By : Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Week of celebrating the birth of the Saviour of Humanity – Imam Mahdi (a.s) – Part 2
In Part 1 of this series we established that Mahdaviat is a Quranic concept and that details of the identity of Imam Mehdi (a.s) himself is found in the ahadith which are mutawaatir.
In terms of numbers it is interesting to note that Sunni scholars have collected 51 ahadith which focus on the issue of the time of the re-appearance of Imam Mehdi (a.s) alone, while there are numerous other ahadith collected by Sunni scholars which provide personal details about Imam Mehdi (a.s) like his lineage, his features, etc.
But all of that might be considered theory as in reality the question still remains regarding the identity of this person called Mehdi (a.s).
WHO IS IMAM MEHDI (a.s.)?
From the Sunni perspective, though there is agreement that Imam Mehdi (a.s) is from the Ahlul Bait (a.s) and more specifically from the lineage of Lady Fatima (a.s) through Imam Hussain (a.s), the majority of the Sunni believe that Imam Mehdi (a.s) must still be born. There are no details provided about when he will be born, where he will be born, etc. as there is definite uncertainty among their ranks in this regard.
From the Shia perspective, the picture is much more clear in that we believe that Imam Mehdi (a.s) is already born and is the son of the 11th Imam of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) i.e. he is the son of Imam Hassan Askari (a.s), who was born in Samarra in Iraq on 15th Shabaan in the year 255AH (which is an event that therefore occurred just under 1200 years ago).
There is consensus among the Ithna Ashari Shia Scholars (followers of the 12 Imams after Prophet Muhammad sawa) that the 11th Imam Askari actually did have a son which is Imam Mehdi (a.s). Yet those who do not accept the view of the Shia claim that Shia follow a fictional character called Mehdi (a.s) as there is no historical proof that the 11th Imam Askari had a son.
It must be emphasized though that this view that Imam Mehdi (a.s) being alive is a nothing but fiction is not held by ALL Sunni scholars, and in this post you will get an appreciation for this fact.
Great Sunni Scholars like the Theologian Ganji Shafi’i and others like Ibn Khalaqaan also believe that Imam Mehdi (a.s) is already born and is the son of the 11th Imam Hassan Askari (a.s).
The basis for their belief is the famous hadith of the Prophet (sawa) which says that “There will be 12 leaders after me, all of them from Quraysh….and these will continue until the Day of Judgement.”
The question is “Who are these 12 leaders?”
While others are not able to provide an accurate account of who these 12 leaders are, the School of Ahlul Bait (a.s) at least provide a definite list that the majority of the Shia believe in. The above mentioned Sunni Scholars thus also believe that it is a necessity that Imam Mehdi (a.s) should already exist among us.
SECRECY SURROUNDING THE BIRTH OF IMAM MEHDI (a.s)
It is acknowledged that the belief of some that Imam Mehdi (a.s) is not yet born is due to the secret conditions in which he was born and thus was not commonly known by everyone at the time. This then resulted in the claim that there are no historical records about the birth of Imam Mehdi (a.s) or anyone even meeting him to confirm his birth.
The secretive birth of great personalities is not unusual in history. The birth of Prophet Musa (a.s) was also kept a secret as he would have been killed by Phirown if news of his birth was made public!
Conditions at the time of the 10th and 11th Imams were very similar. It is because the future coming of the Mehdi (a.s) was a well known fact recorded in books of ahadith that dictators were always on the lookout for this person who would overthrow their power.
Anyone who had an affinity to the Imams of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) were dealt with severely by the rulers.
There is the incident of Ibn Sukayt who was Shia secretively and at the same time the private teacher of the 2 sons of the despotic Abbasid Khalif Mutawakkil.
One day Mutawakkil started to doubt the loyalty of Ibn Sukayt and had a feeling that Ibn Sukayt was secretively Shia as he was teaching his sons Islam which appeared to be from a Shia perspective.
So he tested the loyalty of Ibn Sukayt by asking him the following question: “Are my two sons better than the 2 sons of Fatima (a.s) i.e. Hassan (a.s) and Hussain (a.s)?”
Ibn Sukayt’s reply broke the secrecy of his love for Ahlul Bait (a.s) when he said “Besides Hassan (a.s) and Hussain (a.s) being incomparable to your sons, even their slave called Qambar is far better than your sons!”
This honest reply resulted in Mutawakkil ordering that the tonque of Ibn Sukayt be cut out! This gives you a glimpse into the environment in which Imam Mehdi (a.s) was born.
Furthermore, though the majority of the Shia resided in Baghdad, the 10th Imam and the 11th Imam were removed to Samarra which is a city very far away to ensure that there was little or no contact between the Imams and their followers.
And strict surveillance was kept on those who actually visited the Imams. The 11th Imam Askari (a.s) is called by this name as he was forced to live in the army barracks as the word Askar refers to soldier.
And all the women in the house of Imam Askari (a.s) were monitored for possible pregnancy.
Imam Mehdi (a.s) was born under these circumstances secretively. However, he was shown to 40 trustworthy people by Imam Askari (a.s) together with various other trustworthy people at different stages thereafter.
In the minor occultation of Imam Mehdi (a.s) which lasted 69 years, he also had 4 consecutive formal deputies who were his link to the people through whom he would communicate to the people.
At the end of the life of the 4th deputy, Imam Mehdi (a.s) made an announcement that there will not be any formal deputy any longer and gave the details (like his father Imam Askari a.s. did) of the qualities of the ulama who must be followed in general during the major occultation which continues to this very day.
IS IMAM MEHDI (a.s) IN A CAVE DURING THE MAJOR OCCULTATION?
The most ridiculous myth that some people propagate is that Shia believe in an Imam who is living in a cave!
Iraq is a country with extreme climates in Summer and Winter. In Summer, temperatures reach up to 60 degrees Celsius. It is and was a common practice that people built their homes with a basement to allow for protection from the weather.
The 10th Imam Hadi (a.s), the 11th Imam Askari (a.s) and the 12 Imam Mehdi (a.s) lived in such a house in Samarra wherein they spent most of their time in Worship as they had little access to people. It is thus Shia culture that we visit this spot when we perform Ziyarat as it is a sacred place for that reason. There is no mention anywhere that Imam Mehdi (a.s) is hiding in a cave. In fact Imam Mehdi (a.s) is present among us in a very real way.
IBN ARABI – SUNNI SCHOLAR WHO BELIEVES IN THE OCCULTATION OF IMAM MEHDI (a.s)
Muhyi-udin Ibn Arabi who was nicknamed Sheikh ul Akbar (the Great Sheikh) is a very high ranking Sunni Scholar who is considered the “Father of Tasawwuf” who wrote great encyclopedia on the subject of mysticism called “Futuhatil Makkiyah”. It is most interesting to note that his views about Imam Mehdi (a.s) are very similar to our views, the most important of which are:
1. The world can NEVER be empty from the Proof of Allah who is the link between the Creator and Creation.
2. Having Knowledge of that Proof is a Condition of having Imaan.
3. The Spiritual Path to Allah can NEVER be traveled without the Leader.
4. The Proof of our Time is the son of the 11th Imam Askari (a.s)
And then Ibn Arabi makes an amazing claim wherein he says “this sinful servant has been honored to perform the ziyarat of the beautiful Face of Nur of Imam Mehdi (a.s).”
Besides the above mentioned reference to such a high ranking Sunni Scholar who believes in the occultation of Imam Mehdi (a.s), this basic belief in occultation where one does not have direct access to your Leader is not a foreign concept invented by Shia but is actually a reality that occurred in the lives of Prophet Musa (a.s), Prophet Yunus (a.s) and others.
HOW WE BENEFIT FROM IMAM MEHDI (a.s) WHILE HE IS IN OCCULTATION
After accepting that Imam Mehdi (a.s) is alive and among us, the most obvious question that is then asked is “How do we benefit from an Imam with whom there is no direct access due to his occultation?”
When this question is looked at from the point of view that the Imam is one who leads us in Social and Political Affairs only, then it would obviously seem that there is little or no benefit from the Imam in that case, due to us not having direct access to the Imam.
However, when one’s understanding of the station of Imamate is one where the Imam is the Spiritual Heart of the Universe through whom the blessings of Allah flow to the Creation of Allah as Ibn Arabi believes and the Shia believe, then it becomes clear that the main benefit of Imam Mehdi (a.s) in occultation is that our very existence depends on his existence.
Imam Saadiq (a.s) (6th Imam of Ahlul Bait a.s) thus says that “If the earth was empty of the Proof of Allah for just one moment, it will come to an end.”
Those who have a literalist view of Islam respond to the above views as being shirk and spend their lives fighting such views. Yet one of their most reliable Scholars of hadith of the previous century, Al-Baani has recorded ahadith (which he considers authentic) about Imam Mehdi (a.s) which says that “Allah sends rain to the earth through Imam Mehdi (a.s)” or “Greenery grows on the earth through the Imam Mehdi (a.s) or “the right of an oppressed person will be returned to him through Imam Mehdi (a.s)”, etc.
It is sad to see that the very people who campaign against our beliefs about Imam Mehdi (a.s) are actually not aware of the beliefs of their own Scholars about Imam Mehdi (a.s).
The question of how we benefit from the Presence of Imam Mehdi (a.s) during occultation was already posed to 6th Imam Saadiq (a.s) long before the birth of Imam Mehdi (a.s) to which he answered “You benefit from the Imam in occultation like you benefit from the sun when it is behind the clouds.”
We learn the following from this hadith:
1. You do not need to see the Imam directly to benefit from him like you do not need to see the sun directly to benefit from it.
2. The clouds are hiding the sun, the sun itself is not hiding itself. So we are the cause that Imam Mehdi (a.s) is hidden from us, he is not the cause thereof.
3. Clouds do not cover the sun forever, a time comes when the clouds are cleared and the sun shines brightly on the earth. Similarly, Imam Mehdi (a.s) will re-appear to cause the Nur of Allah to flourish in a comprehensive manner in the world.
The Quran thus promises us “The Dawn is indeed near!”
To be continued in Part 3…..