views updated May 23 2018


The Mahdi, meaning "the guided one," is the honorary title of the expected deliverer or messianic figure in Islam. Although the term and concept is not found in the Qur˒an, both Sunni and Shi˓a hadith collections mention it among the prophetic traditions concerning crises (fitan). These traditions often contain eschatological material, and frequently speak of a figure who will come at the end of time to combat the forces of evil led by the one-eyed Dajjal. This righteous individual is said to be one who "will fill the earth with justice after it has been filled with injustice and tyranny." The Mahdi's coming will lead the forces of good in a final apocalyptic battle, where the good will triumph. Jesus will also return to earth at this time, according to some reports, and fight alongside the Mahdi or rule after him. All of these events are predicted to take place shortly before Judgment Day.

In Twelver Shi˓ite Islam, due to the community's minority status and continuing sense of persecution and injustice, the Mahdi symbol developed into a powerful and central religious idea and became combined with the figure of the last of the twelve Imams, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is believed to have disappeared around 874. He was born in Samarra, son of Hasan al-Askari and the lady Nargis. He is also known as the ruler of the time (sahib al-zaman), the one who will restore justice (qa˒im), and the awaited one (al-muntazar).

Lists of the qualities of the expected one were drawn up, including his name being Muhammad, his descent from the Prophet, his appearance (zuhur) or rising, his rule (for either seven, nine, or nineteen years), and his mission to restore justice on earth. After the last imam disappeared as a child, Shi ite sources identified a lesser occultation (disappearance) of some seventy years, during which a series of four deputies was said to have consulted with him. After that time, the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam, entered the greater occultation that is still in force, remaining alive but not meeting with representatives. The fact that Shi˓ite religious scholars are believed to continue to receive his blessings and guidance gives them a greater charisma and authority than their Sunni counterparts. Shi˓ite political theory traditionally declared all temporal power illegitimate in the absence of the imam, only recently allowing the concept of a caretaker government of religious authorities (wilayat al-faqih) that underlies today's Islamic republic in Iran.

Claimants to the role of the Mahdi have not been absent from Islamic history. The first was Muhammad al-Hanifiyya (d. 700), son of ˓Ali from a wife other than Fatima, whose role as the Mahdi was promoted by al-Mukhtar (d. 687). Although al-Mukhtar was killed and his movement crushed, ideas that Muhammad al-Hanafiyya did not die and would one day return continued to circulate and later attached themselves to subsequent imams. More recent claimants have arisen in both Shi˓a and Sunni contexts, including Muhammad Mahdi of Jaunpur in India (d. 1504), whose followers continue as a separate Muslim sect, the Mahdavis, and the Sudanese Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885), who rose against the British occupiers and was killed at the battle of Omdurman. Contemporary Islamist or Sufi movements may occasionally evoke the anticipated return of the Mahdi as a means of encouraging millenarian expectations among their followers. In Shi˓a Islam, expectation and eager anticipation of the Mahdi's return is a central theme of piety and discourse.

See alsoFitna ; Hadith ; Imam ; Mahdist State, Mahdiyya ; Religious Beliefs ; Shi˓a: Early ; Shi˓a: Imami (Twelver) .


Blichfeldt, Jan-Olaf. Early Mahdism: Politics and Religion in theFormative Period of Islam. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985.

Sachedina Abdulaziz, Islamic Messianism. Albany: State University of New York, 1981.

Marcia Hermansen


views updated May 18 2018


Arabic term for the redeemer or messiah.

In Arabic, the term al-mahdi means "the guided one." For Islam, the term developed through medieval Shiʿite thought into a concept charged with genealogical, eschatological (referring to the end of the world), and political significance. By the eighth century, the mahdi would be characterized as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, whose appearance as the redeemer, or messiah (from Hebrew mashiah, the anointed), presaged the end of the world and all earthly political and religious corruption.

Today, in Iraq and Iran, and in portions of Arabia and the gulf, the Shiʿa branch of Islam is represented by Twelver Shiʿites, who believe in the return of the hidden twelfth descendant of Muhammad as the mahdi. Until he reappears, Twelver Shiʿites believe that only their mujtahids (an elite group among their religious learned) have the power as the mahdi 's intermediaries to interpret the faith.

The concept of the mahdi is not central to the beliefs of Sunni Islam, but it has popular appeal. In 1881, Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885) claimed to be the mahdi and led an uprising in the Sudan that outlasted him and was not put down by the British until 1898. Mahdism inspired unrest during the nineteenth century in both West and North Africa. In 1849, Bu Zian led a revolt in Algeria against taxation and the French occupation in the name of the mahdi.

see also ahmad, muhammad; shiʿism; sunni islam.


Sachedina, Abdulaziz Abdulhussein. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdī in Twelver Shīʿism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

denise a. spellberg


views updated May 21 2018

Mahdi in popular Muslim belief, a spiritual and temporal leader who will rule before the end of the world and restore religion and justice. Not part of orthodox doctrine, the concept of such a figure was introduced into popular Islam through Sufi channels influenced by Christian doctrine. Notable among those claiming to be this leader was Muhammad Ahmad of Dongola in Sudan (1843–85), whose revolutionary movement captured Khartoum and overthrew the Egyptian regime.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Mahdi (Arabic, ‘Rightly Guided One’) Messianic Islamic leader. The title usually refers to Muhammad Ahmad (1844–85) of the Sudan, who declared himself the Mahdi in 1881, and led the attack on Khartoum (1885) in which British General Charles George Gordon died. The Mahdi set up a great Islamic empire with its capital at Omdurman. His reign lasted only about six months. The British eventually defeated his followers at Omdurman in 1898.


views updated May 29 2018


Arabic for "the Guided One." The title given the expected deliverer or messianic figure in Islam.

The term and concept are from Muslim eschatological tradition, both Sunni and Shiʿa, rather than from the Qurʾan. False Mahdis have sometimes arisen at times of crisis in Muslim history. The concept is not current in modern mainstream Sunni Islam, but is sometimes made use of by radical Islamist or Sufi movements to motivate their followers. In Shiʿa Islam anticipation of the Mahdi's arrival is a standard component of pious belief.


views updated Jun 11 2018

mahdi spiritual and temporal leader expected by Muslims. XVIII. — Arab. mahdīy ‘he who is guided right’, pp. of hadā lead in the right way.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Mahdī (the awaited Imām): see AL-MAHDĪ.