We have been taught since birth through our religious schools and teachings about our present and the last Imam, Imam al-Mahdi (may Allah hasten his reappearance). We regularly remember him in our prayers and ask Allah to hasten his return from occultation and save the earth from all evils. The return of al-Mahdi during the end of the world has been prophesized through several traditions of our Prophet and Imams (peace be upon them all).
Our Prophet has said, "Listen to the good news about the Mahdi! He will rise at the time when people will be faced with severe conflict and the earth will be hit by a violent quake. He will fill the earth with justice and equity as it is filled with injustice and tyranny. He will fill the hearts of his followers with devotion and will spread justice everywhere." (Bihar al-Anwar)
The Savior of Humanity has been preserved for the day when the world will be in complete chaos. Professor Henry Corbin of Sorbinne University believes Shi'ism to be the only sect as compared to other schools that has preserved and continued the divine guidance given to man from God, through Imamate. The theory behind believing in the existence of Imam al-Mahdi and his return has been denounced as a myth by other schools of thought. They believe such issues of faith cannot prove the existence of the living Imam who is waiting for the right time to reappear, further postulating various intellectual questions. Interestingly, all this is satirically familiar and very similar to history when compared with the people rejecting the calls during the times of various prophets such as Prophet Isa, Prophet Musa, Prophet Yunus, Prophet Ibrahim and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them all). Let us look at some of the questions believers and disbelievers alike put forth about our living Imam:
How Can a Man Live for Over a Thousand Years?
It is not difficult to believe in the longevity of the 12th Imam for anyone who knows about the age of the prophets of God such as Prophet Adam, who lived several hundred years, and Prophet Noah, who lived for over 950 years. Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and Ayatollah Murtadha Mutahhari in their book The Awaited Savior very brilliantly and clearly explain the practical possibility, scientific possibility, and logical possibility of the long life of Imam al-Mahdi. Practical possibility implies an act which is possible for anyone to perform such as traveling to the moon. Scientific possibility implies an act which is not rejected by scientific theories such as traveling to other planets but it has not yet become a practical possibility. Logical possibility is the widest possibility that has a scope beyond scientific laws, and not involving any contradictions. As there is no theory in science that contradicts the long life span of humans, logical reasoning implies a man can live a long life within the scientific laws. Conclusively, there is a growing scientific possibility and a definite logical possibility of the long life of Imam al-Mahdi.
How Can He Be a Leader (Imam) at an Early Age and Develop Extraordinary Traits?
Age has no significance in Islam as there have been many spiritual leaders in the history who were mapped not by their age but by their qualities. In fact, our 9th and 10th Imams acquired Imamate at the early ages of nine and eight respectively. It can thus be comprehended that Imam Mahdi became Imam at an early age of five years after the death of the 11th Imam in 260 AH. He had already possessed extraordinary and phenomenal qualities since childhood to the time he went into occultation, because if he did not, it would have been very easy for the government to catch and expose a child of average (not infallible) qualities. Several other prophets have also been mentioned in the Holy Quran as phenomenal beings possessing divine knowledge of Allah since infancy or childhood, such as Prophet Isa (19:30) and Prophet Yahya (19:12). Empirically, it is easy to accept the extraordinary characteristics of Imam Mahdi who is very close to Allah and waiting for the right time to appear from occultation.
What Is Occultation? Where Does the 12th Imam Resides?
Occultation is the occasion when our 12th Imam went to an unseen and concealed (ghayb) place. It is that place from where he can see and reach us whereas we can never go there. People ask about the possibilities of the existence of such a place. There are certain places which are beyond the scope of reach by humans and the observation of physical laws and science. Such a place is known to Allah as mentioned in the Holy Quran:
"Allah is the Knower of the unseen, and He does not reveal His secrets to anyone, except to him whom He chooses as a messenger; for verily He causes a guard to march before him and after him." (72:26‑27)
There have been other prophets as well who have gone into occultation, such as Prophet Ibrahim (19:48-49), Prophet Musa (28:21-22) and Prophet Isa (4:157) as mentioned in the Holy Quran. All these signs from the Holy Book show that what has happened before can happen again.
Therefore, it is not very intelligent for one to seek the answers they would like to hear, rather than take the way the answers are present naturally. One can never understand the concept of the unseen unless he accepts the infinite behavior of Allah and the people he sends to propagate His message. One has to go beyond his infinitesimal limitations of methods, observations and analysis of scientific systems in order to accept anything greater. It is the limitation of such people who question the logic of 12th Imam al-Mahdi.
What Is the Need for His Occultation and Then Reappearance?
Since the origin of the world, Allah has never left its people without a prophet or Imam. Their guidance is as necessary for mankind as the rainfall and the radiance of the sun is for the crops growing from beneath the agricultural field as seeds. As mentioned in A Discussion Concerning the Mahdi by Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr, the Shia belief in the unbroken, unaltered link of the twelve Imams can answer many questions about Imam Mahdi going into occultation until a fixed period of time. Several Imams have also quoted the need for the presence of Imams.
Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has said, "The earth shall never be devoid of Divine Proof; he may be apparent and prominent or he may be concealed and hidden. And it is because of him that the proofs and signs of Allah are not wasted."
Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) has said, "Because Allah is Great and Mighty, He has never made the earth devoid of a just Imam".
As the return of Imam Mahdi will result in complete destruction of injustice, tyranny and oppression, this effect is itself a good enough answer for the cause of the above question. It is easier for the Imam who has been alive for centuries seeing the rise and fall of different kingdoms, countries and humans to accomplish this than a man who is born and saves the world from destruction near its end. Considering the hypothesis, if such a man was ever to be born, people would not hesitate to call him a prophet and this further clarifies that Muhammad was the last prophet of Allah. There is a need for the presence of an Imam to preserve the truth of Allah and preach love, justice, righteousness, peace and compassion. There cannot be a bigger reason that this for his necessity.
There are anomalies among us that have caused our Imam to stay in occultation and it is upon us to call him sincerely in our prayers. If we can truly realize the presence of our living Imam and strive to perfect ourselves as his followers, he would surely reappear amongst us. It is dependent upon us to decide whether we are soldiers of Imam Mahdi, or like the people of Kufa.