By: Yasser Ahme
The belief in the coming of a Saviour to spread peace and justice in a fallen world is common to all Abrahamic religions. Yasser Ahmed discusses his place and role in Islamic eschatology
The conflict between the forces of good and evil is a perennial one. Divine providence has naturally sided with the forces of righteousness by sending prophets to mankind with guidance and to lead the struggle against the forces of wickedness. This confrontation is described in the Qur'an: "For every prophet we have made a number of adversaries among the wrongdoers". (25:31)
God has ordained that Muhammad(s) shall be the seal of the prophets and that no prophet will be chosen after him and no revelation will be sent down after the Qur'an. The path laid down by the Prophet was followed by Imams, scholars and reformers who sought to reform mankind and preserve the faith from corruption and deviation, a task which met with opposition from the forces of evil. But since they adhered to the faith they were certain that they would ultimately triumph over evil, as the following verse indicates: "The earth will be inherited by my righteous worshippers". (21:105)
The materialisation of this promise goes hand in hand with the coming of the Mahdi(a).
Accounts in the traditions of Muslims of various sects foretell the coming of the Mahdi, a figure who will reform human society after it has become infested with wickedness and evil. This belief is shared by all Muslims, although they may disagree on the Mahdi's identity.
The belief in the Mahdi, 'the Awaited One', is not only an essential doctrine deep-rooted in Islam but it is also an embodiment of human nature regardless of one's religious affiliations. For the Mahdi(a) personifies the universal desire of humans as a whole to try to achieve or at least witness the realisation of perfection and social happiness on this earth.
The centrality of the Mahdi(a) in Islamic eschatology and his importance in rallying the faithful against evil has been a powerful enough motif to inspire many Muslim leaders to claim the title. Unfortunately the detailed descriptions of the Mahdi and his endeavours in Islamic traditions leave little room for deviation, ensuring that false claimants have been easily exposed. There have been at least seven well-known claims to the title across the Islamic world; from Ibn Tumart (d.1130 CE) in Morocco to Mehmet (d.1930 CE) of Republican Turkey . According to Islamic traditions the Mahdi(a) will be very similar in appearance, conduct and action to his great great....grandfather the Prophet Muhammad(s).
In the light of the Qur'an and sayings of the Prophet(s), the Shi'a make it clear that the Mahdi(a) is none other than the twelfth and last Imam of the House of the Prophet, bearing the same name as the Prophet(s) and is connected to his great ancestor by an unbroken chain of successors. He is the executor of a Divine Mission.
"There will be twelve leaders (khulafa) after me, all of them from the tribe of Quraysh", said the Prophet Muhammad(s). (Ahmad ibn Hanbal) A thorough examination of the history of Islam clarifies any doubt about the significance of the word khulafa as used by the Prophet(s) in the above radition. This could not have referred to those leaders who exercised temporal power a few generations after him and who were worlds apart from the example set by the Prophet Muhammad(s).
In this hadith, there are strong indications that the Prophet was referring to particular individuals who came from the same branch of the Quraysh tribe, to which he himself belonged. Furthermore, throughout Prophetic history, there is a clear pattern of the involvement of families of previous prophets in assisting them in their divine missions. In the case of the Prophet Muhammad(s) his close family and progeny known as the Ahl ul-Bayt (the People of the House) also have a role to play in supporting the mission of the Last Prophet(s).
Abu Dawud, the compiler of one of the six prominent Sunni books of traditions, collectively known under the name Sihah al-Sitta (the six sound collections), reports the following saying of the Prophet: "God will bring a man of my progeny, whose name will be my own name, and fill the earth with justice and harmony, where tyranny and oppression have overpowered".
The compilers of Islamic traditions, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah and others have also reported the traditions concerning the Mahdi, who claims to belong to the Ahl ul Bayt(a), and is a descendant of the Prophet's daughter Fatima az-Zahra(a).
They also agree that the Prophet Jesus(a), to whom the Qur'an refers to as 'alive', also reappears at the end of time to support the Mahdi(a) in the fight against impiety.
While the majority of Muslims believe that the Mahdi is yet to be born, there are those who have identified the Mahdi in the person of the son of Imam Hasan al-Askari, the eleventh Imam of the House of the Prophet. According to the Shi'a, the Mahdi was born on the fifteenth of Sha'ban in the year 255 after Hijrah. His birth was kept secret since the authorities of the time were actively seeking to execute him. The circumstances of his birth were therefore very similar to those of the Prophet Moses(a) who was also the subject of a search by the authorities of his time. The Pharaoh of the time was well aware of the prophecy that a child would grow up to prevail over him and replace this with the belief in the one true God. Similarly the Abbasid Caliphs at the time of Imam Hasan al-Askari were well aware of the Mahdi(a) and how he would fill the world with justice and truth after it had been filled with injustice and falsehood.
Only God possesses the knowledge of the timing of the Mahdi's advent. However in order to prepare for his arrival, we should endeavour to prepare ourselves by nourishing our souls with the Divine light and making them the abode for God and his beloved angels. Spiritual perfection should be our goal. The thought of the Mahdi's coming has inspired the virtuous to struggle for the good of humanity at all times. Like many generations before us we can only speculate on the final appearance of the Mahdi(a) and hope that we will be the generation to witness God's promise of a better world.
The traditions tell us that before achieving this, the world will be riven with conflicts and that the Mahdi will have to assert himself by force, not for the sake of authority, but in order to remove obstacles that prevent him from being recognised.
The Mahdi's authority cannot be based on coercion but on a wilful acceptance by the people. Such acceptance can only come once the veils of ignorance are removed and true reality made manifest. This will be his greatest and most difficult task. And this is why it is our duty to remember him and assist him with our prayers and actions from now until his appearance.
Originally published in islam today magazine UK, issue 8 | June 2013. It has been republished here with permission.