Occultation and The Hidden Imam

First, list the primary elements of the Twelver Shi’i doctrine of occultation (ghayba). Next, articulate the primary arguments (a) for and (b) against its validity.

According to Shi’ite traditions  a leader know as the Qaim (the one who rises up), who is a redresser of wrongs and is also referred to as the Mahdi, will arise from the family of Muhammad. The two concepts of the Mahdi and the Qa’im became conflated and were transcribed against the  concept of the Twelfth Imam by the beginning of the fourth/tenth century. (Modaressi) This Imam will distribute equality and establish justice among his subjects. The role of the saviour or the Mahdi can be understood within the context of  eternal struggle between right and wrong, the Mahdi is needed to ascertain the final supremacy of good over evil and right over wrong because God can help create change  but ‘the role of man in human effort and struggle is utmost’. (Behisti&Bahonar)  The end of the period of the greater Occultation will be ‘a  time when contradictions will disappear and peace and tranquility will prevail’. The Imam can be  symbolically seen of ‘an inspiration cherished by mankind’ which provides hope for ‘persecuted individuals’ and ‘oppressed nations’ and keeps them away from evil. (Sadr & Mutahhery)

The death of each Shi’ite imam invariably created a problem of succession, with splinter groups either denying his death or believeing in his imminent return. In each case the deceased imam was believed to return as the Qa’im. (Moderessi) This happened in the case of the Eleventh Imam, whose death was confirmed by the Imamis and the concealment of his son, who was the hujja (proof) of God on earth, was proclaimed. A doctrine of occultation was presented as a rationally established dogma, asserting the neccessary existance and absence of the Hidden Imam or the Qaim. The twelfth Imam was said to be alive in his occultation and was able to communicate with this followers throught his agents. It is this doctrine of Occultation which distinguishes Twelver Shi’ism from the earlier Imamiyya as the ‘Belief in the ghayba is a direct corollory to the belief in the 12 Imams’. (Kohlberg) There were two periods of Occultation. The ‘lesser’ ghayba  which was a shorter period lasted from 260/874 to 429/941, during which the Imam was represented on earth by four successive agents. This period gave way to a  longer and ‘greater’ ghayba “whose duration is known only to God”. (Kohlberg)

The Case Against the Doctrine of Occultation:

For obvious reasons the concept of  Occultation is against the laws of nature because it covers a time span that goes well beyond a human lifetime and defies any reasonable measures of sustained existence. Not only is there no scientific proof but there also does not seem to be  sufficient religious proof for such a doctrine which is largely based in a ‘strong belief in the imperceptable’. (Sadr & Mutahhery) Such beliefs also attributes a superhuman role to the Imam which seems contradictory to the assertions made by the Shii’i imams to negate the extremist ghulat beliefs which were characterized as untrue and misplaced. Given the dissent and division within the Shi’te community after the death of each imam, clearly the delegation of authority nass cannot be proved easily. It also has to be said that bare a handful, no humans seem to have humanly know him. Infact “until after his father’s death, the news about his birth and existence was not publicized”. (Moderssi )

The prophetic traditions which assert the succession of twelve caliphs and the traditions from the Shi’te Imams themseves regarding this subject can be said to be of ‘questionable authenticity’. (Kohlberg)  Such traditions as are presented to justify the Occultation had “never attracted the attention of the Shi’ite community” until after 295/908 to provide a background as evidence to ground these assertions. (Modaressi )Apparently the concept of the Mahdi was essentially a non-Imamite concept and had existed even before Islam as the saviour who will fill the earth with equity and justice. It has also been recounted that by the year 940 around the time of the Twelfth Imam’s occultation many shi’i were in a state of ‘confusion’ and ‘fierce doubt’. (Moderessi)

The Shi’ites themselves claim that the concept of the Mahdi is  ‘an abstract idea’ of an unknown saviour in the distant  future which was given a concrete shape by Islam.  because the Mahdi is already present and waiting for suitable time and circumstances for his arrival to beginhis great mission. (Sadr & Mutahhery) The question also come up then why did the majority of other imams carry a disdain for  taking up  political roles, even at times when conditions were favorable and people were unjustly oppressed and needed saviours.

The multifarious indications of the arrival of the Twelfth Imam (Mufid ) seem to be manifestly human constructs that seem extremely time specific and constrained by the circumstances of the the early Islamic period and many of which do not seem realistic in a universalistic sense in today’s world for instance. This could be a reflection of the fact that they were construed by the human mind and were not not divinely sanctioned indications.

The Argument for The Doctrine of Occultation:

The basic justification for the  ghayba  is that  mankind cannot remain without a guide. Belief in ghayba is based on Quranic concepts and precedents of the prophet as interpreted by Shi’i traditions.  The concept of the Mahdi finds resonance in the Quranic concept of the muamarun( those whose life has been prolonged by God) . The significane of the number twelve and the idea of ghayba are early motifs in islamic history and therefore the notion of ghayba was achieved throught the reinterpretation of already existing materials. (Kohlberg) The notion of twelve successors to the Prophet existed long before the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam in the prophetic traditions and was widely accepted and known before the beginning of the ghayba so that “no one can … claim that the statement was in any way authored by the Imamites in the post-Occultation period.” (Modaressi) “Even the belief in two concealments did not originate with the Ithna’ashariyya, and the traditions of ghayba of Abraham and Muhammad to fend persecution can serve as religious historical precendents for the ghayba of the Twelfth Imam. (Kohlberg)

Futhermore at the time of the beginning of the Occultation the Abbasid persecution had become intolerable which nessitated the ghayba. It was a responsiblity that the Twelfth Imam has undertaken and “he was in hiding because he feared that  he would be captured and killed”. (Modaressi) The persecution of all the Shi’a imams had been so severe that even the names of the Imams were forbidden  to pronounce and were even unknown to many.(Kohlberg) In such a situation it seems logical that the final Imam retreat  within God’s protection.

The issue of the unnatural longetivity of the ghayba can also be seen as a miracle. Miracles are attested to in all scriptures and accepted by all religions. As can be seen through them that natural law was suspended for Abraham when the Nimrod’s fire turned cold. The case of Noah who lived for 950 years to guide his people, the sea was parted for Moses and the instance of Mairaaj in Quran seem incomprehensive in the logical and rational sense but are accepted today as facts.  (Sadr & Mutahhery) In the same way one can make a case for the validity of the ghayba as a phenomenon that is ‘understood best by God’.


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