The political role of Imam Al-Mahdi

The political role of Imam Al-Mahdi

It has already been pointed out that the Imams from `Ali b. al-Husayn onwards adopted publicly a quiescent policy towards the Umayyad and the `Abb

asid. Accordingly, they stressed the propagation of their teachings, which they expected, would result in religious and political awareness among the people and would prepare the ground for the task of al-Qaim. Al-Nu`mani reports that al-Baqir advised his partisan Abu al-Jarud to keep quiet at home, and not to implicate himself in the militant activities of some `Alids against the Umayyads, since the Umayyad state had a natural lifespan and the moment of its downfall had not yet come.(1) He added that any `Alid who rebelled against tyranny before the rise of al-Qaim would inevitably fail.(2)

Al-Sadiq and the later Imams followed the same policy. They ordered their followers not to allow despair to find a place in their hearts and to wait for the rise of al-Qaim in the near future.(3) This policy enabled the Imamites to spread their doctrine and at the same time to organize themselves - during the period between 132-260/749-874 - into a well-established political and financial organization (al-Wikala). It seems probable that this underground organization was preparing for the rise of al-Qaim. For they expected his rising(4) and placed important political and religious duties upon his shoulders.

Several narrations suggest that the quiescent policy of the Imams was established after their followers caused two abortive rebellions. According to al-Kulayni, al-Sadiq once said: This matter (al-Amr), that is, the Endeavour to reach power, was hidden until it reached the hands of the Kaysaniyya. They revealed it on the roads and circulated it among the villagers of al-Sawad.(5)

According to al-Numani the Imamites endeavored to rise in arms twice, first in the year 70/689 and second in the year 140/758, but their followers spoiled their plans by revealing the name of their leader to their foes,(6) an act which resulted in the arrest or the assassination of the Imams. In this connection a conversation between al-Baqir and his partisan `Abd Allah by `Ata al-Wasiti is revealing. Al-Wasiti said to the Imam: You have many followers in Iraq and there is no one among your family who has the merit for leadership but you. So why do you not rise in arms? Al-Baqir replied: O `Abd Allah, do not listen to the masses, because none of us has his name mentioned by the people nor a hand pointing at him as the Imam, without soon facing inevitable death. So search for him whose birth is concealed from the people, because he will be the one who will manage such an affair.(7)

Moreover Imam al-Sadiq was reported to have said:This matter (the rising in arms) was vested in me, but Allah delayed it; He shall do with my progeny whatever He wants.(8) These sayings indicate that the Imams had suffered the consequences of revealing the fixed dates of their militant endeavors to reach power. Hence the later Imams did not reveal explicitly to their followers which Imam would be al-Qaim with the sword. At the same time they encouraged their followers to follow their instructions,(9) for this would pave the way for one of the Imams to reach power under the title of al-Qaim.

Several traditions reveal that the establishment of al-Qaim's political state will occur through the "natural" course of events. A Prophetic tradition states that a group of people from the east will start underground activities and pave the way for the installation of al-Mahdi by military means.(10) The latter will struggle for power without any miraculous aid and will face difficulties and opposition against the propagation of his teachings, similar to the opposition which the Prophet faced with Quraysh.(11) Furthermore he will not take any militant action unless he has at least 10,000 partisans.(12)

According to Imam al-Baqir the main goal of al-Qaim will be to establish an Islamic state and to apply Islamic law as it was revealed to the Prophet. Imam Al-Sadiq asserts that he will follow the Prophet's policy by eliminating and demolishing all the innovations which derive from a situation of ignorance (al-Jahiliyya) and apply Islam in a new form.(13) Other narrations indicate that he will apply the law of David and Solomon along with the Islamic law(14) and apply the rules of the Torah to the Jews and the rules of the Gospel to the Christians. According to al-Nu'mani, his state will include, in addition to the Islamic lands, the territories of Rum, Sind, India and China.(15)

Some functions attributed to al-Qaim indicate the unrest and disappointment felt by the Imamites in the face of the political and economic situation of the time. Al-Fadl b. Shadhan (d. 260/873) and al-Kulayni report that al-Qaim will rise with the sword as God's avenger against those who caused troubles to `Ali and his wife Fatima. He would also take vengeance against those who were responsible for the suffering of the Imams and their followers,(16) particularly against those who assassinated al-Husayn. Al-Sadiq considered al-Husayn's assassination the main reason for the rise of al-Qaim as an avenger.(17)

Other functions of al-Qaim depict the political annoyance of the Imams towards the allegiance of the Arabs, and especially towards the clan of Quraysh who had monopolized political authority since the death of the Prophet. Al Nu`mani mentions a tradition attributed to Imam al-Sadiq: "When al-Qaim rises he will deal with the Arabs and Quraysh only by the sword.(18) The Imamites also vested al-Qaim with another task which reveals their dissatisfaction with the economic system of the `Abbasid state. According to al-Himyari, al-Baqir stated that when al-Qaim rose all the feudal systems would be abolished.(19)

Al-Kulayni agrees with al Himyari and adds that al-Qaim, after carrying out this operation, may allow his partisans to administer and cultivate the lands with the condition that they pay the legal land-tax.(20)
In the light of these hopes and the repeated failure of the Zaydite uprisings, as had been expected by the Imams, the Imamites concentrated all their hopes on the uprising of al-Qaim, whose state had been awaited since the time of al-Baqir.(21) Al-Nu`mani reports that when tie `Abbasid revolution broke out in Khurasan and black banners were raised, Abu Bakr al-Hadrami and Abban went to the Imam al-Sadiq, and asked his opinion about participating in the revolution. He warned them against it saying: "When you see us follow a man, then you must join us with weapons."(22)

Although the Imam did not reveal the identity of the man to be followed, he confirmed that he would struggle for power by militant means and eliminate the rule of his opponents.(23) It appears that because of the militant role of al-Qaim the Imams refrained from giving any explicit statement of his identity. However, they did indicate that since the rulers, first the Umayyads and then the `Abbasids, had reached power by "natural" means, their fall would also occur by "natural" means.

There is a good deal of evidence to indicate that some of the Imams would have taken militant action if they had had strong and faithful partisans. But they delayed this task indefinitely until the intellectual activities of their followers could bear fruit and be converted into a political awareness which might enable one of the Imams to gain power by militant means. The Imams also wanted their partisans to be more optimistic in gaining immediate success, and not to leave the task of propagation of their teachings to al-Qaim, whose military uprising relied on the outcome of the activities of the Imamites themselves. Finally, it seems most likely that the uprising of the Imam who would be al-Qaim, was later attributed to the Twelfth Imam, because the Imamite propaganda reached a developed, political stage during the life-time of the Tenth and the eleventh Imams, and this might have enabled the Twelfth Imam to reach power.



1. See Chapter II.

2., 104, 107, 159; al-Hadrami, op. cit., f. 48a; al-Kafi, VIII, 264.

3., 106-7; al-Kafi, VIII, 264, 310.

4., 94, 96.

5. al-Kafi,II, 223.

6., 158.

7. al-Kafi,I, 342; Kamal, 325.

8. T. al-Ghayba, 278.

9. al-Kafi,I, 368-9; Bihar, LII, 212.

10. Ibn Maja, Sunan, II, 1366; al-Kanji, op. cit., 314.

11. al-Kafi VIII, 225; N. al- Ghayba, 106, 160; al-Tabsi quotes a statement from Ibn A'tham attributed to `Ali which states that the partisans of al-Mahdi will start their activities from al-Talqan in Khurasan; al-Shi`a wa-l-Raj a, 141.

12. Kamal, 654.

13., 104,122,123. Al-Saffar reports that al-Qaim will apply Islamic law according to the books of `Ali which he related directly from the Prophet; Basa'ir al-Darajat, f. 124.

14. al-Saffar, op. cit., f. 50; al-Kafi, I, 298.

15., 124, 125-6; al-Tabsi, op. cit., 218; `Ali b. Tawus, al-Malahim wa-l Fitan (Najaf, 1367), 53; Najm al-Din al-`Askari, al-Mahdi al-Maw`ud al Muntazar (Beirut, 1977), II, 10.

16. Ibn Shadhan, Ithbat al-Raja, quoted by al-Tabsi, op. cit., 221; al-Kafi, VIII, 233; al-Saduq. `Ilal, II, 267; al-Majlisi includes in his work al-Bihar a book attributed to al-Mufaddil b. `Umar which deals with the occurrence which will take place after the rise of al-Qaim; Bihar, LIII, 1-38; Dala'il, 239, 260; N. al Ghayba, 148.

17. al-KafiI, 465; al-Tusi, al-Amali, II, 33; al-Saduq, `Ilal, 229; Ibn Tawus, al Iqbal, 186.

18. N. al-Ghayba, (the second editon), 308, 319.

19. al-Himyari, op. cit., quoted by al-Galbagani, op. cit., 305.

20. al-Kafi,I, 407-8.

21., 103.      

22., 105.

23. al-Kafi,I, 240, 281, 370-2. Di`bil the poet recited a line of poetry concerning the militant role of al-Qaim in the presence of al-Riďa; the latter confirmed this by saying that al-Qaim would be from the progeny of al-Husayn. Di`bil, Diwan. 73,76; Kamal, 327-4.