The Mahdi: Islam’s Awaited Messiah
Among the Major Signs, the most anticipated and central sign that Muslims are awaiting is the coming of a man known as, “The Mahdi.” In Arabic, al-Mahdi means, “The Guided One” 1 He is also sometimes referred to by Shi’a Muslims as Sahib Al-Zaman or Al-Mahdi al-Muntadhar which translated mean “The Lord of the Age” and “The Guided/Awaited One.” The Mahdi is the first of the Major Signs. This is confirmed by Ibn Kathir, the renowned Muslim scholar from the eighth century:
After the lesser signs of the Hour appear and increase, mankind will have reached a stage of great suffering. Then the awaited Mahdi will appear; He is the first of the greater clear, signs of the Hour.2
The coming of the Mahdi is the central crowning element of all Islamic end-time narratives. So central to Islamic eschatological expectations is the coming of the Mahdi, that some Muslim scholars do not even refer to “the Minor Signs” as such, but instead, refer to them as, “The signs accompanying the Mahdi”. 3 While there are some variations of belief between the Sunni and Shia’ sects of Islam and while certain quarters of Sunnis reject him altogether, general belief in the Mahdi is not a sectarian issue within Islam, but is universal among most Muslims. According to Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America:
The coming of the Mahdi is established doctrine for both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and indeed for all humanity 4
Ayatullah Baqir al-Sadr and Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari, both Shia’ Muslim scholars in their book, The Awaited Savior, describe the Mahdi this way:
A figure more legendary than that of the Mahdi, the Awaited Saviour, has not been seen in the history of mankind. The threads of the world events have woven many a fine design in human life but the pattern of the Mahdi stands high above every other pattern. He has been the vision of the visionaries in history. He has been the dream of all the dreamers of the world. For the ultimate salvation of mankind he is the Pole Star of hope on which the gaze of humanity is fixed… In this quest for the truth about the Mahdi there is no distinction of any caste, creed, or country. The quest is universal, exactly in the same way as the Mahdi himself is universal. He stands resplendent high above the narrow walls in which humanity is cut up and divided. He belongs to everybody. For all that and much more, what exactly is the Mahdi? Surely that is the big question which the thinking people all over the world would like to ask. 5
Indeed, just who is this “awaited one” that the Islamic world is longing for, and what is it that he does that has them all in such a state of anticipation? This chapter will attempt to thoroughly answer this question primarily by citing various Islamic traditions and the interpretations of Muslim scholars that study them. I would like to encourage you to take the time to read each and every quote. It is in these references that we find an articulation of one of the central beliefs and passions of many of the 1.3 billion Muslims that we presently share the Earth with. Those of us who desire a greater understanding of one of the primary underlying spiritual factors affecting the world today should pay very close attention…
In the simplest of terms, the Mahdi is Islam’s Messiah, or Savior. While the actual terms “Messiah” and “Messianism” have very clearly Judeo-Christian roots, University of Virginia Professor Abdulaziz Abdulhussein Sachedina agrees that these terms are appropriately used in an Islamic context when referring to the Mahdi. In his scholarly work on the subject, Islamic Messianism, Sachedina elaborates thusly:
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. 6
Thus it is fair to say that the “rising” of the Mahdi is to the majority of Muslims what the return of Jesus is to Christians. While Christians await the return of Jesus the Messiah to fulfill all of God’s prophetic promises to the people of God, Muslims await the appearance of the Mahdi, to fulfill these purposes. Sheikh Kabbani likewise identifies the Mahdi as Islam’s primary messiah figure:
Jews are waiting for the Messiah, Christians are waiting for Jesus, and Muslims are waiting for both the Mahdi and Jesus. All religions describe them as men coming to save the world. 7
A Man From The Family Of Muhammad
The first and most often cited Islamic belief with regard to the Mahdi is the tradition which states that the Mahdi will descend from the family of Muhammad and will bear Muhammad’s name:
The world will not come to pass until a man from among my family, whose name will be my name, rules over the Arabs. 8
The Prophet said: The Mahdi will be of my family, of the descendants of Fatimah [Muhammad’s daughter]. 9
A Universal Leader For All Muslims
Throughout the Islamic world today there is a call for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate. The Caliph (Khalifa) in Islam may be viewed somewhat as the Pope of the Muslims. The Caliph is viewed as the Vice-regent for Allah on the earth. It is important to understand that when Muslims call for the restoration of the Caliphate, it is ultimately the Mahdi that they are calling for. For the Mahdi is the awaited final Caliph of Islam. As such, Muslims everywhere will be obligated to follow the Mahdi.
If you see him, go and give him your allegiance, even if you have to crawl over ice, because he is the Vice-regent (Khalifa) of Allah, the Mahdi. 10
He will pave the way for and establish the government of the family [or community] of Muhammad… Every believer will be obligated to support him. 11
The Ruler Of The World
The Mahdi is believed to be a future Muslim world leader who will not only rule over the Islamic world, but also the non-Muslim world as well. The Mahdi is said to lead a world revolution that will establish a new Islamic world order throughout the entire earth:
The Mahdi will establish right and justice in the world and eliminate evil and corruption. He will fight against the enemies of the Muslims who would be victorious. 12
He will reappear on the appointed day, and then he will fight against the forces of evil, lead a world revolution and set up a new world order based on justice, righteousness and virtue…ultimately the righteous will take the world administration in their hands and Islam will be victorious over all the religions. 13
He is the precursor of the victory of the Truth and the fall of all tyrants. He heralds the end of injustice and oppression and the beginning of the final rising of the sun of Islam which will never again set and which will ensure happiness and the elevation of mankind… The Mahdi is one of Allah’s clear signs which will soon be made evident to everyone. 14
The Mahdi’s means and method of accomplishing this world revolution will include multiple military campaigns or holy wars (jihad). While some Muslims believe that most of the non-Muslims of the world will convert to Islam peaceably during the reign of the Mahdi, most traditions picture the non-Muslim world coming to Islam as a result of being conquered by the Mahdi. Abduallrahman Kelani, author of The Last Apocalypse, describes the many battles of the Mahdi:
al-Mahdi will receive a pledge of allegiance as a caliph for Muslims. He will lead Muslims in many battles of jihad. His reign will be a caliphate that follows the guidance of the Prophet. Many battles will ensue between Muslims and the disbelievers during the Mahdi’s reign… 15
Even Harun Yahya, a moderate and very popular Muslim author refers to the Mahdi’s invasion of numerous non-Muslim lands:
The Mahdi will invade all the places between East and West. 16
The Mahdi’s ascendancy to power is said to be preceded by an army from the east who will be carrying black flags or banners of war. Sheikh Kabbani states:
Hadith indicate that black flags coming from the area of Khorasan will signify the appearance of the Mahdi is nigh. Khorasan is in todays Iran, and some scholars have said that this hadith means when the black flags appear from Central Asia, i.e. in the direction of Khorasan, then the appearance of the Mahdi is imminent. 17
Another tradition states that:
The Messenger of Allah said: The black banners will come from the East and their hearts will be as firm as iron. Whoever hears of them should join them and give allegiance, even if it means crawling across snow. 18
In Islam there are two flags. One is white and one is black. Written across both flags in Arabic are the words, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger”. The white flag is called Al-Liwaa and serves as the sign for the leader of the Muslim army and is the flag of the Islamic State. The black flag is called Ar-Raya and is used by the Muslim army. It is also called the flag of jihad, and is carried into battle. One flag is governmental and the other is a military flag. 19 When Muhammad returned to his home city of Mecca after being exiled for eight years, he returned as a conqueror. With him were ten thousand Muslim soldiers. They carried with them black flags. On the flags was one word written in Arabic: punishment. 20
I was once talking to a group of young Muslim men and asking them some questions. I asked them if the obvious superior militaries of America and Israel compared to the militaries of any Islamic nations were a source of difficulty for many Muslims. One of these men then became very angry at my question and snapped out, “You Americans and Zionists better get ready, because the black flags are coming!” At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. Later I learned the meaning.
Islamic tradition pictures the Mahdi as joining with the army of Muslim warriors carrying black flags. The Mahdi will then lead this army to Israel and re-conquer it for Islam. The Jews will be slaughtered until very few remain and Jerusalem will become the location of the Mahdi’s rule over the Earth.
Rasulullah [Muhammad] said: "Armies carrying black flags will come from Khurasan. No power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Eela (Baitul Maqdas in Jerusalem) where they will erect their flags." 21
It is important to note here the reference above to “Baitul Maqdas”. In Arabic this means “the holy house”. This is referring to the Dome of the Rock Mosque and is located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
In a particularly venomous manner, Egyptian authors, Muhammad ibn Izzat and Muhammd ‘Arif comment on the above tradition:
The Mahdi will be victorious and eradicate those pigs and dogs and the idols of this time so that there will once more be a caliphate based on prophethood as the hadith states… Jerusalem will be the location of the rightly guided caliphate and the center of Islamic rule, which will be headed by Imam al-Mahdi… That will abolish the leadership of the Jews… and put an end to the domination of the Satans who spit evil into people and cause corruption in the earth, making them slaves of false idols and ruling the world by laws other than the Shari’a [Islamic Law] of the Lord of the worlds. (Emphasis mine) 22
There is a very famous tradition that is often quoted throughout the Islamic world that speaks of the Mahdi’s military campaign against Israel. The tradition is both sickening and very sobering:
The Prophet said… The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him… (Emphasis mine) 23
It is said that the Mahdi will have control over the wind and the rain and the crops. Under the Mahdi’s rule, the world will live in prosperity. Islamic tradition relates that Muhammad once said:
In the last days of my Ummah [universal Islamic community], the Mahdi will appear. Allah will give him power over the wind and the rain and the earth will bring forth its foliage. He will give away wealth profusely, flocks will be in abundance, and the Ummah will be large and honored… 24
In those years my community will enjoy a time of happiness such as they have never experienced before. Heaven will send rain upon them in torrents, the earth will not withhold any of its plants, and wealth will be available to all. A man will stand and say, “Give to me Mahdi!” and he will say, “Take.” 25
As a result of the numerous benefits that the Mahdi brings, it is said that all the inhabitants of the Earth will be possessed with a deep love of him:
Allah will sow love of him in the hearts of all people. 26
Al Mahdi appears, everyone only talks about Him, drinks the love of Him, and never talks about anything other than Him. 27
The Timing of The Mahdi’s Reign
While there is more than one tradition regarding the nature and timing of the Mahdi’s ascendancy to power, there is one particular hadith that places this event at the time of a final peace agreement between the Arabs and the Romans (“Romans” should be interpreted as referring to Christians, or more generally, the West). Although this peace agreement is made with the “Romans”, it is said to be mediated specifically through a Jew from the priestly lineage of Aaron. The peace agreement will be made for a period of seven years.
Rasulullah [Muhammad] said: “There will be four peace agreements between you and the Romans [Christians]. The fourth agreement will be mediated through a person who will be from the progeny of Hadrat Haroon [Honorable Aaron – Moses’ brother] and will be upheld for seven years. (Emphasis mine) 28
It appears that the period of this seven year peace agreement will likewise be the period of the Mahdi’s reign. While there are a few traditions that specify that the Mahdi will reign on the earth for as much as eight or possibly even nine years, most traditions state that the time of his reign will be seven years.
The Prophet said… He will divide the property, and will govern the people by the Sunnah of their Prophet and establish Islam on Earth. He will remain seven years, then die, and the Muslims will pray over him. (Emphasis mine) 29
The Prophet said: The Mahdi… will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny, and he will rule for seven years. (Emphasis mine) 30
The Mahdi is believed to ride on a white horse. Whether or not this is symbolic or literal is hard to say. Quite interestingly, this tradition is based on the Muslim interpretation of Christian Scriptures. Despite the fact that Muslims view the Bible as having been changed and corrupted by Jews and Christians, they still claim to believe that some portions of the “original” inspired books are still to be found within the “corrupted” Bible. As such there exists a tradition within Islamic scholarship that seeks to extract those portions of the Bible that Muslims feel may be untainted by the corrupting influence of Jews and Christians. These Judeo-Christian traditions are called by Muslims, isra’iliyyat. One such transmitter of biblical traditions is Muslim scholar Ka’b al-Ahbar. He is viewed among Muslims as a trustworthy transmitter of Hadith as well as isra’iliyyat. 31 Ka’b al-Ahbar is supported in his view that this description of the rider on the white horse as found in the Book of Revelation is indeed the Mahdi by two well known Egyptian authors, Muhammad Ibn ‘Izzat and Muhammad ‘Arif in their book Al Mahdi and the End of Time. ‘Izzat and Arif quote Ka’b al Ahbar as saying:
I find the Mahdi recorded in the books of the Prophets… For instance, the Book of Revelation says: “And I saw and behold a white horse. He that sat on him…went forth conquering and to conquer.” 32
‘Izzat and ‘Arif then go on to say:
It is clear that this man is the Mahdi who will ride the white horse and judge by the Qur’an (with justice) and with whom will be men with marks of prostration on their foreheads [Marks on their foreheads from bowing in prayer with their head to the ground five times daily]. 33
It is said by some that it was for this reason that Saddam Hussein had numerous murals painted all over Baghdad portraying himself as a Muslim Knight on a white horse with sword drawn doing valiant battle against the infidels. 34
In one final very interesting series of traditions regarding the Mahdi we find that he is said to produce some previously undiscovered Bible scrolls and even the Ark of the Covenant:
Ka’b al-Ahbar says, “He will be called ‘Mahdi” because he will guide (yahdi) to something hidden and will bring out the Torah and Gospel from a town called Antioch.” 35
As-Suyuti mentioned in al-Hawi that the messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “he is called the Mahdi because he will guide the people to a mountain in Syria from which he will bring out the volumes of the Torah to refute the Jews. At the hands of the Mahdi the Ark of the Covenant will be brought forth from the Lake of Tiberias and taken and placed in Jerusalem.” 36
Ad-Dani said that he is called the Mahdi because he will be guided to a mountain in Syria from which he will bring forth the volumes of the Torah with which to argue against the Jews and at his hands a group of them will become Muslim. 37
Apparently, the purpose of finding these “lost” portions of the Old and New Testaments as well as the Ark of the Covenant is to help the Mahdi win converts from both Christianity and Judaism prior to “eradicating” the remainder who do not convert to Islam. We will discuss this aspect of Islamic tradition further in later chapters.
After reviewing the various Islamic traditions and opinions of the Muslim scholars, let’s now review and walk through a list of what we have learned about the person and the mission of the Mahdi as he exists in the minds of many of the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.
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