It’s necessary to know the meaning of ‘Ghaibat-Sughra’ (minor occultation) and ‘Ghaibat-Kubra’ (major occultation). ‘Ghaibat-Sughra’ was shorter as compared with the later Ghaibat. In ‘Ghaibat-Sughra’, the common people could not see Imam; but a few special men could meet and establish relation with him. By means of Imam’s special envoys, they could gain access to Imam (a.t.f.s.). Among them, four envoys were very famous, who could meet Imam Mahdi regularly.
‘Ghaibat-Kubra’ is a period wherein none have access to Imam in the ordinary way. There is no precise information about him, and nobody has any permanent or normal relation with him. However, it does not necessarily leave people without any duty during this period. Discerning the duties, implementing the ordinances and the Shias’ creed are the responsibility of narrators of traditions and the Faqihs. In this regard, people have been recommended to refer to them because explanation of Fiqh (jurisprudence), Ahkam (precepts), and beliefs is held in high esteem by Imam (a.t.f.s.). Right now, whom should we approach for acquiring such knowledge? We have no alternative but to pay heed to the instructions of our Imams and refer to those who are well versed in the Imam’s traditions.
Recourse to the Faqihs and narrators of traditions was something in vogue during the lifetime of Imams too. During the Imamate of Imam Sadiq (a.s.), Hazrat lived in Medina. Those residing in Marv and still many others who lived far away (who weren’t fortunate enough to see their Imam even once) were forced to solve their religious problems by referring to the narrators of traditions. However, during those days, books on precepts (Ahkam) were much in brief.
The length of time created an extensive basis in Fiqh. During the lifetime of the Imams (a.s.), people directly or indirectly set forth their limited queries before their Imam and hence solved their problems in a very quick manner. However, during major occultation, things are different, and it is the experts who have to examine the existing traditions in a very scholarly manner.
During occultation, except for the holy Qur’an and traditions, we do not have any other source or authority in religious matters and precepts. The common people too lack the understanding and expertise for deriving the realities and for this reason, they have recommended us to refer to the Faqihs (who are experts in deducing a decree) for understanding the religious precepts. In this regard, Imam says:
“The people can follow a Faqih who possesses self-control; who safeguards his religion; who opposes his carnal desires and obeys his master (Allah and His Hujjat)” .
Also, Hazrat Mahdi (a.t.f.s.) says:
“During events and happenings, refer to the narrators of our traditions for they are my Hujjat upon you and I am Allah’s Hujjat” .
During occultation, those people who have familiarity and liking for Imams’ words and sayings are close to them in thoughts, reflection and mentality. It’s possible that among the philosophers, poets, critics, mystics, physicists, scholars, physicians, historians etc someone can be found who has a strong inclination towards Imam (a.t.f.s.) but mental and spiritual proximity is enjoyed only by those who are familiar with their words and sayings.
Their sayings and interpretations form the real framework of his creed and they are the carriers of his knowledge. A Shia should refer to them because they have much deeper knowledge in religious matters and precepts. They have been named as Imam’s Nayeb-e-Aam.
Regarding the second query about the Faqihs’ connection with Hazrat Mahdi (a.t.f.s.) it is better to say that their connection is the same as other common people. It’s possible that pious Faqihs (who bear Ahl al-bayt’s knowledge and are themselves dignified figures) may meet Hazrat Mahdi (a.t.f.s.). People like Muqaddas Ardebeli, Allamah Bahrul-Uloom, and other great Faqihs and scholars were fortunate in meeting Hazrat Mahdi. However, the Shias refer to them not simply because they have met Hazrat Mahdi (a.t.f.s.). There are numerous renowned Faqihs and Muhaddiths whose connection with Hazrat Mahdi is not proved or clear for us. For example, it’s not clear whether Seqat’ul-Islam Kulaini had ever met Hazrat Mahdi. Or whether Shaikh Saduq had visited Hazrat Mahdi in wakeful state. Yet, their books are first hand Shia works and are an old source of reference for the Faqihs.
Their connection with Hazrat Mahdi (a.t.f.s.) is based on mental and scholarly relationship. They are acquainted with Imam’s thoughts and reflection by means of the traditions and the more they are well versed in the traditions, the closer they are to their Imam. History, too, supports this point. Imam (a.t.f.s.) has constantly expressed special grace and kindness to dignified Faqihs and narrators of traditions. He has helped them in sensitive matters and has been a strong support for them.
The great Muhaddith Haji Nuri has narrated as follows:
One non-Shia scholar, who was Allamah Hilli’s teacher, had written a book against the Shia religion. He used to read out this book in gatherings and misguide the people. He would not give his book to anyone for this fear that some Shia scholar might disprove his book. Allamah constantly thought of acquiring this book so that he would write and refute this book. Anyhow, he utilized the teacher-student relationship and asked for the book. As his teacher didn’t wish to reject his request out-rightly, he said,“I have taken promise not to give anyone this book for more than one night” . Taking advantage of this opportunity, Allamah took away the book to his house to note down its contents as much as possible. He began writing but at mid-night sleep overtook him. Hazrat Mahdi entered his house and said,“Give me the book and you may continue your sleep” . When Allamah awoke he realized that the full book was noted down by the grace of Imam (a.t.f.s.).
Now that we are living at the time of occultation, we should refer to those who have been recommended by themselves (… who possess self-control…….).
To sum up, we should refer only to those Faqihs who promote Imam’s school of thought; have love for Hazrat Mahdi (a.t.f.s.), and are active as students of Imam’s school and who call the people towards him (and not themselves). We should follow the most learned of them in Ahkam (Islamic precepts).