The 11th Imam (a) was able to remain in contact with the general Shī’ī community over a large geographical area through the Wakālah system. The Wakālah system comprised of a large number of agents and representatives who would serve as the point of contact between the Imam and their respective communities. The foundations of this specific system can be traced back to the time of Imam Ṣādiq (a) and its exponential growth can evidently be seen from the time of Imam Kāẓim (a) onwards. After Imam Naqī (a), control of this complex network was transferred over to Imam ‘Askarī (a).
There were a number of reasons why this network was developed. Firstly, to tackle the physical distance between the Imams (a) and their followers. Secondly, in cases where the Imams were imprisoned or under house arrest and were permitted to have very little contact with outsiders, it was more convenient to remain in contact with specifically chosen individuals rather than a large number of people – often for the safety of both the followers and the Imams. For example, since 11th Imam was under surveillance by the government, he would have to visit the officials once or twice a week to announce his presence and report on his activities, but some of his followers would try to use this opportunity to stand on both sides of pathway so they could meet him (a). Imam ‘Askarī (a) instead asks these followers to not talk to him or even point towards him as it would cause problems.
مَا رُوِيَ عَنْ عَلِيِّ بْنِ جَعْفَرٍ الْحَلَبِيِّ قَالَ: اجْتَمَعْنَا بِالْعَسْكَرِ وَ تَرَصَّدْنَا لِأَبِي مُحَمَّدٍ ع يَوْمَ رُكُوبِهِ فَخَرَجَ تَوْقِيعُهُ أَلَا لَا يُسَلِّمَنَّ عَلَيَّ أَحَدٌ وَ لَا يُشِيرُ إِلَيَّ بِيَدِهِ وَ لَا يُومِئُ أَحَدُكُمْ فَإِنَّكُمْ لَا تَأْمَنُونَ عَلَى أَنْفُسِكُمْ
It has been reported from ‘Alī bin Ja’far al-Ḥalabī who said: We gathered at the military compound to observe Abī Muḥammad (a) on the day of his visit. However, his (a) letter reached (us) with the warning: No one should say their greetings to me, no one should point towards me with their hand, and no one should signal (towards me), because your lives are not safe.1
Another reason a number of scholars have mentioned is that the Wakālah system foreshadowed what the Shī’ī community would have to deal with in the near future and allowed them to prepare for a smoother transition into the period of occultation of the 12th Imam. In other words, by the time of the occultation, much of the Shī’ī community was very much used to not having direct contact with an Imam, or rather, having contact with them through chosen representatives.
Some of the tasks these agents would perform were the collection and delivery of letters, gifts, khums, zakāt, different types of endowments, and at times even addressing communal issues in their cities. By mid-third century hijrī, the network extended over four large areas: The Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran and Transoxiana – though some reports indicate there were a couple of agents even in some cities in Africa.
Much of the communication between the Imam (a) and the communities was occurring through letters. One of the famous agents, Aḥmad b. Isḥāq had to ask Imam ‘Askarī (a) for a sample of his (a) handwriting so that he would be able to recognize it from any possible attempts of forgery by government officials. Aḥmad says:
“Once I went to see Abū Muḥammad (a) and asked him (a) to write for me few lines so that whenever I see his (a) handwriting I can recognize it. The Imam (a) said, ‘Yes,’ and then said, ‘O Aḥmad the writing with a fine pen and with thick pen will look different to you. Do not have doubts.” He (a) then asked for a pen and inkpot and began writing.2
One of these agents was ‘Uthmān b. Sa’īd al-‘Amrī who grew up in the house of Imam Jawād (a) from the age of 11, then became a wakīl for Imam Naqī (a) and ‘Askarī (a). His significance was such that he also became the first nā’ib of the 12th Imam (a). ‘Uthmān b. Sa’īd eventually began residing in Baghdad, disguising himself as an oil seller. If the Shī’a had to deliver that which was obligatory upon them to Imam ‘Askarī (a), they would send it to ‘Uthmān who would put their money or any other items in containers of clarified butter due to dissimulation and fear and carry it to Imam ‘Askarī (a) in Sāmarra.3
Another important agent was Aḥmad b. Isḥāq b. Sa’d al-Ash’arī, mentioned earlier. He was a wakīl of Imam Naqī (a) and ‘Askarī (a) in Qom and during the occultation he moved from Qom to Baghdad and became a close assistant of the aforementioned ‘Uthmān b. Sa’īd. Aḥmad’s significance was such that he was also the senior-most scholar in Qom during his time, whose narrations can be found in Shī’ī works of ḥadīth. He trained numerous students and had written a number of works. After Imam ‘Askarī (a), Aḥmad was one of the individuals who demonstrated that the brother of the 11th Imam, Ja’far – who at the time was claiming to be the Imam himself – could not have been the Imam and God’s authority on earth.4
There is no denying that there was definitely a degree of confusion in the Shī’ī communities after the 11th Imam, but nevertheless, a lot of this confusion was contained and dealt with by these very agents and representatives who had garnered the trust of their communities over the decades. This is true not just in the case of the 12th Imam but as well as when confusion arose amongst some communities after the demise of any one of the previous Imams (a). In a meeting Imam ‘Askarī (a) has with Aḥmad b. Isḥāq after the Imamate had transferred to him from the 10th Imam, he (a) asks him about the people of Qom and whether their confusion regarding who the next Imam was had been dispelled. Aḥmad (a) who was also a wakīl for the 10th Imam in the city of Qom before that, responds to the 11th Imam saying, “O my master, when your letter was received, there was not a man or a woman from amongst us, and neither a young child who had reached a level of understanding, except that they confessed to the truth (of the fact that you are indeed the Imam).”5
Likewise, when the 12th Imam is born, Imam ‘Askarī (a) sends Aḥmad b. Isḥāq a letter in Qom informing him of the birth of his son. Aḥmad says that a letter was sent in the same handwriting of Imam ‘Askarī (a) in which all of his previous correspondences and letters would be sent, and it said we have been blessed with a child who will remain hidden from people and that the Imam (a) is only informing the closest of his followers.6
Later when Aḥmad visits the 11th Imam (a), the Imam tells him that if Aḥmad was not seen as a noble individual in front of Allah (swt) and the Imams, he (a) would not have informed him about the birth of his son – who will fill the earth with justice and equity.7
The birth of the Mahdī (a) was kept closely guarded and hence many Muslims at the time never came to believe Imam ‘Askari (a) had a son. Few trustworthy individuals – especially from amongst the network of agents – who over the decades had not only gained the trust of the 11th Imam but as well as the trust of their own communities, had been told about the birth and some fortunate enough even had the opportunity to see the 12th Imam. While naturally there was confusion and perplexity in certain segments of the Shī’ī community, this confusion was addressed and dealt with by these agents and as well as Shī’ī scholars over the years. In essence, the Wakālah system and the individual agents themselves paved the path for a smoother transition into the occultation.