What is the usefulness of an Imam in Concealment?
The tragic death of our eleventh Imam was the advent of a new era for the Shi’a world. It was the beginning of a period, which the followers of Ahlul Bayt had never experienced before. A period that would last till an appointed time not known by any except the Lord of the worlds, Allah (SWT). The Imam of the time had always been available to the believers so as to lead them and guide them without the presence of a veil, but now the age had arrived when the faith of the people would be truly under test.
For the first sixty-eight years of his Imamate, Imam Al-Mahdi (A.S) was in a transitional concealment from the people, whereby he used to directly answer the questions and requests of his followers through deputies that he had appointed. It was a period that allowed the people to become accustomed to the time that was to come, when the imam would neither make a public appearance nor would the people be able to approach him through any deputies– the time of the major occultation.
Much criticism has been leveled against the disappearance of the Imam (A.S) with claims that he has hidden himself out of fear and no benefit can be availed from him in his concealment. However, before being so judgmental, the philosophy behind the occultation needs to be viewed more deeply, since there are many factors surrounding the issue, which may not have been considered by critics. One needs to appreciate the wisdom behind the reasons as to why the Imam is in occultation, after, which his advantage to the society albeit in concealment can be understood more profoundly.
History bears witness to the fact that the faith of many companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Imams was only by word of mouth The requirement of believing in such a phenomenon as the invisible existence of Imam Al-Mahdi (AS) their true inner self is made manifest. Having faith in the unseen and suffering whilst awaiting deliverance from the turmoil of this world is in itself evidence of true loyalty towards the Imam (A.S); devotion towards him is a crucial factor when considering the establishment of divine order on earth.
By being in concealment, the Imam is also immune from giving allegiance to unjust rulers as well as from being killed. Many mistakenly interpret this act as one of cowardice since he has gone into hiding in order to save his blood from being shed. A question arises, “Is Allah (SWT) not powerful enough to protect the Imam from murder?” Well, has it ever been considered that this very decree of Allah is the method He is using for the Imam’s protection? After all, is not Allah (SWT) the Mighty, the Wise?
However, it must be noted that although these are some of the reasons behind the concealment of Imam Al-Mahdi (A.S), a hadith from Imam As-Sadiq (A.S) quoted in Bihar al-Anwar explains how the true purpose of the occultation cannot be clarified until the day of Imam’s reappearance, “The true understanding behind this occurrence will not take place until after he has reappeared, just as the wisdom behind making the boat defective, killing the boy, and repairing the falling wall [in the story of Musa (A.S) and Khidr in the Qur'an] were revealed to Musa only after the two had decided to part company. The subject of occultation is among the divine secrets and a concealed matter whose knowledge is only with God. Since we regard God to be wise, we must also affirm that His acts are based on that perfect wisdom, even when the detailed understanding is not accessible to us."
With regards to the benefits of the Imam to the people during this period of occultation, Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini quotes in his book, ‘Al-Imam Al-Mahdi The Just Leader of Humanity’ from Yanabi Al-Mawadda that a man once asked Imam As-Sadiq (A.S), “How can people benefit from an Imam who is in occultation?” and the Imam replied, “In the same way as they benefit from the sun behind the clouds.”
Elaboration on this imagery in scientific terms suggests the fact that the benefit of thermal energy and illumination provided by the sun reaches the earth regardless of whether it is from behind a veil of clouds or apparent; the clouds are not an obstacle to the role of the sun on its recipients since all the earth’s functions remain intact with or without such a veil.
Likewise, whether the Imam is manifest in the people’s eyes or in concealment, it does not prevent his benefit from reaching them. In the same way that the sun is the centre of the solar system and a necessity for life to exist, Imam Al-Mahdi (A.S) is the heart of mankind and its existential guide without whom humanity would be lost.
It is true that certain roles such as propagating Islam, directly solving the problems of society, upholding the political ordinances of Allah (SWT) and guiding individuals according to their epoch and lifestyle cannot be performed by the Imam openly if he is in concealment. However, one must not view the role of the Imam with such a narrow-minded approach since his benefits to the society are not only limited to these.
The existence of the Imam is a perfect and unique embodiment of humanity that serves as a link between the material and the spiritual worlds. Had there been no Imam, Allah (SWT) could not have been known or worshipped perfectly, thus this link would have severed. The heart of the Imam is like the source of electricity that distributes light to numerous lamps. The illumination of the hidden universe first mirrors on the heart of the Imam and then from there it reflects onto the hearts of mankind. The roles of Imamate and Wilayat undertaken by the Imam have much more responsibility than just the external functions witnessed by people in their daily lives.
By: Fazle Abbas Kanji
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