Messianism: Messianism in the Muslim Tradition

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Islamic messianism has taken two main forms: one is the masī, or "messiah," which is the title given to the prophet ʿĪsā (Jesus) in the Qurʾān; the other is the mahdī, or the "divinely guided one." These two messianic figures are closely associated with al-masī al-dajjāl, or the "false messiah." In its most basic definition, Islamic messianism consists of the belief that at the end of time, when the world has degenerated into moral corruption and depravity, a mahdī will be sent by God to revive Islam, restore faith in God, and bring justice and prosperity to the world. The arrival of the mahdī will trigger the emergence of the dajjāl, which will in turn be followed by the return of the prophet ʿĪsā. The dajjāl will then be defeated by the mahdī, by ʿĪsā, or by both. Finally, these events will bring about the end of the world and the advent of Judgment Day. For Muslims, this doctrine is one of hope in the face of a world that at times may seem to have strayed very far from the path to God. While Islamic messianism refers primarily to the return of the mahdī, it is important to begin with the Muslim understanding of the role of ʿĪsā al-Masī (Jesus the Messiah) and his perceived relationship to the false messiah, or al-masī al-dajjāl.

ʿĪsĀ al-MasĪ (Jesus the Messiah)

In the Qurʾān and adīth, the title masī (messiah) is given to ʿĪsā (Jesus the son of Mary). In addition to countless adīth, there are nine Qurʾanic verses referring to Jesus as the messiah (3:45, 4:157, 4:171, 4:172, 5:17, 5:72, 5:75, 9:30, and 9:31). While these verses clearly refer to Jesus as the messiah, the Islamic scripture conceives of a messiah somewhat differently from the Jewish and Christian traditions. In Islam, Jesus is viewed as a Muslim prophet who was miraculously conceived and was sent to deliver the Islamic message and scripture. This view is part of the broader Muslim belief that Christianity is a divergence from the primordial Islam, which has existed since the creation of the universe.

Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet in a chain of thousands of Muslim prophets, beginning with Adam and ending with Muammad, who were sent by God to preach Islam. According to this view, Jesus is considered to be entirely human and does not share in any way in God's divinity. In fact, many of the Qurʾanic references to Jesus as the messiah specifically reject the Christian conception of the Trinity. For example, Qurʾān 4:171 states:

O people of the Book [i.e., Jews, Christian, Zoroastrians, and some other monotheists]! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of God aught but the truth. Christ [masī ] Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle [i.e., a prophet who brought scripture] of God, and His Word, which he bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in God and His apostles. Say not "Trinity"; desist: It will be better for you: for God is One God: glory be to Him: (Far Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is God as a Disposer of affairs. (Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation)

While Muslims consider Jesus to be one of many prophets, he is still viewed as a somewhat unique prophet. Like Muammad, Abraham, Moses, and David, Jesus is one of the few prophets who brought actual scripture, rather than merely being divinely inspired to preach God's word. Unlike other prophets, Jesus is also believed to be returning at the end of time. However, since Muammad is universally accepted as the final prophet, Jesus' mission is not understood to be a prophetic mission in the strict sense of the term. Rather, Jesus is believed to be returning for a specific purpose, which is to bring justice to the world by reaffirming God's religion on earth and by destroying the false messiah, either by himself or in cooperation with the mahdī, thus paving the way for the end of the world and the coming of the Day of Judgment. In some traditions the concepts of masī and mahdī have been conflated, but the majority of Muslims make a clear distinction between the two. Jesus is viewed as a prophet who is returning for a specific purpose. The mahdī, on the other hand, is not represented as a prophet at all. Rather, he is viewed as a divinely guided man with a religious mission, but not a prophet. For example, it is not believed that he will bring any new scripture.

This conception of the return of Jesus is based primarily upon adīth and popular religious beliefs. For example, in one adīth the prophet Muammad is reported to have said "[Jesus the] son of Mary will shortly descend among you people (Muslims) as a just ruler" (Bukhārī, 3.34.425). In another adīth Muammad explains:

The dajjāl will appear in my ummah [i.e., Muslims] and he will stay (in the world) for fortyI cannot say whether he meant forty days, forty months, or forty years. And Allāh will then send Jesus son of Mary who will resemble ʿUrwah ibn Masʿūd. He (Jesus) will seek him out and kill him. Then people will live for seven years in which there will be no conflict between any two people. (Muslim, 41.7023)

Al-MasĪ al-DajjĀl (The False Messiah)

The false messiah, or al-masī al-dajjāl, is portrayed by Muslims as an evil but powerful human being, with a blind right eye that protrudes like a grape. He symbolically represents everything that is evil in human nature, namely greed, atheism, arrogance, malice, tyranny, and deception. For Muslims, his appearance serves as a test of faith in this world, because his power and ability to seduce the hearts of humanity is supposed to separate pious believers from "those who are more concerned with this world than with the next." It is believed that he will come to oppress humanity and to spread disbelief by trying to convince people to worship him as a god. In one adīth the prophet Muammad is quoted as saying:

He (the dajjāl) will be a young man with twisted, curly hair, and a blind eyehe will appear somewhere between Syria and Iraq and will spread mischief right and leftWe said: "Allāh's messenger, how long will he stay? He saidFor forty days, one day like a year, and one day like a month and one day like a week and the rest of the days would be like your days." He went on to explain how the dajjāl will oppress humanity and try to lead people away from faith. Then he said "and it will be at this very time that Allāh will send the messiah, Jesus son of Mary, and he will descend at the white minaret in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron, while placing his hands on the wings of two AngelsHe will then search for him (dajjāl) until he will catch hold of him at the gate of Ludd and will kill him." (Muslim, 41.7015)

The MahdĪ

Although Muslims consider Jesus to be the messiah, the focal point of messianism among Muslims is not Jesus. Rather, it is the mahdī (the guided one). The term mahdī in this context is also understood to mean that he will guide Muslims. Its grammatical function is therefore simultaneously active and passive. While mahdī has always been a common Muslim name, when used in the context of religious doctrine it has a very specific meaning. The doctrine of the mahdī is based on adīth and popular consensus, rather than the Qurʾān. The following are two samples of such adīth : "[Muammad] said 'There will be a caliph in the last (period) of my ummah who will freely give handfuls of wealth to the people without counting it'" (Muslim, 41.6961). This adīth is understood by many to refer to the mahdī. Another adīth states, "The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: 'The mahdī 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 [previously] was filled with oppression and tyranny, and he will rule for seven years'" (Abū Dāʾūd, bk. 36, no. 4272).

Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) gives an account of the doctrine during his time:

It has been well known (and generally accepted) by all Muslims in every epoch, that at the end of time a man from the family (of the Prophet) will without fail make his appearance, one who will strengthen Islam and make justice triumph. Muslims will follow him, and he will gain domination over the Muslim realm. He will be called the mahdī. Following him, the antichrist [al-masī al-dajjāl ] will appear, together with all the subsequent signs of the hour (the Day of Judgment), as established in (the sound tradition of) aī [adīth ; afterwards, the mahdī ] ʿ Īsā (Jesus) will descend and kill the antichrist. Or, Jesus will descend together with the mahdī, and help him kill (the antichrist), and have him as the leader in his prayers. Such statements have been found in the traditions [adīth ] that religious leaders have published. They have been (critically) discussed by those who disapprove of (the matter) and have often been refuted by means of certain (other) traditionsa number of leaders have published traditions [adīth ] concerning the mahdī, among them at-Tirmidhī, Abū Dāʾūd, al-Bazzār, Ibn Mājah, al-akīm, al-Tabarānī, and Abū Yaʾlā al-Mawsilī. (Ibn Khaldūn, The Muqaddimah, 1958, pp. 156157)

The concept of the mahdī has evolved over the centuries, but there are several basic characteristics of the doctrine that are common to most definitions. Most Muslims believe that a descendant of the Prophet will return at the end of time, when the world has descended into moral depravity, to revive and restore both his community and the religion of God. It is also believed that he will spread prosperity and goodwill. He is usually described as being a handsome young man with long dark hair, a broad forehead, and a high and prominent nose. He is usually considered to be a descendant of the Prophet. It is often believed that in the process of uniting Muslims and the whole world, he will defeat the Rūm (Romans, Greeks, etc.) and will conquer Jerusalem and Constantinople. Some believe that he will make himself first appear in the Levant, while others claim that he will come from Mecca or even Khorasan in northeastern Iran.

The role of the mahdī is closely linked to two concepts in Islam: ilā (to reform Islam through purification) and tajdīd (to renew or revive Islam). Both concepts encompass the basic Muslim conception of reform, correction, or purification of the faith. Ilā is mentioned in the Qurʾān, whereas tajdīd is based on interpretations of adīth. The core principles in these doctrines is that the Muslim community, which is always in danger of straying from the commandments of God and the examples set by the prophet Muammad, must continually be reformed and revived. The primary method for realizing such reforms is to expunge heretical elements from the faith. Reform, therefore, equals purification. For example, if cultural or regional customs enter into the faith (as they usually do), these are often criticized by Muslims as "heretical innovations" (bidʿah ). Likewise, when people convert from another religion to Islam, they sometimes carry over their previous beliefs and practices. All these are labeled as bidʿah, and are condemned. It is not surprising that accusations of bidʿah have always been among the more common tactics used by Muslims in sectarian, ideological, and political polemics. Sectarian views that are regarded as heresies are often dealt with in the same way, by labeling their doctrines as bidʿah, and calling for the need to purge Islam of these heretical innovations.

In its most general sense, tajdīd and ilā are considered to be the duty of every Muslim. However, in the more specific doctrinal sense, it is believed that this sort of reform should be carried out by a religious leader who is supposed to come at certain intervals (usually once per century) to revive and purify Islam. As one would expect, different groups of Muslims have normally disagreed on exactly who these leaders are, based on sectarian, ideological, and political divisions. For example, al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), whose views were often diametrically opposed to one another, have both been referred to as mujaddids (tajdīd reformers). The mahdī is often treated as a special type of mujaddid in that much greater success, power, and influence are attributed to him, and he is divinely guided in a supernatural way. In fact, in some traditions, the mahdī is considered to be the last in a chain of mujaddids. The fact that he is singled out for mention by the Prophet gives him an added symbolic significance. Most importantly, Muslims believe that he will help to bring about the changes that will set the stage for the end of the world and bring about the Day of Judgment. This gives him a much more specific and important eschatological function compared to other mujaddids.

The title mahdī has also been used by some Muslims to refer to such early Muslim leaders as Abū Bakr, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaāb, ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, and ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib (these four caliphs, who ruled from 632 to 661, were sometimes collectively referred to as al-Khulafāʾal-Rāshidīn al-Mahdīyyīn). The title mahdī has also been used to refer to usayn ibn ʿAlī (d. 680), the Umayyad caliph ʿUmar II (d. 720), and ʿAlī's son by a anafī woman, Muammad ibn al-anafīyah (d. 700). Several Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fāimid caliphs were also referred to as mahdī. In fact, the term mahdī was used often during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods as a polemical device to legitimize a wide variety of religious leaders.

The most dynamic period of Muslim history with regard to the concept of the mahdī is without a doubt the seventh century (especially following the Battle of Karbala in 680) through the twelfth century. The main reason for this is the relative diversity of religious views during this period. The wide variety of heterodox views that proliferated during these centuries, along with the ideological civil wars that were underway, provided an ideal environment in which political and religious leaders were considered to be the mahdī. In many cases these early mahdīs were Shīʿī leaders of various sorts, like Muammad ibn al-anafīyah, his son Abū Hāshim (d. 717), Mūsá Kādhim (d. 799), and others. However, some of these early mahdīs were associated with the Sunnī community, such as Umayyad caliph ʿUmar the II; the founder of the ʿAbbāsid dynasty, al-Saffā (d. 754); and other Abbasid caliphs. (For a detailed discussion of these early uses of the term mahdī, see Madelung, 1986.)

One of the most significant divisions among Muslims on the doctrine of the mahdī is between Shīʿah and Sunnīs. The primary difference between the Sunnī definition of the mahdī and the Shīʿī view is his identity, and by extension his sectarian affiliation. Generally, the Twelver Shīʿah consider the mahdī to be a vanished imām who will return at some future time. While Sunnīs and Shīʿah generally accept that the mahdī will reward the faithful and punish the wicked, for most Shīʿah the mahdī will also vindicate the Shīʿī cause by showing Sunnīs and other non-Shīʿah the errors of their ways, thus reaffirming Shiism and the doctrine of the imāmat.

A typical adīth, attributed to the first imām, ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, sums up the Shīʿī doctrine:

Soon God shall bring forth a group whom He Loves and they too are His lovers and the one who is like a stranger amongst them shall take over the Government. Verily, he shall be the 'MAHDĪ'; his face rosy and hair golden in color. He will fill the earth with justice without any difficulty. In his very childhood, he shall get separated from his mother and father and from the viewpoint of training he shall be rare and matchless. He shall rule over the Muslim countries with utmost calm and security and time shall be favorable and friendly toward him. His words will be accepted; the young and the old shall humbly obey him. He shall fill the earth with Justice just as it had previously been filled with oppression. Then, at that moment his imāmat shall reach its perfection and Viceregency will be established for him. Moreover, Allāh will make the dead to rise from their graves and return them back to this world. Then, like people who get up from their sleep, they shall see nothing but their own houses. The land will flourish and by blessing of his [i.e., mahdī's ] existence, it shall become fresh and fruitful. Seditions and disturbances shall vanish and blessings and welfare will increase manifold. (adr Ifahānī, 1994, pp. 3940)

While Shīʿah and Sunnīs have historically disagreed on the identity of the mahdī, they have agreed on many of the basic details surrounding his return. For example, they generally accept that the mahdī will be a descendant of the Prophet who returns at the end of time, when corruption and tyranny are widespread, in order to spread justice and renew Islam. Shīʿah have relied on both Shīʿī and Sunnī adīth to articulate their definition of the mahdī. For example, the prominent Shīʿī scholar adrudīn adr Ifahānī, in his book Al-Mahdī (1994), quotes Sunnī adīth from Abū Dāʾūd, Tirmidhī, Amad ibn anbal, and Ibn Majah in which the Prophet is quoted as saying: "If there remains not more than a day from the life of the earth, indeed God shall make a person from my progeny to appear" (p. 33). He also quotes another adīth of Amad ibn anbal: "Qiyāmat shall not be established until the earth is filled with cruelty and oppression. Then a person from my progeny shall appear and fill it with equity and Justice" (p. 33).

However, since Shīʿī groups have different definitions of the imamate, they also differ on the identity of the mahdī. For example, the most widespread Shīʿī group, called the Ithnā ʿasharīs (Twelvers) or Imāmīs, believe that the mahdī will be the twelfth imām Muammad al-Mahdī, who was believed to have gone into occultation in 874. For other Shīʿah, the mahdī is (or was) believed to be a different imām, such as ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, usayn ibn ʿAlī, asan al-ʿAskarī, Jaʿfar al-ādiq, Ismāʿīl ibn Jaʿfar, Mūsá al-Kāim, Muammad ibn al-anafīyah, the imāms of the Fāimid dynasty, or other imāms.

The earliest historical record we have of a clearly Shīʿī conception of the mahdī was shortly after the massacre at Karbala of the Prophet's grandson usayn along with his family in 680. This traumatic event inspired many Muslims to call for an uprising of someone from the Prophet's progeny to take vengeance on the Umayyad regime. It was within this context that in 685 to 687 Mukhtār led an uprising in the name of usayn's half brother, Muammad ibn al-Hanafīyah. He said: "Al-Mahdī Muammad ibn ʿAlī [i.e., ibn al-anafīyah], the son of the Wāī, sent me to you as his trusted man, minister, and chosen supporter, and as his commander. He ordered me to fight against he blasphemers and claim vengeance for the blood of the people of his House, the excellent ones" (Jafrī, 1979, p. 262). Eventually, Mukhtār and his follows were killed, but once Muammad ibn al-anafīyah died he was considered by many to have gone into occultation. Following this precedent, several Shīʿī claimants emerged, and others were given the title with or without their own acknowledgement.

Another variation on the mahdī doctrine is the ūfī view, which stresses the mystical lineage of the mahdī and his role as ūfī master. Overall, the ūfī view does not fundamentally differ from the views articulated by other Muslims, except in one very important respect. Whereas the Sunnīs expect the return of a pious Muslim reformer, and Shīʿah expect the return of a vanished imām, the ūfīs generally expect the mahdī to be the final link in a long change of masters and disciples in the ūfī tradition. In that sense, this continuous chain or lineage begins with Muammad and ends with the mahdī. The mahdī is therefore viewed as the final and most perfect ūfī master, who is able to guide Muslims to God. As the "divinely guided guide of humanity" he will occupy a place between the believers and God. This is not to say that the mahdī will be divine in any way. Rather, it is to say that he will serve as the axis of human faith in God, or stated differently, he will serve as a doorway of sorts on the path to God.

It is not surprising that throughout Muslim history there have been numerous political and religious leaders who either claimed to be the mahdī, or were considered by others to be the mahdī. These mahdist movements usually have involved a combination of charismatic leadership, religious reformism, and revivalism, and some sort of military struggle, either against non-Muslims or against Muslim leaders who were deemed to be morally corrupt. One interesting historical trend is that for Shīʿah the mahdī rebellions tended to be restricted to the early centuries of their movements, at a time when Shīʿī doctrines were more heterodox than orthodox. There are some later exceptions to this general rule, such as Ismāʿīl Safavī's (d. 1524) mahdist claims in the fifteenth century. Ismāʿīl was accepted as a messianic figure by his tribal followers, the Qizilbāsh, who have been accused by some of going so far as to deify him. While Ismāʿīl and his followers were technically Shīʿī, his movement was based more on a particular strain of rural ūfī beliefs that tended toward Shiism. His military successes helped to bolster his religious legitimacy. However, after the Safavid Empire was established in 1501, the state shifted toward orthodox Shīʿī doctrine, according to which he could not be considered a messianic figure.

While for Sunnīs, mahdist movements have not been particularly widespread, they have occurred throughout Islamic history. In fact, mahdist movements continued to emerge as late as the early modern period, after which there was a noticeable reduction in the frequency of their occurrence. Often these movements had roots in Sufism. The most famous mahdist movement in recent history occurred in the Sudan in the 1880s. A local ūfī leader named Muammad Amad declared himself the mahdī in 1881. His movement was centered on a rejection of the religious legitimacy of the Egyptian Ottoman rulers, whom he accused of straying from Islam by tolerating (or even promoting) gambling, prostitution, music, dancing, and the drinking of alcohol. His followers were called the Anār, and they believed that his military successes were due to divine intervention. The state he established in Khartoum lasted until 1899. This movement was in many ways typical of Sunnī mahdist movements in that it was built around a charismatic leader who took up a local political cause by pursuing armed struggle against the state. It was also similar to many mahdist movements in that it was at the political periphery of the empire and was associated with rural Sufism and heterodox Islam.

In recent decades, the use of the mahdī doctrine in political discourse has been less common. One of the reasons for this has been the relative displacement of traditional popular religious ideals by modernist religious orthodox sentiments. Muslim political movements have tended toward orthodox legalism, which is usually hostile to Sufism, Shiism, and popular Islam. A similar trend in orthodox Shiism can be seen, because anyone who claims to be the mahdī would necessarily have to be the vanished imām as well.

See Also

Eschatology, article on Islamic Eschatology; Modernism, article on Islamic Modernism; Nubūwah.


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