The session began on time at Dr. Fahimi's house. Dr. Fahimi welcomed the group and without wasting much time formulated his question with a brief introduction outlining the problem as he saw it.
Dr. Fahimi: The personality of the Mahdi in the Shi'i traditions is prominent and clear. However, in the Sunni traditions it is mentioned briefly and that also with much ambiguity. For example, the story of his occultation which is recorded in the majority of your traditions, and which is regarded as the fundamental aspect of his attributes, is entirely absent in our traditions. The promised Mahdi in your hadith has different names such as Qa'im, Master of the Command and so on, which, in our sources, is lacking and he is mentioned only by one name, that is, Mahdi. More particularly, the Qa'im is totally missing in our hadith. Do you regard this as something normal, or do you see a problem with such an absence?
Mr. Hoshyar: Apparently, the reason could be that during the Umayyad and 'Abbasid periods the subject of Mahdiism had assumed a political dimension. As such the recording and dissemination of the traditions about the promised Mahdi, especially the signs of his appearance and all the details dealing with his occultation and revolution, was suppressed. The rulers were extremely fearful of the spread of the hadith about the occultation and subsequent emergence of the Mahdi. They were certainly sensitive about the terms 'occultation', 'rise', and 'insurrection'.
If you refer to the historical sources and study the social and political conditions that prevailed under the Umayyad and the 'Abbasid caliphate, you will agree with my explanation as to why such information was suppressed by these caliphs and their administrators. In this short time we cannot go into any detail to investigate the major events of the period. However, to prove our point we have to direct our attention to two important issues:
First, since the story of Mahdiism had deep religious roots and since the Prophet himself had given the information that when disbelief and materialism become widespread and injustice and tyranny become the order of the day, the Mahdi will rise and will restore the pure religion and ethical order. It was for this reason that Muslims always regarded this prophecy as a source of great consolation and awaited it to be fulfilled. Under adverse conditions when they had lost all hope for the restoration of justice, the prophecy was even more in circulation, and those who sought reform, including those who had the ambition to abuse the simple faith of the people, took advantage of this prediction.
The first person who took advantage of the people's faith in Mahdiism and its religious underpinnings was Mukhtar. Following the tragic event of Karbala in 61 AH/680 CE, Mukhtar wanted to avenge the martyrs of Karbala and overthrow the Umayyad government. But he realized that the Hashimites and the Shi'is had lost hope in seizing the caliphate for themselves.
Consequently, he saw the belief in Mahdiism as the only way to awaken the people and make them hopeful. Since Muhammad b. Hanafiyya's name and patronymic were the same as that of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) (this was one of the recognized signs of the Mahdi) Mukhtar decided to seize the opportunity and introduced Muhammad b. Hanafiyya as the promised Mahdi and himself as his vizier and envoy. He told the people that Muhammad b. Hanafiyya was the promised Mahdi of Islam.
At the time when the oppression and tyranny were increasing and Husayn b. 'Ali, his family, and companions were killed mercilessly at Karbala, the Mahdi had decided to rise in order to avenge the martyrs of Karbala, and restore justice on earth as it had been filled with wickedness. He then introduced himself as the Mahdi's representative. In this manner Mukhtar launched an insurrection and killed a group of murderers who had participated in killing Imam Husayn. This was, by the way, the first time that an insurrection had been launched against the caliphate.
The second person who manipulated the faith in the Mahdi for his own political ends was Abu Muslim of Khurasan. Abu Muslim organized a widespread movement against the Umayyads in Khurasan with the pretext of avenging the blood of Imam Husayn, his family and companions who were killed in the tragic event of Karbala. In addition, he rose to avenge the cruel murders of Zayd b. 'Ali during the caliphate of Hisham b. 'Abd al-Malik and of Yahya b. Zayd during the caliphate of Walid.
A group of people regarded Abu Muslim himself to be the awaited Mahdi. Others saw him as a forerunner of the Mahdi and as one of the signs that preceded the final revolution under he who would appear with black banners from the direction of Khurasan. In this insurrection the 'Alids, 'Abbasids and all other Muslims formed a united front against the Umayyads that finally overthrew their rule over the empire.
Although these movements were heavily based on restoring the usurped rights of the ahl al-bayt and avenging the unjust murders of the 'Alids, the 'Abbasids and their supporters manipulated the insurrection to their own advantage. With treachery and treason they distorted the actual direction of the movement and seized power from the supporters of the 'Alids, thereby establishing themselves as the ahl al-bayt of the Prophet and as the new caliphs of Islam.
In this revolution, which was founded upon Shi'i ideals of justice and equity, the people had succeeded in proving their ability to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Umayyads. They were pleased that they had eliminated the source of Umayyad corruption and had helped to return the right to rule to its rightful leaders among the ahl al-bayt. After all, they had at least succeeded in getting rid of Umayyad oppression. The success had led them to aspire to a better life and a more equitable society. In fact, they had congratulated each other in those terms.
However, within a short period they were awakened to the cruelty of the new dynasty, the 'Abbasids, and realized that the new rulers were not very different from those they had replaced. There was no change in their living conditions, no justice, no equity, and no peace. Their lives and property were not secure from the worldly rulers and administrators of the new state. The promised reforms and promulgation of the divine ordinances were far from being realized. Gradually, as people became aware of the failure of the revolution they had helped to launch, they became conscious of their error in judgement regarding the 'Abbasids and their deception in the name of the promised Mahdi.
The 'Alid leaders also found the 'Abbasid behavior towards them and towards Islam and the Muslims not very different from that of the Umayyads. In fact, the 'Abbasids proved themselves to be even more manipulative and brutal towards the descendants of 'Ali b. Abi Talib. They were left with no alternative than to launch their resistance anew and fight the 'Abbasids also. The best persons among them to lead such resistance were undoubtedly the descendants of 'Ali and Fatima (peace be upon them).
The reason was that there were a number of their descendants who were known for their piety, wisdom, knowledge and courage. In fact, they were regarded as more qualified candidates for the caliphate. Moreover, they were the true descendants of the Prophet and their direct lineage to him generated a sense of loyalty and love for them. In addition, because their rights had been usurped and they had suffered wrongs at the hands of the Umayyads, the masses had a natural inclination and sympathy for the ahl al-bayt.
Consequently, as the 'Abbasids persisted in committing atrocities against the ahl al-bayt the people were, more than ever before, drawn towards them and rallied to their cause in opposing the rulers and in rebelling against them. In addition, they made use of the notion of the Mahdi that had from the time of the Prophet taken deep roots in the minds and hearts of Muslims and introduced their revolutionary leader as the promised Mahdi. This required the 'Abbasids to confront some of the most popular, highly respected, and very learned rivals to their power.
The 'Abbasid caliphs knew the 'Alawid leaders well, being fully aware of their personal qualities and honorable family lineage and the prophecies that were foretold by the Prophet about the future coming of the Mahdi, the restorer of Islamic purity. They knew that in accordance with the traditions reported from the Prophet the awaited Mahdi would be one of the descendants of Fatima (peace be upon her). He would be the one to rise against tyranny and oppression and establish the rule of justice on earth. Moreover, they knew that his victory was guaranteed.
The promise of justice through the appearance of the Mahdi had an enormous spiritual impact upon the people and the caliphal authority was fully informed about its potentially explosive repercussions in the empire. It is probably correct to say that the most formidable challenge to 'Abbasid authority was from these 'Alawid leaders, who had caused them to loosen their grip on the regions under their control and face the consequences of their corrupt rule.
The strategy that was adopted by the 'Abbasids in the light of this growing opposition to them was to divide the followers of these 'Alawid leaders and prevent them from rallying around them. The leaders themselves were kept under constant surveillance and, the famous ones among them were either imprisoned or eliminated. According to Ya'qubi, the historian, the 'Abbasid caliph Musa Hadi tried his utmost to arrest the prominent descendants of 'Ali b. Abi Talib. He had even terrorized them and had sent instructions all over his realm demanding that they be arrested and sent to him1. Similarly, Abu Faraj Isfahani writes: "When Mansur became the caliph all he was concerned about was the arrest of Muhammad b. 'Abd Allah b. Hasan [b. 'Ali b. Abi Talib] and finding out about his plans [regarding his claim to being the Mahdi]2.”
One of the issues that was extremely sensitive and worth investigating was the claim to invisible existence or occultation of some of the 'Alawid leaders. Any one among them who had the personal ability and qualities to become the leader immediately attracted the people who then rallied around him with dedication. This attraction took an extreme and intense form if that person happened to possess one of the signs of the expected Mahdi. On the other hand, as soon as a person became the rallying point for the people, the caliphal authority became fearful of the opposition and undertook to keep a close watch over its underground activities and even to curtail its growing popularity among the masses by using terror as a means of repressing revolutionary fervor. Under these circumstances, the leader had to live in concealment to protect himself. A number of these 'Alawid leaders lived a life of concealment for a number of years. Among them are the following examples cited by Abu Faraj Isfahani:
(1) During the time of Mansur, the 'Abbasid caliph, Muhammad b. `Abd Allah b. Hasan and his brother Ibrahim lived an invisible life. Mansur had tried several times to arrest them. A number of the Hashimite leaders were imprisoned and they were grilled to reveal the whereabouts of their messianic leader Muhammad b. `Abd Allah. At the end of the day the prisoners were tortured in various ways and killed3.
(2) `Isa b. Zayd lived in retreat and concealment during Mansur's caliphate. Mansur made every effort to arrest him, but he failed. Following him, his son Mahdi also tried, but without any success4.
(3) During the caliphate of Mu`tasim and Wathiq, Muhammad b. Qasim `Alawi lived an invisible life in concealment and was regarded as being in occultation by the establishment. He was, however, arrested during Mutawakkil's caliphate and died while in prison5.
(4) During the caliphate of Harun Rashid, Yahya b. `Abd Allah b. Hasan lived in concealment. But he was finally discovered by the caliph's spies. At first he was given amnesty, but later he was arrested and incarcerated. He died in Rashid's prison of hunger and other forms of torture6.
(5) During the caliphate of Ma'mun, `Abd Allah b. Musa lived in concealment and because of him Ma'mun lived in constant fear and anxiety7.
Musa Hadi appointed one of the descendants of `Umar b. Khattab by the name of `Abd al-`Aziz as the governor of Madina. `Abd al-`Aziz used to treat the `Alids very harshly. He kept them under constant surveillance, watching their movements very closely. He used to force them to appear in his audience every day so that they would not disappear. He actually exacted promises from them to that effect and made each one of them answerable for the other.
Thus, for instance, Husayn b. `Ali and Yahya b. `Abd Allah were made responsible for Hasan b. Muhammad b. `Abd Allah b. Hasan. On one of the Fridays when the 'Alawids were all gathered in his presence he did not allow them to return until it was time for Friday prayer service. At that time he permitted them to perform their ablutions and prepare for the worship. After the prayer was over he ordered all of them arrested. During the late afternoon prayer he asked them to attend the court and later dismissed them. It was then that 'Abd al-'Aziz noticed that Hasan b. Muhammad b. 'Abd Allah was not present. So he called Husayn b. 'Ali and Yahya b. 'Abd Allah, who were answerable for him, and informed them that for the past three days Hasan b. Muhammad had not appeared in his audience.
As such, he had either revolted or disappeared. Since they were answerable for him they had to find Hasan and bring him to `Abd al-`Aziz, otherwise they would be imprisoned. To this Yahya replied: "He must have been occupied and, therefore, did not show up. It is not possible for us also to bring him back. Justice is a good thing. Just as you keep a check on us making sure who is present and who is not, why do not you ask the descendants of `Umar b. Khattab also to appear in the audience? See how many are present, and if their absentees are not more than ours then we have no objection to your decision. Do as you please and take any decision regarding us." `Abd al-`Aziz was not satisfied with their response. He swore that if they did not find Hasan and bring him to him he would demolish their homes, set their goods on fire and whip Husayn b. 'Ali8.
Episodes like this reveal that the topic of invisible existence or occultation of the 'Alawid leaders was one of the regular issues during the 'Abbasid era. As soon as one of them disappeared from public life he became the center of attention from two directions: on the one hand, the masses, who knew that occultation was one of the signs of the Mahdi, were attracted towards him; on the other hand, the caliphal authority had developed an extreme sense of anxiety because of the explosive ramifications of such a disappearance for the security of its power.
After all, it was one of the signs of the Mahdi, and when the people were told of the disappearance of these 'Alids they speculated of their being the promised messianic leader who would overthrow the tyrannical government of the 'Abbasids. Hence, the authorities were worried about the ensuing chaos and political turmoil unfolding in front of their eyes which the caliphal power would have difficulty in repressing.
Now that you have familiarized yourself with the critical social and political conditions that existed during the 'Abbasid period and during which the hadith books were compiled and composed, it is important to bear in mind that the authors of these works and the transmitters of the hadith did not possess the freedom to record all the hadith-reports dealing with the promised Mahdi, and more particularly, traditions dealing with the occultation and the rise of the awaited Mahdi.
Is it possible to maintain that the 'Abbasids did not have any involvement or influence over the events in which Mahdi'ism had taken a political form? Or, that they would permit the transmitters of the traditions about the messianic role of the Mahdi and his occultation to freely record and publicize the traditions that would have actually been to their own detriment?
It is possible that you may contend that the 'Abbasids knew at least this much: that it was not in the interest of the society to impose restrictions over the scholars and to interfere with their scholarly work. Rather, the scholars and the transmitters of the hadith-reports should be left alone to present the truth to the people and make them aware of their responsibilities. Well, we should cite some examples in which the 'Abbasids and their predecessors, that is the Umayyads and the early caliphs, restricted free expression and hence suppressed traditions that were against their political domination.
Ibn `Asakir has related a tradition in which, according to `Abd al-Rahman b. `Awf, `Umar b. Khattab sent for some of the prominent companions of the Prophet, including 'Abd Allah b. Hudhayfa, Abu Darda', Abu Dharr Ghiffari, and `Uqba b. `Amir, and reproached them saying: "What are these traditions that you are relating and spreading among the people?" The companions said: "Apparently, you want to stop us from transmitting the traditions." `Umar said: "You have no right to step outside Madina, and as long as I am alive do not distance yourselves from me. I know better which hadith should be accepted and which should be rejected." The companions had no choice but to stay in Madina as long as `Umar lived9.
Ibn Sa`d and Ibn `Asakir have related that Mahmud b. `Ubayd heard `Uthman b. `Affan telling people from the pulpit: "No one has the right to relate a tradition that was not narrated during Abu Bakr and `Umar's time10."
During his reign Mu`awiya had sent official directions that his security was removed from anyone who reported a tradition in praise of `Ali b. Abi Talib and his descendants. At another time he sent a written command that whereas the people should narrate the merits of the companions and the caliphs, they should be forced to relate for all the other companions merit a similar to that which was attributed to `Ali11.
In the year 218 AH/833 CE, Ma'mun ordered all the scholars and jurists of Iraq and other places to attend an audience. He then went on to question them about their beliefs and asked them specifically regarding their belief about the Qur'an, whether it was the created or eternal Word of God. He condemned those who maintained that it was not created and instructed his governors in all provinces to reject their testimony. With the exception of a few, the decision forced a majority of the scholars to concede to the caliph's viewpoint12.
Malik b. Anas, the great jurist of Madina, had issued a legal opinion contrary to the wishes of Ja`far b. Sulayman, the governor of Madina. The latter required him to present himself in his court where he was first humiliated and then whipped severely with seventy lashes. This caused him to be bed-ridden for some time. Later on, Mansur sent for Malik. In the beginning he apologized for Malik's having been treated so harshly by Ja`far b. Sulayman. Then he asked him to write a book on law and traditions. "But be careful not to include difficult traditions narrated by `Abd Allah b. `Umar, trivial topics related by `Abd Allah b. `Abbas, and the rare hadith reported by Ibn Mas`ud. Include only those things on which the caliphs and the companions had agreed. Write this book so that I can send it to all cities and require people to strictly follow only this book, and none other."
Malik complained that the scholars from Iraq held variant opinions on matters related to law and hence would not accept his opinions. Mansur asked him to write the book anyway and assured him that he would impose it even on the people of Iraq. "If they do not submit, I will behead them and will punish them severely. Hence, be quick in writing this book. Next year my son Mahdi will come to you to get it13."
The `Abbasid caliph Mu`tasim required Ahmad b. Hanbal to appear in the court and tested him about his belief in the Qur'an. When Ahmad refused to submit to the caliph's belief about the created Qur'an, he ordered him to be whipped14. Similarly, Mansur enticed Abu Hanifa to come to Baghdad and eventually he poisoned him15. Harun Rashid ordered `Abbad b. 'Awam's house destroyed and prohibited him from transmitting traditions16.
Khalid b. Ahmad, the governor of Bukhara, asked Muhammad b. Isma`il Bukhari, one of the major compilers of Sunni traditions, to bring his written traditions to him and read them. Bukhari refused to do so and sent him a message that if he did not wish him to collect traditions he should say so, so that he could have a valid excuse for not doing so on the Day of Judgement. It was for that reason that he was deported from his homeland. He took refuge in a small village known as Khartang where he lived until his death. The narrator relates that he heard Bukhari pray to God in his midnight prayer: "O God, if the earth has turned narrow for me, then take my life away." It was the same month in which he died17.
When another traditionist Nasa'i wrote his book Khasa'is, in which he included traditions in praise of `Ali b. Abi Talib, he was asked to appear in Damascus and was ordered to write a similar book in praise of Mu`awiya. He declined to write such a book because he could not find any materials praising him except what the Prophet had said about him: "May God never fill his stomach!" Because of this statement Nasa'i was beaten up so badly that he died of it18.
In view of the political turmoil and social unrest that existed under the 'Abbasids and the activist message of the traditions that deal with Mahdi'ism, especially the disappearance of and eventual revolution under the Mahdi which had taken on a political dimension, the masses were attracted to the promises of a better future that were made in these messianic traditions. Moreover in the unfavorable conditions that existed for the authors and compilers of such traditions, it was almost unthinkable that they would publish traditions dealing with the signs of the appearance of the Mahdi, his invisible existence and his ultimate emergence with the mission of destroying the wicked forces of injustice. More importantly, it is highly improbable that the ruling dynasties would have permitted the publication and dissemination of the information that was available to these scholars. The publication of such ideas was deemed a danger that directly threatened the stability of their unjust and illegitimate power.
Consequently, neither Malik b. Anas nor Abu Hanifa could have recorded any traditions dealing with Mahdi'ism and the occultation in their books. It is worth recalling that it was during this period that Muhammad b. `Abd Allah b. Hasan and his brother Ibrahim were living an invisible and fearful life. A large number of people believed that Muhammad was the promised Mahdi who would revolt against the unjust rule of the 'Abbasids and initiate reforms to institute justice. Due to the fact that Mansur was afraid of Muhammad's disappearance and eventual revolt, he had imprisoned a number of innocent 'Alawids to arrest him. After all, he was the same caliph who had killed Abu Hanifa with poison, and whose governor had whipped Malik b. Anas.
Again, it is relevant to bear in mind that it was Mansur who had ordered Malik to write a book in which he should reject any hadith from `Abd Allah b. `Umar, `Abd Allah b. `Abbas and Ibn Mas`ud. When Malik objected by pointing out that the people of Iraq had their own traditions and opinions, Mansur promised that he would coerce them into accepting Malik's version. Who could have objected to the caliph that he should keep clear of the people's religious matters? Why should the traditions reported by such prominent early figures like Ibn Mas`ud and others be rejected?
There is no reason that can justifiably be cited to explain such an irrational behavior on the part of those who were in power. To be sure, these individuals whose traditions were prohibited from being cited were relating traditions that were viewed by these wicked rulers as a threat to their power. Hence, they banned their publication and dissemination. In the case of Malik, it is said that he had heard some hundred thousand traditions of which he published only five hundred in his book on traditions: Muwatta'19.
In other words, it was impossible for the traditionists like Ahmad b. Hanbal, Bukhari and Nasa'i to record traditions that were more favorable to the 'Alawids without suffering torture and deportation at the hands of the 'Abbasids.
From all that we have discussed so far, we can draw the following conclusions:
(a) Since the traditions dealing with Mahdi'ism, more specifically the occultation and revolution of the Mahdi, had assumed a political dimension which was deemed by the rulers a threat to their power but favorable to their rivals, the 'Alawids, the Sunni scholars could not record these traditions in their books because of the limitations imposed upon them by the caliphs and their governors. And, if some succeeded in sidestepping the prohibition and published these traditions, ways were found to suppress them. It may be because the fundamental belief in the Mahdi, in its ambiguous and concise form, posed no threat to the caliphate that it remained immune from eradication. But the information about all the signs of the promised Mahdi and other details were preserved in the traditions that were reported by the Prophet and the Imams (peace be upon them) and were circulated among the Shi'a.
(b) In spite of all the obstacles created by the caliphal authority, the Sunni books of hadith contained numerous traditions on the subject of the Mahdi. One day someone mentioned the following in the presence of Hudhayfa: "You must be very fortunate if the Mahdi appears while the companions of the Prophet are still alive. Is that not true? The Mahdi will not rise until there exists a concealed person dearer to the people than him [the Prophet]20."
Here Hudhayfa has hinted at the occultation of the Mahdi. Hudhayfa was among those few companions of the Prophet who had information about the conditions of the time and about some of the hidden matters that were told by the Prophet. He used to say: "Among all the people I am the most informed about the future occurrences, because the Prophet had mentioned those in a gathering [among the members of which] I am the only survivor21."
Dr. Jalali: How Long Will the Hidden Imam Live?
Mr. Hoshyar: The term of his life has not been fixed. But the hadith reported on the authority of the Imams introduce him as the one endowed with a long life. For instance, Imam Hasan `Askari related:
After me my son is the Qa'im. He is the one in whom two characteristics of the ancient prophets, namely, long life and occultation, will be realized. His occultation will be so much prolonged that the hearts of the people will become hard and dark [with doubt]. Only those who receive God's special favor and whose hearts are made unwavering and who are confirmed by the holy spirit will remain faithful to him22.
Dr. Jalali: All that you have explained about the Imam of the Age so far is both rational and appropriate. However, there is one thing that really troubles my mind as well as the minds of those who are here in our gathering, namely, the problem of longevity. Educated and intelligent people do not find such a claim of longevity plausible, because the age of the human cell is limited. Bodily organs like the heart, brain, kidney, and abdomen have a precise potential to perform their function. It is logically impossible for me to believe that the heart of a normal person can function for more than a thousand years. Let me be very honest about the fact that you cannot present such a phenomenon to the public in this age of science and space technology.
Mr. Hoshyar: Dr. Jalali, I do confess that the extended age of the Guardian of the Age (peace be upon him) is among the difficult things to believe. I have no knowledge of medicine or biology. However, I am ready to accept the truth. Hence, I request you to share your knowledge about long life with us.
Dr. Jalali: I too should acknowledge that my own scientific knowledge is not sufficient to allow me to solve the fundamental question we are faced with. As such, it is better to get some expert opinion on this subject. I think that Dr. Nafisi, the Dean and Professor of the Medical School at the University of Isfahan, would be the most appropriate person to address our concern. Besides his thorough training in the field of medicine in general, he has lot of interest in the question of longevity.
Mr. Hoshyar: I have no objection to your proposal. I will make the necessary inquiries and write a letter to Dr. Nafisi, inviting him to join the group in one of its session. It might be in our interest to wait to hear from him and, therefore, I will suggest that we meet again after getting enough information about longevity so that we can enter our discussions with a better understanding. When Dr. Nafisi replies to our invitation I will ask Dr. Jalali to contact you by phone to let you know about our next meeting.