by Hamid Algar
- Circumstances for the Shi’ah at the time of the 11th Imam [AS]
- Ja’far the liar
- The death of the 11th Imam [AS] and the attempt to keep the birth of his son Imam Muhammad Mahdi [AS] hidden.
- Traditions concerning the number of the Imams being twelve and the occultation of the Twelth Imam [AS]
- The birth of the 12th Imam [AS]
- The different groups that emerged, and ultimately the emergence of the normative belief that there were twelve Imams and the Twelth had gone into occultation.
The 11th Imam [AS] had an offspring who after a relatively short period disappeared from the physical plain in what is called the occultation. Before considering the life and circumstances of the 11th Imam [AS] a few additional remarks can be made concerning the immediate background, the circumstances of the Shi’ah in general, the institution of the Imamate in particular in this period, the period of the 9th, 10th and 11th Imams [AS], the period leading up to the occultation. In this period there was an increased persecution of the Shi’ah community and an increasingly harsh and intrusive surveillance to which the Imams [AS] were subjected. One or two additional details may prove useful in illustrating the point – during the reign of al-Mutawakkil the caliph who was responsible for killing Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] the Shi’ah community was not permitted to ride a horse or a mule. This may appear to be a somewhat obscure and curious prohibition, reminiscent of some of the prohibitions enacted by the Taliban in Afghanistan, pointless and at the same time somewhat comical. This would lead to the fact that the Shi’ah would have to ride donkeys and this is a sign of low social status. At this time there were certain movements of insurrection on the part of the Shi’ah community over a wide area. In the year 825AD there was a tax revolt in the city of Qum, the earliest and most important stronghold of Shi’ism in Iran. And although this revolt was not instigated by the Imam [AS] of the time and nor even can it be shown to have enjoyed his support, his local representative, his wakil, was involved in this uprising. This shows maybe two things that firstly – a potential for insurrection (despite the consistent emphasis on taqiyyah for many generations) did exist in the community itself. Secondly, if the wakilhimself acted independently of guidance or even in defiance of instructions from the Imam [AS], this shows how the institution of the wakil, the agency, was in a sense unconsciously preparing itself for the responsibilities that would fall to it after the beginning of the occultation.
In addition the uprising in Qum, in the year 864 AD, another series of uprisings all of them minor in scope, but nonetheless indicating a continuing insurrectionary tendency amongst some elements in the Shi’ah community despite the political quietism of the Imams [AS]. In that one year we find uprisings in Kufah – the traditional centre of Shi’ism in Iraq, it was there of course that Imam Ali [AS] had established his capital and suffered his martyrdom, in Egypt, and notice at this period there is in Egypt a Shi’ah community which of course was not the case later, in the Hijaz – in Makkah and Madinah, and in certain regions of Iran not only in Qum but elsewhere. In Iran we see in these Shi’ah uprisings some overlap with the Zaidis – who espoused the cause of Zaid ibn Ali Zain al-‘Abidin, the son of the 4th Imam [AS] – who laid claim to the Imamate in opposition to his half brother Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS]. There are significant doctrinal differences between these two wings of the Shi’i movement. The important point to note is that in Iran particularly at this time there was an overlap between the two groups, and the insurrectionary tendencies which lay at the very basis of Zaidi Shi’ism which rejected the quietism of the Imams [AS] seems to have found some echo within the twelver community. This also should be borne in mind as part of the background for the final years of the Imamate in the sense of an institution physically present on Earth. There is in this period evidence of intolerance and even paranoia on the part of the Abbasid Caliphs, but also evidence of widespread existence of the Shi’ah community with some occasionally surfacing insurrectionary tendencies.
Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] was forced to reside in the Caliphal military camp in the new Abbasid capital of Samarra in Northern Iraq, askar having that meaning in the Arabic of that time of ‘camp’. Therefore Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] known as such because of his forced residence in that military camp. He was born however not at the camp at Samarra but in Madinah in one of the traditional centres of Shi’ism and a place where numerous numerous of the Imams [AS] had lived. He was born in Madinah in 232 AH, 846 AD the identity of his mother is not known i.e. from what ethnic origin she originated. He was taken to Samarra by his father Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] when he was summoned there by the Caliph in 848 AD, when he was three years old he was obliged to bid a permanent farewell to Madinah. In the city of Samarra he was never permitted to leave and on the contrary he was compelled to report to the Abbasid authorities twice a week – on Mondays and Thursdays in order to set the mind of the Caliphal authorities at rest that he was not engaged in any more significant activity. He was predeceased by his elder brother and was said to have been nominated as successor to Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] some four months before the death of the 10th Imam Ali [AS] in 254 AH, 868 AD, when he was about 22 years of age.
At this we see the phenomenon of not precisely a child Imam as had been the case with the two immediate predecessors, but an Imam not as yet fully experienced and of a relatively low age and his uncle Ja’far thought it appropriate to claim the Imamate in his stead. As it has been seen the transition from virtually every Imam [AS] to the next was followed by some degree of disagreement and splintering within the Shi’ah community and the succession of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] from Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] was not exception. On this occasion it is worth mentioning the identity of one of the rivals i.e. Ja’far, because his role, his maleficent role continued until the period of the Twelth Imam [AS]. In order to substantiate his claim he sought the support of the Abbasid Caliphs and presented himself therefore as a reliable informant on the potentially insurrectionary elements within the Shi’ah movement and insofar as he was aware of what was transpiring revealed the inner dealings of the household of the Imams [AS] to the Caliph. This is one reason for the initial confusion surrounding the question of whether the 11th Imam [AS] did indeed have a son and under what circumstances and what time had the son been born. Ja’far because of this inauspicious role is known as Ja’far al-Kadhdhab – Ja’far the Liar.
The principle contact between Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] and his followers was established by the principal wakil of the day, already mentioned because of his activity in the time of the preceding Imams [AS] Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari. He like Ja’far also provides an element of continuity between the presence of the 12th Imam [AS] and the occultation that then follows. Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] fell sick in the month of Rabi al-Awwal of 210 AH and died eight days later this corresponded to December 874 AD. He is said to have been poisoned by the doctors that were sent by the Abbasid Caliph of the day, ostensibly to cure him. And then in accordance with the scenario as of previous occasions – a prominent member of the Abbasid family the next day led the funeral prayers of the Imam [AS]. He was buried next to his father in the city of Samarra in Northern Iraq. Before passing on to the all important question of his son Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi [AS], there are certain written works ascribed to Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS]. A complete commentary on the Quran has been ascribed to him, the correctness of this however although traditionally accepted has been disputed by a number of authoritative, contemporary Shi’i scholars. It is probable that the tafsir is not written by him but by a later scholar. The content of the tafsir does no doubt accurately reflect the Shi’i teachings of the Imams [AS] on the verses of the Quran. Secondly, there is a collection of the sermons of the 11th Imam [AS], and his wise sayings. The fact that we have sermons attributed to him means that despite the surveillance to which he was subjected in Samarra he was able to gather on a number of occasions a number of followers around him and address them with sermons. Finally there is a short book on questions of Islamic Law, the major categories of halal and haram, that which is permissible and that which is forbidden.
What is certain is that no nass, no written or witnessed designation took place by Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS]. This is explained in the sources in terms of the critical circumstances of the time. In other words, by now such was the hostility of the Abbasid caliphs towards the institution of the Imamate that even the nass – the nomination witnessed by a narrow circle of people within the household of the Imam [AS] was perceived of as dangerous – word might leak out and lead to the killing of an infant designated to succeed the Imam [AS]. There is in fact one tradition from Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] in which he says remarking on the assassination of one of the Abbasid Caliphs from someone within the Abbasid family, they practiced their craft amongst themselves not only with respect to their political enemies:-
‘This person wished to kill me and my infant son but fate decreed that he should be killed himself before he had the opportunity to make the attempt.’
Therefore this is an indication that Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] was aware of the extremely critical circumstances of the time and for that reason alone refrained from nass. Because of the absence of nass a prolonged internal crisis arose in the Shi’ah community after the passing away of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS]. In all of the crises of the history of the Imamate this was no doubt the greatest. However once the crisis was over and it is difficult to get an exact date as to when the crisis ended – Shi’ism as a comprehensive and coherent set of teachings concerning Islam was finally consolidated in the following senses – firstly normative now for Shi’ism was the belief that there had been twelve Imams [AS] and not more – obviously when the occultation of the Twelth Imam [AS] had been generally accepted, when in fact two facts had been accepted – that the Eleventh Imam AS) had a son, and also once it had been accepted also that the Imam [AS] had gone into occultation, then the figure of twelve became normative. There was no longer a question of the prolongation of the Imamate and dispute over the identity of the Imam [AS], which would have occurred had the Imamate been prolonged. It can be said that the belief in an occulted Imam [AS] became in itself normative together with the figure of twelve as an essential corollary for belief in the Imamate. To express things more concisely it can be said that Shi’ism in it’s main body was resting on the belief that there were twelve Imams [AS] and the twelth of them had gone into occultation and these two go necessarily together. To dispute either of these complementary doctrines, to assume that there was less or more than twelve Imams [AS] or to dispute that the Imam [AS] was in occultation this represented a deviation from twelver Shi’ism. Although at the beginning there was a prolonged crisis, and although the absence of the Imam [AS] from the physical plain and from immediate access to the community presented a whole variety of practical and doctrinal problems – the outcome was ultimately a consolidation, a completion of Shi’ism as a doctrinal system.
Given the continued practice of taqiyyah and given the absence of nass, that is to say a recorded designation by Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] of a successor how did the question ultimately resolve itself? Firsly, what can be pointed out is an existence of tradition very much earlier in the history of Shi’ism concerning precisely these two interrelated points that the twelve Imams [AS] are not more and the occultation of the Twelth Imam [AS]. There is a tradition from the Prophet [sAW] found in the Sunni books also which speaks of twelve successors, the wording used in the Sunni books for example in Sahih Muslim is Khalifah, which is not problematic because the word Khalifah only later came to designated a particular historical institution associated first with the four Caliphs and then the Umayyads and the Abbasids afterwards. In this hadith the word simply has the meaning of successor insofar as the Imam [AS] is the successor, in the Shi’ah view the successor to the Prophet [sAW]. The word Khalifah is entirely compatible with the Shi’i understanding. There are these hadith and hadith which are similar, there are even hadith from the Prophet [sAW] himself, not from the Imams [AS] that list the entirety of the Twelve Imams [AS] which would indicate not only the figure twelve but a kind of foreknowledge by the Prophet [sAW] of the names even of the twelve Imams [AS] – here again the traditions occur in the Sunni as well as the Shi’ah books. The cutting off of the series at twelve does not therefore come unexpectedly. Likewise the cutting off of the series at eleven would have been unexpected, it would run counter to the existing belief among the broad body of the Shi’ah that the Imamate would attain the total of twelve. Beyond this particular hadith there is a very important and significant hadith from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] which says:-
‘The Earth shall never be empty of a proof (Hujjah) whether manifest and visible or hidden.’
The word ‘Hujjah’ means proof, argument or evidence. An attribute of Imam [AS] is that the word Hujjah means ‘the Divine Will to guide.’ That is that the very existence of the Imam [AS] constitutes a proof or evidence of the Divine Will to guide mankind in just the same way that the Prophet [sAW] fulfills that function after him that same function is fulfilled by the Imams [AS]. This hadith which had been narrated already in the time of the 6th Imam [AS] continues by saying:-
‘…Whether manifest and visible or hidden.’
Therefore the possibility of an Imam [AS] a Hujjah who will be hidden from public view, from physical accessibility has already been contemplated at the time of the 6th Imam [AS]. It must be remembered also that in many of the succession crisis of the death of one Imam [AS] or another the theme of an occultation arose. That is to say that it was said that the preceding Imam [AS] had not died but had simply gone into occultation and his reappearance was to be expected. From the point of view of Shi’ah doctrine those expectations were misplaced, but the point is that the general theme or doctrine of occultation was already a matter of firm and well established belief. Finally among the hadith which it can be said pre-disposed the Shi’ah community to believe in the existence of the Twelth Imam [AS] and his occultation is one that seems to have had increasing currency in the years immediately preceding the occultation, this hadith is again from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] which says that:-
‘There will come from the household of the Prophet [sAW] (the Ahl al-bait [AS]) one who will rise up and who is rightly guided.’
The attributes ‘the one who will rise up’ ‘al-Qa’im’ and ‘who is rightly guided’ ‘al-Mahdi’ are used. Hypothetically one might say that the word al-Qa’im might be taken in two senses – it might be taken in conjunction with the concept of resurrection ‘Qiyamah’ i.e. rises up, who is resurrected from the dead or the one who will rise up in rebellion in order to vindicate and render triumphant the cause of the Imamate and all that is associated with it and it is the second of the two meaning that is the more apposite. That is to say, there will come from the household of the Prophet [sAW] one who will rise up in rebellion. Rebellion is probably an inappropriate word because it implies a movement against a legitimate authority, whereas the whole point of view is the illegitimacy of the authority which is to be overthrown by al-Qa’im. So you could say rising up to overthrow what is perceived of as illegitimacy. Qa’im also has a third sense which is relevant to the understanding of the hadith, ‘one who stands over.’ ‘Standing over’ in the sense of presiding over the affairs of humanity. He is the one who will not only rise up in order to finally establish legitimacy and justice, he is also the one who is supported and appointed by God and supervises the affairs of humanity – takes the affairs of humanity into hand and establishes justice. The second word in this designation ‘al-Mahdi’ has the literal meaning of ‘one who is guided’, ‘one who is in receipt of Divine Guidance’ this could therefore apply to any true believer – a true believer by definition has attained guidance. However in this context the word al-Mahdi acquires additional and distinctive connotations. He is the one who has acquired guidance and by virtue thereof will undertake all that is implied in the title ‘al-Qa’im’. By virtue of Divine Guidance he will rise up in as it were the vengeance of history against those who have usurped power. The word Mahdi by itself does not imply an messianic or apocalyptic function it is only once it is bought into proximity with al-qa’im that it takes on it’s meaning. The matter is further complicated however by the occurrence of the word Mahdi in Sunni usage aswell. There is in Sunni Islam, at least there used to be before the Wahhabis set about their work deconstructing Sunni Doctrine belief in the Mahdi. That is to say that one who is from the lineage of the Prophet [sAW] who will arise at the end of time to establish Islam in it’s totality and authenticity. The difference of course being that from the Sunni point of view The Mahdi is not to the best of their knowledge yet born he will have a normal lifespan and will emerge in normal biological circumstances, he will however be from the lineage of the Prophet [sAW]. The concept of the Mahdi is also to be found in Sunni Islam as well although even before the concept was relegated into the background it was not entirely rejected in recent times, it by no means occupied the same importance and central place in Sunni Islam as it has been adopted by the 12th Imam [AS] as the Mahdi in Shi’ah Islam. There are important differences, but the belief in al-Mahdi however he be identified and understood is originally common to both Shi’i and Sunni Islam although today many Sunni Muslims might be ignorant of the concept or may actively reject it.
The increasing currency of the hadith that there will come from the household of the Prophet [sAW] ‘al-Qa’im al-Mahdi’ also pre-disposed a majority of people to believe in the birth of a son to Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] and the ultimate occultation of that son. There is one question that deserves some attention, when the ‘occultation of the Twelth Imam [AS]’ is spoken about, that is to say that the Twelth Imam [AS] was born but after a very short period of existence on the worldly plain went into occultation it might be thought that here one had a perfect and ingenious solution to the increasingly critical situation of the Imamate. It has been seen that the Imams [AS] were under increasing pressure, were being assassinated in short order by the Abbasid Caliphs, that they had very little access to their communities. It was not widely known even within the Shi’ah community that the Twelth Imam [AS] had indeed been born, therefore what better solution to this problem from a purely pragmatic point of view than to say that indeed he did have a son but that that son had gone into occultation very swiftly. This line of reasoning that is attributed to pragmatic machinations of the leaders of the Shi’ah community of the time merely falls flat once it is taken into consideration some of the hadith that have already been mentioned. The very fact that the scene of an occulted Imam, the very fact that a total of twelve Imams [AS] not more and not less is commonly expected, this in itself serves to explain why the existence of the Twelth Imam [AS] should have been commonly accepted within the community, it should not be viewed simply as an inspired pragmatic solution to the dilemma posed by the death of the 11th Imam [AS] without his successor being widely known. The period of the 9th, 10th and 11thImams [AS] can be regarded as an anticipation of the occultation – it was a period in which they were increasingly under pressure had very little contact with their immediate followers and were therefore is what might be regarded as semi-occultation already. Another hadith which will serve as a transition to the consideration of the factual evidence, again this hadith is from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS], it is a significant hadith in which he said:-
‘There will come a time when the Imam [AS] will have two occultations, one will be so long that many will imagine him to have died and even in his first occultation none will be aware of his whereabouts except his intimate partisans who will look after his affairs.’
This is a fairly close description of what in fact came to pass after the death of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS], none were aware of the whereabouts of the Twelth Imam [AS] or even the circumstances of his birth.
After the death of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] all of his wakils, his named representatives – Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari and others were convinced that he had indeed left the son behind. However precisely because of the principle of taqiyyah, and more particularly because of the exceptionally critical circumstances of the time they were forbidden from widely revealing this fact. There was the perceived danger that the Abbasids would try to kill the infant son. We know in fact that after the death of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] a number of doctors were sent by the Caliphal court to his household in order to examine the women there and to see if any of them were pregnant. One woman in the household whether by a mistake on her own part, or out of a sincere conviction that she was pregnant, volunteered the information that she was pregnant – she was then taken and put under close surveillance by the Abbasids for a period of two years. At the end of the two years she had not given birth and it was finally concluded that this was very probably a misunderstanding. One cannot exclude the possibility that this imaginary pregnancy was a ruse, a stratagem in order to divert the attention of the Caliphal authority from the son that had in fact been born to Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] thereby completing the series of Twelve Imams [AS]. It was agreed that the Twelth Imam [AS] was born on 15th Sha’ban, however there are various dates to which his birth is attributed. Some are of the belief that he was born early in the lifetime of his father, so that he has already attained maturity at the time of his father’s death. This is highly unlikely, particularly if you bear in mind that Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] was only 29 years of age when he died, it was therefore not really conceivable that the Twelth Imam [AS] should have been mature at the time of this father’s death. Another possibility comes from the account of a visitor that came from Iran to Samarra in 871 AD, three years before the death of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] – this visitor reports having seen an infant boy whom he estimated to be two years of age. If this were the case then the Imam [AS], Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi [AS] the Twelth Imam [AS] would have been about three years of age when his father died. In other words the Shi’ah community would have had again the situation of a child Imam leading it. A third possibility is that he was born after the death of his father Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS], about eight months after his death. Which means that he was conceived one month before his father’s death. In which case the absence of any sign of pregnancy in his mother at the time of the death of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] would have been entirely credible – because it is said that when the agents of the caliph came to inspect the woman of the household after the death of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS], none of the women claimed to be pregnant and none of them exhibited the signs of pregnancy. Although it is sometimes said that the signs of pregnancy were miraculously concealed not only from the agents of the caliph but even from the mother herself. The final view concerning the circumstances of his birth is that Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi [AS] was born in the year 870 AD, and that he was four years seven months of age when his father died. This version of matters depends primarily of accounts of two aunts of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS]. There are a total of five names of persons who were aware of from immediate contact, who were eye-witnesses to the existence of the Twelth Imam [AS]. Among the five are two aunts of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS]. It is said that one day one of the aunts Hakimah went into the presence of her nephew Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] who informed her that one of his wives was about to give birth, she then passed this information onto the other of the two aunts from who we have the narration. The name of the wife to whom this report refers is Narghis, there are two accounts of her origin, it is sometime said that Narghis was of Greek origin – she had been captured in the intermittent warfare that had been going on between the Muslims and the Byzantines in the Anatolia of that time, and in order to fall into captivity and enter the household of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] she had deliberately placed herself in an exposed condition, and she had been captured, and as she hoped and anticipated she had been bought into the presence in the household of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] and then had this ultimate honor of giving birth to the Twelth Imam [AS]. This account is a bit difficult to credit in it’s entirety, it is moreover incompatible with the other condition that she was unaware with her own pregnancy. It simply indicates the great significance that is attached in Shi’ah tradition to the birth of the Twelth Imam [AS] and the continuing cosmic function that he continues to exercise. In any account it clashes with another account concerning the origin of his mother of the 12th Imam [AS] that she again was African from Nubia, the accounts which assign her to Nubia are more numerous and more credible. Here again we see another instance of African parentage in the lines of the Imams [AS] (the fourth Imam with an African parent).
It is said that on that very same day that the aunt had been informed by Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] that Narghis was about to give birth, if she did indeed give birth on that very same day – the wording used in informing her was precisely the wording of one of the hadith already cited:-
Therefore not simply an announcement that a son is about to be born who will succeed to the Imamate but specifically he is going to be al-Qa’im al-Mahdi, with all that is implied in that combination of terms. It was said that when he was born and again that account of the aunt of the 11th Imam [AS] is being draw upon – he was pure and clean, there was no trace of blood or any other impurity upon him and that as he emerged from the womb he immediately and spontaneously prostrated in the direction of the Qiblah in other words he assumed the posture of the Islamic prayer. It is said also that his father Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] placed his tongue in the mouth of the newly born infant whereupon he repeated the Shahadahtain the two Islamic confessions of faith the Oneness of Allah (SWT) and the Messengerhood of the Prophet [sAW]. After professing the two confessions of faith he [AS] also recited the names of the Imams [AS], the names of the Twelve Imams [AS] including himself. These details of a miraculous nature underline the significance of this infant, given the fact that he is to be the last of the Imams [AS] but also having a function extending indefinitely into the future it is pertinent that the circumstances of his birth should also be extraordinary. The circumstances of his departure from the world were also extraordinary, as will be seen in the question of the Ghaibah.
It may well be justified to draw a parallel between the beliefs, these and other beliefs concerning the Twelth Imam [AS] and the Quranic teachings concerning Prophet ‘Isa [AS] because the entry of ‘Isa [AS] into the world takes place of course in a miraculous and extraordinary fashion – he was born of a virgin mother, and likewise his departure from this world described in the Quran as ‘being raised unto his Lord.’, without suffering death or crucifixion is a miraculous departure. In fact there are a whole series of significant parallels between the Twelth Imam [AS] and Prophet ‘Isa [AS] and these are two of them. On the seventh day after his birth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi [AS] repeated these same recitations i.e. Shahadatain and names of the Twelve Imams [AS], and then spontaneously without instruction by his father recited verses 5 and 6 of chapter 28 of the Quran:-
‘And We desired to bestow a favor upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the Imams, and to make them the heirs,
And to grant them power in the land, and to make Firon and Haman and their hosts see from them what they feared.’ (28:5-6)
All elements of these verses are significant. ‘And We desired to bestow a favor upon those who were deemed weak in the land… the original context of revelation of these verse refers to the children of Israel and their struggle against the Pharaoh, but without denying or negating this verse in any way, there is of course a whole series of other interpretations which are axiomatic in the understanding of the Quran as a whole. Although there may be a given event to which a verse refers nonetheless the relevance of the verse to an analogous situation also requires consideration. And in the context of this recitation of these verse by Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi [AS] those who have been oppressed upon the earth, this refers to the Imams [AS] and we have seen how one after another have been subject to oppression, suffering, denial, abandonment even in many cases by their own followers as was seen by Imam Ali [AS] and Imam Hussain [AS] at Kerbala. And secondarily those that have been true to them they have been of those who have been oppressed. It is possible to draw the net still wider in understanding this verse or the implied meaning of this verse in it’s particular context insofar as the cause of the Imamate and it’s vindication, it’s triumph is viewed as the triumph of the cause of justice therefore ‘…Those who have been oppressed on earth…’ are indeed precisely that without any narrowing of the category. This advocation of verse we can see in it’s original context as well, when the Imam [AS] is said to have recited this verse the sense of those being oppressed on the earth being the totality of those oppressed is there at even a secondary or tertiary level. In the first place it would be the Imams [AS] and the Shi’ah in general, beyond that those who have suffered oppression because of the absence from the earth of a righteous and just government which is connected indissolubly with the Imams [AS].
In more recent times and more specifically during the time of the revolution in Iran this verse was bought forward and emphasis was laid on precisely that universal definition of those who are oppressed on earth. The movement was seen or portrayed itself as not only as a movement for the liberation of Muslims in Iran and more generally in the Islamic World but also solidarity with oppressed people with other backgrounds and not necessarily Muslim. ‘…and to make them the leaders…’ the word used for leaders is simply a’immah. In the original context of revelation one cannot apply to the word Imam the precise significance that it requires in Shi’i doctrine nonetheless there is obviously here a significant overlap her even on the verbal level. ‘…and to make them the heirs (Warithin)…’. So in other words the Imams [AS] and their followers are to be appointed as leaders enjoying authority over the world and as heirs. Heirs to what? To a wide variety of matters, in a narrow context of the Imams [AS] – heirs to the authority and the functions of the Prophet [sAW] remembering that hadith going back to the early part of the career of the Prophet [sAW] he designated Imam Ali [AS] as among other things his ‘warith’ his heir. ‘…And to grant them power in the land…’ Those who suffered oppression we want to establish for them a firm and unassailable position ‘…and to make Firon and Haman and their hosts see from them what they feared.’ Haman is the right hand man the minister of Pharaoh. Here Pharaoh and Haman do not simply stand for historical personalities connected with the oppression of the children of Israel, but archetypally of oppressors throughout history. Irrespective of what is made of the clearly miraculous pronouncement by an infant the significance of it is entirely clear, that the 12th Imam [AS] has assigned to him from the very beginning of his earthly existence the function of the ultimate vindication of the Imamate with all that is implied by the exegesis of these verses. There is another important parallel with ‘Isa [AS] the Quran informs us in more than one place that ‘Isa [AS] immediately upon his birth also spoke bearing witness to his mission. Since in Islamic belief Prophet ‘Isa [AS] departed this world without suffering either death of crucifixion, it should be made plain that it was not that he was crucified and then resurrected, the Quran says very plainly that ‘…they did not crucify him nor did they kill him…’ they being the Jews. In other words he was not placed on the cross in the first place, what did happen is only hinted at in the Quran. On the other hand since every soul must taste death as the Quran tells us, Prophet ‘Isa [AS] will necessarily return to the earthly plain. Having left this earth not having suffered death he must return to this world in order to gain his death because neither he nor anyone is exempt from this general principle that every soul shall taste death. As it will be seen when the concept of the occultation is examined in greater detail the 12th Imam [AS] although he is occulted, removed from the worldly plain, he too will return. All of the purposes that are indicated in the aforementioned verse just analysed it is believed will be attained, will be realized by the 12th Imam [AS] on his return. The 12thImam [AS] will be returned for messianic purposes and likewise Prophet ‘Isa [AS] will also return a precise correlation of these two returns and precisely how they are connected and how they differ from each other is an important and interesting subject in Shi’ah belief.
It is said that already in the lifetime of his father for precautionary reasons he was sent away from Samarra to Madinah. This took place it is said the 873 AD, maybe two to three years after the birth of the Imam [AS]. His paternal grandmother took him from Samarra to the Hijaz to Madinah – the pretext being that she was going to make the Hajj. This was hardly something that could be prevented or denied by the Abbasid Caliph of the time. So in the company of this lady he went from Samarra to Madinah and it was said that he had already received the external tokens of the Imamate that is to say the special books that had been inherited the ‘Mushaf Fatimah’, and the weapons of the Prophet [sAW] and Imam Ali [AS]. It is said that he had also received knowledge of the supreme name al-‘ism al-a’zam i.e. this is taken as an indication of that special body of esoteric knowledge the transmission and possession of which was an exclusive prerogative of the Imams [AS]. One indication of the historicity of this account i.e. that the Imam [AS] at a very early age was taken from Samarra to Madinah is provided by a hadith concerning his father, Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] at an early point even before the 12th Imam [AS] had been born he was asked by one of his followers:-
‘After you where shall I look for the Imam [AS]?
Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] replied:-
This understanding of matters that the Imam [AS] was born in the lifetime of his father and that in infancy he was as a matter of concern transferred to the relative safety of Madinah away from the Caliphal capital gradually became accepted as normative in Shi’ah belief. For a variety of reasons it took a while for this understanding of matters to gain firm hold the reasons for this are fairly plain, the fact that very few people had actually witnessed the physical existence of the child, extraordinary precautions were taken to conceal his birth and his existence from the Caliphal authorities but those same measures concealed the existence of the child from many within the Shi’ah community itself. Therefore an unprecedented degree of confusion reigned within the Shi’ah community. More groups were emerging than before with previous succession crises i.e. periods from one Imam [AS] to the next. The historians of the period recount some twenty different groups among the Shi’ah of that time, it may be useful to review some of them in order to understand the different reactions that gave rise that arose at this period. One group for example believed that Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] was indeed the last of the Imams [AS]. Despite the existence of hadith proclaiming the number of the Imams [AS] to be twelve Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] in the absence of a visible and well known successor must have been the last. However it was said that because, ‘the earth cannot be without a Hujjah.’ therefore he could not truly be dead but was in occultation, he was no longer visible on the physical plain but would ultimately return.
A slightly different position was espoused by those who said that he had died but would soon be resurrected, they understood the word ‘al-qa’im’ to mean that i.e. the one who would be resurrected – the word al-qa’im is ambiguous and has a few major senses, one possible sense being the one who will be resurrected. These people said that Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] is al-Qa’im al-Mahdi – the one who will be resurrected in order to fulfill the functions of al-Mahdi. Then an interesting group which was called ‘ which means in Arabic ‘I don’t know’, so they professed themselves to be helplessly confused and uncertain and simply said, ‘I don’t know’. Under the circumstances this was maybe not an unreasonable position. Then we have people espousing the claim of Ja’far al-Kadhdhab who had already disputed the Imamate in the time of Imam Hassan al-Askari now taking advantage of the apparent confusion in the community in the apparent absence of a successor, he sought to step up his claims. Then there were those who said that Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] had not been an Imam at all and that it was therefore a mistake in the first place search for a successor to him. If he had been an Imam [AS] then by definition he would have had to leave a son behind, in other words an Imam [AS] who does not produce a male offspring who will be his successor is a contradiction in terms. Therefore given the apparent absence of physical offspring, of a son, therefore it has to be concluded that Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] was not the Imam [AS] himself. Therefore one had to look elsewhere in order to identify the 11th Imam [AS]. Once this door was opened a whole variety of possibilities emerged and other individuals were identified as having been the 11th Imam [AS] including of course Ja’far himself. Then there was the view also that after Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] had indeed died, he was not in occultation, he was not going to be resurrected, he had been the Imam [AS], Ja’far was not the Imam and nor were the members of various other climes. It is was argued that if Prophethood itself had come to an end, then why not the institute of the Imamate. From this of course from the point of view of Shi’ah doctrine the obvious response is, what happens to the institution of the Hujjah. What of the belief that the earth can never be without a Divine Proof in human form of the will to guide the community. And to this the response was given to those who espoused this position that Allah (SWT) was so angry with mankind, more particularly with the Muslims, still more particularly with the Shi’ah community that the institution of the Hujjah had been bought to an end. That is to say that mankind as a whole, Muslims in particular, and Shi’ah Muslims who lay claim to being followers of the Imam [AS] all had proven unworthy of the Hujjah, all had proven unworthy of the Imamate. Therefore God had withdrawn from humanity the institution of the Hujjah. Here of course there is another problem – this implies a change of mind a change of destiny on the part of God. Here this fragile and complex doctrine of ‘bada’ was bought forward which means a ‘revision of the Divine Will’. It first surfaces in the debate over the succession to Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS], the proponents of what was to become the Isma’ili branch of Shi’ism said that Isma’il the eldest son of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] had been nominated as his successor, he however had predeceased his father so that the succession went to Imam Musa al-Kazim [AS]. How might this be justified – because the nomination of a successor of an Imam [AS] is not a matter of fallible human judgment but it is said of direct and Divine Guidance. So how is it conceivable that the Imam [AS] should first have nominated as his successor one who was going to predecease him. In order to answer this objection the doctrine of Bada was brought up. Meaning approximately a revision in the Divine Will, it is analogous to the theory of abrogation. Within the Quran there are certain verses of legislative content which are abrogated by verses which are revealed later. It is not that the earlier verses are false and invalid simply that in terms of their legal application they are superseded by verses which are revealed later. Bada is seen as something analagous that is that the first Divine Decree is of course valid but it is superseded or abrogated in it’s effect by a second Divine Decree. This principle was bought into play by those who said that the Imamate was at an end. That Divine Anger, dissatisfaction with the state of humanity, Muslims, Shi’ah Muslims had caused Allah (SWT) to withdraw the institution of the Imamate not simply from the visible plain but in general. The Imamate was no longer there, the Hujjah was no longer there. This position ultimately fell into obscurity. There are some echoes of this thought in attempts to understand the nature and purpose of the occultation and the fashion in which it will come to an end. Both internally and externally, the occultation, that is to say the belief that the Imam [AS] will be in existence not however on the visible and physical plain caused a lot of questionings within the Shi’ah community and outside the Shi’ah community it was said that how does one explain this, what is the purpose of an Imam [AS] who is not on the physical plain? And why has he been withdrawn from the physical plain? And when will he return? There are a number of answers given to this. One idea is this idea of unworthiness that is that humanity as a whole and this Shi’ah community in particular has proven unworthy of the Imam [AS] and therefore the Imam [AS] has been withdrawn from earthly existence by the Divine Wisdom. It is not that the Imamate has been brought to an end, it is that the Imam [AS] has temporarily although for a very long time been withdraw from earthly existence because of the unworthiness of the community. To put it differently, lack of suitable conditions for him to exercise his comprehensive functions. It is sometimes said that the whole notion of an occulted Imam [AS] and the whole notion of his return gives rise to passivity. In other words in the absence of the Imam [AS] there is nothing really useful that can be accomplished in terms of human effort in order to remedy whatever situations of injustice and oppression exist, all that has to be done is to sit and wait for the return of the Imam [AS]. But the corollary of the point just put forward namely that the occultation of the Imam [AS] is the result of the unworthiness of his community is of course that to become worthy of the Imam [AS] is a means of hastening his re-appearance. In other words the waiting for the reappearance of the Imam [AS] is not a passive process on the contrary it implies active preparation in order to change the circumstances of the Muslim world, the Shi’ah community so that the return of the Imam [AS] will find appropriate circumstances awaiting it. So there is this sense of historical failure which we see manifested in a slightly different context after the aftermath of Kerbala, the failure on the part of those who proclaimed themselves to be the follower of the Imam [AS] actually to come to his aid. And this sense of failure has a whole series of manifestations in the history of Shi’ism and therefore to reverse this failure to vindicate more clearly the claim to be true followers of the Imam [AS] this in itself is a mode of preparation of his return. It is here again justifiable and useful to make a reference to the revolution in Iran, because obviously the revolution in Iran as it will be indicated is at it’s essence a Shi’i phenomenon – one can explain it in political terms, in socio-economic terms but at it’s core and it’s very nature the revolution in Iran was an integrally Shi’i Muslim phenomenon. One way in which it was so, was that it represented – self-consciously for many people this type of preparation, this attempt to overcome this sense of unworthiness for the presence of the Imam [AS] – an attempt to prepare appropriate circumstances for his return. One of the slogans that used to be recited in Iran during the lifetime of Imam Khomeini (ra), ‘O God, O God, preserve Imam Khomeini [AS] until the coming of The Mahdi [AS].’ Which of course meant amongst other things a desire for the prolongation for the life of Imam Khomeini (ra) because of the attributes that he possessed and his charismatic properties. But also it expressed a world view that the revolution in Iran is in a sense an active mode of preparation for the return of the Twelth Imam [AS]. There were therefore these differing views after the death of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] which were ultimately dissolved and replaced by the firm and definitive and normative belief in the existence and occultation of the 12th Imam [AS].