Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Essay on the Mahdi by Jon Hartmann

The idea of a final age of mankind, roughly a day or reckoning or judgment, is present in all interpretations of Islam as it is a fundamental concept present in the Quran and many other Islamic sacred texts.

Transformation of the Mahdi Concept and Its Import to Twelver Shia Islam by Jon Hartmann

The Mahdi, as a concept, is pervasive in Islamic tradition. This concept of the Mahdi touches almost all parties in one way or another, held in beliefs ranging from his existence as a passive tradition to that of a living deity. The notion of the Mahdi has made a considerable eschatological transformation from that of the figure of the Yawm al-Qiyamah to the flesh and blood arbiter and executor of the Twelver Shia. Scholars have identified a series of factional trends and movements that trace the materialization of this concept into a very real and integral belief to the Twelver Shia, beginning with speculations on the death of the prophet Muhammad and continuing into several early Mahdist movements preceding the ‘solidification’ of the practice of Twelver Shia during the Minor Occultation.

The idea of a final age of mankind, roughly a day or reckoning or judgment, is present in all interpretations of Islam as it is a fundamental concept present in the Quran and many other Islamic sacred texts. Referred to as Yawm al-Diyn or Yawm al-Qiyamah, the day seems in some instances to be made up of equal parts oral tradition and Quranic assertion. Surah 75 in the Quran is called al-Qiyamah, meaning roughly ‘the resurrection,’ and although short, speaks solely of this day as do many of the following surahs. One verse in Surah al-Mutaffifin sums up very nicely the most basic shared opinion of this day. “Woe unto the repudiators on that day! Those who deny the Day of Judgment” (83, 10-11), namely that this day exists.

While speculation on the Yawm al-Qiyamah is almost infinite, Jan Blichfeldt describes his notion of the more commonly held beliefs involving the Mahdi and the Yawm al-Qiyamah in his book Early Mahdism. After a series of greater and lesser signs, canonized by many different religious authorities, and the disappearance of the Quran and its values, al-Dadjdjal (lit. the deceiver) will appear on the earth to lead people astray. Both Jesus (Isa in the Quran), and the Mahdi, will return to the earth, one or both of them will kill al-Dadjdjal, and consequently an era of unification and unambiguousness for Islam will begin. The Mahdi will essentially oversee a new golden age of Islam before the end of the world; additionally the Mahdi is a direct descendant of Muhammad. “The Mahdi will reappear, and he will usher in a new era of restoration” (Blichfeldt, 9). It is important to recognize that there is however no mention of the Mahdi in the Quran or al-Sahih al Bukhari; and therefore is considered with the utmost prudence by most Sunni scholars. “Thus the whole Mahdist theme was, by a majority of orthodox theologians, regarded with such caution and suspicion that many times it led to a complete omission of his name” (6). In fact, the vast majority of the Hanafite cannon avoids the subject entirely. There are consequently a host of early documents that refer to the essence of the Mahdi and his purpose in the time of al-Qiyamah, yet don’t refer to his title. Most fundamentally however, the Mahdi represents the executor of a final golden age in the world, almost a Zionist notion in nature, but of course without the Judaic or Christian implication of Zion. It is also important to separate the Mahdi from Christian or Judaic notions of messiah. While it is probable that the remnants of traditions of pre-Islamic Jews and Christians would have been supportive of the ascension of the concept of the Mahdi during the advent of Islam, it is infinitely more attributable to the gradual supernaturalization of important figures in Shia Islam.

Mahdist scholars see the ascension of Mahdist Shi’ism as parallel to the growth or increasing prominence of schools of thought denying the mortality, or promoting the divinity, of pivotal figures in Islam. The first of such instances is usually considered to be the widespread denial of the death of the prophet Muhammad. Even Egger addresses this event in his History of the Muslim World, quoting Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad. “When the apostle was dead Umar got up and said ‘some of the disaffected will allege that the apostle is dead, but by God he is not dead: he has gone to his Lord ad Moses b. ‘Imran went and was hidden from his people for forty days…By God, the apostle will return as Moses Returned” (Egger, 28). Additionally, Tucker in his study of the ascension of Mahdist theology identifies this denial of the death of Muhammad as a sort of early indicator of a demographic that would be highly inclined to deify powerful figures in Islam. “Umar ibn al-Khattab would not believe that the Prophet had died and violently rebuked those who declared this…he expected Muhammad to return, like Moses, after forty days” (Tucker, 15). Also important is the emerging notion of religious leaders in some way becoming hidden then consequently returning; the eventual Mahdi of the Twelver Shia is also referred to as al-Muntazer meaning the ‘looked for’; he is considered hidden on the earth. The movement regarding the denial of the Prophet’s death seems to have evaporated gradually over time. However, questions surrounding Ali’s death and his divinity were not so hastily dispersed.

It appears that Hasan ibn Ali spent a great deal of time attempting to refute claims that his father Ali was not dead and of a partially divine nature. The greatest and perhaps most pervasive school of thought that denied the death of Ali was that of Abd Allah ibn Saba and his followers the Sabba’iya. Ibn Saba is considered crucial in the development of future Mahdist factions because he was loosely responsible for generating a large demographic that believed to some degree in the divinity of Alid leaders. It is clear that during the life of Ali, Ibn Saba was the most fervent of his devotees and it is said that Ali even attempted to banish Ibn Saba because of his profession that Ali was in fact a deity. “What is likely is that Ali banished Ibn Saba to Mada’in because of the latter’s excessive veneration of him” (13). During the life of Ali, Ibn Saba’s movement was only in its formative stages; it was not until Ali’s death that Ibn Saba’s movement would reach its pinnacle under the doctrine that Ali had in fact not died. It is additionally clear that the Sabba’iya popularized the statement “thunder is the voice of Ali, and lightning his whip” (16), so much so that the poet Ishaq ibn Suwayd al-Adawi saw it fit to defame the practitioners of this statement. Tucker enumerates, Ishaq “ridiculed those people who gave greetings to the clouds at the mention of Ali’s name” (16). The movement was indicatory of a widespread sentiment that Ali was some sort of deity, so much so that Hasan fought it. “Hasan ibn Ali protested against the teaching that his father would return to this earth before the time of the resurrection” (16). Tucker sights the Sabba’iya as the source of popularization of the concepts of both Docetism, in this instance meaning the physical allusion and consequently the divine nature of Alid leaders, and Ghayba meaning ‘concealment’ in Shia Islam.

Ibn Saba’s Sabba’iya consequently would set the scene for the first major Mahdist movement in Shia Islam, that of al-Mukhtar and the faction he developed known as the Kaisaniyya. Al-Mukhtar gained early support for his movement championing the Imamate of Ali’s son Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, born by Ali’s wife Khawlah, by attaching to it an intention of avenging the death of Husayn as well as opening the movement to all Muslims regardless of whether they were Arab or not. It was through this attachment to the widespread will to avenge Husayn that Mukhtar’s movement achieved its pervasiveness. Ultimately the greatest extent of this revenge, and the main foundation for Mukhtar’s power, was his routing of an Umayyad army approaching Kufa. After this victory most of his opposition left Kufa and for a brief period of time Mukhtar had relative control over the city. For the first time in the thus far short history of the Shia, a movement was established under the auspice of the Mahdi. Mukhtar claimed that M. ibn al-Hanafiyya was in fact the Mahdi, and consequently deputized himself in M. ibn-Hanafiyya’s name. It is also important to recognize that there was a sort of compiling demographic behind the Mahdist movements at this point in Shia Islam, as the remaining Saba’iyya of Ibn Saba are reported to have joined Mukhtar’s movement; ibn-Saba himself spoke of the Mahdi often. “It is quite possible that the followers of Ibn Saba simply substituted the Mahdi of the Kaisaniyya for their expected messiah and supported al-Mukhtar actively” (26).

Al-Mukhtar’s Kaisaniyya appear to be solely responsible for extending the Shia movement outside of a chiefly Arab demographic, its eventual impact is with all things considered astounding. “The rebellion of al-Mukhtar and the movement growing out of it were of particular significance in the development of Shi’ism. One should also stress the new role of the Mawali in Shi’ism. Prior to the rebellion, Shi’ism was primarily an Arab movement” (31). As the Kaisaniyya grew, internal divisions in philosophy grew and factions formed, and this became most pronounced upon the apparent death of M. ibn al-Hanafiyya. Interestingly enough, the smallest demographic formed in the wake of the Mahdi-apparent’s death were those who continued to believe in his divinity and in his eventual return as the Mahdi, rather, that his life up until his death had only been his pre-concealment, pre-return, stage as the Mahdi. Other factions instead would go on to develop a host of the greatest tenants of particularly Ismailism and secondarily the Twelver Shia. “The Kaisaniyya are also said to have taught that religion consists of obedience to a man. The commands of such men were felt to supersede the prescriptions of law, these commands being based upon the allegorical interpretation of the law” (30). This doctrine would be particularly vital to the Ismailis who would eventually take this and a combination of other beliefs developed by future Mahdist fringe movements to demand direct representation of the Mahdi, and to a less extreme degree, the Twelver Shia and their practices of occultation. Most fundamentally, this extremely pervasive movement created an acute awareness of the Mahdi concept and a need for disambiguation on this subject. There also seems to have been a certain sense or question of the executive power of the Mahdi especially in his absence that would remain subtly in the minds of the to-be Twelver Shia even through the tumultuous years to come.

Mukhtar’s movement was certainly the greatest pre-Minor Occultation mahdist revolution to occur; many of its consequent fringe factions, literally shattered pieces of the Kaisaniyya that occurred in the wake of the death of M. ibn al-Hanafiyya, would continue to ruminate in the background of quickly dominant Ali-Fatima (descendants of Husayn) Imamate under the vague definition of Ghulat or the exaggerators. “They were lumped together under the label of ‘exaggerators’ because of the claims for superhuman qualities that they made for their Alid leaders” (Egger 73). Generally, the Kaisaniyya became wrapped up in the Abbasid movement and its promises of power to Hashim ibn M. al-Hanafiyya, which would of course quickly prove its fruitlessness to the Shia who would consequently be united in disappointment under the eventual Twelver Imamate.

With the death of Hashim ibn M. al-Hanafiyya, and therefore the termination of his line, the Shia consolidated again under the Imamate of the descendants of Husayn ibn Ali, while said fringe movements would go on to comprise portions of the Ghulat. Most importantly, there now existed a definite and large demographic of Shia that comprised the Ghulat that shared generally a fixation on the Mahdi with neighboring moderates under the Imamate of Husayn’s descendants. “Being repeatedly employed by various Alid pretenders, the titular appellation of al-Mahdi finally became an integrate part of the teachings of the imamology among the imams, i.e. those Shi’ites who recognize the appearance of twelve Imams, the one succeeding the other” (Blichfeldt 8).

With the Ghulat and Ismaili factions constituting of a significant minority possessing a stance on the Mahdi, the to-be Twelver Shia were in a situation almost demanding that they took a position on the Mahdi. In 275h. the eleventh Imam died without an heir apparent. It is said that the son of the eleventh Imam Hasan al-Askari, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Askari disappeared from his father’s house around the time of his father’s death, yet was in hiding, waiting for the right moment to return to bring balance and unambiguity to Islam, namely, that the twelfth Imam was the Mahdi. It apparently took some time before it became widely accepted that the twelfth Imam was indeed the Mahdi, it was during this period that much of the tradition surrounding the Mahdi of the Twelvers was solidified. “It took almost two hundred years until the belief in the existence of the Hidden Imam became widely accepted throughout the Shia community, at which time the other circles and sects that had emerged during the period of confusion disappeared” (Halm 29). Halm here elucidates, that while many among the Ghulat lived under the rule of the Imamis, it took quite some time before many minorities and factions were integrated into the doctrine of the Twelver.

Beliefs surrounding the Twelfth Imam as the Mahdi are relatively standardized. He is indeed believed to be a specific person, Muhammad, the son of Imam Hasan al-Askari, born in the year 255h. His birth is said to have been predicted by previous Imams, additionally there is a great deal of tradition surrounding his birth. “For immediately after his birth, he began to prostrate himself in an attidute of prayer. He was in this state pure and circumcised, and he uttered the profession of faith. And in the arms of his father the child enumerated the names of Ali to himself and prayed that the relief of the community be in his hands” (Blichfeldt 8). Additionally it is formally believed that he is still alive and hidden on the earth. “The Twelfth Imam is imagined as living in hiding somewhere on the earth. Initially, he was believed to be living incognito on Byzantine territory to remain completely out of the clutches of the caliph” (Halm 29). All of these formalities are direct reflections of the ideology that had been developed over the past few centuries, namely the concept of religious figures becoming hidden and an increase in the divinity of Shia religious leaders, crystallized in a single and widely accepted tradition.

The return of the Mahdi, according to the Twelver is mostly in accordance with existing tradition, namely the ushering in of a golden age. “Through him…the misunderstandings…will come to an end” (Blichfeldt 9). Additionally however, he is intended to avenge Husayn, and will therefore appear during Ashura. “When he arrives on earth, will complete the task of Husayn in Karbala. Hence, according to many traditions he shall appear on the day of Ashura” (9). The Mahdi additionally holds all of the executive power of the previous Imams, even in his absence. The system under which the Twelver Shia came to remotely execute his authority was developed under a period known in English as the Lesser Occultation. “The Hidden Imam was connected to his orphaned community through a messenger, giving his commands via letter. Such letters actually circulated throughout the communities and are still passed down today” (Halm 29). Traditionally this period came to an end when the Mahdi sent his final letter to the Shia stating that he would no longer continue his correspondence with them, thus beginning the period known to the Twelver as the Greater Occultation. To this day Twelver Shia communities struggle with theory on how to divine the executive authority of the Mahdi, as is most readily evident in Iran’s 1979 constitution. “Article five of the 1979 constitution of the Islamic republic of Iran, the naming of the Hidden Imam as the true head of state is followed by the pious with ‘May God speed his return!’” (34).

The Mahdi remains an integral figure to Twelver Shia, as his absence is a source of continual question concerning who truly possesses executive power within the community. The Mahdi has made a substantial transformation from that of early Yawm al-Qiyamah tradition, inspiring numerous religious revolutions; all enabled by a strong willed minority that grew in complexity and theological depth. His installation into the practice of the Twelver Shia is highly accordant with the beliefs of the time, and ultimately provided a formalization even a moderation for those factions previously part of the Gulat. The question of his relevance and import will continue to remain in modern Twelver Shia societies.


Quran. Trans. Pickthall, Muhammad. Tahrike Tarsile Quran Inc. Elmhurst NY.1999.

Tucker, W. Mahdis and Millenarians. Cambridge University Press, New York. 2008.

Blichfeldt, Jan. Early Mahdism, Politics and Religion in the Formative Period of Islam. Printer E.J. Brill, Netherlands. 1985.

Halim, Heinz. Shia Islam from Religion to Revolution. Marcus Wiener Publishers, Princeton NJ. 1997.

Egger, Vernon. A History of the Muslim World to 1405. Prentice Hall, NJ. 2004.

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