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Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi’ism

For more than a millenium the idea of the future coming of the Mandi has provided Shi’i piety with a unique aspiration in the redemption through the appearance of the twelfth Imam.

Modern western scholars have written virtually nothing on the subject of the Mandi idea in Imamite Shi’ism, and this became a motive behind the present work which grew out of a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Toronto in 1976. I felt it necessary to examine the vast literature on this subject and make my findings available for other scholars without losing sight of the rigorous demands of modern scholarship. The extent to which I have been able to achieve this purpose was due in large measure to the assistance I have received from my professors and from many friends and colleagues in Toronto, Mashhad in Iran and Najaf in Iraq.

In recent years the general reader will have seen much about Iranian Muslims, who follow a particular branch of Shi’ite Islam, which maintains belief in the appearance of a messianic savior from among the descendants of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. The essence of Shi’ite Islam is a chiliastic vision of history expressed in terms of radical social protest in the face of political oppression. The Shi’i expectation for the end of tyranny and wickedness through the establishment of justice by a descendant of the Prophet means not merely a hope for a better future, but also a re-evaluation of present social and historic life. Current social and political circumstances are expected to change for the better in the light of what is going to happen when the Savior of Islam appears. It is the study of the key concept of the Savior Imam, the Mahdi (divinely guided), as taught by the Imamite or Twelver Shi’is (believers in the line of twelve Imams) with which we shall be concerned in this book. The notion of an expected deliverer, who is to come and humble or destroy the forces of wickedness and establish the rule of justice and equity on earth, is shared by all major religions of the world. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who, at different times, were subjected to the rule of those who did not share their religious heritage, cherished their traditions concerning a Messiah or Saoshyant of a divinely chosen line. Such a deliverer was expected to come or return, in God’s time, to end the sufferings of the faithful and the rule of enemies of God and establish His kingdom on earth. Although the terms “messiah” and “messianism” have a specifically Judaeo-Christian ring and imply a whole series of Jewish-Christian doctrines, it is, nevertheless, perfectly permissible to employ the terms in an Islamic context, if we are quite certain at the outset in what sense we are using them. As a simple matter of fact, the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions differ in the way the formula of an expected deliverer is employed. The Christians think of a Second Coming, the Jews of one who is yet to come, while the Muslims conceive of a person who will “appear” (zuhur) or “rise” qiyam) against existing intolerable secular authority. The term “Messianism” in the Islamic context is frequently used to translate the important concept of an eschatological figure, the Mahdi, who as the foreordained leader “will rise” to launch a great social transformation in order to restore and adjust all things under divine guidance. The Islamic messiah, thus, embodies the aspirations of his followers in the restoration of the purity of the Faith which will bring true and uncorrupted guidance to all mankind, creating a just social order and a world free from oppression in which the Islamic revelation will be the norm for all nations.

Although the similarity of Islamic messianism to Judaeo-Christian ideas of the Messiah has been noted, the idea of the Mahdi as held by Muslims has a distinctive Islamic coloring. The Islamic doctrine of salvation does not conceive of man as a sinner who must be saved through spiritual regeneration. Rather it holds that man is not dead in sin, so he needs no spiritual rebirth. Nor does the doctrine conceive of its people’s salvation in nationalistic terms, with the assurance of the realization of the kingdom of God in a promised land by a unique, autonomous community. The basic emphasis of this responsibility carried within itself the revolutionary challenge of Islam to any inimical order which might hamper its realization.
The seeds of this responsibility, which were to bear fruits of rebellion throughout Islamic history in the persistent aspiration of its followers for a more just future, were sown by the Prophet himself. Muhammad was not only the founder of a new religion, but also the guardian of a new social order. His message, embodied in the Qur’an, provided tremendous spiritual as well as socio-political impetus for the creation of a cosmopolitan, just society. Consequently, in the years following the Prophet’s death a group of Muslims emerged who, dissatisfied with the state of affairs under the Caliphate, looked backward to the early period of Islam, which
was dominated by the brilliant figure of Muhammad, the Islamic salvation lies instead in the historical responsibility of its followers, namely, the establishment of the ideal religio-political community, the umma, with a worldwide membership of all those who believe in God and His revelation through Muhammad Prophet and the statesman, and which came to be regarded as the only ideal epoch in Islamic history, unadulterated by the corrupt and worldly rulers of the expanding Islamic empire. This idealization of the Prophet himself gave rise to the notion of his
being something more than an ordinary man; he must have been divinely chosen and hence the true leader who could guide his people to salvation. Owing to the feeling of this special status of the Prophet, some of his followers began to look forward to the rule of an individual from among his descendants ”whose name
will be also Muhammad, whose kunya, patronymic, will also be like that of the Apostle of God, and who will fill the earth with equity and justice, as it has been filled with injustice, oppression and tyranny.” 1 As a result, although the concept of Islamic salvation as taught by the Qur’an had not envisaged the appearance
of the redeemer Mahdi to guide the community of the believers to the pristine Islam in the last days, it was, in all probability, the personal devotion of the faithful to the Prophet that made them await the advent of a divinely guided savior from his family (ahl al-bayt).

About the Author

Abdulaziz Sachedina, Ph.D., is Professor and IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  Dr. Sachedina, who has studied in India, Iraq, Iran, and Canada, obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.  He has been conducting research and writing in the field of Islamic Law, Ethics, and Theology (Sunni and Shiite) for more than two decades.  In the last ten years he has concentrated on social and political ethics, including Interfaith and Intrafaith Relations, Islamic Biomedical Ethics and Islam and Human Rights.

Bibliographic Information

Title: Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi’ism

Author(s): Abdulaziz Abdulhussein Sachedina

Publisher: State University of New York Press

Language: English

Length: 492 pages

ISBN: 0873954580

Pub. Date: June 1, 1981

Islamic Messianism the idea of Mahdī in Twelver Shīʻism

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