Occultation and Mahdawiyyat in the Writings of Shaykh al-Mufid (Part 2)

Originally written in Arabic by Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā Ḥusaynī al-Jalālī and translated into Persian by Dr. Jūyā Jahānbakhsh[1]

Click Here for Part 1

Translated and Annotated into English by Muhammad Jaffer

Edited by Sayyid Burair Abbas

In the previous piece, we surveyed al-Mufīd’s Ten Epistles, one of his most comprehensive theological treatises treating the occultation of the Twelfth Imām (as). In the following article, we present the remaining major theological treatises of al-Mufīd on the question of the ghaybah. The discussion presented here is somewhat theologically nuanced; al-Mufīd lived during the Būyid Shī’ah dynasty wherein theological debate and disputation was an extremely active and ornate discipline. The reader will observe that all the following pieces are characterized by a highly dialectical tone, wherein al-Mufīd is often seeking to dismantle the arguments of his interlocutors in his defense of the occultation. We hope this piece will give the reader some insight into how early Shī’ah theologians, particularly al-Mufīd, had addressed the question of the Twelfth Imām’s (as) ghaybah.

A Treatise Regarding the Ḥadīth “Whoever Dies Without Recognizing the Imām of His Time Dies the Death of Ignorance”

This ḥadīth is authenticated and accepted by the entire Muslim ummah; al-Mufīd states that the narration is considered reliable based on the consensus of tradents[2]. All of the major schools of Islam have reported this narration, including the Imami Shī’ites, the Zaydites, and the Ahl al-Sunnah.[3] There is no question about the chain of its narration; therefore, al-Mufīd does not spend much time in this discussion and instead focuses his attention on the significance and import of the ḥadīth.

Firstly, al-Mufīd points to decisive verses of the Qur’ān that support the import of this narration. He points specifically to the following verses:

يَوْمَ نَدْعُو كُلَّ أُنَاسٍ بِإِمَامِهِمْ…

On the day wherein We shall call every people by their Imām…”[4]

فَكَيْفَ إِذَا جِئْنَا مِن كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ بِشَهِيدٍۢ وَجِئْنَا بِكَ عَلَىٰ هَٰٓؤُلَآءِ شَهِيدًا

How shall it be when We will summon a witness from every nation, and We summon you upon them as a witness?[5]

The import of the narration is that if someone does not recognize the Imām of his time, this lack of cognizance shall cause him to die a death of the Age of Ignorance (i.e., while not being on the creed of Islam). In al-Mufīd’s words: “ignorance regarding the Imām renders said individual outside the fold of Islam.”[6] Hence, it inevitably follows that in every epoch, there should be an Imām and that the Muslims must recognize that Imām of their respective era; otherwise, it is as if they had died in a state of disbelief and deviation. The Imami Shī’ites believe in an Imām of the epoch, who as per their belief is Muḥammad ibn Ḥasan al-‘Askarī (as): this is the self-same Mahdī who is expected at the end of time and went into occultation shortly after his birth.

Some opponents raise an objection against this belief, stating that occultation is not congruent with this ḥadīth’s import; they surmise that occultation negates our ability to recognize the Imām of our respective era. In their view, his existence requires that we should know his location, be able to have a connection with him, and have access to his expertise. In turn, they raise several objections:

1. They state that if this narration is authentic, how can the belief of the Imami Shī’ites regarding the Imām of this age be correct? How is it possible to claim cognizance of him while he is completely hidden from everyone and no one knows his place of residence?

In response, al-Mufīd states that the ḥadīth’s import only affirms the permanent necessity of an Imām and the need for Muslims to recognize his identity. It does not speak at all towards whether he should be apparent or hidden. Therefore, belief in occultation does not at all contradict this tradition.

In other words, existence and cognizance of the Imām does not require one to know his whereabouts; this is the mistake that the contender has made. Cognizance is not necessarily garnered through direct eyewitness or spatial proximity. There are even many phenomena that we have neither directly witnessed nor been contemporaneous to, yet we still acknowledge their occurrence. Consider previous historical events whose reliability we ascertain through indirect reports; also consider events of the future, such as the Day of Judgement and Resurrection, the generalities of which we ascertain through the scriptural texts in this regard. Sometimes, the religious exigency (al-maṣlaḥah) only demands for us to acknowledge an event or a personality, without necessarily being privy to its exact parameters and happenstances.

2. The objection is then raised as to what the religious exigency even is in recognizing the Imām, all while one does not even have any form of access to him?

Al-Mufīd answers that the cognizance itself of his existence, Imamate, infallibility, and moral rectitude benefits us; by doing so, we secure our otherworldly reward, having abided by the Divine commandment to recognize him. In turn, we also ward off the Divine retribution resulting from not recognizing him, as mentioned in this ḥadīth. By actively awaiting his advent, we are worshipping our Creator and diverting His Wrath from ourselves[7]. In maintaining this conviction, we are therefore fulfilling our Divinely imposed obligation.

3. The contender then asks that if his Imām is inaccessible, what should the believer be expected to do when he is confronted with challenges he does not know how to address? What should he rely upon and who should be the arbiter when a feud breaks out? The Imām is supposed to be the reference, and the entire purpose of his appointment is precisely this!

In response, al-Mufīd first notes that this question does not have any relevance to the ḥadīth in question. It is completely tangential and outside the scope of discussion. Nonetheless, al-Mufīd entertains this question and answers it as follows:

a. The office of Imamate has many functions; only one of these is arbitration in disagreements. Another equally important one is clarifying religious edicts for his adherents. Yet another is securing the public interest as it pertains to both religious and worldly affairs. However, all these responsibilities are contingent upon being the Imām freely being able to dispense them; when he is fully empowered, it becomes necessary for him to administer these duties. However, when a responsibility should fall outside the purview of the Imām’s capacity or be impeded by some obstacle, it is not obligatory upon the Imām to dispense it.

b. The conditions that have imposed hardship on the Imām and required his disappearance are not due to God, the Imām himself, or the righteous believers; rather, it is on account of his enemies who have usurped his right to the caliphate and governance of the Muslims. These are the same individuals who deemed his blood lawful, refuted his familial relationship, and denied his right to inheritance. It was these actions which led to his occultation and disappearance. The Imām and his believers are innocent on all these accounts; therefore they cannot be blamed.

c. As for those who encounter unprecedented issues, it is necessary for them to consult the jurists of the Shī’ah—who have been entrusted with this knowledge—in order to understand the rules of the Sharī’ah.[8] Now when there is neither an edict from the Sharī’ah nor a clear injunction (al-naṣṣ), it becomes imperative to rely upon rationality (al-‘aql). This is because if there had been a transmitted religious edict about the issue, God would certainly have facilitated its dissemination and instructed us to abide by it. Hence, the lack of clear tradition on an issue substantiates that there is no specific religious edict pertaining to it; as such, the intellect is charged with dispensing judgment.

As it pertains to disputing parties, they should also refer back to the jurists of the Shī’ah who would in turn survey the Divinely sanctioned religious edicts; when there is no clear injunction, they should refer to the judgement of rational minds that are societally accredited (be nazd-e-‘urf maqbūl-and).

Furthermore, in those affairs which one cannot ascertain whether tradition prohibits or allows, the default should be that they are permissible.[9] Al-Mufīd then quotes a similar contention posed to Shaykh al-Ṣadūq and its answer.[10]

4. Lastly, the contention is raised that if the Muslim ummah can rely anyway upon textual tradition, the intellect, independent reasoning (al-ijtihād), and rational principles (al-uṣūl), then why does it even need an Imām in the first place? There is no need for his existence and therefore belief in his occultation is unnecessary. In answering this contention, Mufīd states that the need for an Imām is perpetual, even if he should be in occultation. His existence in absentia does not negate this ontological need. As an analogy, the absence of medicine for an invalid does not mean that the invalid does not require the medicine. If a bewildered person cannot find an answer, this does not imply that the answer does not exist or that he does not need it. He certainly does require it, even if it should be inaccessible to him.

Furthermore, if this contention regarding self-sufficiency during the occultation had been correct, it should also equally apply to when the Prophets were in occultation. For instance, consider the occultation of the Holy Prophet (saw) in the Valley of Abū Tālib for three years and his being absent for several days in the Cave of Thawr during his flight from Makkah. Consider Prophet Mūsā (as) being absent from his people when he went to Mount Sinai for 40 nights. Consider Prophet Yūnus (as) being hidden in the belly of the whale. If this theory was right, since these Prophets were absent for a period of time, then this implies that there was no need for them! Now no Muslim, let alone any religious person who believes in Divine Revelation for that matter, would accept such a claim![11]

Finally, al-Mufīd makes a very important point in answering this contention. He states that all the opponents of the Imamites believe in the legitimacy of independent reasoning (al-ijtihād) in deriving religious edicts. After the demise of the Holy Prophet (saw) in 11 AH, they immediately believe that ijtihād was acceptable; as for the Imamites, they believe that ijtihad became a valid tool for deriving jurisprudence only after the Minor Occultation in 329 AH.

Therefore, our state in the occultation is the exact same circumstance they find themselves in anyway; so why do they raise an objection against us?!

Even though we have been forced to rely on ijtihād due to the occultation, at least we still believe that our era has an Imām, of whom we have cognizance by name, personality, and description. Therefore, the Imamites have adhered to the implications of recognizing the Imām and saved themselves from dying a death of ignorance (Jāhiliyyah). Meanwhile, regardless of what they do in terms of jurisprudence, what do their detractors do in the face of this ḥadīth which is accepted based on consensus and has such a clear import?! Whom are they following in their religion? Who is their Imām of the present-day age for them? If they do not know their Imām, then this ḥadīth clearly spells out for them in what state they are leaving this world!

A Treatise Regarding The Proof for The Twelfth Imām’s Existence During His Ghaybah

After substantiating the ontological necessity of the Imām and the religious requirement to recognize him, the discussion about the existence of Imam al-Mahdī (as), whom the Shī’ah believe is in occultation, presents itself. Shaykh al-Mufīd dealt with the former discussion in his previous treatise regarding the ḥadīth of recognizing the Imām of one’s time. This treatise follows immediately after that discussion and consists of a conversation between Shaykh al-Mufīd and another unidentified individual who asks al-Mufīd to give him convincing evidence for the existence of Imām Ṣāhib al-Zamān (as). The questions and answers presented are summarized as below:

1. Given that people are in such disputation about the existence of a Hidden Imām (as), what is the proof of his existence?

Al-Mufīd answers that the proof of his existence lies in the hyper-corroborated (mutawātir) traditions of the Imamites as well as the prophecy of the Twelfth Imām’s occultation since the time of Imām ‘Alī (as). We see that the Imamites, despite various interests and views, myriad geographical residences, and unacquaintance with one another, all unanimously accept the Twelfth Imām’s existence. These individuals are virtuous and pious, knowing that lying about an individual’s existence is reprehensible; therefore, it is impossible that this large community should collude together to fabricate and concoct such narrations. If such a feat should be surmised, then we ought to spare no religious community from the same accusation vis-à-vis their transmitted traditions. This would in turn collapse the entire edifice of religious knowledge; the untenability of such a proposition is therefore clear.

2. Perhaps there was only a subgroup within the Imamite community that colluded to claim his existence. In turn, the Imamites narrated these fabricated traditions without knowing how they originated, to the point that they developed a strong conviction in the doctrine.

In response, al-Mufīd states that this contention ought to be proposed against every hyper-corroborated (mutawātir) narration and would inevitably lead to the destruction of all religious transmitted knowledge.

Secondly, if this possibility was tenable, we would indubitably have seen the opponents of the Shī’ah—who were constantly seeking to dismantle the Imamites—speak of this conspiracy and publicize this scandal of trying to fabricate his existence. The fact that this has not occurred is proof that this possibility is not tenable.

Then, al-Mufīd presents several narrations about the Twelfth Imām (as) which speak of his occultation from Imām ‘Alī, Imām al-Bāqir, and Imām al-Ṣādiq (as). He also presents a line from the poetic work of the companion of the 6th Imām Sayyid al-Ḥimyarī (rh), who lived 150 years before the time of the occultation:

له غيبة لا بد أن سيغيبها                   فصلى عليه الله من متغيب

No doubt, his will be an occultation

                                     Thus upon him may God send His salutation!

In reference to this line of poetry, al-Mufīd states:

“May God have mercy upon you oh Sayyid al-Ḥimyarī. Behold this line of his which attests to the occultation. If al-Ḥimyarī had not heard this prophecy from the Imāms, who had in turn heard it from the Holy Prophet (saw), how could he possibly have said this? Is it possible that someone should say such a thing 150 years before its occurrence, and then it comes to pass exactly as he said?”

3. If these narrations are correct, then they ought to also be narrated by the non-Imamites.

Al-Mufīd notes that this is not obligatory nor necessary; if this was required, then we ought to invalidate any report that is not narrated by both believers and non-believers. If we should reject any narration that is not also transmitted by its opponents, each side will easily be able to repudiate the other and it will become impossible to rely on any historical report[12].

4. As long as the Imām (as) is in occultation for this prolonged period, no benefit can be derived from him. Therefore, what is the difference between his existence and non-existence?

Al-Mufīd answers that God has made him His Proof, however the evildoers have impeded his advent and have given him a cause to fear for his life, therefore they are responsible for his occultation. If God had not brought him into existence or caused him to die, then the reason for failure to benefit from the Imām would be upon God. The difference between these two situations should be clear to the keen intellect.

5. Why didn’t God cause him to ascend into heaven?

The Imām is God’s Proof for the people of the Earth, and therefore it is necessary for him to be amongst the people to whom he has been dispatched. The Earth cannot be devoid of God’s Proof, and therefore it is not appropriate for God to cause him to ascend into Heaven.

Given that God’s Proof must have certain prerequisites, including infallibility, and granted that there is no one from the progeny of ‘Abbās nor Imām ‘Alī nor any of Quraysh who meet these requirements, the infallible of the era must be the self-same Imām of the Time (as).  If these aforementioned premises are acceptable, then occultation rather than ascension is rendered mandatory.[13]

A Treatise About the Difference Between an Apparent and a Hidden Imām

This treatise follows after the prior two discussions; that is, after one has substantiated the ontological necessity of the Imām and proved his existence and occultation, the question posits itself of the difference between the Twelfth Imām and his predecessors (as). The questioner asks why the former Imāms were apparent while the current one is hidden. It appears that this contender had overheard from the previous treatise that the reason for the occultation was the threat from “evildoers impeding his advent.” As such, he responded with this theological contention, which was secondhandedly sent to al-Mufīd with the statement: “May Allāh preserve your honor! We are in dire need of your response to this question.”

In summary, the question is that if the reason for the occultation—as prolonged and extensive as it is—should be the threat on the Imām’s life from his enemies, then yet more pressing and dire circumstances existed for the previous Imāms. Their enemies were even more conniving, and the menace of oppression was yet more intimidating.  Nonetheless, they were all physically apparent Imāms until their respective martyrdoms, not hiding themselves nor disappearing from their Shī’ah. Therefore, the reason proposed for the ghaybah of the Twelfth Imām (as) must be invalid.

In response to this contention, al-Mufīd notes the difference between the predicament of the Twelfth Imām and his holy predecessors (as). As it pertains to the previous Imāms (as), they were beholden to dissimulation from the enemy (al-taqiyyah) and had not been charged with the responsibility of undertaking an armed revolution. They were also not Divinely required to invite towards such a monumental mission. This was because in their time, it went against the public interest (al-maṣlaḥah); rather the maṣlahah was in their open discussion and interaction with the entourages of the enemy (i.e., the caliphs of their time). As such, it became well-known among the entire Muslim community that these earlier Imāms were not in support of armed uprising and prohibited calling towards it.

Nonetheless, these same Imāms had declared that at the end of times, an Imām was expected to descend from their lineage who would rejuvenate God’s religion, guide humankind, and eliminate injustice. They were clear that when this Imām would come, dissimulation would be impermissible. They furthermore elaborated the clear signs of his advent, which are mentioned in their respective narrations.

Nonetheless, these forefathers of the Hidden Imām (as) were known to the sultans and caliphs of their time in not calling for armed uprising or leadership for themselves; they were known to be bound by the prerogative of taqiyyah and were known for their virtuosity and piety. Given that the evildoers appreciated these peaceful circumstances of the previous Imāms, the Imāms knew that they could live in a relative state of security; they could manage their daily lives and preach their religious teachings while resolving many of the religious conflicts in their environment. Hence, they were in no need of an occultation.

However, the case of the Twelfth Imām (as) was entirely different, given that the enemy knew that he would rise with the sword and eliminate injustice; they were therefore in ambush of him and were desperate to eliminate the threat he would impose upon them.

Since the Twelfth Imām’s helpers will not be assembled until the time of his advent, there is no choice for him but to maintain taqiyyah and occultation. If he should appear without sufficient supporters, he would be casting himself into perdition. If he should summon others towards himself at any time other than that which God has ordained for his advent, the enemies would not spare any effort in annihilating him and all his followers.

Given that his infallibility is substantiated, he must remain in hiding from the enemy until the point that there is absolutely no doubt about the appointment for his uprising—the existence of his partisans, their assembly, and the expediency of his armed uprising must all be definite. Hence, the state of the Twelfth Imām (as) is crucially different from the circumstance of his pious predecessors (as). 

Now, al-Mufīd hearkens back to the state of the Holy Prophet (saw), taking precedent from his noble biography in facing the enemies of his society. He points out that the Holy Prophet (saw) tarried for thirteen years in Makkah without raising the sword or calling for jihad. Despite the myriad forms of ridicule, harm, and persecution meted out to him and his followers, he persevered. The Muslims asked the Holy Prophet (saw) for permission to unsheathe their swords and fight, however the Holy Prophet (saw) prohibited them and commanded them towards patience. The circumstance was so dire that he even requested the King of Ethiopia, al-Najāshī, to provide asylum for his followers from the Quraysh. When he feared for his life, he stayed in the Valley of Abū Tālib for three years in isolation, and thereafter when his uncle passed away, he secretly fled from Makkah. He then spent three days in the Cave of al-Thawr and then migrated to Madīnah. It was only thereafter that he saw the social interest in an armed initiative; it was only then that he cast off the cloak of taqiyyah and assembled an army of 313 strong against one thousand of the enemy at Badr.

Al-Mufīd recounts many of the events from the Prophet’s biography and then inquires: “Why didn’t the Prophet call towards uprising in Makkah? Why did he endure all the hardships? Why did he not tell his supporters to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Islam? Why did he prohibit them to engage in jihad? What was the reason for him to seek refuge for his partisans with al-Najāshī? In spite of his small number of supporters, why did he not engage in an armed skirmish? What is the reason for him having behaved so differently in his conduct and behavior between the Makkan and Medinite periods?”

Al-Mufīd then states to his interlocutor that whatever his answer should be to these questions, the answer of the Imamites regarding the difference between the former Imāms and the Twelfth Imām (as) shall be identical. Of course, the fact is clear to us that the Imāms behaved according to the Divine responsibility with which they had been charged, which was in turn in the best interest of humankind. The Imāms (as) are honored servants of God that do not impose their own desires over His Decree.[14]

A Treatise Regarding the Narration That The Advent of the Imām Is Contingent On His Helpers Being Equivalent to the Number at the Battle of Badr

Why has Imām al-Mahdī (as) not appeared and when will he appear? These questions perpetually posit themselves for the believers in the Twelfth Imām (as). They face the odium of their detractors and how often do they think to themselves that this world is already so filled with oppression and corruption—this ought to be the time for the Imām (as) to emerge to fill the world with justice and mercy. It is widely known of course that the advent of the Mahdī will not occur until the Earth is filled with oppression and evil, as narrated by all Muslims unanimously. Another variable mentioned in the ḥadīth regarding the time of the advent was quite famous during the time of Shaykh al-Mufīd. The narration is reported from Imām al-Ṣādiq (as):

إنه لو اجتمع على الإمام عدة أهل بدر ثلاثمائة وبضعة عشر رجلا لوجب عليه الخروج بالسيف

“Indeed, if the same number of Ahl al-Badr would assemble, that is three hundred and ten odd men [in support of the Mahdī], it would be necessary for him to appear with the sword.”

In this treatise, the interlocutor seeks to explore this ḥadīth with Shaykh al-Mufīd; we are told that this theological discourse occurs in the house of the interlocutor, who is identified by al-Mufīd as “ra’īs min al-ru’asā’” (a luminary among luminaries). The interlocutor states:

“We know for a fact that the Shī’ah of this era are many times greater than the number at Badr; on the authority of this ḥadīth, how does it make sense that the Imām is still in occultation?”

Al-Mufīd answers that even if the Shī’ah should be many in terms of number, the import of the ḥadīth is not only in reference to quantity. These individuals also have specific characteristics and it remains unknown whether such high-caliber individuals have materialized yet. The mentioned folk must be completely unmatched in terms of bravery, fortitude, activism, sincerity, jihad, preference for the Hereafter, spiritual purity, physical strength, and refined intellect. They do not engage in frivolity, they never surrender, and they are endowed with the Divine Providence in their armed revolt. It is unknown whether the Shī’ah meet these prerequisites.

When God decrees that the aforementioned number of individuals who meet these requirements should be assembled, then it will most certainly come to pass that the Twelfth Imām (as) will reappear. However, it appears that currently such a contingent has not been actualized and as such the ghaybah has continued.

The interlocutor then states: “Given that these characteristics and attributes have not been mentioned in the ḥadīth itself, from where are you deriving these prerequisites?”

Al-Mufīd answers that affirming these characteristics for the companions of the Twelfth Imām (as) naturally follows from the unanimously agreed upon precepts of Imamate. Given that we deem Imamate obligatory and we substantiate the infallibility of the Imāms based on strong evidence, we must interpret this ḥadīth from an infallible in congruence with these beliefs, so that its import becomes sound. These precepts demand that the contingent mentioned in this ḥadīth be defined by these characteristics.

Shaykh al-Mufīd mentions here that the Holy Prophet (saw) rose to battle at Badr with only 313 men; however, at al-Ḥudaybiyyah, where he had many times over this number, he turned away from conflict and retreated. He takes this as evidence for his claim that it was not simply about quantity for Ahl al-Badr, but also about their quality. Since we know that the Holy Prophet (saw) is infallible, we can surmise that the characteristics of those at al-Ḥudaybiyyah were not the same as those at Badr.  Otherwise, the Holy Prophet (saw) would never have retreated from the polytheists, and it would have been incumbent upon him to wage war just as he had done at Badr. Far be it from the infallible Holy Prophet (saw) to shy away from fulfilling his religious obligation.

The interlocutor then seeks to draw a distinction between the Holy Prophet (saw) and the Twelfth Imām (as). He states that the Holy Prophet would receive Divine revelation (al-waḥy) regarding the best interests of the society (al-maṣlaḥah) in order to guide his tactics. But what route does the Imām have to ascertain the maṣlaḥah?

Al-Mufīd answers that according to the Imamites, the Imām is Divinely appointed and is deliberate about his words and deeds. It is the selfsame Holy Prophet (saw) who, per the dictates of Divine revelation, entrusted his mission to the Imām and instructed him regarding how to handle his responsibilities and dispense his affairs appropriately.

If it had been that the Imām administered his affairs based on assumption, approximation, and personal opinion like other human beings, then this would be the route of how he ascertains the maṣlaḥah. Al-Mufīd notes that this is the view of the opponents of the Imamites, who even allow for the Prophet’s independent reasoning (al-ijtihād); nonetheless, the Imamites do not believe this.

Next, the interlocutor retorts: “Even if his advent should necessitate his demise, why doesn’t he at least appear to prove his Imamate and obviate the doubts that surround his existence?”

Al-Mufīd responds that given there are certain people who continue to be the reason for the Imām’s occultation, it is not incumbent upon the Imām (as) to appear. It is similar to how it is not incumbent upon God, in spite of His obvious Omnipotence, to immediately requite the sinners and evildoers.

Additionally, his appearance before its time may well engender more chaos among the populace; his advent is only appropriate when both exigency and public interest shall be secured by it. Once the maṣlaḥah in his reappearance is apparent, the Imām shall of course spare no moment in coming to the forefront.

We can also substantiate this through his infallibility: the fact he has not appeared must mean that there is no maṣlaḥah in his reappearance at this moment. Hence, it should be said that the creedal tenets of Imamate themselves help to answer these contentions about the ghaybah. We cannot study the occultation in isolation; rather it must be contextualized within the doctrinal framework of Imamate. Otherwise, we cannot expect to succeed in properly answering these questions.[15]

Next, al-Mufīd launches an attack on the Mu’tazilites, as they deem the belief in the protracted occultation intellectually reprehensible; nonetheless, they are in agreement with the Imamites about the core tenets of Imamate and believe that each epoch must be possessed by an Imām. Notwithstanding, they state that after Amīr al-Mu’minīn ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib (as) until now, they have not had an Imām! Therefore, al-Mufīd posits, if the core precepts of Imamate are unanimously agreed upon, then the position of the Imamites is more defensible; at least they believe in an Imām, even if he should be in occultation. Meanwhile, the Mu’tazilites have a completely theologically inexcusable position.

One of the members in the congregation where al-Mufīd is speaking then attempts to defend the Mu’tazilites; he states that the Mu’tazilites are excused if they do not properly establish the religious edicts since they don’t believe in an Imām. Meanwhile, what excuse do the Imamites have in not properly erecting the foundations of the Sharī’ah, all the while their early Imāms had been present?

Al-Mufīd answers that the Mu’tazilites’ not having an Imām does not excuse them from failing to implement the Sharī’ah; according to their dogma, in every era an elect group known as “ahl al-‘aqd wa al-ḥill” is tasked to appoint an Imām for themselves. Per their belief, this group is not excusable in neglecting to select a leader; rather by refusing to do so, they are sinful and culpable. However, of course this stubborn faction refuses to relent to their culpability! In turn, if they should be excusable for failing to elect an Imām for themselves, then a fortiori the Imāms of the Shī’ah are excusable in not establishing the Sharī’ah as it ought to be.

Additionally, the Imāms of the Imamites have an even clearer and more enduring excuse than the Mu’tazilites in being unable to enliven the Sharī’ah: that they lived under constant surveillance from the caliphs of their times, under perpetual fear and intimidation. These caliphs knew that these Imāms had the potential of rising up against them; that they had a significant following; and that they were considered the pinnacles of authority when it came to the Sharī’ah. There is no one who doubts this reality.[16]

As for the Mu’tazilites and the other sects, none of them were martyred, persecuted, surveilled, and slandered. This was all while the Mu’tazilites considered enjoining the good and forbidding evil obligatory; they considered the “ahl al-ḥill wa al-‘aqd” among themselves; and they repudiated obedience to the caliphs. Nonetheless, the kings of their time did not lend them the least bit of importance and did not feel threatened by their activities! Therefore, there is absolutely no excuse for them in failing to elect an Imām to establish the Sharī’ah, while the Imāms of the Imamites are most definitely excused.


[1] We have relied on Dr. Jahānbakhsh’s translation here, which is itself adapted from Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā al-Jalālī’s “Naẓarāt fī Turāth al-Shaykh al-Mufīd,” pages 132-167.

[2] In his al-Ifṣāḥ, al-Mufīd goes so far as to state that this narration is mutawātir (hyper-corroborated).

[3] TN: Indeed, this narration is highly reliable and quoted by both Shi’a and Sunni. Among Imami sources, this hadith is narrated by al-Saduq in his Kamal al-Din wa Tamam al-Ni’mah pgs 409-410 and al-Hurr al-‘Amili in his Wasa’il al-Shi’ah volume 16 page 246. The Arabic quoted in these narrations on the authority of the Prophet (saw) reads: من مات ولم يعرف إمام زمانه مات ميتة جاهلية. The narration from the Zaydites can be found in Musnad Zayd ibn ‘Ali on the authority of Imam ‘Ali (as): من مات وليس له إمام مات ميتة جاهلية إذا كان عدلا برا تقيا

In the Sunni versions of the riwayah, we find several wordings that are all quite close to the one quoted by the Shi’ah:

1. As quoted form Sahih Muslim and al-Bayhaqi: من مات وليس في عنقه بيعة مات ميتة جاهلية
2. As quoted in Musnad Ahmad, al-Haythami, and ibn Hibban: من مات بغير إمام مات ميتة جاهلية
3. As quoted by al-Hakim in his al-Mustadrak ‘ala al-Sahihayn: من مات وليس عليه إمام جماعة فإن موتته موتة جاهلية
4. As quoted by al-Tabarani, Musnad Abi Ya’la, and ibn Abi ‘Asim: من مات ليس عليه إمام فميتته جاهلية

Although Sunnis acknowledge the narration, they have different interpretations, stating that “Imam” here means a caliph or a ruler. On this basis, ibn Taymiyyah has used these hadith to mandate obedience to the Muslim state. Other Sunnis have interpreted the hadith as necessitating acknowledgement of the Imamate of the Holy Prophet (saw); this is a weak argument, as it is not supported by the general wording of the hadith (“the leader of his time”). Of course, a full discussion of this hadith’s import is outside the scope of this footnote.

[4]  Sūrah al-Isrā’ verse 71

[5] Sūrah al-Nisā’ verse 41

[6] Cf. al-Ifṣāh page 28

[7] By stating this, al-Mufīd seeks to point out that there are certain rules and formalities of theological disputation which are being violated by the questioner; imposing extraneous questions before completing the prior discussion is not appropriate in intellectual discourse.

[8]  In the Twelfth Imām’s rescript responding to some questions of Isḥāq ibn Ya’qūb, he states:

وأما الحوادث الواقعة فارجعوا فيها إلى رواة حديثنا فإنهم حجتي عليكم وأنا حجة الله عليهم

“As for unprecedented issues, refer to the narrators of our ḥadīth, for they are the proof upon you and I am the proof of God upon them.” (Kamāl al-Dīn wa Tamām al-Ni’mah volume 2, page 238)

The meaning of “the narrators of our ḥadīth” mentioned here are the jurists of the Shī’ah, who are experts in narrating and analyzing traditions from the Holy Ahl al-Bayt.

[9] TN: Al-Mufīd alludes here to rationality (al-aql) as embodied in the corpus of rational legal principles (uṣūl al-fiqh) and the intellections of religiously grounded people (sīrah al-‘uqalā’).

[10] Cf. Ikmāl al-Dīn, page 81.

[11] This contention is also addressed in al-Ṣadūq’s Ikmāl al-Dīn page 81, however the treatment of al-Mufīd here is more thorough.

[12] This answer has been narrated from Ibn Qibah from Ikmāl al-Dīn page 23. It should be said however that there are certainly narrations from Sunni sources about the occultation and several prominent Sunni scholars have acknowledged this fact. For the advanced reader, please see here: https://tinyurl.com/z35zxdxa

[13] This argument is the same which is presented by Sayyid Sharīf al-Murtaḍā in his “The Gratifier Regarding the Occultation” (Al-Muqni’ Fī al-Ghaybah). In that work, the questioner states to al-Murtaḍā that “per your claim, your Imām is 145 years old.” We can therefore surmise that this question and its answer are dated to approximately 400 AH.

[14] The advanced reader may also refer to al-Ṣadūq’s Kamāl al-Dīn regarding this argument, who preceded al-Mufīd in answering this contention.

[15] It goes without saying that Sharīf al-Murtaḍā employs this exact line of reasoning in his al-Muqni’ fī al-Ghaybah.

[16] This ought to be reconciled with what al-Mufīd has said earlier about the security that the caliphs felt that the Imāms would not revolt against them. Since the caliphs knew that the previous Imāms were not the Qā’im, they felt more comfortable. However, this was a relative sense of comfort only, since their kingdom was still threatened by some of the Imāms’ entourage. It was because of this that they kept the Imāms under tight surveillance. They still saw them as a threat, but not to the extent that the Qā’im would necessarily impose. The Imāms’ inability in enlivening the Sharī’ah was intimately tied with their constant persecution, suppression, and imprisonment. Meanwhile, groups like the Mu’tazilites lived in relative freedom and could exercise their religious beliefs with minimal government interference.

When it comes to the question of the ghaybah and its reasons, one must also not ignore the secrecy surrounding its true reason. Many of our narrations are quite clear about this (cf. Andūkhte-ye-Khudāvand by Shaykh Hādī al-Najafī, ed. Jūyā Jahānbakhsh volume 1 pages 247-248). One such narration is as follows :-

عن عبد الله بن الفضل الهاشمي قال: سمعت الصادق جعفر بن محمد عليهما السلام يقول: إن لصاحب هذا الامر غيبة لابد منها يرتاب فيها كل مبطل، فقلت له: ولم جعلت فداك؟ قال: لامر لم يؤذن لنا في كشفه لكم قلت: فما وجه الحكمة في غيبته؟ فقال: وجه الحكمة في غيبته وجه الحكمة في غيبات من تقدمه من حجج الله تعالى ذكره، إن وجه الحكمة في ذلك لا ينكشف إلا بعد ظهوره كما لا ينكشف وجه الحكمة لما أتاه الخضر عليه السلام من خرق السفينة، وقتل الغلام، وإقامة الجدار، لموسى عليه السلام إلا وقت افتراقهما.   يا ابن الفضل إن هذا الامر أمر من أمر الله، وسر من سر الله، وغيب من غيب الله ومتى علمنا أنه عز وجل حكيم، صدقنا بأن أفعاله كلها حكمة، وإن كان وجهها غير منكشف لنا.

The discussion of ‘Allāmah Muḥammad Ḥusayn Kāshif al-Ghiṭā’ regarding this same point is also very interesting (ibid, page 250).