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MAHDI. The term mahdi (“divinely guided one”) has come to denote an eschatological figure whose presence will usher in an era of justice and true belief prior to the end of time. The origin of the word cannot be traced to the Qur’an, where in fact it is never mentioned, but rather to a strictly honorific title applied to the Prophet and first four caliphs by the earliest Muslims. The term was further developed by the Shi`is, who applied it to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyah (a son of the caliph `All) who organized a revolt in 685. A Shi’i sect later came to revere this “rightly guided one” and deny his death, believing him to be in hiding. Other events in the history of Shiism paralleled this example-the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan al-`Askari, who disappeared in 878, was designated a Mahdi-and so the idea evolved of a messianic deliverer (al-Mahdi al-muntazar) who would return to champion the cause of his adherents.

Although the idea of a Mahdi came to play a central part in Shi’i belief, it enjoyed no such recognition in Sunni Islam, where trust in the consensus of the learned and faith in the community’s capacity for self-reform made such a figure doctrinally unnecessary. Rather, the concept took hold strictly in popular Sunni belief during the early centuries of political unrest. Supporting various contenders in their claims was a large and overgrowing body of prophetic traditions (hadith) regarding the Mahdi. Certain common themes run through these developing traditions: the Mahdi will be of the Prophet’s family, he will bear the Prophet’s name, and his father will bear the Prophet’s father’s name (i.e., he will be called Muhammad ibn `Abd Allah); he will appear when the world has reached its worst state of affairs; his reign will be a time of natural abundance, and he will spread justice, restore the faith, and defeat the enemies of Islam; miraculous signs will accompany his manifestation, and he will be generous and divide the wealth. On many matters the traditions disagree-hence their broad applicability. In general, the Sunni notion of a Mahdi came to represent more a restorer of the faith than the Shi’i incarnation of God, and one who would be chosen for office rather than returning from hiding. Important vehicles for the spread of this idea were the writings of various Sufi sages, including the influential Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240).

Attesting to the popularity of the Mahdi idea is the abundance of claimants to that title in Islamic history. Muhammad `Ubayd Allah (d. 934), the first Fatimid caliph, came to power in North Africa through a manipulation of Mahdist expectations and Shi`i sentiment. Manifesting himself at Jabal Massa in the Maghribthereafter an expected site of the Mahdi’s appearancehe claimed descent from the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah and was alleged to be the brother of the hidden Twelfth Imam. The founder of the Almohad reform movement in the twelfth century, Muhammad ibn Tumart (d. I130), also claimed to be the Mahdi with descent from the Caliph `Ali. In particular, the arrival of the thirteenth Islamic century (1785-1883 CE), which had long been expected as a time of great messianic importance, increased Mahdist belief. During that period at least three leaders of reform movements in West Africa-Shaykh Usuman din Fodio of Sokoto, Shaykh Ahmadu Bari of Masina and al-Hajj `Umar Tal of the Tukolor empire-exploited Mahdist tendencies to launch their jihads. Expectations of the Mahdi’s arrival from the east attracted waves of West African emigrants to the Nile and facilitated the rise and success of the Sudanese Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885). [See the biographies of Dan Fodio and `Umar Tal.] Several Mahdis meanwhile arose in Egypt, leading uprisings against both French occupation and Egyptian government rule. By the end of the 19th century, Mahdist revolts against European imperialism were almost commonplace, occurring for example in India, Algeria, Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. Common to all such movements was the perceived corruption of Islamic ideals and nefarious influence of Western political and cultural hegemony. More recently, such thinking inspired the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by a Saudi Arabian Mahdi; ShM criticism of the Americanled “New World Order” has also been couched in Mahdist terms. Given the emotive power of messianism and the flexible conditions of the Mahdi’s appearance, claims to that authority may be expected wherever Islamic interests are perceived to be threatened.

[See also Eschatology; Messianism; Revival and Renewal.]


Holt, P. M. “Islamic Millenarianism and the Fulfillment of Prophecy.” In Prophecy and Millenarianism, edited by Ann Williams, pp. 337-347. London, 1980. Overview of the Sudanese Mahdiyah within the context of Islamic ideas of a Mahdi.

Ibn. Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. 3 vols. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. New York, 1958. Classic study of the philosophy of history and sociology, written in 1377 by the North African Arab scholar. Chapter 3 contains an important discussion of Muslim popular beliefs in a Mahdi, with emphasis on Sufi and ShIN influences. Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi ism. Albany, N.Y., 1981. The most complete study to date of the idea of a Mahdi in Islam, emphasizing Shi’i beliefs but also treating the development of the idea in Sunni Islam.


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

  • writerPosted On: July 28, 2014
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