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The Long Life of the Twelfth Imam

Mr. Hoshyar: As you know, the Shi`a believe that the promised Mahdi in the Prophet's hadith is identical with Imam Hasan `Askari's son who was born in the year 255 AH/873 CE or 256 AH/874 CE. He has been alive since that time and continues to be in that state in occultation. Moreover, he may continue to live for centuries in that invisible state. Does the science of medicine regard such a long age strange and impossible?

Dr. Nafisi: The question that has remained a mystery for me, insofar as my information and knowledge of the books that I have read goes, is the secret of the longevity of the Qa'im (may God hasten deliverance through him) from the family of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny). However, with the phenomenal advancement made in natural sciences, and with God's endorsement of such endeavors, we might see a breakthrough in this regard and those of us who are seeking to understand this mystery might be able to see God's wisdom in this connection.

The only thing I can say at this stage of human knowledge is that one cannot reject such a possibility on the basis of the analogy that since it has not been empirically observed it cannot exist. The reason is that besides the principle of probability, there is a list of things in nature whose long life span is beyond any doubt.

(a) In the world of vegetation, there are species that are known to have long life and are known to be the oldest surviving existents on earth. Among these are the Californian sequoia. These trees are three hundred feet tall and cover one hundred ten feet around the trunk. The life span of some of these trees exceeds five thousand years. It is possible to conjecture that when the Pharaoh began construction of the largest pyramid in Egypt these trees must have been in the early youth of their existence. And at the time of the birth of Jesus (peace be upon him), the skin of the trunk must have been one foot thick. For example, the cross section of one of the trunks of this species which is preserved in the museum of natural history in South Kensington has 1,335 rings, each ring representing one year.1

The oldest surviving species, which is some 4,600 years old today, is a kind of pine tree known as pinus anstata that grows in central and eastern California. The oldest surviving animal is a turtle on the island of Galapagos that is 177 years old, weighs 450 Ibs and measures four feet long.2

(b) The archeological diggings that were undertaken in Egypt discovered wheat in the pyramid of Tutan Khamen, which I personally saw and read about in the journals, that was sown in some parts and germinated. Wheat grew in these fields, demonstrating the fact that the germ continued to live for some three to four thousand years.

(c) Viruses can be regarded as the longest living creatures. The virus is a living being that can be studied to reveal the secret of life. These are the creatures responsible for the development of certain diseases in plants, animals, and humans. The common cold, chicken pox, small pox, German measles, are some of these virus- related diseases. In the excavations that were carried out in ancient sites, it has been possible to discover prehistoric viruses and cultivate them in specific areas. In other words, although for all these years these creatures were living a concealed existence and practically were not different from a dead thing, they actually continue to live even after thousands of years.3

(d) Recently I read in the newspapers that huge frozen animals were found during excavations in Siberia. After they had been placed in warmer conditions vital signs of life returned.

(e) One of the ways of prolonging the life of a living being and keeping it half alive in order to observe its life is hibernation. This is also known as a state of "winter sleeping." In some animals hibernation continues throughout winter, whereas in others it continues during the summer. When an animal hibernates, its need for food disappears and the wear and tear on the body decreases between 30-100 to. The thermal function of the body comes to a temporary halt. Since the environment is also cold the hair and skin of the animal does not become stiff and hence it does not shiver. The temperature of the body becomes like the temperature of the environment, reaching somewhere around 39-41 degrees fahrenheit, some degrees above the freezing point. Breathing becomes slow and irregular; heart beat becomes random and slow. Different reflexes stop and nerve impulses in the brain cannot be observed under 52-66 degrees F. Some sea animals, including fish, are capable of living under the extremely cold waters for a long time. Various living cells like human and animal sperm cells can be conserved in cold temperatures for artificial insemination, and red bloods cells for transfusion. Moreover, several species of small animals can be frozen and brought back to a living condition with a change in temperature, without causing any harm to them. The study of hibernation could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the secret of longevity and humankind can reach its dream of long life.

All the above observations in the medical and biological sciences make it possible for human beings to expect to discover the secret of longevity and overcome old age one day. Moreover, it has prompted them to continue their research until the goal is reached. There is hope that scientific research into understanding the mystery of longevity will also lead to uncovering the secret of the long life of the Qa'im from the Family of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny).
Let us hope that day will come soon.

1 Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 14, p. 346.

2 Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 17, p. 463.

3 Ittila`at.

Adopted from the book : "Al-Imam al-Mahdi (a.s.); the Just Leader of Humanity" by : "Ayatullah Ibrahim Amini"

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