We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Ghaybah - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result


Andrew Newman
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Literally, the word ghaybah means absence. In Shīʿī Muslim theology, the term refers to the “occultation” of the leader, or imām, of the community. Believers hold that although he is not visible, the Imam is still present in the community and will eventually return as an eschatological figure (al-mahdī, al-qāʿm), bringing justice to the earth. That return, it is believed, will usher in the last days and the resurrection.

The earliest use of the term appears to have been following the assassination of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib in 661, when Abdallāh ibn Ṣabā, held to be an extremist (ghāli) by some because of his apparent ascription of divinity to ʿAlī, maintained that ʿAlī was still alive and would return.

Similar claims were made regarding Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafiyah (d. 81 A.H./700 C.E.), ʿAlī's third son. Muḥammad's agent Mukhtār (d. 67/68 A.H 686/7 C.E) led a revolt on Muḥammad's behalf, claiming that Muḥammad 's rule would restore justice to the Muslim community. That revolt was crushed and Mukhtār killed. However, after Muḥammadʾs death, some of his followers maintained that he had in fact gone into hiding and would return.

Following the ʿAbbāsid revolt and the murder of the ʿAbbāsid general Abū Muslim by the caliph al-Manṣūr (r. 754–755 C.E.) in 755, some extreme elements believed that Abū Muslim also had not died but was in hiding and would return to bring justice to the world.

The sixth Imam, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, died in 765. Some of his followers believed that he had not died and anticipated his own return as Mahdī. Others supported the imamate of Jaʿfar 's son, Ismāʿīl. These followers denied Ismāʿīlʿs death, believing that he was in hiding to avoid ʿAbbāsid persecution and that he would return. Ismāʿīl 's son Muḥammad (d. after 795) was himself said to have gone into hiding for the same reason.

For the Ismāʿīlīs, Muḥammad's death commenced dawr al-satr (the period of concealment). Muḥammad became known as al-Maktūm (the hidden one); his followers believed that he had not died, and awaited his return as Mahdī or qāʿim (he who arises). The Fāṭimid Ismāʿīlīs maintained that after Muḥammad there were several hidden imams from among whom sprung the Fāṭimid dynasty of Egypt (909–1171). The Bahrain-based Qarmatians did not accept the Fāṭimid imams and instead believed the imam would return in 928. The Persian imam who did in fact appear so severely disrupted the community that he was disavowed by Qarmatian leaders, who then reverted to the understanding that they were receiving orders from a hidden imam. The Qarmatians resisted Fāṭimid efforts to effect a reconciliation and disappeared by the fourteenth century.

In 1094 the Fāṭimids split into two groups: the Mustaʿlians and the Nizārīs. The Mustaʿlians believed that after 1132 the imam went into hiding. The Nizārīs became established in Alamut in Iran under Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ (d. ca. 1124). His successors considered themselves the missionaries (sing. dāʿi) of the hidden Imam, but Ṣabbāḥʿs fourth descendent proclaimed himself Imam. The 1256 destruction of Alamut by the Mongols scattered the Nizārīs until they reemerged with the first Agha Khan who, in the 1840s, fled from Iran to India, where there was a large Nizārī community.

Others believed the imamate continued after Jaʿfar through his son Mūsā (d. 799). At the death of Mūsā 's descendant, the eleventh Imam, al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī, in late 873 or early 874, some maintained that the tenth imam, ʿAlī al-Hādī (d. 868), had designated his son Muḥammad to follow him. Muḥammad had predeceased his father, but there were those who maintained he was, in fact, in concealment. Those who believed that at the death al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī, his four-year-old son went into occultation are those who later became the Twelver Shīʿī.

The several collections of the imamsʾ ḥadīth compiled in the half century following the twelfth Imam 's disappearance contained conflicting references to the number and duration of his occultation. His return was believed to be imminent. The rise of the Zaydī Būyids in the 930s and 940s and, in particular, their capture of Baghdad, home to many Shīʿī, seemed to herald this event.

The Imam 's continued absence and ongoing Sunnī critiques of believersʾ reliance on apparently contradictory texts encouraged reinvestigation of the concept of the occultation. In the atmosphere of religious tolerance fostered by the Būyids (945–1055), such scholars as Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Ṭūsī (d. 1067) evolved an interpretation of the nature of the Imamʾs absence based on recourse to both the ḥadīth and the “rational” sciences.

The occultation came to be considered a two-stage process. During the first or Lesser Occultation, the absent twelfth Imam was believed to have communicated with his followers via four successive named agents. The last of these died in 944. During the Greater Occultation, which will continue until the Imam 's return, there is considered to be no particular named agent.

Twelver “political” attitudes were conditioned by this doctrine. The Imam was adjudged the only legitimate ruler of the community; therefore, those who claimed “political authority” during the Imamʾs absence were, by definition, usurpers and to varying degrees illegitimate. Recognition of and interaction with such authority was generally to be avoided, but there were circumstances—when the community had to be protected, for example—when such interaction was condoned.

Over time, moreover, Twelver jurists (fuqahāʿ, sing. faqīh) came to believe that an increasing number of the Imamʾs doctrinal and practical responsibilities should be assumed by members of the learned class. They assumed such responsibilities as the “general” agents of the Hidden Imam; the first four agents during the Lesser Occultation were understood to have been designated as “special” and to have undertaken specific, limited responsibilities.

The result of this understanding was that the jurists themselves gradually secured a role in the Twelver community separate from that of any given “secular” authority. The juristsʾ increasing authority over the collection and distribution of religious taxes particularly cemented their independence from the state and facilitated independent political activity. This was especially noticeable in later Qājār Iran and in the events surrounding the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The hierarchicalization of Twelver clerics into such ranks as ayatollah, ḥujjat al-Islām, and marjaʿ al-taqlīd is a phenomenon of the nineteenth century.


  • Halm, H.Shiism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991, 2004. Find it in your Library
  • Mavani, Hamid. Religious Authority and Political Thought in Twelver Shi'ism: From Ali to Post-khomeini. Routledge, 2013. Find it in your Library
  • Momen, M.An Introduction to Shīʿī Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver ShiismNew Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. Find it in your Library
  • Newman, A.The Formative Period of Twelver Shiism: Ḥadīth as Discourse Between Qum and Baghdad. Richmond: Curzon, 2000. Find it in your Library
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice