Muhammed al-Mahdi is the twelfth Shi’a Imam.
His father is Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (a.s), and his mother was a lady named Nargis, who was of royal descent. From her father’s side she is a descendant of Ceasar, King of Rome; from her mother’s side he is a descendant of Simon, one of Jesus' legatees.
Historians have recounted the events of his birth in some details.
He is believed to have been born in Samarra (Iraq) on the 15th of Shaban 256/869.
Imam Muhammed al-Mahdi’s (a.s) birth took place under the cover of darkness in secret as a precaution from the Caliph’s spies who were commissioned to kill any new born in the house of Imam al-Askari (a.s).
Prophecies about Imam al-Mahdi’s (a.s), also known as al-Qa’im, have been foretold centuries prior to his birth beginning first and foremost with the Prophet Muhammed (s.a.w) who is known to have said, “al-Mahdi is from my descendants. His name is like mine [i.e. Muhammed]. His title (Kunya) is like mine. He resembles me both in physique and action. He will go into an occultation that will confuse some and cause others to go astray. Then he will rise like a bright, shooting star in the dark night from his occultation to fill the earth with justice and equity after it is filled with injustice and inequity”.
Imam al-Mahdi’s (a.s) went into occultation immediately after he led the funeral prayer (Salat al-mayit) over his deceased father in 260AH/874AD. His first concealment was short spanned and later came to be known as The Minor Occultation (Al-Ghayba al-Sughra) and was followed by The Major Occultation (Al-Ghayba al-Kubra).
During the minor occultation the concealed Imam addressed his devotees through a number of intermediaries, totalling four in number.
The first intermediary, or Safir, was a man by the name of Uthman b. Said al-Amri. He was a loyal servant and companion of the tenth and eleventh Imams. Al-Amri acted as the Imam’s special deputy in his concealment entrusted with the task of collecting Khums, relaying jurisprudential queries to the Imam on behalf of his followers, and generally acting as a link between the Imam and community.
The first Safīr died sometime after 260AH/874AD and sometime shortly before 267AH/880AD.
His son, Muhammed b. Uthman was tasked by the Imam to succeed his father and act as the Imam’s second special deputy during his concealment. Muhammed b. Uthman, like his father, was also a close and loyal companion of the previous Imams.
Allama al-Majlisi narrates a tradition in which both Uthman b. Said and his son Muhammed, are praised and commended by Imam al-Askari (a.s). The second Safīr carried out the duties assigned to him by the Imam for a period lasting about fifty years.
Muhammed b. Uthman died in 305AH/971AD and was buried in his house on the western side of Baghdad.
The third Safīr to act as the Imam’s special deputy in the minor occultation was Husayn b. Ruh b. Abi Bahr al-Nawbakhti. He succeeded Muhammed b. Uthman in the year 305AH/917AD and remained in office for twenty one years. Husayn b. Ruh’s fame as a renowned erudite scholar earned his respect in all circles, even amongst the non- Shi’a camp.
Husayn b. Ruh died in 326AH/938AD and was buried in al-Nawbakhtiyya district in the western side of Baghdad.
Ali b. Muhammed al-Sammari succeeded Ibn Ruh as the fourth safīr in 326AH/938AD. He remained in office for a short stint lasting around four years. He came from a respected Arab Shi’a family in Basra who accorded much of their wealth to the eleventh Imam. Al-Sammari died in 329AH/941AD and was buried in the quarter of al-Muhawwal on the western side of Baghdad.
A week before the death of al-Sammari the following pronouncement (Tawqi) was issued by the Twelfth Imam:
May Allah give you good rewards to your brethren concerning you (i.e. on your death), for indeed you shall die after six days. So prepare your affairs, and do no appoint anyone to take your place after your death. For the second occultation has now occurred, and there can be no appearance until, after a long time when Allah gives His permission, hearts become hardened and the world becomes filled with injustice. And someone shall come to my partisans (Shi’a) claiming that he has seen me; but beware of anyone claiming to have seen me before the rise of al-Sufyani and the outcry from the sky, for he shall be a slanderous liar. There is neither ability nor power save through Allah, the most glorious, the most high.
Six days after the announcement of this document the leading companions and agents of the Imam congregated at the death-bed of the fourth safīr and asked him who was to take charge of his office.
“To Allah belongs the matter which He shall accomplish”.
The death of the fourth Safir marked the beginning of a new era for the Shi’a faithful known as the Major Occultation.
Community and Ghayba
The occurrence of the Major Occultation in the year 329AH/941AD led to a number of theological compilations and epistles delineating the philosophy of the occultation and the expected role of the Imamite community, also known as the al-Aytam, literally the orphans, in reference to the spiritual-intellectual orphanage created in the absence of the Twelfth Imam. The earliest treatises on the question of the Ghayba were penned approximately one hundred years after the Major Occultation by the early pioneers of Shi’a dogmatic theology.
Muhammed b. Ibrahim b. Jafar al-Numani authored an important work entitled al-Ghayba following the Major Occultation of the Twelfth Imam. The work tried to prove the necessity of the Twelfth Imam’s occultation by relating traditions on the authority of the Prophet and the Imams predicting its occurrence.
Moreover, Muhammed b. Ali Babawayh, better known as ''al-Shaykh al-Saduq'' (d. 381AH/991AD), also wrote a book on the question of the Ghayba. Al-Saduq transmits a number of important traditions relayed from Shi’a primary sources which had been compiled before the Minor Occultation. The work, ''Kamal al-Din wa Tamam al-Ni'ma'', played a vital role in re-affirming to the popular laity the necessity of the Twelfth Imam’s occultation.
Following in the footsteps of his teacher, al-Saduq, Muhammed b. Muhammed b. al-Numan, who is known as ''al-Shaykh al-Mufid'' (d. 413AH/1022AD), acted as the head of the Imamite community in the aftermath of the occultation; he wrote five articles in defence of the occultation of the Twelfth Imam and also compiled an independent work entitled ''al-Fusul al-Ashara fi al-Ghayba''.
Al-Mufid’s two star pupils Ali b. al-Husayn, better known as ''al-Murtada'' (d. 436AH/1044AD), and Muhammed b. Ali al-Karajaki (d. 449AH/1057AD), followed his rational approach in their treatises on the prolongation of the Twelfth Imam’s occultation.
Al-Murtada wrote a short theological article entitled ''Masa’la wajiza fi al-Ghayba'' (A Short Treatise Concerning the Occultation); al-Karakaki compiled a work entitled ''al-Burhan 'ala Sihat Tul Umr al-Imam Sahib al-Zaman'' (The Proof of the Validity of the Master of the Age’s Long Life).
Another treatise, also called ''Kitab al-Ghayba'', relied on the use of traditions and reason to prove that the Twelfth Imam must be in a state of occultation. The author of this treatise, al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 460AH/1067AD), provides reliable and useful historical information on the underground activities of the four representatives of the Twelfth Imam.
Development of scholarship
The occultation of the Twelfth Imam in the fourth/tenth century triggered a wave of scholarly initiatives by Imami scholars to explicate, further, the doctrines of faith based on the narratives of the Shi’a Imams. The codification of the Twelver Shi’a tradition of narrations within the Four Books (al-kutub al-arbaa) was concurrent with the systemisation of theology; in fact the latter two of these hadith compilations were collected and organised by an important figurehead and polymath in post-ghayba Shi’a thought, including usul al-Din and hadith sciences namely al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 460AH/1067AD).
Al-Shaykh al-Tusi's efforts to standardise the Shi’a theological creed came against the background of earlier efforts by his predecessors and main teacher, al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 413AH/1022AD); al-Shaykh al-Saduq (d. 326AH/991AD), author of a number of important works in Shi’a thought, including the aforementioned creed Completion of Faith (Kamal al-Din); and Ibn Qiba al-Razi, who had been Mutazilite before he became a Twelver. Al-Mufid’s main contributions came in the form polemical refutations of Mutazilite theology that privileged, more than anything else, unaided reason, over transmitted reports, hadiths making them, therefore, reject distinctively Twelver Shi’a doctrines such as raja, the return to life of the pious at the time of return of the Twelfth Imam. Al-Mufid’s theological articulations were strongly rational, however, and contrary to accusations of Mutazilite tendencies, he defended certain standpoints associated with the traditionalists such as intercession of the Imams.
The theological demarcations of Twelver Shi’a thought became clearer from the seventh/thirteenth century onwards; theological discussions on what it means to be a Shi’a Muslim incorporated greater philosophical themes informed by metaphysical paradigms.
The proofs for the Necessary Existent, or God, took central stage in later creed works such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s (d. 672AH/1274AD) Epitome of Doctrine (TajrId al-itiqad), which had a profound impact on systematic theology in other schools of Islam, drawing a number of commentaries and glosses.
Al-Tusi’s Shi’a successors, namely Ibn Mutahhar al-Ḥilli (d. 725AH/1325AD) and Maytham al-Bahranī (d. 699AH/1300AD), and al-Miqdad al-Suyuri (d. 826AH/1423AD) authored seminal works in Twelver Systematic Theology that had a profound lasting effect on the teaching of doctrines in Shi’a centres of learning which continue to this day to instruct students in the works of, for example, al-Hilli’s The Eleventh Chapter (al-Bab al-hadi 'ashar) and his important commentary on the Epitome of Doctrine, kashf al-murad fi sharh tajrid al-itiqad (Unveiling the Desired from the Epitome of Doctrine).
The Twelver Shi’a community of believers suffered many setbacks, including socio-political persecution and oppression, at the hands of political entities more often than not hostile to their theology and fearful of their political ambitions. In the immediate aftermaths of the Major Occultation the ruling class of the ʽAbbasid dynasty (reg. 132AH/750AD-656AH/1258AD) wreaked havoc on the community of believers, scholars, and all forms of political dissent, often brutally suppressing voices of opposition. The Twelver Shi’a community was forced to conceal its main tenets in some public gatherings out of fear of Abbasid spies.
Successive Muslim dynasties and Sultanates in the post-ghayba period violently suppressed Shi’a devotionalism, religious rituals, and hindered scholarly activities; the Seljuq dynasty, for example, held Shi’a Muslims in low esteem and excluded Shi’a from public office and important teachings institutions. Despite being on the receiving end of socio-political oppression Twelver Shi’a scholarship progressed at a fast pace in during the periods of hostility; the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were, as it is often said, markedly Shi’a as it was Shi’a who were at the forefront of scholarly attainments and scientific achievements.
According to historians she may have also been known by the following names: Sawsan; Khamt; Rayhana; and Sayqal.