Wednesday 25th of May 2022
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“Even if there remains only a day in the life of this earth, God will prolong it for His emissary to appear so that the earth shall be filled with justice and equity as it is filled with injustice and tyranny.” This is the prophecy that the Prophet Muhammad left for his followers so that they would prepare themselves for the launching of that transformation of the world to the ideal that God has promised humanity. This paper is an endeavor to capture the spirit of this prophecy as humanity ponders about the situation in which it finds itself. It is an endeavor to strike a note of optimism rather than pessimism because I believe that it is human destiny to continue to strive until the ideal state is achieved through God’s special providence for His creatures.


History is a reflection of human performance on earth. Humanity has come a long way to the present situation which breeds uncertainties at all levels of the existence: whether it is in the area of social-political-economic development or in the area of spiritual and moral growth, modern man and woman feel dissatisfied with the way this world is moving away from the purpose for which it was created. The period of uncertainty in all areas of human existence has led people to search and yearn for that faith that can generate inner peace through a sense of wholeness and security that such a faith is capable of guaranteeing. Indeed, the mark of true faith is that sense of inner security which enables a person to stand firm in the face of all the challenges that seem to destroy whatever is left of that sense of security after a rapid period of human progression toward material well-being.
A number of religious thinkers have pondered about the situation and have prescribed withdrawal from the material life as the only viable solution to the problem of this growing sense of meaningless existence. Their solution to salvage the pure faith at this critical time is to be suspicious of everything that modernity has to offer. Modernity founded upon human rationalism and secularism is seen as a major threat to comprehensive religions like Islam which offer their followers prosperity in this and the next world. Indeed, a world-embracing religion like Islam promises its followers both material and spiritual incentives to lead a life that would lead to establish justice on earth. Whether it is democratic politics or protection of human rights, economic well-being or social security, the contemporary history of the world does not offer much confidence to the people when it comes to the preservation of human dignity or human moral worth, which has been time and again violated by some of the most civilized peoples on earth. It is not surprising that some of these religious leaders are advising their followers to be wary of the comforts and material benefits that are being offered in the name of human progress by the powerful countries because they understandably see the accompanying corruption of human character and human relationships in extreme forms of human self-centeredness and individualism. But can we avoid engagement with the world today?

Modern society is characterized by two countervailing trends: First, one can take note of unprecedented economic integration and cultural homogenization at the hands of materialist culture at the global level. Consumerism and its unavoidable negative impact upon human greediness and selfishness have left many wondering about the so-called globalization of consumer markets. Second, one can observe a new phenomenon of cultural and religious fractionalization caused by the prescriptive directives offered by some religious leaders to rebel against materialist homogenization that is coming through the globalization of consumerist psychology which is impacting adversely on the spiritual and moral well being of the peoples. People are more in the business of amassing wealth for themselves than expending it for the benefit of others through acts of charity and sharing.
At the global level cultural integration occurs when a culture increasingly upholds universalistic standards stimulating more intimate interaction among people of diverse cultural orientations in the open world markets today. At one time modern historians had coined “Cocacolanisation” to capture the spirit of this cultural integration. Today they speak about “CNNization” and “Soninization” indicating how the new technology has brought different nations of the world together at one level and yet, factionalized them on another. People know more about one another today than they did a decade ago; and yet, the sense of human community as one under one God is far distant today than it was in the past. On the global religious scene one cannot fail to notice that this economic and cultural integration occur more readily in the liberal religious sphere where multi-faith communication and cooperation are increasing today among different communities more than ever before. There was a time when different religions even in one area of the world were not willing to talk to one another. Religious leaders in many parts of the world have demonstrated their willingness to talk to one another and even cooperate on common issues that confront their respective faith communities. Nevertheless, some religious leaders have rebelled against this integration at the material level fearing its negative impact upon people’s sense of scared. It is indeed the mark of modernity that sacred is no more held as sacred. Everything seems to have succumbed to the pressure of rational inquiry in the area of supernatural phenomena, which has led to the devaluation of sacredness of the divine and the sanctity of the revelation.
Today religious communities are left with only three options in dealing with modernity: Either, withdrawal from engagement with modernity by closing all the venues of communication with modern society, as some extremely suspicious leaders have suggested; or, accommodation with social and cultural forces by conforming with materialism and adopting secularism as a strategy to privatize religion by keeping the public space clear of any religious interference – a strategy that has been propounded by a number of sociologists of religion who support the concept of “civil religion”; or, as some thoughtful leaders have argued, resistance to the modern world by adopting a defensive reaction against the cynical qualities inherent to the modern world.
There are Muslim leaders who have adopted a form of religious revival calling for “withdrawal” in the midst of great social, cultural, and psychological uncertainty today. These leaders are searching for stability and identity by reenacting imaginary historical connection between the autonomous Muslim Umma, its religion and law. However, it is an irony that the reality of modernity is too palpable in Muslim societies. The universal technological culture is everywhere in the Muslim world. It is impossible to adopt “isolationism” as a strategy of combating the ill-effects of modernity. Some have suggested selective assimilation as a logical strategy in living as a member of open society, while maintaining some kind of “separatism” or “isolationism” in one’s approach to religious life. Such a selective approach may become a source of hypocritical life style which is equally detrimental to one’s overall moral well-being. It is a fact that consumerist-materialist culture is being globally institutionalized through economic globalization. The question is: Can one adopt “separatism” in one’s religious life while seeking assimilation in all other areas the open society has to offer?

The basic assumption of this paper is that there is a crisis in the spiritual-religious lives of the contemporary society in which religion does not play a decisive role. Modern individual is searching for a way to maintain a hope in the better future without abandoning his faith. Although I have spent my early academic years in researching about human belief in the Day of Deliverance (yawm al-khala>s}), and concentrated on Muslim belief in political and religious messianism (mahdawi>ya), I quickly realized that the only school of thought among Muslims that maintained a strong spiritual link to the future hope and constantly prayed for the deliverance (faraj) were the followers of the Ahl al-Bayt. While all Muslims believe that one day the divinely guided (al-mahdi>) leader will come to deliver humanity from corruption and tyranny to establish justice and equity, it was the followers of the Ahl al-Bayt who made it part of their active faith response to prepare themselves for that Day of Deliverance. But how exactly should that preparation take place and with what result has been a matter of religious speculation since the last Imam, al-Mahdi>, went into invisible existence in 942 CE.
Two objectives have directed this religious speculation about the future coming of the Imam from his invisible existence. The reason I consider this reflection speculative is that knowledge is limited only to God. Human beings are not privy to this knowledge about the future except what has been reported in the sayings of the Prophet. There are numerous traditions that speak about the Signs of the Hour (‘ala>’im al-sa>’a) and the calamity that awaits humanity before the final revolution is launched by the descendant of Imam ‘Ali and Fa>t}ima, the daughter of the Prophet, to purify the religion of God and to establish justice on earth. While there are a number of traditions that speak about the catastrophe that awaits humanity towards the End of Time, there are indeed few traditions that provide instruction about how to conduct life while awaiting the appearance of God’s Proof (h}ujjat alla>h) so that the Day of Deliverance can become a reality.
However, there is one tradition that deserves special attention in the context of this paper. It provides with an important observation about those who believe in the invisible presence of the divinely guided leader and who wish to attain certainty in the matter of the future of humanity. This paper seeks to show that Imam ‘Ali b. al-Husayn in his description of the future generation of Muslims awaiting the divinely promised Imam’s appearance underscores the importance of intellectual engagement with one’s age as God’s special favor. The tradition’s optimistic tone and encouragement to those who believe in the certainty of God’s promise to the downtrodden on earth raise the prospect of hope for the future generations in such a way that as long as their progression toward perfection is directed by their hope in the future coming of the ideal leader, they are already witnesses to the presence of the Imam of the Age in their own struggle. The life on earth, as the tradition points out, cannot be lived in isolation and separation from everyday engagement with other human beings and realities that human beings encounter. It must be lived, in accord with intellectual integrity and moral and spiritual awareness so that it can serve as the preparation ground for the ultimate victory of truth over falsehood, and justice over injustice.


The history of the twelfth Imam al-Mahdi> shows that the period of his prolonged disappearance had caused many of the followers of this school of Ahl al-Bayt to seek an explanation about the phenomenon of invisible existence (ghayba) of the last Imam. What does it mean to have an Imam in the state of invisible existence, meaning, he can see us while we cannot? How does one ascertain one’s faith in the invisible existence of the future leader of humanity? Is it possible to conceive the presence of this leader in the state of invisibility while one maintains and awaits his future imminent return?
The sources that have preserved the traditions about the state of invisibility of the future messianic leader have discussed these questions time and again and have offered various responses both to justify the invisible state and to defend its prolongation until God decides in the matter of his reappearance. However, the following tradition stands out as one of the most significant traditions that offers both the philosophy of the invisible existence of the messianic Imam and the manner in which each generation of his followers should prepare themselves to participate in the revolution that would be launched by this divinely guided leader.
In a lengthy conversation with his close associate by the name of Abu> Kha>lid al-Ka>buli>, Imam ‘Ali> b. al-H>{usayn, is engaged in describing the disappearance of the last Imam and the circumstances that would lead to such an event. At one point during the conversation the Imam also informs al-Ka>buli> of the impending prolongation of the state of invisible existence for the twelfth successor of the Prophet, and then he goes on to describes the people who will be living the experience of having the Imam in the invisible state while still believing in his leadership:
Abu> Kha>lid said, ‘I asked him (the Imam): “O son of the Prophet, what will happen then? “ He replied: “The invisible existence (ghayba) will prolong for the friend of God, the twelfth among the legatees of the Messenger of God and the Imams (peace be upon them). O Abu> Kha>lid, during this period of invisible existence the people who believe in his leadership and await his appearance will constitute the best of all the people in all epochs. The reason is that God (Exalted be His remembrance) has conferred on them intellects (al-‘uqu>l), insights (al-afha>m), and deep knowledge (al-ma’rifa) [in such a way that] the invisible state [of the Imam] has become similar to actual witness (al-musha>hada). During this period of invisibility, God has made these people comparable to those who fought with the sword in front lines with the Prophet. These are rightfully the sincere ones, truthfully our followers (shi>’atuna>), and those who call people to the Path of God openly and in secret.”
There are several points in the above citation that must become the focus of this paper. First and the most important point that draws our attention about the tradition is the emphasis it lays in the quality of maintaining faith in God’s promise about the total transformation of the world under the Mahdi>. It renders the period of the invisible existence as one of the most trying periods in the life of the community of believers who anxiously await the appearance of the messianic Imam to deliver them. It is this period of severe trial that also affords the believers an exalted status of being the best among peoples of all ages. These believers, despite the physical inaccessibility of the Imam of Age, continue to believe in the divinely ordained ultimate mission of establishing the just public order on earth. The tradition also implicitly acknowledges God’s justice in the matter of compensating for this inaccessibility to the authoritative source of guidance by conferring on these believers enormous intellectual capacities and deep insights into the divine purposes by actually approximating the invisible state of the Imam to the visible one. These believers are not passive observers of the situation in which they find themselves. Quite to the contrary, they are utilizing God’s endowments to their best ability to enable them to attain a kind of perfection through which they can witness the presence of the last Imam in all their good undertakings in the world.
The second part of the tradition begins the comparison of these believers during the state of invisible existence to those devoted soldiers of Islam who fought in the front lines during the Prophet’s mission. It confirms the honorable position of these believers during this period of uncertainty because of the delay in the appearance of the Imam. These dedicated believers are constantly striving (the true meaning of jiha>d) in the path of God to prepare for the ultimate return of the messianic Imam by calling upon people to support the mission of justice openly and in secret.

Religious leaders in the Muslim community are divided on the appropriate response to the period of moral depravity and decadence that has accompanied the modern period of human advancements in various fields. There are some in the community who have accepted God’s decree in the meaning of abandonment of any endeavor on the part of humanity to interfere with God’s overall preordained plan for the End of Time. “Engagement” with time and intellect is, then, out of place. People should simply submit to the catastrophic future in the hope that God will deliver them at the right time before the final judgment takes place at the End of Time. This is the belief in historical determinism – a view that history has been foreordained and nothing that humans will do can change the situation. In other words, when human beings find a situation unbearable, instead of actively responding to change it they should simply ascribe it to the will of God and bear the unpleasant conditions patiently. In fact, the passivity advocated by this kind of thinking is not very different from the prescription of “separatism” and “isolationism” in the context of open society discussed above.
The second group’s active response to the future of humanity is captured by the above-cited tradition reported on the authority of the Imam ‘Ali> b. al-H{usayn. This tradition rules out such a passive response to the situation in which we all find ourselves. The most important message conveyed by the Imam is that human intellectual development and human capacity to embark upon progression until it reaches the highest level of comprehension and insight is through God’s own endowment. Why would God confer a thing on humanity if it were to remain in abeyance until the appearance of the deliverer? The divine mystery that explains the probable reason for even choosing the state of invisible existence for the future deliverer of humanity is that during the period of severe trial of one’s faith in the realm of the unseen (al-ghayb) all followers of the Imam should remain alert to their responsibility to do all that is within their power to usher the bright future. To put it differently, Muslim community cannot afford to remain indifferent to the challenging world in which they live – the world in which materialism is in severe competition with spirituality and moral awareness. The forces of materialism are not to be defeated; they are simply to be tamed and brought under the supervision of moral and spiritual values taught by the revelation of God through His emissaries.
In this sense, the period of invisible existence of the messianic Imam is the period of political messianism in the sense of preparation for justice to prevail over the forces of injustices; for truth to defeat the forces of falsehood so that the earth can be filled with justice and equity as it is filled with injustice and tyranny. Political messianism should precede the religious messianism when Islam will return to its pristine purity the way it was when the Prophet taught it. This is the active response to which Imam ‘Ali> b. al-H{usayn is calling his own followers and the followers of the school of Ahl al-Bayt until the End of Time.


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