The Myth of the Shīʿī Mahdi


Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan

10 December 1997

The 15th of Sha‘baan is a very significant date, both to the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shi‘ah. The Shi‘ah, however, have their own reason for ascribing significance to this night. To them it is the night of the birth of their twelfth Imam, the Hidden Mahdi.

Who is this Mahdi whose return to this world is so eagerly awaited by the Shi‘ah, and belief in whose existence in occultation forms such a integral aspect of the Shi‘i psyche? Before an adequate answer to this question may be given, there is a need to understand certain aspects concerning the Shi‘i doctrine of Imamah.


 The cornerstone of the Shia faith is the belief that the spiritual and temporal leadership of this Ummah after the demise of Rasulullah salla Llahu `alayhi wa sallam is vested in the Imam, who is appointed, like the Nabi salla Llahu `alayhi wa sallam himself, by Allah, and who enjoys all the distinctions and privileges of the Nabi salla Llahu `alayhi wa sallam.

However, they believe that Imamah, unlike Nubuwwah, can never come to an end. In this regard there is a well-known Shia hadith which says that “the world cannot exist without an Imam”, and another which goes that “if the earth were to be without an Imam for a single day it would sink.”

Thus, when it came to pass that the first of those whom they regard as their Imams—Sayyidina Ali radiya Llahu ʿanhu— left this world, a problem arose. Some of those who regarded themselves as his followers claimed that he did not in fact die, but that he will return to establish justice. Others said that he was succeeded as Imam by his son Sayyidina Hassan radiya Llahu ʿanhu, who was in turn succeeded by his brother Sayyidina Hussain radiya Llahu ʿanhu.

When Sayyidina Hussain radiya Llahu ʿanhu died there were some who claimed to follow their other brother Muhammad (known as Ibn al Hanafiyyah) as their Imam. When he died his followers claimed that he was in reality alive, and that he will return in due time. Others amongst the Shia took Sayyidina Hussain’s radiya Llahu ʿanhu son, ‘Ali, titled Zayn al ‘Abidin, as their Imam, and upon his death transferred their loyalties to his son, Muhammad al Baqir.

When al Baqir died there were once again elements from amongst the Shia who denied his death and claimed that he would return one day, while others took his son Jafar as-Sadiq as their Imam.

When he died, there was mass confusion amongst the Shia: each of his sons Ismail, ‘Abdullah, Muhammad, Zakariyya, Ishaq and Musa was claimed by various groups amongst the Shia to be their Imam. In addition to them there was a group who believed that Jafar did not really die, and that he would return one day.

More or less the same thing happened at the death of his son Musa. Some of the Shia denied his death, believing that he will return, and others decided to take as their new Imam one of his sons. Some of these chose his son Ahmed, while others chose his other son ‘Ali ar-Rida.

After him, they took as their Imam his son Muhammad al Jawwad (or al Taqi), and after him his son ‘Ali al Hadi (or al Naqi). At the death of Ali al Hadi they looked upon his son Hassan al ‘Askari as their new—and 11th—Imam.

The Death of Hassan al Askari

 The above is a very brief synopsis of a tumultuous and confusing history— a history from which a dedicated researcher might extract some very revealing facts about the development of Shi’ism.

However, that is not our concern at this moment. We have now arrived at the year 254 AH, the time when a major section of the Shia accepted as their Imam the 22-year-old Hassan, son of ‘Ali al Hadi, and 10th lineal descendant of Sayyidina ‘Ali and Sayyidah Fatima radiya Llahu ʿanhuma. Six years later, in 260 AH, Hassan al ‘Askari, at the very young age of 28, is lying on his deathbed, but unlike any of his forefathers he leaves no offspring, no one to whom the Shia might appropriate as their new Imam.

The Shia who had been regarding Hassan al ‘Askari as their Imam were thrown into mass disarray. Does this mean the end of the Imamah? The end of the Imamah would mean the end of Shi‘ism. Were they prepared for that?

The confusion that reigned amongst the Shia after the death of Hassan al ‘Askari is reflected by the Shia writer Hassan ibn Musa al Nawbakhti, who counts the emergence of altogether 14 sects amongst the followers of Hassan al Askari, each one with a different view on the future of the Imamah and the identity of the next Imam. It must be noted that al Nawbakhti was alive at the time all of this was taking place. Another Shia writer, Sa‘d ibn Abdullah al Qummi, who also lived during the same time, counts 15 sects, and a century later the historian al Mas‘udi enumerates altogether 20 separate sects.

 There were four major trends amongst these various sects:

  1. There were those who accepted the death of Hassan al ‘Askari as a fact and also accepted the fact that he left no offspring. To them Imamah had thus come to an end, just like Nubuwwah came to an end with the death of Rasulullah salla Llahu `alayhi wa sallam. However, there were some amongst them who kept hoping for the advent of a new Imam.
  2. The second trend was one to which the student of the history of “succession to the Imamah” would be much more used to. This was the tendency to deny the death of Hassan al ‘Askari, and to claim that he would return in the future to establish justice upon earth. We have seen this tendency emerge amongst the Shia at more than one critical juncture in the history of the Imamah of the Shia; it is therefore only logical to expect it to resurface at a moment as critical as the death of Hassan al ‘Askari.
  3. The third trend was to extend the chain of Imamah to Hassan’s brother Jafar.
  4. The fourth trend was the claim that Hassan al Askari did in fact have a son. It is the fourth trend which ultimately became the view of the dominant group in Shi‘ism.

The missing son

 This trend was spearheaded by persons who had set themselves up as the representatives of the Imam, and who were in control of a network covering various parts of the Islamic empire— a network for the purpose of collecting money in the name of the Imams of the Ahlul bayt.

All followers of the Imams were obliged to pay one fifth of their income to the representatives of the Imams. (This is a practice which continues up to today.) At the head of this network was a man called Uthman ibn Sa‘id al ‘Amri. His manner of resolving the predicament was unique: Hassan al Askari was dead, he admitted, but he was not childless. He had a 4-year old son, Muhammad, with whom no one but he— Uthman ibn Sa‘id— could have contact. And from that point onwards he would act as the representative (wakeel) of the Hidden Imam and collect money in his name.

To the fact that Hassan al Askari’s own family were completely ignorant of the existence of any child of his, and that his estate had been divided between his brother Jafar and his mother, Uthman ibn Sa‘id and his ilk responded by denouncing Jafar as al Kadhdhab (the Liar).

In due time a fantastic story was brought into circulation about the union between Hassan al Askari and a Roman slave-girl, who is variously named as Narjis, Sawsan or Mulaykah. She is mentioned as having been the daughter of Yusha‘ (Joshua), the Roman emperor, who is a direct descendant of the apostle Simon Peter. But history shows that there never was a Roman emperor of that name. The Roman emperor of the time was Basil I, and neither he nor any other emperor is known to have descended from Peter. The story goes on to tell of her capture by the Muslim army, how she eventually came to be sold to Hassan al Askari, and of her supernatural pregnancy and the secret birth of the son of whom no one— aside from Uthman ibn Sa‘id and his clique— knew anything. Everything about the child is enveloped in a thick and impenetrable cloud of mystery.

The Four Representatives

‘Uthman ibn Sa‘id remained the “representative of the Hidden Imam” for a number of years. In all that time he was the only link the Shia had with their Imam. During that time he supplied the Shia community with al tawqi‘at, or written communications, which he claimed was written to them by the Hidden Imam. Many of these communications, which are still preserved in books like al Tusi’s Kitab al Ghaybah, had to do with denouncing other claimants to the position of representatives, who had come to realise exactly how lucrative a position Uthman ibn Sa‘id had created for himself. The Shia literature dealing with Uthman ibn Sa‘id’s tenure as representative is replete with references to money collected from the Shia public.

When Uthman ibn Sa‘id died, his son Abu Jafar Muhammad produced a written communication from the Hidden Imam in which he himself is appointed the second representative, a position which he held for about 50 years. He too, like his father, had to deal with several rival claimants to his position, but the al tawqi‘at which he regularly produced to denounce them and reinforce his own position ensured the removal of such obstacles and the continuation of support from a credulous Shia public.

He was followed in this position by Abul Qasim ibn Rawh al Nawbakhti, a scion of the powerful and influential Nawbakhti family of Baghdad. Before succeeding Muhammad ibn Uthman, Abul Qasim al Nawbakhti was his chief aide in the collection of the one fifth taxes from the Shia. Like his two predecessors, he too had to deal with rival claimants, one of whom, Muhammad ibn ‘Ali al Shalmaghani used to be an accomplice of his. He is reported in Abu Jafar al Tusi’s book Kitab al Ghaybah as having stated: “We knew exactly what we were into with Abul Qasim ibn Rawh. We used to fight like dogs over this matter (of being representative).”

When Abul Qasim an-Nawbakhti died in 326 AH, he bequeathed the position of representative to Abul Hassan as-Samarri. Where the first three representatives were shrewd manipulators, Abul Hassan al Samarri proved to be a more conscientious person. During his three years as representative there was a sudden drop in al tawqi‘at. Upon his deathbed he was asked who his successor would be, and answered that Allah would Himself fulfil the matter. Could this perhaps be seen as a refusal on his part to perpetuate a hoax that has gone on for too long? He also produced a al tawqi‘  (written Communication) in which the Imam declares that from that day till the day of his reappearance he will never again be seen, and that anyone who claims to see him in that time is a liar.

Thus, after more or less 70 years, the last “door of contact” with the Hidden Imam closed. The Shia term this period, in which there was contact with their Hidden Imam through his representatives-cum-tax-collectors, the Lesser Occultation (al Ghaybah al Sughra), and the period from the death of the last representative onwards the Greater Occultation (al Ghaybah al Kubra). The Greater Occultation has already continued for over a thousand years.

Activities of the representatives

When one reads the classical literature of the Shia in which the activities of the four representatives are outlined, one is struck by the constantly recurring theme of money. They are almost always mentioned in connection with receiving and collecting “the Imam’s money” from his loyal Shia followers. There is a shocking lack of any activities of an academic or spiritual nature. Not a single one of the four is credited with having compiled any book, despite the fact that they were in exclusive communion with the last of the Imams, the sole repository of the legacy of Rasulullah salla Llahu `alayhi wa sallam.

When we look at the major sources upon which the Shia faith is based, we find that most of them were written after the onset of the Greater Occultation. Those works, like al Kafi, which was written during the latter decades of the Lesser Occultation, contain scarcely a reference to any of the four representatives as narrators from the Hidden Imam. Instead it is filled with thousands of reports which go back, via other channels, to the fifth and the sixth Imams. That is indeed strange, considering the fact that a man like Uthman ibn Sa‘id al ‘Amri is claimed to have been closely associated with the 10th, the 11th as well as the Hidden 12th Imam, and also the fact that his son remained the Shia community’s solitary link to that Imam for half a century. Would it not have been better and more authoritative for an author like al Kulayni to report the hadith of his Imams from the Hidden Imam via his representatives who lived in Baghdad at the same time, than to trace it all back to the fifth and sixth Imams through a myriad of doubtful channels?

But of course, he could not have done that, because the activities of those representatives did not have as much to do with authentically preserving the legacy of the Ahlul bayt as with the collection of wealth in their names.

In light of the fact that the Shia explain the necessity of Imamah in terms of the need for an infallible guide who serves as the repository of the legacy of Ahlul bayt, it appears extremely incongruous that this particular guide has left no sort of legacy of his own whereby the legacy of the Ahlul bayt can be known. Despite the fact that an infallible guide supposedly exists, it is upon fallible persons such as Muhammad ibn Ya‘qub al Kulayni that the Shia must depend for that legacy.

The only bit of information that has come down to us regarding the Hidden Imam’s authentication of the hadith legacy of the Shia is what is recorded by Aqa Muhammad Baqir Khuwanasari in his book Rawdat al Jannat. He writes that al Kulayni’s book was presented to the Hidden Imam who looked at it and declared, “Hadha Kaafin li-Shi‘atina” (This is enough for our Shia). This is incidentally how the book received its name.

A report such as this creates a huge problem. It appears to be a ratification of the contents of the book al Kafi by the infallible Imam. Yet, 9 centuries later the Shia Muhaddith, Mulla Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, would declare in his commentary on al Kafi, named Mir’at al ‘Uqul, that 9,485 out of the 16,121 narrations in al Kafi are unreliable. What did Majlisi know that the infallible Imam was so unaware of that he would authenticate a book, 60% of whose contents would later be discovered to be unreliable?


The Iraqi Shia scholar, Muhammad Baqir al Sadr, finds proof for the existence of the Hidden Mahdi in what he calls “the experience of a community”. The existence of the Hidden Imam, he postulates, was experienced by the Shia community as a whole in the written communications that the representatives used supplied them with.

The crux of this argument lies in the fact that an individual experience might be doubted, but never the experience of an entire community. However, the glaring flaw in this line of reasoning is that it very conveniently overlooks the part of the representatives as the individual go-betweens.

The community never had the privilege of seeing or meeting the person they believed to be the author of the al tawqi‘at. Their experience was limited to receiving what the representatives produced. Even the argument of a consistent handwriting in all the various al tawqi‘at is at best melancholy. There is no way one can get away from the fact that the existence of the Hidden Imam rests upon nothing other than acceptance of the words of the representatives.

The activities of those representatives furthermore go a long way to show that they were much, much more inspired by the desire to possess, than by pious sentiments of any kind.

So when the Shia commemorate the birth of their twelfth Imam on the 15th night of Sha‘ban, or when they seek to apply ahadith in Sunni sources which speak of twelve khalifas to their twelve Imams, then let us ask them on what basis do they accept the existence of the twelfth one?

History bears witness to the existence of eleven persons in that specific line of descent, but when we come to the twelfth one, all we have is claims made by persons whose activities in the name of their Hidden Imam give us all the reason in the world to suspect their honesty and integrity.

In Islam, issues of faith can never be based upon evidence of this kind.