Major Occultation

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The Major Occultation (Arabic:الغيبة الکبريAl-Ghaybah al-Kubra) according to Shia is Mahdi's second occultation after his first occultation. According to Twelvers the Major occultation which came around 329/941 is still in effect, and will not end until the End of Time when the Mahdi, is believed to come back to reestablish Justice on earth.[1]

Before occurring the major occultation, upon the death of his father, and while still a child, it is believed that the twelfth Imam entered his first occultation which lasted 70 lunar years, during which the Hidden Imam is said to have represented on earth by four successive deputies.[2][3] According to official tradition, in 329/940, the fourth and last delegate received a final letter signed by the Hidden Imam in which he declared that henceforth and "until the end of time," no one will see him or be his representative, and that whosoever declares otherwise is no less than an imposter. This important document was apparently reported for the first time by Ibn Babawayh in his Kamal al-din.[2] Shia scholars asserts that in every age, there is an Imam however, because of the dangers which threatening the life of Twelfth Imam, he is concealed by God's order.[4] Critics say the occultation of the 12th Imam “became subsequent orthodox doctrine” after none of the competing theories that sought to explain the succession to a childless 11th Imam “seemed satisfactory”.[5] According to Wilferd Madelung however, the doctrine of The Occultation was well-documented by traditions of the Imams before the occultation.[6]


Gayba (Occultation, lit: absence), is a term used by the Shias to refer to the occultation of the Hidden Imam,[7] however, as his occultation is believed to be long, and because believers would be waiting for his rise and reappearance, Mahdi is also called Montazar (the Awaited one).[8] He is also known as Qa'im, whose rise against unjust is awaited.[9] In this sense, it contrasted with qāʿed(lit: the seated one), a term designating previous Imams who did not participate in rebellious movements against Umayyad and Abbasid rule.[2]

Some scholars, including Bernard Lewis point out that the idea of an Imam in occultation was not new in 873 but that it was a recurring factor in Shia history. Examples of this include the cases of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah (according to the Kaysanites Shia), Muhammad ibn Abdallah An-Nafs Az-Zakiyya, Musa al-Kadhim (according to the Waqifite Shia), Muhammad ibn Qasim (al-Alawi), Yahya ibn Umar and Muhammad ibn Ali al-Hadi.[10]


The idea of occultation in Islam has its origin in the Kaysaniya whose members had considered Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah the Mahdi.[7] When his son, Abu Hashem died childless some of the Kaysanites again maintained that he was the Qa'em, who is in concealment in the Razwa mountain.[7] The Waqefiyya (cessationists) were another group who maintained that the Imamate was ceased with Musa al-Kadhim the seventh Shia Imam and refused to accept his death as they believed he had gone into occultation.[7] Finally the companions of Hasan al-Askari, the eleventh Imam, also believed he had a son whose birth, like that of the prophet Moses was concealed, and due to the belief that he was the promised Muhammad al-Mahdi; Al-Mutamid ordered the house of the Imam to be investigated, and to find out if the Imam had left a son.[11] It is said that when his uncle, who became known as the "Ja'far the liar" afterwards, was about to say the prayer at Hasan al-Askari's funeral, "a fair child, with curly hair, and shining teeth" appeared and seized his uncle's cloak insisting that he himself should say the prayer.[11] And when a few days later a group of Shia pilgrims came from Qum to visit al-Askari, who was dead then, the same Ja'far claimed to be the next Imam. The pilgrims said they would accept him if he would prove himself by telling them their names and indicating how much money they had. While Ja'far was protesting against this examination, a servant of al-Mahdi appeared saying that his master had informed him to say that they had certain particular names and definite amount of money. Ja'far searched everywhere but could not find the boy, al-Mahdi."[11]

The majority of Shia, therefore, denied Mahdi's birth except for a small minority belonging to the circles of narrators who based their belief on the traditions of the previous Imams. Jassim Hussain indicates, several books written before The Minor Occultation predicting the twelfth Imam being the Mahdi and his going to occultation.[12]

According to Modarressi, the introduction of the idea of the Mahdi have taken place very slowly after the death of the eleventh Imam, and the crisis of succession that resulted from it.[7] According to the Imami doctrine that took shape in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Twelfth Imam is the Mahdi, who is in occultation and will reappear at the end of time.[13] This picture can be supplemented by the early Imami Shia traditions which present the Qa'em as the redresser of the house of Muhammad[a][7]

Reasons for Occultation[edit]

According to Sharif al-Murtaza the twelfth Imam used to appear before his adherents at the beginning of his Occultation concealing himself only from his enemies; only later, when danger to his life increased, did he have to hide from both followers and adversaries,[3] as there are numerous stories of the Hidden Imam "manifesting himself to prominent members of the Ulama"[14] When Jabir ibn Abd Allah asked the prophet about the benefits of a hidden Imam, the prophet replied that the people would benefit from his Walayah (Twelver doctrine) as they benefit from the sun when it is covered by the clouds.[15] According to Sachedina, in every age there is an Imam whether be apparent or hidden. As for Mahdi because of the dangers which threatening his life, he is concealed by God's order.[4] Al-Numani states two reasons for the Occultation: the believers being evaluated by God for their assiduity to their hidden Imam and the hidden Imam not undergoing the Bay'h of the cruel leaders.[16] Shia tradition cites four major reasons for Mahdi's occultation: protecting the life of the Imam; independence with regard to temporal powers; testing Shi'as in order to measure their faith; and also there is a secret reason which won't be revealed until the end of time.[2][17] The real reason for the Occultation, according to a Hadith, will be known when the Imam re-appears.[16]


In Shi'a sources, even in historical works of Al-Shaykh al-Saduq, the birth of the twelfth Imam was miraculous which must be considered as hagiography.[18] Aside from Shi'i works almost nothing is known about the life of the twelfth Imam.[19] Some even cast doubt on his existence.[19] This is because Abbasids were crushing every revolt of Alids which caused al-Askari to hide the child' birth on 255/868 and just close companions get informed of the birth.[20] However, this belief has long been criticized. Critics say the occultation of the 12th Imam "became subsequent orthodox doctrine" after none of the competing theories that sought to explain the succession to a childless 11th Imam "seemed satisfactory".[5] According to Bernard Lewis with each new leader "who disappeared and did not return", this belief was "enriched" and became more detailed and "essential" as a "feature of Shia Islam."[21]

According to Wilferd Madelung, however, the doctrine of the Occultation was well-documented by traditions of the Imams before the occultation of the Twelfth Imam whom the majority of the Imamiyya came to consider as the Mahdi after the death of the eleventh.[22] Sachedina also states that the idea of the eschatalogical Qa'im who would rise after going to occultation was mentioned by fifth and sixth Imam, i.e. Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja'far al-Sadiq at various times, when the two were approached by their followers and assured them of their support, if they wanted to rise against the existing regime.[22][23]

After the greater occultation, the role of Imam as the head of community left vacant, which did not theoretically matter at the beginning of Occultation because Shias had no political power at that time. However, when Shia states arose in later centuries, since the hidden Imam was alive and was the leader of Muslims, the role of the Shia states among Shia communities was in question.[24] This problem has caused continuing tension between government and religion throughout Shia history.[24]


According to Madelung the doctrine of the Occultation was well-documented by traditions of the Imams before the occultation of the Twelfth Imam.[6] The future arrival of the Mahdi constitutes the most frequent of the imams' predictions. Kulayni and Numani each dedicated an entire chapter to it, and Ibn Bâbûye devoted thirteen chapters to the predictions of the Prophet,

In a Hadith upon whose authenticity everyone agrees, Muhammad has said, "If there were to remain in the life of the world but one day, God would prolong that day until He sends in it a man from my community and my household. His name will be the same as my name. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny."[b] [c] [26]

Mahdi's physical existence[edit]

According to Shia tradition the twelfth Imam is living in his physical body divinely endowed with a long life. The compilations of al-Kulaynî, al-Nu'mânî, and Ibn Babawayh which are among the best known contain accounts from people who were able to meet the twelfth Imam. Ibn Babawayh for example dedicates six chapters of his book to those known for their exceptionally long lives. He also quotes the Shia Imams to the effect that some prophets had lived incredibly long lives.[27] According to Tabatabaei, even during his occultation the twelfth Imam watches over men "inwardly and is in communion with the soul and spirit of men" thus "his existence is always necessary even if the time has not yet arrived for his outward appearance and the universal reconstruction that he is to bring about."[28]

Divisions during the Occultation[edit]

After the death of the eleventh Imam in 873, and the mysterious fate of the son of Hasan al-Askari shia was divided into a number of factions, some asserted that his son had died at his early age; others, that he had lived but died in old age;[6][29][30][31] still others denied his existence completely. Another group took up the ideas of the Wāqefīya. Another argued that, as a childless Imam cannot die and leave the world without imam, Imam Hasan al-Askari, therefor, had not died but had gone into occultation.[7][32] As for Ja'far, the son of the tenth Imam, who claimed to be Imam after the death of his brother, Hasan al-Askari, was followed by a group of Shia who scattered soon, as Ja'far himself gave up his claim afterwards.[28] Except the Zaidiyyah and the Isma'ilism which continue to exist until now, all other sects which were separated from the majority of twelver Shia, were dissolved in a short period.[28]

The first theological tracts on the occultation appeared about thirty years after the death of the eleventh Imam. This idea adopted later by all Imamis, as a result of the efforts of al-Nu'mânî and Ibn Babawayh, and some other shia scholars.[32]

Signs of Advent[edit]

The future coming of the Savior, the Mahdi is the most frequently cited subject in predictions made by the Prophet, Fatimah, and the Imams, however the ultimate advent of the Hidden Imam is not known and believers are advised to wait patiently and piously. His advent, however, is heralded by a number of signs.[2] "The universal signs are the widespread invasion of the earth by Evil, the overcoming of knowledge by ignorance, and the loss of a sense of the sacred and all that links man to God and his neighbors." These require the rising of Mahdi, otherwise humanity will be overwhelmed by darkness.[2]

There are also some specific signs among which five recur more regularly:[2]

  • The coming of Sufyani, the enemy of the Mahdi who would raise an army against him.
  • The rise of Yamani, who is believed to preach support for Mahdi.
  • The Scream of supernatural origin, coming from the sky calling man to defend Mahdi.
  • The swallowing of an army composed of the Mahdi's enemies in a place located between Mecca and Medina.[2][33]

There are also some signs both Shias and Sunnis are agreed upon (for Shiites the Mahdi is the twelfth Imam):[34]

  • That Mahdi would be a descendant of Muhammad of the line of Fatimah
  • That his name would be Muhammad.
  • That he would rule for either seven, nine, or nineteen years.
  • That it would accompanied by raising the Black Standard in Khorasan.
  • That his coming would accompanied by appearance of Masih ad-Dajjal.[34]

Sunni views[edit]

Mahdi of Sunni and Mahdi of Shia are different. Sunni Muslims do not consider the son of Hasan al-Askari to be the Mahdi nor to be in occultation.[13] However, they do believe that the Mahdi will come from Muhammad's family.[35] Sunnis believe that the Mahdi has not yet been born, and therefore his true identity is known only to Allah.[13] Aside from the Mahdi's precise genealogy, Sunnis accept many of the same Hadiths Shias accept about the predictions regarding the Mahdi's emergence, his acts, and his universal Caliphate. Sunnis also have a few more Mahdi hadiths which are not present in Shia collections.[36][37] However, they disagree with the Shi'a regarding exactly who the Mahdi is. Many Sunnis, Ismaili and Zaidiyyah argue that the 11th Imam, of the Twelver Shia, Hassan al-Askari, did not have a son. Twelver Shias say his birth was concealed. Others argue that even if he had a son, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan could not live for over a thousand years.[6][29][31][38] for the Sunnites the " Mahdi" stands for "an eschatological individual in the future," of whom" the Prophet , gave good tidings, that he would come in the End of Time."[11] The word Mahdi means the one who is absolutely guided 'by God, and it is in this sense that he is regarded as worthy to guide others.[11]

Unlike Shiism, Sunnis' belief in the Mahdi never became an essential article of faith. In Shiʿism, however, it is made a constitutive dogma of its religious doctrine, its dualist vision of the world, and more specifically, its conception of maʿād, "place of return" or the hereafter.[2] According to Ebn Ḵaldun Numerous claimants to Mahdi-hood have risen in Sunnism. The Sunni Mahdis include Ebn Tumart the founder of the Almohad movement, and the Sudanese Mahdi, Moḥammad Aḥmad.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ see Majlesi, LI, pp. 49-54, and Arjomand 1998, p. 252, for further references.[7]
  2. ^ see ’Abdallan ibn Mas’ud, al-Fusul almuhimmah. p.271.
  3. ^ According to Jassem Hossein, traditions regarding occultation of Mahdi had been collected by many different Shia sects. Before 874, the traditions existed in Waqifi, Zaydi, Jarudi and Imamite books. In Waqifis, Anmati Ibrahim ibn Salih Koufi a deciple of the fifth Imam wrote a book titled "Occultation". Ali ibn Hossayn Taee Tatari and Hassan ibn Mohammad ibn Sama'ah each wrote a book titled "Book of Occultation" and introduced the seventh Imam as the Imam who will go into Occultation. Among Zaydis AbousSaeed Ibad ibn Yaqub Ravajini Asfari in a book titled Aboosaeed Asfari collects traditions on occultation and the twelve Imams and the end of Imams in twelve without naming them all. From the twelvers, Ali ibn Mahziar Ahwazi who died on or before 874 wrote two books titled, Kitab Al-Malahem and Kitab Alqaem both on occultation and the rise of Imam with sword. Hossein ibn Mahboob Sarad wrote the book titled Al-mashikhah on occultation. Fazl ibn Shazan Nisabouri wrote Al-Qaybah which is narrated from Al-Mashikhah. He died two months before the 11th Imam and declared the twelfth Imam as the Qaem.[25]


  1. ^ Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi 1994, pp. 99–100
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali (2012). "Islam in Iran vii. The Concept of Mahdi in Twelver Shi'ism". Encyclopedia Iranica. 
  3. ^ a b Kohlberg, Etan (1976). "From Imāmiyya to Ithnā-'ashariyya". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. University of London. 39 (3): 521, 528. doi:10.1017/s0041977x00050989. 
  4. ^ a b Sachedina 1981, p. 23
  5. ^ a b A Companion To The History Of The Middle East, edited by Youssef M.Choueiri, p. 93.
  6. ^ a b c d Madelung, Wilferd. "al-Mahdī". In Encyclopaedia of Islam. vol. 5, Khe-Mahi. 2nd ed. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986. 1231–8. ISBN 90-04-07819-3.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Arjomand, Said Amir. "Ḡayba". Encyclopædia Iranica. 
  8. ^ Qazvini 2009, p. 59
  9. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 62
  10. ^ The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, Bernard Lewis, pp. 23, 35, 49.
  11. ^ a b c d e Donaldson, Dwight M. (1933). The Shi'ite Religion: A History of Islam in Persia and Irak. Burleigh Press. pp. 217–222,226. 
  12. ^ Hussain, Jassim M. (1986). Occultation of the Twelfth Imam: A Historical Background. Routledge. ISBN 0-7103-0158-8.
  13. ^ a b c Arjomand, Said Amir. "Islam in Iran vi. The Concept of Mahdi in Sunni Islam". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2015.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  14. ^ Momen 1985, p. 199
  15. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 105
  16. ^ a b Sachedina 1981, p. 104
  17. ^ Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi 1994, pp. 113–114
  18. ^ (Sachedina 1981, p. 70)
  19. ^ a b Richard, Yaan (1995). Shi'ite Islam. Oxford UK, Cambridge US: Blackwell. 
  20. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 40
  21. ^ Islam and the West, by Bernard Lewis, 1993, p. 163.
  22. ^ a b al-Mahdī. Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. University of Southern California. 18 June 2012.
  23. ^ Sachedina 1981, pp. 15–16
  24. ^ a b Momen 1985, pp. 161–170
  25. ^ Hussain, Jassim M. Occultation of the Twelfth Imam: A Historical Background. Law Book Co of Australasia, 1985. ISBN 0710301588.
  26. ^ Tabatabae, Sayyid Mohammad Hosayn. Shi'ite Islam. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (translator). pp. 186, 195. 
  27. ^ Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi 1994, p. 115
  28. ^ a b c Tabataba'i, Muhammad Husayn (1979). Shi'ite Islam. State University of New York Press. pp. 184–185 & 69. 
  29. ^ a b Henry Corbin. History of Islamic Philosophy, pp. 69-70.
  30. ^ The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security edited by Chris Seiple, Dennis R. Hoover, Pauletta Otis Page 60 [1]
  31. ^ a b Voices of Islam: Voices of tradition By Vincent J. Cornell, p. 223.
  32. ^ a b Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi 1994, p. 100
  33. ^ Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi 1994, p. 118
  34. ^ a b Momen 1985, p. 168
  35. ^ al-Mahdi
  36. ^ Abu Dawud, Sahih, Vol. 2, p. 208; Fusul al-muhimma, p. 275.
  37. ^ Muhammad Baqir Al-Majlisi (2003). Hassan Allahyari, ed. The book of occultation (Kitab al-Ghaibah; Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 51) (1st ed.). Qum: Ansariyan Publication. p. 140 (Tradition XI). ISBN 964-438-478-4. 
  38. ^ The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security edited by Chris Seiple, Dennis R. Hoover, Pauletta Otis Page 60 [2]