page 115
Mahdis and New Messiahs


TO complete this brief account of the religious leaders in Islam, we cannot omit mention of the strange periodic appearance in its history of those who arrogated or inherited still greater powers in things spiritual than any of the classes already mentioned.

The mahdis, common to both Shiah and Sunni Islam, are striking examples. So also are the new messiahs and soi-disant prophets who arose in more recent times from the ranks of the 'ulema, to form new Moslem sects or dominate groups by their personalities and prestige. We will continue with them in order.

The literature on the mahdi in Islam is very voluminous. In 1885 James Darmesteter wrote Le Mahdi depuis les origines de l'Islam jusqua nos jours. While Goldziher, Margoliouffi, and Snouck Hurgronje have also written since that date. Their investigations are summarized by Dr. Macdonald in the Encyclopedia of Islam. The subject is of great importance because the doctrine of the mahdi and his appearance on the scene has produced political events of no small importance to Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands in their several colonial possessions and interests for more than a century.

Literally mahdi means a divinely guided one. The title is used of certain individuals in the past and also of an eschatological personage yet to come. The first

page 116

four caliphs had the tide and there are other instances where it was assumed by the pious and learned in the long history of Islam1, Ali, Hussain, 'Umar II and others were called by that title even by Sunni historians. But it is as an eschatological figure that the appearance of a mahdi brings disturbance in the world of thought and politics. As Dr. Macdonald says: "Islam takes a very pessimistic view of human nature. Men always fall away from the faith. This will be so especially toward the end of the world... the ka'ba will vanish and copies of the Koran will become blank paper, and its words will vanish also from the memories of men. Then the end will come2." It is with such a gloomy prospect of the latter days that some theologians have asserted "There is no mahdi but Isa." When he, Jesus, returns from heaven, Islam will triumph and Jesus will rule according to Moslem law; will marry, beget children, and finally die, and be buried at Medina3.

But the masses were not satisfied in times of political, social or moral darkness, with an eschatological Messiah of the distant future. They looked for a little millenium before the end. This is expressed in later traditions. Some one would arise of the family of Mohammed who would rule the Moslem world and eIsa would be his imam (Macdonald). The later we go the more popular are the sources and the more

1Goldziher, Vorlesungen uber den Islam, pp. 201-231; 268-269.

2 Encyc. of Islam, Mahdi by Macdonald.

3Richard Hartrnann, Eine Islamische Apokalypse aus der Kreuzzugzeit.1924. It has a translation of an Arabic text on eschatology, Cairo, 1906. See also Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, pp. 107-109.

page 117
Mahdis and New Messiahs

extravagant is the picture of the new day introduced by the mahdi. When Moslems felt oppressed or humiliated by European rule, mahdis arose with banner and sword in hand. The mahdi of the Sudan, Muhammed Ahmed, born 1843, whose khalifa, successor fought the British and Egyptian troops with fire and sword, all the world knows4. During the last war a mahdi of Somali-land raised a similar fanatic revolt which cost much in life and money to suppress. Both of these mahds and others like them in Sumatra, northwest India, and North Africa (see Goldziher) were politico-religious leaders who assumed large spiritual as well as temporal power. The mahdi of the Sudan, for example, even changed the call to prayer, substituted jihad (holy war) for the pilgrimage to Mecca, exercised totalitarian powers as military leader, and demanded absolute obedience (Dietrich, Muhammed Ahmad, in Encyc. of Islam).

The hidden imam of the Twelver Shiah sect is also called, Al-mahdi but his status is entirely different from the mahdis of the Sunnis described above. The spiritual station and prestige of these twelve imams is another story which belongs to Persian history. One illustration is the eighth imam, 'Ali Ridha (765-818). He is one of the great saints of Shiah Islam5 and his mausoleum at Meshed has become a place of pilgrimage. Many stupendous miracles are attributed to him, and the third hour of the day is still sacred to his memory. Of others in the list of eleven imams, similar stories and glories are related.

4Slatin Pasha, Fire and Sword in the Sudan, 1896.

5Encyc. of Islam 'Ali Ridha.

Page 118

It is the theory of the hidden imam that gave birth in the nineteenth century to the Babi-Behai movement in Persia. Seyyid Ah Mohammed of Shiraz in June, 1844, proclaimed that he was the gateway (bab) to the knowledge of all truth. Born in 1821, he devoted himself to study and to ascetic practices at Kerbela. He went to Mecca on pilgrimage and on his return promulgated his new doctrine and revelation. He was imprisoned and afterwards released but on account of new opposition by the orthodox, executed by order of the government at Tabriz. His influence spread and his teaching was sponsored by 'Ali Nuri who called himself Baha-Allah. After an attempt on the life of the Shah, he too was imprisoned, exiled and died at Acre, 1892. Abd-al-Baha succeeded him and under the name of Bahaism, this new offshoot of Shiah Islam spread across the seas to America. Baha-Allah signifies "the Splendor of God," and his followers have made the most of this title to exalt his merits and glory. Abd-al-Baha, his excellent son, inherited his spiritual authority. But there have been bitter quarrels for leadership.

Again the Ahmadiya movement in India with its new prophet-messiahs both at Qadian, where it started, and at Lahore, where it suffered division of an acute nature, is based not upon the parity of all believers before Allah, but upon soi-disant high priests and prophets of a new Islamic dispensation. All of these spiritual leaders came from Islam and claim to be Moslems.

In conclusion, we note, as another example, the spiritual headship and enormous power exercised on

Page 119
Mahdis and New Messiahs

the part of H. H. the Agha Khan, G.C.S.I., G.C.V.O G.C.I.E., high-priest of the Khoja community in India. Born in 1874' he is perhaps the most remarkable figure in Moslem India today. There are only about 33,000 Khojas of the Ismaili sect who recognize him as their imam to the point of calling him also an avatar, incarnation of deity. But the American press at times absurdly states that "he is head of all the Mohammedans of India." The British Who's Who tells of his honorary degrees, his success in winning the Derby and his writings in popular magazines. But to his followers he is a prince without the inconvenience of a kingdom, a descendant of the hidden imam, indeed the forty-seventh legitimate imam and in direct descent from 'Ali the son-in-law of Mohammed. His person is so sacred that once a year he is weighed on the scale. and an equivalent in gold paid him as tribute! His followers yield him almost divine honors and his word is law to all his Khoja disciples6. When I traveled with him up the Persian Gulf some thirty years ago I was the incredible witness to certain abject superstitions regarding his healing powers.

No chasm between clergy and laity even in the middle ages, was ever more deep than that which exists between the ordinary Moslem believer and such high religious functionaries as described above, whether their office is hereditary or due to a new supposed revelation from Allah.

6 Moslem world, Vol. xx, p. 407. For further details see M. T. Titus, Islam in India, pp. 102ff.

Heirs of the Prophets
Answering Islam Home Page