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GHAYBAH , the Arabic word for "concealment," in the sense of absence from human sight, is applied by various Shīʿī Muslim groups to the condition of one or another imam who disappeared rather than died and whose life is believed to have been prolonged (in a paradisial state or in God's presence) until his foreordained return as mahdī (the Expected Deliverer) to initiate the eschatological drama concluding history.

Early History

The Qurʾān contrasts the invisible or hidden spiritual realm (al-ghayb ) with the observable world of human experience. Drawing upon prototypes of such eschatological prophet figures as Moses and Jesus, the first generations of Muslims embraced the view that certain prophets were withdrawn by God from the eyes of mortals, among them Jesus, Idrīs (Enoch/Hermes), Ilyās (Elijah), and Khir. The Qurʾanic description of the crucifixion of Jesus (4:157159) and legends of the bodily incorruptibility and the ascension and future return of a Mosaic-type prophet contributed to the focusing of such expectations on various members of the prophet Muammad's family. ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law, may have been the first given this honor by a small group of extremists among his partisans, the Sabʾīyah, who refused to admit his death after his assassination in 661. After the martyrdom of usayn ibn ʿAlī at Karbala in 680, another son of ʿAlī, Muammad ibn al-anafīyah (d. 700?) became the center of millenarian hopes in the revolt of al-Mukhtār and the Kaysānīyah that occurred in 686 at Kufa in lower Iraq.

The Kaysānīyah drew an explicit parallel between a "docetic" understanding of the passion of Christ and the concealment and eventual return of their imam. Speculation about the concealment of the imam was tied to the doctrine of return (al-rajʿah ) in terms of a this-worldly, bodily resurrection before the end time to accomplish eschatological vengeance upon the wicked and victory and justice for the righteous.

The Later ShĪʿah

The early tendency of "stopping" at a certain claimant to the imamate who was seen to be in concealment and awaiting his near-return helped fragment the energies of the original Shīʿah. Historical circumstances determined the continuity of the Imamiyah or Twelver Shīʿī line of imams until the death in 874 of the eleventh imam, al-asan al-ʿAskarī, whom tradition holds to have secretly fathered a son four years before his death, namely the twelfth or Hidden Imam, Muammad al-Mahdī. During the minor ghaybah from 874 to 941 this person's earthly existence and near-return was accepted by the Twelver communities, whose allegiance was given to at least four successive safīr s, or agents, the direct deputies of the Mahdi, especially in his juristic and financial functions. After 941 comes the era of the major ghaybah, in which the Twelver scholar-lawyers (mujtahid s or faqīh s) collectively fulfill the functions of the imam's agents as an independently learned body of religious authorities. In the major ghaybah the Mahdi's concealment is seen as total and, though in earthly occultation, he is held to communicate to the faithful by virtue of his participation in the hierarchy of the invisible worlds.

The early Ismāʿīlī Shīʿah eschewed the notion of a miraculous prolongation of life for the imam and emphasized a continuing line of succession to the imamate that included temporary or cyclical periods of concealment termed satr. They centralized the spiritual and cosmic role of the imam developed earlier by the radical Shīʿah. The Druze, however, maintain belief in the ghaybah of their founders, the Fatimid caliph al-ākim and Hamzah. The two major branches of the Fatimid Ismāʿīlīyah both revere a living line of successive imams: For the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīyah he is the present Aga Khan, while the Mustaʿlī Ismāʿīlīyah or Bohoras hold that the present imams are in earthly concealment and are represented by a continuing line of dāʿī s, or agents acting as heads of the community.

For the Twelver Shīʿah, the need for a visible stand-in for the Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, has been assuaged by belief in his continuing efficacy and necessary suprahistorical role. Dream visions and transcendent appearances were occasions for the imam to momentarily break his concealment, while popular eschatology dwelt on the apocalyptic scenario of his triumphant return or the miraculous nature of his concealment. Shīʿī theosophical treatments expanded the cosmic role of the concealed imam and his presence in the spiritual realm of prophets and saints. ūfī treatments of ghaybah have interiorized it by focusing on the complementary experience of hadrah, "presence" with the divine. ūfīs revered the popular figures of prophetic longevity such as Khir as well as the invisible yet active hierarchy of saints headed by the qutb, or spiritual axis.

See Also

Aga Khan; Druze; Imamate; Messianism, article on Messianism in the Muslim Tradition; Shiism, articles on Ismāʿīlīyah, Ithnā ʿAsharīyah.


For descriptions of the early views on ghaybah, consult Israel Friedlaender's "The Heterodoxies of the Shiites in the Presentation of Ibn Hazm," Journal of the American Oriental Soci ety 28 (1907): 180 and 29 (1908): 1183. The Twelver doctrine of the concealment is well depicted by A. A. Sachedina in Islamic Messianism (Albany, N.Y., 1981), while the period of the minor ghaybah is treated in apologetic fashion by Jassim M. Hussain in The Occultation of the Twelfth Imam (London, 1982). Wilferd Madelung's articles, "Authority in the Twelver Shiism in the Absence of the Imam," in La notion d'autorité au Moyen-Âge, edited by George Makdisi et al. (Paris, 1982), pp. 163174, and "Shiite Discussion on the Legality of the kharāj ", in Proceedings of the Ninth Congress of Arabic and Islamic Studies (Leiden, 1981), pp. 193202, deal with the claim of the Shīʿī scholars to deputyship of the Hidden Imam. The esoteric Shīʿī approach can be sampled in Henry Corbin's study, "Divine Epiphany and Spiritual Birth in Ismailian Gnosis," in Man and Transformation, vol. 5 of Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, edited by Joseph Campbell (New York, 1964), pp. 69160, first published in the Eranos-Jahrbuch 23 (1954): 141249.

Douglas S. Crow (1987)


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