Iraq and the return of the Hidden Imam

The Revealer has been doing a section on religion in Iraq. It’s a necessary thing because I think many of the mistakes we are making there relate to the fact that we don’t understand the religious issues at play. Even better news is that I think they are doing a great job, particular on the Muqtada as-Sadr mayhem as witnessed by this recent post.

They get major credit for saying that Sadr is not a cleric, so they don’t need to issue an apology, and they correctly point out that he doesn’t consider himself a scholar.

More important for the point of this post, they get that there are messianic overtones to the appearance of the Hidden Imam, but it’s not the same as the Second Coming of Jesus. These events have traditionally been considered parallel – not sequential, nor simultaneous – as precursors to the creation of a just society.

Of course, the Hidden Imam refers to the 12th Imam of the Ithna’ashari Shi’ah, who has gone into ghayba (occultation, hiding in an other-worldly plane). His return is to herald the beginning of a perfectly just society. (Abdulaziz Sachedina has a great treatment of the topic.) Khomeini, while never claiming the title for himself, was often referred to as the Imam, indicating a belief that he was the just ruler.

The only Shi’ah group to presently have a hazar (present) Imam are the Nizari Ismailis, who oddly enough were the first Shi’ah group to have their Imam go into hiding. However, that type of hiding is known as satr (concealment in this world; that is acting incognito). When the Imam – three generations later – came out of satr he took the title of mahdi to indicate a radical change in the society around him, and began establishing the Fatimid Empire. Of course, the idea of who or what the mahdi was was untested, so there were those groups who did expect the end of the world, and they split when that idea was not realized by the Imam.

The period of ghayba of the Ithna’ashari Imam overlaps with the first period of satr of the Ismaili Imams. It is therefore easy to understand the common discourse shared by both groups.

By the end of the Fatimid Empire, the Ismaili community split into the Nizari and Mustali groups. In the history of the Mustali community, the Imam enters ghayba as well. Their conception of the return of the Imam is different than the Ithna’ashari conception, but the differences seem to be in the minutiae (I have to admit Mustali theology/theological history is not my forte.)

The main point is that the messianism of the Muslim community, like its millenarianism, is different than the Christian ones. I’m glad they are pointing it out to the reader.

One thought on “Iraq and the return of the Hidden Imam

  1. You provided some very helpful general clarifications about the concealment of Imams. But since you acknowledge that Mustali theology is not your forte, allow me to offer several additional insights. First of all, under the Fatimids the term Mahdi no longer applies to the future. The last Natiq is referred to as Qa’imu’l-qi’yamat (the One who arises at the Resurrection). This is the understanding that continues for the whole Mustali community during the period of the second satr. But let me also point out that your statement: “In the history of the Mustali community, the Imam now enters ghayba as well” is only true for a small minority of us. (I count myself in this group, thanks to some sheikhs I met during sabaqs. They helped me to understand that the Imam can see his followers, and hear his wasilah from anywhere, because he is in a metaphysical state.) But for the majority (whom I respect), they still believe the Imam’s type of concealment is satr not ghayba; in other words, strictly acting incognito in this world.

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