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ESCHATOLOGY. The study of “last things,” eschatology frequently incorporates two separate but related concepts: the after life, and the end of the world.

After life. In concepts closely related to ideas from other branches of Near Eastern monotheism, the Qur’dn emphasizes the inevitability of resurrection and judgment and the eternal division of righteous and wicked into heaven and hell. On the day of resurrection (Yawm al-Qiyamah) humans will stand before God to be judged by their faith in God, their acceptance of God’s revelations, and their works. The wicked will be consigned to eternal torment in hell (Jahannam; nar, “fire”-an abyss of fire, heat, dryness, and darkness. The righteous will enjoy the pleasures of paradise (Jannah), a magical garden of light (Qur’an, 3.190-199, 22.19-20, 36.4757, 37.7-68, 56, 75, 76). The Qur’dn offers sensual descriptions of paradise, including the pleasures of exquisitely delicious food and drink and sexual relations with divine maidens (which many Muslim commentators interpret as metaphorical). Later commentators also provide details of a belief in an intermediate state of the soul (barzakh) between death and the resurrection and final judgment. Before the final resurrection and judgment, however, the terrible tribulation of the last days will fall upon the earth.

Day of Judgment. Although the Qur’dn does not specify the time of the day of judgment, it assures its readers that that day is near. It has much to say about the end of the world, especially in its Meccan surahs. The general picture is very similar to that given in the Bible. Great earthquakes will rock the earth, setting mountains in motion (Qur’dn, 99). The sky will split open and heaven will be “stripped off,” rolled up like a parchment scroll. The sun will cease to shine, the stars will be scattered and fall down upon the earth. The oceans will boil over. The graves will be opened up, with the earth bringing forth its burdens-the hidden sins, the lost stories, and the dead (82). People will vainly seek to flee from the divine wrath. All will bow, willingly or not, before God. In traditional Islamic thought the day of judgment is a period of great cosmic conflict when the forces of Satan-represented by a false Messiah al-Dajjdl and Gog and Magog (Ya’jflj and Ma’juj)–come into conflict with the forces of God led by the Mahdi and Jesus.

The “Deceiver” (Dajjal). An important Islamic eschatological figure is al-Dajjal, “the deceiver,” who is often equated with the Antichrist. In an age of injustice preceding the end of the world, the Deceiver will appear and, for a limited period-sometimes reckoned as forty years, sometimes as forty days-will cause corruption and oppression to sweep over the earth. His appearance is one of the sure signs of the last days. Deceiving many by his false teachings and miracles, he will bring with him supplies of food and water with which he will tempt those who have been suffering. Although the Qur’an makes no mention of any such person, he is prominent in the hadith and later Islamic literature. These ideas seem clearly to be related to Christian apocalyptic legends of the Antichrist.

The Mahdi. The “rightly guided one” also does not appear by name in the Qur’an. He nonetheless plays a very important eschatological role in various strands of Islam. He is not a savior from sins, in the sense that Christians often attribute to Jesus, nor is he a merely national messiah as conceived in certain varieties of Judaism. Rather, he will come to bring justice and truth to all humanity.

In the first years following the close of Qur’anic revelation and the death of the Prophet, Islam enjoyed virtually uninterrupted military success. The word mahdi was used during this period without messianic significance. By the late seventh century, however, after a period of considerable political turbulence, the term began to be used to refer to a hoped-for ruler who would restore Islam to its original perfection. With the passage of time, humane and just rule seemed an increasingly distant prospect. Thus, particularly following the ‘Abbasid revolution (750), the figure of the Mahdi took on an ever more eschatological or messianic aura.

Although the Mahdi does occur in Sunni teaching, he plays a much less significant role there than in Shi i belief. His role is particularly important in Twelver Shiism, which has developed the messianic tendencies in Islam to their furthest extent. In 873 the eleventh imam of the Twelver Shi`is died, to all appearances leaving no heir. Some of his disciples, however, claimed that he had an infant son who had been hidden for safekeeping. Indeed, between 873 and 941 there were “agents” who claimed to be in contact with the young imam. By this time most Shi`is had come to realize that open resistance against the government was futile. These agents promised that at the right time the hidden twelfth imam would emerge and redress the community’s wrongs. As the years passed and he did not publicly appear, this figure acquired an ever more obviously messianic character, drawing on elements of other religious traditions to flesh out the image of the eschatological imam. After the elapse of a normal human life span, it began to be felt that the absent twelfth imam was in fact the Mahdi, who was being held in supernatural occultation from which he would someday return in glory to “fill earth with justice as it has been filled with oppression.” The intervening time was a test for the faithful. The task of believers was to be faithful, obedient, and alert, watching for the “signs of the times,” and evaluating passing events in the light of the apocalyptic prophecies that circulated in the community.

The Mahdi of the Twelvers is thought to reside in Mecca, or at least nearby. It is said that he makes the pilgrimage each year, although he goes unrecognized. Authorities name no year for his return, but many agree that he will disclose himself publicly on `Ashura’, the tenth day of the month of Muharram and the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn (68o CE). Thus the well-known Shi’i commemoration of `Ashura is an expression not merely of sorrow for the death of their beloved martyr, but also of hope for a cessation of suffering and injustice to be effected by a descendant of Husayn. The reappearance of the Mahdi will occur at the Ka’bah in Mecca. It will be accompanied by spectacular signs such as the rising of the sun in the west and unusual eclipses in the holy month of Ramadan. However, the Mahdi will not remain in Mecca. First, he will go to Medina, and from there to Kufa, where he will establish his capital. Husayn, ‘Ali, and the Prophet will also return, with the first two taking especially important roles in the establishment of Islamic rule. The entire world will thereafter accept Islam, willingly or by force. The Mahdi will die some time before the day of resurrection, and his death will be followed by a brief period of turmoil, uncertainty, and temptation.

Both Sunni and Shi i traditions about the Mahdi agree that he will rule the world and bring great wealth, which he will distribute generously; however, his rule will last only a relatively short time. In the Shi`i view, he will force everyone to accept Shiism. While most Muslims expect him to restore the integrity of the shari ‘ah, a minority through the years have taught that he would abrogate Islamic law, bringing a new prophetic message in its stead. [See also Mahdi; ‘Ashura’; Ithna `Ashariyah.]

Second coming of Jesus. As the doctrine of the Mahdi developed, disagreements occurred over his precise relationship to Jesus. Some Muslim thinkers denied that there will be a Muslim Mahdi, claiming instead that this role will be fulfilled by the second coming of Jesus. Post-Qur’anic legends had also grown up about the second coming of Christ, which still persist. Some say that Jesus will return as a just judge. One prophecy says that he will descend in Palestine, where he will kill al-Dajjal; he will then go to Jerusalem, where he will worship and kill both swine and those who disbelieve in him. He will die after a peaceful reign of some forty years and be buried in a spot beside the tomb of Muhammad in Medina that has been reserved for him.

Modern Significance. Islamic eschatological ideas have exerted an important influence on the development of the modern Middle East. There are several significant examples of the impact of eschatological thought on modern religious, social, and political developments. The origin of the Babi and Baha’i movements in early nineteenth-century Iran was closely tied with Iranian Shi’i eschatological ideas. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-19o8), founder of the Ahmadiyah movement in Pakistan, claimed to be the Mahdi, drawing ideas not only from Islamic eschatological thought but also from Hinduism and Christianity. Islamic eschatology was fundamental in the founding of the Mahdist state in the Sudan by Muhammad Ahmad ibn `Abd Allah (1843-1885), which still influences the Sudan today. On the other hand, many modernist Muslims, influenced by secular western thought, have tended to allegorize traditional eschatological beliefs. [See Babism; Baha’i; Ahmadiyah; Mahdiyah.]

The ideologies of many twentieth-century Islamic fundamentalist movements frequently include a healthy dose of eschatology. The capture of the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979 was based in part on Mahdist ideological claims; the ideology of the Iranian revolution was also linked to Shi’i eschatological thought. The significance of martyrdom among both Shi’is and Sunnis-as manifest in both battle and terrorism-is linked to the Qur’anic concept that death in the path of God guarantees entry into paradise. There is every indication that eschatological ideas will continue to play an important role in the Islamic world into the twenty-first century. [See also Messianism.]


Abel, A. “Al-Dadjdjal.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 2, PP. 76-77.Leiden, 196o-.

Carra de Vaux, Bernard. “Barzakh.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 1, pp. 1071-1072.Leiden, 1960-.

Fahd, T. “Nar.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 7, pp. 95796o.Leiden, 196o-.

Gardet, Louis. “Djahannam.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 2, PP- 381-382.Leiden, 1960-.

Gardet, Louis. “Dianna.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 2, PP. 447-452.Leiden, 1960-.

Gardet, Louis. “Kiyama.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 5, PP. 235-238.Leiden, 1960-.

Jafri, S. Husain M. Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam.London, 1979. Detailed study on early Shi’i ideas of the imam and Mahdi.

Madelung, Wilferd. “Mahdi.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 5, pp. 1230-1238.Leiden, 196o-.

Meier, Fritz. “The Ultimate Origin and the Hereafter in Islam.” In Islam and Its Cultural Divergence: Studies in Honor of Gustave E. Von Grunebaum, edited by Girdhari L. Tikku, pp. 96-112.Urbana,Ill., 1971. Good brief summary on the afterlife.

Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi ism.Albany,N.Y., 1981. Standard study of the Slu’i interpretation of the Mahdi.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam.Chapel Hill,N.C., 1975. Provides insight into Sufi ideas on the afterlife. Smith, Jane I., and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection.Albany,N.Y., 1981. Fundamental study on the subject.

Taylor, John B. “Some Aspects of Islamic Eschatology.” Religious Studies 4 (1968): 57-76. Summary of the basic eschatological ideas.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/eschatology/

  • writerPosted On: November 7, 2012
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