Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem
May Allah send blessings and peace upon the Messenger of Allah and his family
I have always been wary of eschatology. Even before I was a religious person, I used to talk to religious people regularly. People just say crazy stuff when they start talking about the “end of times.”
But I need to move beyond that, because Islam has a rather detailed eschatological tradition. So this Ramadan, I decided to use some of my limited free time to try to understand the current discourse about the Mahdi, who plays a central role in Muslim beliefs about the future of humanity. For those who don’t know who the Mahdi is, he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family, who will “fill the world with justice, just as it had once been filled with injustice.”
I did this “study” for two reasons. One, because there is a lot of talk about the Mahdi these days, as Muslims try to make sense out of the fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which often pits Sunnis against Shi’is . Two, because it is a belief that is shared by both Sunnis and Shi’is, even though they differ on its details. To be clear, only the beliefs of the “Twelver Shi’is” are discussed herein, due to their dominant role in contemporary Shi’i discourse globally. But in addition to these more exoteric reasons, I also want to know what the “right” belief is about the Mahdi. At the end of the day, a belief is either true or false, ontologically speaking. As a Muslim, for example, I affirm the existence of a place I have never seen called “al-Nar (the Fire),” which in English we usually call Hell. It is spoken about vividly in the Qur’an, as well as the Sunni and Shi’i hadith literature. Denying its existence takes one out of the fold of Islam, according to both Sunni and Shi’i theological traditions, and so I affirm its existence. It is, for all intents and purposes, part of the warp and woof of Islam. Growing up, I did not believe in Hell, and in fact it was a joke. But as I have grown spiritually, by Allah’s grace, I have understood the necessity of taking it very very seriously.
I now want to take beliefs about the Mahdi seriously too. When I was studying Sunni theology based on traditional texts explained by living scholars, I avoided asking questions about the Mahdi. To be honest, I didn’t want to ask because I knew that I would have taken their answers with a grain of salt, even though I had a great respect for them in general. Why? Because one cannot talk about the Mahdi properly without a comparative analysis of Sunni and Shi’i traditions, as well as an awareness of the role the Mahdi plays in contemporary socio-political realities. It is all highly politicized, and always has been. Discussions about the Mahdi are not about the next world, for they go straight to our current existential concerns. What is going to happen in the coming decades? What sort of world will my children live in? What is the deeper meaning behind all of this strife? The Muslims in the early generations asked these questions too, such as Muhktar al-Thaqafi, who launched a rebellion against the Umayyads in the name of the Mahdi.
Muslims talk about the Mahdi because he is the earthly fulfillment of our desire for a leader like the Prophet, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. When the Prophet ruled in the 7th/1st century, the Muslims were united. When the Prophet ruled, he established justice that was beyond doubt. When the Prophet ruled, the enemies of Islam were in retreat. When the Prophet ruled, spirituality and politics – and thus the inner and outer life of human beings – were one holistic reality. The Ummah of Muhammad is united in affirming that the Beloved of God will never return to this earthly realm. Instead, one of the descendants of his daughter Fatima al-Zahra will unite this broken Ummah, bring justice back in a way that cannot be questioned, and fulfill the Muslims’ yearning for a true representative of God on Earth. The Ummah differs on the details of his rule, but this shared notion of the Mahdi is enough for us to realize that he will be a charismatic presence unlike anything any of us has ever witnessed.
I deliberately chose not to do a historical analysis of the Mahdi doctrines. People like myself, trained in Euro-American historiographical traditions, tend to think that we have properly understood an idea if we can describe its historical genesis. But I think that is a misguided approach when we come to the Mahdi. For the Mahdi is a doctrine that is vigorously upheld in both Sunni and Shi’i theology, even to the point where a well-known Salafi scholar like Yasir Qadhi and a well-known Shi’i scholar like Ja’far Subhani maintain that it is a belief that is established through tawatur (narrated by so many chains of transmission, such that it is impossible that it was forged). By making this claim, these scholars are saying that this is a belief that cannot be doubted in its essentials, although its details may be debateable.
The reason this is important to point out is because the Mahdi is not mentioned directly in the Qur’an, although there may be some verses that implicitly refer to the Mahdi, as argued by Shi’i scholar Sayyid Sulayman Hasan. It is only discussed in the hadith literature, and the Sunnis and Shi’is have different books of hadith to which they refer. But by having both Sunni and Shi’i scholars claim that belief in Mahdi is established by tawatur, it means that it is still a well-established belief in Islamic theology even though it is not mentioned in the Qur’an. As such, what concerns us is not a modernist attempt to engage in a source-critical study with the goal of removing the Mahdi from Islamic theology, but rather an attempt to make sense out of it given our current existential reality.
I cannot speak for the whole Ummah of Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family. I am simply one human trying to make sense out of the past, present, and future. But the concept of the Mahdi effects all of us. Put simply, he is expected to be one of the greatest political and military leaders of all time. His rule will effect everyone on the planet, as dramatically demonstrated by traditionalist Sunni scholar Ibrahim Osi-Efa. Popular Shi’i lecturer Dr. Sayed Ammar Nakhshawani highlights that his implementation of justice will be so profound it will even attract Buddhists and atheists who are concerned about social justice. As he puts it, “they will be allowed to join the army of the Mahdi.”
Which leads me to my first observation about contemporary Mahdi discourse. Yasir Qadhi and Salafi scholar Salman al-Oadah, both of whom received their religious education in Saudi Arabia, downplay the miraculous nature of the Mahdi. They stress that he is simply a human like other humans, whom Allah has chosen to play a specific role in the unfolding of history. While this is technically true – no one claims that the Mahdi is not a human being – it is also obscures the world-changing personality of the Mahdi. Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great will not compare to the Mahdi in terms of the political and military impact he has on human history. He will also unite the Muslims politically under one banner, something that hasn’t happened for over 1000 years. Given that, one cannot adequately imagine the charisma that he will possess, by Allah’s permission. Yes, he will be a human being like other human beings. But that is like saying that I am a basketball player, and LeBron James is a basketball player. On the one hand, it is a factual statement. But given the context, it is a complete obfuscation. Iranian Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani’s remarks (here and here) on the exalted spiritual nature of the Mahdi hint at our inability to comprehend the Mahdi, obviously speaking within a very distinctly Shi’i theological context.
Which leads to a second observation. The Mahdi in Shi’i discourse, as laid out by Jassim Hussain, not only leads the Muslims against their opponents, but also rights the wrongs internal to the Muslim community. In the supplications related from the Mahdi in Shi’i hadith literature, one finds numerous references to his role in re-establishing that which was lost over time in the early Islamic polity, as the political leadership of the Ummah failed to maintain spiritual legitimacy in the eyes of many Muslims. This makes sense when one remembers the enormous persecution of the descendants of Fatima under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs. In short, in order for the Ummah to apply justice without, it must have justice within. I found no mention of that in any Sunni source I consulted, despite one article by Turkish Sunni academic Zeki Saritoprak that focused on how the idea of the Mahdi brings hope to those suffering from injustice. If the Mahdi is supposed to establish justice, and if Sunnis believe that the Mahdi will begin his leadership from the Sacred Mosque in Makkah, does it not make sense that the first injustices he would redress are those committed by the monarchs who control Makkah? Perhaps the geo-political rivalry between Iran and the GCC means that Sunnis don’t want to connect the idea of the Mahdi to internal injustices of the Ummah, because it will give added political strength to oppressed Shi’i populations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the one non-Sunni in the GCC, Sultan Qaboos of Oman (who is an Ibadi), receives high praise from Nakshawani for making a country where Shi’is can attend religious functions without fear. Due to his implementation of justice, Qaboos may be interested in being part of the army of the Mahdi, and one can only assume that Nakshawani is thereby implying that the other GCC monarchs would feel rather differently.
But perhaps wariness of talking about internal injustices in Muslim-majority countries also stems from bad memories of the false Mahdi who actually did take over the Sacred Mosque in Makkah in 1979, Juhayman’s brother-in-law. Yasir Qadhi opens his talk on the Mahdi with discussing the significance of this event. Both Sunni and Shi’i scholars affirm that there have been many other false Mahdis in recent times, such as the Mahdi of Sudan. Ibn Khaldun’s discussion of the Mahdi affirms that this was an issue in the pre-modern past as well. But I found none that reached the point of denying the reality of the Mahdi simply because it has been misused many times. In Shi’i contexts, there is also a concern about abusing the idea of being the representative the Mahdi, given that it is believed that he is currently alive and exerting spiritual influence over his hundreds of millions of followers in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, UK, USA, and elsewhere. Ayatollah Khomeini addresses this issue while commenting on a hadith about hypocrisy. There is also currently a man in Iraq who claims to be a messenger from the Mahdi and the eschatological figure known as “al-Yamani,” and has his own low-budget TV shows to spread his teachings. So the struggle to define the Mahdi is an ongoing phenomenon that has very real political ramifications. Yale historian Abbas Amanat shows how the conception of the Mahdi within today’s socio-political environment has a lot to do with changing natures of clerical authority in Shi’ism after the Iranian Revolution.
After reviewing everything I did, I cannot say with any clarity what I believe about the Mahdi, other than that I do not deny him. It is clear to me that the concept of the Mahdi is always, and always will be, tied to the politics of the time. I do not deny that current events seem poised for the emergence of the Mahdi, as Osi-Efa argues, and as many Shi’is believe very deeply. But I also understand how it made a lot of sense to think the Mahdi would emerge in political contexts such as the Abbasid caliphate, as is well documented in Jassim Hussain’s text. This is always the challenge of eschatology – when are the signs actually there, and when are people reading way too much into current events? Nakhshawani’s first lecture in his series on the Mahdi is the only source that I consulted which very forthrightly discussed the serious methodological challenges of interpreting current events in light of scripture.
And when we say “scripture,” we have to be clear that we are talking about the Sunni and Shi’i hadith literature. These texts form the basis for the theological discourse about the Mahdi in both Sunni and Shi’i theology. And I am not an expert in either set of texts, and so am unable to comment on the chains of narrators mentioned by Qadhi, or Osi-Efa, or the classical Shi’i scholar al-Mufid is his Kitab al-Irshad, or anywhere else. I have tried to understand the Mahdi as a living expression of the faith of Islam, and the hope of Muslims for justice to be manifest both between rival Muslim communities and between Muslims and the rest of humanity. This is a discussion that is real and vibrant in the minds of many Muslims today, and so a discussion of the chains of transmission only get us so far. I would urge those whose scholarly capabilities are far greater than my own to do a comparative analysis of the chains of transmission about the Mahdi. But such a study would require a person who had studied under both Sunni and Shi’i masters of ‘ilm al-rijal (the science of narrators), and unfortunately I am unaware of anyone in the world who has that qualification, although I may be mistaken.
What Muslims should be wary of are those who simply make up things, like Imran Hosein. He claims a special ability to read the signs, both in the scripture and in world events, but a lot of what he says makes very little sense and he changes his ideas when they turn out to be false, such as revising his view that Gog and Magog was the Soviet Union when that obviously turned out to be not true. There are religious leaders in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism who essentially lose their minds focusing on eschatology, and I have been studying them since I was in high school. I find it totally fascinating, while also a bit sad. Not one of them turns out to be right, and they misled their small group of followers into wasting their lives worrying about nuclear war and other such things. Imran Hosein seems to me like a classical example of that. I have enormous respect for great scholars who are using their knowledge to face the intense political challenges of our time, such as Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and Ayatollah Sistani. Imran Hosein is certainly not of their caliber, and I am sure there are others likes him out there who will waste your valuable time.
We should not treat the Mahdi like it is a fairy tale. Muslims need to be able to talk about the Mahdi with people of other worldviews. As Sayyid Sulayman Hasan states in his lecture, the verse of the Qur’an, “It is He who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all religion, although they who associate others with Allah dislike it” (9.33) can be interpreted as referring to the Mahdi. For the Prophet Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family, only conquered a small portion of the world. In many respects, the Mahdi can be understood as the one who finishes the job and completes the prophecy. Right wing commentators have picked up on this, and this is also one of the reasons Israel and the United States are so wary of Iran, which is the nation state where belief in the Mahdi is the most widespread. The idea of the Mahdi is inherently politically threatening to those who do not hold Muslim beliefs. Nakshawani goes a long way in thinking along these lines, and whether one is Sunni or Shi’i, I suggest taking seriously what he has to say. Why? Because we cannot talk about justice and the Mahdi separately. As the hadith I quoted at the beginning affirms, the whole point of the Mahdi is justice (‘adl), and justice is a universal aspiration, not something that only Muslims care about.
Perhaps better than any source, the significance of the Mahdi in our world can be summed up in the fact that he was mentioned in the United Nations by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And while a Muslim may not agree with his specific beliefs about the Mahdi (in particular, his use of the word “perfect”), what he says applies generally to the concept of the Mahdi in both Sunni and Shi’i theological traditions. What really made him unique was not so much the specific details of his beliefs, but that he had the audacity to state these beliefs publicly on the proverbial world stage. Of course, he was mocked for doing so, but at least he didn’t pretend that the Mahdi wasn’t a big deal when he said:
“The Almighty and Merciful God, who is the Creator of the universe, is also its Lord and Ruler. Justice is His command. He commands His creatures to support one another in good, virtue and piety, and not in decadence and corruption. He commands His creatures to enjoin one another to righteousness and virtue and not to sin and transgression. All Divine prophets from the Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) to the Prophet Moses (peace be upon him), to the Prophet Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), to the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), have all called humanity to monotheism, justice, brotherhood, love and compassion. Is it not possible to build a better world based on monotheism, justice, love and respect for the rights of human beings, and thereby transform animosities into friendship? I emphatically declare that today’s world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet. O, Almighty God, all men and women are Your creatures and You have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by You, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause.”
I have no idea if the Mahdi will come in my lifetime or not, or in my son’s lifetime. But this intellectual and spiritual journey has made me more serious about looking at history as part of a process whose architect is the Divine. For many years, I have focused on the past (like any good Princeton graduate student in Islamic Studies is trained to do). Learning all of this has made me think about the future. As long as I live, I am sure I will continue to reflect on these questions, and I ask al-Haqq (the Truth) to “show me the true as true and bless me to follow it, and show me the false as false and bless me to avoid it.” I was willing to affirm the Prophethood of a man I have never met who lived in 7th century Arabia, may peace and blessings be upon him. So I hope I have no unwillingness to follow whoever may be his true representative, with Allah’s help. As such, may I be counted as a follower of the Mahdi, whoever he may be, whether I live to see him or die before he comes, because he represents the authority of my Prophet, his forefather, may blessings and peace be upon him and his family, ameen.