When we are asked today about the whereabouts of Imam Mahdi (may God hasten his reappearance), our response is: "He is in occultation (ghayba)." Scholars have two interpretations for the occultation of the Imam. One is the 'hidden person', and the other is the 'hidden identity'. The former says that people cannot see the physical existence of the Imam. The latter says that people cannot make the connection between the person they see being the Imam himself. These definitions can help better shape our understanding about occultation. (Mawsoo'at Al-Imam Al-Mahdi)
Given both definitions, some people cannot seem to accept the idea of God's representative being 'in occultation', and others seem to believe that this phenomenon is restricted to Imam Mahdi. While it is true that the Imam's occultation stands out, history has reported many other cases in which God's representatives went into occultation. What follows is a brief look into some of the historical reports.
The story of the occultation of Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) is very similar to that of Imam Mahdi. His mother's pregnancy was hidden so Namrud could not cause her miscarriage. His birth was a secret. He was left in a cave in which God took care of him and provided him with sustenance. His person remained hidden (in occultation) until God ordered him to spread His message. (Kamalud Deen Wa Tamamun Ne'ma)
Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) states that Prophet Ibrahim had another period of 'occultation' when he was banished by the tyrant of Egypt. The Qur'an references this second occultation in the following verse, "And I will leave you and those you invoke other than God, and will invoke my Lord." (19:48)
Prophet Khidr (peace be upon him) is a prophet who existed from before the time of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him). Scholars agree that he is still amongst us to this very day. However, there are no accounts of his whereabouts. (Al-Fusool Al-Ashra) In fact, Imam Sadiq said that the sole purpose behind Prophet's Khidr's long life is precisely so people cannot dismiss the longevity of Imam Mahdi's life! (Bihar al-Anwar)
After Prophet Yusuf's (peace be upon him) brothers threw him in the well, he was taken to Egypt and became the king. He was away for about twenty years. Even when his brothers came to Egypt, they saw him, they talked to him, and they interacted with, but they did not know him. People from Palestine did not know the whereabouts of Prophet Yusuf either.
This emphasizes the definition of 'occultation' as a hidden identity. Prophet Yusuf was seen but even his brothers could not make the connection that that 'king of Egypt' was a prophet of God and their own brother.
This is another occultation that is very similar to that of Imam Mahdi. Like Prophet Ibrahim, the pregnancy of Musa's (peace be upon him) mother was hidden, and he was protected at birth and during his early years. The Qur'an recounts the story of Prophet Musa leaving to Madyan and living with Prophet Shu'ayb (peace be upon him). During this time, the followers of Prophet Musa did not know his whereabouts, and he was hidden from them until he came back. It is important to note that during his occultation, people were suffering and were ardently hoping for his early return. (Kamalud Deen Wa Tamamun Ne'ma)
The examples of occultations are not limited to the aforementioned prophets. Prophet Idris (peace be upon him) was the first of occultations, and Imam Baqir (peace be upon him) narrates his story and how 'his person' was hidden. There was also the story of Prophet Saleh (peace be upon him) who came back after being in occultation for a period of time, and there were people who did not believe it was him. Other accounts include Prophet Yunus (peace be upon him), who was hidden inside the belly of the whale. There was Prophet Uzair (peace be upon him), who was hidden from his people for a hundred years.
And it was not limited to Prophets only, as successors of Prophets went into occultation as well. A prime example is Asif son of Barkheya, the successor of Prophet Sulayman (peace be upon him). People used to go to him for their inquiries, and then he went into a lengthy occultation.
And there are many more! (Al-Fusool Al-Ashra, Kamalud Deen Wa Tamamun Ne'ma)
Back to Today
Allah says in the Quran, "[This is] the established way of Allah with those who passed on before; and you will not find in the way of Allah any change." (33:62)
'Occultation' is not limited to the "Imam of the Shia" and it is not a new phenomenon that is applicable to one person. It is a way of Allah that has its inherent wisdom. It was seen before, and today, we see it again!
It is during the Imam's occultation that we should pave the way for his blessed return. We should hold onto our religion's teachings and follow the path of Allah, the Prophet, and his Holy Household (peace be upon them all). Our waiting should be more than just sitting around, supplicating to Allah, and watching the hands of time turn. We should be actively awaiting and preparing for the reappearance. As the Prophet says, "My nation's best deed is to await the Imam's advent." (Bihar al-Anwar)
For Further Research:
Al-Fusool Al-Ashra by Shaikh al-Mufid
Kamalud Deen Wa Tamamun Ne'ma by Shaikh al-Saduq
Muntakhab Al-Anwar Al-Mudee'a by Sayyid Baha'uddine Al-Najafi
Mawsoo'at Al-Imam Al-Mahdi by Shaheed Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr