Religious Coexistence During the Occultation

The original transcript of the lecture given by Ustad Mahallati in Farsi can be found here.

The discussions relating to Imam Zamān (a) can be split into two categories, one category relating to ideas and the other relating to matters of a more practical nature. One of the discussions that take place within the ‘practical’ category is this: what difference does living in the occultation bring on our situation,  responsibilities and interactions [with others]? What difference(s) arise from living in the time of occultation in comparison to had we been living at the time of the Imam’s (a) presence? Are there any differences between the two or no?

In certain areas, it’s quite evident that between the time of occultation and the time of presence there is no difference. For example, our “ethical obligations” are exactly the same during occultation as they would have been during the time of presence, so if we take the example of lying, we know for sure that in both eras lying is detestable and forbidden. Another area in which there is no difference is in matters of “individual worship”. So there would be no change in the obligation of fasting and prayers. A third area in which there is no change are many of the “societal laws”, such as the laws of transactions. These laws remain exactly the same as they have been and we need to act accordingly.

Alongside these matters, a question arises on whether there is then any change in our responsibilities during the time of occultation. What impact does the presence and absence of the Imam have on our life?1 To answer this we need to explore whether [traditionally] we [as a Shi’i school] in the time of occultation have always been following one method and strategy in political and governmental matters or not. In this area, there are three hypothetical approaches that are possible to be reconstructed according to various scholarly views.

Confrontation or Coexistence?

The first possibility is that in our social and political responsibilities there is no difference [between the occultation and the presence], and the objectives and goals are the same. We are obligated to lay the foundation for those objectives that the Imam will have once he reappears. The only difference is that we do not have all the necessary capabilities for doing so, neither do we have perfect knowledge of the exact particulars of what these objectives are. For this reason, complete success isn’t possible and whatever success in establishing these ideals we can achieve will be limited. However, when the Imam reappears all the conditions and requirements for those goals will be available and the Imam’s success will be absolute. So for example, if the aim of the Imam is to entirely uproot all forms of disbelief, this obligation is also on us to the extent to which we can perform it.

The second possibility is that the ideals and goals remain the same when it comes to their content but differs only regards to the extent of its application. Therefore if it is required for us to follow these ideas, we only have to do so in a limited manner. So for example, if the goal of the Imam is to reform the world and bring about justice, we would then try to do this on a much more limited and local scale. In this opinion, there is no qualitative difference between what we are trying to aim for and what we know the Imam will do, but rather the difference is solely on the degree of its application.

The third view is that in the time of occultation we have no obligations in political matters and our responsibilities and orientation are completely different. Not only in respect to the extent and degree [of these goals] but also with respect to the actual goals themselves. According to this opinion, we are living at a time where we have none of these [political] responsibilities and obligations, however, when the Imam returns and reappears these obligations will change.

From looking at the Shi’i history of ideas, my understanding is that up until only recently the commonly adopted view [amongst scholars] was in fact the third one. What the majority of scholars understood and practised was the acknowledgement that in the time of occultation we Shi’as are a minority, and in relation to other Islamic groups we should try to coexist and tolerate one another and in the process, we should bear the hardships, look after our own and avoid confrontation. In addition, Muslims, in general, are in the minority with respect to other religions and faith, and until the reappearance, this won’t change either.

The Shi’a, being a minority, have to protect themselves, their faith, their goals, by coexisting and tolerating various powers at play and not put ourselves in harm’s way until this era passes. Similar to what all the Imams did (after Imam Husayn), in that they didn’t come openly to the forefront and engage in confrontation, they coexisted. Yet even still the enemies knew that the Imams had the potential for this open confrontation and on this basis, they harassed them yet we don’t have any record of any of the later Imams calling for an uprising, in fact, we have the opposite where they would call their followers to coexist, act moderately and adopt a state of dissimulation (taqiyya). With this in mind, it can’t be said that the Imams therefore endorsed or legitimised these oppressive governments [through their lack of open protesting], rather all that is being said is that there is no evidence of any stern engagements. Even in the instance where it could be argued they adopted a confrontational stance, it was more peaceful and conciliatory, similar to the methods adopted by Syed Burujerdī and Ayatollāh Hā’irī with the first and second Pahlavī regime.2

In this respect, I will elaborate a little more on the evidence and arguments on which the third view has been predicated so that we can get a little familiar with how our scholars, throughout the last 1,000 years, understood our political responsibilities in the time of occultation. One part has to do with the traditions from the Imams and the other has to do with the interpretation of these traditions by our greatest scholars.

The Occultation – The Era of Truce and Dissimulation

In our traditions, we find two expressions given by the Imams for the time before the reappearance. The first expression is that this era is the era of truce (hudna), (and this is in opposition to the era of the reappearance, which is the era of the uprising (qiyām)). This truce can be understood to mean tolerance, coexistence and abandoning confrontation. The second expression found in the tradition is the era of dissimulation (taqiyya).

In Wasā’il al-Shī’a we have the tradition from Imam Bāqir:

 إذا قام یبطل ما کان فی الهدنه ممّا کان فی أیدی النّاس و یستقبل بهم العدل

When the Imam rises, he shall nullify what was being practised by the people during the era of truce and spread justice.3

Hudna in the dictionary is generally translated to mean compromise, agreement, abandoning confrontation and peace. Allāmah Majlisī in explaining this term says the following:

حال الهدنه حال المصالحه مع ائمه الجور و ترک معارضتهم و التقیه معهم بامر الله للمصلحه

The period of truce [refers to] conciliation with the oppressive rulers and abandoning any confrontations with them, and practising dissimulation with them for expediency.4

Another tradition in relation to adopting dissimulation from Imam Ridhā:

ان اکرمکم عندالله اعملکم بالتقیه، قیل: الی متی؟ قال: الی قیام القائم، فمن ترک التقیه قبل خروج قائمنا فلیس منّا

The most honourable of you in the eyes of Allah is he who adopts dissimulation. The Imam was then asked: up until when? The Imam replied: Until the Imam rises, for whoever abandons dissimulation prior to the rising of our Imam is not from us.5

Similarly, a tradition in al-Kāfi from Imam Sādiq:

ما على وجه الارض شيء أحب إلي من التقية … ان الناس إنما هم في هدنة فلو قد كان ذلك كان هذا.

There is nothing on the face of this earth more beloved to me than dissimulation…indeed people are in a state of truce until the rising. 6

Allāmah Majlisī commenting on this tradition says the state of truce is up until the reappearance of the Imam, after which the command for dissimulation drops and we will then be commanded to fight and confront others.7 These two expressions which we have looked at shaped the basis of the opinions of our scholars, who believed that in the time of occultation not only should we not be going after establishing the end objectives of religion on a global level, but we also shouldn’t even be trying to do anything like that even on a more local level either. When the Imam returns our situation will change, and rulings, such as: “And fight them until there is no strife, and religion is wholly for God”8 are to be understood as being directly linked with the reappearance. Up until then, our assumption remains such that we are a minority, and in such circumstances, we have no obligations [for this] and we should bear patiently till this era passes. With this foundation, a number of changes occur in our rulings and interactions with others, seven of which I will list9 here:

  1. Marrying into different sects has been a matter of controversy amongst Shi’i scholars, whether a Shi’i female can marry a Muslim non-Shi’i male. The traditions on this are contradictory and a number of scholars have said that being a Muslim suffices to legitimise marriage. One of the ways they have argued for this is by saying we are living in a time of truce where it isn’t required for Shi’is to seperate themselves from others.10
  1. The punishment for someone who curses the Prophet, Hazrat Zahrā or any of the Imams. From a jurisprudential perspective, the life of such a person is considered to not have any sanctity and is permissible to be killed. However, what is the ruling during the time of truce [and how should we implement this]? Sāhib al-Jawāhir here mentions that if you see someone cursing the Ahl al-Bayt, since we are in a time of truce it is not appropriate to put yourself in harm [by trying to kill them and carry out the punishment].11
  1. On the property of the disbeliever who is in a state of war (kāfir harbī). The property of the people of the book is considered to be protected, and taking it is not allowed as their ownership is accepted. However the ownership of a kāfir harbī is not accepted, and therefore, the question arises: is it possible to take their property? The ruling of the jurists is that if you are in a state of truce, it is not possible, and anything taken should be returned to them.12
  1. On the topic of food, is it possible to eat the food that has been slaughtered by Nawāsib and those people who have enmity to the Ahl al-Bayt? Here we find a tradition from Imam Sādiq telling us to eat and not worry until the time of truce passes and the Imam reappears.13
  1. Confrontation with all other schools of thought during the time of truce is not possible. To elaborate, there are some crimes that have a societal nature rather than a religious one, for example, a drug dealer. Punishing him would be allowed as the crime is not of a religious nature per se, but rather he is spreading corruption in society. In these instances religion isn’t invoked to support the punishment, however in instances where there is a theological underpinning or context in the act, such as apostasy, is it possible for such a person to be punished in an era of truce and dissimulation? The 6th Imam says: “it is not allowed for a person to kill a disbeliever or nawāsib whilst in a state of dissimulation unless they have committed murder or are spreading corruption in the land … and upholding dissimulation in the land of dissimulation is obligatory.”14
  1. When it comes to commanding the good and forbidding the evil, do we have any obligations here? It should be emphatically stated that this obligation is not void in the time of occultation, but any commanding of the good that results in confrontation and conflict is. We are in a time of truce, and therefore anything that violates this isn’t allowed. In a tradition from Imām Sādiq, when he was asked about whether commanding the good was obligatory on everyone: “there is no requirement for someone who knows [the conditions of commanding the good acting upon it] during the time of truce and putting himself in hardship.”15 Advising and verbally remonstrating should be acted upon fervently, yet great care should be taken to ensure such actions do not violate or contradict the fundamental premise of coexistence and moderation.
  1. Interaction with people of other faiths and schools of thought. In al-Kāfi we have a tradition that says: “Fear Allah, for indeed you are in an era of truth, return the trusts endowed to you to who it belongs to … even if they are the Khawārij or people of Syria [i.e. followers of Ummayads].”16 Elsewhere when speaking about upholding the rights of others in the time of truce Imam Sadiq says: “Today they are the people of truce, so in such times [of truce] return to them any lost possessions you find of theirs, respect their lives, marry among them”.17. Another tradition narrated by Shaykh Tūsi: “Mohammad b. Alī Halabī says: A person from the Umayyad Marwān Dynasty had left me with a thousand dinār, after a while I lost [contact with] him and I didn’t know what to do with the money, so I went to Imām Sādiq and informed him of what had happened, and told him he is more deserving of the money [than the Marwānid who it belonged to]. The Imam replied: No! My father used to say we are in a time of truce, so return back their trusts, return their lost possessions, testify to their oaths, for if society splits none will remain safe.”18

These two concepts of being at truce and in a state of dissimulation completely change the way we understand how to live life alongside other Muslims. To go a step further, it also affects the way we live life alongside non-Mulims too if we take into consideration the need to avoid confrontation and disputes. This concept of truce alters our default mode of interaction with others from confrontation to coexistence. However, this should be understood at different levels, with the Sunnis it is a lot more expansive and vast, and with the disbelievers more restricted – not all non-Shi’ī are on the same footing.

It’s possible that you might think that during the time of the Imam the need to adopting dissimulation and truce was essential for their safety, whereas we now live at a time where it is no longer needed. We don’t live under fear for our own safety, we have the ability to believe in whatever we want without persecution, so why all the emphasis on dissimulation then? In regards to this question, keep in mind that the traditions we have referred to all made it very clear that we are instructed to act this way up until the reappearance. In addition, the Imam has said that the more time that passes [and we get closer to the reappearance] the more vital and serious the need for upholding the truce and dissimulation will become.19 A factor behind this may be that as time goes on differences will increase and society will become more fractured and polarising, resulting in the level of dissimulation required to mitigate these differences to increase in proportion.20

The Understanding of Scholars from these Traditions About Dissimulation and Truce

It isn’t always the case that just because there is a tradition on something our scholars have always accepted it. At times traditions haven’t been accepted for a number of different factors, for example, the tradition might contradict rational dictates or the clear text of the Qur’ān, or perhaps the chain of narrators is weak. In this context the question might arise, what have the scholars understood from these traditions [that I have quoted]? Were these traditions that speak of truce and dissimulation considered to be reliable?

Most of the traditions quoted have been considered to be reliable by the jurists, and they all accepted this principle that during the time of occultation we should abide by dissimulation and cooperation. To illustrate this point I will mention two of such scholars, one of these is Sāhib al-Jawāhir, who is considered not only to be one of our greatest jurists but was also the spokesperson for fiqh in the 12th century Hijrī. On the topic of dissimulation, he says that it is of two types, the first is of an individual nature and relates to each individual in their own right. So for example a person who is living in an area where the ruler does not approve of Shi’ī beliefs will adopt dissimulation and hide his true beliefs. Dissimulation of this type varies and changes with the conditions of society. It is possible that this type of dissimulation was extremely common during the time of the Imāms [due to the oppression against the Ahl al-Bayt and their followers], but in our times it’s unlikely to be required, and we can pray and worship as we see fit and no one will harm us for it. The second type of dissimulation he explains is not specific to any circumstance but is generic and continuous until the reappearance of the Imam. This type of dissimulation, or truce, is in relation to how we need to coexist with other groups of people [especially Muslims].

Sāhib al-Jawāhir discusses this by asking the following questions: why did Imam Alī give his own daughter for marriage to Umar? Why did Imam Husayn give his daughter to the grandson of Uthmān? Why did Imam Husayn give his daughter Sukayna to the son of Zubayr?21 What kind of actions are these? If anyone else were to do something similar to what the Imams did they would have been heavily criticised and rebuked for doing so. He responds to these by saying that these actions should be understood as a type of dissimulation within the context of the time the Imams were living in. We are in an era of dissimulation and need to act with others in a manner that brings about expediency. When the Imam returns, this will all change and the need for dissimulation will expire and the truth will be made manifest. On this basis, all our interactions [with others] are predicated on this jurisprudential footing of dissimulation and truce, and for this reason, you will see scholars whose outlook is more traditional (sunnatī) to be more bound by these ideas. Sāhib al-Jawāhir continues and says that if till now we had not adapted dissimulation, nothing of our school would have remained. It is only through the method of dissimulation that we were able to protect our school, and this is the path that was taught to us by the Imams who themselves did everything they could to ensure the survival of this school. Sāhib al-Jawāhir refers to this type of dissimulation which remains until the Imam returns as taqiyya zamāniyya.22

Another example to take is that of Shaykh Muhammad Taqī al-Shīrāzī. In his glosses on Makāsib he writes: From the time after Imam Sajjād till the reappearance of the Imam we are in an era of truce with our opponents.23 When explaining dissimulation, Sāhib al-Jawāhir says that those causes that resulted in the occultation are the criteria for us to do dissimulation. Our era is one of dissimulation and cooperation, and according to him the criteria for dissimulation isn’t the idea of being at danger or in harm (which would then mean when there is no harm or danger there is no need to do dissimulation).24 On this basis we can extract that the interpretation of earlier scholars from these traditions was that in the time of the occultation we are obligated to act on the ethical, individual and societal obligations, and these have no relation to us being in a state of truce. Our situation will change when the Imam takes power and his goals of establishing global justice and uprooting oppression become a reality.

However, I should caveat the above and emphasise that the concept of being in an era of truce mentioned in our tradition and by our scholars does not entail remaining silent or submitting to oppression nor does it mean legitimising illegitimate governments. It only means we abandon all confrontations and being entangled in disputes with other faiths and that we adopt a conciliatory approach with them. In this regard, it would be pertinent to recall that Syed Shīrāzī who while recognising that we are living in a time of truce, also gave an order to fight against England in Iraq to protect Islamic lands. The history of our scholars demonstrates how they neither legitimised oppressors neither did they call for people to obey them. However they ensured there was cooperation and coexistence amongst the various religious schools, and this is something taken from the Imams teachings.

At a time when inter-religious confrontation and sectarianism are at an all-time high, there is room to reinvestigate the traditional Shi’ī approach and look at its worldview and fundamentals [to help us alleviate these challenges.].


  1. The impact of the occultation on the Shi’ī school has been a central discussion from its onset, from the perplexion (hayra) that it had caused to the various theological justifications and explanations that scholars wrote to come to terms with the new reality we were facing. One thing that stands out from all of the scholarly output on the occultation is that our situation has become unfavourable and far from ideal, with our ability to be able to extrapolate our rulings and obligations curtailed, and essentially our access to the Truth cut off. So for example, when Shaykh Ansāri released his practical treatise he caveated it with the explanation that “in the time of the occultation, acting according to my rulings is allowed similar to the example of eating dead meat [which in times of emergency is considered allowed].”  Similarly, Muqaddas Ardabilli, under the discussion of whether it is allowed to pray Friday prayers in the time of occultation says: “…freedom from doubts and ambiguity for a believer is something not possible, except with the reappearance of the Wali Amr, and al-Natiq bil-Haqq al-Yaqin. Without him, it is extremely difficult.” Mehdi Nasiri, an Iranian scholar and thinker recently published a book called The Era of Perplexion (‘asr-e-hayrat) where he presents an extensive discussion on the impacts of the occultation on our general religious obligations and worldview. He collects all the verses and traditions which highlight just how impeded and limited we are without the presence of the Imam (a) – a view grounded in orthodox Shi’i theology.
  2. Prior to the revolution there were a number of leading scholars within the seminary that adopted a more conciliatory approach with the Shah and were known for being political quietists, perhaps none more so than the great Marja’ Ahmad Khwansari, who was heavily criticised by many, including Imam Khomeini himself, for his lack of support for the revolution. For more on Syed Ahmad’s political ideas and practice refer to this 4 part series.
  3. Wasā’il al-Shī’a, v. 15, p. 77
  4. Mir’āt al-Uqūl, v. 4, p. 21
  5. Wasā’il al-Shī’a, v. 16, p. 211
  6. Wasā’il al-Shī’ā, v. 16, p. 26
  7. Mir’āt al-Uqūl, v. 9, p. 169
  8. Qur’ān, 8:39
  9. An example which could also be mentioned, though not listed by the author, is the non-obligation of migrating from a state ruled by a non-Shi’a Muslim where one cannot establish the symbols of the Shi’a faith, even though it is obligatory to do so from a land ruled by non-Muslims where one cannot establish the symbols of the religion:

    All of this concerned the countries of polytheism, but Shahīd assigns the countries of the opponents to this rule as well, where a believer cannot establish the symbols of belief, in this case, it is obligatory to migrate from such places to a country where one can establish the symbols. Al-Karakī appreciates this opinion, but said: “Apparently, this ruling is for when the Imam (a) is present and there is no need for dissimulation, however with his occultation and the remaining of dissimulation, then this rule is not apparent.”

    I (Ṣāḥib al-Jawāhir) say: From the narrations that encourage one towards dissimulation and be adamant on it, in fact there are narrations that say one who prays with them (the Ahl al-Sunnah) is like the one who prays with the Prophet (p) in the first row, or that dissimulation is their (a) religion, and the narrations that speak of living nicely with them, visiting their sick, attending their funerals, and the continuous practice (of the Shi’a) on the continuation of dealing with them and being by their side etc. all prove that it is not obligatory to migrate in the time of occultation, even if there is a place where the symbols can be established. This is because the era is of dissimulation, until the Walī Amr – may my soul be sacrificed upon him – reappears, in fact perhaps this is well known to be the position of the Imāmīyyah school in speech and action. So it is strange what is attributed to Shahīd, and I do not know of anyone else who held that opinion, and neither is this opinion reiterated in any other well-known book (vol. 21, pg. 37).

  10. For example, see Shaykh Najafī, Jawāhir al-Kalām, v. 30, p. 99, Shaykh Sanad, Sanad al-Urwa al-Wuthqa, v. 2, p. 323
  11. Shaykh Najafī, Jawāhir al-Kalām, v. 21, p. 345
  12. Muhaqqiq Hillī, Sharā’i al-Islām, v. 4, p. 840
  13. Taqī Majlisī, Rowdha al-Muttaqīn, v. 7, p. 430
  14. Shaykh Sadūq, al-Khisāl, p. 607
  15. Shaykh Kulaynī, al-Kāfi, v. 5, p. 60
  16. Mir’āt al-Uqūl, v. 26, p. 181
  17. Shaykh Sadūq, al-Faqīh, v. 3, p. 472
  18. Shaykh Tūsi, al-Tahdhīb, v. 6, p. 350
  19. Wasā’il al-Shī’a, v. 16, p. 207
  20. Mulla Sālih Māzandarānī, Sharh Usūl al-Kāfī, v. 9, p. 124
  21. This is an erroneous claim since Suayna married Mus’ab b. Zubayr after the battle of Karbala and so Imam Husayn is not the one who gave his daughter to him in marriage, although perhaps the point being made is how were these marriages in general taking place.
  22. Shaykh Najafī, Sāhib al-Jawāhir, v. 30, p. 101
  23. Shaykh Taqī al-Shīrāzī, Hāshiya Makāsib, p. 55
  24. Shaykh Najafī, Sāhib al-Jawāhir, v. 16, p. 144