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The Shiia Mahdi - The Hidden Imam

The Awaited Mahdi is absolutely central to the belief system of the twelve Imami'ah Shias, and constitutes one of the core principles of their religion. The idea of the "Return" is not of itself an original doctrine. Probably this belief came over into Islam through Judaic Christian influences. The prophet Elias, removed to heaven to reappear at the end of time to reestablish the rule of justice on the earth, is evidently the prototype of the removed and "invisible Imams" who are to reappear as Mahdis bringing salvation to the world.

The belief in an ultimate fulfilment of the Mahdi hope is of prime dogmatic significance in Shi'itic Islam. It forms the backbone of the Shi'ite system and is completely identical with the return (raja') of the hidden Imam into the visible world, and who as the new law-giver is to take up the work of the prophet and to restore the rights of his family. He alone can fill the world with right and justice. Even during his bodily absence the hidden Imam is the genuine "leader of the time" and not without the power to manifest his will to believers. He is the object of extravagant paeans on the part of the faithful, who not only praise and natter him as a potentate among the living, but also apply to him the superhuman epithets commensurate with belief in him as the hidden Imam. According to them he surpasses even the high intellect of the spheres in spiritual greatness; he is the source of all knowledge and the goal of all longing. The Shi'itic poets are firmly convinced that such praises reach the hidden throne of the sublime personality of the Imam."

A remarkable proof of the active force attached in Slu'itio circles to the belief in the hidden Imam is furnished by events in Persia, where, upon the introduction of a new constitution, "the consent and approval of the Imam of the time" was invoked. The authority of this invisible power was thus recognized as supreme in religious and political affairs. Every innovation must submit to the approval of his authority, even though this be only a matter of form. Thus the revolutionary party in Persia declared in an "appeal to the public," issued in October, 1908, for the restoration of parliamentary government after the coup d'etat of Shah Mohammed' Ali, as follows: "You are perhaps not aware of the clear and undisputed decision of the 'Ulema of the holy city of Nejef, according to which everyone who opposes the constitution is to be compared to him who draws the sword against the Imam of the Time (i. e., against the hidden Imam) - May Allah grant you the joy of his return!"

Shiia look for the Signs of the Reappearance (Qiyam) of the (Imam) who undertakes the Office (al-Qa'im). The series of Imams most widely recognized at the present time among the Shi'ites is that set up by the sect of the so-called "Twelvers" (or Imamites). According to them 'All's rank as Imam was directly inherited by "visible" Imams, up to the eleventh, whose son, Muhammed Abu-1Kasim (born in Baghdad 872), was removed from the earth when scarcely eight years old, and since then lives hidden from the sight of men, in order to appear at the end of time as the Imam Mahdl, the saviour, to free the world from injustice and to set up the kingdom of peace and justice. This is the so-called "hidden Imam," who has lived on ever since his disappearance, and whose reappearance is daily awaited by the faithful Shi'ite. This belief in a hidden Imam is to be found in all branches of Shi'ism. Each one of the parties believe in the continued existence and ultimate appearance of that Imam who in the special order of Imams is regarded as the last.

Muhammad al Mahdi (the guided) is the 12th and last Imam of the Twelver Shi'i, and is also known as Muhammad al Muntazar (the awaited). Little can be said of him with certainty, and the non-Twelver Muslims question whether there was an historical person associated with the name. Jafar, the brother of the Eleventh Imam, denied the existence of any child and claimed the Imamate for himself. Twelver Shi'i believe he was born to a Byzantine slave, and that his birth was kept quiet by his father, the Eleventh Imam, Hassan al Askari, because of the persecution of the Shi'is at that time. The 10th and 11th Imams were both under house arrest and communicated with their followers through a network of wikala (agents), a time that subsequently came to be known as the Lesser Occultation.

For the seventy years after the martyrdom of his father when he was aged six, he communicated with his adherents through a succession of four assistants, each known as the Bab (Gate). As he lay dying in AD 941, the fourth Bab disclosed a letter from the Hidden Imam stating that there should fifth Bab, and that thenceforth the Mahdi would be unseen [ghaybah]. Thus began the Greater Occultation, which would end with the reappearnce of the Mahdi as champion of the faithful in the events leading to the Judgement Day. Titles of the 12th Imam include: Hujjat, Khalaf Salih (the righteous offspring), Sahib az Zaman (Master of the Age), Sahib al Amr (Master of Command), al Qa'im (the one to arise), Bagiyyat Allah (remnant of Allah) and Imam al Muntazar (the awaited Imam).

The "Return" is one of the decisive factors in the Imam theory of all subdivisions of the Shi'ites; they differ only in regard to the person and order of the hidden and returning Imam. From the very beginning, those who set their hopes on 'All and his successors, held the firm conviction that the Imam who had disappeared would eventually return. This belief was attached in the first place to 'All himself by a group of adherents who were followers of ' Abdallah ibn Saba. They regarded him even during his lifetime as a supernatural being and, refusing to believe in his death, were convinced (in a docetic manner) of his ultimate return. This is the oldest testimony to the extravagant 'All cult and indeed the first manifestation of Shrite schism. The next person to be regarded as a vanishing Imam who would some day return, was 'All's son, Mohammed ibn al-Hanafiyya, whose adherents were convinced of his continued existence, and his reappearance.

Just as many Jewish theologians and mystics have endeavored to compute the exact time of the appearance of the Messiah (based largely on the book of Daniel), so Sufis and Shi'ites have calculated by means of cabalistic use, verses of the Koran and numerical combinations of letters of the alphabet, the exact time of the reappearunce of the hidden Imam. Treatises dealing with such calculations are enumerated in the bibliographies of the older Shi'itic literature. Tendencies in the Turkish world, from which in many circles the confident hope is held in the advent of the true Mahdi (fixed for 1355, i. e., 1936), who will subject the whole world to Islam, and with whom the "golden age" will be inaugurated.

But just as in Judaism the "calculators of the end of time" as they are called, encountered severest reproaches, so the orthodox authorities of the moderate Shi'ites have branded "the time determiners" as liars, and have found in utterances of the Imams the condemnation of such speculations. The disillusionment resulting from the failure of such computations easily shows the dejection which such definite promises brought about.




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