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The Occultation of the 'Alawid Leaders

One of the issues that was extremely sensitive and worth investigating was the claim to invisible existence or occultation of some of the 'Alawid leaders. Any one among them who had the personal ability and qualities to become the leader immediately attracted the people who then rallied around him with dedication. This attraction took an extreme and intense form if that person happened to possess one of the signs of the expected Mahdi. On the other hand, as soon as a person became the rallying point for the people, the caliphal authority became fearful of the opposition and undertook to keep a close watch over its underground activities and even to curtail its growing popularity among the masses by using terror as a means of repressing revolutionary fervor. Under these circumstances, the leader had to live in concealment to protect himself. A number of these 'Alawid leaders lived a life of concealment for a number of years. Among them are the following examples cited by Abu Faraj Isfahani:

(1) During the time of Mansur, the 'Abbasid caliph, Muhammad b. `Abd Allah b. Hasan and his brother Ibrahim lived an invisible life. Mansur had tried several times to arrest them. A number of the Hashimite leaders were imprisoned and they were grilled to reveal the whereabouts of their messianic leader Muhammad b. `Abd Allah. At the end of the day the prisoners were tortured in various ways and killed.1

(2) `Isa b. Zayd lived in retreat and concealment during Mansur's caliphate. Mansur made every effort to arrest him, but he failed. Following him, his son Mahdi also tried, but without any success.2

(3) During the caliphate of Mu`tasim and Wathiq, Muhammad b. Qasim `Alawi lived an invisible life in concealment and was regarded as being in occultation by the establishment. He was, however, arrested during Mutawakkil's caliphate and died while in prison.3

(4) During the caliphate of Harun Rashid, Yahya b. `Abd Allah b. Hasan lived in concealment. But he was finally discovered by the caliph's spies. At first he was given amnesty, but later he was arrested and incarcerated. He died in Rashid's prison of hunger and other forms of torture.4

(5) During the caliphate of Ma'mun, `Abd Allah b. Musa lived in concealment and because of him Ma'mun lived in constant fear and anxiety.5

Musa Hadi appointed one of the descendants of `Umar b. Khattab by the name of `Abd al-`Aziz as the governor of Madina. `Abd al-`Aziz used to treat the `Alids very harshly. He kept them under constant surveillance, watching their movements very closely. He used to force them to appear in his audience every day so that they would not disappear. He actually exacted promises from them to that effect and made each one of them answerable for the other. Thus, for instance, Husayn b. `Ali and Yahya b. `Abd Allah were made responsible for Hasan b. Muhammad b. `Abd Allah b. Hasan. On one of the Fridays when the 'Alawids were all gathered in his presence he did not allow them to return until it was time for Friday prayer service. At that time he permitted them to perform their ablutions and prepare for the worship. After the prayer was over he ordered all of them arrested. During the late afternoon prayer he asked them to attend the court and later dismissed them. It was then that 'Abd al-'Aziz noticed that Hasan b. Muhammad b. 'Abd Allah was not present. So he called Husayn b. 'Ali and Yahya b. 'Abd Allah, who were answerable for him, and informed them that for the past three days Hasan b. Muhammad had not appeared in his audience. As such, he had either revolted or disappeared. Since they were answerable for him they had to find Hasan and bring him to `Abd al-`Aziz, otherwise they would be imprisoned. To this Yahya replied: "He must have been occupied and, therefore, did not show up. It is not possible for us also to bring him back. Justice is a good thing. Just as you keep a check on us making sure who is present and who is not, why do not you ask the descendants of `Umar b. Khattab also to appear in the audience? See how many are present, and if their absentees are not more than ours then we have no objection to your decision. Do as you please and take any decision regarding us." `Abd al-`Aziz was not satisfied with their response. He swore that if they did not find Hasan and bring him to him he would demolish their homes, set their goods on fire and whip Husayn b. 'Ali.6

Episodes like this reveal that the topic of invisible existence or occultation of the 'Alawid leaders was one of the regular issues during the 'Abbasid era. As soon as one of them disappeared from public life he became the center of attention from two directions: on the one hand, the masses, who knew that occultation was one of the signs of the Mahdi, were attracted towards him; on the other hand, the caliphal authority had developed an extreme sense of anxiety because of the explosive ramifications of such a disappearance for the security of its power. After all, it was one of the signs of the Mahdi, and when the people were told of the disappearance of these 'Alids they speculated of their being the promised messianic leader who would overthrow the tyrannical government of the 'Abbasids. Hence, the authorities were worried about the ensuing chaos and political turmoil unfolding in front of their eyes which the caliphal power would have difficulty in repressing.

Now that you have familiarized yourself with the critical social and political conditions that existed during the 'Abbasid period and during which the hadith books were compiled and composed, it is important to bear in mind that the authors of these works and the transmitters of the hadith did not possess the freedom to record all the hadith-reports dealing with the promised Mahdi, and more particularly, traditions dealing with the occultation and the rise of the awaited Mahdi. Is it possible to maintain that the 'Abbasids did not have any involvement or influence over the events in which Mahdi'ism had taken a political form? Or, that they would permit the transmitters of the traditions about the messianic role of the Mahdi and his occultation to freely record and publicize the traditions that would have actually been to their own detriment?

It is possible that you may contend that the 'Abbasids knew at least this much: that it was not in the interest of the society to impose restrictions over the scholars and to interfere with their scholarly work. Rather, the scholars and the transmitters of the hadith-reports should be left alone to present the truth to the people and make them aware of their responsibilities. Well, we should cite some examples in which the 'Abbasids and their predecessors, that is the Umayyads and the early caliphs, restricted free expression and hence suppressed traditions that were against their political domination.

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1 Ibid., p. 233-299.

2 Ibid., p. 405-427.

3 Ibid., p. 577-88.

4 Ibid.,p. 463-483.

5 Ibid., p. 519

6 Ibid., p. 294-296

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

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