The Philosophy of the Occultation
The most important question that has come up amongst the friends and enemies of the Ahl al-Bait(p.b.u.t.) after the occultation of al-Mahdi [may Allah hasten his appearance] is this: Why did the occultation occur?
What is the reason for or wisdom behind it? Why should the sinless Imam not be among his people? What are the conditions of his occultation? Is he visible at all? Or is he not to be recognized if he is visible? These are among the thousands of questions asked about al-Mahdi(A.S.). In the following brief article, we would like to take a glance at the reasons, secrets and kind of the occultation.
The Secret behind the Occultation
Before we discuss the benefits and expediencies of the occultation, we should keep in mind that all the knowledge humanity has acquired to date through the usual ways, has still not provided answers for all the unknowns in creation. Even if the discovery and acquisition of knowledge continues at its current pace, that which would become known would still be minuscule compared to that which is unknown. Because of this very reason, we may not have the ability to discover the wisdom or secrets behind the occultation. Although this may be true, we do not necessarily need to know the secrets behind it in order to have faith in it. If we never discover the secrets behind the occultation, we should always stay firm in our belief. Even though our knowledge may be limited, we know that there are great benefits in the occultation and that there is no relationship between our knowledge of it and its occurrence. This means that even if we do not have any knowledge of the occultation itself, it does not hurt its reality.
The occultation of al-Mahdi (A.S.) is something that has happened and has been documented. The traditions in which it has been mentioned are amongst the most reliable ones. Also, a number of great people have had the blessing of meeting with the Imam. Therefore, there is absolutely no relation between our knowledge and its actual occurrence.
We can say that our knowledge is limited concerning the secrets of the occultation, but that this limitation does not alter our faith in it whatsoever. This is just the same as our not having knowledge of the reasons behind many other things, but we believe in their existence.
Regarding the Benefits of the Occultation
It should be noticed that the questions asked about the secret behind the occultation or its benefits did not begin in our era and do not only belong to this century. From the beginning of the occultation, before it and even before the birth of the Imam, the Holy Prophet and Imams (peace be upon them) had talked about it and from that time onwards questions arose. Why is he in occultation? What are its benefits? How do people benefit from al-Mahdi (A.S.) during the occultation? In answer to such questions, the great leaders of our Shiite school of thought who have themselves given the good news of his appearance and uprising have given replies some of which we have summarized below:
1. The main reason of the occultation will not become known until the appearance of His Excellency(A.S.). (This is similar to the benefits derived, after months and years, from all other creations, animate or inanimate, plant, animal or human, which eventually come to surface.)
2. There are some unknown reasons and secrets behind the occultation among which one can see a divine test. Because of the occultation, specially when its secret is unknown, the level of the faith and submission of the believers in relation with the divine destiny and the strength of their religiousness and assent becomes clear and apparent. Also during the occultation, because of the events and seditions that happen, the most difficult tests are taken from the people that is impossible to be described here.
3. Among the reasons for the occultation is that people from different nationalities, intellectually, practically and ethically, become ready in order to prepare for the appearance of the reformer, because the appearance of His Excellency is not like the appearance of the Prophet’s and other God's Authorities that was based on the usual and outward causes, rather, his method in leading the people of the world is based on the facts, the judgement based on realities, not acting on dissimulation anymore, being serious in enjoining the good and forbidding to do evil, remostrating hard against the acts and from those who are in charge of the positions and investigating their works. For the fulfilment of the above mentioned matters, the human being needs to bring the science and education to perfection and to improve his intellectual and ethical manners; in a way that to prepare the readiness for the Islamic teachings to be word-conquering and the government of the Qur'anic decrees to be global.
The Wisdom and Philosophy of the Occultation
“…and say: ‘O my Lord! Increase my knowledge.’ ” (20:114)
Most people believe that the only way to discover something is through one of their five senses. Discovering things this way masks their ignorance. Educated people are less susceptible to this mistake and discover many things through intellect. There are very long chains of reasons for the unknown things in this world and there are many puzzles hidden in each compartment of the chain, just the thought of which would astound us.
Lady Store said: “If people only spoke about the things they truly know, a deep silence will govern over the world.”1
Warren Wafer, Vice President of the Rockefeller Institute has said: “Does knowledge ever become successful in the battle vs. ignorance? Knowledge, when answering a question brings about more questions and the further it moves towards going away from ignorance, the darker the shade of ignorance becomes. Human knowledge is continuously developing, although it may seem as though it remains the same. The capacity of information that we face every day is so great that we do not even realize that our knowledge is increasing.”2
We are unable to recognize even the closest things to ourselves and nothing is closer to ourselves than our souls. Have we discovered the life? Can we explain the soul and life itself? Do we completely understand our own feelings? Have we known love, joy, excitement, bravery and happiness, among other feelings? Can we deny the existence of such things because we do not know the whole truth about them? Can we deny the mysteries and benefits of creation?
Can we say that something definitely does not exist because we have not seen it? That if we have not discovered the benefits or reasons for something, then that thing does not exist?
Never. Never can we claim such things even if we were great scientists or scholars. The greater one’s knowledge is, the further away that person is from making such claims. We know very well that even after discovering many mysteries of the earth that:
“If all the trees on the earth were pens, and the sea replenished with seven more seas[were ink], the words of Allah would not be spent. Indeed Allah is all-mighty, all-wise.
“Say, 'If the sea were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would be spent before the words of my lord are spent, though we brought another like it for replenishment.”
Even though human beings do not understand the wisdom, discipline, logic, will, power, and knowledge of the Creator of this world, they cannot consider anything as incompatible with the created order or useless. Imam Sadiq(p.b.u.h.) says of man’s inability to understand reality and the truth:
“O son of Adam, even if a bird eats your heart, it will not become full (because it is so small), and if a needle is pushed through your eye, it will pierce it. Now, how do you expect to see what is actually in (God’s kingdom) on earth and beyond?”3
After this brief introduction to our subject, we would like to say to those who seek reasons for the occultation; Question! Research! Give it more attention! We have no problem with any of these things. Go ahead, question and research, for even if you do not discover the real wisdom behind the absence of the Imam, you may discover other information that will increase your knowledge about it tremendously. If the intention behind the research is to find problems and faults with the issue of the occultation, be well aware that something divinely decreed cannot be destroyed and true believers always remain strong in faith. If wanting to discover that there is no reason for the occultation, it may be due to a lack of understanding or maybe even the inability to understand. If this is the case, then surely the Straight Path and that of the way of intellectuals has been missed.
Not being able to discover something does not necessarily mean that it does not exist. Is this the only thing in the world that has remained a mystery? Has the reasons for all things in creation been discovered? Have answers to all the questions that we have about the world and our universe been answered? Are we to consider things that have no apparent reason useless? How is the usefulness of things determined? Who determines it? Do we? Can we? Is not being able to reach a conclusion considered as a disability in thinking or talent? If more resources were available in such fields like world communications, would more things about the secrets of this world be discovered? If an intelligent person answers these questions, that person will definitely consider his inability to uncover all these mysteries as a reflection of his own limitations. By taking a look at things that are being discovered everyday he will not consider the unknown as something non-existent and thus would believe in the mysteries and wonders of the world.
The occultation is something that has taken place. We must believe in the divine decree. We know a fair amount about it through the guidance of the Holy Qur’an, the Ahl al-Bait and philosophy. The question at hand is this: Is there anyone that can claim to have complete knowledge of the divine decree? Thinking about this has been forbidden and it has been said:
“It is a dark land, so do not step forth into it.”
Human thought does not have the capacity to encompass everything concerned with creation (Takwin) and divine legislation (Tashri’) and cannot deal with all its complications and details. With respect to the occultation we are dealing with levels of faith and surrendering of the soul, but not blind faith. This faith is guided by intellect, nature, the Holy Qur’an, the prophetic traditions, and certain scholars who have had the chance of meeting with the Noble Imam. When we talk about finding out the causes of the occultation, we really are finding out more about its benefits and effects upon us because the main cause is hidden from us until he returns and rises up.
This is exactly what is mentioned in the traditions that say that the main causes will not be uncovered until after the uprising itself. It is only after trees give fruit and shade, that we realize their blessings to creation. After rain makes the earth green and alive, we also realize its blessing to creation. ‘Abdullah ibn Fadhl Hashimi narrates, “I heard Imam Sadiq(p.b.u.h.) saying: ‘Surely there is an absence for the one in charge of this matter (Imam Mahdi) which has no alternative. Any wrongdoing during the occultation will definitely reach to extremes.’ So I asked his Excellency, ‘May I be your sacrifice, (Can you tell me) why this occultation was ordained?’ He replied: ‘For the reasons of which we are not allowed to tell.’ I then said:‘Well, what is the wisdom and philosophy behind the occultation?’ He replied: ‘The wisdom and philosophy behind (al-Mahdi’s) occultation is the same as that of those which had taken place with other messengers of God and then narrated. It will not become apparent until the appearance and uprising of al-Mahdi (A.S.). Much like the story of Moses’ accompanying Khidhr (peace be upon them), the making of the hole in the boat, the killing of the young boy, and the building of the wall by Khidhr- the wisdom behind all of this was found out only after Moses departed from him. O son of Mafsal, this is a matter dealing with God and is one of His mysteries. His (Imam Mahdi’s) occultation is one of the mysteries of the world. We always realize after matters are resolved that God is All-wise, but we have already admitted (to ourselves) that everything He does and says is wise even though we may not know it.’ ”4
We now would like to discuss some of the benefits of the occultation and some matters regarding it. These are matters which are logical and familiar for they are similar to the words of scientists and Islamic thinkers.
The Fear of Being Killed
“And We revealed to Moses’ mother, saying: ‘Suckle him, and then when you fear for him, cast him into the river and do not fear, nor grieve; surely We will bring him back to you and make him one of the apostles.’ ” (28:7)
“So I fled from you, as I was afraid of you. Then my Lord gave me judgement and made me one of the apostles. ”
Kulayni and Sheikh Tusi narrate from Zurarah in their books, Kafi and Ghaybat: “I heard from Imam Sadiq(p.b.u.h.): ‘There is definitely a (period of) absence for al-Qaim (the One Who Rises Up) before his appearance.’ I asked: ‘What for?’ He replied: ‘For the fear of being killed.’ ” As we see in this tradition and others, one of the reasons for the occultation is the fear of being killed. This is not only a reason for its occurrence, but also its continuance. The ruling government at the time of al-Mahdi’s birth was outraged and appalled at the news of his coming birth, they saw his existence as a serious threat to them. Because of this, his birth was hidden from them, like that of Moses (p.b.u.h.), which was hidden from the Pharaoh and no matter how hard they tried, they failed to find him.
The explanation of the relation between the occultation and the fear of being killed is that even though the Almighty God is able to bring forth our Imam whenever and however He pleases and make him successful in ruling over all nations, He does not do so because of the way the world has been arranged which He in all His power has done so that we believers would prepare for his uprising and make it safe for his appearance.
Not Having to Pledge Allegiance
One of the signs and characteristics of the Awaited Imam and al-Mahdi of the Time (A.S.) is that he would not have to pledge allegiance to the oppressors, not even in the form of Taqiyyah (precautionary dissimulation). It is said that he will appear in a way that his government will prevail over all others.
Thus one of the wisdoms and the benefits of the occultation is this that His Excellency, befors the time of his appearance and uprising, does not have to pledge allegiance to any kalifes, governors or politicians, even in the form of Taqiyyah (dissimulation) like his great Fathers; and when he appears there is not any allegiance on his neck and therefore, has not accepted the ruling of any government on himself except the ruling of the government of God and the commandments of the Holy Qur’an. This meaning is understood from some traditions found in Kamal al-Din, Chapter 44, on the causes of the occultation. Other related traditions were also found in ‘Uyun and ‘Ilal, among them a tradition of Imam Sadiq(p.b.u.h.), narrated by Hisham ibn Salim:
“The One Who Rises Up (al-Qa’im) will take a stand while there is not any allegiance on his neck for anyone.”5
Testing the faith of believers is another reason for the occultation. This test is something that is familiar to us from our beliefs and has been indicated in the Holy Qur’an and the traditions. It has always been the divine method in separating the good and pious from the rest. Although this has been so, it has been stated in several traditions that divine testing during the period of al-Mahdi’s occultation would be the most difficult for two reasons6:
1. When the period of the occultation becomes too long, most people will begin to have doubts about it. Some will even have doubts about the actual birth of the Imam(A.S.), and others about his existence. Only true believers (those who have passed the test) will maintain their faith in Imam al-Mahdi(A.S.). In a tradition of the Holy Prophet (p.b.u.h.), narrated by Jābir:
“He is the one who is taken away from the sight of his followers and pious people. During his occultation, none will remain as his believers except for those whom Allah has already put to the (divine) test.”7
This shows that believing in al-Mahdi’s existence, occultation and extended life span, and awaiting the uprising are signs of true faith. Trusting and having belief in the traditions (regarding this matter) from the Holy Prophet and Imams (peace be upon them) reflect belief in divine power and obedience to religious commandments.
2. During the occultation, there will be extremely difficult times for the believers, with drastic changes and dramatic events. These will have a tremendous effect upon the faith and it will become harder and harder for people to maintain it. The people’s faith will be in serious danger as quoted from Imam Sadiq(p.b.u.h.): “One who wants to practice and keep his faith during the occultation is as one who picks thorns off of bushes with his bare hands until not one remains.” The Imam played this out and then said,
“Surely there is an absence for the one in charge of this matter (Imam al-Mahdi), therefore every servant of God should practice his religion by obeying (God’s order).”8 In another tradition narrated from Imam Sadiq (p.b.u.h.): “This event (the uprising) will not take place (for you) until it is preceded by a great deal of disappointment. I swear by God the Almighty that he will not come until you have been separated, (from the unbelievers), the unblessed becoming unblessed and the blessed, blessed.”9
In a tradition narrated from the Holy Prophet (p.b.u.h.) by ibn ‘Abbas, we read: “People who believe in him (as their Imam) are rarer than the red brimstone.” Jābir then stood up and said, “O Prophet! Is there truly a (period of) absence for al-Qaim, (who is of your offspring)?” The Prophet replied: “Yes, and I swear by my Lord that He will separate the true followers (from the Ummah) and destroy the unbelievers. Surely there is a mystery in this (of God’s mysteries) which is hidden from the servants of God, so keep yourselves away from having doubt in it, for doubting in the work of God is most definitely Kufr (infidelity).10
In a tradition narrated by ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Salit, Imam Husain (p.b.u.h.) states: “From among us, the twelfth is Mahdi (A.S.), of which the first is ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib(p.b.u.h.), Commander of the Faithful. The last (the twelfth) is the ninth of my descendents, the one who will take a stand (against all oppressors). Allah the Almighty will revive the earth (after its death) through him. The true religion will also be revived and will override other religions, even though disbelievers may dislike it. An occultation has been prescribed for him in which some will go astray, while others will keep their faith, but with much difficulty. It is asked of them, ‘So when will the time come, if you are of the truthful?’ Know that those who defend their religion against the arguments, doubts and denials of others are like those who fought (in the battles) alongside the Prophet(p.b.u.h.).” 11
Human intelligence will reach a state of perfection in preparation for the uprising. This is because his way of life (and rule) will not be based on apparent matters, but on real truth and justice, with no flexibility on religious issues. He will judge justly, give rights to those deserving of them and run his government solely according to the rules of God.
It is only obvious that in order to execute such a revolution and run such a government, serious human development in the areas of science, knowledge, ethics, etc. would be desperately needed. World readiness would also be required to accept and welcome such a leader. His exceptional companions must be sought out for the world to prepare itself for his appearance and uprising. When the world’s situation becomes so (terrible) that everyone would be tired of civilization without humanity and darkness would cover everything, the uprising of a divine man with the light of God’s help will be welcomed with open arms. He will give purified water and salvation to those seeking truth and justice and will revive the hearts.
“Know that Allah gives life to the earth after its death…” (62:17)
In this case, the world’s response to the call of a heavenly savior will be most welcoming, because in intense darkness light becomes more noticeable and therefore its effect also greater. It has been narrated from Imam Sadiq(p.b.u.h.), “Much like the Day of Judgment, no time has been specified for the uprising, only God knows when it is and the occultation will continue until He wills. No one has the ability to determine a time for the appearance and the uprising, unless he considers himself a partner with God and claims that God has informed him of the divine knowledge and mysteries.”12
The Appearance of Believers from Amongst Disbelievers
As mentioned in the holy traditions, God has distributed the spirit of many believers amongst the disbelievers. This must become apparent before al-Mahdi(A.S.) takes his stand with the sword and destroys the disbelievers. The tax levied upon the disbelievers should also not be relieved for otherwise no believers would surface from amongst the disbelievers. Could anyone have imagined that from among the sons of Sindi ibn Shahik (the assassin of Imam Musa ibn Ja’far(p.b.u.h.)), a great poet and expert in literature would be born who - under the true guidance of Imam Ali(p.b.u.h.) and his household - would spend his life writing and reciting poems for the Ahl al-Bait and spreading their knowledge and virtue?
The appearance of believers among the disbelievers is a very important issue. The appearance and uprising should not cause this process to come to an end, but should occur when there are no longer believers left amongst them, as we read in the words of Noah(p.b.u.h.) in the Holy Qur’an in the form of a prayer:
“…and will not beget any but immoral, ungrateful children.” (71:27)
The global appearance of the Master of the Time(A.S.) will occure in such a situation.
The following verse has been noted as having a similar meaning to many traditions (found in the commentaries of Burhan, Safi, and others):
“If you were to be separated for Our punishment, the disbelievers (from among them) would have a severe chastisement.” (71:25)
A tradition related to this verse states: “Al-Qaim(p.b.u.h.) will not rise until God’s trust is fulfilled. When that is done, the enemies of God will become clear to all and they will be killed.”
The State of the Occultation
What is the occultation of Imam al-Mahdi(p.b.u.h.) like? Is his body hidden from the human eye? Or is his body visible and it is just that no one recognizes him? The absence of a physical body and the concealment of its characteristics and actions has been documented in the history of the miracles of the Prophets, Imams and other divine personalities. The following verse is a fine example:
“And when you recite the Qur’an, We place between you and those who do not believe in the Hereafter a hidden barrier.” (17:45)
In addition to the evident meaning of the verse that God was hiding the Prophet(p.b.u.h.), while he was reciting the Qur’an, from the disbelievers who were trying to bother him, in some commentaries (of the Holy Qur’an) it is told that God the Almighty was in fact hiding his Prophet from Abu Sufyan, Nadhr ibn Harith, Abu Jahl, and Hamalat al-Hatab who passed by the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) and could not see him while he was reciting the Qur’an.13
Ibn Hisham in his book Sirah narrated a story about the Prophet being hidden from Umm Jamil (Hamalat al-Hatab) and at the end of the narration, the Prophet was heard to have said:
“God (the Almighty) took away her sight (from being able) to see me.”14 At the time of the Hijra, the migration of the Muslims from Mecca to Medina, the disbelievers who had gathered at his door to kill him were unable to see him. After the Prophet(p.b.u.h.) had asked Ali(p.b.u.h.) to sleep in his bed, he came out, grabbed a hand full of earth, threw it towards their heads and recited, until and was able to pass by them without them seeing him.15
In the commentary of the Holy Qur’an, Al-Durr al-Manthūr, vol.4, p.186, there is a long story about a tradition that Imam Sadiq (p.b.u.h.) has narrated from his sacred father, who narrated it from his sacred father who narrated it from Ali(p.b.u.h.), the Commander of the Faithful, which is another reliable reference for our topic. For the following verse, there are also several traditions that are on the same subject and support it:
“And We have made before them a barrier and a barrier behind them, then We have covered them over so that they do not see.” (36:9)
Many similar instances have been narrated in the histories of the lives of the Imams.16 The disappearance of Imam Zayn al-Abideen(p.b.u.h.) from the sight of the soldiers of ‘Abd al-Malik Marwan is an example which has been narrated by Sunni scholars, like Ibn Hajar as well as by Shiite scholars.
Concerning the body being visible but not recognized, this is a very simple task for the Lord and does not even need a miracle. Everyday, we see dozens of people around us whom we do not recognize. In answer to the questions raised on this subject, either way is possible for the Imam’s(A.S.) current state. From different traditions and stories of people who have met with him, we see that the Imam(A.S.) indeed does use both forms, sometimes he is hidden from the eye, and at other times he is seen and not recognized. He has even been able to use both forms simultaneously. Some accounts mention him being seen and not being recognized, while others talk about him not being seen at all. This is similar to the Prophet(p.b.u.h.), where some could see him and others could not.
In the Ghaybat al-Sughra, or the Minor Occultation, he mainly used the first form where he was invisible to the human eye, and sometimes, as it has been narrated and documented, his living quarters were also invisible to the human eye. Even the closest of his companions were not able to see him at that time.
In the Ghaybat al-Kubra, or the Major Occultation, it is just about the same, although sometimes people have had encounters with him and only afterwards they realized who he was. Valid traditions also support such encounters. According to some traditions around the time of Haj, the Holy Pilgrimage, the hidden barrier is removed, and although people would see him, they would not recognize who he was.
Being hidden from the human eye is definitely something we consider supernatural, but being seen and not recognized is something completely normal. In order for him to continue without being recognized by those that are especially curious is a hard task and may even call for miracles. God the Almighty has the power to perform any normal or even supernatural act in order to preserve His only major sign left on Earth.
1. Al-Mukhtar min Reader Digest, November 1959, p.37
2. Al-Mukhtar min Reader Digest, October 1959, p.113
3. Al-Kafi, vol.1, p.93
4. Muntakhib al-Athar, by Sheikh Lutfullah Safi, pt.2, ch.28, p.1
5. Bihar al-Anwar, vol.51, p.39; Kamal al-Din, vol.2, ch.44, p.480
6. Muntakhib al-Athar, by Sheikh Lutfullah Safi, pt.2, ch.28
7. Muntakhib al-Athar, by Sheikh Lutfullah Safi, pt.1, ch.8, p.4
8. Kamal al-Din, vol.2, ch.34, p.16
9. Kamal al-Din, vol.2, ch.34, p.15
10. Kamal al-Din, vol.1, ch.26, p.404-5
11. Kamal al-Din, vol.1, ch.30, p.434
12. Athbat al-Hudat, vol.7, pt.55, ch.32, p.156
13. Majma’ al-Bayan, Ruh al-Ma’ani, Al-Dur al-Manthur
14. Sirah ibn Hashim, vol.1, p.378-9; The other tradition mentioned is narrated by Ibn Mardudiyah, Bayhaqi, Ibn Ya’li, Ibn Na’im, Abi Shaybah and Dar Qutni in Durr al-Manthur, in the commentary on the specified verse.
15. Sirah ibn Hisham, vol.2, p.95-6; Tabaqat ibn Sa’d, vol.1, p.228; Kamil ibn Athir, vol.2, p.103; Kutub Mu’asirin ma’a al-Anbiya fi al-Qur’an, p.367
16. Al-Tibyan, Al-Durr al-Manthur, Nur al-Thaqalayn, Majma’ al-Bayan, and other commentaries on the Holy Qur’an