Myth of Shi'a (Shiite) Mahdi
by Abu Muhammad Al-Afriqi
The 15th of
Sha'baan is a very significant date, both to the Ahl as-Sunnah and
the Shi'ah. The Shi'ah, however, have their own reason for ascribing
significance to this night. To them it is the night of the birth
of their twelfth Imam, the Hidden Mahdi.
Who is this
Mahdi whose return to this world is so eagerly awaited by the Shi'ah,
and belief in whose existence in occultation forms such a integral
aspect of the Shi'ite psyche? Before an adequate answer to this
question may be given, there is a need to understand certain aspects
concerning the Shi'ite doctrine of Imamah.
THE SHI'IA MAHDI Background
of the Shi'ite faith is the belief that the spiritual and temporal
leadership of this Ummah after the demise of Rasoolullaah sallallahu
'alayhi wasallam is vested in the Imam, who is appointed, like the
Nabi sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam himself, by Allah, and who enjoys
all the distinctions and privileges of the Nabi sallallahu 'alayhi
Reappearance of Invisible Imam Mahdi, The 12th Imam
believe that Imamah, unlike Nubuwwah, can never come to an end.
In this regard there is a well-known Shi'ite ahaadeeth which says
that "the world cannot exist without an Imam", and another
which goes that "if the earth were to be without an Imam for
a single day it would sink."
Thus, when it
came to pass that the first of those whom they regard as their Imams-
Sayyiduna Ali radiyallahu 'anhu- left this world, a problem arose.
Some of those who regarded themselves as his followers claimed that
he did not in fact die, but that he will return to establish justice.
Others said that he was succeeded as Imam by his son Hasan, who
was in turn succeeded by his brother Husayn.
Myth of Mahdi
Mahdi's White Horse and Banner. Of course with Mahdi missing!
died there were some who claimed to follow their other brother Muhammad
(known as Ibn al-Hanafiyyah) as their Imam. When he died his followers
claimed that he was in reality alive, and that he will return in
due time. Others amongst the Shi'ah took Sayyiduna Husayn's son,
Ali, surnamed Zayn al-'Abidin, as their Imam, and upon his death
transferred their loyalties to his son, Muhammad al-Baqir.
died there were once again elements from amongst the Shi'ah who
denied his death and claimed that he would return one day, while
others took his son Ja'far as-Sadiq as their Imam.
When he died
there was mass confusion amongst the Shi'ah: each of his sons Isma'il,
Abdullah, Muhammad, Zakariyya, Ishaq and Moosa was claimed by various
groups amongst the Shi'ah to be their Imam. In addition to them
there was a group who believed that Jaa'far did not really die,
and that he would return one day.
More or less
the same thing happened at the death of his son Moosa. Some of the
Shi'ah denied his death, believing that he will return, and others
decided to take as their new Imam one of his sons. Some of these
chose his son Ahmad, while others chose his other son Ali ar-Rida.
After him they
took as their Imam his son Muhammad al-Jawwad (or at-Taqi), and
after him his son Ali al-Hadi (or an-Naqi). At the death of Ali
al-Hadi they looked upon his son Hasan al-Askari as their new- and
The death of Hasan al-Askari
The above is
a very brief synopsis of a tumultuous and confusing history- a history
from which a dedicated researcher might extract some very revealing
facts about the development of Shiaism.
is not our concern at this moment. We have now arrived at the year
254 AH, the time when a major section of the Shi'ah accepted as
their Imam the 22-year old Hasan, son of Ali al-Hadi, and 10th lineal
descendant of Sayyiduna Ali and Sayyidah Fatimah radiyallahu'anhuma.
Six years later, in 260 AH, Hasan al-Askari, at the very young age
of 28, is lying on his deathbed, but unlike any of his forefathers
he leaves no offspring, no one to whom the Shi'ah might appropriate
as their new Imam.
The Shi'ah who
had been regarding Hasan al-Askari as their Imam were thrown into
mass disarray. Does this mean the end of the Imamah? The end of
the Imamah would mean the end of Shiaism. Were they prepared for
that reigned amongst the Shi'ah after the death of Hasan al-Askari
is reflected by the Shi'ite writer Hasan ibn Moosa an-Nawbakhti,
who counts the emergence of altogether 14 sects amongst the followers
of Hasan al-Askari, each one with a different view on the future
of the Imamah and the identity of the next Imam. It must be noted
that an-Nawbakhti was alive at the time all of this was taking place.
Another Shi'ite writer, Sa'd ibn Abdullah al-Qummi, who also lived
during the same time, counts 15 sects, and a century later the historian
al-Mas'udi enumerates altogether 20 separate sects.
There were four
major trends amongst these various sects:
were those who accepted the death of Hasan al-Askari as a fact,
and accepted also the fact that he left no offspring. To them Imamah
had thus come to an end, just like Nubuwwah came to an end with
the death of Rasoolullaah (s.a.w.s) . However, there were some amongst
them who kept hoping for the advent of a new Imam.
second trend was one to which the student of the history of "succession
to the Imamah" would be much more used to. This was the tendency
to deny the death of Hasan al-Askari, and to claim that he would
return in the future to establish justice upon earth. We have seen
this tendency emerge amongst the Shi'ah at more than one critical
juncture in the history of the Imamah of the Shi'ah; it is therefore
only logical to expect it to resurface at a moment as critical as
the death of Hasan al-Askari.
(3) The third trend was to extend the chain of Imamah to
Hasan's brother Jaa'far.
fourth trend was the claim that Hasan al-Askari did in fact have
a son. It is the fourth trend which ultimately became the view of
the dominant group in Shiaism.
The missing son
This trend was
spearheaded by persons who had set themselves up as the representatives
of the Imam, and who were in control of a network covering various
parts of the Islamic empire- a network for the purpose of collecting
money in the name of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt.
Mohamad Reza Aqasi
Mahdiist Darwish Basiji Martyr Poet
of the Imams were obliged to pay one fifth of their income to the
representatives of the Imams. (This is a practice which continues
up to today.) At the head of this network was a man called Uthmaan
ibn Sa'id al-'Amri. His manner of resolving the predicament was
unique: Hasan al-Askari was dead, he admitted, but he was not childless.
He had a 4-year old son, Muhammad, with whom no one but he- Uthmaan
ibn Sa'id- could have contact. And from that point onwards he would
act as the representative (wakeel) of the Hidden Imam and collect
money in his name.
To the fact
that Hasan al-Askari's own family were completely ignorant of the
existence of any child of his, and that his estate had been divided
between his brother Jaa'far and his mother, Uthman ibn Sa'id and
his ilk responded by denouncing Jaa'far as al-Kadhdhab (the Liar).
In due time
a fantastic story was brought into circulation about the union between
Hasan al-Askari and a Roman slave-girl, who is variously named as
Narjis, Sawsan or Mulaykah. She is mentioned as having been the
daughter of Yusha' (Joshua), the Roman emperor, who is a direct
descendant of the apostle Simon Peter. But history shows that there
never was a Roman emperor of that name. The Roman emperor of the
time was Basil I, and neither he nor any other emperor is known
to have descended from Peter. The story goes on to tell of her capture
by the Muslim army, how she eventually came to be sold to Hasan
al-Askari, and of her supernatural pregnancy and the secret birth
of the son of whom no one- aside from Uthman ibn Sa'id and his clique-
knew anything. Everything about the child is enveloped in a thick
and impenetrable cloud of mystery.
The four representatives
Uthman ibn Sa'id
remained the "representative of the Hidden Imam" for a
number of years. In all that time he was the only link the Shi'ah
had with their Imam. During that time he supplied the Shi'ite community
with tawqi'at, or written communications, which he claimed was written
to them by the Hidden Imam. Many of these communications, which
are still preserved in books like at-Tusi's Kitab al-Ghaybah, had
to do with denouncing other claimants to the position of representatives,
who had come to realise exactly how lucrative a position Uthmaan
ibn Sa'id had created for himself. The Shi'ite literature dealing
with Uthmaan ibn Sa'id's tenure as representative is replete with
references to money collected from the Shi'ite public.
ibn Sa'id died, his son Abu Jaa'far Muhammad produced a written
communication from the Hidden Imam in which he himself is appointed
the second representative, a position which he held for about 50
years. He too, like his father, had to deal with several rival claimants
to his position, but the tawqi'at which he regularly produced to
denounce them and reinforce his own position ensured the removal
of such obstacles and the continuation of support from a credulous
He was followed
in this position by Abul Qasim ibn Rawh an-Nawbakhti, a scion of
the powerful and influential Nawbakhti family of Baghdad. Before
succeeding Muhammad ibn Uthmaan, Abul Qasim an-Nawbakhti was his
chief aide in the collection of the one-fifth taxes from the Shi'ah.
Like his two predecessors, he too had to deal with rival claimants,
one of whom, Muhammad ibn Ali ash-Shalmaghani used to be an accomplice
of his. He is reported in Abu Jaa'far at-Tusi's book Kitab al-Ghaybah
as having stated:
exactly what we were into with Abul Qasim ibn Rawh. We used to fight
like dogs over this matter (of being representative)."
When Abul Qasim
an-Nawbakhti died in 326 AH he bequethed the position of representative
to Abul Hasan as-Samarri. Where the first three representatives
were shrewd manipulators, Abul Hasan as-Samarri proved to be a more
conscientious person. During his three years as representative there
was a sudden drop in tawqi'at. Upon his deathbed he was asked who
his successor would be, and answered that Allah would Himself fulfill
the matter. Could this perhaps be seen as a refusal on his part
to perpetuate a hoax that has gone on for too long? He also produced
a tawqi' in which the Imam declares that from that day till the
day of his reappearance he will never again be seen, and that anyone
who claims to see him in that time is a liar.
more or less 70 years, the last "door of contact" with
the Hidden Imam closed. The Shi'ah term this period, in which there
was contact with their Hidden Imam through his representatives-cum-tax-collectors,
the Lesser Occultation (al-Ghaybah as-Sughra), and the period from
the death of the last representative onwards the Greater Occultation
(al-Ghaybah al-Kubar). The Greater Occultation has already continued
for over a thousand years.
Activities of the representatives
When one reads
the classical literature of the Shi'ah in which the activities of
the four representatives are outlined, one is struck by the constantly
recurring theme of money. They are almost always mentioned in connection
with receiving and collecting "the Imam's money" his loyal
Shi'ite followers. There is a shocking lack of any activities of
an academic or spiritual nature. Not a single one of the four is
credited with having compiled any book, despite the fact that they
were in exclusive communion with the last of the Imams, the sole
repository of the legacy of Rasoolullaah sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam.
When we look
at the major sources upon which the Shi'ite faith is based, we find
that most of them were written after the onset of the Greater Occultation.
Those works, like al-, which was written during the latter decades
of the Lesser Occultation, contain scarcely a reference to any of
the four representatives as narrators from the Hidden Imam. Instead
it is filled with thousands of reports which go back, via other
channels, to the fifth and the sixth Imams. That is indeed strange,
considering the fact that a man like Uthmaan ibn Sa'id al-'Amri
is claimed to have been closely associated with the 10th, the 11th
as well as the hidden 12th Imam, and also the fact that his son
remained the Shi'ite community's solitary link to that Imam for
half a century. Would it not have been better and more authoritative
for an author like al-Kulayni to report the hadith of his Imams
from the Hidden Imam via his representatives who lived in Baghdad
at the same time as he rather than to trace it all back to the fifth
and sixth Imams through a myriad of doubtful channels?
But of course,
he could not have done that, because the activities of those representatives
did not have as much to do with authentically preserving the legacy
of the Ahl al-Bayt as with the collection of wealth in their names.
In light of
the fact that the Shi'ah explain the necessity of Imamah in terms
of the need for an infallible guide who serves as the repository
of the legacy of Ahl al-Bayt, it appears extremely incongruous that
this particular guide has left no sort of legacy of his own whereby
the legacy of the Ahl al-Bayt can be known. Despite the fact that
an infallible guide supposedly exists, it is upon fallible persons
such as Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni that the Shi'ah must depend
for that legacy.
The only bit
of information that has come down to us regarding the Hidden Imam's
authentication of the hadith legacy of the Shi'ah is what is recorded
by Aqa Muhammad Baqir Khwansari in his book Rawdat al-Jannat. He
writes that al-Kulayni's book was presented to the Hidden Imam who
looked at it and declared, "Hadha Kaafin li-Shi'atina"
(This is enough for our Shi'ah). This is incidentally how the book
received its name.
A report such
as this creates a huge problem. It appears to be a ratification
of the contents of the book al-KAAFI by the infallible Imam. Yet,
9 centuries later the Shi'ite muhaddith, Mulla Muhammad Baqir Majlisi,
would declare in his commentary on al-, named Mir'at al-'Uqul, that
9,485 out of the 16,121 narrations in al- are unreliable. What did
Majlisi know that the infallible Imam was so unaware of that he
would authenticate a book, 60% of whose contents would later be
discovered to be unreliable?
The Iraqi Shi'ah
scholar, Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr, finds proof for the existence of
the Hidden Mahdi in what he calls "the experience of a community".
The existence of the Hidden Imam, he postulates, was experienced
by the Shi'ite community as a whole in the written communications
that the representatives used supplied them with.
The crux of
this argument lies in the fact that an individual experience might
be doubted, but never that of experience of an entire community.
However, the glaring flaw in this line of reasoning is that it very
conveniently overlooks the part of the representatives as the individual
never had the privilege of seeing or meeting the person they believed
to be the author of the tawqi'at. Their experience was limited to
receiving what the representatives produced. Even the argument of
a consistent handwriting in all the various tawqi'at is at best
melancholy. There is no way one can get away from the fact that
the existence of the Hidden Imam rests upon nothing other than acceptance
of the words of the representatives.
of those representatives furthermore go a long way to show that
they were much, much more inspired by the desire to possess than
by pious sentiments of any kind.
So when the Shi'ah commemorate the birth of their twelfth Imam on
the 15th night of Sha'ban, or when they seek to apply ahaadeeth
in Sunni sources which speak of twelve khalifahs to their twelve
Imams, then let us ask them on what basis do they accept the existence
of the twelfth one?
witness to the existence of eleven persons in that specific line
of descent, but when we come to the twelfth one, all we have is
claims made by persons whose activities in the name of their Hidden
Imam give us all the reason in the world to suspect their honesty
In Islam, issues
of faith can never be based upon evidence of this kind.