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al-Mahdī (Arab., ‘the guided one’). In Sunni Islam, one who receives guidance from God (God is al-Hādī, the Guide, Qurʾān 22. 54; 25. 31). The term may apply to figures in the past (e.g. the first four caliphs; see KHALĪFA; cf. ARRĀSHIDŪN), or to those who revive Islam, but more often it refers to a future, eschatological figure, who will come to herald in the end of all things.

In Shīʿa Islam, even stronger beliefs surrounding al-Mahdī as the hidden Imām, who will emerge at the end of time, developed among the Twelvers (Ithna ʿAshariy(y)a). The twelfth Imām, ʿAli ibn Muḥammad Simmarī, was born in Samarraʾ in 869 (AH 255). On the death of his father in AH 260, he became Imām but was kept in seclusion (the first so-called occultation, ghaiba, ghaibat-i-sughra), being seen (if at all) on rare occasions only by senior figures. He answered questions through a succession of deputies (wakīl). Shortly before the death of the fourth wakīl in 939 (AH 329), it was announced that there would be no further Imām, that the major occultation would occur (ghaibat-i-kubra), and that the Imām would remain hidden until God gave him permission to manifest himself. Meanwhile, the hidden Imām gives guidance, hears prayers, and intercedes. al-Mahdī is also known as Imām-i-ʿAṣr (the Imām of the Period), al-Muntazar (the Awaited), and Ṣāḥib al-Zamān (the Lord of the Age). See also MUḤAMMAD AḤMAD (the Mahdi of the Sudan).