The Zaydites also applied the term al-Mahdi in its eschatological sense
to their leaders who rose in arms against the `Abbasids,
such as Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (d. 145/762),
Muhammad b. Ja`far al-Sadiq (d. 203/818), and Muhammad
b. al-Qasim al-Talqan, who disappeared in the year
An example of the Zaydite usage of this term is recorded by Ibn Tawus(2),
who states on the authority of Ibrahim b. `Abd Allah b.
al-Hasan, the brother of al-Nafs alｭ Zakiyya, that the
latter had rebelled hoping that Allah might make him the
Mahdi promised by the Prophet:
As for the Imamites, a considerable body among them applied the title of
al-Mahdi in its messianic sense to each Imam after his
death. This can be seen in the claim of al-Nawusiyya,
al-Waqifa and the followers of al- `Askari, the eleventh
Imam. After the death of al-Sadiq in the year 148/765
the Nawusiyya group held that he was al-Qa段mal-Mahdi
and that he did not die but went into occultation(3).
The Waqifa group applied this title to the seventh Imam Musa alｭKazim (d.
183/799) and denied his death, contending that he was
al-Qa段m al-Mahdi and that he would rise to fill the
earth with justice after it had been filled with tyranny(4).
Other Imamites held that the eleventh Imam al- `Askari was
whereas the last important usage of this term was given
to the Twelfth Imam, who became the magnate of the
Imamites' hope in their struggle for justice and equity.
It is worth mentioning that all these claims relating to the
eschatological usage of the term `al-Mahdi' were based
mainly on Prophetic traditions concerning a future
restorer of Islam. Hence it is essential to discuss the
traditions of the Prophet and the Imams, especially
these traditions which concern the Twelfth Imam, so as
to see their role in the question of his occultation.
2. The Occultation of al-Qa段m al-Mahdi in the Qur'an
In Shi段te exegesis many Qur'anic verses are regarded as references to
the role of al-Qa段m and his occultation.
The most important is the following verse: O, but I call to witness the
planets, the stars which rise and set (al-Takweer,
According to Imam al-Baqir, this verse means that an Imam would go into
occultation in the year 260/847; then he would reappear
suddenly like a bright shooting star in the dark night(6).
Ibn al-Furat, al-Kafi and al-Saduq interpret the following Qur'anic
verse: "Say: Have you thought: If (all) your water were
to disappear into the earth, who then could bring you
gushing water" (al-Mulk LXVII, 30)
They maintain that this verse is a metaphor for the concealment of the
Imam, whose presence among people is like the water they
need to drink(7).
The Isma'ili writer Mansur al-Yaman (ca. 4th century A. H.) agrees with
al-Kulayni that some Qur'anic verses which apparently
deal with the Day of Judgement actually concern the
appearance of al-Qa段m after his occultation. According
to al-Kulayni the verse "And those who sincerely believe
in the day of Judgement" (al-Mi`raj, LXX, 26) refers to
those who believe in the reappearance of al-Qa段m(8).
Mansur al-Yaman gives a similar esoteric interpretation
of another verse:
And of mankind are some who say, we believe in Allah and the Last Day,
when they believe not. They think to beguile Allah and
those who believe, but they beguile none save
themselves; but they perceive not. (al-Baqara, II, 8-9)
Mansur al-Yaman states that the Last Day (al-Yawm al-Akhir) in this verse
is the "Commander of the Age" (Sahib al-Zaman), that is
Al-Kulayni interprets many Qur'anic verses with the same kind of approach
and links them to the future role of al-Qa段mal-Mahdi.'
In his view, when al-Qa段m reappears he will establish
the political state of the "People of the House" (Ahl
al-Bayt) that is, the Imams, upon the ruins of the state
of inequity. This is al-ｭKulayni's esoteric commentary
on the verse: "And say: The truth has come and falsehood
has vanished. Surely falsehood is a vanishing thing." (Banu Isra'il,
Al-Tusi follows in al-Kulani's footsteps in commenting on certain
Qur'anic verses. Take, for example, this passage:
And We desired to show favour unto those who were oppressed in the earth,
and to make them Imams and to make them the inheritors.
And to establish them in the earth, and to show Pharaoh
and Haman and their hosts that which they feared from
them. (al-Qasas XXVIII, 5-6)
Al-Tusi holds that the above verses predict the establishment of the
state of Justice by al-Qa段m al-Mahdi, who would inherit
what had been in the possession of the wrong-doers(11).
Other Imamite scholars maintain that the fifth Imam, al-Baqir, said that
Allah's promise of victory to an Imam from the People of
the House is mentioned explicitly in the following
And verily We have have written in the scripture (al-Zabur), after the
Reminder My righteous slaves will inherit the earth.
(alｭ-Anbiya', XXI, 105)(12)
Other verses have also been interpreted by the Imamites to be connected
with the role of al-Qa段m, after his rising from
occultation, such as the verse:
Allah has promised such of you as believe and do good works that He will
surely make them to succeed (the present rulers) in the
earth even as He caused those who were before them to
succeed (others); and He will surely establish for them
their religion which he has approved for them, and will
give them in exchange safety after their fear. They
serve Me. They ascribe nothing as a partner unto Me.
Those who disbelieve henceforth, they are the wrong
doers. (al-Nur, XXIV, 55)
Al-Qummi and al-Tusi report that the People of the House mentioned that
this verse concerns the Mahdi because he would live
during his concealment in a state of fear, would appear
after the removal of fear, and would certainly become
3. The traditions concerning the Twelfth Imam and his occultation
3.1 The traditions concerning al-Qa段m al-Mahdi
There are many traditions attributed to the Prophet in the books of
tradition concerning the identity of al-Mahdi, his
family, his epithet (kunya) and his character. The
conclusion of these numerous traditions is that al-Mahdi
is a descendant of the sons of Fatima(14),
the daughter of the Prophet; and more particularly, that
he is of the progeny of her son al-Husayn. His colour is
similar to that of the Arab, and his body is like the
Israelite, and his name and kunya are similar to,the
name and kunya of the Prophet(15).
Moreover some traditions claim that the Prophet said that al-Mahdi's
father's name is like the name of the Prophet's
grandson, al-Hasan. Below are a number of these
i) We, the family of `Abd al-Muttalib, are the Masters of the inhabitants
of Paradise: I, Hamza, Ja断ar, `Ali, al-Hasan, al-Husayn
ii) Al-Mahdi is from my progeny. His name is similar to mine and his
epithet is similar to mine. In his physique and
character he looks exactly like me. He will be in a
state of occultation and there will be confusion (Hayra)
in which people will wander about. Then he will come
forth like a sharp, shooting star to fill the earth with
justice and equity as it was filled before with
injustice and inequity(17).
iii) Al-Mahdi is from my family (`itra) from the sons of Fatima. It is
worth mentioning that this tradition was reported on the
authority of Umm Salama by `Ali b. Nufayl, who died in
iv) On the authority of Ibn 'Abbas, the Prophet is reported to have said,
"How shall Allah destroy a nation whose beginning is
myself, whose end is Jesus and whose very centre is
al-Mahdi, who will be from my family?(19)
v) The name of al-Mahdi's father is similar to the name of my son
The conclusion of Osman concerning these traditions seems to be rather
forced. "All these hadiths are weak and contradictory
(mutadarib), therefore their attribution to the Prophet
Muhammad is to be very much doubted(21).
For the use of the epithet al-Mahdi by numerous Islamic groups,
particularly the Zaydites, in their struggle for power
during the Umayyad period shows that these traditions
were well-known among the Muslims of that period.
Moreover, many traditionists from different Islamic
sects transmitted these traditions before the downfall
of the Umayyads in 132/749, and later they were
collected in the books of tradition (hadith).
The earliest of these books was Kitab Sulaym b. Qays, attributed to
Sulaym b. Qays al-Hilali, who died between the years
80-90/699-708. He reports many Prophetic traditions
concerning al-Mahdi, his occultation and his
It appears from these two points that Osman's judgement is somewhat
hasty, particularly if one takes into account the fact
that Prophetic traditions regarding al-Mahdi were
narrated by twenty-six companions of the Prophet. On
their authority thirtyｭ-eight traditionists recorded
these traditions in their collections of hadith(23).
The evidence suggests that from the earliest times in Islam there was a
belief that the Prophet had given his followers a
promise about a man from the progeny of al-Husayn, who
would rise in arms in the future to purify Islam from
innovation. But political rivalry amongst the Muslims
encouraged some people to exploit this hope and to
distort these Prophetic traditions in order to use them
in their struggle for power(24).
These traditions only mention that al-Qa段m al-Mahdi will be from the
progeny of the Prophet. But there are also other
traditions attributed to the Prophet which state that
al-Mahdi will, in fact, be the Twelfth Imam.
It is true that Montgomery Watt objects that,
Until al-`Askari died on 1st Jan. 874, there was nothing to make people
expect that the number of the Imams would be limited to
twelve or that the Twelfth would go into occultation. It
follows the theory of the twelve Imams was worked out
(1) N. Firaq, 54; `Uyun, 155;
Maqatil, 359; B. Firaq, 44.
(2) Ibn Tawus, al-Iqbal, 53.
(3) N. Firaq, 57; Kamal, 37.
(4) al-Hasani, Sirat al-A'imma
al-Ithna `Ashar (Beirut, 1977), 370.
(6) al-Kafi,I,341;Kamal, 325,330; N.
(7) Ibn al-Furat, al-Tafsir, quoted
by al-Majlisi in Bihar, LI, 50; Kamal, 351.
(9) Ibn Hawshab, Kitab al-Kashf
(London, Cairo, Bombay, 1952), 6.
(11) al-Tusi, al-Tibyan, VIII, 114-6.
(12) al-Tusi al-Tibyan, VII, 250;
Sadr al-Din al-Sadr, al-Mahdi, (Tehran,
(13) `Ali b. Ibrahim al-Qummi Tafsir
al-Qummi (Najaf, 1387), II, 68, 84, 205-6; T.
al-Ghayba, 120; al-Tusi, al-Tibyan, VIII, 404
(14) Ibn Maja, Sunan, II, 519; Abu
Dawud, al-Sunan, II, 208.
(15) al-Tirmidhi, IX, 74, 75; and the
Cairo edition, IV, 505-6
(16) Ibn Maja, Sunan, II, 1368.
(17) Kamal, 286-7. Al-Tirmidhi
mentioned the same tradition on the authority of
Ibn Mas`ud without any details concerning the
occultation of the Mahdi. Alｭ Tirmidhi, IV,
505-6; al-Darimi, Sunan, IV, 151.
(18) Mizan, III,160; Ibn Maja, Sunan,
II, 1368; al-Musannaf, XI,372.
(19) al-Thalabi, `Ara'is al-Majalis,
363; al-Kanji, op.cit., 327.
(20) al-Haythami, al-Sawa`iq
(21) Osman, Mahdism in Islam, Ph.D.
Thesis (Edinburgh, 1976), 204.
(22) Sulaym b. Qays al-Hilali, Kitab
Sulaym b. Qays (Najaf, n.d.), 56, 159-62.
Although this book has received some criticism
with regard to its authenticity, a careful
examination of its contents which show that it
was regarded as a source by such writers as
al-Kulayni in al-Kafi, al-Mas`udi in al-Tanbih
wa-l-Ishraf and al-Nu'mani in Kitab al-Ghayba.
(23) `Abd al-Muhsin al-`Abbad,
`Aqidat Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Athar fi al-Mahdi alｭ
Muntazar, al-Hadi (Qumm, 1971) I, part 1, 33-5;
al-Tabsi, al-Shi`a wa-l-Raja(Najjaf, 1966),
(24) For the Umayyad and the `Abbasid
use of the epithet al-Mahdi so as to gain
political success, see al-Ishfahani, al-Aghani,
XVI, 88; al-Darimi, Sunan, IV, 152.
(25) Watt, The Majesty that is Islam,