaem.
(10:20)They say: "Why is not a sign sent down to him from his Lord?" Say: "The Unseen is only for Allah (to know), then wait ye: I too will wait with you."
The "sign" refers to the rising of Al Mahdi.
(11:8) And if We delay for them the doom until a reckoned time, they will surely say: What withholdeth it? Verily on the day when it cometh unto them, it cannot be averted from them, and that which they derided will surround them.
The book Al Ghaiba by No'Omani, from a chain of narrators to Imam Al Sadiq says the "doom" in this verse refers to the rising of Al Qaem and "a reckoned time" in this verse refers to the companions of Imam Al Mahdi who are 313 men, similar to the number of companions with the Prophet at Badr.
(39:69) And the Earth will shine with the Glory of its Lord: the Record (of Deeds) will be placed (open); the prophets and the witnesses will be brought forward and a just decision pronounced between them; and they will not be wronged (in the least).
(61:8) Their intention is to extinguish Allah's Light (by blowing) with their mouths: But Allah will complete (the revelation of) His Light, even though the Unbelievers may detest (it).
(70:1-3)A questioner asked about a Penalty to befall- The Unbelievers, the which there is none to ward off, - (A Penalty) from Allah, Lord of the Ways of Ascent.