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Al-Ghayba (Occultation) [Lecture 16]

Hamid Algar



-The term occultation explained

-The office of the Safir

-Uthman ibn Sa'id al-'Umari the first safir

-The functions of the named representative

-The whereabouts of the Imam [AS] and where he commenced the greater occultation.

-How the Imam [AS] was communicated with?

-How was the status of the successive safirs validated? and the period of the next three safirs. Re-emergence of Ghulat and their historical antecedents.

The term 'Occultation' explained

When running through some of the different groups that existed among the Shi’ah after the death of the 11th Imam [AS] in the apparent absence of any physical offspring there were also the Qatiyyah who stand at opposite extremes to the la adriyyah those people who contented themselves in saying we do not know what happened. The Qatiyyah are those by contrast who are certain, Qatiyyah meaning ‘those who profess certainty’. That of which they are certain is that indeed the 12th Imam [AS] had a son that was born before his departure from this world and exercised the Imamate and then went on to occultation. This unfamiliar term ‘occultation’ which you would rarely find outside the context of Shi’i theology, or literature on Shi’i theology in English is deliberately chosen in order to convey something of the specificity of the concept. The word that is being translated here is the Arabic word Ghaybah which has the simple lexical meaning of 'absence' but of course the nature of the absence is important to understand with particular respect to the concept of the occultation. Sometimes the word is also described or translated as concealment but this again is not entirely adequate. There is indeed concealment and there is indeed absence involved in the concept of a Ghaybah but in order to convey something of it’s specific flavor it may be good to use this unfamiliar word occultation. The Ghaybah consists of two unequal and dissimilar stages which are known respectively as the lesser (Ghaybah al-Sughra) and the greater (Ghaybah al-Kubra). The lesser occultation comes first and begins in 260 AH, 874 AD, and ends in the year 329 AH, 940 AD. The greater occultation begins in 329 AH and continues down to the present. From this chronological balance one can see in what sense the first of the occultations is lesser it is of a much shorter duration than the major occultation which continues down to the present and will from the point of view of Shi’i doctrine continue till an unknown point in the future at which the Imam [AS] will return.

The second point of difference between the two types of occultation is that the lesser occultation is an absence or concealment of a more familiar type in other words the Imam [AS] is physically present on the Earth living a biologically normal life his whereabouts are however unknown to all except a small group amongst his immediate followers and agents. He is therefore inaccessible to the majority of the community, access is had to him only sporadically and only through a single named representative. So it can be said that the lesser occultation in this sense is simply an intensification of or even a continuation of the circumstances that had prevailed during the Imamates of 9th, 10th and 11th Imams [AS]. That is to say that enforced seclusion because of the danger of persecution from the Abbasid Caliphs, and seclusion from from the great majority of the Muslim community and only being represented by a certain number of intermediaries and appointed representatives. However the circumstances are different now in the period of the lesser occultation in that the whereabouts of the Imam [AS] is not known. It was known during the Imamates of Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS], Imam Muhammad al-Jawwad [AS] and Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] the difficulty was in gaining access to them. With respect to the 12th Imam [AS] during the period of the lesser occultation his whereabouts were not commonly known. A third important difference between the lesser occultation and the period before that is that there is only a single agent connecting him to his followers. This implies therefore an enhanced importance for the position for the agent representing him. Earlier in the period of the 9th, 10th and 11th Imams [AS] there had been a variety of agents among whom it may be presumed that some indeed had seniority and a higher function with respect to the others. In the time of the lesser occultation there is only a single named representative who acts in exclusivity as the intermediary between the concealed Imam [AS] and his following.

All of this changes with the onset of the greater occultation. The greater occultation as already remarked is infinitely longer, is of indefinite duration and more importantly is no longer a question of the Imam [AS] being physically present on Earth, although in a location kept secret – he is rather no longer present on the earthly plain. And it is here that it becomes useful if not necessary to introduce the word occultation in order to prevent the misunderstanding that this is simply a concealment on the earthly plain. What is meant here is that the Imam [AS] is no longer on the earthly plain but also has not suffered death he is in a state of suspension in this world and the hereafter and here there is another important analogy and attribute shared with Prophet ‘Isa [AS] from the Muslim point of view who likewise has temporarily withdrawn although for an extended period from earthly existence and will return at the end of time. Occultation therefore means an absence from the earthly plain, that does not involve death, an absence that will necessarily be bought to an end by a renewed presence on earth for the fulfillment of certain predetermined functions which have already been sketched upon in connection with the hadith which speaks of Imam Mahdi [AS] as ‘al-Mahdi al-Qaim’ the one who will rise up at the end of time to enact universal justice. This is what is implied in general by the lesser and greater occultation. The first of the two occultations is lesser in duration and it is also lesser in that the Imam [AS] although his whereabouts are unknown is still actually living on the earth. The second and greater occultation is that which is very much longer in duration and in which the Imam [AS] is no longer present on the earth. Moreover the period of the lesser occultation does involve the presence on the earth not only of the Imam [AS] himself but also of a succession of named, identifiable individuals. Once the greater occultations begins the named individuals who represent the authority of the Imam [AS] and act as intermediaries with him, their series also comes to an end. Not only has the Imam [AS] withdrawn from existence but he no longer has a single names representative with whom reference maybe had in order to learn his teachings and to express loyalty to him.

The office of the Safir

This brings about an extremely important change in the structure of the Shi’i community and above all it’s organization and the exercise of authority within the community. An important feature of the minor occultation can now be turned to and that is the presence of named representatives of the Imam [AS] who act as intermediaries with him. To these representatives a variety of titles are given one of which has already been mentioned and that is wakil. Before the beginning of the minor occultation there were numerous wakils, numerous representatives of the Imam [AS] in a variety of centres of the Shi’i population. After the beginning of the lesser occultation, there is but one wakil or better to say that there is only one person who bears the title of wakil, there are other nominees and representatives who act under his authority. At the head of the pyramid of authority and administration in the Shi’ah community there is a single wakil who acts on behalf of the hidden Imam [AS] and beneath him a variety of other individuals. Because of this new development in the time of the lesser occultation that is to say the emergence of a single individual as the representative of the Imam [AS] often and in fact more frequently the word that is used to designate this representative is safir, because the word wakil has certain ambiguities and is a carryover from the previous period when there were numerous wakils, and therefore to avoid possible misunderstanding we find the title safir as the sole representative of the Imam [AS]. The word safir even in present day usage has the sense of envoy even ambassador in a diplomatic sense. The choice of this word safir is in itself interesting because it does indeed imply a greater distance between the Imam [AS] and his loyal follower under the conditions of the occultation. It is as if from a distance he is sending his envoy, his representative, his safir to the community. Finally the name given to the single named representative during the period of the lesser occultation is bab which is quite simply the Arabic word for door or gate. Maybe here there is an echo of the hadith where the Prophet [sAW] designates Imam Ali [AS] as the gate to the city of knowledge, ‘ana madinah al-ilm wa Aliyyun babuha. What is implied to the title bab both in the hadith and in this context is exclusive access. In much the same way as the hadith tells us that the only gate of access to a certain body of knowledge held by the Prophet [sAW] is Imam Ali [AS], likewise the only authentic and true access to the Imam during the period of the lesser occultation is the person known as the bab. Another important implication of the word bab is that the gate maybe open or closed this is in the nature of things. And it can be said that at the very end of the lesser occultation this gate of communication is closed, this gate of a particular type of communication to a single named authoritative individual is closed. It is also significant to jump to a different period in history that the movement known as Baha’ism which starts with an individual who advances through a series of increasingly ambitious claims. The first of the claims that he makes is that he is the bab. That is to say that centuries after the closing of this particular gate this individual namely ‘Ali Muhammad called himself the bab. He claimed to be for the first time in many centuries the exclusive gate of communication with the occulted Imam [AS]. And from there in quick succession he ambitiously advanced from one claim to another and he next claimed that he was the Imam himself, and the new Prophet and then the gate was open for further exaltation in subsequent generations.

The period of the lesser occultation sees the succession of four such named individuals. Four persons who held these titles most commonly safir. Their exercise of the office can be said to have sprung directly from the circumstances of the Imamate in the immediately preceding period – the period of the 9th, 10th and 11th Imams [AS]. It was an outgrowth, an adaptation a modification of the general agency of the Imams [AS] that had already existed. This institution of the agency representing the Imams [AS] to their followers first begins to emerge in the time of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS], takes more visible shape during the time of his successor Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] – and has the various functions already indicated – above all the collection and forwarding of the Khums, not only for purely fiscal purposes but as a kind of sign of loyalty and allegiance to the Imams [AS]. There is a new aspect to the office of the single wakil that maybe again said to grow out of the preceding period. It will be recalled that the transition from one Imam [AS] to the next was generally accompanied by some degree of disagreement and dissension in the Shi’ah community, rival claims to the Imamate often arose. And it is true that since the time of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] the principle of succession had been fairly clearly articulated as nass, a witnessed written designation of the next Imam [AS] by the existing Imam [AS]. However in practical terms how was the nass to be made known to the community as a whole. And it is here that it is seen that the wakils already before the beginning of the occultation playing an enhanced role in the lifetimes of again the 9th, 10th and 11th Imams [AS]. It was precisely the wakil who would come forward and testify that they were aware of the nass. That they had indeed been witnesses to the appointment of the subsequent Imams [AS], they had been witness to the drawing up of the document. So in a sense this endowed the wakils with a high degree of authority. They were to some extent the arbiters of the transmission of the Imamate from one Imam [AS] to the next.

This enhancement of the role of the wakil – the representative of the Imam [AS] seems to have been enhanced still further during the time of Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] which was a relatively lengthy period. The Imam [AS] was confined in Samarra the new Abbasid capital, he was therefore unable to communicate with which congregation. Also what can be reconstructed from the period of Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] the nature of the organization of the network which existed. Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] was resident in Samarra and his principle wakilwas resident there with him. It is possible to draw a kind of pyramid of authority in this period which includes a wide variety of other locations. Under the authority of the central wakilthere are regional wakils, there is one in Baghdad, another in Basrah, another in Qum and another in Madinah. Under the authority of these regional wakils there appears to have been further local representatives operating under their authority. Answering to the wakil in Baghdad were representatives in Kufah and Mada’in (a locality near Baghdad), them under the authority of the wakil in Basrah a representative operating in the city of Ahwaz which is in south-western Iran in terms of present day geography and one of the earlier centres of Shi’ism in Iran. Under the authority of the wakil in Qum there were agents operating in Hamadan in western Iran and possible elsewhere as well. Then under the authority of the wakilin Madinah were agents in Egypt and the Yemen – two places where today twelver Shi’ism is nonexistent. So a fairly complex and sophisticated geographical structure already existed at that time. What is particularly worth noting is that the only person to know of the identity of the four regional wakils was the supreme wakil in Samarra. In other words one can presume that the wakil in Baghdad did not know who is the wakil in Basrah. And likewise this restriction of mutual acquaintance transferred to the next level also so for example the agent of the Baghdad wakil operating in Mada’in would be deliberately kept ignorant of the wakil operating in Kufah. So the network was sophisticated and widespread that took all the necessary precautionary measures. And the utility and necessity of these precautionary measures is for an obvious reason the ongoing threat to the position of the Imam [AS], and therefore to the Shi’i community in general. But of course there were two aspects to the matter, on the one hand this semi-clandestine structure was the result of fear and persecution, on the other hand it enabled a relatively smooth transition despite everything to be made from the period of the physical presence of the Imams [AS] on earth and into the period of the occultation. In other words something of the administrative network that was needed was already in place – although new functions were added to it and a slight reworking took place in that now there was but one person bearing the title of wakil.

Uthman ibn Sa'id al-'Umari the first safir

Another development that points in this same direction and an administrative development in the time of the last Imams [AS] of an enhanced importance of the representatives was that the position became hereditary – the position of the chief wakil became hereditary. Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari who began as the chief wakil in the time of Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS], he becomes the first of the four named representatives in the time of the lesser occultation. Here there is found in a single person a clear factor of continuity between pre and post occultation periods. He was the chief wakil in the time of Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] and he becomes the first named representative of the 12th Imam [AS] during the period of the lesser occultation. There is more to it than that in that his son becomes the second named representative in the time of the lesser occultation. It is almost as if there is a kind of mirroring of course at an infinitely lesser level of the circumstances of the Imamate itself. The Imamate of course doctrinally speaking is a matter not of hereditary succession but of Divine Appointment although clearly it involves hereditary transference with in a single line. If the matter is looked at from this point of view a similar tendency can be observed among the named representative of the Imams [AS]. It is said that Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] told Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari that:-

‘You should continue to be the chief wakil in the time of my successor (the 11th Imam [AS]) and beyond that when the 12th Imam [AS] is born and goes into occultation you should be his wakil (sole representative and intermediary to the community), and that after you your son should become that.’

In other words a comprehensive prescription already in the time of Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] for how the community must organize itself after the beginning of the occultation. The naming of an individual and beyond that even of his son in advance for heading the admininstrative structure of the community. These various developments point already before the beginning of the occultation to the great importance of the administrative structure in securing the continual existence and administration of the Shi’i community after what is undoubtedly one of the greatest crises in Islamic history at the beginning of the occultation, and a period of confusion about the very existence of the Imam [AS].

The functions of the named representative

Once the lesser occultation had begun what were the precise functions of the wakil? Firstly two contrasting purposes and functions, in the face of widespread confusion and doubt even within the Shi’ah community let alone beyond it – to confirm the existence of the Imam [AS]. To confirm that indeed the Imam [AS] had a son who had survived his death and actually existed, this in a way is a repetition or is comparable with the function that the wakil had earlier fulfilled i.e. witnessing to the community at large that a nass – a designation of a successor had taken place. Now he had to do something even more crucial and that was to confirm that the Imam [AS] actually existed. However at the same time because of the curious circumstances, while confirming the existence of the Imam [AS] he had to conceal the whereabouts of the Imam [AS] – this was a difficult and even a contradictory task. This was for obvious reasons that the Imam [AS] was entering physical concealment at this moment, and was intent on staying away from public visibility to eliminate the possibility of physical elimination by the Abbasid Caliphs. So on the one had the wakil had to confirm that the Imam [AS] existed and on the other he could not reaveal the precise whereabouts of the Imam [AS] in order to substantiate the claim that he existed. So from a pragmatic point of view this was a difficult task. So we see that the wakil rather than offering evidence of a more familiar pragmatic type about the existence of the Imam [AS] lay heavy stress on the various hadith that had been in circulation for a very long time and pointed to the necessity of the existence of an Imam [AS]. It can be said that these hadith maybe were more influential in the long run in bringing about a consensus in Shi’ism that the 12th Imam [AS] existed than the accumulation of evidence, eye-witness accounts, indications of time and place about the Imam [AS]. So, it was necessary even within the Shi’ah community to conceal the existence of the Imam [AS] while affirming that he actually did exist. Whenever Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari and his successors where asked, ‘where is the Imam [AS]? Have you seen him?’, they would answer only the second question, ‘Yes we have seen him.’ They would not answer the first question i.e. ‘Where is he?’

With respect to the broader Muslim community, or specifically the Abbasid Caliphate and it’s supporters, the safir had quite a different function, which increased still further the complexity of his task. What he was meant to do with respect to the broader community was to keep them guessing, to encourage confusion. Within the Shi’ah community, confusion needed to be dispelled and consensus had to be established primarily on doctrinal grounds, that the Imam [AS] existed. But for the broader community particularly the political authorities confusion was highly desirable in other words, ‘did the 11th Imam [AS] die with issue or without issue?’ This was a question upon which it was desirable that the caliphal authorities should be kept guessing. It seems that at least in the earlier part of the lesser occultation that the Abbasid Caliphs and Sunni opinion at large was convinced that Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] had died without issue, that no son was left to the Imamate and an identifiable and viable institution (the Imamate) had come to an end. This conclusion had beneficial results for the Shi’ah community in that it was thought that minus an Imam – an immediately accessible, visible, identifiable Imam the Shi’ah community would lose it’s raison detre and gradually dissolve and therefore some of the restrictive measures that had been continually intensified, were relaxed. This of course further facilitated the operations of the wakil in administering the Shi’ah community. This was not only a matter of the Abbasid Caliphate, early Sunni opinion that is to say learned religious opinion among Sunnis also was that the 11th Imam [AS] had died without leaving a son. Somewhat later a kind of compromised belief arose among many Sunni authorities that the Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] had indeed had a son, but that this son had died at the age of nine somewhere in Morocco and had therefore not left any descendants of his own behind. The source of this belief is a little curious. It is probably a reflection of hadith that can be found in Sunni sources, that there will be twelve caliphs, acceptance of this hadith implied that there should be twelve, and if there were eleven then there was a lack – there had to be twelve and therefore who was the 12th? It was the son of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] but he had died. There was therefore an acceptance of a total of twelve but a wish, in fact a determination to avoid what is from the Shi’ah point of view the essential corollary of that belief in the 12th Imam [AS] that he is in a state of ghaybah. Therefore a natural biological death was posited for this 12th Imam [AS]. Somewhat later again, in fact considerable later in the 15th century AD, a further evolution is seen in the Sunni belief of the 12th Imam [AS] that he did have a historical existence, and had lived to adulthood but the particular lineage of the Imams [AS] had indeed come to an end thereafter, and he bestowed successorship to the Sufis rather than upon himself. An interesting development which is simply illustrative of the developments of that particular point in Islamic History, it cannot be taken in any way as a statement of historical fact concerning the evolution of the Imamate.

These two functions of the wakil, to confirm the existence of the Imam [AS] to the Shi’ah community whilst concealing his whereabouts, secondly, to encourage confusion among the non-Shi’ah. Then of course there was the collection of the Khums and of other taxes of a religious nature. It remained the task of the wakil during the period of the occultation to collect the Khums and to forward it. Despite what is said about the reinforcement of administrative networks and the enhancement of the role of the wakil there were some claimants to the title and function of the wakil after the beginning of the lesser occultation. These are connected not surprisingly to the Khums, they wanted to get their hands on the money. A mechanism had to be elaborated therefore for distinguishing the real wakil from his unauthorized competition. And the criterion that was established goes back again to the pre-occultation period. It may be recalled that the claim of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] to the Imamate was disputed by his brother Ja’far, and quite apart from all other considerations it was said that one of the signs whereby an authentic Imam could be recognized is his ability to know intuitively the amount of the Khums that is being conveyed to him. And on one occasion a caravan bearing Khums from Qum was coming to Samarra and Ja’far was challenged to establish by intuitive means the amount of Khums in question and he not surprisingly failed to guess correctly. And this same criterion was applied after the occultation, to the wakil, if the wakil were able to judge correctly the amount of the Khums that was being conveyed, and even as a supplementary criteria the names of those who were bringing it then indeed he was the authentic wakil to whom Khums could safely and legitimately be paid, failing such knowledge he should be dismissed as a false claimant. One can see here how not only his administrative function but even a spiritual attribute, a particular quality and ability is devolved from the Imams [AS] to their named representatives. That is the ability to by paranormal means to estimate and guess correctly the amount of Khums being conveyed.

Last among the distinctive functions of the wakil in the time of the lesser occultation was most importantly of all – communication with the Imam [AS] in his place of concealment. Because what is being dealt with now is concealment with the Imam [AS] being in a specific geographical location which is concealed from others. The wakil would refuse to answer the question even from trusted members of the Shi’ah community on the whereabouts of the Imam [AS]. In other words the place of concealment had to be concealed. According to the most common account, the place of concealment was the Hijaz, that is to say that it was Makkah and Madinah and primarily the latter – the city of Madinah. It may be recalled that in childhood the 12th Imam [AS] according to common belief was secretly conveyed to Madinah by his grandmother who was able to make the journey on the pretext of making the Hajj. It is said that the entire period of the lesser occultation was spent by the 12th Imam [AS] in Madinah. It is also said that he would emerge from his place of concealment, his specific place of concealment in Madinah once a year on the occasion of the Hajj. He would mingle with the pilgrims but would only be recognized by the wakils the unique representatives of his. This annual emergence of the Imam [AS] from concealment to mingle with the pilgrims on the occasion of the Hajj is significant in a number of ways. Later also the belief arose that even during the period of the greater occultation that is to say when the Imam [AS] has been removed, withdrawn from the physical plain he might make an annual appearance on the occasion of the Hajj. It can be heard even today stories from persons who claim or imagine that they have actually seen the 12th Imam [AS] on the occasion of the Hajj. Beyond that it is of course as will be seen, when the circumstances of the anticipated return of the Imam [AS] are discussed to the manifest plain – it is in Makkah that he will make his reappearance. In other words he will make his reappearance at that focal point of the entire Islamic community. He will be seen to return not simply as a leader of a given sectarian movement in Islam called Shi’ism – he will appear to assume his function of general leadership in the entire Islamic community and beyond that – to spread Islam in the world today. It is important that he should not reappear in Kufah, Najaf or Kerbala – one of those places associated narrowly and specifically with the sacred geography of Shi’ism but rather with that central place of orientation that is Makkah.

The whereabouts of the Imam [AS] and where he commenced the greater occultation

There is a competing tradition that the 12th Imam [AS] entered the greater occultation in Samarra, that city in northern Iraq where he an his immediate forebears had been compelled to reside. In other words not that he was taken from Samarra to Madinah whilst still a child but that he spent all the periods of the lesser occultation in Samarra. It is said that on one occasion the agents of the Abbasid Caliph suspecting that after all Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] had indeed left a son behind came to search the house where upon he, the 12th Imam [AS], descended into the cellar beneath the house and from there though means unspecified, through miraculous means, entered the state of the greater occultation and was removed from the physical plain. This is a less common tradition, the predominant opinion that is strongly supported is that the Imam [AS] spent the period of the lesser occultation in Madinah and it was there he entered into the greater occultation and it is Makkah that he will return to the manifest plain. If the authenticity of this tradition is accepted that the Imam [AS] during the lesser occultation was resident in Madinah, it was in Madinah that the main representatives – four of them in turn, were in communication with him. The communication was exercised in written form, the technical term for a written communication from the occulted Imam [AS] to his named representative is tauqi. In general Arabic usage it means signature, but it is applied to the communications of the Imams [AS] with his named representatives precisely because it bore the signature of the Imam [AS]. His signature was seen as a sign of authenticity and authority, the plural of it being tauqiat. Some of the documents, or the texts or the documents themselves have been preserved in the Shi’ah sources and they concern a large number of matters mostly of an administrative nature concerning that all important symbolic as well as material question of the Khums. It is noteworthy that at least the texts of the tauqiat that have been preserved do not contain anything of a political nature. That is that they do not speak of the necessity of resistance to the Abbasids, they contain nothing of an insurrectionary nature. It can be said that the Imam [AS] in the period of the lesser occultation is already anticipating the greater occultation that which will be of indefinite duration therefore the question of short term political measures, insurrection, acts of resistance would be entirely irrelevant.

How the Imam [AS] was communicated with?

How did the named representative maintain a communication with the Imam [AS] in Madinah in other words how did these tauqiat reach him? Not a great deal was known in this connection i.e. how frequent was the communication, it seems that the Hajj was a good season for the messages to pass back and forth. Even if the wakil did not go on a Hajj then presumably trustworthy persons might be given messages to convey in one direction or another quite simply because of the large number of people that go on the Hajj. Even the Saudis in modern times have found it difficult to exercise censorship of everything that goes on during the Hajj season because of the large number of people involved. It is interesting to note that outside the Hajj season people were often entrusted with conveying letters and documents back and forth who were ignorant and even irreligious people. Why? Because an ignorant and irreligious person was less liable to arouse the hostile attention of the caliphal authorities than someone known to be a pious member of the Shi’ah community. Therefore any ignorant sinner would do their job, even sinners had their utility. These are some of the functions of the wakil in this important period.

The first of the four wakils is Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari – he entered the service of the Imamate in the time of the 9th Imam [AS] Imam Muhammad al-Jawwad [AS], he became the chief wakil thereafter of the 10th Imam [AS] Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS], he retained his position in the Imamate of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS], and as mentioned Imam Hassan al-Askari said that after my death let Uthman will be the representative – the wakil of my son, and then after him let his son be the representative. Therefore the succession to the office of the wakilon the part of Uthman’s son was predetermined already before the occultation. Uthman is said to have had this spiritual gift of having been able to deduce intuitively the amount of the Khums that was underway on any given occasion – he could also name the people bringing the Khums even though he had no previous acquaintance with them. In his time it seems that the organization of the community actually flourished. This was one of the numerous paradoxes – the Imam [AS] was gone from immediate accessability, he was now in concealment but the administrative structure was not only preserved intact but actually seems to have spread. Firstly the centre of the administrative structure was transferred from Samarra to Baghdad. There was no longer any purpose for it to be in Samarra after the death there of Imam Hassan al-Askari [AS] and the transferal of Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi [AS] to Madinah. Therefore the headquarters were transferred from Samarra to Baghdad – more precisely to the predominantly Shi’i area of Baghdad known as Karkh across the Tigris from the main part of the caliphal capital, and from Karkh Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari sent new representatives to additional centres, not only Madinah, Qum, Basrah and Baghdad we also now have representatives of the wakil the head of the administrative pyramid in Azerbijan the Northwestern Province of Iran in terms of present day geography – the city of Rayy – once upon a time a large and important city now just a village south of Baghdad. And then in Kabul, it is interesting to note that Kabul in this period had a Shi’i community of sufficient size and importance to warrant the appointment of a representative of the wakil. Spreading out from each of these subordinate centres were presumably a large number of other more localized representatives again ignorant of each others identity for purposes of secrecy. The secrecy that was still necessary despite the partial relaxation of persecution by the Abbasids is visible in another way as well. Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari was not by profession a religious scholar his profession was rather that of a butter seller, he sold old clarified butter (what is called ghee, and in Arabic Samna). Obviously the exercise of any trade would be a useful cover but particular to be a butter seller, a wholesale dealer in Ghee was appropriate and useful because the Khums would also sometime be delivered along with the butter. The Khums would be concealed in the sacks that would contain the butter. It would be brought from outlying places in these sacks and then when the Khums would be distributed amongst it’s recipients it would be packed along with the butter in order to avoid suspicion. We also know that another of the associates of Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari in this period was a dealer in cotton, and the same thing applies here – the Khums would be concealed in the bails of cotton that were received and then distributed. This then gives us an idea of the actual mode of receipt and distribution of the Khums by Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari.

How was the status of the successive safirs validated? and the period of the next three safirs. Re-emergence of Ghulat and their historical antecedents

There are two different dates for the death of Uthman ibn Sa’id al-‘Umari – the more likely is 280 AH, 893 AD. And he was succeeded in accordance with hadith already mentioned of the 11th Imam [AS], by his son Abu Ja’far. Abu Ja’far presided over his father’s funeral prayers and came to exercise his functions - in just the same way that the transmission of the Imamate from one Imam [AS] to the next was subject to dispute likewise the transmission of the wikala, the agency, from Uthman to Abu Ja’far was disputed – above all by a certain theologian called ibn Hilal. He claimed that there was no reason to claim that Abu Ja’far was the legitimate successor to his father. However a Tauqi – a written declaration from the Imam [AS] in his concealment in Madinah was received and ibn Hilal was denounced and thereafter Abu Ja’far exercised his function without any serious opposition from any quarter. What is worth noting at this point – during the period of the lesser occultation and specifically the tenure of the second wakil is a re-emergence of the Ghulah, those who literally exaggerate. That is to say they exaggerate regarding the attributes, status and functions of the Imam [AS]. They made a significant appearance during the time of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS] and Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. They went beyond asserting the unique legitimacy and qualities of the Imams [AS] to claim for them a more exalted status that they were not made of the normal stuff of biological human composition, they were made from a special body of light stored beneath the Divine Throne, they were essentially Divine Manifestations, they were superior to the Prophet [sAW] and so forth. They had gone into eclipse but now in the conditions of the Ghaybah they make something of a comeback. They had never simply gone out of existence but had simply degenerated into a conglomeration of unrelated groups not particularly interested in propagating their claims. Some among the Ghulat however saw in the new conditions of the occultation a chance to reassert themselves – most of the names in this connection are entirely insignificant because they came and went without leaving any impact. One name does deserve mention that is Muhammad ibn Nusair – he first came on the scene in the time of Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS], and came forward with the remarkable assertion that Imam Ali al-Hadi [AS] was God and that he Muhammad ibn Nusair was the prophet of God. Later as often happens with movements which are doctrinally extravagant he modified his claims but not in the direction of greater credibility and acceptability but on the contrary becoming more and more extreme ultimately it seems claiming Godhead for himself. There was very little acceptance for the claims of Muhammad ibn Nusair in his lifetime and certainly not in the mass of the Twelver community. However he did have a certain posthumous influence giving rise to that particular sect which is known as the Nusairi sect which still exists in Syria and to some extent is South-Eastern Turkey in terms of present day geography. He therefore deserves some kind of passing notice. There is some confusion on this point because the Nusairis you often find designated as Alawiboth in Syria and in Turkey. The Nusairis at the very best were situated on the outer fringes of even Ghulat Shi’ism later they absorbed all kinds of pre-Islamic beliefs and laid great emphasis on this notion of reincarnation that each of their leaders in succession is designated as a Divine Incarnation. They remained until very recent times a fairly small minority in Syria and South-Eastern Turkey. However they have in recent times been elevated to some degree in abundance, first by the French when they exercised the mandate in Syria in keeping with the usual colonial tactic of employing a loyal minority in order to rule over the majority – the French in their exercise of rule gave importance and prominence to the Nusairicommunity, placing them in important positions in the Civil administration and in the army. And indeed the core of the civil administration today is provided by the Nusairis. Hafez al-Assad and is son Bashar al-Assad were and are both Nusairis. Bashar al-Assad when his father died and it became necessary in accordance with the kind of mixed monarchical, republican system that we find in the Arab countries today – the only person to succeed such a worthy man was his son, the only problem was that according to the existing Syrian constitution he was too young. Therefore the Syrian constitution was revised to make the minimum age for the president not more and not less than 39 years of age which by a remarkable coincidence was the age of Bashar al-Assad at the time. All the sensitive military and intelligence posts in Syria are held by members of the Nusairi minority. However it was under the instigation of the French that the Nusairis called themselves instead the Alawi in order to create the impression that they had some kind of linkage with Shi’ism and that they were therefore acceptable. In the mid 1970’s the Nusairi elders came out with a declaration of their beliefs which were indistinguishable from that of Twelver Shi’ism. This is a case of Taqiyyah, within Taqiyyah – there is no reason to assume that the thugs of the regime of Hafez al-Assad had undertaken a serious study of Shi’ah literature and found in convincing, it was again a question of political expedience a desire to re-orient themselves re-market themselves in a fashion that would conceal their essentially heretical nature. This same renaming took place across the border in Turkey also in South-Eastern Turkey both among the Kurds and the Turks. They partly go back to the Nusairis and partly go upon other antecedents. The rise of Twelver Shi’ism in Iran to be the state religion under the Safavids is in the first stages bought about by the Ghulat it is not bought about by Twelver Shi’ah. If you look at the acts of the first ruler Shah Isma’il, the background from which he sprang it is a Ghulat background drawing on some of the beliefs of the Nusairis concerning Divine Incarnation. In the short run the movement of Muhammad ibn Nusair has little importance but in the long run it does have these two important outcomes – the immediate but not the sole factor for the propagation of Shi’ism in Iran from the 16th Century onwards, and it also gave rise to this small group which for entirely political reasons has captured power in Syria.

The second safir Abu Jaffer died in 305 AH, 917 AD after a lengthy and fairly successful exercise of the office. So successful was he in fact that the Abbasids began to doubt whether indeed the 11th Imam [AS] had died without issue. Because it seemed to them that the existence of a fairly widespread and organized community could be explicable only in terms of continued loyalty to an actually existing and present Imam [AS]. There was therefore a renewal of pressure on the Shi’ah community After the death of Abu Ja’far hereditary succession is bought to an end and the third safir is a person by the name of Hussain al-Nawbakhti as his last name indicates he was from an Iranian family that was prominent in a variety of fields in the Abbasid period some of them scholars and some of them administrators this particular Nawbakhti doubled interestingly enough as the named representative of the Imam [AS] and as the administrator of the person estates of the Abbasid Caliph – a remarkable juggling act. He died in 937 AD and was succeeded by the fourth and last of the named representatives Ali al-Samarri as his name implies he was from Samarra – he held the office for only four years and died in the year 941 AD without proclaiming a successor and this therefore bought to an end the period of the lesser occultation a period in which the Imam had been physically present on the earth although concealed at an undisclosed location and represented by this succession of four named individuals. Why did Ali al-Samarri not name a successor? Because it is said that six days before his death he received a tauqi from the Imam [AS] in Madinah telling him that precisely six days later he was going to die and that he should not appoint a successor:-

‘Prepare your affairs, six days from now you shall die and do not appoint anyone to take your place after your death for the second occultation has now occurred…’

Therefore it is not simply that the institution of the named agent has been bought to an end in conjunction with that and more significantly the second occultation has begun that is to say the period of the major occultation. The tense used should be noticed ‘…the second occultation has now occurred… in other words by the time that the tauqi reaches the hands of Ali al-Samarri from the Imam [AS] in Madinah the Imam [AS] has already entered into that state of complete occultation in other words a withdrawal from the physical plain. The tauqialso goes on to mention some of the circumstances which will accompany the renewed appearance of the Imam [AS] and how authority is to be exercised in his absence in this new period of the occultation. The last point to be made is the following, that with the second occultation of the Imam [AS] the doctrinal structure of Shi’ism receives another important defining element. Normative Shi’ism is the belief in 12 Imams [AS], neither more nor less, secondly it involves a belief in Ghaybah in the absence of the Imam [AS] and equally important an acceptance of - that occultation resting upon a delicate but important equilibrium an aspiration for the ending of the occultation and a patient endurance in the absence of the Imam [AS]. On the one hand as a matter of religious duty and fidelity to the truth as perceived by Shi’ah Islam one recognizes that the Imam [AS] is no longer upon the Earth. One should not be tempted as the Imam [AS] mentions in the above tauqi by those who claim to be the Imam [AS] returned. So there is patient endurance but on the other hand an ardent aspiration for the return of the Imam [AS]. In pious usage when one mentions the name of the Imam [AS] – it is said, ‘May Allah (SWT) hasten his return.’ ‘ ‘Ajal Allah Ta Ala Farajahum’. There is a desire for the return to be hastened but on the other hand going together with that the patient endurance of the absence until Divine Wisdom should decree that the return is appropriate.


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