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MESSIANISM. In the sense of divine intervention in human history-through the appointment of a mahdi (rightly guided person) to deliver the people from tyranny and oppression at the End of Time-messianism is a salient feature of Islamic soteriology. Messianic expectations were part of the early Muslim belief in the prophet Muhammad as the dkhir al-zaman (“apostle of the End of Time”). In that eschatological position the Prophet was expected to usher humanity toward an ideal community with a universal mission. Such expectations were also part of the reformist and revivalist ten dencies among the Judeo-Christian communities of Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries. The Qur’anic preoccupation with the impending Day of Judgment and the Signs of the Hour, which announced cosmic disorder and a period of terror and fear preceding the Final Days, can be understood within the cultural and ideological setting of the messianic prophecy in Abrahamic soteriology and eschatology.

The Qur’anic Vision of the Messianic Future. The major this-worldly expression of Islam was its selfimplementation in a religiopolitical community, the ummah, with a worldwide membership of all those who believe in God and the divine revelation through Muhammad. Consequently, Muslim belief in the divinely guided messianic leader, the Mahdi, is rooted in the acknowledgment that Muhammad’s position and function as the divinely guided prophet was to create this ideal ummah. Islamic revelation sees itself actively engaged in assessing human conditions that obstruct the fulfillment of the ultimate divine purposes for humanity. Human civilization, as the Qur’an maintains, is the record of the perpetual jihad (struggle) against human self-centeredness and self-cultivated pettiness, the two main sources of conflict and the attendant destruction of humanity. It is the enemy within that needs to be conquered, through jihad akbar (“greater struggle”) before one can truly undertake to overcome the external enemy through jihad asghar (“lesser struggle”) that impedes the creation of the just and peaceful human society. Islamic soteriology is an expression of the desperate human situation, and it provides the critically needed sense of common human destiny-the human saga of the search for justice and peace. This is the essence of Islamic messianism.

At different times in history God intervenes and provides living examples, the prophets, who can remind humanity of its true nature and its perfectibility through faith in God. Toward the End of Time, after having failed time and again, when humanity finds itself in need of spiritual-moral revival to assume its historical responsibility of creating the divine order on earth, God will send Jesus and the Mahdi to restore the pure faith and redress the wrongs committed against the righteous servants of God. In the meantime, human beings must continue to strive in order to recognize their primordial nature through islam (“submission”). This is the spiritual-moral expression of Islamic messianism. Historical Messianism. The responsibility to create an independent political community, the ummah, which carried within itself the revolutionary challenge to any inimical order which might hamper its realization, was historically assumed by the Prophet himself when he established the first Muslim policy in Medina in 622 CE. The decisive connection between the divine investiture to the prophetic mission and the creation of an Islamic world order is the integral facet of Islamic messianism. Hence, the Mahdi, through his investiture as the Prophet’s successor and God’s caliph, is awaited to implement the transcendental ideal on earth.

Historical and sociological factors in the first century, following the Prophet’s death in 632, were instrumental in heightening the messianic expectations in the Muslim community, especially among those who were persecuted as Shi’ah-partisans of `All ibn Abi Talib and sympathizers of his claim to the caliphate. The hopes of Banu Hashim, the Prophet’s clan, who had supported the claims of the descendants of `All, and who looked forward to the return of the prophetic “golden age,” were greatly frustrated when the caliphate slipped out of their hands in 661. Thereafter, the idea of a perfect leader, the divinely appointed imam, continued to be emphasized more specifically among the religiously oriented Muslims in general, and among Shi’is in particular. Although both `All and his son Husayn were regarded as mahdi, perhaps in a noneschatological sense, it was `All’s son Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyah, who was declared to be the promised Mahdi. He was believed to have possessed the esoteric knowledge necessary to deliver his followers from oppression and to establish a just society.

The outbreak of the civil wars and the perturbed condition that followed greatly contributed to the notion of messianic savior whose function, in the first place, was to redress the wrongs committed against the downtrodden and establish justice, by which the Shi`is meant abolition of the caliphate of the oppressors and the return to a pure Islam; and, in the second place, to achieve the conversion of the world to Islam. Among the various factions of the Shi’is disagreement on the identification of the Mahdi was one of the chief factors separating sect from sect. Shi’i hope for justice, in their oft-quoted phrase, “the world would be filled with justice as it is now filled with injustice” when the Mahdi emerges from the divinely imposed occultation, expressed radical social protest. The expectation meant not merely a hope for the future, but a revaluation of present social and historical life. Every generation found reason to believe that it was likely that the Mahdi would appear in their own time and test the faithful by summoning them to launch the great social transformation themselves under his command, with the promise of divine help when it would be needed. Hence, messianic tendencies became the source of heretical and even combative attitudes among the Shi`is. These revolutionary insurrections were feared and severely crushed by the ruling authorities for their potential destructive and chaotic repercussions.

Several adventurous individuals, of Shi’i sympathies, organized and led revolutions from the last decades of the Umayyad rule. The most important of which was the ‘Abbasid revolution, which carried on a very effective propaganda against the Umayyads on a largely Shi’i basis, keyed to the messianic expectation. The ‘Abbasids were able to overthrow the Umayyads and establish their own dynasty in the eighth century. The Fatimid revolution in the tenth century was another uprising with considerable popular support. It won a large number of adherents to its cause and established a Shi’i state in North Africa. In this case also the emphasis was on the messianic anticipation for an ideal social order, and in it too the leader manipulated the Shi’i ideology and even adopted the Shi’i messianic title of al-mansur (the victorious) and al-mahdi.

However, all Shi’i attempts were not successful, and once its adherents met with repeated failures and persecutions, they ceased to attempt revolutionary transformation. With this change in fortunes, the Shi`i ideology became the chief vehicle for any Muslim who entertained radical change, and it was perpetuated in terms of esoteric messianic teaching. The title Mahdi ceased to connote immediate and direct political action. The frustration of the adherents of messianic prophecies gradually caused the shift in the emphasis of the Mahdi from political power to religious reform, which also touched the social and communal life of Muslims. It continued to express the idealism of the ummah, the hope that one day Islam, with all its political and social implications, will return to its pristine purity. The original historical mission of Islam, namely, the establishment of the ideal society under divine guidance, was believed to attain fulfillment under the Mahdi in future. In independent books of esoteric erudition about future events (al-balayah wa-al-manayah), in which narratives reported on the authority of the Prophet and the Imams were related, dark events to come were foretold in such a way that every new generation of Muslims could see its trials and hopes mirrored in them.

By the end of the eighth century, a majority of Muslims regarded the historical caliphate as the continuation of the Prophet’s temporal position divested of any eschatological anticipation. The eschatological function was transferred to the future “caliph of God,” the Mahdi. This formed the main thrust of the Sunni conviction about the Prophet’s messianic legacy.

However, different subdivisions of the Shi’is maintained the necessity for the continuation of the Prophet’s temporal and spiritual authority in the person of a divinely appointed imam to guide the community to its ultimate deliverance. This was the cardinal doctrine of the Shi’is who rejected the historical caliphate as a human interference in the procurement of the divine plan, and awaited the appearance of the Mahdi, as the restorer of ideal Muslim order.

Messianic Legacy during and after the First Islamic Millennium. In the fifteenth century, owing to the approach of the first millennium after the advent of the Prophet, various groups began to revive their hopes for a better future. In the holy cities of Mecca and Medina a number of religious scholars wrote their opinions confirming the popular belief in the appearance of a mujaddid (reformer) at the turn of the century. A prominent Sunni jurist, Ibn al-Hajar al-Makki, declared that the advent of the Mahdi was to be expected in the millennium, and that such a messianic person would be a descendant of Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet, and that his name would conform to the Prophet’s name and the names of his parents to those of his parents. The recognition of the true Mahdi was not going to be an easy task because of the manner in which the traditions predicting the emergence of the eschatological personage were multiplying. The problem of the identity of the Mahdi was too intricate for any religious authority or political ruler to solve.

The idea of the Mahdi was popular among the Sunnis in India in the fifteenth century where the rise of the idea that Sayyid Muhammad of Jaunpur was the Mahdi opens an entirely new chapter in the history of Islamic messianism. The sayyid opened his mission with the claim to be the Mahdi in 1495 at Mecca while performing the circumambulation of the Ka’bah. On his return to India he reasserted his claim in the major mosque of Taj Khan Salar at Ahmedabad, followed by a reiteration of the claim with renewed vigor and force in 1499 in a village called Barhli in Gujarat. In the hagiographical sources on him the names of his parents have been given as those of the parents of the Prophet, `Abd Allah and Aminah, in order to justify his claim to be the Mahdi. The Hanafi jurists of Gujarat challenged him to prove his claim and took effective steps to put a stop in his growing popularity. A fatwa was consequently drawn up in which he was denounced as a heretic and condemned to death. The reason for this extreme denunciation was due to the fact that his revolutionary socialistic-moral interpretation of Islam, which redressed the corruption in Indian Muslim society, was contrary to the orthodox Sunni understanding of the faith.

A further example of the intensity and impact of the messianic ideology among the Sunnis is found in the Mahdiyah movement of the Mahdi of Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad ibn `Abd Allah, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The Mahdiyah have been regarded as the last eruption in the series of religiously inspired movements in the Sunni world that led to the establishment of the shad `ah-based states of the Wahhabiyah in Arabia, the Fulbe of Usman dan Fodio in Sokoto, and the Sanusiyah in Cyrenaica. The Mahdi of Sudan consciously tried to establish the ideal rule of God on earth based on the paradigm of the Prophet’s ideal community, engaging in jihad against the British and Ottoman-Egyptian forces. The movement was also inspired by the Sufi philosophy of moral life and was based on ShM messianic lore.

In Twelver Shiism, where the twelfth imam is believed to be the awaited Mahdi and to live in occultation, belief in messianism has served a complex, seemingly paradoxical function. It has been the guiding doctrine behind both an activist political posture, calling on believers to remain alert and prepared at all times to launch the revolution with the Mahdi who might appear at any time, and behind a quietist waiting for God’s decree, in almost fatalistic resignation, in the matter of return of this imam at the End of Time. In both cases the main problem was to determine the right course of action at a given social and political setting. The adoption of the activist or quietist solution depended on the interpretation of conflicting traditions attributed to the ShM imams about circumstances that justified radical action. Resolution of the contradiction in these traditions in turn was contingent on acknowledgment of and the existence of an authority who could undertake to make the imam’s will known to the community. Without such a learned authority among the ShNs, it was practically impossible to acquire knowledge about whether a radical solution was an appropriate form of struggle against an unjust government.

It was in this Shi`i messianic context that in Iran ‘Ali Muhammad of Shiraz who called himself the Bab (“gateway”), at the turn of the millennium since the disappearance of the twelfth Imam in 874, proclaimed himself to be the “gateway” to esoteric knowledge and a reformer in 1844. He preached a new and quite unconventional shari`ah and promised a new prophetic dispensation of social justice. His followers, the Babis, came into open conflict with the Shi’i religious establishment and then with the Qajar government. ‘Ali Muhammad was arrested and imprisoned. There followed riots and finally extensive revolt. `Ali Muhammad was executed and the Babi movement was suppressed with much bloodshed in 1852.

The Baha’i faith proclaimed by Baha’i Allah in 1863 retained the social mission of the Babis and the cultural symbols of Shi` i Iran, but abandoned its chiliastic overtones in favor of a more general conversion of the people around the globe by the followers of the new order. Late in the nineteenth century Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, who claimed to be the Mahdi, undertook to reform traditional Sunni Islam and succeeded in building an effective social organization, with economic cooperatives and other exemplary establishments, restricted to benefit his followers. Whereas the Babis and the Baha’is were seen as heretical movements by the Twelver Shi` religious establishment, the Ahmadlyah sect represented a breach in the sense of unity among the Sunni Muslims and their activities, with claims of a sort of prophethood for its founder, were regarded by the Sunni religious establishment as divisive and sectarian. Thus, as evinced in both the Baha’i and Ahmadlyah movements, heretical ideas were ostensibly and inherently part of the esoteric nature of messianic lore. Moreover, this esoteric lore tended to be potentially catastrophic as foretold in numerous traditions about the Signs of the Hour.

Recent Messianic Hopes. Both during the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 and the Gulf Crisis of 1990-1991, messianic traditions foretelling the apocalyptic events and describing the cataclysmic outcome of the world were in wide circulation in the Middle East, feeding on the hopes and fears of Muslims. Several attempts were made to fit Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return from Paris on 1 February 1979 to the chiliastic tradition that foretold the “rise of a sayyid from Qom, as a precursor to the Mahdi, among the descendants of Musa al-Kazim (the seventh Shi`i imam to whom Khomeini is lineally related) and will summon people to the right path” at the time of political and social turmoil in Iran. On 20 November 1979, the holiest shrine of Islam in Mecca experienced the rise of the Saudi Mahdi, Jahaymin al-`Utaybi, fulfilling the prophecy foretold in many traditions about rise of the messianic leader in the grand mosque of Mecca. The insurrection that was crushed mercilessly by the authorities posed the most formidable challenge to the worldly and corrupt rulers of the Saudi royal family. Similarly, a tradition predicting the rise of a man as strong as a sadim (rock) in the month of Rajab (February 1991), was mysteriously circulating among the Muslim masses in Jordan and the Occupied West Bank in support of Saddam Hussein as a promised victor of that month.

A book that was published symbolically in 1979 (1400 AH), and which has found eager readers in Lebanon, Iraq, and many other places in the Muslim world, deals with the relevance of the Islamic messianism as preserved in the Shi` tradition. Its title Yawm al-khalas fi’ill al-Qa’im al-Mahdi (The Day of Deliverance under the Protection of the Twelfth Imam) serves as a reminder to many Muslim governments in the world today that the Muslim public still awaits the ideal Islamic order to be established where oppression and tyranny will be replaced, through apocalyptic divine intervention, by justice and equity. In other words, chiliastic hope in the return of the Mahdi among Muslim masses reflects their heightened sense of expectation and remains a latent source of challenge to moral complacency and political tyranny in Muslim governments.

[See also Ahmadiyah; Babism; Baha’i Eschatology; Mahdi; Mahdiyah.]


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Rizvi, S. A. A., “Mahdavi Movement in India,” Medieval India Quarterly 51 (1950): 1-25.

Sachedina, A. A. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi’ism. Albany, N.Y., 1981.

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

  • writerPosted On: August 13, 2014
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