Monday, February 20, 2012

Imam Mahdi: Do We Know What We Are Waiting For?

Some of my readers would like me to write about Imam Mahdi.

At the outset, I must say that it is not exactly the subject I feel comfortable writing.  Not because I have nothing to say about it.  Not also because the subject is too controversial to my liking.  But because the subject itself is problematic.

As I see it, if we indulge too much in the subject, we risk falling into heresy.  Yet, if we ignore it altogether, we would put ourselves in peril.  What is needed is therefore a proper perspective, a balanced view on the matter.

Now, the first thing we need to understand about the subject of Imam Mahdi is that it falls under the Islamic Eschatology and Messianic Movement categories.

This big word, eschatology, simply refers to the matters concerning the end of the world, which, by implication, also means the end of mankind.  Messianic movement, on the other hand, deals with the issue of the Savior (Messiah) who will come towards the end of the world.  Both concepts come together.

The basic idea is this. 

Towards the end of the time, just before the Judgment Day (Qiyamah), the world will be filled with wrong doing, injustice and tyranny.  The Great Beast (Dajjal) and Gog and Magog (Yajuj and Ma’juj), among others, will appear and bring total corruption to the face of the earth.

Then Imam Mahdi will appear, followed by the second coming of Isa Al Masih (Jesus Christ), who will put the earth in total order and justice.  Soon after, the Last Hour or the Day of Judgment will take place.  Then everything will be destroyed.

Let’s ask ourselves: Is this something we should be eagerly waiting?  Is there a purpose in waiting for everything, including ourselves, to be destroyed? 

The second thing we need to do is to separate between the eschatological and the messianic issues.  The eschatological issue is fine.  We need to know the signs of the end of the world.  Not knowing those signs would put us in grave danger, should we live in that era.

Yet, we should not be too overzealous about those signs.  For instance, among the signs signaling the end of the world are the appearances of the Great Beast or Dajjal and the God Magog or Yajuj Ma’juj

As to these, some people say that they already appear.  They are Americans, these people say.  A few decades ago, they were Russians as well. 

Well, in case we read history, a thousand years ago these signs already came.  They were known as the Crusaders.  And eight hundred years ago, they were known as Mongolians, under the ferocious Genghis Khan.  But the world has not ended, has it?  If it has, I won’t be writing this piece, and you won’t be reading it as well.

Still, we need to be mindful of those signs.  Just don’t be too over zealous about them.  As long as we adhere faithfully to the Quran and the Sunnah, we should be saved.  After all, the real danger of the Great Beast and the Gog Magog is not that they will eat us alive, but they will turn us into disbelievers. 

If they merely eat us alive but our souls are still intact, there is no real harm in that.  But if they turn us into disbelievers, then our souls will be damned forever.  Then again, are we not to protect our faith with or without their appearances? 

The question is rhetorical, of course.

The more problematic issue is the Messianic Movement.  The messianic movement exists in many faiths, not only in Islam.  The Jews also have it, as do the Christians and many other religions.

In case you are not familiar with the term, the messianic movement has to do with the coming of the Messiah.  Messiah is English for Al Masih Arabic and Mashiach Hebrew.  Literally it means the anointed.  What it really means is the savior, or the deliverer.  When the Messiah comes, he will save the world and deliver mankind from corruption, injustice and falsehood.

In Islam and Christianity, he will be Jesus in his Second Coming.  Imam Mahdi is also towards some extent a Messiah, or at least a precursor to the coming of the Messiah.  In Judaism and other faiths, the concept is more complex.  Let’s not bother ourselves with this complexity.

But there are two problems with the messianic movement which we must be mindful about. 

First, throughout history, there have been too many false messiahs.  Some of the more familiar ones are Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and Sayyid Ali Muhammad. 

We are more familiar with Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, because he had created the well known Qadiani or Ahmadiyah Movement, but who is Sayyid Ali Muhammad?  He is the founder of what is known as the Bahai faith.  Like Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, he also claimed himself to be Al Mahdi. 

Both of these figures happen to have many followers, and their influences continue until these very days.  There are many others less well known messianic movements led by the false Mahdi.  All those who follow these false Mahdi ended up having their faith at stake.

The Christians, too, have their own versions.  Among the famous ones are the Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidian movements.  These are the recent Christian messianic movements that ended in disaster.

The Peoples Temple messianic movement was led by Reverend Jim Jones, who claimed himself to be the Messiah.  He along with about 1,000 of his followers committed mass suicide in the Guyana jungle in 1978, apparently because there was no point of living anymore, since the world is ending. 

The Branch Davidian movement, meanwhile, had a crossfire with the FBI after the siege lasting for 50 days in the city of Waco, Texas.  The siege ended with many deaths on both sides.  This event occurred more recently, about two decades ago.  In 1993 to be more precise.

The above is the first danger of over zealousness with Imam Mahdi or the Messianic Movement.  If we are not careful with our faith, we can fall into the trap of false Imam Mahdi or false Messiah. 

The second danger is the opposite of the first, namely, when the true Messiah finally comes, he is ignored and disbelieved.  This already happened in history.  The Jews were waiting for their Messiah.  But when he came, their scholars, leaders and many common folks among them not only rejected him, but they plotted to kill him as well. 

Killing him they did, or at least they thought they had killed him through crucifixion, with the help of the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. In case you are wondering whom I was referring to, that Messiah was none other than Jesus Christ or Isa Al Masih.

There was also another occurrence, and this affected the Jews as well.  In the Seerah, we know that the Jews in Madinah and Sham were waiting for the new Prophet (or new Messiah if you like).  When Muhammad the Prophet really came, we know what happened.  Only a handful followed him.

For the reasons explained above, I personally feel that we should approach the issue of Imam Mahdi with an objective mind: neither irrational, nor “too rational” either. 

Some well known rational scholars, including the much celebrated Muhammad Iqbal, do not believe in the concept of Imam Mahdi.  Iqbal thought that it has no basis in the Quran and the traditions.  To him, it is an Iranian or a Shiite concept.

Al Maudoodi, on the other hand, regards him merely as a reformer or a revivalist (mujaddid), who will be raised every 100 years to reform what had been deformed by bida’ah (innovation).  The concept of mujaddid is unanimously agreed by all scholars.  Disagreement is only on who is the Islamic Reformer in any given century.

This modernistic or rationalistic thinking does not seem to be surprising, because the concept of Imam Mahdi is most fertile among the Shiites.  They are obsessed with that.  If we are to believe what the Shiites say, there have been too many Imam Mahdi already.  And the Shiite concept about Imam Mahdi is far more complex than what the Sunni believes.  But let’s put those differences aside.

Be as it may, since many leading scholars, including the much celebrated Ibnu Khaldun, believe that the traditions (ahadith) about Imam Mahdi are well grounded, albeit with Shiite leaning, it is therefore not wise to reject it altogether.  While Imam Bukhari and Muslim, the twain who compiled the most authentic traditions, did not record anything about Imam Mahdi per se, Imam Abu Dawood, Ahmad and Tirmidzi did. 

Personally, I would suggest that we take a balanced view about this matter.  We should not be too overzealous about it, but should not disregard the issue completely either.  The first is to guard ourselves against the false messiahs, and the second is to guard ourselves against disbelieving in him, should he come during our times.

In the final analysis, if we faithfully adhere to the Quran and the Sunnah, I suppose it does not matter one way or another, because we already have the trustworthy criteria to judge between the truth and the falsehood.  Thus, anyone claiming himself to be Imam Mahdi but his teaching contradicts the Quran and the Sunnah, then he is a fake. 

On the other hand, anyone whose teaching and practice are grounded in the Quran and the Sunnah, we should follow him, even though there is no honorific title Al Mahdi given to his name.


  1. Nice conclusion and agreed to the point.

    1. And I hope it is informative enough for us to understand the issue.