Jumuah lecture on Friday 10 April 2020 (16 Shabaan 1441)
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
In our discussions about Imam Mahdi (a.s) and our faith in the saviour, and our belief that there is a day of victory of truth over falsehood, there is an era of justice and fulfilment of the divine promise of Almighty Allah (SWT).
Without any doubt, this divine promise of the inevitable future of this world, which is well established in all the divine books in almost all the faith traditions, especially the Abrahamic faiths, and also with greater conviction in various chapters of the Holy Quran, ranging from Surah A’araaf (chapter 7) to Surah Anbiyaa (chapter 21) to Surah Noor (chapter 24) to Surah Qasas (chapter 28) etc.
In Shi’i thought, there is a great emphasis on this particular institution. Further than just a philosophy, Shi’i ideology speaks about a real person who is the promised Mahdi (a.s). At the same time, we followers of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) believe that this saviour of humanity is born and went into occultation. As a result, we do not have direct access to him. We have been promised that he will reappear and establish justice and truth in this world, at all levels.
BELIEF IN MAHDI (A.S) IS THE CORNERSTONE OF SHI’I IDEOLOGY ON IMAMATE
Besides believing in this tenet of our faith, we are asked in this particular period to wait for his reappearance (intidhaar). On this point, there are many questions and objections from those who are critical of Shi’i thought, and those who have animosity to the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s), by saying that they are waiting for a saviour to come and liberate them, and he will deliver them from the corruption, injustice and exploitation in this world.
For these people, religion is suspended, and they must wait for their saviour in the form of the promised Mahdi (a.s) to deliver them. This is certainly a serious question, which also presents a challenge to our basic argument on Imamate (leadership) after the demise of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) which is that the Muslim nation (Ummah) can never be left without a leader.
Our argument is that it is impossible to accept that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) could leave his nation without a leader. Therefore, we believe in leadership.
We believe that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) was the seal of all the Prophets, which means that he brought the final message and set of divine laws from Almighty Allah (SWT), which is valid until the Day of Judgement. There is no doubt about this.
However, the question that we pose is, who is going to ensure that this final message and set of divine laws is implemented until the end of time?
Yes, with the seal of the Prophethood, there is no need of any future Prophet, because the final, complete message has been presented by our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) until the end of time. But the need of leadership to guide this nation did not come to an end with the demise of Rasulullah (SAWA). Therefore, we believe in the necessity of an Imam and leadership to succeed him.
DO SHIA BELIEVE IN AN ABSENT, FICTIONAL CHARACTER CALLED IMAM MAHDI (A.S)?
Now, someone can ask us the same question ie. after the 11th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Hasan al-Askari (a.s), when our 12th Imam, namely Imam Mahdi (a.s), went into occultation, the same argument will apply, which we use to prove the necessity of a divinely appointed Imam after the demise of Prophet Muhammad (SAWA).
How are we going to reply to this challenge of who is the leader after Imam Hasan al-Askari (a.s) and during the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s)? Who is going to take care of this Ummah? What is our role? How are we going to practice the religion of Islam? Is religion suspended during this period? Is Islam on lockdown until the arrival of Imam Mahdi (a.s), when he will bring Islam back to life?
Indeed, these are valid questions. Our response is as follows.
First of all, we do not believe that Imam Mahdi (a.s) is absent while in occultation. Absence and occultation are not synonymous. Imam Mahdi (a.s) being in occultation means that our physical access to him is restricted, but his presence among the Ummah is indeed there.
In fact, we have plenty of Hadith recorded from the Ahlul Bait (a.s) about Imam Mahdi (a.s) during occultation, where it is very clearly mentioned that he is not away from the people, but rather, he is amongst the people. Example, he is present in Hajj amongst us, but we do not recognize him. His very presence is the response to one of our very important arguments on Imamate, namely that the earth can never be void of the proof of Almighty Allah (SWT).
Yes, we do not have direct, physical access to Imam Mahdi (a.s) during this period of occultation. He is not absent, and his existence is proof of Almighty Allah (SWT) on the earth. This addresses one of the major arguments about the necessity of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
HOW IS IMAM MAHDI (A.S) LEADING US IF WE DO NOT HAVE ACCESS TO HIM?
The second issue is about the leadership and guidance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) on the people. On this point, we have another very important response, to explain how Imam Mahdi (a.s) is guiding and leading us, while he is in occultation.
There are two mechanisms established to guide the Ummah during this period of occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s). The first is Imam Mahdi (a.s), who guides and leads us without us realizing it. There are plenty of occasions where the Ummah (at least the followers of Ahlul Bait (a.s)) have been in a very difficult situation. While stuck in this cul-de-sac, we suddenly realize there is a way out. There is someone to guide and lead, without recognizing him and his presence.
Leadership of his successors – this is the second mechanism of guidance and leadership, which was established over decades before the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s), to continue that role of Imamate without physical access to him, the infallible Imam. This is the system which we know today as the leadership of his successors and appointed deputies.
As we know, there were 4 appointed deputies who were the representatives of Imam Mahdi (a.s) to the people, while he was in occultation. Then, what happened during the period after this era of the 4 appointed deputies, the successorship and representatives of Imam Mahdi (a.s) gradually transformed into an institution which we know as the leadership of the Ulama (religious scholars) and Maraji (grand spiritual authorities).
The Imams of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), even before the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s), prepared the followers of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) for this difficult and testing period of occultation, and trained them to follow the Ulama and Maraji, as they are the religious experts having access to the deeper knowledge taught by the Ahlul Bait (a.s) to the level where they can play this role of leadership and guide the Ummah.
LEADERSHIP THROUGH THE SYSTEM OF MARJA’IYYAH MAKES SHI’I IDEOLOGY TRULY UNIQUE
This institution plays the same role, more or less, as played by the Imam of the time on a different level. Two major conditions in Shia theology for this role of leadership is knowledge and Taqwa. In the case of the 12 Imams of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), they have the connection to the divine knowledge through our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). On the condition of Taqwa, they have achieved the level of infallibility.
Now, we apply these same 2 conditions on a lower level when it comes to the grand spiritual authorities, where we believe that they require expert knowledge of the Holy Quran and Sunnah, and the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), so that they can operate on the level where they can confidently issue a fatwa (religious decree) to the Muslim nation (Ummah) on the command of Islam on a particular issue.
On the second criterion, which is on the level of infallibility for the Imams of Ahlul Bait (a.s), our grand spiritual authorities should demonstrate supreme Taqwa and justice.
With these two conditions, that leadership in the time of the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s) must be vested with those who have the highest level of knowledge and exemplary Taqwa.
This answers the big question of how we are going to be guided and led during this time, when we do not have direct access to the Imam of our time. Imam Mahdi (a.s) explained that those jurists from our school who are knowledgeable and with the capacity of deriving Islamic laws and speaking on the authority of Islam are our guides.
Those who are against their desires and obedient to their Master (SWT) and protecting themselves from the Satanic influence. It is the responsibility of the masses to follow such people in authority and accept them as the guides.
Now, this mechanism in the time of occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s) works as the role of leadership when we do not have direct access to him, the infallible Imam of our time.
THE SYSTEM OF LEADERSHIP IN SHI’I THOUGHT HAS PRESENTED A SANCTUARY OF HOPE ACROSS HISTORY
Whether you are Shia or not, it is glaringly obvious that the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s) is unique in this aspect. Today, the Muslim nation (Ummah) are facing serious challenges – Sunni and Shia both. However, one reality which we need to recognize, regardless of whether you follow this school or not, is that the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s) has a system of leadership to offer, which is missing in mainstream Sunni ideology, or at best not very clear.
If you look at the history of Shia after the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s), it is evident that the Shia had to endure the most difficult times. The persecution of Shia and the grave injustice committed against them by different governments, regimes and groups across the ages is well documented. This persecution was on different levels of society, and it has only survived these harsh times throughout history because of this system of Marja’iyyah, established upon the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
We see this today, with the role that Ayatollah Sistani plays in Iraq. As we know, Iraq is not even a country with a Sharia constitution. However, the highly influential role played by the Marja in the most difficult conditions is in front of us, admitted to by both friends and foes.
Then, we all know very well the visionary leadership presented by our beloved Imam Khomeini (r.a) to the world and after his passing, the most astonishing, brave, courageous and visionary leadership presented by our beloved leader Imam Khamenei from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, there is a long list of other grand religious authorities (Maraji’) who have played this significant role of leadership and guidance in different parts of the world. This is on the topic of socio-political leadership.
MARJA’IYYAH ADVANCES THE SOCIO-POLITICAL, CULTURAL AND ACADEMIC SPHERES OF ISLAM
Now, even if we reflect on the cultural and academic aspect of the leadership, we witness the open doors of Ijtihad, where it is our practice to follow a living grand spiritual authority, as we are not allowed in Shia jurisprudence to follow a grand spiritual authority who has passed away.
This approach has kept academic excellence and research, and the evolution of thinking with clear understanding of the contemporary challenges in the implementation of the Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) in line with the conditions prescribed by the Holy Quran and Prophetic Sunnah with the challenges of the current time.
This is only possible with this dynamic mechanism of Ijtihad and following a living Marja (grand spiritual authority) in the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s).
So, we see how the approach of the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s) towards leadership has led to advancement on the socio-political and cultural and academic levels. There is extended research in various schools of thought, with different opinions presented to whatever challenges are before us.
This is in line with the evolution of thought, but in the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s), this academic and cultural aspect connected to the mechanism of leadership means that these opinions are presented with much greater authority, since they lead and guide the whole community, and not just a random research opinion from sitting in some corner in a library.
This academic research is not simply a thesis paper that is confined to academic value only. It is practically implemented through this system of leadership which we believe in.
Now, to tie this all back to the original point. This is the system which is based on the same principles of Imamate we believe in, which provides leadership and guidance during the period of occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
PROGRAM OF IMAM MAHDI (A.S) IS ONE OF GLOBAL REFORM
Without any iota of doubt, the absence of the direct access to the infallible Imam is a challenge. These are the plausible alternatives available, but it does not mean that we do not suffer. There is indeed a great loss which we feel. No doubt, this is a vacuum which we feel, and it is understandable to feel this way, in light of his global program of reform.
When we reflect on Imam Mahdi (a.s) as the saviour and liberator of the entire world, his program is not confined to any particular city or region or continent. His program is a global program, and for it to become a reality requires certain conditions, such as the evolution of people and maturity of thought to reach a level where the world is ready to accept that program on a global level. This is one of the main reasons for the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
We have been asked to wait (intidhaar) during this period, whereby the Ahlul Bait (a.s) have advised that the best of actions is to wait for the reappearance of the Imam of our time. Despite the system of Marja’iyya we described above, there is no doubt that the Ummah is suffering. There is no doubt that humanity at large and the whole world is suffering.
We feel thirsty and needy for the Imam of our time to reappear. As a result, we are commanded to wait. However, it should not be misinterpreted to mean that it is the suspension of Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) and the religion of Islam and the commands of Almighty Allah (SWT) and doing absolutely nothing until Imam Mahdi (a.s) reappears. Not at all!
IS RELIGION ON LOCKDOWN UNTIL PERFECT ISLAM IS RESTORED BY THE PROMISED MAHDI (A.S)?
Waiting (intidhaar) in the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s) is the compound of 2 basic elements.
Firstly, looking forward to a better future when your current situation is bleak. This type of waiting creates excitement, interest and passion for that time when everything will be good, and justice will prevail, and suffering will come to an end. Happiness and pleasure for humanity will be restored. This internal zeal is one very important element of intidhaar, as it is the excitement of looking forward to the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
This is comparable to a living reality where one is most excited at waiting for his most beloved person to return home, or a student who is waiting for his exam results to come.
The second very important element of this waiting (intidhaar) is to strive towards that program we are waiting for. Waiting in the negative sense is to do absolutely nothing and simply wait. However, waiting for the Imam of our time is not in this negative sense.
Therefore, we have Hadith narrations from the Ahlul Bait (a.s) which state that the best of actions is to wait for the Imam. Now, if waiting was the suspension of action, then how can it be defined as the best of action? This proves that waiting for the Imam of our time is not the suspension of action, but rather, it is the preparation for that global revolution. This preparation starts from self-development, moving to our societal responsibility to prepare the whole earth to be ready for that global revolution.
We can already see the great thirst. Today, this small virus has shaken the whole world into searching for some saviour to come. This realization of needing a saviour is one step of preparation, and it is an indicator that we are moving towards the time for his reappearance and program of global reform.
EXTENDED LOCKDOWN HIGHLIGHTS OUR INCREASED RESPONSIBILITY TO CARE FOR THE VULNERABLE
As is customary in Jumuah, we normally highlight some of the current issues facing the Ummah. I wish to highlight a few important points to take away from the past week.
As you know, the lockdown has been extended in our country. This has both positive and negative aspects. The positive is that this action to extend the lockdown was clearly unavoidable for President Ramaphosa to take, in order to protect the lives of thousands of people.
We fully support this appropriate action, but the consequences of this action are naturally very difficult for a huge number of people. Yes, the government is promising to offer help, but honestly speaking, we have experienced in the past 2 weeks that unfortunately, the government did not deliver on its earlier promise.
There is a huge number of people who simply do not have a ration of food and groceries to survive. This is the unfortunate reality. The contact numbers provided for people to call for such help has proven to not work effectively. There are plenty of challenges for people who live on day to day wages.
This is very difficult, and we are already seeing a surge of violence in certain towns as result. We have witnessed on the news about the burning down of schools. We do not know what is behind this despicable action, but it once again highlights the need for us to stay united during this time.
We are indeed very critical of the lack of delivery on the original promise of the government to help the most vulnerable and who knows how it will be for the next 3 weeks of the lockdown. That being said, it is in no way justified to create this instability and anarchy in society. It is a time to stand together, united, despite all our differences and disputes, to overcome this very serious challenge of Coronavirus.
NOT EVEN A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS AND GLOBAL PANDEMIC CAN BE FREE OF RACISM
On the international level, we have seen the real face of the people exposed more and more. It is quite astounding how the ugly face of racism was yet again exposed in this time of crisis, against the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), who is the leading face of the combat against Coronavirus globally.
Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, is being victimized because of his skin colour. This exposes the ugly face of certain countries, that despite the humanitarian crisis, they are not prepared to lift sanctions which are killing people in Iran. They issue the public statement saying that medication can be sent to Iran, but the reality on the ground is that Iranians are struggling to import even Paracetemol! What has happened to humanity, even in this time of grave crisis?
Despite hundreds of thousands of people having tested positive for Coronavirus in USA, with thousands of people dying every day, it has still not awakened the dead conscience of the leadership to share the pain of the people suffering in different parts of the world, including the Islamic Republic of Iran who are under suffocating sanctions.
MARTYRDOM ANNIVERSARY OF THE INTELLECTUAL GIANT OF THE 20TH CENTURY
The last point is an important reminder, that 9th April was the martyrdom anniversary of a great thinker and philosopher, Shaheed Ayatollah Sayed Muhammad Baqir Sadr (r.a). We owe this man really. He is the one who shaped modern thinking. He presented the teachings of Ahlul Bait (a.s) to the world, without the slightest fragrance of sectarianism.
Some people have conducted research about this thinker and philosopher, who has been read most widely in the Islamic world. He presented Islam in a most relevant and unique manner for our time. The despotic dictator Saddam killed him 40 years ago, together with his sister, Bint al-Huda.
May the mercy of Almighty Allah (SWT) shower upon their souls, and may He grant us the Taufeeq to continue being inspired and guided from the thoughts and amazing work in different fields of Islamic sciences contributed by Shaheed Ayatollah Sayed Muhammad Baqir Sadr (r.a).