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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam:
The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 8


      The Twelfth Imam, His Occultation and Return

Perhaps no aspect of the history of Shi'i Islam is as
confused as the stories relating to the Twelfth Imam and
this is not surprising as this is the point in Shi'i history
where the events related become of a miraculous,
extraordinary nature and the non-believer may be unwilling
to go along with the facts as related by Shi'is. But even
for the committed believer, it is difficult to decide which
of the many and often contradictory versions presented in
the Traditions to follow. The following version is the one
that is usually presented in the books published for popular
   The mother of the Twelfth Imam was a Byzantine slave-girl
named Narjis Khatun (or Saqil or Sawsan or Rayhana). In the
more fully elaborated versions of the story she becomes the
Byzantine Emperor's daughter who was informed in a vision
that she would be the mother of the Mahdi. She was bought by
the Tenth Imam, 'Ali al-Hadi, for his son the Eleventh Imam,
Hasan al-'Askari.

The Twelfth Imam was born in 255/868 (some sources vary by
as much as five years from this date) in Samarra. He was
given the same name as the Prophet, Abu'l-Qasim Muhammad.

The usual miraculous accounts of his talking from the womb,
etc. (see p. 23) may be passed over to the only occasion on
which he is said to have made a public appearance. This was
in 260/874 when the Eleventh Imam died. It appears that none
of the Shi'i notables knew of the birth of Muhammad and so
they went to the Eleventh Imam's brother, Ja'far, assuming
that he was now the Imam. Ja'far seemed prepared to take on
this mantle and entered the house of the deceased Imam in
order to lead the funeral prayers. At this juncture a young
boy came forward and said: 'Uncle, stand back! For it is
more fitting for me to lead the prayers for my father than
for you. ' After the funeral,Ja'far was asked about the boy
and said that he did not know who the boy was. For this
reason, Ja'far has been vilified by generations of Shi'is as
Kadhdhab, the liar.

The boy was seen no more and Shi'i tradition states that
from that year he went into occultation. At Samarra, beside
the gold-domed Shrine of the Imams 'Ali al-Hadi and Hasan
al-'Askari is a mosque under which


there is a cave. The end of one of the rooms of the cave is
partitioned off by a gate which is called Bab al-Ghayba
(Gate of the Occultation) and was built on the instructions
of the Caliph an-Nasir in 606/1209. The area behind the gate
is called Hujrat al-Ghayba (Chamber of the Occultation) and
in the corner of this is a well, the Bi'r al-Ghayba (Well of
the Occultation) down which the Imam Mahdi is said to have
disappeared. Shi'is gather in the rooms of the cave and pray
for his return.

The Lesser Occultation

Those Shi'is who followed the line of the Imams were thrown
into confusion by the death of Hasan al-'Askari. Ja'far
remained unshakeable in his assertion that his brother had
no progeny and some gathered around him as the Imam. Others
asSerted that the Twelfth Imam had not yet been born but
would be born in the Last Days just before the Day of
Judgement. Others asserted that it was the Eleventh Imam,
Hasan al-'Askari, who had gone into occultation. Thus the
Shi'a were fragmented into several factions (for a fuller
account of these sects see pp. 59 60). It is difficult to
assess at this distance in history and with the bias of the
sources available what proportion of the Twelver Shi'is of
the time accepted the position of 'Uthman al-'Amri which was
to become the orthodox Twelver position. Al-'Amri claimed
that Muhammad, the son of Hasan al-'Askari, did exist and
was in occultation and that he, 'Uthman, was the
intermediary between the Hidden Imam and the Shi'a.

   But it should not necessarily be assumed that 'Uthman al-
'Amri's assertion was perceived by the Shi'is of the time as
being a radical change. For, after all, the Tenth and
Eleventh Imams, as far as the generality of their followers
were concerned, had also been in effective occultation.
Because of the vigilant and hostile surveillance of the
'Abbasids, they had rarely showed themselves to their
followers and are even said to have spoken to some of those
who met them from behind a curtain. Their contact with their
followers was through a network of Shi'i agents called the
Wikala which had been responsible for communicating the
messages of the Imams and collecting the monies offered by
the Shi'a. This network of agents was in contact with one or
two special agents of the Tenth and Eleventh Imam who in
turn were in direct contact with the Imam. 'Uthman al-'Amri
had been the secretary and special agent of the Tenth and
Eleventh Imams and thus effectively controlled the Wikala.
With the death of the Eleventh Imam, all that al-'Amri was
saying was that the Twelfth Imam was also in hiding due to
the threat against his life from the 'Abbasids and that he,
'Uthman, had been appointed to


continue the position that he had held under the previous
Imams. For the majority of the Shi'a it must have seemed
that nothing much had changed. It is probably only after
about seventy years (i.e. the normal life-span of a man) had
passed that the question of the Occultation became
problematical (see pp. 74-5) and began to require doctrinal
exposition. Thus al-Kulayni, who completed his book (see p.
174) less than seventy years after the start of the
Occultation has little or no discussion of the Occultation
itself or of the position of al-'Amri and his successors as
intermediaries and neither do any of the extant Shi'i books
preceding it. A few decades later, however, it is a topic of
major importance to most Shi'i writers and whole books are
devoted to the issue.
   'Uthman nominated his son, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn
'Uthman, as his successor. For forty-five years these two
laid claim to the position of being the agents of the Hidden
Imam. They would take messages and questions from the Shi'a
to the Hidden Imam and would return with answers, usually
verbal but sometimes written. They would also receive the
monies offered by the Shi'a to the Imam as khums and zakat
(see p. 179). They were involved in bitter disputes with
Ja'far and his followers who denied the existence of the
Eleventh Imam's son and laid claim to his brother's estate--
a legal battle that took seven years and was finally decided
by the Caliph al-Mu'tamid. Narjis, the supposed mother of
the Twelfth Imam, was also the subject of much wrangling
that went on over twenty years.

The third person to be nominated as the agent of the Hidden
Imam was Abu'l-Qasim Husayn ibn Ruh an-Nawbakhti. He came to
this position in 305/917, after the death of Muhammad al-
'Amri. Conditions had changed considerably by this time. The
Caliph Muqtadir (reigned AD 907-932) was favourable to the
Shi'a and the Nawbakhti family, who were Shi'is, wielded
considerable power at his court as ministers. However, even
at this late date there were disputes among the Shi'a over
the question of the Occultation. Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn
'Ali ash-Shalmaghani (executed in 322/933), who had been a
close confidant of Husayn ibn Ruh and his agent in Baghdad,
suddenly turned against the latter and at first laid claim
to the position of being the rightful agent of the Imam and
later denounced the whole concept of the Occultation as a
lie. Another who fell out with what was rapidly by now
becoming the Twelver Shi'i orthodoxy was Husayn ibn Mansur
al-Hallaj (c. 244/8 5 8 executed 309/922). Exactly what it
was that Shalmaghani and Hallaj said or did which brought
upon them the anger of the Shi'is and eventually, through
the power of the Nawbakhti family, death at the hands of the
state cannot now easily be discerned among the mass of
gratuitous accusations and disinformation piled upon them by
later writers. It has


been suggested, however, that their open avocation of
extremist claims (ghuluww) was threatening the delicate
balance which allowed Shi'i families such as the Nawbakhtis
and the Al al-Furat to hold power and authority in a Sunni
state and thus allowed Shi'is to enjoy unprecedented
freedom. It is clear that whatever differences there may
have been among the Shi'a following the death of the
Eleventh Imam in 874, by the third and fourth decades of the
10th century (i.e. the closing years of the Lesser
Occultation), the majority of the Shi'is were agreed about
the line of Twelve Imams. There was still confusion and
doubt over the question of the Occultation and this was to
continue for a further hundred years. It was also during
this period that the first of the four 'canonical'
collections of hadith, al-Kafi fi 'Ilm ad-Din, was being
completed by al-Kulayni thus helping to bring about a
convergence and consolidation of views among the Twelver

   The fourth and last agent of the Hidden Imam was Abu'l-
Husayn 'Ali ibn Muhammad as-Samarri. He held office for only
three years and died in 329/941. These four successive
agents of the Hidden Imam are each called by the Shi'is the
Bab (Gate, plural Abwab), the Safir (Ambassador, plural
Sufara) or Na'ib (Deputy, plural Nuwwab) of the Twelfth

At the time of his death, as-Samarri brought the following
written message from the Hidden Imam:

In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate! O 'Ali
ibn Muhammad as-Samarri, may God magnify the reward of your
brethren upon you! There are but six days separating you
from death. So therefore arrange your affairs but do not
appoint anyone to your position after you. For the second
occultation has come and there will not now be a
manifestation except by the permission of God and that after
a long time has passed, and hearts have hardened and the
earth become filled with tyranny. And there will come to my
Shi'a those who claim to have seen me, but he who claims to
have seen me before the emergence of the Sufyani and the cry
(from the heavens) is assuredly a lying imposter. And there
is no power nor strength save in God the Almighty, the All-
High. '

   And so the Shi'is passed, in 329/941,into what is known
as the Greater Occultation, the period of time when there is
no agent of the Hidden Imam on earth.

One final historical point is that although the history of
the four agents of the Hidden Imam has been given above as
it is to be found in the Shi'i histories, there is some
considerable evidence that this was a later superimposition
of interpretation On the facts of history. In the early
works there is no indication that the number of agents was
limited to four and several others are mentioned.2 It seems
likely, then, that after the death of the Eleventh Imam, for
the duration of a natural lifespan (i.e. seventy years), the
former system of the Wikala had continued to operate. But
then the Shi'is began to be thrown into confusion and doubt


over the matter of the Occultation.3 And so the scholars of
the early Buyid period spent a great deal of time in writing
books explaining and proving the doctrine of the Occultation
of the Twelfth Imam. It was probably also at about the end
of the Lesser Occultation that the Twelfth Imam came to be
identified with the figure of the Mahdi.

The Doctrine of Occultation

In its simplest form, the doctrine of the Occultation
(Ghayba) declares that Muhammad ibn Hasan, the Twelfth Imam,
did not die but has been concealed by God from the eyes of
men. His life has been miraculously prolonged until the day
when he will manifest himself again by God's permission.
During his Lesser Occultation, he remained in contact with
his followers through the four Ba-bs (al-Abwa-b al-Arba'a).
During the Greater Occultation, which extends to the present
day, he is still in control of the affairs of men and is the
Lord of the Age (Sahib az-Zaman) but there is no longer a
direct route of communication. However, it is popularly
believed that the Hidden Imam does still occasionally
manifest himself to the pious either when awake or more
commonly in dreams and visions. It is believed that written
messages left at the tombs of the Imams can reach him. The
Hidden Imam was popularly supposed to be resident in the
far-off cities of Jabulsa and Jabulqa and in former times
books were written about persons who had succeeded in
travelling to these places. Less has been made of this
particular tradition in recent times when modern
geographical knowledge permeated the Shi'i masses and it
became generally realised that no such places existed. There
are also accounts of persons who have seen the Imam in
person, in visions or dreams.[4]
  The occurrence of the Occultation is considered to have
been due to the hostility of the Imam's enemies and the
danger to his life. He remains in occultation because of the
continuance of this threat. The severance of communication
with the Hidden Imam is not considered to contradict the
dictum that 'the earth is not left without an Imam', for,
say the Shi'i writers, the sun still gives light and warmth
to the earth even when hidden behind a cloud.
  The Hidden Imam has a large number of titles including the
following: Sahib az-Zaman (Lord of the Age), Sahib al-Amr
(Lord of Command), al-Mahdi (the Rightly-Guided One), al-
Qa'im (He who will arise), al-Imam al-Muntazar (the Awaited
Imam) and the Baqiyyat Allah (Remnant of God).


The Doctrine of Return (Raj'a)

The Hidden Imam, the Imam Mahdi, is in occultation awaiting
the time that God has decreed for his return. This return is
envisaged as occurring shortly before the final Day of
Judgement. The Hidden Imam will then return as the Mahdi
with a company of his chosen ones and there will also return
his enemies led by the one-eyed Dajjal and the Sufyani. The
Imam Mahdi will lead the forces of righteousness against the
forces of evil in one final apocalyptic battle in which the
enemies of the Imam will be defeated.
  The Imam Mahdi will rule for a number of years and after
him will come the return of Christ, the Imam Husayn and also
the other Imams, prophets and saints. Strictly speaking, the
term raj'a only applies to the return to life of figures who
have died such as the Imam Husayn. It is more correct to
refer to the zuhur (appearance) or qiyam (arising) of the
Twelfth Imam who did not die and is in occultation. Return
is envisaged by Shi'is as involving only the Imams, their
supporters and their enemies. Those who were neutral in or
unaffected by the struggle will remain in their graves until
the Day of Resurrection. 5

Signs of the Return of the Imam Mahdi

Eschatological expectation in relation to the Twelfth Imam
plays a very important part in the popular religion of
Twelver Shi'is. In the Traditions relating to the advent of
the Mahdi, there are numerous signs that are held to herald
his advent. Some of these are related to the general
condition of the world when the Mahdi will appear while
others give specific signs of his return.
  Perhaps the best known of the general signs, a Tradition
that is related in both Shi'i and Sunni sources, states that
the Mahdi will fill the earth with justice after it has been
filled with injustice and tyranny.[6]
  Some modern Shi'is, such as the scholar az-Zanjani, claim
that some of the conditions of the world that have been
related as accompanying the advent of the Mahdi appear to
have been fulfilled by modern scientific inventions. Thus
one of these Traditions seems to be referring to television:

     'I heard Abu 'Abdu'llah [the Sixth Imam] saying:
     the believer, in the time of the Qa'im, while in
     the east, will be able to see his brother in the
     west and he who is in the west will be able to see
     his brother in the east.'[7]

Other prophecies are seen as referring to the radio and
aeroplane. 8 The following is a lengthy Tradition quoted
from the Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq, by Kulayni which
describes the moral degradation at the time of the coming of
the Mahdi and is seen as referring to several modem


phenomena such as the secularisation of society, the
appearance of women in national parliaments and other
consultative assemblies and the advent of the 'permissive

     When you see that truth has died and people of
     truth have disappeared, and you see that injustice
     prevails through the land; and the Qur'an has
     become despised and things are introduced into it
     that are not in it and it is turned towards men's
     desires; and you see the people of error having
     mastery over the people of truth; and you see evil
     out in the open and the doers of evil are not
     prevented nor do they excuse themselves; and you
     see moral depravity openly manifest and men being
     content with men and women satisfied by women, and
     you see the believer silent, his word not being
     accepted; and you see the sinful lying and he is
     not refuted nor does his deceit redound upon him,
     and you see the lowly despising the great, and you
     see the wombs cut open, and you see he who boasts
     of moral depravity is laughed at and is not
     spurned; and you see young men being handed over
     like women and women co-habiting with women and
     their numbers increasing; and you see men spending
     their wealth on things other than pious deeds and
     no-one opposes or hinders them; and you see the
     onlooker turn his back on the efforts of the
     believer, and you see one person molesting his
     neighbour and no-one prevents it; and you see the
     unbeliever joyful because he does not see gladness
     in the believer when he sees corruption in the
     world, and you see alcoholic drinks being drunk
     openly . . . and you see women occupying places in
     the assemblies just as men do and:usury is carried
     out openly and adultery is praised . . . and you
     see the forbidden thing made legal and the legal
     thine forbidden, and you see that religion becomes
     a matter of opinion and the Book and its laws fall
     into disuse; and you see the leaders drawing close
     to the unbelievers and away from good people; and
     you see the leaders corrupt in their rule; . . .
     and you see men eating what their wives have
     obtained as a result of their immorality and
     knowing this and persisting in it; . . . and you
     see places of entertainment appearing which no-one
     who passes them forbids them and none is bold
     enough to put an end to them; and you see a
     worshipper only praying in order that the people
     may see him; and you see the experts in religious
     law devoting themselves to things other than
     religion, seeking the world and leadership, and
     you see the people living together like animals,
     and you see the pulpit from which fear of God is
     enjoined but the speaker does not act in the
     manner he has enjoined others to act; . . . and
     when you see the tokens of truth that I have
     taught, then be aware [of the advent of the Mahdi]
     and seek salvation from God.[9]

   There are several similar prophecies such as the
following Tradition from the Imam 'Ali concerning the coming
of the Imam Mahdi:

     I do not know when it will be any more than you do
     but some signs and conditions will follow one
     another, and the signs are these: When the people
     allow the saying of prayers to die out; and they
     destroy trust, and they regard lying as
     permissible; and they take usurious interest, and
     they sell religion in exchange for the world, and
     they employ fools-and they consult women, and they
     cut open the wombs, and they follow th›ir lusts,
     and they take the spilling of blood lightly; and
     their discernment is weak; and tyranny becomes a
     source of pride; and the leaders become
     profligate, the ministers oppressors, the ulama
     faithless and the poor depraved; and false
     testimony is made; immorality, lies, crime, and
     repression are carried out openly; and books are
     embellished, the


     mosques adorned and the minarets made tall; . . .
     and women assist their husbands in trade out of
     greed for the things of this world; and sinners
     are extolled and listened to; and the leader of
     the people is the most despicable of them and he
     is wary of the libertine, fearing his evil, and he
     gives credence to the liar and has faith in the
     traitor, and he imitates young girls; and men
     appear like women and women appear like men; . . .
     the best place to live on that day will be
     Jerusalem, for there will certainly come a day for
     the people when each of them will eagerly desire
     to be one of its inhabitants.[10]

  Islam itself will be in a degraded state at the time of
the advent of the Mahdi:

     The Apostle of God said: 'There will come a time
     for my people when there will remain nothing of
     the Qur'an except its outward form and nothing of
     Islam except itS name and they will call
     themselves by this name even though they are the
     people furthest from it. Their mosques will be
     full of people but they will be empty of right
     guidance. The religious leaders (fuqaha) of that
     day will be the most evil religious leaders under
     the heavens; sedition and dissension will go out
     from them and to them will it return.'[11]

  With respect to specific signs of the coming of the Mahdi,
there are some signs that the Sunnis and Shi'is are agreed
upon (for Shi'is, of course, the Mahdi is the Twelfth Imam):

1.. That the Mahdi will be a descendant of the Prophet
Muhammad of the line of Fatima.[12]
2. That he will bear the name Muhammad.[13]
3. He will rule for either seven, nine or nineteen
4. His coming will be accompanied by the raising of a Black
Standard in Khurasan. These Traditions state: 'If you see it
[the Black Standard] then go to it even if you have to crawl
over the snow, for with it is the Mahdi, the vicegerent of
5. His coming will be accompanied by the appearance of
Dajjal (the Anti-Christ) in the East.[16]
  The Shi'i sources are very prolific in their descriptions
of what will occur at the time of the coming of the Mahdi.
Among these numerous, sometimes contradictory, Traditions,
the following are the most commonly reported regarding the
specific signs presaging the advent of the Mahdi:[17]
1. Before his coming will come the red death and the white
death. The red death is the sword and the white death is the
2. Several figures will appear: the one-eyed Dajjal, the
Sufyani and the Yamani. Another figure, the Pure Soul (an-
Nafs az-Zakiyya), will be assassinated.
3. The sun will rise from the West and a star will appear in
the East giving out as much light as the moon.[19]
4. The Arabs will throw off the reins and take possession of
their land, throwing out the authority of the


5. A caller will call out from heaven.[21]
6. There will be a great conflict in the land of Syria until
it is destroyed.[22]
7. Death and fear will afflict the people of Baghdad and
Iraq. A fire will appear in the sky and a redness will cover
them.[23] About the Mahdi himself, the following Traditions
are recorded:
1. He will not come in an odd year.[24]
2. He will announce himself in Mecca between the Corner (of
the Ka'ba) and the Station (of Abraham) and will summon the
people to pay allegiance to him.[25]
3. He will go from Mecca to Kufa.[26]
4. As for his appearance, he is a young man of medium
stature with a handsome face and beautiful hair which flows
onto his shoulders. A light dawns from his face. Black is
the colour of the hair of his beard and of his head. He is
the son of the best of mothers.[27]
5. The Mahdi will do what the Prophet did. He will demolish
whatever precedes him just as the Prophet demolished the
structure of the Time of Ignorance (al-Jahiliyya--the period
before Islam).[28]
6. He will come with a new Cause--just as Muhammad, at the
beginning of Islam, summoned the people to a new Cause--and
with a new book and a new religious law (Shari'a), which
will be a severe test for the Arabs.[29]
7. Between the Mahdi and the Arabs (the Quraysh), there will
only be the sword.[30]
8. The Qa'im when he arises will experience as a result of
the ignorance of the people worse than what the Apostle of
God experienced at the hands of the ignorant people of the
Time of Ignorance because the Apostle of God came to a
people who worshipped stones and wood but the Qa'im will
come to a people who will interpret the Book of God against
him and will bring forward proofs from it against him. When
the flag of the Qa'im is raised, the people of both East and
West will curse it.[31]
9. When the Qa'im arises, he will rule with justice and will
remove injustice in his days. The roads will be safe and the
earth will show forth its bounties. Everything due will be
returned to its rightful owner. And no people of religion
will remain who do not show forth submission (Islam) and
acknowledge belief (Imam), . . . And he will judge among the
people with the judgement of David and of Muhammad . . . At
that time men will not find anywhere to give their alms or
to be generous because riches will encompass all.[32]
10. All knowledge is encompassed in 27 letters and all that
the messengers of God have brought is two of these letters,
and so the people only know these two letters. But when the
Qa'im will arise, he will bring forth the other 25 letters
and will spread them among the people.[33]


  With the coming of the Mahdi, there will occur the return
(raj'a) of other figures of the past:
1. The first to return will be the Imam Husayn who will come
with the 72 companions that were killed with him at
2. There will also occur the return of Jesus which is also
anticipated in the Sunni traditions.[35]
3. The 313 who fought with the Prophet at the Battle of Badr
will also return.[36]
4. The other Imams and prophets of former ages will also

Consequences of the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam

The Occultation of the Twelfth Imam left a considerable gap
in Shi'i theory. The Imam was both the spiritual and
political head of the community. He interpreted the law and
was theoretically responsible for its execution. The Lesser
Occultation in which the four agents each successively
claimed to be the mouthpiece of the Hidden Imam was followed
by the Greater Occultation in which there was no
communication. And yet the Imam had left no specific
instructions as to how the community was to be organised in
his absence. In particular, the Imam's role as the head of
the community was left vacant and a number of functions
invested in him as head of the community thus theoretically
lapsed. Initially this did not matter too much since the
Shi'is had no political power and therefore such theoretical
functions of the Imam as leading the jihad and the Friday
prayer could easily be dispensed with.

  In later centuries, however, as Shi'i states arose, a
tension arose between the theoretical consequences of the
Occultation and political realities. Since the Twelfth Imam,
though hidden, still lives and is the Lord of the Age and
the leader of the community, there can be no theoretical
justification for taking his place. And yet the political
reality was that the Shi'i states that arose in later
centuries had at their head either a king or an amir who had
arrogated to himself some of the functions of the Hidden
  The political consequences of this divergence between
theoretical consideration and political realities have
caused continuing tension between government and religion
throughout the ages. No-one has seriously questioned the
ulama's arrogation of certain functions of the Hidden Imam
(see Chapter 10 for a fuller description of the ulama's
gradual assumption of these functions). But the ulama have
often expressed doubt and antagonism to the assumption of
political power by temporal rulers on the grounds that this
was usurpation of the prerogatives of the Hidden Imam. Over
the years, whenever the temporal rulers were strong and
acted with justice, many of the ulama


would co-operate with the government and in their writings
find justifications for the temporal state while others
would be muted in their opposition or more commonly
indifferent to politicaL matters. But when rulers became
weak or tyrannical, the ulama would re-emerge with their
claim to represent the Hidden Imam and would voice their
opposition to the temporal authorities. This was to be the
pattern of historical events, particularly in Iran after the
emergence of the Safavid dynasty.
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