The Exoteric Imamate as the Omnipresent Esoteric in Shi’a Hiero-History 

What role does sacred time (or “hiero-history”) play in Shi’a worldview? And how does this impact Shi’a interpretations of history and justice?

Artistic representation of Imam Hussein

By Amitai Abouzaglo

Unlike certain classical histories of the Islamic world, the Shi’a worldview does not fixate on golden ages of the past but rather is built around the eschatological landscape that is to blossom in the messianic age. For the Shi’a, the past is essentially unjust; the future, meanwhile, contains the ultimately revealing (and avenging) age. Shia hiero-history—the metaphysical truth driving historical lived human cycles—therefore brings together the vantage points of past and future together. The life of a Shi’a is demarcated by opportunities to negate past injustice as well as to restore the believer to cosmological perfection. The realities of the past and of the future are ever present to him. There is, therefore, no plain sense of linearity in Shi’a sacred time. The Shi’a conception of sacred time emerges out of the re-enactment of archetypal signs and observances interlinked with concrete events which at once have occurred and also ones which will occur. Esoterically speaking, in Shi’a conceptions of hiero-history, these events which occurred and those which have yet to occur but will eventually make an imprint on history are, in spiritual actuality, reoccurring continually. They are intended to guide the life of believers in matters of essential spiritual cultivation.

The rituals associated with the holy city of Karbala illustrate the cyclical nature of Shi’a sacred time and its impact on the religious life of the Shi’a. The designation of Karbala as the supreme site of pilgrimage for the Shi’a is attributive both to the singular event that occurred there—the murder of Imam Hussein—as well as to the theologically trans-historical significance the site has acquired in Shi’a piety since then. At Karbala, Imam Hussein, and by extension the entire House of Muhammad, were bereft of justice. Shi’as identify the family of Muhammad as the “House of Sorrow” (bayt al-ahzan), perceiving themselves, followers of the Prophet’s family, as historically wronged in a parallel understanding. Shi’as are exhorted to participate in the ever-present Karbala long after the actual Battle of Karbala. Karbala personifies the injustice in history just as it promises the restoration of justice—both qualities are embodied in the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. The act in history takes on an initiatory role in Shi’a hiero-history, fixing the cosmological state of tragedy to the site and collective memory of Shi’as.

The martyrdom of Imam Hussein prototypes the need for self-sacrifice in order to save Islam from usurpers, while the injustice of his death signifies the general state of injustice, particular to the Shi’a and universal to mankind, that will reign until the coming of the Mahdi. All particular tragedies are viewed as microcosms of the great tragedy at Karbala. The universal cosmogenic battle for truth against falsehood is particularized in the Battle of Karbala: “This battle has repercussions in every period during all the cycles of history, opposing prophets and imams of each religion, People of the Right (aṣḥāb al-yamīn), against forces of ignorance, People of the Left (aṣḥāb al-shimāl).”[i] The rituals of Ashura in commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein enable Shi’as to orient their religious lives to the transhistoric yet ever-present reality of Karbala. The tradition of pilgrimaging to Karbala in order to renew one’s covenant with Imam Hussein as well as the public staging of passion plays (taziy’ah) and elegies (marthiyah) in order to arouse weeping and sorrow in empathetic identification with the Imam’s suffering—allow Shi’as to be counted among the devotees of Imam Hussein and personally relate to the redemptive message of his martyrdom.

Mirror calligraphy

In other words, Shi’a hiero-history consists of an interplay between the exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin) fundaments of Shi’a eschatology, the course of which is shaped by the interpretation of lived Shi’a history focused on the example of the Imams. The ultimately revealing age contains both exoteric and esoteric meanings. The refrain “every day is Karbala” is understandable through such interplay. That which is cosmic in significance finds footing in reality and is practicable in the here and now. What is established exoterically hereby becomes palpable only esoterically.

The institution of the imamate points to perhaps what is the most radical claim inherent in Shi’a hiero-history: prophecy is insufficient on its own. The absence of the living prophet demands authoritative interpretation of scripture and legitimate legislative powers. These roles associated with prophethood are conferred to the Imam. The imamate “is the indispensable complement to prophethood (nubuwwa) in accordance with the Shiʿi pair ẓāhir/bāṭin that operates at every level of reality.”[ii] The Imam lends his voice to the “silent” Quran, making its teachings, instructions, and wisdom accessible for the Shi’a. Imam Hussein exemplifies the esoteric side of Shi’a imamology. The ultimate suffering borne by Imam Hussein vouchsafes redemption for all of mankind. Established therein is the human-divine relationship through which the suffering of tragic proportion experienced by Imam Hussein is tied inextricably to universal salvation. “The imams are therefore regarded in Shi’i theological statements of belief (‘aqidah) as an act of divine grace, and the earth cannot be without an imam at any time.”[iii] Loyal faithfulness (walaya) to the imams, who are to follow in the mold of Imam Hussein, assures faith itself.

The perspective which identifies the “historical Imam” as “the locus of manifestation for the cosmic Imam” parallels the structure of Shi’a hiero-history.[iv] According to this parallel, the historical present (signified by the presence of the historical Imam) is linked to that which lies beyond any historical moment (signified by the trans-historic presence of the cosmic Imam). It is walaya to the Imam that generates the link between the apparent reality and the cosmic reality. The present moment of faithfulness provides access to the eschatological framework from injustice to redemption charted out by Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. The role of the Imam is to lead the faithful through this eschatological framework. Therein lies the insufficiency of prophecy with respect to the imamate. The institution of prophecy informs believers and unbelievers alike of the proper path, while the institution of the imamate leads the faithful through the divinely designed eschatological framework.

It is walaya to the Imam that generates the link between the apparent reality and the cosmic reality...The institution of prophecy informs believers and unbelievers alike of the proper path, while the institution of the imamate leads the faithful through the divinely designed eschatological framework.

Their designation as vicegerents of prophets notwithstanding, imams figure more centrally than prophets in the Shi’a outlook on the creation and eschatological culmination of the world.[v] Imams are at once the agent and reason for creation; the bearer of the sins of the pious; the martyrs who save and judge their followers; and the leadership who will complete the cycle of prophecy in the messianic final reckoning. Cosmogonic traditions—that cast the imam’s walaya and creation as co-temporal[vi]—cast the imam and his adepts as the army of cosmic intelligence (al-‘aql) who have battled against the army of cosmic ignorance (al-jahl) since the origin of creation.[vii] Additionally, the archetypal imam represents the “exterior proof” of God, while the interior proof of God, Hiero-Intelligence (‘Aql), is essentially “the interior imam of the loyal-faithful.”[viii] Imam the vicegerent is here rendered Imam the metaphysical form of truth. The unique truth of the imamate is paramount. The Shi’a view of sacred time allows for history to encounter the Divine through the Imam. In mystical terms, “the historic imamate is fundamentally the religion of love for the Face of God, which is none other than the cosmic Imam.”[ix] Pious Shi’as strive to cultivate their inner imam, in turn following the teachings of the imams throughout their life. This striving reaches its apotheosis in mourning for Imam Hussein and the House of Sorrow, wherein the tears of the pious “became a source of salvation.”[x] The imamate functions as the non-linear channel from history to esoteric truth and eventually to eschatology.

Twelver Shi’as center their devotion around the Hidden Imam, also known as Imam Mahdi, whose reappearance will mark the advent of the eschatological era.[xi] Even after the Major Occultation of Imam Mahdi in 941, Twelvers believe his light radiates past the shrouded mystery of his unknown location. His reappearance promises to bring the world closer to full light. Crucial in the life of Shi’as is faith in the sovereignty of Imam Mahdi despite his apparent absence. Significantly, the Mahdi is a descendent of Imam Hussein. The coming of the Mahdi implicates ultimate vengeance for the killing of Imam Hussein at Karbala and also for the universal correlate, general human suffering. Imam Mahdi “will not only deliver the oppressed of the period but also avenge all the accumulated injustices over the ages.”[xii] Those faithful to the Mahdi’s mission who will aid his triumph include the masses of oppressed.[xiii] The likely basis for this viewpoint is Shi’a self-perception as the unjustly oppressed movement within the history of Islam. Shi’a hiero-history is thus especially wedded to belief in the undoing of history guaranteed solely by the future redemption brought about at the hands of Imam Mahdi.

The eschatological redemption instigated by the disclosure of Imam Mahdi refers equally to collective salvation vis-à-vis the culmination of the world as well as to the individual salvation the Imam’s followers may attain before the advent. Doctrinally forbidden from claiming contact with the Mahdi in public, Shi’a devotional life emphasizes the principle of awaiting for his return (intizar). There is much debate within Shi’ism over what is proper preparation. Nevertheless, the emphasis on awaiting, however implemented, involves Shi’as directly in the Shi’a hiero-historical view; the exhortation to understand “where you come from and where you are going” turns the cyclical nature of sacred time into an object of concrete devotional attention. If they are not to claim contact with the Mahdi until his public return, Shi’as at least, through their modes of intizar, remain in touch with the scope of their eschatologically-seeped religious outlook and live and act as if they are serving him.

The eschatological redemption instigated by the disclosure of Imam Mahdi refers equally to collective salvation vis-à-vis the culmination of the world as well as to the individual salvation the Imam’s followers may attain before the advent.

The mission of Imam Mahdi includes “a collective, universal, external dimension supposed to occur in ‘history’ in order to disrupt or shatter it, and then another entirely individual internal dimension, shattering the being of the faithful.”[xiv] On both the individual and universal level, Imam Mahdi resets the order of life into fuller parts. Esoteric readings of the manifestation of Imam Mahdi have asserted the Mahdi will “universally establish the esoteric religion;”[xv] “seal the definitive victory of the Forces of Intelligence over those of Ignorance;”[xvi] and restart the Origin of creation, “when the universe was only peopled with the Hiero-Intelligence and its troops.”[xvii] Given the core belief in the absolute riddance of injustice and the messianic restoration of rightful rule through the reign of a just imam, Shi’a hiero-history finds such bold interpretations instructive and justified, if not outright true.

History has a meaningful telos for the Shi’a, a meaningfulness the shadow of which pervades the religious life and weltanschauung of the faithful community. The realm of history is the multi-dimensional world of sacred time, time transfigured by foundational events and archetypes. Hiero-history unfolds under the guise of historic hiddenness and injustice that, rather than obscures, reveals the omnipresent yet incomplete sacredness of the particular moment spent in relationship to the imamate. The concealed and subversive nature of this unfolding is rooted in the tragedy of Karbala which was never to be regarded as a single tragedy but rather as an initiatory event which set forth a new face of reality to be called upon constantly in order to pave the way for its esoteric and universal consummation in the redemptory period. The role of the Imam is to grant the Shi’a access to the inroads toward salvation. The constant of principal import in Shi’a hiero-history is, therefore, the historical imamate. Deference to the absolute authority of the Imam of the time, and thus for Twelvers today to Imam Mahdi, is the key article of faith. For it was an Imam who inaugurated the cycle of time dotted by injustice and redemption and it will yet be an Imam—or rather, the archetypal Imam for whom the world was created—who consummates it.

Amitai Abouzaglo is a senior at Harvard College pursuing a B.A. in the Study of Religion. His academic areas of interest include modern Jewish and Islamic political thought, Hasidism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the study of religious pluralism. View Amitai Abouzaglo's full profile on the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs website. Follow him @AbouzagloAmitai.


Figure 1. Artistic representation of Imam Hussein with vignettes narrating the tragedy of Karbala encircling the Imam.

Figure 2. Example of mirror writing in Islamic calligraphy. 18th-century Ottoman levha, or calligraphic panel, which depicts the Shi'i phrase 'Ali is the vicegerent of God' (Arabic: علي ولي الله) in obverse and reverse, creating a mirror image.


[i] Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi’i Islam (IB Tauris: London, 2011), “The End of Time and Return to the Origin,” 266.

[ii] Amir-Moezzi 247.

[iii] Mahmoud Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of Twelver Shi’ism (Mouton: The Hague, 1978), 55.

[iv] Amir-Moezzi 256.

[v] Ayoub 65.

[vi] Amir-Moezzi 257.

[vii] Amir-Moezzi 266.

[viii] Moezzi 415.

[ix] Amir-Moezzi 271.

[x] Ayoub 147.

[xi] Moezzi 404.

[xii] Moezzi 406.

[xiii] Moezzi 412.

[xiv] Moezzi 405.

[xv] Moezzi 408.

[xvi] Moezzi 415.

[xvii] Moezzi 416.