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Imam Mahdi(as) in Shia and Sunni Beliefs

Concerning the Mahdi, the Qur’an does not mention him explicitly, either by name or by description. The time of his reappearance is also not mentioned.

According to the Shi’ites, the reason for this is that the Qur’an is not a historical or political treatise addressing a specific readership or community or affecting a particular period in the history of mankind; rather, it is a universal discourse addressed to the whole of mankind from the dawn of humanity until the Day of Judgement.

In fact, the Qur’an also makes reference to certain events in the future and to the end of time: the victory of Good over Evil in the world, and the coming to power of the Righteous over their oppressors. Also, the Qur’an alludes several times, albeit indirectly, to the society’s need for the Mahdi and his government.

Messianism in Islam

According to the New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Messianism may be described in general terms as an ideology consisting of a complex of ideas, doctrines, attitudes, and expectations which, at a particular moment in history and as a result of a specific configuration of facts, has the potential to materialize in a Messianic movement with a markedly eschatological or Utopian revolutionary character and message.

Messianism, which tends to develop in conditions of frustration, stress and suffering, includes both a negative evaluation of the present as well as a hope and expectancy that the time process will bring about a major change for the better, leading either to the restoration of a past golden age or to the creation of a new one. Although Messianism both as ideology and as movement is not necessarily centered upon a Messianic figure, Messianic movements are usually initiated by a charismatic personality.

Messianism is a widespread ideology present among people from all kinds of cultural and religious background. As A.A. Sachedina states: “The notion of an expected deliverer who is to come… and establish the rule of justice and equity on earth, is shared by all major religions in the world. Jews, Christians, or Zoroastrians who at different times were subjected to the rules of those who did not share their religious heritage, cherished their traditions concerning a Messiah or Saoshyant of a divinely chosen line.”

Also Shari’ati in his Expectation: a School of Protest, acknowledges that the “yearning instinct” for a saviour is a universal phenomenon in all human cultures and that Islamic yearning for the Mahdi is identical to the expectation in Christianity of Christ’s second coming and to a universal hope for establishing a “golden age”.

The similarity of this ideology in all religions and the question of its origin often leads to studies and conclusions on the influence of one religion on another as regards the Messianism issue. For example, we find studies about the Jewish influence upon Christian and Islamic Messianism or Persian and Zoroastrian influence on Jewish, Christian or Muslim apocalypticism, Messianism and eschatology.

In modern scholarship, these conclusions are a subject of controversy. In fact, the sheer extent of belief in this ideology would seem to reflect the universality and innateness of humanity’s hope for a better future.

In the Islamic context, Messianism is emblemized by the eschatological figure of the Mahdi who, it is believed, will rise to restore the purity of the faith and to create an ideal religio- political system under a just social and legal order, a world free from oppression in which the Islamic Revelation will be the norm for all nations.

However, it is difficult to discuss Messianism as a concept within the Islamic faith in general without first considering it separately within the two main branches of Islam, Sunnism and Shi’ism, as the dimensions, the functions and the importance of this ideology vary between them.

Mahdi in Sunnism

Al-Mahdi, “The Rightly Guided One”, is the name given to the restorer of religion and justice who, according to a widely held Muslim belief, will rule before the end of the world. The term Mahdi as such does not occur in the Qur’an but is derived from the Arabic root h-d-y commonly used in the Qur’an with the meaning of divine guidance.

During the Second Civil War, after the death of Mu’awia, the term first came to be used for an expected ruler who could restore Islam to its original perfection. Among religious scholars, discussions about the Mahdi and his identity can be traced back to that time. These discussions developed in different directions and influenced later beliefs about the Mahdi to varying degrees.

There are a number of differences between the two main branches of Islam as to the conception of the creed in the final restorer. According to the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, the status of the Mahdi awaited by the Sunnites is different from that of the twelfth Imam awaited by the Shi’ites. The essence of Sunnite Islam is that the Muslim people will accede to self-rule, attaining a state of truth and certitude through their own exertions.

The idea of an absolute Mahdi as an infallible guide is therefore rejected by Sunni theologians. The Sunnites, in fact, expect the Mahdi to be the ultimate Caliph of the Prophet and to spread justice throughout the Earth. They do not believe in the future restorer as one of the fundamental principles of faith, as do the Shi’ites.

Furthermore, a minority among the Sunnites do not accept that the Restorer will be called Mahdi and, indeed, entertain doubts as to his existence. The Encyclopaedia of Islam asserts that: “Lingering doubts concerning the Mahdi may partly account for the absence of any traditions about him in the Sahihs of al-Bukhari (810/870 AH) and Muslim (817/875 AH).” “There is no mention of the Mahdi in either of the two Sahih’s of Muslim or Bukhari”.

There are also controversial discussions about whether the idea of Messianism rightly belongs to Islam or not. Some claim that the idea of Messianism is not Islamic. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica says that “Islam is not a Messianic religion and has no room for a Saviour-Messiah.”

Riffat Hasan supports this thesis and states that: “Messianism appears to be incompatible with the teachings of the Qur’an, nonetheless in the Muslim world it is a widespread phenomenon, playing a pivotal role in the lives of many present-day Muslims from all segments of society.”

Also: “Normative Islam as embodied in the Qur’an does not support the idea of Messianism in any of its forms, while Messianism is an essential part of religious belief and practice for almost all Shi’a Muslims. Shi’a Messianism does not fit theologically or logically into the framework of normative Islam.”

Riffat Hasan also relies on Fazlur Rahman’s comments showing that Messianism was not a part of original Islam. He stated: “As for Messianism, it was originally adopted in Islam either by Shi’ism or Sufism, but in any case it came to Sunni Islam through the Sufis or rather through the precursors of the Sufis – the public preachers of the 2nd/8th century who consoled and satisfied the politically disillusioned and morally starved masses by holding out Messianic hopes.”

These discussions are ongoing even though the belief in the Mahdi is essentially Islamic and is widely accepted among scholars and ordinary Muslims. Even though it is not an essential part of the Sunni creed, it is accorded widespread belief among this community. Indeed, early Sunni sources record several traditions from the Prophet about the appearance and attributes of the Mahdi.

These traditions are designated as Mutawatir, meaning that they have been reported from the Prophet successively by so many different unbroken chains of transmission and such a number of narrators in every generation that it would be virtually impossible to fabricate their existence without such fabrication becoming known.

The verses of the Qur’an concerning the Mahdi have also been interpreted by numerous traditions through Sunni chains of transmission, as will be seen in the third chapter. There are many other important terms and practices widely accepted by the Sunnis but that are not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. The authenticity or otherwise of the traditions of classical and post-classical collections of hadith are open to discussion as regards all fields of Islamic thought, not only on the subject of the Mahdi.

Moreover, despite the absence of the term “Mahdi”, both the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions (hadith) in the two Sahihs provide strong grounds for expecting the appearance of someone who, both through thought