March 29 is the (alleged) birthday of Muhammad b. Hasan “al-Mahdi,” the twelfth and final Imam of Twelver Shiism [which I write sans correct transliteration, because such causes my text here in WordPress to change font size]. He is said to have been born 870 AD/256 AH. These Imams are believed by this sect–which comprises a majority in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Azerbaijan, as well as minority pockets elsewhere–to be the rightful and Allah-ordained leaders of Islam, as descendants of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali. After the death of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari (probably poisoned by the Sunni Abbasid Caliph), his son Muhammad at the age of four or five allegedly disappeared from human sight but stayed in contact with his followers for the next 37 years. In 941 AD he then went radio silent, and will not be heard from again until Allah sends him forth from this mystical occultation to lead the world–by conversion and conquest–to (Shiite) Islam.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Mehr News Agency last week ran a long story about the “Hidden Imam,” entitled “Mankind in Need of a Savior.” Since this coincided with our Western Christian Holy Week, I thought it a worthy topic of discussion.
Both Sunnis (the majority branch of the religion) and Shiis believe in the Mahdi, the “divinely-guided one” whom Allah will send to make the entire world Muslim. This will be done with a little help from his friend, the non-crucified and thus non-resurrected Jesus, who will have returned and revealed he was a Muslim all along. The only real difference is that the Sunnis believe he’s not yet been here and thus will emerge onto the stage of history, eventually being acknowledged, while the Shiis, as noted, think he will be the returning-from-hiddenness Muhammad, son of Hasan al-Askari. The Mahdi will combat the forces of evil (both human–particularly Christian states–and supernatural, notably the Dajjal, or “deceiver”/antichrist), take over the world in tandem with Jesus, enforce Islamic norms and laws, and eventually die. While the Iranians, and indeed many other Muslims (to include Sunnis), refer to the Mahdi as “savior,” he’s much more of a religious warlord. Any “salvation” he engenders is entirely in the military and political realm, not the spiritual or personal one.
Besides this martial element, the biggest problem with the Twelfth Imam is his total lack of historicity. There are no sources, outside an extremely small coterie of Twelver Shiis true believing ones, corroborating that Hasan al-Askari even had a son. And of course only a member of the sect could buy the story that a five year old boy would be put on ice for over a millennium. As a historian and, yes, a Christian, I think Ockham’s Razor points to the eleventh Imam dying sans progeny, with the mythology of his son being created to keep this sect of Islam alive. And in this the fiction succeeded all too well. But even if the Shii Twelfth Imam were historically verifiable–what difference would it make? He has no truly salvific power in his lifetime, and is long since dead and gone, just like all the other Imams. Or Muhammad himself, for that matter. Dead desert warlords, at best; deluded false prophets, at worst.
Contrast Muhammad, or his epigone the Mahdi (Sunni or Twelver), with the true Savior of Mankind–Jesus Christ. We know He existed, historically, for not just pious Christian sources (the Gospels, Epistles and early Fathers) but antagonistic pagan or Jewish Romans (Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus) attest to His historicity. Furthermore, He died on the Cross to expiate our sins; and His Resurrection not only proved Him right, but allows us to align our lives with His and, ultimately, to achieve eternal life. Can the Twelfth Imam do that?
Yes, Iranian news outlets are entirely correct that mankind is in need of a savior. But it’s not the Mahdi. It’s the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, Crucified and Resurrected. May all Iranians, and indeed all peoples, come to that saving knowledge before it’s too late.