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The Concept of Mahdi in Twelver Shi’ism
Encyclopedia Iranica

Not unlike previous imams, the Mahdi had a birth and childhood bathed in the miraculous. Supernatural signs, divine lights, and celestial messengers accompanied him from his very birth. From his early childhood on, he demonstrated initiatory knowledge and manifested supernormal powers. Our sources regularly relate that even while in hiding, the young twelfth Imam was visited by initiated adepts of his father, and the latter never missed an occasion to reveal to his followers that his son was indeed the qāem. Upon the death of his father in 260/874, the twelfth Imam entered his first occultation while still a child, later termed the Minor Occultation, which lasted 70 lunar years, i.e., until 329/940. During this period, the Hidden Imam is said to have communicated with his believers through four intermediary delegates or representatives: (1) Abu Amr Oṯmān b. Said Amri/Omari; (2) Abu Jafar Moḥammad Amri/ʿOmari, son of the above; (3) Abul-Qāsem Ḥosayn b. Ruḥ, from the influential family of the Banu Nowbaḵt; and (4) Abul-Ḥasan Ali b. Moḥammad Semmari.

The most important activities of these “representatives” would have included ensuring that canonical precepts were respected by the believers, the collection and distribution of taxes, delivering questions of a religious nature to the Hidden Imam, making his responses known in public and, finally, performing miracles to convince those believers who were prey to perplexity and confusion. Ebn Bābuya dedicates several pages of his Kamāl al-din to enumerating and describing the supernatural powers of the representatives, perceived by the faithful to be the result of direct initiation by the Hidden Imam.

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, apparently reported for the first time by Ebn Bābuya in his Kamāl al-din, heralds the second, or Major Occultation, which according to Twelver Shiite doctrine still continues and will last until the eschatological return of the Mahdi.

Let us end this section by recalling an interesting phenomenon at the time of the occultation that increases devotion to the Hidden Imam and strengthens faith in his invisible presence: accounts of meetings with the Mahdi. Regarding encounters during the Major Occultation, henceforth a question arises to which some Imami thinkers have responded: how to consider accounts of meetings during the Major Occultation authentic when in his final letter to his last representative the Imam declares any encounter to be impossible until the end of time? It is important to note that Ebn Bābuya, who reports this letter in his Kamāl al-din, does not hesitate to relate in the same work some accounts of meetings with the Hidden Imam after his Major Occultation.

From the very beginning, ocular vision of the imam, to which the letter refers, seems to have been understood not in a general sense, but as a condition of the Hidden Imam’s representative. Thus, what is declared impossible during the major occultation (thus until the end of time) is not an encounter with the Hidden Imam as such, but laying claim to the niāba of the latter by citing a meeting with the Hidden Imam as grounds. A believer may be granted the privilege of meeting the Imam, but if following this he declares himself to be the “representative” of the Imam due to the encounter, he is considered (according to terms of the letter) no less than a liar and impostor.

These encounters may occur anywhere, but certain sites seem to be more propitious: Mecca; beside the Imams’ mausoleums; the Cave (sardāb) in Sāmarrāʾ where the Hidden Imam is said to have begun his occultation; the mosque of Sahla in Najaf, and the sanctuary of Jamkarān, not far from Qom.Typologically, one can distinguish three categories of narratives of encounters, based on the principal dimension promoted: a humanitarian dimension in which the great generosity of the Hidden Imam towards his believers and his concern for their well-being are emphasized; an initiatory dimension in which the Imam teaches his believers prayers, transmits spiritual knowledge, and bears secrets etc.; and finally, an eschatological dimension, presented mainly by late mystical sources, in which the encounter prompts a believer’s individual spiritual resurrection.


The end of time and rising of the Mahdi

The “end of time” or, in other words, the date of the final advent of the Hidden Imam, is unknown and believers are urged to await deliverance patiently and piously. The future coming of the Savior is the most frequently cited subject in predictions made by the Prophet, Fāṭema, and the Imams: entire lengthy chapters are dedicated to the topic in the sources. This coming is heralded by a number of signs (alāmāt). 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, in some measure, require the manifestation (ohur) and the rising (oruj, qiām) of the Qāem, or else humanity will be overwhelmed by darkness.

Furthermore, there are certain specific signs among which five recur more regularly and are hence justifiably called the “five signs”: (1) the coming of Sofyāni, the enemy of the Qāem, who will command an army in battle against the latter; (2) the advent of Yamāni, who appears in the Yemen to preach support for the Qāem; (3) the Cry/Scream (aya, nedā ) of supernatural origin, coming from the sky and calling man to defend the Imam’s cause; (4) the swallowing (asf) of an army composed of the Imam’s enemies in a desert often located between Mecca and Medina, according to a hadith most likely propagated by Abd-Allāh b. Zobayr during his war propaganda against the Umayyad caliph Yazid (r. 680-83), during the latter’s campaign against Mecca and Medina, popularized by the traditionist of Basra, Qatāda; and (5) the assassination by the Meccans of the messenger to the Qāem, often called Nafs or al-Nafs al-Zakiya (echoing the messianic rebellion and death in 762 of the Hasanid Moḥammad b. Abd-Allāh, surnamed al-Nafs al-Zakiya).

The Mahdi thus becomes manifest, all the while having miraculously maintained his youth. He fights and definitively uproots Evil and pervasive ignorance, re-establishing the world to its original pure. For this to occur, he must first avenge the assassination of Imam Ḥosayn in order that the majority of Muslims be purged of the most villainous crime that it ever committed. Moreover, according to the eschatological doctrine of raja (q.v.), a certain number of past saints, victims of their community’s injustice, and their persecutors come back to life in order that the good may take revenge on the evil ones. The Savior will thus not only re-establish Islam, but all religions, to their purity and original integrity, making “submission to God” (eslām) the universal religion. He will also bring wisdom to mankind by revealing the esoteric secrets of sacred.

In this final battle against the forces of Evil, the Qāem is obviously not alone. First, he will be accompanied by certain important characters from the sacred history of humanity; thus, according to different hadiths one finds various prophets of the past such as Jesus and the Prophet Moḥammad, and various Imams, most often Ali and/or Ḥosayn. In this war, the Mahdi commands an army in which, apart from the masses of oppressed who enlist depending on the progress of his victories, three kinds of “warriors” are present: (1) angels, especially the 313 angels that accompanied the 313 fighters from Badr, the site of a battle of the Prophet against the Meccans; (2) a terrifying celestial entity named Fear (rob); who marches at the head of the Mahdi’s army and terrifies his enemies; and (3) most importantly, 313 Companions of the Qāem forming his militia (jayš), a term whose letters also add up to the value of 313. These are specially initiated disciples bearing secret knowledge and possessing miraculous powers. The Savior will no doubt triumph, and the entire world will be brought to submission. Forces of injustice and ignorance will once and for all be exterminated, the earth embellished with justice and wisdom, and humanity revived by knowledge. The Mahdi thus prepares the world for the ultimate trial of the final resurrection of the Last Judgment. According to some traditions, he will reign upon the earth for some time (7, 9, 19 . . . years), after which occurs the death of all humanity just prior to the Judgment. Other traditions report that after the death of the Qāem, the government of the world will remain in the hands of the initiated for a certain period before the Day of Resurrection.

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