Some Thoughts on the Origins of Mahdism (Islamic Messianism) and its Socio-Political Function
By: Dr. Ismail K. Poonawala
Although the English term "messianism," is derived from the Hebrew word "mashiah," meaning "the annointed one,"' it has no equivalent in Arabic. The figure of the Mahdī, meaning "the rightly guided," or "God-guided," evolved very early in Islamic history conveying the Judeo-Christian concept of messianism. Originally, the Hebrew term denoted a king whose reign was consecrated by a rite of anointment with oil. In the Old Testament, it is always used in reference to the Kings of Israel. However, in the intertestamental period, which extends approximately from 220 BCE to 70 CE, its connotation changed. From this point forward, it was applied to the future king of Israel who was expected to restore the kingdom of Israel and save its people from all evil . Subsequently, Helmer Ringgren states, that messianic expectation in Judaism developed in two distinct manifestations. One was national-political figure who was a descendent of David and shall defeat his opponents and establish a universal kingdom where the people will live in peace and happiness. The second manifestation was an apocalyptic, mythological figure considered to be the "son of man," who would descend from heaven to save the chosen people. In apocalyptic books, "the son of man" was a transcendental figure, with divine characteristics who resided in heaven, but will appear at the end of time to pronounce judgment on the resurrected people. According to this concept, the pious will be freed from the dominion of the wicked and this transcendental figure will establish peace and justice. Without going into the details of Jewish Messianism, it should be pointed out that early Christianity incorporated many of the Jewish beliefs regarding the Messiah and applied them to Jesus. In Christianity, the term Messiah was translated into Greek as Christos (Christ), thus associating Jesus with Jewish messianic expectations. Historians of messianism have demonstrated that the belief in messianism flourishes during times of suffering and persecution. They further add that when the present is satisfactory mankind does not need to be redeemed, but the belief itself should be perpetuated until the present becomes completely unsatisfactory and circumstances require it could be revived and re-energized as a possible response. The tendency to look toward future fulfillment is a recurring theme in Judaism and Christianity.
In his article "Jewish Messianism," Werblowsky points out that another version of the "double messiah," developed in the 2nd century CE probably as a reaction to the catastrophic failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt that produced the belief that a warrior messiah who dies a heroic death will be followed by the victorious messiah. This concept further demonstrates that messianic fulfillment is preceded by cosmic, natural, and social disasters. The Christian accomodation of this Jewish belief is the idea of the Antichrist who will rule the world before being finally vanquished by the Second Coming of Christ.
Returning to the concept of Mahdī in Islam, it should be noted that despite the notion of divine guidance, a fundamental principle in the Qur’ān, the word Mahdī does not occur in the Qur’ān. The doctrine of the Mahdī has evolved in Islamic history to embody the expectation of a divinely sent prophetic figure at the end of time who will restore true religion and fill the earth with peace and justice and will rule until the end of the universe. It is worth noting that the term Mahdī, especially its connotation and usage emerged over a long period of time. However, discussions about the Mahdī's characteristics and identity by religious scholars can be traced back to during or after the second fitna (civil war) in Islamic history. Various factors contributed to the growth of such literature.
The belief in the Last Judgment or the coming of "the Hour" and the accompanying eschatological account depicted in the Qur’ān concerning that momentous event have received exegetical elaborations in traditions ascribed to the Messenger of God. In the opinion of the present author, it was in this context that the Mahdī traditions originated. Therefore, before we address or analyze other factors that contributed to the growth of Islamic Messianic literature, let us first turn to the Qur’ān. Unfortunately, this primary source is often overlooked by the Western scholars. It should be noted that the early Meccan revelations of the Qur’ān reflect the mood of eschatological expectations that pervaded the Near East during the period immediately preceding the birth of the Prophet. Verse A1 of sūrat al-Baqara (chapter two) states: When a Scripture comes to them from God, confirming what is in their possession - and previously they have been seeking victory over those who disbelieve - and when what they recognize [as the truth] comes to them they do not believe in it." This verse clearly demonstrates that certain Christians and Jews in Arabia foretold the coming of an eschatological figure. Furthermore, historians of early Islam believe that messianic typology had been utilized by the imperial powers of that age for their own aggrandizement, i.e. the Byzantine emperor, the Abyssinian Negus, and the Jewish king Dhu Nawās of Yemen. The Muslim claim that Muhammad was the "seal" of the prophets, meaning that he was the final link in the chain of prophecy, may have originally been understood in a messianic signifance.
In the eschatology of the Qur’ān, the following three themes dominate: i) the Signs of the Hour; ii) the Day of Judgment; and iii) the rewards of the righteous and torments of the wicked. The Day of Judgment is described as when all people shall be made to answer before God for their deeds. This is a prominent theme in the Meccan period of the Qur’ān and is referred to as the Day of Reckoning (yaun al-hisāb), the Day of Judgment (yaum al-din), the Day of Resurrection (yaun al-qiyāma), or the Last Day (al-yaum al-ākhir).
” n the eschatology of the Qur’ān, the following three themes dominate: i) the Signs of the Hour; ii) the Day of Judgment; and iii) the rewards of the righteous and torments of the wicked. “
The Signs of the Hour (alāmāt/ashrāt al-sā’ad) are depicted in the Qur’ān as the climax of history, a catastrophic and terryfying event that will affect each and every creature on earth. Several sūras, i.e. 81, 82, 84, and 99 vividly describe the cosmic upheaval that will occur on that day and will dislocate the earth from the heavens. Some verses describe that the natural world will disintegrate as the seas boil over, and the mountains crumble into dust, and the dead will rise from their graves. The Qur’ān speaks of the judgment that will be delivered by the weighing of deeds to determine whether good or evil will tip the scale. Once judgment has been rendered, people are consigned to the bliss of Paradise or to the torments of Hell, and are to remain there forever. Hell is supervised by angels appointed for that purpose. Its inhabitants, in addition to suffering from scorching fire, are made to undergo further agony by eating bitter dry thorns and drinking from a boiling spring that neither nourish nor satify hunger. On the other hand, the dwellers of Paradise will enjoy all pleasures colorfully portrayed in the Qur’ān, i.e. reclining in raised couches in a lofty garder, with flowing spring and carpets spread, and goblets placed before them.
When the Messenger of God was asked about the time of the Last Hour, he replied: "The knowledge thereof is with my Lord only," or "the Hour shall come on them suddenly while they are unaware,"' or "the matter of the Hour is but a twinkling of the eye,” or “it is nearer still. "' Eventually the Day of Judgment and the eschatological description depicted in the Qur’ān received exegetical elaboration and apocalyptic traditions were ascribed to the Messenger of God. Both al-Bukhārī and Muslim, whose collections are regarded by the Sunnīs as the most authentic canonical collections of traditions, transmit a tradition that states that the Messenger of God spoke to his Companions about the events leading up to the Last Hour. This tradition served as a spring board to further speculations and fabrications of spurious traditions.
All the aforementioned characteristics of the Day of Judgment described in the Qur’ān evoke the mood of an apocalyptic vision. Graphic descriptions of that day imply that the Qur’ān speaks of the destruction of the cosmos and its eventual rebirth to create new forms of life. The eschatological tension recounted in the Qur’ān is resolved by an idealized hereafter. For in Islam there is no particular "salvation," or "redemption," as astutely pointed out by Fazlur Rahman, only "success (falah)" or "failure (khusrān)" in the task of building the type of world order propouded in the Qur’ān."
Secondly, numerous factors including the socio-political crisis and religious ferment that prevailed in Muslim society following the first and the second fitna largely contributed to the proliferation of messianic beliefs. Thirdly, views borrowed from other religions and cultures must have influenced the manifestations of these beliefs. In his book entitled Early Mahdism, Jan-Olaf Blichfeld argues that the notion of the Mahdī should not be considered exotic or sectarian, and it does not reflect the views of some of the extreme groups like the Extrem (ghulat) Shīa or the Khawārij. Mahdism, he contends, grew out of the socio-political conditions that prevailed in Muslim society following the civil wars. He stresses that the notion of the Mahdī must have emerged from a particular set of social and political conditions. To substantiate his claim, Blichfeld devotes a major portion of his book to elucidating the prevailing circumstances in Kūfa that led al-Mukhtār al-Thaqafī to employ the term "al-Mahdī" for Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya. There are many references in the account of al-Mukhtār's uprising regarding the belief that Ibn al-Hanafiyya was the Mahdī. G. R. Hawting states that in preparing the way for the coming of the Mahdī, al-Mukhtār and his followers saw themselves as serving in an apocalyptic role. This view of his movement was shared by the contemporary Christian Syriac writer, John of Phenek.
Leaving aside the history of the term Mahdī and how it was applied to various historical figures beginning with the Messenger of God, Wilferd Madelung states that the discussion about the Mahdī and his identity among the religious scholars can be traced back to the time of the second fitna. He further states that it was the Kūfan tradition which insisted that the Mahdī would be from the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt). Additionally, he identifies cAsim b. Bahdala (d. ca. 127/744-45), a well-known Qur’ān reciter, for disseminating the following tradition supported by a Kūfan chain of narrators (isnād) beginning with cAbd Allāh b. Mascud, a Companion of the Prophet who had received the Qur’ān directly from the Prophet's mouth and had settled in Kūfa after the conquest of Iraq. It states: "The Messenger of God said: 'The world will not pass away before the Arabs are ruled by a man of my family whose name will be the same as mine.'" The claim that the Mahdī's name and the kunya (surname, consisting of abū or umm followed by the name of the son) will be the same as that of the Messenger of God, appears to have originated during the rebellion of al-Mukhtār in favor of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya.
In his article "Some Religious Aspects of the Caliphate, " Helmer Ringgren argues that although the "caliph," a political successor of the Prophet, was not originally intended to be a sacral king, in reality, quite a number of qualities and functions were ascribed to him that were characteristics of the sacral kingships of ancient Near East. Hence, he contends that in many cases the Mahdī traditions ascribed to the Prophet, have foundations in Jewish-Christian or Zoroastrian eschatological ideas.
It is well-known that the cAbbāsid revolutionary movement used messianic expectations and the notion of a restorer of Islam and the just rule of the family of the Prophet. The very fact that the Mahdī traditions were included in the four Sunnī canonical collections of the traditions, viz., the sunan works of al-Tirmidhī, Abū Dāwūd, Ibn Māja, al-Nasai and the Musnad of Ibn Hanbal, all compiled during the second half of the 3rd/9th century, attest to the popular belief in the doctrine of the Mahdī among the Muslims. The Mahdī traditions
” Leaving aside the history of the term Mahdī and how it was applied to various historical figures beginning with the Messenger of God, Wilferd Madelung states that the discussion about the Mahdī and his identity among the religious scholars can be traced back to the time of the second fitna. “
found in the Musannaf of ’Abd al-Razzāq al-San’ānī (d. 211/827) indicate that their inclusion in the Sunni collections occurred even earlier than their inclusion in the canonical collections mentioned above.
For the Imāmī Shīas, the reappearance of the hidden Twelfth Imām, who had gone into occultation in the year 260/873-74 and identified with the Mahdī, is a fundamental tenet of their faith. It is fervently expressed in a popular prayer: "May God hasten the release from suffering through his advent." Abul Aziz Sachedina has convincingly argued that the doctrine of the Mahdī concerning the Twelfth Imām developed with eschatological connotations following the period of the shorter occultation (al-ghayba al-sughrā), between 260/873 and 329/941. Soon there arose among the Imāmīs a literature dealing with the events that herald the Mahdī's coming known as calāmāt-i zuhūr (the signs of [the Mahdī's] appearance or advent). Al-Kāfī, the earliest Imāmī collection of hadīth, by Kulaynī (d.329/941) does not contain anything about the signs that will precede the Mahdī's zuhūr. However, in a brief section entitled karāhiyyāt al-tawqīt (abhorrence of fixing the time [of the Mahdi's advent]), Kulaynī refers to the prohibition of assigning a date to the Mahdīs appearance. As the Mahdī's raj’ah (return) and zuhūr became an integral part of the doctrine of the ghayba (occultation), most of the Imāmī scholars who wrote on the ghyaba, beginning with Ibn Bābūya (d. 381/991-92), included a chapter entitled ’Alāmāt zuhūr al-Qa'im (the signs of the Mahdī's appearance) or min al-’alāmāt al-ka'ina qabl al-khurūj (some of the signs bound to happen before his coming). These apocalyptic visions of a future restoration through the dramatic intervention of God in human history served as a source of solace for believers and provided them with an additional incentive to preserve the faith during the difficult days of the ghayba. The messianic expectations relieved them of the duty to actively oppose or rebel against the established unjust authority. Accompanying those traditions were reports on the merits of waiting patiently for the zuhūr. The absence of information on the exact time of his return required believers to be vigilant and ready for his reappearance through a constant reevaluation of contemporary circumstances on the basis of the foretold signs. Familiar with this literature, every generation expected the zuhūr to take place during their lifetime.
In its development as an independent genre, ’alāmāt-i zuhūr drew chiefly on Islamic eschatological literature, ’alāmāt or ashrat al-sā’ah, and described the catastrophic events preceding the end of time. Both al-Bukhārī and Muslim incorporated in their sahihs certain traditions that stated that the Messenger of God had told his Companions about everything that would happen up to the Last Hour. Sunnī hadīth collections attribute a great majority of the apocalyptic traditions directly to the mouth of the Messenger of God, whereas the ShTi hadīth collections generally ascribe those ahadīth (traditions) to the Imāms, the legitimate heirs to prophetic knowledge. Time and space do not permit me to discuss Mushaf Fatima (the Scroll of Fatima) and Kitāb al-Jafr (the Book of Divination), two books among others that the imām inherits from his predecessors, which provide additional information of apocalyptic traditions. However, the material found in Sunnī hadīth collections in Kitāb al-fitan (chapter on sedition), dealing with civil strife and seditions cover various themes such as the signs of the Last Hour (ashrat al- sā’ah or amor āt al- sā’ah), the account of the Dajjāl (Antichrist), and the descent of Jesus. These topics formed the nucleus around which the signs of the Mahdī's mhūr developed among the Shīa. The calāmāt-i mhūr, thus, follows the same pattern as the Sunnī hadīth collections, and demonstrate a great resemblance in form and content. After scrutinizing the vast aquantity of Sunni and Shīa ahādīth, it becomes clear that later ahādīth were more or less elaborations of earlier expositions of authenticated traditions. Very often details of later political and social turmoil were regarded as prophecies. For example, the disintegration of the Abbāsid caliphate was interpreted by many scholars as the fulfillment of the approaching Hour. Numerous traditions predict the final Muslim victory over the Byzantines and the conquest of Constantinople as a sign of the Dajjāl's appearance. The constant reference to conflict among enemies found in those hadīth collections reflects the political turmoil of the time and provided the Shīa with assurance that the great event of the zuhūr of the Mahdi was approaching. It should be noted that the great majority of the ahādīth in the Shīa collections are ascribed to the Imām Ja’far al-Sādiq (d.148/765) and bis father Muhammad al-Bāqir (d. ca 122/740). Very few are ascribed to CAH b. Abī Tālib (d. 40/661), CAH Zayn al-Abidin (d. ca. 94/712), Mūsa al-Kazim (d. 183/799), CAH al-Ridha (d. 203/818), and some of the Companions of the Prophet.
In addition to the six canonical Sunni hadīth collections, I have referred to Kamāl al-dīn wa-tamām al-n’emah by Abu Jacfar Muhammd b. cAti al-Qummī, known as Ibn Bābwayh and al-Shaykh al-Sadūq (d. 381/991), al-Irshad by Shaykh Mufīd (d. 381/991), kitab al-ghayba by Shaykh Abu J’afar Muhammad al-Tusī (d. 460/1067), Bihar al-anwar by Muhammad al-Bāqir Majlisi (d. ca.1110/1699), and al-Najm al-thaqib or Mahdī-e mou’ood by Mīrza Husayn Tabrisi for analysis of the following themes. Precluding the numerous detailed descriptions and specific references, this shapeless mass of traditions can be classified into several major themes: Celestial Signs. The Mahdf s zuhūr will be preceded by extraordinary natural phenomena, such as the rise of the sun in the west, a solar and a lunar eclipse at the middle and the end of the month of Ramadan respectively, a lunar eclipse in the east and the west, and the sun remaining stationary in the middle of the day. Some traditions describing the halting of the sun state that the face of Sufyāni will be visible at its center portending his destruction. A shining star similar to the moon will rise in the east; redness will appear in the sky and spread to the horizon, remaining for three to seven days. Time will contract. A year will be like a month, a month like a week, a week like a day, a day like an hour, an hour like the kindling of a fire. The angel Gabriel will proclaim from heaven in the early morning: "Verily, the truth is with cAlI and his followers,"
” In Islamic apocalyptic traditions, Jesus is assigned a significant role and the description of his return, regarded as one of the signs of the approaching Last Hour, does not vary significantly between the Sunnī and the Shīa sources. “
and his words will be heard by all the earth’s inhabitants in their respective languages. Satan, on the other hand, will announce from the earth in the evening: "Indeed, the truth is with cUthmān (or Sufyānī) and his followers," and the liars will waver in their doubt about what is proclaimed by Gabriel and Satan. The Mahdī's name will be proclaimed on Friday night, the 23rth of Ramadan. The aforementioned celestial signs are quite conspicuous in the Imāmī sources. Terrestial Phenomena. Extraordinary and calamitous events, such as earthquakes, famines, copious rains, and weird epidemics will take place on the earth. As a result, the yield of all crops will decline enormously and dates will rot on the date-palms. Social Anarchy. The Mahdī's advent will be preceded by a period of terrible
suffering, great commotion, and civil strife, and mankind will sink into a state of moral turpitude. Pretenders to the prophethood and the imamate will arise and "a pure soul" from the descendants of Banū Hāshim will be killed at the sanctuary of the Kacba in Mecca. Many traditions state that Sufyānī, Khurāsān!, and Yamanī will simultaneously rise. During this period of violent convulsions, almost two-thirds of humankind will perish. Sufyānī. The Mahdī's appearance will be heralded by the coming of Sufyānī, a figure whom the Umayyads were accused of devising as a counterpart of the Shici Mahdī. He is not mentioned in the six canonical Sunnī hadīth collections, but other Sunnī collections cite him in detail. His name is given as cUthmān b. cAnbasa and he will rise from among the descendants of Abū Sufyān b. Harb b. Umayya. He will be of medium height with a large head containing marks of smallpox that will make him appear to be one-eyed. He will come from the desert during the month of Rajab and march into Syria after defeating the Byzantines. After occupying Syria for eight or nine months, he will be killed by the Mahdī.
Dajjal (Antichrist, lit. "deceiver"). His appearance is a sign of the Last Hour. Endowed with miraculous powers, he will come before the end of time and undertake mischief left and right to lead people astray. He will rule the world with impurity and tyranny for forty days. One day like a year, one day like a month, one day like a week, and the remaining 37 like any other day. He is described as a corpulent, red-faced youth blind in the right eye, his other eye resembling a floating grape. The letters k, f, r (meaning infidel) will be written on his forehead. He rides an ass and is attended by sinners and hypocrites. Traditions state that he will emerge in the remote regions of the east, such as Khurāsān. Despite his conquests, he will be incapable of entering the mountain passes of both Mecca and Medina because the angels guard its gates. According to the Sunni traditions he will be killed by Jesus. The figure of Dajjāl does not appear in early ShTi works, although he is discussed in detail in Sunnī collections. In later Imāmī works, he is mentioned in a few ahadīth where he is said to be killed by the Mahdī, not Christ. Some traditions trying to reconcile the figures of Sufyānī and Dajjāl by interpreting Dajjal's emergence as a test for identifying the true believers.
The Advent of Jesus. In Islamic apocalyptic traditions, Jesus is assigned a significant role and the description of his return, regarded as one of the signs of the approaching Last Hour, does not vary significantly between the Sunnī and the Shīa sources. Jesus will descend to a hill in the Holy Land or on to the white arcade of the eastern gate of Damascus with a spear in his hand to kill the Antichrist. He will then proceed to Jerusalem as the dawn prayer is being said. The Imām will attempt to offer up his place to Jesus, but Jesus will decline to lead the prayer and take a place behind the Mahdī. Thereafter he will break the cross, kill all the swine, destroy the synagogues and the churches, and kill all the Christians except those who believe in him. The People of the Book will believe in him and will form one single community, - the Muslim community. He will establish the rule of justice and insure its survival for forty years; then he will die. His funeral will take place in Medina and he will be buried beside the Messenger of God. The Imāmī doctrine about the Mahdī's coming at one point merges with the return of Jesus. Imāmī ahadīth emphasize that Jesus will descend during the Mahdī's reign and that he will offer his prayer behind him. The function of killing the Dajjal is also reserved for the Mahdī. The Advent of the Mahdī. The prohibition regarding the fixing of a definite time about the Mahdī's advent appears to relate to the year since many traditions mention the day he will appear. The most cited date is ’Ashūra, the tenth of Muharram, when it falls on a Saturday in one of the odd-numbered years of the Hijra. Though the traditions widely vary regarding the place where he will rise, they agree that his zuhūr will occur in Mecca at the sanctuary of the K’aba between the rukn and the maqām, at which point his followers will swear allegiance to him. Then he will move to Medina and march triumphantly into Kūfa, which will become his capital. In some early traditions ascribed to Imām Muhammad al-Bāqir the number of years which had to elapse before the Mahdī's coming was specified. The fact that the period passed without the prophecy being fulfilled was, therefore, interpreted as bada\ a change in circumstances causing God to alter His ruling in the peoples' own interest."
The Mahdī will be old in age but young in looks. Those who look at him will think that he is forty or less. The proof that he is the true Mahdī is that he will not age with the passage of time. He is described as having white complexion with traces of redness. He will have a beautiful face with lovely black hair hanging down to his shoulders and two birth marks on his back, one like the color of his skin and the other resembling the birth mark of the Messenger of God. There is no agreement in the Imāmī sources about the duration of his rule. One report states that it last for 309 years, the number of years the Ashab al-Kahf (the people of the cave) slept in the cave, while another report states it will extend for 7 years (given in the Sunnī collections), each year equal to 70 years; thereafter he will die. The purpose of zuhūr, stressed in all the sources, is to secure justice on earth and liberate the world from suffering, oppression, and war as well as to inaugurate an era of spiritual and worldly felicity. His rule, therefore, personifies the millennial dream, the accomplishment of an ideal Islamic society.