In order to understand the clerical rulers of Iran, we need to learn about the genesis of their religious faith, Shi’a Islam, and the pivotal place of the Mahdi. Examination of the vast Islamic literature shows that the present sect of Shi’a Islam has evolved from a mix of cultural, political, economic and religious influences. I shall outline, in a summary form, how the belief in the Mahdi, the revered Imam whose advent is expected by the Shi’a faithful, crystallized over time. The Mahdi is expected to appear and save the world when it has reached the depth of degradation and despair. Below is a brief chronological account of how Shiism and the belief in the Mahdi as its pivotal figure were formed.
* Muhammad ruled with an iron fist while alive and no one contested his authority. He designated no heir, and left no will, oral or written, and had no male issue from any of his wives and slave women to inherit the office. Some believers, however, felt that the prophet wished for Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, to assume the Ummah’s leadership while a vast majority opted for the Arab’s traditional patriarchal seniority-based practice by choosing Abu-Bakr as the Caliph. * Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s oldest high disciple and the father of Muhammad’s nine-year-old child-bride Ayesha, assumed the position of the first Caliph and died shortly thereafter. He was followed by Umar ibn al-Khattāb. Then, Uthman ibn Affan became the third Caliph, and finally by Ali ibn Abu Talib. * Ali was considered by his admirers to be the greatest Muslim warrior and by his detractors as a vicious killer. Two of Ali’s sons, Hassan and Hussein were viewed similarly. Ali was murdered, according to one version, by one of his own followers who resented Ali’s capitulation to the Caliphate hierarchy. That is, the assassin and his like-minded Muslims felt that Ali betrayed Muhammad by not fighting to be his immediate successor and by consenting to be the fourth Caliph.
Another version of his death is that a Persian warrior by the name of Brahman Jazyyeh killed Ali, avenging the death of numberless Persians that Ali and his people had slaughtered. * Ali reportedly killed untold numbers of Islam’s enemies, including Persians, with his much-feared sword that had its own name: Zulfiqar. He was addressed by his followers as Amir-ul-Momeneen (Commander of the Faithful). * The death of Ali transformed the feuding among the various Muslim factions into open warfare. Some decided to follow Ali’s son Hassan who was soon killed by contenders, then the faction adopted another son of Ali Hussein as their Imam. Hence, to these people, Ali was the first Imam; an appointee of Allah, without a firm basis for this belief. Ali was considered sinless and pure (taher) and immune from error. Over time, eleven males from Ali’s line were taken in succession as Pure Imams. Thus, the 12-Imamate Shi’a originated with Ali as the first, Hassan as the second, and his brother Hussein as the third Imam. * Hussein was killed in a fierce lopsided battle with Muslim opponents of the Imamate (those who opposed the system of Imamate leadership which is based on the hereditary succession of leaders from the line of Ali.) The two major divisions in Islam diverged with Sunnis opting for the elective Caliphate and Shiites for the hereditary Imamate. * After Hussein’s death, some of his followers claimed that he had not died and that he would return. Others took to his brother Muhammad, and then later many took to Hussein’s son Zayn al-Abidin, as their Imam; and when he died, many followed his son, Muhammad Al-Baqir.
* Starting with the death of Ali, a strong belief began to form among his grieving followers that he had not died and that he would return to assume his rule. This belief in the return continued and eventually metamorphosed into the notion of Mahdi, or the Sahib-ul- Zaman (the Lord of the Age.)
* When al-Baqir died, there were once again elements from among the Shi’a who denied his death and claimed that he would return one day, while others settled on his son Ja'far al-Sadiq as their Imam.
* When Ja'far al-Sadiq died, there was mass splintering among the Shi’a. Each of his sons Isma'il, Abdullah, Muhammad, Zakariyya, Ishaq and Musa Al Kazem was claimed by various groups to be their Imam. Also a faction believed that Jaa'far did not die, he had simply disappeared from view, and that he would return one day.
* The same splintering and confusion happened after the death of Moosa. Some denied his death, believing that he will return, some following his son Ahmad as their Imam, while others chose his other son Ali al-Rida .
* After al-Rida, many took his son Muhammad al-Jawwad , also known as al-Taqi, and after him his son Ali al-Hadi -, or an-Naqi. At the death of Ali al-Hadi, they adopted his son Hassan al-Askari as their new- and 11th- Imam. The above is a very brief synopsis of a tumultuous genesis of the Shi’a adoption of the Imamate belief which climaxed at year 254 AH: the time when a major section of the Shi'a accepted as their Imam the 22-year old Hassan, son of Ali al-Hadi, and 10th lineal descendant of Ali and his wife Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter). Six years later, Hassan al-Askari is lying on his deathbed, but unlike any of his forefathers he leaves no offspring, no one to whom the Shi’a might turn to as their new Imam. The Shiites, who had been regarding Hassan al-Askari as their Imam, were thrown into mass disarray. Does this mean the end of the Imamate? The end of the Imamate, they felt would mean the end of Shiism. They were not prepared for that. The confusion that reigned among the Shi'a after the death of Hassan al-Askari is recorded by his contemporary Shi'a writer, Hassan ibn Moosa an-Nawbakhti, who reports the emergence of at least 14 sects among the followers of Hassan al-Askari, each one with a different view of the future of the Imamate and the identity of the next Imam. Another contemporary Shi’a writer, Sa'd ibn Abdullah al-Qummi, records 15 sects, and a century later the historian al-Mas'udi lists 20 separate sects.
At least four major divisions of belief emerged to deal with the crisis of not having a legitimate male from the line of Muhammad to turn to as Imam. One group accepted the death of Hassan al-Askari and the fact that he left no offspring. To them Imamate had ended in like manner that Nubuwat (mission of Muhammad himself) had ended with his death. Yet, some in this group retained hope for the advent of a new Imam. Another group refused to accept the death of Hassan al- Askari, and claimed that he would return in the future to establish justice upon earth. The refusal to accept the death of an Imam and retain the belief in his future return goes back to the very early days of the Imamate line. Yet another group bestowed the mantle of Imamate to Hassan’s brother Jaa'far. The final major group headed by Uthman ibn Sa'id al-'Amri claimed that Hassan al-Askari did in fact have a son, Muhammad, who had gone into hiding at the age of four for reasons of safety and no one but himself could have any contact with him. Uthman ibn Sa'id al-'Amri further claimed that as Wakeel (representative) of the Imam he was the one to collect money in the name of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (descendents of Muhammad). Hassan al-Askari's own family denied the existence of any child of his, and divided his estate between his brother Jaa'far and his mother. Yet Uthman ibn Sa'id and his gang won the allegiance of the masses of the believers by denouncing Jaa'far as al-Kadhdhab (the Liar).
This school of thought ultimately became the dominant view in Shiism with a new Wakeel following the death of a previous one. With the passage of time, in-fighting among the various claimants for being the Wakeel exposed the scheme for nothing more than a way of extracting money from the gullible faithful. Yet, the belief in the Hidden Imam and his return remains a fundamental belief of Shiites. To this day, the ever-supplicated cry of the Shi’a faithful is Ya Saheb-ul-Zaman (Lord of the Age Mahdi) hasten your return. Who is the much prayed for Mahdi? The four-year old who never was? The four-year old who went into hiding in a well, as some Shiites believe to this day—the well in Iran’s Jamkaran where president Ahmadinejad frequently visits, submits his written requests, and receives his marching orders from the Hidden Imam to whom he claims he is accountable? Debunking the belief in the Hidden Imam and his return is pivotal to the falsifying of Shiism and helping the long-deluded Muslims in abandoning a fiction that has ruled and ruined their lives for far too long.