Why Is Imam Mahdi Not Appearing?

This Thaqlain Guide is created from Sayed Ahmed Qazwini’s lecture at Islamic Institute Of America (linked here) and is dedicated In memory of Roshan Ali Damani.

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Amidst the growing injustice and oppression in the world, many people wonder why Imam Mahdi hasn’t yet reappeared. Is it because his followers (the Shia) are unprepared – as is usually believed – or is something else causing a hindrance? One thing is sure – he will eventually appear. The real question is: When will he come out of occultation? And what is hindering his appearance?

To unravel this mystery, we seek guidance from one of Imam Mahdi’s Tawqee (letters) and try to understand his occultation (Ghayba) and reappearance through his own words.

Imam’s Letter to Ali Ibn Muhammad al-Samari

Before his passing, the Imam sent a letter to his 4th deputy, Ali ibn Muhammad al-Samari, which Sheikh Tusi – who lived in the early years of Imam’s Occultation – recorded in his book Al-Ghayba. Its content helps one understand the Occultation as well as the awaited appearance of the Imam:

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
يَا عَلِىَّ بْنَ مُحَمَّدٍ السَّمرىّ، اَعْظَمَ اللهُ اَجْرَ اِخْوَانِكَ فِيْكَ فَاِنَّكَ مَيِّتٌ مَا بَيْنَكَ وَ بَيْنَ سِتَّةِ اَيَّامٍ، فَاجْمَعْ اَمْرَكَ وَلاَ تُوصِ اِلىٰ اَحَدٍ فَيَقُوْمَ مَقَامَكَ بَعْدَ وَفَاتِكَ فَقَدْ وَقَعَتِ الْغَيْبَةُ التَّامَّةُ فَلاَ ظُهُوْرَ اِلاَّ بَعْدَ اِذْنِ اللهِ تَعَالىٰ ذِكْرُهُ وَ ذَالِكَ بَعْدَ طُوْلِ الْاَمَدِ وَ قَسْوَةِ الْقُلُوْبِ وَامْتِلاَءِ الْاَرْضِ جَوْراً وَ سَيَأتِى شِيْعَتِىْ مَنْ يَدَّعِى الْمُشَاهَدَةَ اَلاَ فَمَنِ ادَّعىَ الْمُشَاهَدَةَ قَبْلَ خُرُوْجِ السُّفْيَانِىّ وَ الصَّيْحَةِ فَهُوَ كَذَّابٌ مُفْتَرٌ وَ لاَ حَوْلَ وَ لاَ قُوَّةَ اِلاَّ بِاللهِ الْعَلِىِّ الْعَظِيْمِ-

‘O Ali Ibn Muhammad Samari! May Allah increase the reward of your brothers concerning you (i.e. your demise)! Death will come to you within the next six days. So, you complete your work and do not nominate any person after you. The sequence of special deputies will come to an end, and the Major Occultation will commence with your demise.

Now, the reappearance will occur only with the permission of Allah, after a prolonged period and after the hearts of people are hardened. And such a period will emerge on my Shias when people will claim that they have seen me. Whoever makes such a claim before the advent of Sufyani and the heavenly voice is a liar, an impostor. There is no strength and power save that of Allah, the High, the Great.

[Kitab al-Ghayba, Ch. 46, Hadith 6]

The Major & Minor Occultation and Their Difference

The period of Occultation is split into two phases: Ghaybat al-Sughra and Ghaybat al-Kubra.

The minor occultation, or Ghaybat al-Sughra, began with the demise of Imam Askari and lasted nearly 70 years. During this time, the Imam had deputies managing his communications with the outer world. But, after the demise of the 4th deputy, the period of Ghaybat al-Sughra ended, and Ghaybat al-Kubra or the greater occultation began (it has been ongoing for nearly 1100 years).

The key difference between the two, apart from their timespan, is that of representatives. During Ghaybat al-Sughra, the Imam had deputies acting as the medium between him and the Shia. But in Ghaybat al-Kubra, there is no such system in place. No one can reach him!

Is the Imam Truly Absent?

Before understanding the reappearance of the Imam, we must first grasp the meaning of his seeming “disappearance”.

Many consider that the “Imam is in hiding” or is “isolated and disconnected from the entire world”. When in reality, the Imam isn’t secluded in any distant realm. He remains an integral part of our society and walks among us. We simply have no direct contact or way to approach him.

Even during Ghaybat al-Sughra, only the Imam’s deputies had direct access to him. He lived amongst the people, walked in markets, and engaged in daily life –to the extent that, according to the 2nd deputy, the Imam even performed Hajj – but the surrounding people were unable to identify him [Kamal ad-Din Vol. 2, Pg 441].

In the present era, the Imam has no official representatives, so no contact is possible. But, similar to Ghaybat al-Sughra, he lives among us as an active member of society. The sole difference is our inability to recognise the Imam and, consequently, our failure to access him.

Isn’t Ghayba Against The Responsibilities Of An Imam?

One might ask, “How could the Imam just leave his Shia? Doesn’t Ghayba contradict the responsibilities of an Imam?”

There are two answers to this.

  1. Firstly, the Imam has not abandoned his Shia. We have various narrations, including from the Imam himself and numerous incidents from the life of our scholars, sharing how actively Imam is involved in the matters of his Shia.
  2. Secondly, the Imam has not left his Shia without guidance in his seeming absence. In another letter that Imam sent to his 2nd deputy, he mentions:

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

Concerning the issues that occur, refer to the narrators of our tradition, as they are my proof against you, and I am the proof of Allah (over them).

[Al-Ehtijaj, Vol. 2, Pg. 283]

While this is also one of the traditions that legislate Taqlid, it also proves that the Imam has established a structured system of guidance for his followers during Ghaybat al-Kubra. Our Maraje, who study the Quran and Hadith in-depth to extract judgements, are part of this system and are responsible for guiding the community in Imam Mahdi’s seeming ‘absence’.

When Will This Ghayba End? (And Imam Will Appear)

Referring back to the second half of the Imam’s letter to Ali ibn Muhammad al-Samari, he mentions four qualities of his Ghayba, which also guide us on why the Imam has yet to appear – even though over 1100 years have passed.

1. Only Allah knows its duration (بَعْدَ اِذْنِ اللهِ تَعَالىٰ)

The Imam explicitly emphasised that his presence would remain concealed, and there would be no public display until Allah’s divine decree permits it. Thus, this Ghayba and the impending reappearance lie entirely on Allah’s will. Only He knows the wisdom behind concealing his representatives and when to allow his Hujjah to reappear.

2. It will be a long period (بَعْدَ طُوْلِ الْاَمَدِ)

As is apparent from the letter, the Imam’s use of the phrase ‘prolonged period’ instead of specifying the period is intentional. This deliberate choice is to save the Imam’s followers from disillusionment and prevent a decline in hope for his reappearance. Through this, he encourages patience and nurtures hope in the believer’s hearts.

3. After the hardening of hearts (وَ قَسْوَةِ الْقُلُوْبِ )

The heart, here, is not referred to in its physical sense. It does not refer to a rise in cholesterol or the blockage of arteries and veins. Instead, the heart refers to the soul – the core of a believer’s existence.

As the Quran mentions:

يوم لا ينفع مال ولا بنون إلا من أت الله بقلب سليم

On that day, your wealth and progeny won’t benefit you except those who come before Allah with a pure heart.

[Surah As-Shura Verse 88]

The pure heart refers to the purity of the soul. And while we are unaware of the details of this, we know that it must be soft and pure to function properly.

What hardens the heart?

So, what causes the ‘heart’ to harden? While the Imam has not shared details, the traditions of Ahlulbayt clarify that the hardening is a consequence of sinning.

A crucial question arises here: sins have often been prevalent throughout history, so what does the Imam truly mean?

One opinion is that the hardness of the heart could be a result of not just sinning but sinning in a certain way, i.e. sinning to the point that our sense of right or wrong begins to shatter.

Fortunately, Allah has created an internal moral compass that distinguishes between right and wrong. But society can sometimes corrupt that compass.

The Holy Quran states:

وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا
by the soul and Him who fashioned it

فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا
and inspired it with [discernment between] its virtues and vices.

[Surah Shams, Verse 7-8]

Such corruption of the soul that corrupts the discernment between right and wrong was prevalent during the time of Jahiliyyah. The sense of morality was so twisted that forbidden actions were normalised.

For instance, during that period, even if a father found distress in practising infanticide against his newborn daughter, the societal norms deemed it a “moral obligation”, compelling him to act against his inbuilt moral compass. As such, the father practising female infanticide was considered a hero by society.

Similar to the days of Jahiliyya, it seems the Imam is warning that the moral compass will malfunction again, as is also evident by the narration by the Prophet (sallalahu alaihe wa’alihi).

أن النبي صلى الله عليه وآله قال: كيف بكم إذا فسد نساؤكم، وفسق شبانكم، ولم تأمروا بالمعروف ولم تنهوا عن المنكر، فقيل له: ويكون ذلك يا رسول الله؟ قال: نعم وشر من ذلك؟
كيف بكم إذا أمرتم بالمنكر، ونهيتم عن المعروف، قيل يا رسول الله ويكون ذلك؟
قال: نعم، وشر من ذلك كيف بكم إذا رأيتم المعروف منكرا والمنكر معروفا

The Prophet said [to his companions]: ‘How will you be when your women become corrupt, and your young men become disobedient, and you do not enjoin what is good or forbid what is evil?’ It was said to him: ‘Will that happen, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘Yes, and worse than that. How will you be when you enjoin what is evil and forbid what is good?’ It was asked: ‘O Messenger of Allah, will that happen?’ He said: ‘Yes, and worse than that. How will you be when you see what is good as evil and what is evil as good?'”

[Bihar al-Anwar Vol. 52, Pg. 181]

Today, immorality is indeed spread in the name of good, especially in the name of fundamental human rights. For example, the notion of defecting from preconceived gender roles is being constantly promoted in the name of freedom of choice. It’s not just being injected into society but being accepted and vindicated. And unfortunately, when someone wants to protect themselves & their families from such immorality, society is quick to label them as “backwards”.

Another example of this in contemporary times can be seen in countries claiming free speech. They are often seen silencing those who speak against injustice. Similarly, in the past, the powerful nations of the world would commit oppression in the name of domination to conquer and kill. Today, they do so to “promote good values and freedom”.

4. Filling of Earth with Injustice (وَامْتِلاَءِ الْاَرْضِ جَوْراً)

In his letter, the Imam mentions that the world will be filled with oppression and tyranny before his reappearance. So, what does ‘filling the world’ refer to here? Is there a threshold of injustice that the world has to reach before Imam reappears (i.e. is the reappearance being delayed due to insufficient levels of oppression)?

Historically, some scholars have held that tyranny has to reach a certain threshold for the Imam to appear and the Ghayba to end. So, for example, if 100% of the people have to die for the Ghayba to end and we are stuck at 99.5%, we must kill or allow the other 0.5% to die so that the conditions are fulfilled.

However, the majority differs from this view and believes that, if that were the case, then according to this logic, more people would need to die. This, of course, is against the teachings of Islam and the Ahlulbayt and is why the majority of scholars outright reject this view.

The prevailing scholarly understanding is that there will come a time of corrupted peace and distorted morality when people will advocate high levels of oppression and will grow satisfied with persecution against each other – as Allah will send the Imam Mahdi to establish justice, not as a consequence of fuelling oppression for the sake of the reappearance.

The Need For A Saviour

Alluding to this, a condition for the Imam’s reappearance lies in the genuine desire for a saviour.

It is imperative for people, despite religious and political division, to recognise that only a divinely guided leader can establish justice.

Imam al-Sadiq mentions this in one hadith:

This matter (Divine Justice) will not happen until every faction of society has an opportunity to rule; then the Qaim will rise.

[Al-Ghayba by Al-Nu’mani Vol. 1 Pg. 280]

According to this hadith, divine justice will not manifest until every faction of society has had an opportunity to lead. This ensures that upon the reappearance, no group can come out and claim they did not have a chance to rule and attempt to consolidate justice.

Every form of governmental system –communism, socialism, capitalism, autocracy, theocracy, and democracy – will attempt to form justice but will inevitably fail in their claims – only then will the world recognise its inherent incapability to establish fairness.

Has the world not reached that point yet? It does not seem so. Many in the world, particularly in the West, still believe that they can not just govern themselves but can spread goodness throughout the world. Any lagging is blamed on a particular group or a specific person.

However, this is far from reality. The reality is that human beings are weak and fallible and cannot establish full justice on earth. The last time we saw someone who implemented universal justice was Imam Ali. Like in his case, unless guided by Allah, it’s impossible to bring about universal fairness.

5. 313+50 (their readiness and characteristics)

When it comes to oppression, there may not be a specific threshold, but there is a well-defined margin for the number of supporters.

In numerous traditions, it has been explicitly stated that in the initial phase of the Imam’s reappearance, he will gather a precise number of supporters: 313. Other narrations mention that there will be 313 men plus 50 women, hence 363 initial supporters. This is when the Ghayba will end, and the identity of the Imam will become known.

In this stage, while anyone could meet him directly, the revolution of the Imam will not yet initiate. These initial supporters will be added to another meticulously chosen batch of 10,000 supporters, and only then will the Imam formally begin his revolution to establish peace and justice.

Aren’t the 313 + 50 Ready?

An important question that arises here is: aren’t the 313 plus 50 ready yet?

We are not sure.

Firstly, there’s more than one condition for the Imam to reappear. Maybe the companions are ready, but the previous condition, where people yearn for the Imam, hasn’t been met. It’s also possible that not all the initial supporters are ready, or maybe some haven’t been born yet.

However, what is certain is that the Imam doesn’t just want average believers who believe in Allah and pray. He wants loyal companions who surrender to the will of the Imam.

This is one of the crucial qualities of the 313 + 50 supporters and can be understood through an incident during the life of Imam Jafar Sadiq (alaihis salaam):

Sahl, a companion from Khurasan, came to Imam Sadiq and informed him of 100,000 loyal companions eager to support him. He questioned why the Imam wouldn’t rise with these companions to revolt against the oppressive regime.

The Imam, in response, asked his servant to light the clay oven in his house and, when it was ready, asked Sahl to sit inside. Upon hearing this, Sahl became concerned and immediately began apologising for any mistake he had made.

Meanwhile, another companion by the name of Harun al-Makki walked in – completely unaware of the discussion taking place. The Imam gave him the same order of sitting inside the clay oven and to Sahl’s surprise, Harun took off his slippers and sat inside the burning oven with bare feet, not expressing a bit of discomfort.

The Imam then turned to Sahl and asked him how many of those 100,000 men had a similar level of obedience to the Imam, to which he replied, “Not even a single person”.

Thus the Imams, including Imam Mahdi, can only rise against injustice when they have supporters who are incredibly loyal and obedient to them. The only Imam who was able to gather such companions was Imam Hussain, whose companions sacrificed their lives knowingly on the plains of Karbala.

What to do in his absence?

The Imam patiently waits for humanity to genuinely yearn for his arrival and to earnestly seek him. In these trying times, as followers of the Ahlulbayt (as), we must recognize that the ultimate saviour and establisher of justice is only Imam al-Mahdi by the way of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). With this understanding, we should beseech Allah to hasten his reappearance and include us all among his loyal and obedient companions.

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