The Imamat of Imam Mahdi (AS) began with the Minor Occultation, which lasted about 69 years. During this long period, four Shia scholars were the points of contact between the Imam and the Shias. With the end of the Minor Occultation, the Major Occultation of Imam Mahdi began, and has continued until today. During the Major Occultation, the Imam is living behind covers and the Shias cannot directly access him or communicate with him. The Imam reaches out to the people, particularly the Shia scholars and the followers, directly or indirectly to guide them on their affairs and problems. It is mentioned that the Imam is like the sun behind the clouds, which means that, though we cannot see the Imam directly, we are still receiving the blessings of his presence. The Imam will be in the Major Occultation until a time that is only known by God. Upon God’s Will, Imam Mahdi will reappear to fill the earth with justice and bring forth the peak of humanity and prosperity on earth.
Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan (may God hasten his reappearance) also known as “Mahdi”, was born on the dawn of the 15th of Sha’ban, in the year 256 Hijri, in Samarra. He is known by various titles that reflect his elevated status, that he is alive, and that he is the Imam of our time. He is known as “Mahdi” or “Guided One”, “Saahib al-Zaman” or “Master of the Age”, “Muntazar” or “Awaited One”, “Hojjat Allah” or “Proof of God”, “Baqeeyat Allah” or “Whom God has left on earth (as His last proof)”, and “Qa’em” or “One who stands up (against injustice)”.
Preparation for the Occultation
There was an excessive amount of pressure on Imam Askari during his short Imamat of about six years. The Imam’s activities in Samarra, the Abbasid Capital, were closely monitored by the government and his interactions with his representatives and the people were significantly limited. Imam Askari’s circumstances were an opportunity for him to train the Shias for his son’s minor occultation, during which the Shias would not have direct access to their Imam, and would need to communicate with him through writing. This is why the majority of the Imam’s communications with his Shia followers and representatives were through exchanging letters. Imam Askari was the first Shia Imam who primarily communicated with the Shias by letters, rather than meeting them in person. The Imam respected and highly regarded the Shia scholars, because they would guide the people to the true teachings of the Prophet and the Imams. Through this, the Imam prepared the Shias for the upcoming time during which they would have to refer to Shia scholars for their religious affairs. The Imam also expanded the network organization of his representatives that acted as a system of managing the affairs of the Shia community. He organized it to be managed without his direct involvement.
Martyrdom of Imam Askari (AS)
Due to the Abbasid government’s enmity for Imam Askari, the Imam was imprisoned multiple times during his short Imamat. Eventually, Mu’tamid, the Abbasid Caliph, ordered the Imam’s poisoning due to his concern about Imam Askari’s influence on the government. Mu’tamid wanted to eliminate the Imam before the Imam could have any offspring to inherit the Imamat. Historical records show Imam Mahdi’s presence by his father’s deathbed before his martyrdom. Miraculously, Imam Mahdi’s presence was not observed by the government agents monitoring the Imam.
When the Imam’s close companions and family members were about to pray over his body, the Imam’s brother, Ja’far, stepped forward to lead the prayer. At this time, Imam Mahdi, less than four years old, approached Ja’far, pulled on his cloak, and told him, “O’ Uncle, step back as I am more deserving than you to lead the prayers over my father.” Ja’far, who had not expected to be stopped by a child, was shocked and moved back unintentionally. Imam Mahdi then led the prayer over his father’s body, and disappeared quickly after. Imam Mahdi’s presence proved his existence to his family members and Imam Askari’s close companions. Later, a large funeral procession was held for Imam Askari by the Abbasid government in Samarra to portray to the public that the government was innocent regarding the Imam’s martyrdom.
Beginning of Imamat
Imam Mahdi became an Imam after the martyrdom of his father when he was just three years and seven months old. His Imamat was not challenged by the Shias because of his young age. The Shias had already validated and believed in the Imamat of Imam Javad (AS) and Imam Hadi (AS) at their young ages of seven. Thus, age was not a barrier for the Shias to accept the Imamat of a young boy.
Imam Mahdi’s Imamat began with the minor occultation, which lasted about 69 years. During this long period, four Shia scholars were the points of contact between the Imam and the Shias. These four scholars were referred to as the special deputies of Imam Mahdi, and were appointed by the Imam for this special role. The Shias would pass their letters with questions or requests to the special deputy of the Imam and would receive the Imam’s responses back through him. This method of communication was not a new method for the Shias. They had experienced it in the past during the Imamat of the previous Shia Imams, especially during the Imamat of Imam Askari, whose main method of communication had been through letters. Imam Mahdi would respond to the letters with the same handwriting as Imam Askari, which was familiar for the Shias. His intention was to remove any doubts about his presence, and to strengthen the Shias’ hearts about the authenticity of their communications. The Shias would find Imam Mahdi’s letters in accordance with the letters of Imam Askari, both in style and content. By the Imam’s will, these special deputies had some particular capabilities, such as informing the Shias of the unseen future to prove their connections to the Imam. The minor occultation was a period for the Shias to be trained for Imam Mahdi’s major occultation, during which they would not have access to their Imam, even through exchanging letters.
The Major Occultation
With the end of the minor occultation, the major occultation of Imam Mahdi began, and it continues until today. During the major occultation, the Imam is living behind covers and the Shias cannot directly access him or communicate with him. The Imam reaches out to the people, particularly the Shia scholars and the followers, directly or indirectly to guide them on their affairs and problems. There are many such stories which have been narrated throughout history since the Imam’s occultation. It is mentioned that the Imam is like the sun behind the clouds, which means that, though we cannot see the Imam directly, we are still receiving the blessings of his presence. The Imam will be in the major occultation until a time that is only known by God. Upon God’s Will, Imam Mahdi will reappear to fill the earth with justice and bring forth the peak of humanity and prosperity on earth. Prophet Jesus will also come after the reappearance of Imam Mahdi, and will follow the Imam in establishing justice on the earth.