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Translator's Introduction

Translator's Introduction


In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

As I write this preface to the translation of the book on our twelfth Imam, al-Qa'im al-Mahdi (peace be upon him), it gives me enormous satisfaction for having realized the task that I undertook as a statement of my personal faith. Initially the task was personally assigned by the author of the book, Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini, during my visit to Tehran in the summer of 1993. Due to my teaching and administrative responsibilities as the Director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Virginia, I had to wait for a more opportune time to devote my energies to this demanding responsibility. Nevertheless, Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini's request reflected not only his confidence in my ability to render this serious work on Twelver Shi'i faith accurately into English, it also conveyed his confidence in my personal faith in the twelfth Imam.

The summer of 1993 was also a time to be grateful to God for a very important reason. In the interview with the editors of Kayhan-i Farhangi in Qumm, I had the opportunity to explain the academic study of religion in the light of my own study about the idea of the future leadership in Islam and how it essentially differed from the method of conducting research in the traditional centers of Islamic learning. The entire interview, now available in English and French translations, is a good example of the scholarly dialogue between modern and traditional institutions of higher learning.

The translation of this important book would have been impossible without the need on my part to respond to those who have attributed to me false notions and ideas which are neither part of my personal faith nor of my academic research. At no point have I entertained, even in error, opinions that cannot be ascertained in the written primary sources of the Twelver Shi'ism. Every piece of document used to write my academic research is meticulously investigated and critically evaluated in the light of the teachings of the Qur'an and the authentic traditions of the ahl al-bayt. It is remarkable that Ayatollah Amini's Dadgustar-i jihan, which I have rendered in English under the title of: Al-Imam al-Mahdi: The Just Leader of Humanity, gives the believer a detailed description of the belief in the twelfth Imam, whose chronological development based on historical study of the sources I have examined in Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi'ism. More remarkable is the fact that even when Ayatollah Amini and I have approached the subject with strikingly different method of investigation, we have reached the same conclusion regarding the belief about the Imam who will come forth from his invisible existence to take charge of the world as its just leader.

The methodological difference between the two endeavors actually points to the different readership: the former is written strictly for the educated 'insiders' (the believers); whereas, the latter is written for both the educated 'insiders' and the 'outsiders' (non-believers). This is an important distinction to keep in mind, as the readers in the community begin to fathom the contribution made by Ayatollah Amini to reach a believing audience in contrast to my own academic contribution to reach a non-believing audience for the intellectual appreciation of the Twelver Shi'ite school of thought.

My endeavors in Islamic Messianism were very much guided by the need to present the Shi'ite school of thought to a Western academic world dominated by an "orientalist" scholarship that not only marginalizes Shi'ism as a deviant and corrupt form of Islam, but also regards it as directly influenced by Jewish and Christian messianic ideas. It was important to challenge long held conclusions of the Western and Sunni scholars regarding the origins of Shi'i notion of the divinely guided Imam, and assert with confidence that the idea of the future coming of the Mahdi arose from the Qur'anic world view's concern with bringing to fruition a just and ethical society. On the other hand, Ayatollah Amini's endeavors in Al-Imam al-Mahdi: The Just Leader of Humanity, are geared towards responding to the doubts raised by the skeptic Shi'is and polemical Sunnis.

This purpose of reaching out to the specific Persian speaking Muslim audience also explains the methodology employed by him which endeavors to establish the religious truth strictly on the basis of sources dealing with hadith. Each argument is sought from the interpretation of the specific Qur'anic verses and hadith-reports used to support that interpretation. The hadith, then, becomes the fundamental source of religious proof. However, following the well established methods employed by our prominent scholars, the hadith is not accepted uncritically. It is scrutinized for its validity and its use as evidence in support of a religious belief. Moreover, Ayatollah Amini introduces rational argument to discredit some of the stories about meeting with the twelfth Imam that have been accepted uncritically by some scholars of hadith. Thus, for instance, the well known story about the 'Evergreen Island' being the residence of the twelfth Imam is rejected by him not only as being contradictory in the details provided by the narrator; it is also regarded as a mere fabrication. Furthermore, modern research on aging and longevity is cited extensively from Western sources to establish the fact that science does not regard it inconceivable for the twelfth Imam (peace be upon him) to have been blessed with a long age.

The most enlightening and eye opening section of the book deals with the question of the achievements of the twelfth Imam when he appears (Chapter 14 of the translation). Here the information regarding the 'The Freshness of the Explanations offered by the Mahdi,' covers a critical assessment of how we, as the followers of the twelfth Imam, have ignored the true meaning of Islam in our lives and have attached importance to the rituals without realizing the true moral and ethical content of these religious devotions.

Thus, Ayatollah Amini writes:

People, having abandoned the absolute principles and fundamental teachings of Islam, merely follow the outward forms of religion, and regard those to be sufficient. These are the people who, besides the five daily obligatory prayers, the fasting of Ramadan, and the avoidance of external pollution (najasat), know nothing of Islam. Besides, some of them have limited religion to the mosque, and, hence, its reality has very little impact upon their actions and behavior. In the life outside the mosque, that is, in the market place or at work, there is no trace of their Islam. They do not regard ethical behavior and moral precepts to be part of Islam. They give no importance to eschewing immoral conduct and make an excuse of not following moral guidelines since there is dispute about the obligatoriness and the prohibitions of certain requirements. They go as far as turning the prohibitions of the law, through trickery, into something permissible. They also shun their responsibility for paying the dues that are imposed by the law on them. In other words, they are engaged in observing the religion according to their desires.
When it comes to the Qur'an, they think it sufficient to pay attention to its formal recitation and to respect the conventions in that connection. Hence, when the twelfth Imam appears it is obvious that he will ask them as to why they have abandoned the essence of religion and have interpreted the Qur'an and the hadith to fit their own preferred meanings. Why have they left the truth of Islam while being satisfied with mere outward adherence to it? Why have they not sought to conform their character and their actions with the true spirit of Islam? Why have they twisted the meanings of the religion to accord with their own personal avarice? Since they pay so much attention to the proper recitation of the Qur'an, they should also put its directives into action. The twelfth Imam has the right to ask: "My grandfather, Imam Husayn did not get killed for the sake of mourning. Why have you forsaken my grandfather's goal and destroyed it?"

The Imam will ask them to learn the Islamic social and moral teachings and apply them in their everyday lives. They should avoid the forbidden acts, and take care of their financial obligations, without making flimsy excuses. They should also keep in mind that remembering the merits of the ahl al-bayt and weeping for their suffering can never substitute for the paying of the zakat and khums and taking care of one's debts. Nor can they substitute for such sinful behavior as taking interest and bribes, cheating others and treating them with dishonesty. They should recognize that weeping and sighing for Imam Husayn can never substitute for having ill-treated orphans and widows. More importantly, they should not limit piety to the mosque; rather, they should seek participation in the society and carry out the duty of commanding the good and forbidding the evil and fight the innovations that have crept into Islam.

Certainly, such a religion would seem new and difficult to these people, and they might not even consider it to be Islam, because they have imagined Islam to be something else. These people used to think that the progress and greatness of Islam lay in decorating the mosques and in constructing tall minarets. If the twelfth Imam says: "The greatness of Islam is in righteous action, honesty, trustworthiness, keeping promises, avoiding forbidden acts," this would appear to them altogether new! They used to assume that when the Imam appears he will make amends for all the actions of the Muslims and will retire with them in the corner of a mosque. But if they witness that blood is dripping from the Imam's sword and that he is calling people to jihad and to command the good and forbid the evil, and that he is killing the unjust worshippers and returning the goods they have stolen to their rightful owners, such actions of the Imam they will indeed find new!

This honest and frank assessment of the Umma and the responsibility that the followers have towards the twelfth Imam is rare in the literature on the subject. It is time for us to take stock of our commitment to the goals of Islam and work sincerely towards self-reform in order to fulfill our obligations to the Muslims and non-Muslims around us. It is worth recalling the contents of the supplication that has been reported from the twelfth Imam and which we read at different times without pondering fully the admonishment that the Imam has conveyed to his followers. The supplication is as follows:

O God, provide us with direction to follow the path of obedience and keep us away from disobedience; give sincerity in our intentions; provide us with the knowledge of that which is blessed.

[O God,] honor us with guidance and the way of truth; direct our tongues to say that which is right and wise; fill our hearts with learning and knowledge; and purify our bellies of that which is unlawful and of doubt.

[O God,] prevent our hands from committing oppression and theft; lower our eyes out of modesty from [committing acts of] immorality and disloyalty; block our ears from hearing foolish talk and slander.

[O God,] oblige our learned authorities with piety and sincere advice and those who are learning with ability and desire to educate themselves.

[O God,] confer on those who are listening a desire to follow and pay attention to the religious exhortation; bestow recovery and rest on all the Muslims who are suffering from illness; and kindness and mercy on those who are dead among them.

On our old people, [O God,] bestow dignity and peace of mind; upon our youth confer repentance and turning away from sin; on our women bestow modesty and chastity.

[O God,] bestow on those who are rich humbleness and abundance; on those who are poor patience and satisfaction; on those who are fighting in Your cause help and victory; and on those who are imprisoned freedom and peace.

[O God,] bestow upon those who are ruling justice and kindness; and upon those who are ruled just treatment and good character.

[O God,] bless those who are on pilgrimage with abundant provision and support, and help them to complete that which is obligatory on them in the [performance] of the hajj and `umra, with Your grace and kindness, O the Most Compassionate.

In the end, I must acknowledge all the moral support and encouragement that I have received from Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini and his colleagues at the Majlis-i Khubragan, Hujjatul Islam Hadavi Tihrani and his colleagues at the Jami' Mudarrisin Hawza 'Ilmiyya Qumm, and various well-wishers around the world to whom I have dedicated the translation of this valuable statement of our personal faith.

Abdulaziz Sachedina
London, England
18 Dhul-Hijja, 1416
May 6,1996


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