The belief in the Mahdi is not only an essential doctrine deep-rooted in Islamic faith; it is rather an embodiment of human nature regardless of one's religious affiliations. For it is the universal desire of humans as a whole to try to achieve or at least witness the realisation of the ultimate objective of their existence, through which they will achieve perfection and social happiness in its entirety. Therefore, by reason of inner necessity and inspiration, humans will see a day when society will be replete with justice.
More importantly, from a religious perspective the concept of the Mahdi is the culmination of human struggle in their path towards Allah the Almighty. It is when true Justice will be established through human hands but with Divine succour resulting in the prevalence of truth over falsehood and all its offshoots.
And say: "Truth has (now) arrived, and Falsehood perished: for Falsehood is (by its nature) bound to perish." (Holy Qur'an, 17:81)
Having identified that the need for the Mahdi is a subject of inner necessity that is instilled into the hearts of humans, it is essential to outline the duties of the human race as a whole in trying to achieve a purgatory state of social felicity in the outward absence of the Mahdi that would lay a foundation for his imminent reappearance.
However, in the case of such a state being reached, it prompts one to question the fundamental motive behind the concealment of the Mahdi despite when the social and political factors are welcoming to his presence and his precepts. To this we say; Yes Indeed, this is exactly where the problem lies! The principle reason that is delaying the reappearance of the Mahdi is that the people aren't ready to acknowledge the perfect leader and the perfect ideology that is to be established by him, as clearly mentioned by the Mahdi himself in one of his narrations;
'If our Shi'a (followers), may Allah help and succeed them to His obedience, were united in wholeheartedly honouring the promise and obligation that is upon them, there would have been no delay in meeting us (i.e. in our reappearance), and bliss and felicity for them would have hastened by seeing us with full knowledge and certainty of testifying to our (leadership)'
Therefore, each and every one of us has to be very cognisant of their acts, in relation to the part we play during the occultation of the Mahdi. This period has been like none other before nor is the test set upon the Muslim Ummah and humanity at large like any before. With lack of direct contact with the divine leader of the time and the many injustices that have overwhelmed today's society resulting in moral demise on another side, many seek the help of Allah (SWT) and pray for the hasty reappearance of the Mahdi and his promised victory. Strong faith in the promised triumph in the midst of injustice and darkness is a means of separating the true believers from the rest. A brief look into history shows endless of these so-called followers who eventually betrayed their leaders and thus put eternal shame and disgrace on themselves. A perfect example being the story of the inhabitants of Kufah in Iraq at the time of the great ancestor of the Mahdi, Imam Husayn son of Imam Ali (as), for whom he weeps blood each day until the day of his reappearance.
Certainly those fortunate and blessed individuals who will take part in this grand culmination of servitude, which will result in the prevalence of Truth over all forms of falsehood, will be those whose conviction in the Mahdi and the promised day is resolute. The believers will be constantly tested by those whose aim is staunchly fixed in denying the Mahdi, by using arguments such as his age, for the Mahdi's age is now 1176 years. Many find it difficult to believe that a human can live for a period of this length, however, the impossibility in this objection is relative and its relation is to some person, place and time. What is impossibility to one person, time or place may be very possible to another, as we well know. Moreover, it should be said that living for such a length of time is neither a scientific nor a logical impossibility. Today scientists have succeeded in prolonging the life of certain animals, hundreds of times beyond their normal life spans by artificially creating conditions that delay the degeneration of their tissues and cells. The failure of this being effectively carried out on humans is merely due to the increased difficulties involved, however, it is in no way an impossibility, from a scientific point of view, to achieve this in the future.
Imam Mahdi (as) was born on the fifteenth of Sha'ban in the year two hundred and fifty five (255) after Hijrah. His birth was kept secret since the authorities of the time were actively seeking to execute him should he be found alive. The circumstances of his birth were therefore, very similar to that of the Prophet Moses (as) who was also been searched for by the authorities of his time, for the Pharaoh was well aware of the prophecy that a child would grow up to prevail over him and his evil rule and would replace this with the belief in the true One God whose Power, Might and Wisdom is Absolute.
Similarly, the Abbasid Caliphate was well aware of Imam Mahdi (as) and of how he would fill the world with justice and truth after it had been filled with injustice and falsehood, from several traditions originating from Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw). These narrations are present to date in both Shi'a and Sunni books.
"The world will not come to an end until a man from the descendants of Husayn takes charge of the affairs of the world and fills it with justice and equity as it is filled with injustice and tyranny."
At the age of five, after the tragic martyrdom of his father, the eleventh divine successor of Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) - Hassan son of Ali, Imam Mahdi went into a minor occultation. During this period, Imam Mahdi (as) was in contact with his followers through appointed deputies. This lasted for a period of about sixty nine years. A few days before the death of his fourth and final deputy Imam Mahdi (as) informed his followers, through his deputy, that there would be no more deputies after the death of the current one and after this period Imam Mahdi (as) would go into a Major Occultation, which would continue until the day Allah (SWT) grants permission to the Imam Mahdi (as) to manifest himself. During this period, none would be able to approach Imam Mahdi (as) through deputies or through direct contact. In regards to the duration and the importance of this period, Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) was once asked about the nature of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi. In his reply Holy Prophet likened the time of the Reappearance of Imam Mahdi to that of the Hour of Resurrection and then narrated the Quranic verse;
"He alone will manifest it at its proper time. It is heavy in the heavens and the earth. It cometh not to you save unawares" (Holy Qur'an, 7:187)
An important question is raised in relation to this specific period, by those who doubt or question the existence of Imam Mahdi (as). What is the benefit of divine Imam to his followers during his occultation?
In order to answer this question, one should realise that the position and the role of an Imam is not only to administer the affairs and the needs of Muslim Ummah, rather he is the link between man and God, the link between the material and the spiritual worlds. Moreover, his physical presence or absence has no bearing on his position in regards to this role. This can be derived from one of the sayings narrated by Imam Mahdi (as) himself;
'My benefit (to the people) during my occultation is similar to that of the sun when it disappears from sight behind the clouds.'
Examining the above saying from a scientific approach, we understand that just like how the Earth is sustained with the Sun's energy and light irrespective of whether it is behind clouds, similarly, we derive immense spiritual benefit from our Imam regardless of whether he is physically with us or not. Furthermore, one can also obtain another important role of Imamate from the saying above. Today, we know that the Sun is the centre of the solar system and its existence nourishes and nurtures for the planetary objects around it, similarly Imam's sole presence, whether active or not, is of paramount importance as it is the source of life for all as without the existence of God's proof on Earth the world is tantamount to complete annihilation.
We therefore have to be mindful of what we do and should endeavour in making our souls pure by nourishing them with the Divine light thus making our souls the abode for Allah (SWT) and his beloved angels. Spiritual perfection should be our goal and if there is any doubt as to whether Imam is aware of our acts and is overlooking the welfare of his followers, a saying by Imam Mahdi (as) should suffice;
'We have not ignored your consideration, and have not forgotten your mention; otherwise hardship would have descended upon you and your enemies would have exterminated you.'
Imam Mahdi (as) is therefore watching over our affairs and is patiently awaiting our response to his call. The matter regarding the return of Imam is not one simply related to awaiting a time frame chosen by the Almighty Allah (SWT), rather in accordance to the narration from Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw), it has a direct relationship with our own actions, as he says;
'The best of actions is awaiting Al-Faraj (the return)'
The emphasis in this saying is on the word 'actions', because it is in reference to participating in an action in order to bring about that awaited time. From this narration stems the School of Awaiting which is a comprehensive study into the necessary approaches and actions of the Muslim community in order to hasten the appearance of the return.
It is therefore necessary for everyone to work tirelessly for this objective and to remember that this mission is the only legitimate solution to the problems faced by mankind at large. It is the responsibility of everyone to remind those around them of this sacred mission and it is likewise their responsibility to sacrifice their time, efforts and even their finances for the cause of the awaited Imam.
It is a frequent saying amongst many Muslims, when they remember the martyrs of Karbala to chant: "If only we were with you, for surely we would have been victorious." We today have that option, we have an Imam in occultation waiting for us to reach out towards him. He is patiently waiting for that time to come where a small group of people would truly be of his followers such that he may appear and lead this Muslim Ummah towards salvation, and yet we as a people sit and do nothing.