Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-'Askari (Arabic: محمد بن الحسن العسکری) (born in 255/869), also known as Imam al-Mahdi (a) (Arabic: إمام المهدی), is the twelfth Imam in Twelver Shi'ism. He is the promised savior, who will rise one day and fill the earth with peace and justice. Imam al-Mahdi (a) has been in occultation from the early years of his life. Shi'as regard him as the Imam of the present age. Among his well-known titles are Imam al-Mahdi (the Imam of the time) and Wali l-'Asr (the guardian of the age).
Imam al-Mahdi (a) became the Imam after the martyrdom of his father Imam al-Hasan al-'Askari (a) in the year 260/874, when he was five. From that time until the year 329/940, he was in contact with his followers through his Four Deputies. After that, his Major Occultation started, in which period the direct guidance and leadership of the Shi'a community rests with religious scholars.
There are many hadiths transmitted from the Imams (a) about Imam al-Mahdi (a), his life, his Occultation, and his government, and many collections of such hadiths have been written. In addition to hadith collections, many works have been published about Imam al-Mahdi (a).
Every year, on fifteenth of Sha'ban, Shi'as celebrate the Imam's birth, marking one of the greatest Shi'i festivals.
In Shi’a hadiths, the Twelfth Imam (a) is referred to by names such as Muhammad, Ahmad, and ‘Abd Allah. However, among the Shi’as, he is most famously referred to as al-Mahdi which is one of his titles.
According to a number of hadiths, he is the Prophet’s (s) namesake. In some hadiths and written Shiite sources, such as al-Kafi and Kamal al-din, his name is written with separate letters as “م ح م د” (M Ḥ M D). This is in accordance with hadiths forbidding any mention of Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) name.
Prohibition of Mentioning his Name
There are many hadiths in Shiite sources according to which it is forbidden to mention the Twelfth Imam’s (a) real name. There are two well-known theories about these hadiths: the first view, which is propounded by scholars such as al-Sayyid al-Murtada, al-Fadil al-Miqdad, al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli, and others, restricts the ban to the period in which the Shi’as had to practice taqiyya (precautionary dissimulation). However, Mir Damad and al-Muhaddith al-Nuri take the ban to be in force before the Reappearance.
Teknonym and Titles
In different sources, supplications, and ziyaras, the Twelfth Imam of the Shi’as is characterized with different teknonyms and titles, the best-known of which are: al-Mahdi (المَهدی, guided), Ṣāḥib al-Zamān (صاحب الزمان, the owner of the time), al-Muntaẓar (المُنتَظَر, expected), Baqīyyat Allāh (بَقیّة الله, what remains with Allah), al-Muntaqim (المُنتَقِم, avenger), al-Maw’ūd (المَوعود, promised), Khātam al-Awṣīyā’ (خاتَم الأوصیاء, the last successor), al-Ghā’ib (الغائب, hidden), al-Ma’mūl (المأمول, hoped), and al-Muḍṭarr (المُضطرّ, distressed). Another well-known title of Imam al-Mahdi (a) is al-Qa’im (القائم, upriser or standing) upon the hearing of which the Shi’as stand up and put their hands on their heads, as practiced by Imam al-Rida (a).
The names and titles of the Twelfth Shiite Imam (a) are mentioned in Sunni sources as well. In these source, “al-Mahdi” is the mostly mentioned title. The title “al-Qa’im” is rarely found in Sunni sources.
Main article: Narjis
His mother is referred to in different ways: Narjis, Susan, Saqil or Sayqal, Haditha, Hakima, Malika, Rayhana, and Khamt. In general, there are four accounts of her life and characteristics. According to a hadith cited by al-Shaykh al-Saduq in his Kamal al-din wa tamam al-ni’ma, Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) mother was a Roman princess. And in other hadiths, her life story is not mentioned and it is only said that she was trained and raised in the house of Hakima, the daughter of Imam al-Jawad (a). According to a third group of hadiths (cited by al-Mas’udi in his Ithbat al-wasiyya), Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) mother was not only raised in the house of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari’s (a) paternal aunt, but was also born there. The last group of hadiths has a fundamental difference with these three groups. According to these hadiths, Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) mother was a black bondwoman. The first three groups of hadiths can be considered as complementary, but the last one cannot be reconciled with them. However, some scholars have tried to reconcile the last group of hadiths with others by taking it to be concerned with Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) nurse.
Time of Birth
Some old sources did not talk about the birth date of Imam al-Mahdi (a), taking it to be a secret. However, many Shiite and some Sunni hadiths take the year of the birth of Twelfth Shiite Imam (a) to be 255/869 or 256/870.
There is also a disagreement about the month in which the Imam (a) was born. The majority of scholars take it to be Sha’ban as is evidenced by many old Shiite sources. However, some Shiite and Sunni sources take it to be Ramadan, and some Sunni sources take it to be Rabi’ I or Rabi’ II.
In historical sources, there are different accounts of the day on which the Twelfth Imam (a) was born, the best-known of which is Sha’ban 15th (July 29, 869). This date is reported by Shiite scholars such as al-Kulayni, al-Mas’udi, al-Shaykh al-Saduq, al-Shaykh al-Mufid, al-Shaykh al-Tusi, Fattal al-Nisaburi, al-Tabrisi, Ibn Tawus, Ibn Taqtaqi, al-Allama al-Hilli, al-Shahid al-Awwal, al-Kaf’ami, and al-Shaykh al-Baha’i, and Sunni scholars such as Ibn Khallakan, Ibn Sabbagh al-Maliki, al-Sha’rani al-Hanafi, and Ibn Tulun. According to other reports, mentioned in al-Saduq’s Kamal al-din, the birthday of the Imam (a) was the eve of the first Thursday of Ramadan or the eve of one of the Thursdays in Ramadan.
Place of Birth
Historians who talked about the issue agree that Imam al-Mahdi (a) was born in the house of his father, Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a), in Samarra. The house is now part of the shrine of Imam al-Hadi (a) and Imam al-‘Askari (a). Imam al-Hadi (a) and Imam al-‘Askari (a) were summoned to Samarra, the center of the Abbasid Caliphate, years before the birth of Imam al-Mahdi (a) and lived there until they were martyred.
The Account of the Birth
Imam al-Hasan al-Askari called me and said, “O aunti! Stay with us tonight, which is the eve of the 15th of Sha’ban. Tonight God Almighty will reveal His proof on earth.” I said, “Who is his mother?” He replied, “Narjis.” I said, “But—May I be your ransom! —There are no sign of pregnancy in her!” The Imam (a) replied, “It will be as I said to you.” I went and when I said salam and sat down, Narjis came, took my shoes, and said, “O my lady and the lady of my family! How are you?” I said, “You are my lady and the lady of my family … God is giving you tonight a son, who is the master of this world and the hereafter.” Then [I prayed, and] when I finished my prayer, I ate in order to end my fast, and then I slept. In the middle of the night, I woke up and prayed while Narjis was sleeping. Then I followed up my prayer with some dhikrs and then I also slept. I woke up again, and then Narjis woke up, prayed, and slept again. I came out of the house and looked at the sky, and it was the time of the first fajr. As soon as I started to have some doubt, Abu Muhammad [i.e., Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (a)] called me and said, “O auntie! Do not hasten, because the time is about to arrive.” So I sat down and started to recite sura al-Sajda and sura Yasin. As I was reciting the Qur’an, Narjis woke up, so I hastened unto her and told her, “Do you feel anything?” She responded, “Yes, auntie!” I told her, “Be calm and let your heart be strong. This is what I told you about. Afterwards, a kind of weakness got me and Narjis. Then, I woke up by the voice of my master [i.e., Imam al-Mahdi] … I saw him prostrating himself … I held him in my arms and found him clean and pure. Abu Muhammad told me, “O auntie! Bring me my child.” I did so … [He held him,] and said, “O my son! Speak!” He said, “I testify that there is no God but Allah alone; He has no partners. And I testify that Muhammad is His apostle.” Then he sent salutations upon Amir al-Mu’minin and the rest of the Imams until his father.
Abbasid caliphs knew from the hadiths by the Prophet (s) and the Imams (a) that the Twelfth Imam was al-Mahdi, and thus, they assigned some guards to monitor Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) and his house. According to historians, al-Mu’tamid al-‘Abbasi had ordered the midwives to drop by sadat‘s houses, especially the house of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a), search inside the house, learn about his wife, and report him about it.
The birth of Imam al-Mahdi (a) was hidden from people. The secrecy of his birth and its reasons are mentioned in some hadiths. According to a hadith from Imam al-Sajjad (a), “our al-Qa’im bears some traditions of the prophets. A tradition from Abraham (a) is the secrecy of his birth and his isolation from the people”. And according to a hadith from Imam al-Sadiq (a), “the birth of Sahib al-Amr is hidden from the people until he reappears. This is in order for him not to have to pledge allegiance to anyone”.
According to al-Shaykh al-Mufid, the reason behind the hidden birth of Imam al-Mahdi (a) was the persecutions and the fact that the governor of the time was on the watch to murder the last Proof of God.
It should be noted that the hidden birth of the Twelfth Imam (a) was not an unprecedented phenomenon. Abraham’s and Moses’s births also reportedly occurred in a hidden manner.
The Witnesses of the Birth
Apart from Hakima, two female slaves named Mariyah and Nasim also witnessed the birth of the Twelfth Imam (a). Al-Shaykh al-Tusi and al-Shaykh al-Saduq have recorded the accounts of the birth of the Imam (a) as reported by these two female slaves: “When the Master of the Time was born, he sat down on his knees and raised his forefingers toward heaven. Then, he sneezed and said, ‘All praise belongs to God the Lord of the worlds. May God send his blessings on Muhammad and his family. The oppressors have thought that the Proof of God is destroyed. Were we permitted to speak, the doubt would fade away.'”
Some Sunni scholars have reported the birth of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari’s (a) son, but they are silent about the son being the promised al-Mahdi: some examples are Ibn Athir (d. 630/1232) in his al-Kamil fi l-tarikh, Ibn Khallikan (d. 681/1282) in his Wafayat al-a’yan, and al-Dhahabi (d. 748/1347) in his al-‘Ibar. Other Sunni scholars have, in addition to reporting his birth, pointed to his being the promised al-Mahdi as well, such as Ibn Talha al-Shafi’i (d. 652/1254) in his Matalib al-sa’ul and Ibn Sabbagh al-Maliki (d. 855/1451) in his al-Fusul al-muhimma.
Shi’as’ Awareness of the Birth
After Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) birth, some Shi’as who were close and reliable companions of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) saw Imam al-Mahdi (a). Al-Shaykh al-Mufid mentions some Shi’as who saw Imam al-Mahdi (a) during the life of Imam al-‘Askari (a): Muhammad b. Isma’il b. Musa b. Ja’far (a), Hakima bt. al-Imam al-Jawad (a), Abu ‘Ali b. Mutahhar, ‘Amr al-Ahwazi, and Abu Nasr al-Turayf, the servant of Imam al-‘Askari (a).
For example, according to a hadith, Muhammad b. ‘Uthman al-‘Amri and forty other people were in Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari’s (a) house. The Imam (a) showed his son to them and said, “this is your Imam after me and my successor among you. Obey him and do not dispute about your religion. Otherwise, you will be disorganized and you will never see him again”.
A similar hadith is cited by al-Shaykh al-Tusi. He also mentioned other people who saw Imam al-Mahdi (a) in the meeting: ‘Ali b. Bilal, Ahmad b. Bilal, Muhammad b. Mu’awiya b. Hakim, and Hasan b. Ayyub b. Nuh.
Al-Shaykh al-Mufid also refers to other people, such as Abu ‘Umar ‘Uthman b. Sa’id al-Samman and his son, Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. ‘Uthman, who saw Imam al-Mahdi (a) during the life of his father. Imam al-Mahdi (a) was also seen during the life of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) by people from Banu al-Rahba family from Nusaybin, Banu Sa’id, Banu Mahziyar from Ahvaz, Banu l-Rukuli from Kufa, Banu Nawbakht from Baghdad, and a group of people from Qazvin, Qom, and Jibal.
When the caliph of the time, al-Mu’tamid al-‘Abbasi, learned about Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari’s (a) illness, he sent five of his reliable officers to the Imam’s (a) house in order to monitor him. Also, al-Mu’tamid ordered his Grand Judge to commission ten reliable people to monitor Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a).
In his will, Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) gave all his property to his mother, Hudayth, although the Abbasids did not allow the whole property to be given to Hudayth. They gave half of the property to Ja’far b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad, Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) uncle.
After Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askaris (a) demise, the Abbasid caliph sent a group of agents to his house. They shut down the house and confiscated the Imam’s (a) property. They looked for the Imam’s (a) son, examined the Imam’s (a) wives and bondwomen for pregnancy, and arrested a heavy bondwoman who was suspected to be pregnant. She was monitored for two years and was released afterwards.
Imam al-Mahdi (a) was born in 255/869 about twelve centuries ago. This longevity is not comparable to that of ordinary people. Shiite theologians have provided different replies to questions about the extraordinary longevity of Imam al-Mahdi (a).
Biologists take it possible for human beings to live long lives. Lutf Allah Safi Gulpayigani has cited many western scientists who have claimed that biologically speaking, a human organism can live eight hundred to thousand years.
Possibility of Occurrence Miracle: Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) long life is a miracle and an extraordinary event.
With the Divine Will, a human person can have a long or permanent life.
The human soul is in control of the body. If the soul is so powerful that it can have wilaya on the body, in addition to the control, then it can keep the body alive for a longer time.
According to the Qur’an, the prophet ‘Uzayr‘s food and drink stayed fresh after hundred years although the food and drink do not have souls. Thus, a fortiori, a human person with a soul can have an extraordinarily long life.
According to historical accounts, there were people who lived longer lives than other people.
The Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an have pointed to people who had longer lives than ordinary people. According to the Qur’an, Prophet Noah’s (a) mission as a prophet lasted for 950 years. It also mentions people with long lives in earlier nations.
Some hadiths have also pointed to the long life of Imam al-Mahdi (a). For example, there is a hadith from Imam al-Sajjad (a) according to which: “our al-Qa’im bears traditions from the prophets. His tradition from Adam (a) and Noah (a) is his long life.” Imam al-Sadiq (a) has also assimilated Imam al-Mahdi (a) to Ibrahim (a) who lived for 120 years, but was like a thirty-year-old young man. According to a hadith from Imam al-Hasan (a), “God will give a long life to the ninth child from my brother al-Husayn‘s progeny. And then with His power, he will reappear as a young man looking younger than 40 years.”
End of Life
After his uprising in end of the time, Imam al-Mahdi (a) will rule the world. According to hadiths, the period of his reign is from seven to 303 years. In most of the Sunni hadiths, the period is seven years, and in Shiite hadiths, it is mostly over ten years. According to some Shiite hadiths, his reign will be seven years with each year being equal to ten or twenty years. According to other hadiths, the length of the reign depends on the Divine Will, and so it is not known. The most popular view among the Shi’as is nineteen years.
There is no hadith about how Imam al-Mahdi (a) will die or be martyred. Some scholars appeal to the well-known view that all the Imams (a) are martyred (based on a hadith according to which, “all of us will either be killed or poisoned”, and thus, argue that Imam al-Mahdi (a) will be martyred at the end of his government. According to the Imamiyya, after the demise of Imam al-Mahdi (a), there will be a raj’a (return of the dead). Imam al-Husayn (a) will be the first person who will return to this world. He will say the Funeral Prayer for Imam al-Mahdi (a), and wash and enshroud his corpse.
Before the Occultation
Since his birth until the beginning of the Minor Occultation, Imam al-Mahdi (a) lived in his place of birth, Samarra. In this period, he lived and worshipped in the cellar (sardab). According to some reports, he was frequently seen in this place during his father’s life. Some researchers believe that he attended the hajj rituals together with his father in the last years of his life, and then he hid in Medina. This view is not consonant with Shiite historical sources.
After the Occultation
According to some hadiths, the place of Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) residence during the Occultation is unknown. However, some other hadiths point to places such as Mount Dhi Tuwa, Mount Radwa, and Tayba (Medina) as places in which Imam al-Mahdi (a) lives during the Occultation. Since his Four Deputies had contacts with him during the Minor Occultation, it can be said that in at least some parts of the Minor Occultation, the Imam (a) lived in Iraq.
Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzi and Ibn Khaldun have attributed to the Shi’as the belief that Imam al-Mahdi (a) lives in the cellar during his Occultation and will reappear from there. However, such a belief cannot be found in Shiite books. They do sanctify the cellar because Imam al-Mahdi (a) lived and worshipped there during his father’s life.
Place of Reappearance, Uprising, Government, and Life (after Reappearance)
There is no precise information about the place of the Reappearance of Imam al-Mahdi (a). According to a hadith, he will reappear in Dhi Tuwa area. And then he and 313 of his companions will go to Mecca, he will lean towards the Black Stone, and will shake his flag. According to this hadith as well as some others, Imam al-Mahdi (a) will begin his uprising from al-Masjid al-Haram and his companions will pledge their allegiance to him between the Rukn and Maqam. According to some hadiths, Tihamah is where Imam al-Mahdi (a) will begin his uprising. “Tihamah” also refers to Mecca (which is part of it).
According to some other hadiths, the center of Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) government will be Kufa, the center of his judiciary will be the Mosque of Kufa, and the Mosque of Sahla will be the place where he will reside and distribute the Treasury.
The Places Related to the Imam (a)
A number of places are believed to be specially related to the Imam (a). Shiites visit these places to get closer to their Imam (a) and to ask him for his prayers. These places are the following:
There are a number of hadiths in Shiite and Sunni sources about the appearance and the moral character of Imam al-Mahdi (a).
According to different hadiths, the Prophet (s) has characterized Imam al-Mahdi (a) as being the most similar person to him. Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) also said that al-Mahdi’s (a) look and moral character are the most similar to the Prophet’s (s). According to a hadith from Imam ‘Ali (a): “when al-Mahdi (a) begins his uprising, his age will (seem to) be between thirty to forty”.
Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtaba (a) characterized him as a young person of at most forty years old with an endless power. Imam al-Sadiq (a) describes him as a perfect middle-aged (mu’tadil) young man. In a comment on this hadith, al-‘Allama al-Majlisi said: “mu’tadil” in this hadith means a person in his middle ages or late young ages. In response to Abu Salt al-Hirawi‘s question about the signs of the Reappearance of Imam al-Mahdi (a), Imam al-Rida (a) said: “the sign is that he is very old but he looks young. An observer thinks that he is forty years old or even younger”.
In the book, Mikyal al-makarim, Imam al-Mahdi (a) is characterized as being handsome, his face shining like the moon. In different hadiths, the details of Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) face are mentioned. According to a hadith from the Prophet (s): “al-Mahdi (a) is from me; he has a broad forehead and a long nose”. According to another hadith, the Prophet (s) has characterized Imam al-Mahdi (a) as having an Arabian complexion and an Israelite body, with a mole on his right cheek which shines like a star.
Imam al-Baqir (a) has quoted his father and ancestor as saying that Imam ‘Ali (a) once said on his minbar: “from my progeny in end of the time, a man will appear whose face is reddish white, whose chest is broad, with strong shoulders and two moles on his back, one with the color of his skin, and the other like that of the Prophet (s)”.
Moral and Religious Characteristics
The moral and religious characteristics of Imam al-Mahdi (a) can be examined in two ways:
Imam al-Sadiq (a) has characterized him as an extremely ascetic person whose clothes are rough and his food is oat bread. He is hard on the agents of his government, generous to people, and kind to the poor.
Imam al-Rida (a) describes Imam al-Mahdi’s (a) character as follows: “he deserves people more than they deserve themselves and is more passionate about people than their parents. He is more modest than other people towards God, and more hard-working in acting upon his own orders, avoiding his own prohibitions more than others”. Also, Imam al-Rida (a) has characterized him as the wisest, the most knowledgeable, the most pious, the most patient, the most generous, and the greatest worshipper who talks with angels.
Shiite scholars have presented various, including rational and traditional, proofs for the imamate of the Twelfth Imam (a) and especially for the fact that he is alive.
Among the rational proof for the Imamate of the Twelfth Imam (a) are the argument from fitra (primordial nature), the argument from lutf (favor), the argument from the possibility of the nobler, the argument from the complete manifestation, the argument from the medium of grace (wasitat al-fayd), and the argument from the final cause. These arguments have been discussed and analyzed by scholars. One common point in all of them is that they can only prove that there is an imam in the world, but they cannot prove that this imam is Imam al-Mahdi (a).
The most important proofs for the imamate of Imam al-Mahdi (a) are the traditional proofs; that is, the Qur’anic verses and the sayings of the Prophet (a) and Imams (a). Some of these proofs are general and show only the necessity of the existence of an Imam in all times, and some others are specific and prove the imamate of Imam al-Mahdi (s) in particular. Among the most important traditional proofs are the following:
The names of Ahl al-Bayt (a) or Imam al-Mahdi (a) are not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. However, a number of verses include glad tidings about the end times that allude to the the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam (a). These verses can be categorized in five groups:
According to Shi’i hadiths, the beginning of the imamate of Imam al-Mahdi (a) was when he was five. God bestowed upon him the qualifications needed for imamate at that young age, just as Yahya (a) was given wisdom in his childhood, and Jesus (a) was chosen as a prophet when he was an infant.
Believing in a savior is not exclusive to the Shi’a or Muslims. Many religions and sects also maintain similar beliefs. The difference between Twelver Shi’ism and the other religious traditions are the belief in a specific person, who was born in 255/869 and is still alive, as the awaited savior.
Narration from the Prophet (s)
Among the hadiths of the Prophet (s) pointing to the imamate of the twelfth Imam, recorded in Shi’i sources, is the hadith in which the Prophet (s) says to Imam al-Husayn (a), “You are the master, the son of the master; you are the Imam son of the Imam; you are the Proof son of a Proof; you are the father of nine Proofs from your progeny, the ninth of whom is the Riser (al-Qa’im).”
“Al-Mahdi is from my family, from the descendants of Fatima (a).'”
“Al-Mahdi is from us, Ahl al-Bayt (a).”
“If only one day remains before the world ends, God will raise a man from my family who will fill the earth with justice, while it has become full of injustice and oppression.”
In a hadith recorded in al-Khwarizmi’s Maqtal, the Prophet (s) declares the names of the Twelve Imams one by one and mentions Imam al-Mahdi (a) as the last Imam.
Among the hadiths of the Imams (a), a hadith attributed to Imam ‘Ali (a) states, “Know that by God, my two sons al-Hasan (a) and al-Husayn (a) and I will be murdered, and God will surely raise at the end of the time a man from my descendants who will revenge for us. He will be hidden from people so that the misguided should be known, [and his occultation will be prolonged] until the ignorant will say, ‘God does not need the family of Muhammad (a)’.”
Uncertainty about Imam al-‘Askari’s (a) Having a Child
It was widely believed in the period of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) that the Shi’as were expecting the uprising of his son. However, the Abbasid government was looking for the Imam’s (a) son to arrest him. Thus, Imam al-‘Askari (a) did not publicly show his son to anyone, even his followers, except for a few of his close companions and relatives. Thus, when the Imam (a) was martyred, no one knew that the Imam (a) had a child (except those few).
Moreover, Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) only mentioned his mother, Hudayth, in his will because of the political circumstances. Thus, in the two years after the Imam’s (a) martyrdom, some Shi’as believed that in the absence of Imam al-Mahdi (a), Hudayth is a surrogate for the position of imamate.
Immediately after Imam al-‘Askari’s (a) martyrdom, his close companions under the leadership of ‘Uthman b. Sa’id al-‘Amri (d. 265/878 or 280/893) announced to the Shiite community that Imam al-‘Askari (a) had a son who is now his successor as the Imam. ‘Abd Allah b. Ja’far al-Himyari said: I asked ‘Uthman b. Sa’id al-‘Amri about the name of Imam al-‘Askari’s (a) successor. Al-‘Amri replied: “you are prohibited from asking his name because the King (the Caliph) thinks that Imam al-‘Askari (a) has left no son and his heritage is divided (between his mother, brother, and sister). If his name is mentioned, they will try to find him. So, do not ask his name.”
Confusion in Identifying the Imam
Although the close companions of Imam al-‘Askari (a) had clarified about his successor, the Shiite community—many Shi’as in Iraq and Transoxiana—were confused. For instance, after the martyrdom of Imam al-‘Askari (a), they sent someone to Medina to inspect about the existence of the Imam’s (a) son, because they had heard that Imam al-‘Askari’s (a) son was sent by his father to Medina. It is also reported that Abu Zayd Ahmad b. Sahl al-Balkhi, a scholar in the period of the Minor Occultation, went from Khorasan to Iraq to look for the Imam’s (a) son. He looked for him for years.
There was a disagreement in the house of Imam al-‘Askari (a) as well. Hudayth, Imam al-‘Askari’s (a) mother, and Hakima, the Imam’s (a) paternal aunt, believed that the Imam (a) had a son who was the new Imam, but the only sister of Imam al-‘Askari (a)—the only other child of Imam al-Hadi (a) in addition to Ja’far b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad and perhaps Ja’far’s full sister—supported Ja’far.
Shi’as serving in high-ranking governmental positions were also divided in this regard. For instance, the Nawbakhti Family supported the existence and the imamate of Imam al-‘Askari’s (a) son, recognizing ‘Uthman b. Sa’id and his son as Special Deputies of Imam al-Mahdi (a).
Branching in the Shiite Community
The leadership crisis in this period was so serious that some people abandoned the Imamiyya and joined other Shiite and non-Shiite sects. Some people denied the death of Imam al-‘Askari (a) and took him to be the al-Mahdi, and some others believed in the imamate of Sayyid Muhammad, the son of Imam al-Hadi (a) and denied the imamate of Imam al-‘Askari (a).
Still, others believed in the imamate of Ja’far. Ja’far tried hard to propagate himself as the Imam. After the demise of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a), he claimed the heritage of his brother although their mother was still alive, and this was against the rulings of inheritance in Islam. He also encouraged the rulers of the time to search the Imam’s (a) house to find his son, and with Ja’far’s cooperation, one of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari’s (a) bondwomen was arrested and closely monitored to see if she was pregnant. Moreover, Ja’far offered to annually pay 20,000 dinars as a bribe to an Abbasid agent so that he confirms Ja’far’s imamate.
In spite of the disputes, the majority of the Shi’as eventually believed in the imamate of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari’s (a) son, and this turned into the standard version of the Imamiyya. It survived as the Twelver Shiism in the fourth/tenth century. After citing a hadith from Hasan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti, the author of the book, Firaq al-Shi’a, about the fourteen Shiite sects which were formed in the wake of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari’s (a) martyrdom, al-Shaykh al-Mufid writes:
Of the sects we mentioned, in our time, that is in 373/983, only the Twelver Imamiyya has survived, that is, those who believe in the imamate of al-Hasan’s son who is the Prophet’s (s) namesake, and are certain about his life and survival until the day in which he will begin an uprising with his sword.
Role of Tawqi’ in the Establishment of Shiism
In this period, some letters were issued by Imam al-Mahdi (a) some of which were concerned with proofs for his imamate. The argument made by the Imam (a) for his imamate was based on the continuity of the divine guidance since the time of Adam (a) until that of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) and the Earth not being void of the Hujja. He also introduced three criteria for telling the Imam (a) from false claimants of the imamate: infallibility, knowledge, and divine verification.
Ibn Abi Ghanim al-Qazwini and a group of the Shi’as disagreed about the successor of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a). Ibn Abi Ghanim said: “Abu Muhammad (a) has passed away and has no successor.” The Shi’as wrote a letter in this regard and sent it to the sacred side and let him know about the disagreement. The Imam (a) wrote back with his own handwriting:
In the Name of God the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. I learned that a group of you have disputed about the religion and are confused about the guardians of your affairs (that is, the Imams). Have you not seen how God selected guardians for you since the time of Adam, peace be upon him, until the previous Imam so that you can refuge to them? God has raised flags with which you could be guided. Whenever a flag disappears, another appears, and whenever a star goes down, another rises. When God took him (that is, Imam al-‘Askari) to Himself, you thought that the Exalted God has annihilated His religion and cut off the link between Him and His creatures. It has never been like this, and it will never be like this until the Resurrection when God’s affair shows itself. The previous Imam, peace be upon him, has passed away. And his will and his knowledge and his succession lie in us, and no one disputes us about his position except a sinful unjust person.
Main article: Occultation
Several hadiths predicted the birth and occultation of Imam al-Mahdi (a), before his birth. Many hadiths also speak about his rule. According to these hadiths, he is the Imam who will rise by God‘s command and establish a universal rule. Before his uprising, he has two periods of occultation, one of which is longer than the other. The Minor Occultation started from the birth of the Imam until 329/940, when the last “special deputy” of the Imam (a) passed away. After that, the Major Occultation started, which will end when he will rise against the injustice and oppression that fills the world.
There are disagreements over when the Minor Occultation began. Some people believe that it began with the birth of Imam al-Mahdi (a) in 255/869, and thus, it lasted for seventy four years. But some others believe that it began since the martyrdom of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari (a) in 260/874 in which case the Minor Occultation lasted for sixty nine years.
Al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 413/1022) in his al-Irshad and al-Tabrisi (d. 1154) in his I’lam al-wara, and some other prominent Shiite jurists and muhaddiths as well as many historiographers have subscribed to the first view, taking the Minor Occultation to be seventy four years.
During the Minor Occultation, Imam al-Mahdi (a) had interactions with the Shi’as through his Special Deputies and settled their issues, such as questions about beliefs, jurisprudential inquiries, and financial matters.
Since the beginning of his imamate in 260/874, Imam al-Mahdi (a) had interactions with the Shi’as only through his Special Deputies. The last deputy, ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Samuri passed away on Sha’ban 15, 329 (May 15, 941). A week before his death, Imam al-Mahdi (a) issued a letter to him as follows:
O ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Samuri! You will die within six days. So, finish your works and do not recommend anyone as your successor, because the second occultation has now started, and there will be no Reappearance until God permits.
After al-Samuri’s death, the connection through Special Deputies came to an end and the Occultation entered a new phase. This phase of the Occultation came to be known in recent sources as the Major Occultation. According to most Shiite sources, the fourth deputy died in 329/941, but al-Shaykh al-Saduq and al-Fadl b. al-Hasan al-Tabrisi take it to be in 318/930.
Main article: Reappearance of Imam al-Mahdi (a)
The signs of the time when the Imam (a) reappears can be found in hadiths and in the Qur’an as interpreted by the traditions. Based on these sources, when the time of the reappearance approaches, three major phenomena will be seen in the world:
The term tawqi’ mostly indicates the writings of the Imams (a) and especially of Imam al-Mahdi (a), but sometimes this term has been used also for his oral sayings. In sources such as Kamal al-din by al-Shaykh al-Saduq and Mu’jam ahadith al-Imam al-Mahdi (a), not even the oral sayings of the Imam (a) but also the sayings of his special deputies have been collected under the title al-tawqiʿat. The tawqiʿat of the Imam (a) (about 80 sayings) are mostly issued during the Minor Occultation and on various topics.
In the Qur’an
Imam al-Mahdi (a) and the appearance of a savior in the end times are not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. However, according to Shiite exegetes, many verses of the Qur’an (250 verses according to some scholars) refer to this doctrine. There are two kinds of verses that have been regarded as referring to the doctrine of Mahdi:
“Allah has promised those of you who have faith and do righteous deeds that He will surely make them successors in the earth, just as He made those who were before them successors, and He will surely establish for them their religion which He has approved for them, and that He will surely change their state to security after their fear, while they worship Me, not ascribing any partners to Me. And whoever is ungrateful after that it is they who are the transgressors.”
This verse, too, is interpreted in several hadiths as referring to Imam al-Mahdi (a) and his companions and helpers.
The issue of Imam al-Mahdi (a) was an old issue in Islam, and in particular, Shiism. Since the Reappearance of Imam al-Mahdi was promised by the Prophet (s) himself, the name, “al-Mahdi”, was since then well-known. Even before the Imam’s (a) birth, tens of books were written about him by the Shi’as. After the Imam’s (a) birth, many other books were still written about him. Thousands of books have so far been written about different aspects of the Twelfth Shiite Imam. Here are some of the most reliable ones:
There are many Shiite hadiths about the place and significance of Imam al-Mahdi (a). These hadiths are concerned with the character of Imam al-Mahdi (a), the character of people who expect him, the virtues of expecting the relief, Signs of Reappearance, as well as events occurring at the time of his Reappearance, and the world after the Reappearance.
During the Major Occultation, Shiites do tawassul to the Imam of the Time (a) and ask him for his prayers and attention. Their love for their Imam (a) causes them to strive to get closer to him and long to meet him. Moreover, according to Qur’anic verses and hadiths, the Imams (a), with God’s permission, are aware of the spiritual and material conditions of people and their prayers can improve their situations. Therefore, the Shi’a believe that the stronger their relation with the Imams (a), the more they benefit from the Imams’ (a) prayers and attention. The supplications of Ahd and Tawassul, the prayer of Imam al-Mahdi (a), visiting Jamkaran and Sahla mosques, Ziyarat Al Yasin, paying alms for the health of the Imam (a), the celebrations related to the fifteenth of Sha’ban, and many poems that are composed about him are manifestations of the relation between the Shia and their Imam (a).
Instructions Regarding the Relationship with the Imam (a)
In Mikyal al-makarim, Musawi Isfahani has collected a number of instructions with regard to the relationship with Imam al-Mahdi (a), some of which are as follows:
Meeting the Imam (a)
Main article: Meeting with Imam al-Mahdi (a)
In historical and hadith sources of the Shi’a, such as al-Kafi, al-Irshad, I’lam al-wara, Kamal al-din, al-Ghayba by al-Tusi, and al-Ghayba by al-Nu’mani, the names of the people who met Imam al-Mahdi (a) when Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (a) was alive and the accounts of their meetings are recorded. Most of these people were servants or companions of Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (a): Abu Nasr Zarif, Ahmad b. Ishaq al-Ash’ari al-Qummi, Abu Ali b. Mutahhar, Sa’d b. ‘Abd Allah al-Ash’ari al-Qummi, Ya’qub b. Manqush, Abu Ghanim al-Khadim, Kamil b. Ibrahim, …
It is also reported that during the sixty-nine years of the Minor Occultation, apart from the four deputies, several people met the Imam (a): Ibrahim b. Idris, Ibrahim b. Abdih al-Nayshaburi and his servant, Abu l-Adyan (Imam al-Askari’s servant), Abu Sa’id al-Ghanim al-Hindi, Abu Abd Allah b. Salih, Abu Hasan b. Wajna’ al-Nusaybi, Abu Ali Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Hammad al-Mirwazi al-Mahmudi, Isma’il b. Ali al-Nawbakhti, ‘Ali b. Ibrahim b. Mahziyar, Muhammad b. Isma’il, Muhammad b. Shadhan al-Nayshaburi, and some others.
During that period, there were also several people who falsely claimed to be the deputies of the Imam (a), such as Ahmad b. Hilal al-Karkhi, Muhammad b. Nusayr al-Numayri and Muhammad b. Ali al-Shalmaghani. These people were condemned and cursed by the Imam (a).
There are two views as to the possibility of meeting the Imam (a) during the Major Occultation: some scholars deny the possibility, and the others consider it possible. Those who deny the possibility sometimes adduce the hadiths that regard those who claim to have met the Imam (a) as liars, sometimes their denial is because they doubt the honesty of those who claim so, and sometimes they just want to prevent deceptions and false claims.
Contrary to the view of this group of scholars, there are hadiths, supplications, and rituals in Shiite traditions instructed for those who want to meet the Imam (a). At least two hadiths with authentic chains of transmitters state that meeting the Imam (a) is possible for his followers. Great Shiite scholars such as al-Shaykh al-Saduq, al-Shaykh al-Mufid, and al-Shaykh al-Tusi believed in the possibility of meeting the Imam (a) and devoted a chapter in their books to the list of the people who had met the Imam (a).
There are numerous reports of the meetings between the Imam and the people. According to al-Hurr al-Amili, Sayyid Abd Allah Shubbar, and Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani, these reports are mutawatir. The names of some of these people are as follows: Muhammad Husayn Na’ini, Sayyid b. Tawus, Ibrahim al-Kaf’ami, Muhammad Taqi Majlisi, Abu l-Hasan Sha’rani, al-Shaykh al-Hurr al-‘Amili, al-Muqaddas al-Ardabili, Mirza Muhammad Astarabadi, al-Shahid al-Thani, Al-Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi Bahr al-‘Ulum, Sayyid Ni’mat Allah Jaza’iri, and Shaykh Murtada Ansari.
Supplications and Ziyarahs
In addition to general ziyarahs one can recite for all the Imams, there are various supplications and ziyarahs that are specifically for Imam al-Mahdi (a), such as the following:
There are several supplications that are reportedly taught by Imam al-Mahdi (a) himself, such as al-Faraj supplication (beginning with the phrase “Allahumma azuma al-bala'” [O God! The Affliction has become so great!]), the supplications beginning with the phrases “Ya man azhar al-jamil” (O He who revealed the beautiful!), “Allahumma Rabb al-nur al-azim” (O God! O Lord of the great light!), “Allahumma-rzuqna tawfiq al-ta’a” (O God! Grant us the success of obeying you), and “Allahumma inni asʿaluk bi-ma’ani jami’ ma yad’uk bih wulat amrik” (O God! I as You by the meanings of all the things by which the guardians of Your command ask You), Du’a Sahm al-Layl, the daily supplication in the month of Rajab, Ziyara al-Nahiya al-Muqaddasa, and Ziyara al-Shuhada’.
Main article: Intizar al-Faraj
The Islamic tradition emphasizes the importance of awaiting faraj (freedom from grief or sorrow). One of the most important instances of this concept is hoping for and awaiting a bright future for the world, which, according to Shiite beliefs, will be realized by the return of the Twelfth Imam (a). Awaiting the return of Imam al-Mahdi (a) and the great merits of such awaiting are mentioned with different wordings in Shiite traditions; those who await the Imam (a) are said to be the “Friends of God” and “the best people,” who are like those who accompanied the Prophet (s) in the Battle of Badr.
Awaiting the faraj can have both individual and social significance; it is constructive if it is accompanied by striving to get prepared without losing hope and by fulfilling one’s individual and social duties. The result of this kind of awaiting is the progress of oneself and one’s society.
Main article: Mid Sha’ban
As was discussed above, according to the majority of scholars, Imam al-Mahdi (a) was born on the 15th of Sha’ban, and, hence, this day has become one of the most important Shiite festivals. Celebrations, illuminations throughout the cities and towns, and distribution of food and drinks are parts of this great festival.
In Iran, these ceremonies take place in several days, officially called “the Ten Days of Mahdiism.” Jamkaran Mosque is one of the main places in Iran where the celebration of the birthday of Imam al-Mahdi (a) is held. The 15th of Sha’ban is an official holiday in Iran and called the “World Day of the Oppressed.” In Iraq, in addition to vast celebrations in Shiite regions, visiting the shrine of Imam al-Husayn (a) is an important ritual performed by many Iraqi Shiites on this day. The Shiites of Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and India also hold monumental celebrations for the birthday of the Twelfth Imam on this day.
Non-Twelver Shiite Sects
The belief in “al-Mahdi,” the savior who will appear and establish justice in the world, is found in Non-Imami Shiite sects, such as Zaydis and Ismailis as well, though they disagree with the Twelvers about the identity of Mahdi and do not consider him to be the son of Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (a).
Zaydis, in particular, believe that the last Imam in the chain of their Imams will be the promised Mahdi who will establish justice on earth. Throughout history, various Zaydi Imams who were killed in their uprisings—such as Zayd b. Ali, al-Nafs al-Zakiyya, Muhammad b. al-Qasim (d. 219 AH), Yahya b. Umar (d. 250 AH), and al-Husayn b. al-Qasim al-Ayani (d. 404 AH)— were considered by some Zaydis to be the promised Mahdi.
In Sunni hadith collections, there are many hadiths on al-Mahdi and the savior of the end times, and some prominent Sunni hadith scholars, such as al-Shawkani, al-Saffarini, and Abd al-Haqq al-Dihlawi have stated that these hadiths are mutawatir (massively transmitted). Based on these hadiths, the majority of Sunni scholars believe in al-Mahdi. The main common elements between their belief and the Shiite belief is the following: he is a descendant of the Prophet (s) and his namesake; his epithet is al-Mahdi; he will rise in the end times; he will defeat all the oppressors and establish justice on earth when it is filled with oppression; and Jesus will return to the earth with him.
Sunni scholars do not agree with the Shi’a on the other characteristics of al-Mahdi. They usually believe that al-Mahdi is not a descendant of Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari and that he will be born in the end times.
I'v set up a dedicated page where you can have easy access to all my lectures on from my YouTube Channel. This page will be regularly be updated and is the most up to date source for all content.