When Imam Hasan al-'Askari, peace be on him, died, the office of Divine Leadership (Imamate) was transferred to the Last Luminous Pearl of the House hold of the Holy Prophet, Imam al-Mahdi, peace be on him, . Although His Eminence did not appear amongst the people, some persons in whom he had trust and confidence were allowed to visit him and present him the problems and questions of the Shi'ites. And they communicated to the people the guidance and commands of the Divine Luminous Light.
From the point of view faith, confidence and virtue, these were distinguished persons among the Muslims who were mediators between the Imam and the people. And in due time they conveyed the guidance of His Eminence to the people. By studying the degree of the character and perception of the belief and piety of these individuals, not only does the greatness of their personalities become clear to us, but we become more familiar with the Imam of the Age, because, among the sayings of these distinguished, trustworthy and reliable companions of the Holy Imams, one finds the signs of the greatness of His Eminence (Imam al-Mahdi), Among the companions of Imam e Zaman, four became his most famous and confidential deputies who acted as mediators between the Imam and the people, and they are known as the Nawwab al-arba'ah (the four deputies). In order to know more about the dignity and greatness of their positions, we give below a brief description of each one of them:
1. Uthman ibn Sa'id 'Umari: This honourable figure was not only a deputy (na'ib) of Imam e Zaman but he was also a representative (wakil ) of Imam Hasan al-'Askari, peace be on him, and Imam 'Ali an-Naqi, peace be on him. He settled and organized many affairs of the Shi'ites. The Tenth Imam (al-Hadi) said to his followers regarding him. "This Abu 'Umari is a reliable and trustworthy person. Whatever he says to you he says so on my behalf, and whatever he does he does on my behalf."
This representation continued till 254 A.H, when Imam al-Hadi, peace be on him, died. Then, the Eleventh Imam is reported to have praised the character of Abu 'Umari as having his high esteem in his address to his Shi'ites, saying: "This Abu 'Umari is a reliable and trustworthy person. He had the confidence of the preceding Imam, and has also my confidence in my lifetime and after my death. Whatever he says to you he says so on my behalf, and whatever he does he does on my behalf."
2. Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Uthman: This man was the second special deputy of Imam e Zaman. He was also a deputy of the Eleventh Imam, about whom the latter said: "The greatness of his dignity and the exaltation of his status among the Shi'ites is so famous that there is no need to explain or dispute it."
Regarding him and his father, 'Uthman ibn Sa'id, Imam Hasan al-'Askari, peace be on him, said to one of his companions: "Umar and his son are both trustworthy. Whatever they do they do on my behalf, and whatever they say to you, they say so on my behalf. Therefore, listen to their words and obey them, because both of them are reliable and trustworthy to us."
3. Abu 'l-Qasim Husayn ibn Ruh Nawbakhti: Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Uthman, the third deplaty of Imam e Zaman, said about him: This Husayn ibn Ruh ibn Abu Bahr Nawbakhti is my successor. He is a reliable and trustworthy envoy and deputy between you and the Sahibu'l-Amr (the Master of the Authority). Therefore, in your affairs and important tasks refer to him and trust him. I was given this task; and I have announced it."
Shaykh Tusi (may Allah's mercy be upon him) said about him: "Abu'l-Qasim Husayn ibn Ruh was regarded by his friends and opponents as the most learned man among the people."
4. Abu 'l-Hasan 'Ali ibn Muh. ammad Simmari. This honourable figure was the last special deputy (Na'ibu'l-khass) of the Holy Imam e Zaman. His death, coincided with the 15th of Sha'ban 329 A.H. Husayn ibn Ruh introduce him as the deputy of the Imam. The last letter of Imam e Zaman (the Lord of the Age) to the four special deputies was addressed to this honourable man. In this order the Imam announced the death of 'Ali ibn Muhammad and the end of the deputation:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful. You are going to die in six days, may Allah grant patience to your brothers in faith on your departure. So, be prepared, but appoint no one in your place, because from the day of your death the period of my major occultation (ghaybatu'l-kubra) will begin. Henceforth, no one will see me, unless and until Allah makes me appear. My reappearance will take place after a very long time when people will have grown tired of waiting and those who are weak in their faith will say: 'What! Is he still alive?' When men will become cruel and inconsiderate, and the world will be full of injustice and violence. Very soon some men will claim to nave seen me. Beware! Anyone who makes such a claim before the coming out of Sufyani and the sound from heaven announcing my reappearance, is a liar and an imposter. There is no might nor strength except in Allah, the Magnificent."
As can be seen from this, it is the last order in which the door of special deputation is closed by the death of 'Ali ibn Muhammad; hence, anyone who claims to be a mediator, or claims that the Imam can be seen, is a liar. In the period of the major occultation no one has made the claim that he has been in the presence of the Holy Imam e Zaman.
The special deputies presented to Imam e Zaman the problerns and questions of the Shi'ite scholars, and he answered the ones that were necessary in letter form and delivered them through the same deputies. In these letters, the most important and difficult problems on different subjects of Shi'ite beliefs were cleared up. One of these problems was a question as to what would be the responsibility of the Shi'ites who would be faced with new events during the period of occultation, and what should they do to face them ?
In the letter issued by Imam e Zaman to the celebrated and distinguished Shi'ite Is'haq ibn Yaqub he recounted duties, methods and guidance for the Shi'ites in the period of occultation. This direction was carried out for many centuries, and it is one of the proofs of the comprehensiveness and eternity of Islamic rule. In one of the letters to Imam e Zaman which he sent through the second special deputy of the Imam, Is'haq ibn Ya' qub asked him some different questions, among which was a question which is the subject of our discussion. The Imam said that in those affairs one must refer to thosewho really understands their (Imams') sayings and have truly related them:
But as for the problems which will occur in the future, you should refer to the narrators of our traditions for their verdicts as they are my proofs to you, and I am Allah's Proof (Hujjatu'llah) to them."
Other letters of His Eminence (Imam al-Mahdi) were issued during the minor occultation (ghaybatu's-sughra), each one of them solved difficulties and gave instruction in the boundless sea of wisdom. All these letters were conveyed through the Holy Imam 's special deputy to the desirous seekers. Yes, the four deputies, who were at the highest level of faith and confidence for many years, were the blessed mediators between the Imam and the people till in the year 329 A.H. when this deputation was closed, and on the basis of the Divine Will the major occultation of Imam e Zaman commenced. This was the very occultation which was prophesied a long time previously by the Holy Prophet and the Shi'ites Imams; and Muslims keep patient in this period of test, till by the order of Almighty Allah, the Awaited Imam will appear and the Divine Aim will reach its fulfilment.
The Major Occultation:
After the year 329 A.H, when the major occultation commenced, the special deputation of Imam e Zaman terminated. If anybody claims during the major occultation to be a mediator and a deputy, then, according to the declaration of Imam e Zaman himself, that claimer is a liar In the Holy Imams' traditions, the purpose of the Imam's going into occultation is compared to the sun being behind the clouds yet being a source of vitality and life for living creatures Likewise, while the Imam is behind the curtain of occultation, he is still a source of the existence and remaining of the world.
During the major occultation, many people have had meetings with His Eminence (Imam Mahdi), and have managed to meet him, but none of them have claimed to be able to see him or to represent him, because only the four special deputies (Nawwab al-khass) of the Imam had the honour of meeting with His Eminence whenever they wished. Some of the names of these fortunate persons who have had the honour of meeting the Imam are mentioned in the authentic books. Among these personalities are - 'Allamah Hilli - a famous scholar and a rhetorician of the Islamic world; Muqaddas Ardibili - the most pious person and most knowledgeable jurist of his time; Sayyid ibn Tawus - a pious and a virtuous narrator; Sayyid Bahru'l-'Ulum - a distinguished scholar; and other great and notable figures in Islam.
The honour of seeing Imam e Zaman was not exclusive to some special Shi'ite scholars only, but many devout and illiterate people have also had this honour. We are completely amazed when we see people who at one time used to commit sinful and indecent acts, but who after their repentance, and after having their hearts filled with love for Imam e Zaman, also had an opportunity to meet him, and among them were also our Sunni brothers. One of the Sunni brothers was Hasan 'Iraqi who lived a life of immorality when he was young. One day, he suddenly awoke from the slumber of heedlessness and asked himself, "Was I created to commit these evil deeds?" Then he left the immoral place he was in and went directly to the mosque. By chance, a preacher there was speaking about Imam al-Mahdi, peace be on him.
'Iraqi 's fully disturbed soul turned into a heart flaming with enthusiastic love of the Imam. Henceforth, he invoked Allah after every prayer to give him the opportunity to see the Living Imam (Baqiyyatu'llah). Finally, his prayers were answered and for seven days and nights he learned the path of salvation in His Eminence's presence. Thereafter, this man became known as one of the great scholars of Islam. 'Abdu'l-Wahhab Sha'rani, one of the great Sunni scholars, and the original relater of this anecdote, used to call him by the title, "My great master Shaykh 'Iraqi."
During the major occultation, letters were issued by His Eminenee to individuals and great scholars of Islam. In those letters new difficult problems were solved, and necessary guidanee was given. Among these letters there was one issued in the year 410 A.H. praising a distinguished seholar of Islam, Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Nu' man, alias Shaykh Mufid. Shaykh Mufid has enjoyed a speeial rank for his knowledge and devoutness, and that letter was an acknowledgement of his efforts and worthy serviees. The importanee of this letter indieates the awareness of the Imam of the mistakes and immoral actions of some of the Shi'ites, and at the same time it gives hope in the purpose of his existence:
We are well informed of all your affairs and none of them is hidden from us. We are aware of the problems whieh have occupied you from the time when you found pleasure and kept committing indecent deeds which your predeeessors had avoided. We are aware from that time when your predeeessors broke the covenant made with them, as if they knew not about it. We will not negleet or forget you lest calamity and troubles fall on you, and enemies have the opportunity to overpower you. Therefore, remember Allah and fear Him.
The valuable writings of Imam al-Mahdi, peace be on him, during the major occultation are the most important guidance for his Shi'ites (followers). These writings ean be referred to in the authentic Shi'ite books.
In Islamic traditions, a comparison is drawn between the sincere faith of the Shi'ites and the faith of a few followers of the Prophet Nuh, peace be on him, who remained faithful despite their very diffieult test, and who, by boarding the ark with Prophet Nuh, peace be on him, were saved from the deluge.