Minor Occultation

The Minor Occultation (Arabic: ٱلْغَيْبَة ٱلصُّغْرَىٰ, al-Ghaybah aṣ-Ṣughrā), also known as the First Occultation (Arabic: ٱلْغَيْبَة ٱلْأُولَىٰ, al-Ghaybah al-ʾŪlā), refers in Twelver Shia Islam to a period of nearly seventy years (874–941 CE, 260-329 AH) during which the Hidden Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is believed to have communicated regularly with his followers through four successive agents. This period was followed by the Major Occultation (941-present), where there is no agent of the Hidden Imam, whose reappearance is expected by the Twelvers to fill the earth with justice and peace in the end of time.

Historical backgroundEdit

Until their deaths, the tenth and eleventh Shia Imams (Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari, respectively) were held under close surveillance in the garrison town of Samarra by the Abbasids,[1][2] who are often responsible in Shia sources for poisoning the two Imams.[3] The two Imams witnessed the deterioration of the Abbasid caliphate,[4] as the imperial authority rapidly transitioned into the hands of the Turks,[5] particularly after al-Mutawakkil.[6]

Contemporary to the tenth Imam, the Abbasid al-Mutawakkil violently prosecuted the Shia,[7][8] partly due to the renewed Zaydi opposition.[9] The restrictive policies of al-Mutawakkil towards the tenth Imam were later adopted by his son, al-Mu'tamid, who is reported to have kept the eleventh Imam under house arrest without any visitors.[10] Instead, al-Askari is known to have mainly communicated with his followers through a network of representatives.[8][11] Among them was Uthman ibn Sa'id,[12] who is said to have disguised himself as a seller of cooking fat to avoid the Abbasid agents, hence his nickname al-Samman.[13]

Tabatabai suggests that these restrictions were placed on al-Askari because the caliphate had come to know about traditions among the Shia elite, predicting that the eleventh Imam would father the eschatological Mahdi.[14]

Underground networkEdit

The underground network of representatives might date back to Ja'far al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam, in response to the Abbasid restrictions on him. At the time, the main purpose of this network was to collect the Islamic alms, such as khums and zakat.[15] The Abbasid al-Rashid is said to have carried out a campaign of arrests in 179 (795) to decimate this underground network which ultimately led to the arrest of Musa al-Kazim, the seventh Imam, and his death in prison.[16]

By the time of Muhammad al-Jawad, the ninth Imam, some of the representatives took administrative and military roles in the caliphate by practicing religious dissimulation (taqiya).[17] The underground network of Ali al-Hadi, the tenth Imam, was highly developed, especially in Samarra, Baghdad, Mada'in, and Sawad. However, a campaign of arrests and the subsequent tortures by the Abbasid al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861) might have led the caliph to discover that the Imam was behind their activities. Al-Mutawakkil then summoned the Imam to Samarra, where he was kept under close surveillance and possibly house arrest.[18] According to Hussain, restrictions on the later Imams inevitably expanded the role and authority of their representatives, particularly their main agent (safir).[19] By performing certain functions of the Imams, these representatives might have hoped to save the Imams from the political pressure of the Abbasids.[20]


Immediately after the death of al-Askari in 260 (873-874),[21] Uthman al-Amri (d. 880) claimed that al-Askari had a young son, named Muhammad, who had entered a state of occultation (ghayba) due to the Abbasid threat to his life.[22][23] As the special representative of al-Askari, Uthman also claimed that he had been appointed to represent the son of the eleventh Imam.[24] A Shia tradition attributed to the sixth Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq, states that this threat was specific to Muhammad al-Mahdi, who was expected to rise, unlike his predecessors who practiced religious dissimulation (taqiya) and were politically quiescent.[25][26]

Twelver sources detail that al-Mahdi made his only public appearance to lead the funeral prayer for his father instead of his uncle, Ja'far.[27][28] It is also said that the occultation took place in the family home in Samarra, where currently a mosque stands, under which there is a cellar (sardab) that hides a well (Bi'r al-Ghayba, lit.'well of the occultation'). Into this well, al-Mahdi is said to have disappeared.[29][30][31]

In his new capacity as the caretaker of the office of imamate,[32] Uthman received petitions and made available their responses, sometimes in writing.[33] As the closest associate of al-Askari,[34] most of al-Askari's local representatives continued to support Uthman.[35] However, there might have been doubts among the Shia about his authority to collect and manage the religious funds.[34]

Uthman later introduced his son, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Uthman (d. 916-17), as the next representative of al-Mahdi.[36][23] Abu Ja'far, who served for some forty years, has been credited with the unification of the mainstream Shia behind the son of al-Askari as the twelfth Imam in concealment.[37] In turn, as his replacement, Abu Ja'far nominated Abu al-Qasim al-Husayn ibn Ruh al-Nawbakhti (d. 937-38), who is said to have been a well-respected figure in the Abbasid court.[38] Under Abu al-Qasim, it is reported that the communications with the Hidden Imam resumed after a lapse of about twenty-five years.[39]

This period, later termed the Minor Occultation (al-ghaybat al-sughra),[40] ended after about seventy years with the death of the fourth agent, Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Muhammad al-Samarri (d. 940-41),[39] who is said to have received a letter from al-Mahdi shortly before his death.[36] The letter predicted the death of Abu al-Hasan in six days and announced the beginning of the complete (tamma) occultation,[41][42][39] later called the Major Occultation (al-ghaybat al-kubra).[40] The letter, ascribed to al-Mahdi, added that the complete occultation would continue until God granted him permission to manifest himself again in a time when the earth would be filled with tyranny.[41] The letter emphasized that anyone claiming to be the deputy of the Imam henceforth had to be considered an imposter.[43] This and similar letters to the four agents and other Shia figures are reported to have had the same handwriting, suggesting that they were written by the Hidden Imam.[44]

Shia authority in this periodEdit

The number of these agents was not limited to four in early Shia sources.[33][45] Sachedina suggests that the later stress of the Twelver literature on the four deputies (al-nuwwab al-arba'[42]) was likely due to their prominence in Baghdad, the Shia center of the time.[46] Similarly, Momen reckons that al-Askari's network of the representatives (wukala) likely continued to operate during the Minor Occultation of al-Mahdi.[41] Indeed, Ibn Babawayh (d. 991) speaks of other trusted men of the Hidden Imam in different cities in addition to the four agents.[47] Sachedina writes that the Shia community lacked a notable figure to replace the fourth agent after his death.[48]

The authority of the four agents on behalf of the Hidden Imam was challenged by some Shia figures, more so during the term of the third agent, al-Nawbakhti.[46] For instance, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Ali al-Shalmaghani turned against al-Nawbakhti and claimed to be the rightful agent of al-Mahdi, before denouncing the concept of occultation as a lie.[49][50] Another instance was a disciple of al-Askari, named al-Karkhi, who was later condemned in a rescript, said to be written by al-Mahdi.[46][51] Some miracles are also ascribed to the four agents, perceived by the faithful to be the result of their initiation by the Hidden Imam.[47]

Shia community in this periodEdit

At the time, the occultation of al-Mahdi was likely not a radical change for his followers. Indeed, the tenth and eleventh Imams were already effectively in occultation for the majority of the Shia, as both Imams were held nearly isolated in Samarra by the Abbasid caliphs.[22] It also appears that the idea of occultation was a well-established concept for the Shia and the related traditions were already in circulation among them. These traditions forecasted the occultation and rise of a future Imam,[52][53] referred to as al-Qa'im (lit.'he who will rise') and less frequently as al-Mahdi.[54][55] These traditions were appropriated by various Shia sects in different periods. For instance, they were used by the Waqifites to argue that Musa al-Kazim, the seventh Imam, had not died but was in occultation.[52] Even earlier, the now-extinct Kaysanites denied the death of Muḥammad ibn al-Hanafiyya and awaited his return.[56][57]

The political situation of the Shia in Iraq improved after the rise of the Buyid dynasty in the fourth (tenth) century.[58][59] Perhaps it was the relative safety of the Shia that prompted the second agent to issue a rescript to the effect that al-Mahdi remained in occultation to avoid the burden of commitment (bay'a) to unjust rulers of the time who were the usurpers of the Imam's right in the Shia view.[58][60] Ibn Babawayh (d. 991) suggested that the situation remains unknown until the reappearance of al-Mahdi but also added that the large population of the Shia did not necessarily guarantee his safety.[61]

Nevertheless, many did not expect the occultation to continue beyond six years or beyond the fortieth birthday of al-Mahdi,[62] and this might have contributed to an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty among the Shia.[63] According to Modarressi, these doubts gradually disappeared from the Shia community, possibly due to the efforts of the Shia traditionists during the period of transition to the Major Occultation.[64] These traditionists heavily relied on prophetic traditions and specific interpretations of the Quran to vindicate the imamate of al-Mahdi.[65] In this period, possibly after 295 (908), Shia traditionists also settled the number of Imams with the help of a Sunni hadith, in circulation long before the occultation, which stated that the prophet would be followed by twelve successors. The Hidden Imam was thus also the last Imam.[66][67]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Momen 1985, pp. 43, 44.
  2. ^ Sachedina 1981, pp. 25, 26.
  3. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 28.
  4. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 25.
  5. ^ Donaldson 1933, p. 209.
  6. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 26.
  7. ^ Holt, Lambton & Lewis 1970, p. 126.
  8. ^ a b Momen 1985, p. 44.
  9. ^ Amir-Moezzi 2016, p. 65.
  10. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 29.
  11. ^ Hulmes 2013.
  12. ^ Eliash 2022.
  13. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 30.
  14. ^ Tabatabai 1975, pp. 184, 185.
  15. ^ Hussain 1986, pp. 23, 81.
  16. ^ Hussain 1986, p. 82.
  17. ^ Hussain 1986, p. 83.
  18. ^ Hussain 1986, p. 48.
  19. ^ Hussain 1986, p. 155.
  20. ^ Hussain 1986, p. 156.
  21. ^ Modarressi 1993, p. 77.
  22. ^ a b Momen 1985, pp. 162, 163.
  23. ^ a b Klemm 2007.
  24. ^ Momen 1985, p. 162.
  25. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 104.
  26. ^ Daftary 2013, p. 88.
  27. ^ Momen 1985, p. 161.
  28. ^ Donaldson 1933, p. 234.
  29. ^ Momen 1985, pp. 161, 162.
  30. ^ Donaldson 1933, p. 233.
  31. ^ Glassé 2008.
  32. ^ Modarressi 1993, p. 79.
  33. ^ a b Daftary 2013, p. 64.
  34. ^ a b Modarressi 1993, p. 92.
  35. ^ Modarressi 1993, pp. 79, 80.
  36. ^ a b Momen 1985, pp. 162–164.
  37. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 90.
  38. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 92.
  39. ^ a b c Daftary 2013, p. 66.
  40. ^ a b Sachedina 1981, p. 84.
  41. ^ a b c Momen 1985, p. 164.
  42. ^ a b Sachedina 1981, p. 96.
  43. ^ Hussain 1986, p. 140.
  44. ^ Hussain 1986, pp. 90, 139, 140.
  45. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 88.
  46. ^ a b c Sachedina 1981, p. 97.
  47. ^ a b Amir-Moezzi 2007.
  48. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 99.
  49. ^ Momen 1985, p. 163.
  50. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 98.
  51. ^ Modarressi 1993, p. 94.
  52. ^ a b Modarressi 1993, pp. 87, 88.
  53. ^ Amir-Moezzi 1998.
  54. ^ Modarressi 1993, p. 89.
  55. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 61.
  56. ^ Madelung 2022.
  57. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 151.
  58. ^ a b Modarressi 1993, pp. 96. 97.
  59. ^ Daftary 2013, p. 68.
  60. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 102.
  61. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 105.
  62. ^ Modarressi 1993, pp. 86, 87, 95.
  63. ^ Modarressi 1993, p. 96.
  64. ^ Modarressi 1993, p. 105.
  65. ^ Sachedina 1981, p. 79.
  66. ^ Modarressi 1993, pp. 99, 100.
  67. ^ Hussain 1986, p. 19.