A doubt that bothers many Muslims is with regards Imam Mahdi’s (a.s.) occultation. There are many questions on the subject and the peculiar nature of Imam’s (a.s.) occultation is often a flashpoint for debate. Some naysayers and skeptics even go as far as to deny his existence altogether under the pretext of occultation.
While the occultation (Ghaibat) of Imam Mahdi (a.s.) appears peculiar and unheard of to present-day Muslims, it is not altogether without precedent. There are many divine Prophets (a.s.) and emissaries (a.s.) who have remained concealed from the nation for long periods of time on divine command. An entire book ‘Kamal al-Deen’ has been compiled on this very topic by the great scholar Shaikh Muhammad Ibn Ali Ibn Husain Ibn Baabwayh al-Qummi (r.a.), famous as al-Sadooq (exp. 381 A.H.) under the explicit instructions of Imam Mahdi (a.s.). Interested readers can refer the book for details.
With the numerous instances of occultation in history, there can be no excuse to reject the holy existence of Imam Mahdi (a.s.) merely by citing occultation as a pretext.
As far as the reasons for occultation are concerned there is an important point that needs to be addressed over here. Muslims are not aware or have not been informed about the reasons for many, rather, most articles of faith. They cannot use this as an excuse for neglecting or rejecting the article of faith altogether. Therefore Muslims have no reason to deny the holy existence of Imam Mahdi (a.s.) merely because they have no answers to certain aspects of occultation. Just like the Bani Israel had no reason to reject Prophet Moosa (a.s.) when he was away from the nation for a brief period of forty days. Even the Bani Israel cited the peculiar nation of Prophet Moosa’s (a.s.) occultation for their deviation.
As far as reasons of Imam Mahdi’s (a.s.) occultation are concerned even though there are traditions on the subject, generally Muslims have been ordered not to be inquisitive about the reasons since that will yield no benefits, rather only to focus on their responsibilities during occultation.
The Quranic verse emphasizes:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ لاَ تَسْأَلُواْ عَنْ أَشْيَاء إِن تُبْدَ لَكُمْ تَسُؤْكُمْ
‘O you who believe! Do not question about things which if declared to you may trouble you…’ (Surah Maidah (5): Verse 101)
Like many other sciences the real reasons behind occultation are known only to Allah, Who will disclose them at an opportune moment.
An interesting incident throws light on the topic.
Abdullah Ibn al-Fazl al-Hashimi narrates – I heard Imam Sadiq (a.s.) saying that for this Saheb al-Amr (Imam Mahdi a.s.) occultation is necessary, all the deviated ones will doubt regarding the occultation.
Abdullah Ibn al-Fazl: May my life be sacrificed for you, why will there be an occultation?
Imam Sadiq (a.s.): The wisdom which was present for the occultation of the past emissaries of Allah, that is also the wisdom behind the occultation of Saheb al-Amr. The wisdom will be revealed only after his reappearance, just as the wisdom behind the actions of Khizr (a.s.) i.e. puncturing the boat, killing the youth and building the wall was revealed only at the separation of Prophet Moosa (a.s.) and Khizr (a.s.).
Imam (a.s.) continued – O son of Fazl! This affair is from the affairs of Allah; it is a secret from the secrets of Allah; it is an occultation from the occultation of Allah. When we know that Allah is All-Wise then we testify that all His actions are full of wisdom, even though the reasons behind them are not apparent.
- Al-Ehtejaaj by Shaikh al-Tabrisi (r.a.), vol. 2, p. 376