This is the objection of sceptics like Ibn Taymiyyah who ridicule the Shias for believing in an Imam who does not live among them (as a known face) and apparently offers no benefit to his followers.
The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) had already informed the Muslims that the hidden Imam would help them like the sun sustains the earth even when concealed by the clouds.
However, the skeptics mock such reports steeped as they are in denial and fragile beliefs.
- Hidden Imam same as apparent Imam
In terms of providing grace and benefit to the creatures, there is no difference between an apparent Imam and a hidden one.
To clarify, an Imam in Ghaibat (occultation), is not hidden like a person who hides from others inside a shelter or cave or an underground bunker. The hidden Imam is in plain sight, but others do not recognize him until he introduces himself.
Ghaibat (occultation) is a handicap for us, not a handicap for Imam. Prophet Yusuf continued helping the Egyptians even though his identity was concealed from them. He helped his brothers although they failed to recognize him. Likewise, the Imam’s grace, guidance and other benefits are not compromised by being concealed or unrecognized.
If the skeptics object to how an Imam located in one place, can spread his grace, mercy, and guidance to all worlds created by Allah, then the answer to this in the Quranic verse:
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ إِلَّا رَحْمَةً لِّلْعَالَمِينَ
And We have not sent you but as a mercy to the worlds. (Surah Ambiya (21): 107)
Just like the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) who lived all his life in Hijaz was the center of divine mercy and grace for all the worlds; his grandson Imam Mahdi (a.t.f.s.) is also the center of divine mercy and grace for all the worlds as reported in Hadith al-Lauh (Al-Kafi v 1 p 527-528).
And this is not difficult since Imam Mahdi (a.t.f.s.) is not restricted to an area or country in Ghaibat. In other words, Ghaibat is an enabler for direct grace and mercy given the numerous instances of Imam Mahdi (a.t.f.s.) helping needy people in need in many parts of the world.
- Salvation from death of paganism and apostasy
Believing in an Imam and pledging allegiance to him, even when he is hidden from the people, saves one from ignorance and apostasy. It serves as protection of one’s faith.
There are many reports in this regard certified by both sects of Islam in its text as well as subject. These reports prove the necessity of the existence of an Imam in every era till Judgement Day, submitting to whose obedience safeguards faith and insulates the Muslim from apostasy and hypocrisy.
The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) declares in the widely documented report:
مَنْ مَاتَ وَ لَمْ يَعْرِفْ اِمَامَ زَمَانِهٖ مَاتَ مِيْتَةً جَاهِلِيَّةً
Whosoever dies without recognizing the Imam of his time, dies the death of paganism (i.e. he dies an infidel).
- Sahîh-e-Muslim trad 1,851
- Musnad-e-Ahmad trad 16,434
- Musnad-e-Abi Dawood Al-Tayaalisi pg 259
- Mujam al-Kabeer trad 910
- Sharh al-Maqaased vol 4 pg 239
- Sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar pg 179
The tradition is narrated varyingly as:
مَنْ مَاتَ وَ لَيْسَ لَهٗ اِمَامٌ مَاتَ مِيْتَةً جَاهِلِيَّةً
“Whoever died without an Imam died a death of paganism.”
Sahih-e-Ibn Habbaan trad. 4,573 – Ibn Habbaan is considered by some to be most reliable after the two Shaikhs – Bukhari and Muslim.
These reports make no distinction between an apparent Imam and a hidden one. Meaning, whether an Imam is hidden or apparent, Muslims are required to submit to him in every era so as to safeguard their faith from apostasy and infidelity.
So, for the skeptics, one crucial benefit of the hidden Imam is protecting his followers from apostasy and paganism of the Jahiliyyah era preceding Islam.
- The Muslim nation is secure from divine chastisement
Till Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.a.) or an infallible proof of Allah from his progeny is present in the Muslim nation, the Muslims are secure from divine chastisement that visited the nations of Prophets Nuh, Moosa, Isa (peace be upon them).
Narrator asked Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s.): For what reason is one in need of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) or the Imam?
Imam (a.s.) informed: For the survival of the world in proper condition as Allah has stopped chastisement from descending on the earth, till the time the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) or the Imam are present. As Allah declares:
وَ ما كانَ اللَّهُ لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَ أَنْتَ فِيهِمْ
And Allah was not going to punish them while you were among them. (Surah Anfal (8): 33)
And the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) informed: The stars are a security for the inhabitants of the sky, and my Ahle Bait (a.s.) are a security for the inhabitants of the earth. So, whenever the stars disappear there comes to the inhabitants of the sky what they dislike, and when my Ahle Bait (a.s.) go away, there comes to the inhabitants of the earth what they dislike.
- Behar al-Anwar v 23 p 19
Clearly, belief in an Imam, be it hidden or apparent has multiple benefits in terms of grace, mercy, and guidance, which are so overwhelming that they benefit not just the Muslims, but even those who do not believe in the Imams. For the Muslims in particular, believing in an Imam even when he is hidden, saves them from paganism and divine chastisement.