A Brief Biography of Imam al-Mahdī (af)

Name: Muḥammad (the same as that of his great grandfather, the Holy Prophet (s). 

Father: Imam al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī (as), the 11th Imam

Mother: Narjis Khātun 

Born on: 15th Shaʿbān 255AH/868AD in Samarra

His blessed birth took place in the night of Friday 15th Shaʿbān, 255AH. The chief reporter of the event is the daughter of the 9th Imam, Imam Muhammad al-Taqī (as), whose name was Ḥakīmah.

Imam al-Askari (as) invited his aunt Ḥakīmah to break her fast at his house that evening, informing her that God would manifest His ḥujjah on that night. She asked him from which wife the child would be born, and he informed her that it was from Narjis. Ḥakīmah witnessed the birth of the immaculate child, and visited him again on the seventh day after he was born.

The birth of Imam al-Mahdī (af) was largely kept hidden, with the announcement made subtly to avoid any undue attention from the authorities. The prevailing political conditions at the time of the 11th Imam (as) were difficult for the Shīʿa, and particularly for the Ahl al-Bayt (as), with the despotic government of the time clamping down on them. The 11th Imam (as) was given the title al-ʿAskarī (ʿAskar meaning soldier), because he was kept under house arrest in the garrison town by the soldiers of the Caliph for much of his life. 

To honour the birth of the 12th Imam (af), 300 sheep were slaughtered and the meat distributed amongst the poor and needy of the city, although no explicit reason for this act was publicised. Some very close companions of the 11th Imam (as) were sent letters informing them of the news, and an even more select group were shown the infant Imam (af). Forty days before his death, Imam al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī (as) gathered forty of his closest companions and informed them of his son and successor. 

Almost immediately after his father’s death, Imam al-Mahdī (af) went into ghaybah (occultation). In simple terms, this meant that his presence was hidden from the people by the command of Allah, although that did not mean that he was ‘absent’. The best example of this is that every year since he went into ghaybah, he has attended the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

The 12th Imam’s (af) occultation has consisted of two distinct periods: 

  1. The Minor occultation (al-ghaybah al-ṣughrā/qaṣīrah) which lasted 69 years from 260AH/873AD to 329AH/941AD during which the Imam (af) appointed four consecutive deputies (al-nuwwāb al-arbaʿah) to convey his messages to the people on his behalf, and 
  2. The Major occultation (al-ghaybah al-kubrā/ṭawīlah) that began in 329AH/941AD and continues until today (a period of over 1100 years).

During the minor occultation, Imam (af) is understood to have pursued his activities from behind the scenes, and to have led his followers by means of communication through his four representatives.

The possible reasons for the minor occultation

  • To protect the Imam (af) from being killed; there was a very real danger of this occurring, as it was well known to the Abbasid Caliphs that the 12th Imam (af) would be al-Qāʾim bi amrillāh (The one who stands up to fulfil the orders of Allah);
  • Because of the unworthiness of the Muslim community, in not giving their full loyalty, support and allegiance to the Imam of their time (af);
  • As a test for mankind to see how strong their īmān (faith) is;
  • To prepare the Muslims for the major occultation. 

Most of the Shīʿī information concerning the activities of the four representatives is attributed to Shaikh al-Ṭūsī, in his work al-Ghaybah.

  • ʿUthmān ibn Saʿīd al-Amrī 

ʿUthmān began in serving the 10th Imam (as) at the age of 11 and after the death of the 10th Imam (as), continued in the service of the 11th Imam (as) and then subsequently the 12th Imam (af) whom he represented as nāʾib for five years (260 – 265 AH). 

After the death of the 11th Imam (as), the view projected to the government was that he had not left behind a son. In order to promote this view, and further distance himself from the Abbasid authorities, Uthman moved from Samarra to Baghdad after the death of the 11th Imam (as). In Baghdad, he kept away from politics and disguised himself as a butter/oil seller, hence he was given the nickname al-Zayyāt or al-Sammān. ʿUthmān died in 265AH, and was buried in Baghdad.

  • Muḥammad ibn Uthman ibn Saʿīd al-Amrī 

Muḥammad was the son of the first nāʾib, ʿUthmān. Upon the death of his father, he received a letter of condolence from the Imam (af), in which he was also appointed as his next deputy. He represented the Imam (af) for 40 years (265 – 305 AH). 

Muḥammad was also a scholar, who compiled a book on jurisprudence and traditions from the 11th and 12th Imams (as). Duʿā al-Simāt (supplication taught by Imam (af), recommended to be recited shortly before sunset on a Friday) is transmitted to us through him.

  • Al-Husayn ibn Rūḥ al-Nawbakhtī

Al-Husain ibn Rūḥ served the Imam (af) as the third nāʾib for 21 years (305 – 326 AH), five of which were spent in prison. He is the reporter of two famous traditions:

That the actions of the believers are presented daily to the Imam (af), and 

That the Prophet (s) and Aʾimmah (as) were all murdered, either by poison or the sword. 

The famous scholar Shaykh al-Ṣadūq’s father wrote a letter to the Imam (af) via al-Husayn ibn Rūḥ, asking the Imam (af) to pray for him to be granted a son, following which Shaykh al-Ṣadūq was born. It is possibly for this reason that the ʿarīḍahs (petitions) commonly written on the 15th of Shaʿbān are addressed to al-Ḥusayn ibn Rūḥ.

  • ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad al-Samurī

Al-Samurī was the final nāʾib of the 12th Imam (af) and served him for three years (326-329 AH). After his death on 15th Sha’ban 329 AH, al-ghaybah al-kubrā (the Major occultation) began. Al-Samurī was informed of his imminent death by the Imam (af) in a letter (tawqīʿ) six days before he passed away, and was also told not to appoint anyone to succeed him.

Tawqiʿat are letters from the 12th Imam (af).

Shaikh al-Ṣadūq in his Kamāl al-Dīn lists 49 letters and one supplication, ranging from single lines to lengthy messages.

Shaikh al-Ṭūsī in al-Ghaybah lists 43 such letters.

These letters consist of:

  1. Answers to matters of beliefs (ʿaqāʾid), 
  2. Fiqh rulings, 
  3. Supplications, and 
  4. General statements.

The letters were sent to the four different deputies over a 69-year period, yet all contained the same handwriting, supporting the view that they were sent by the same person.

Sadly, most of these letters have now been lost, in part due to the habit of the Imam (af) to write the answer on the same piece of paper as the question. Some have been compiled by Allamah Majlisī in his Biḥār al-Anwār.

The last letter (tawqīʿ) from Imam al-Mahdī (af)

Imam al-Mahdī (af) issued his last letter to ʿAlī ibn Muhammad al-Samurī six days before al-Samurī’s demise: 

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

O’ ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad al-Samurī! May Allah give you and your companions high rewards! You will die within six days. So prepare yourself, and do not appoint anybody as your successor, since the second occultation has started. Thus, my reappearance will not be realized but with the permission of Allah, and after people become heartless and merciless and the earth is replete with oppression. Also, some Shīʿa will claim they have seen me. Whoever claims this before the appearance of Sufyānī and the cry from the sky is a slanderous liar. There is neither might nor strength but in Allah, the High, the Great. 

In order to know a little more about the Imam (af) here is a list of some of his titles:

  1. المَهدِي al-Mahdi (The guided one). This is the most popular and well-known title of the Imam (af), referring to his role as the guide in truth, and in every concealed affair; 
  2. القَائِم al-Qāʾim (The one who rises from the progeny of Muḥammad(s)). This is due to the fact that he will rise for truth (Biḥār 13/10);
  3. المُنتَظَر al-Muntaẓar (The awaited one), and also المُنتَظِر al-Muntaẓir (The one who is waiting). Thus, he is both the awaited and the waiting;
  4. الحُجَّة al-Ḥujjah (The proof). He is the proof of Almighty God upon His creatures and servants;
  5. أَمِيرُ الاُمَرَاء Amīr al-Umarah (King of Kings). A title given to the Imam (af) by his forefather Imam ʿAlī (a); 
  6. المَنصُور al-Manṣūr (The victorious one);
  7. بَقِيةُ الّله Baqiyat Allah ([He who] remains with Allah);
  8. المَوعُد al-Mawʿūd (The promised one);
  9. الغَرِيم al-Gharīm (The one who seeks his right);
  10. المُؤَمَّل al-Muʾammal (The one who is hoped for);
  11. التَأيِيد al-Taʾyīd (The one who imparts power and strength);
  12. وَلِي الّله Walī Allah (The friend of Allah);
  13. خَلِيفَةُ الّله Khalīfat Allah (The Caliph of Allah);
  14. صَاحِبُ الأَمر Ṣaḥib al-Amr (The master of the affair);
  15. صَاحِبُ الزَمَان Ṣaḥib az-Zamān (The master of the age);
  16. صَاحِبُ العَصر Ṣaḥib al-ʿAṣr (The master of the time); 
  17. الغَائِب al-Ghaʾib (The absent);
  18. المَآءِ المَعِين al-Māʾ al-Maʿīn (The flowing water);
  19. خَلَفُ الصَالِح Khalaf al-Ṣāliḥ (The righteous successor);
  20. البَاسِط al-Bāsiṭ (Disseminator) i.e. the one who distributes relief and bounty;
  21. المُنتَقِم al-Muntaqim / الثآءِر alThāʾir (The Avenger [of Karbala]) – Imam (af) is referred to as such in Duʿā al-Nudbah.


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