By Eileen Maddocks
Expectation of a divine coming was also fermenting among the Shia Muslims in the Middle East, primarily in Iraq and Persia. In order to understand this anticipation, one must be aware of the events immediately after Muḥammad’s death in 632 A.D. that led to the split of Islam into the Sunni and Shia faction.
Shia hadith (1), states that in the last year of His life Muḥammad announced to His followers that His son-in-law and first disciple, ‘Alí ibn Abi Talib, was to be His successor. H. M. Balyuzi, a scholar of Islamic history, wrote:
on urgent bidding received from God, Muḥammad made, all of a sudden, a forced halt by the pool of Khum, a most inconvenient place; had a pulpit raised with saddles, and from this announced ‘Alí as His successor, requiring the large body of Muslims who were with Him to pledge their loyalty to ‘Alí. (2)
Shia tradition also states that on His deathbed Muḥammad asked for writing materials so that He might dictate His last wishes. Because He was very close to death, He was not brought the materials. The response was “The man is delirious, the Book of God sufficeth us.” (3)
The following day Abú Bakr was chosen to be the first Imam (leader). He and two successors constituted what was called the Rashidun caliphate, which lasted for 29 years until 661 A.D. ‘Alí ibn Abi Talib was finally named the head of the Islamic Faith in 656 A.D. and is considered by Sunnis to be the fourth Rashidun caliph and by Shias to be the first Imam. He lasted five years until he was assassinated while praying.
The cardinal point wherein the Shi’ahs (as well as the other sects included under the more general term of Imamites) differ from the Sunnis is the doctrine of the Imamate. According to the belief of the latter, the vicegerency of the Prophet (Khilafat [Caliphate]) is a matter to be determined by the choice and election of his followers, and the visible head of the Musulman world is qualified for the lofty position which he holds less by any special divine grace than by a combination of orthodoxy and administrative capacity. According to the Imamite [Shi’ah] view, on the other hand, the vicegerency is a matter altogether spiritual; an office conferred by God alone, first by His Prophet, and afterwards by those who so succeeded him, and having nothing to do with the popular choice or approval. In a word, the Khalifih of the Sunnis is merely the outward and visible Defender of the Faith: the Imam of the Shi’ahs is the divinely ordained successor of the Prophet, one endowed with all perfections and spiritual gifts, one whom all the faithful must obey, whose decision is absolute and final, whose wisdom is superhuman, and whose words are authoritative. The general term Imamate is applicable to all who hold this latter view without reference to the way in which they trace the succession, and therefore includes such sects as the Baqiris and Isma’ilis as well as the Shi’ah or `Church of the Twelve’ (Madhhab-i-Ithna-‘Ashariyyih), as they are more specifically termed, with whom alone we are here concerned. According to these, twelve persons successively held the office of Imam. These twelve are as follows:
- Ali-ibn-i-Abi-Talib, the cousin and first disciple of the Prophet, assassinated by Ibn-i-Muljam at Kufih, A.H. 40 (A.D. 661).
- Hasan, son of Ali and Fatimih, born A.H. 2, poisoned by order of Mu’aviyih I, A.H. 50 (A.D. 670).
- Husayn, son of Ali and Fatimih, born A.H. 4, killed at Karbila on Muharram 10, A.H. 61 (Oct. 10, A.D. 680).
- Ali, son of Husayn and Shahribanu (daughter of Yazdigird, the last Sasaniyan king), generally called Imam Zaynu’l-‘Abidin, poisoned by Valid.
- Muhammad-Baqir, son of the above-mentioned Zaynu’l-‘Abidin and his cousin Umm-i-‘Abdu’llah, the daughter of Imam Hasan, poisoned by Ibrahim ibn-i-Valid.
- Ja’far-i-Sadiq , son of Imam Muhammad-Baqir, poisoned by order of Mansur, the Abbaside Khalifih.
- Musa-Kazim, son of Imam Ja’far-i-Sadiq, born A.H. 129, poisoned by order of Harunu’r-Rashid, A.H. 183.
- Ali-ibn-i-Musa’r-Rida, generally called Imam Rida, born A.H. 153, poisoned near Tus, in Khurasan, by order of the Khalifih Ma’mun, A.H. 203, and buried at Mashad, which derives its name and its sanctity from him.
- Muhammad-Taqi, son of Imam Rida, born A.H. 195, poisoned by the Khalifih Mu’tasim at Baghad, A.H. 220.
- Ali-Naqi, son of Imam Muhammad-Taqi, born A.H. 213, poisoned at Surra-man-Ra’a, A.H. 254.
- Hasan-i-‘Askari, son of Imam Ali-Naqi, born A.H. 232, poisoned A.H. 260.
- Muhammad, son of Imam Hasan-i-‘Askari and Nargis-Khatun, called by the Shi’ahs `Imam-Mihdi,’ `Hujjatu’llah’ (the Proof of God), `Baqiyyatu’llah’ (the Remnant of God), and `Qa’im-i-Al-i-Muhammad’ (He who shall arise of the family of Muhammad). He bore not only the same name but the same kunyih–Abu’l-Qasim–as the Prophet, and according to the Shi’ahs it is not lawful for any other to bear this name and this kunyih together. He was born at Surra-man-Ra’a, A.H. 255, and succeeded his father in the Imamate, A.H. 260 . (5)
The Shi’ahs hold that he did not die, but disappeared in an underground passage in Surra-man-Ra’a, A.H. 329; that he still lives, surrounded by a chosen band of his followers, in one of those mysterious cities, Jabulqa and Jabulsa; and that when the fulness of time is come, when the earth is filled with injustice, and the faithful are plunged in despair, he will come forth, heralded by Jesus Christ, overthrow the infidels, establish universal peace and justice, and inaugurate a millennium of blessedness. (6)
Both Sunni and Shia Islam expect the return of the Mahdi (7) and Jesus Christ. Their advent will be preceded by cosmic events, wars, turmoil, and false prophets. The Mahdi will bring the final judgment (Day of Sorting Out), the end of the world, and a reign of peace and justice. In Sunni Islamic tradition, the Mahdi will start the process and Jesus will appear at some point in his reign to assist, although there are variations of this belief. The Sunni Islamic expectation has only been general.
Shia Islamic doctrine gives far more weight to the return, specifically with the Mahdi being the twelth Imam, the Qa’im, who has been waiting in hiding for many centuries. Shias agree with Sunnis that Jesus will also return. Shia Muslims were expecting the imminent return of the twelth Imam in the early nineteenth century. Note the remarkable similarity between the Christian and Shia Islamic expectancy—the Qa’im “will come forth, heralded by Jesus Christ, overthrow the infidels, establish universal peace and justice, and inaugurate a millennium of blessedness.”
Generally unknown to Muslims, unless they read the book of Daniel, is that the prophet Daniel foretold the coming of the Qa’im, “he who shall arise of the family of Muḥammad,” 1,260 lunar years after 622 A.D., or 1844. This prophecy will be examined in a later article in this series.
1 Hadiths are the alleged sayings of Muḥammad and His companions that were not included in the Qur’án. Early in the history of Islam, the sayings of hadith were collected from persons who associated with Muḥammad and claimed to have heard Him say them. Therefore, the body of hadith is influential in Islamic belief and theology.
2 H. M. Balyuzi, Muḥammad and the Course of Islam, 149‒50.
3 Ibid., 153.
4 A.H. means After the Hegira, Muḥammad’s move from Mecca to Medina, in 622 AD. The Islamic calendar starts with 1 A.H., or 632 A.D.
5 “It is worthy of note that the ‘Manifestation’ of Mírzá ‘Alí Muhammad the Báb took place exactly one thousand [lunar] years after this date.”
6 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, A Traveller’s Narrative, Note O, 296‒99. Emphases added. This book is in print and is also available to read online at http://bahai-library.com/browne_abdulbaha_travellers_narrative.
7 The Mahdi is a general term that means the Islamic messiah who will bring the Sorting (Judgment), convert the world to Islam, and usher in a reign of righteousness. He must be a descendant of Muḥammad.
8 There are many articles online about the Sunni and Shia expectations of the return. One article from the Sunni perspective, but evenly written, is “The Return of Imam Mahdi and Jesus Christ: A Comparative Eschatology” by Dr. Leonardo N. Mercado, http://mahdaviat-conference.com/vdcbugb9prhbz.e4r.html. Another is “The Problem with the Islamic Apocalypse” by Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer based in Istanbul who writes as a columnist for the English-language Hurriyet Daily News and the websiter Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East. He also writes opinion pieces for The International New York Times.