The Twelver Branch of Shi’a Islam believes Muhammad al-Mahdi to be the end-times redeemer. Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Mahdi is the last of the Twelve Imams. He will appear with Isa (Jesus) to do their duty of bringing justice and peace to the world. These Twelve Imams are the political and spiritual successors of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Imams are model human persons according to the Theology of Twelvers. They rule over society with justice. They also understand and keep Sharia Law and the obscure meaning of the Quran. They must be free from sin and error, and the Prophet must select them by divine order. Muhammad’s and Imams’ words and actions are a standard and guide for the people to follow.
Who was Muhammad al-Mahdi?
Twelver Shi’as believe that al-Mahdi was born in 870 AD. He was an imam since the age of four following the death of his father, Hasan al-Askari. They think that he had interaction with his followers in the early years of his imamate. This interaction only took place through the Four Deputies.
According to Shi’a tradition, these deputies were close friends of al-Askari. They acted in succession to one another from 873-941 AD.
Historians have long debated the existence of the twelfth imam. Since the death of al-Askari, Muslims have sought answers. The Abbasids, another Islamic sect, had kept al-Askari prisoner in the camp at Samarra. This camp was about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Al-Askari was twenty-eight years old when he died. It seems that none of the Shi’a notables knew of the existence of his son. Tradition holds that the Twelfth Imam made a public appearance after the death of his father. After that, the community no longer saw him.
Moojan Momen is a much-published Baha’i historian who doubts the historical accuracy of some of these accounts of the Twelfth Imam connecting with his community through the deputies. According to Momen, there is no sign that the Imam had only four deputies. He believes that there may have been several more.
Jafar ibn Ali, the brother of al-Askari, claimed that his brother had no offspring. Jafar said there were legal disputes over the title of his brother’s estate. These disputes were with the so-called deputies. The Baha’is believe that Ali was an honest individual, while the Twelvers say he was immoral.
Jafar and his mother divided al-Askari’s estate. Scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina describes him as a pleasure-loving, worldly man. He had used various repressive means to become the Imam. He tried to slander those who upheld the imamate of the infant son of al-Askari.
The agents of the dead Imam believed the al-Askari left a son. This group was under attack for that belief. The Abbasid caliph, al-Mutamid, had ordered an investigation of the House of the Imam. It included an inspection of whether any of al-Askari’s wives were pregnant. The investigators had imprisoned Narjis for not revealing the location of her baby.
In contrast, historian Henry Corbin thought that the issue of historicity is immaterial. He considered the vast body of literature surrounding the Twelfth Imam. He saw his birth and later Occultation as symbolic and archetypal. He described it as “sacred history.” He writes that the simultaneity of the Twelfth Imam’s birth and Occultation is rich in meaning. He is looking at it from a mystical point of view.
By the fourth decade of the tenth century, most Shi’as agreed on the Twelve Imams’ line. The messianic belief in Imam Mahdi helped Shi’a. Because of this belief, they could withstand some intolerable situations. The Shi’a sect might not have endured some of the oppressions they met if they had not held to this belief. It also helped to moderate the Shi’as. They postponed some activities until the future coming of the 12th imam.
Shi’as now had a sense of responsibility for paving the way for the reappearance of the hidden Imam. It led them to reevaluate their social circumstances and forced them to look at the failings in their lives. They now had to form an interim Islamic government in the expectation of Mahdi’s promised rule.
Most Sunni Muslims reject this teaching and contend that the Mahdi has not yet been born. They know that he will be from Muhammad’s descendants, but they believe that only Allah knows his exact identity. Sunnis agree with several of the same hadiths as Shi’as about the prophecies on the Mahdi’s advent. These hadiths also include his acts and universal caliphate. The central point on which they differ is his precise genealogy.
Narjis, Mother of Muhammad al-Mahdi
According to Twelver Shi’as, Al-Askari did not make his son’s birth public. He informed only a few friends of his successor’s existence. Muhammad al-Mahdi’s mother’s name may have been Narjis. Her origins are unclear. One narrative says that she was a slave from the Byzantine Empire and another black African slave. Narjis was a common slave name at the time, so it supports this narrative.
Another story says that Narjis was a princess from the Byzantine Empire. She faked being a slave to go from her country to Arabia. Scholars believe this account to be a pure legend.
Another account holds that her name was Malika. It adds that she was the daughter of Yashu’a, son of Rome’s Caesar. Her ancestry went back to the successor of Jesus, Simon Peter. Her mother was from the descendants of his disciples. She changed her name to Narjis upon her arrival in Arabia.
The Shi’a refer to the period when the deputies ruled as the Minor Occultation. In 941, the fourth deputy, al-Samarri, sent a letter to his devotees a few days before his death announcing the start of Major Occultation. From then, Muhammad al-Mahdi was not to have direct contact with his followers. Al-Samarri ordered them to obey the devout high clerics. He revealed some distinguishing merits to aid them in identifying these men.
Twelver Shi’as believe that Allah has hidden the Imam from humanity for many reasons, but he is alive. “The Occultation” is the name of this event. Shi’as divide the Occultation into two phases: Minor and Major.
According to the Quran, God has two varieties of saints among people: hidden and plain. The people do not know the hidden ones who live among them. Yet, the Quran hints that it doesn’t matter that the world doesn’t know who these hidden saints are. They enjoy the benefits of these saints, like when the sun hides behind the clouds.
Like the hidden saints, every age brings an imam, who can be hidden or plain. God conceals this Imam if there are threats to his life. Thus, the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam. This Imam may intervene in worldly matters.
Written reports by Hezbollah fighters on Muhammad al-Mahdi exist. These accounts state that the 12th Imam intervened on the battlefronts. He showed up in critical moments during the 2006 conflict. His presence helped them fight against the Israeli army.
The Twelfth Imam’s major Occultation will continue until Allah decides that the time is over. The 12th Imam will then return to bring the world justice. He stated it in his last letter to al-Samarri. The letter states that from the day al-Samarri dies, the time of the Major Occultation will start. It promised that no one would see him unless and until Allah makes him appear from that day forward.
The Occultation of the 12th Imam has left a significant gap in the governance of the Shi’as. The Major Occultation left the role of the Imam as head of the community vacant. At the start of the Occultation, it didn’t matter because, at that time, Shi’as had no political power.
When Shi’a states arose in later centuries, the hidden Imam was alive and was the Muslims’ leader. It brought the role of Shi’a states among Shi’a communities into question.
Many people have claimed to be the returned Mahdi since the start of the Occultation. More than 3,000 Mahdis were languishing in Iranian prisons in 2012, according to Mehdi Ghafari, a seminar expert. This situation fulfills Muhammad al-Mahdi’s warning in his letter to al-Samarri. He said that whoever claimed to see him before the call and the rise of Sufya-ni is a slanderer and a liar.
The Reappearance of Imam Mahdi
The hidden Imam and the other eleven have made various statements. Many are about the return of al-Mahdi. Twelver Shi’as also quote several sources from the Quran. Under Allah’s command, the Twelfth Imam will establish Islam everywhere in the world. Thus, he will bring it justice and peace.
Shi’a Muslims believe that Isa will return and follow the 12th Imam to end falsehood and tyranny. The raj’a or return of many other personalities will also take place to avenge the oppressed. The Hidden Imam will come forth on a Friday, and he will be speaking in Arabic.
We will know when the eventual reappearance of the 12th Imam is close at hand. Islamic belief holds that his authority will manifest itself in the world. It will show up in different ways. An immense and personal literature has arisen through the history of the Shi’a world, showing this influence in the form of dreams, revelations, visions, and healings. Shi’as credit these and other events to the power of Imam Mahdi.
Experts have identified growing anticipation in recent years for the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam. It has led to the spread of literature about prophecies and predictions. Most of these prophecies are about Imam Mahdi and his appearance. It involves much detail on when, where, and how the 12th Imam will appear. It shows how he will upset the current order and set up the just state.