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GHAYBAH. The Arabic word ghaybah literally means absence, but in the theological constructs of the Twelvers (Ithna `Asharlyah, a Shi`i sect) it designates the “occultation” of the twelfth imam, Muhammad, son of al-Hasan ibn `Ali al-`Askari (d. 874). He has gone into hiding, but he remains present in the community, and will return as an eschatological figure (al-mahdi, alqa’im). He will come with the sword, he will fill the earth with justice, and his reign will usher in the last days and the Resurrection.

The idea that a particular leader has not died and is but temporarily absent is perhaps universal. It had arisen among Shi’! groups already at the death of `All, the first imam (d. 661), and emerged again upon the deaths of various later imams. The enduring success of the Twelvers’ formulation is probably owing to the prior existence of traditions (both Sunni and Shi’i) which, drawing on ancient numerological preferences, mentioned twelve just rulers or leaders. Transforming the historical facts and integrating them into a mythic/theological structure was a process occupying generations of thinkers, who elaborated it in heresiographical works and in special studies of the Ghaybah. The standard version accounts for the disappearance of the last Imam by reference to excessive persecution.

The Twelvers believed the Ghaybah to have two stages. During the Lesser Occultation, the Imam continued to communicate with his community through four successive appointed agents, the last of whom died in 944 [see Wakalah al-Khassah, al-]. During the Greater Occultation, which continues to the present, there is no special agent, although the Imams jurists (fuqaha’; sg., fagih) are recognized in a general sense as agents of the Absent Imam [see Wakalah al-`Ammah, al-]. The doctrine of the Ghaybah enabled the Imamis to create a hermeneutical structure mirroring that already created by the Sunnis. As the source of authority was absent, his authority resided now in literary texts. The first of these was the Qur’an, the result of God’s revelation to the Prophet. The second and much larger corpus was hadith, as transmitted from the sinless imams. Thereafter, real practical authority depended on interpretation (hermeneutics), the monopoly of the learned classes, the `ulama’ and the fuqaha’. It is probable that these classes had achieved rudimentary existence prior to the Ghaybah and so facilitated the emergence of the doctrine.

Imam Shi’i political theory is conditioned by the doctrine of the Ghaybah. Since the imam was the only rightful leader of the community and administrator of the shari `ah, those who actually ruled during the Ghaybah were perceived to be usurpers and, in some sense, illegitimate. In time the theory emerged that the only rightful agent of the imam, the only one to administer the shari `ah in his absence, was the fully qualified fagih. The ramifications of this theory secured to the jurists an independent income (since they, in the place of the imam, administered the tax known as khums) and prompted them to significant political activity. This was particularly noticeable in the late Qajar period in Iran, and more recently in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran.

[See also Imam; Ithna `Asharlyah; Mahdi; Shl’! Islam, historical overview article.]


Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver ShNsm. Albany, N.Y., 1981.

Sachedina, A. A. The Just Ruler in Shiite Islam: The Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamite Jurisprudence. New York, 1988.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ghaybah/

  • writerPosted On: June 8, 2013
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