In Islamic eschatology, the Mahdi (Arabic: مهدي: Mahdī “Guided one” [by GOD]) is the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will rule for five, seven, nine, or nineteen years (according to differing interpretations) before the Day of Judgement (yawm al-qiyamah, literally, the Day of Resurrection) and will rid the World of evil.
There is no explicit reference to the Mahdi in the Qur’an, but references to him are found in hadith (the reports and traditions of Muhammad‘s teachings collected after his death). According to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi’s tenure will coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (Isa), who is to assist the Mahdi against the Masih ad-Dajjal (literally, the “false Messiah” or Antichrist). Both Sunni and Shia Muslims agree that there is to be a Mahdi in Islamic eschatology, and that he will rule over the Muslims and establish justice; however, they differ extensively on his attributes and status. For Sunnis, the Mahdi is the Muslims’ future leader who is yet to come. For most Shia Muslims, the Mahdi was born but disappeared and will remain hidden from humanity until he reappears to bring justice to the world, a doctrine known as the Occultation. For Twelver Shia, this “hidden Imam” is Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam. According to Shia Quran commentators, implicit references to the Mahdi can also be found in the Quran.
Throughout history, various individuals have claimed to be the Mahdi. These have included Muhammad Jaunpuri, founder of the Mahdavia sect; the Báb (Siyyid Ali Muhammad), founder of Bábism; Muhammad Ahmad, who established the Mahdist state in Sudan in the late 19th century; and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadiyya sect.
The term mahdi does not occur in the Quran, but it is derived from the Arabic root h-d-y, commonly used to mean “divine guidance”. The term al-Mahdi was employed from the beginning of Islam, but only as an honorific epithet and without any messianic significance. As an honorific it has been used in some instances to describe Muhammad (by Hassan ibn Thabit), as well as Abraham, al-Hussain, and various Umayyad rulers (hudāt mahdiyyūn). During the second civil war (680-692), after the death of Muʾawiya, the term acquired a new meaning of a ruler who would restore Islam to its perfect form and restore justice after oppression. In Kufa during the rebellion in 680s, Al-Mukhtar proclaimed Muhammad al-Hanafiyyah as the Mahdi in this heightened sense. Among the Umayyads, Sulayman encouraged the belief that he was the Mahdi, and other Umayyad rulers, like Umar II, have been addressed as such in the panegyrics of Jarir and al-Farazdaq.
Early discussions about the identity of al-Mahdi by religious scholars can be traced back to the time after the Second Fitna. These discussions developed in different directions and were influenced by traditions (hadiths) attributed to Muhammad. In Umayyad times, scholars and traditionists not only differed on which caliph or rebel leader should be designated as Mahdi, but also on whether Mahdi is a messianic figure and if signs and predictions of his time have been satisfied. By the time of the Abbasid Revolution in the year 750, Mahdi was already a known concept. Evidence shows that the first Abbasid caliph As-Saffah assumed the title of “the Mahdi” for himself.
In Shia Islam, it seems likely that the attribution of messianic qualities to the Mahdi originated from two of the groups supporting al-Hanafiyyah: southern Arabian settlers and local recent converts in Iraq. They became known as Kaysanites, and introduced what later became two key aspects of the Shia’s concept of the Mahdi. The first was the notion of return of the dead, particularly of the Imams. The second was that after al-Hanafiyyah’s death they believed he was, in fact, in hiding in the Razwa mountains near Medina. This later developed into the doctrine known as the Occultation. The Mahdi appeared in early Shi’ite narratives, spread widely among Shi’ite groups and became dissociated from its historical figure, Muhammad al-Hanafiyyah. During the 10th century, based on these earlier beliefs, the doctrine of Mahdism was extensively expanded by Al-Kulayni, Ibrahim al-Qummi and Ibn Babawayh. In particular, in the early 10th century, the doctrine of the Occultation, which declares that the Twelfth Imam did not die but was concealed by God from the eyes of men, was expounded. The Mahdi became synonymous with the “Hidden Imam” who was thought to be in occultation awaiting the time that God has ordered for his return. This return is envisaged as occurring shortly before the final Day of judgment. In fact, the concept of the “hidden Imam” was attributed to several Imams in turn.
Some historians suggest that the term itself was probably introduced into Islam by southern Arabian tribes who had settled in Syria in the mid-7th century. They believed that the Mahdi would lead them back to their homeland and reestablish the Himyarite kingdom. They also believed that he would eventually conquer Constantinople. It has also been suggested that the concept of the Mahdi may have been derived from messianic Judeo-Christian beliefs. Accordingly, traditions were introduced to support certain political interests, especially Anti-Abbassid sentiments. These traditions about the Mahdi appeared only at later times in hadith collections such as Jami’ at-Tirmidhi and Sunan Abi Dawud, but are absent from the early works of Bukhari and Muslim.
The Sunnis view the Mahdi as the follower of Muhammad and a leader of the Muslims, but, unlike most Shia Muslims, do not believe the Mahdi has already been born. The Mahdi is expected to arrive to rule the world and to reestablish righteousness.
Sunnis in general do not consider expansive genealogies for canonical traces of the Mahdi, do not believe he has yet been born, and reject the Twelver Shi’ite principle of the Mahdi’s occultation. Sunnis do, however, rely heavily on traditionally canonical collections of narrations for derivations of the Mahdi’s attributes and lineage. According to Sunan Abi Dawud, one of the six canonical books of Hadith in Sunni Islam, narrated by Umm Salamah, “The Prophet said: The Mahdi will be of my family, of the descendants of Fatimah.”
In heavy contrast with Shi’ite Islam, Sunnis have a much more human view of the Mahdi, who they believe will be nothing less than the most rightly guided Muslim of his time. He will be rectified in a single night (which is taken to mean that the provisions for his leadership and rule will be made in a single night). According to Sunan Ibn Majah, one of the six canonical collections of Hadith, narrated by ‘Ali, “Mahdi is one of us, the people of the Household. Allah will rectify him in a single night.” Whereas much of the Shi’ite belief ascribes divine faculties—in some circles of Shi’ite Islam it is even believed that the Mahdi can mentally control the wind and vegetation by God’s permission—and transcendent status to the Mahdi, Sunnis believe he will be altogether human but will have sagacity, especially as it pertains to leading other people and ruling a nation. Sunnis believe he will rise and be recognized by his continued philanthropy, charity, piety, facial features, name, and sense of justice, not through direct divine intervention. It is not unreasonable to suspect, based on these narrations, that the Mahdi may not be known to the people immediately, even after being born and living for quite some time without the title of Mahdi (hence, being rectified by God). According to Sunan Abi Dawud, “The Prophet said: The Mahdi will be of my stock, and will have a broad forehead [and] a prominent nose. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny, and he will rule for seven years.”
Other canonical narrations describe the state of the Muslims during the Mahdi’s reign, and a few of his other characteristics, including a hint of his name, which is presumed to be Muhammad. According to Jami al-Tirmidhi, one of the six canonical collections of Hadith, the Prophet is reported to have said, “The world shall not pass away until a man from the people of my family rules the Arabs whose name agrees with my name.” According to Sunan Ibn Majah, the Prophet is reported to have said, “Even if there was only one day left of this world, Allah would make it last until a man from my household took possession of (the mountain of) Dailam and Constantinople.” According to Sunan Ibn Majah, the Prophet is reported to have said, “We, the sons of ‘Abdul-Muttalib, will be leaders of the people of Paradise: Myself, Hamzah. ‘Ali, Ja’far, Hasan, Husain and Mahdi.” According to Sunan Ibn Majah, the Prophet is reported to have said, “The Mahdi will be among my nation. If he lives for a short period, it will be seven, and if he lives for a long period, it will be nine, during which my nation will enjoy a time of ease such as it has never enjoyed. The land will bring forth its yield and will not hold back anything, and wealth at that time will be piled up. A man will stand up and say: ‘O Mahdi, give me!’ He will say: ‘Take.'” According to Sunan Ibn Majah, the Prophet is reported to have said, “Three will fight one another for your treasure, each one of them the son of a caliph, but none of them will gain it. Then the black banners will come from the east, and they will kill you in an unprecedented manner.” Then he mentioned something that I do not remember, then he said: “When you see them, then pledge your allegiance to them even if you have to crawl over the snow, for that is the caliph of ALLAH, Mahdi.”
Both Shi’ite and Sunni schools of thought concur that there is to be a Mahdi in Islamic eschatology, and that he will rule over the Muslims and establish justice; however, they differ extensively on his attributes and status.
References interpreted in hadith
The Mahdi is frequently mentioned in Sunni hadith as establishing the caliphate. Among Sunnis, some believe the Mahdi will be an ordinary man. The following Sunni hadith make references to the Mahdi:
- Muhammad is quoted as saying about the Mahdi:
His name will be my name, and his father’s name my father’s name
Even if the entire duration of the world’s existence has already been exhausted and only one day is left before Doomsday, Allah will expand that day to such length of time as to accommodate the kingdom of a person from my Ahlul-Bayt who will be called by my name. He will fill out the earth with peace and justice as it will have been full of injustice and tyranny (by then).
- Umm Salama, a wife of Muhammad, is quoted as saying that;
His [the Mahdi’s] aim is to establish a moral system from which all superstitious faiths have been eliminated. In the same way that students enter Islam, so unbelievers will come to believe.
When the Mahdi appears, Allah will cause such power of vision and hearing to be manifested in believers that the Mahdi will call to the whole world from where he is, with no postman involved, and they will hear and even see him.
- Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri is quoted as saying:
The Messenger of ALLAH said: “He is one of us”.
The Messenger of ALLAH said: “The Mahdi is of my lineage, with a high forehead and a long, thin, curved nose. He will fill the earth with fairness and justice as it was filled with oppression and injustice, and he will rule for seven years.
The Messenger of ALLAH said: “At the end of the time of my ummah, the Mahdi will appear. ALLAH will grant him rain, the earth will bring forth its fruits, he will give a lot of money, cattle will increase and the ummah will become great. He will rule for seven or eight years.
- At-Tirmidhi reported that Muhammad said:
The Mahdi is from my Ummah; he will be born and live to rule five or seven or nine years. (If) one goes to him and says, “Give me (a charity)”, he will fill one’s garment with what one needs.
- At-Tirmidhi reported that Muhammad said:
The face of the Mahdi shall shine upon the surface of the Moon.
- At-Tarabani reported that:
His forehead will be broad and his nose will be high, his face will shine like a star and he will have a black spot on his left cheek.
- Amr bin Shuaib reported from his grandfather that the Messenger of Allah said:
In Dhu al-Qi’dah (Islamic month), there will be fight among the tribes, Muslim pilgrims will be looted and there will be a battle in Mina in which many people will be slain and blood will flow until it runs over the Jamaratul Aqba (one of the three stone pillars at Mina). The man they seek will flee and will be found between the Rukn (a corner of the Kaaba containing the Black Stone) and the Maqam of Prophet Abraham (near Ka’ba). He will be forced to accept people’s Bay’ah (being chosen as a Leader/Caliph). The number of those offering Bay’ah will be the same as the number of the people of Badr (Muslim fighters who participated in the Battle of Badr at time of Prophet Mohammad). Then, the dweller of Heaven and the dweller of the Earth will be pleased with him.
A typical modernist in his views on the Mahdi, Abul Ala Maududi (1903–1979), the Pakistani Islamic revivalist, stated that the Mahdi will be a modern Islamic reformer/statesman, who will unite the Ummah and revolutionise the world according to the ideology of Islam, but will never claim to be the Mahdi, instead receiving posthumous recognition as such.
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi writes in his Mizan:
Besides these, the coming of the Mahdi and that of Jesus from the heavens are also regarded as signs of the Day of Judgment. I have not mentioned them. The reason is that the narratives of the coming of the Mahdi do not conform to the standards of hadith criticism set forth by the muhaddithun. Some of them are weak and some fabricated; no doubt, some narratives, which are acceptable with regard to their chain of narration, inform us of the coming of a generous caliph; (Muslim, No: 7318) however, if they are deeply deliberated upon, it becomes evident that the caliph they refer to is Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz who was the last caliph from a Sunni standpoint. This prediction of the Prophet has thus materialized in his personality, word for word. One need not wait for any other Mahdi now.
Ahmed Hulusi interpreted the Mahdi as a part of the inner self. Therefore, the Mahdi awakes in a person to defeat the inner Dajjal. The Mahdi stands for attaining selflessness and realizing a person’s own existence as a part of GOD.
Twelver Shia Islam
Twelver Shi’ites (as the main branch of Shia, which consists of 85% of all Shia Muslims) claim that their twelfth Imam, Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Askari, who went into occultation around 256/873-874, is the promised Mahdi, who will appear before the day of Judgement, to restore justice and equity on earth. In Shia Islam, the Mahdi is associated with the belief in the Occultation, that the Mahdi is a “hidden Imam” who has already been born and who will one day return alongside Jesus to fill the world with justice. The promised Mahdi, who is usually mentioned in Shia Islam by his title of Imam-Al-Asr (the Imam of the “Period”) and Sahib al-Zaman (the Lord of the Age), is the son of the eleventh Imam. His name is the same as that of the Prophet of Islam. According to Shia Islam, Mahdi was born in Samarra in 868 and until 872 when his father was martyred, lived under his father’s care and tutelage. He was hidden from public view and only a few of the elite among the Shi’ah were able to meet him.
By Shi’ism, belief in the messianic Imam is not a part of their creed but it is the foundation of their creed. Shias believe that after the martyrdom of his father he became Imam and by Divine Command went into occultation (ghaybat). Thereafter he appeared only to his deputies (na’ib) and even then only in exceptional circumstances.
In Shias’ perspective, Mahdi chose as a special deputy for a time Uthman ibn Sa’id ’Umari, one of the companions of his father and grandfather who was his conﬁdant and trusted friend. Through his deputy Mahdi would answer the demands and questions of the Shias. After Uthman ibn Sa’id, his son Muhammad ibn Uthman Umari was appointed the deputy of him. After the death of Muhammad ibn Uthman, Abu’l Qasim Husayn ibn Ruh Nawbakhti was the special deputy, and after his death Ali ibn Muhammad Simmari was chosen for this task.
A few days before the death of Ali ibn Muhammad Simmari in 939 an order was issued by Mahdi stating that in six days Ali ibn Muhammad Simmari would die. Henceforth the special deputation of the Imam would come to an end and the major occultation (ghaybat-i kubra) would begin and would continue until the day GOD grants permission to the Imam to manifest himself.
In Shia view, the occultation of Mahdi is, therefore, divided into two parts: the ﬁrst, the minor occultation (ghaybat-i sughra) which began in 872 and ended in 939, lasting about seventy years; the second, the major occultation which commenced in 939 and will continue as long as God wills it. In a hadith upon whose authenticity Shia and Sunni agree, Muhammad has said, “If there were to remain in the life of the world but one day, GOD (ALLAH) would prolong that day until He sends in it a man from my community and my household. His name will be the same as my name. He will ﬁll the earth with equity and justice as it was ﬁlled with oppression and tyranny.”
Shias believe that the arrival of the Mahdi will be signalled by the following portents:
- The vast majority of people who profess to be Muslim will be so only in name despite their practice of Islamic rites, and it will be they who make war with the Mahdi.
- Before his coming will come the red death and the white death, killing two thirds of the world’s population. The red death signifies violence and the white death is plague. One third of the world’s population will die from the red death and the other third from the white death.
- Several figures will appear: the Al-Harth, Al-Mansur, Shuaib bin Saleh and the Sufyani.
- There will be a great conflict in the land of Syria, until it is destroyed.
- Death and fear will afflict the people of Baghdad and Iraq. A fire will appear in the sky and a redness will cover them.
Shia traditions also state that the Mahdi be “a young man of medium stature with a handsome face” and black hair and beard. “He will not come in an odd year […] will appear in Mecca between the corner of the Kaaba and the station of Abraham and people will witness him there.
References interpreted in hadith
- Muhammad is reported in hadith to have said:
The Mahdi is the protector of the knowledge, the heir to the knowledge of all the prophets, and is aware of all things.
The dominion (authority) of the Mahdi is one of the proofs that GOD has created all things; these are so numerous that his [the Mahdi’s] proofs will overcome (will be influential, will be dominant) everyone and nobody will have any counter-proposition against him.
People will flee from him [the Mahdi] as sheep flee from the shepherd. Later, people will begin to look for a purifier. But since they can find none to help them but him, they will begin to run to him.
When matters are entrusted to competent [the Mahdi], Almighty GOD will raise the lowest part of the world for him, and lower the highest places. So much that he will see the whole world as if in the palm of his hand. Which of you cannot see even a single hair in the palm of his hand?
In the time of the Mahdi, a Muslim in the East will be able to see his Muslim brother in the West, and he in the West will see him in the East.
The Master of the Command was named as the Mahdi because he will dig out the Torah and other heavenly books from the cave in Antioch. He will judge among the people of the Torah according to the Torah; among the people of the Gospel according to the Gospel; among the people of the Psalms in accordance with the Psalms; among the people of the Qur’an in accordance with the Qur’an.
- Ja’far al-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam, made the following prophecies:
Abu Bashir says: When I asked Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, “O son of the Messenger of GOD! Who is the Mahdi (qa’im) of your clan (ahl al-bayt)?”, he replied: “The Mahdi will conquer the world; at that time the world will be illuminated by the light of GOD, and everywhere in which those other than GOD are worshipped will become places where GOD is worshiped; and even if the polytheists do not wish it, the only faith on that day will be the religion of GOD.
Sadir al-Sayrafi says: I heard from Imam Abu Abdullah Ja’far al-Sadiq that: Our modest Imam, to whom this occultation belongs [the Mahdi], who is deprived of and denied his rights, will move among them and wander through their markets and walk where they walk, but they will not recognize him ().
Abu Bashir says: I heard Imam Muhammad al-Baqr say: “He said: When the Mahdi appears he will follow in the path of the Messenger of GOD. Only he [the Mahdi] can explain the works of the Messenger of GOD.
The face of the Mahdi shall shine upon the surface of the Moon.
According to Twelevers, the main goal of the Mahdi will be to establish an Islamic state and to apply Islamic laws that were revealed to Muhammad. The Mahdi is believed to be the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. they believe that the Twelfth Imam will return from the Occultation as the Mahdi with “a company of his chosen ones,” and his enemies will be led by Antichrist and the Sufyani. The two armies will fight “one final apocalyptic battle” where the Mahdi and his forces will prevail over evil. After the Mahdi has ruled Earth for a number of years, Isa will return.