Friday, 2 December 2016

The Imam al-Mahdi: Historical Claimants

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
نحمده ونصلى على رسوله الكريم
The figure of Imam al-Mahdi (Allah be pleased with him) has raised quite a storm of controvery in our day and age among the Muslim community. On the one hand, there are those modernists and materialists who dislike the concept of a future messianic figure whose purpose will be to restore justice in the world and rejuvenate Islam. Many so called “Islamic” sects and parties outright deny the concept of the Mahdi, claiming it is a Shi’ite concoction that has no basis in the Holy Qur’an. This is especially true of the so called Ahl-al-Qur’an (“Qur’anist”) sects who without exception deny the concept of the Mahdi.
Some Muslim states, regimes and governments are also fearful of the concept of a Mahdi, and this has been historically true of tyrannical Muslim dynasties like the Umayyads. In their systems of education they downplay or altogether omit the mention of the promised Mahdi. They are fearful that this idea may lead to religious uprisings against the tyranny of the regime centered around a charismatic figure whom the public may rally around understanding him to be the Mahdi or Messiah. At present, the Saudi royal family which rules over Arabia is perhaps most fearful of the concept of Mahdi, particularly considering what happened in 1979 when the “Mahdist” cult associated with Juhayman al-Utaibi seized control of the sacred Ka’ba in order to bring about the downfall of the Saudi regime.
The establishment ‘Ulema likewise seek to maintain their monopoly over the religious and spiritual leadership of the Muslim Ummah and are nervous about Mahdi claimants who cause disruption and schisms among their blind-followers.
Nevertheless, the creed of the true Ahlus Sunnati wal-Jama’ah is that the idea of the Mahdi is true, and there are numerous authentic Hadith which predict his advent and describe his characteristics. These Hadith when examined closely collectively (and not in isolation of each other) give us a clearer picture about the Mahdi. We know that he is to be from the Ahl al-Bayt (Prophetic Household), from the Prophet’s progeny through his beloved daughter Fatima (Allah be pleased with her). He is described as having a broad forehead and an aquiline nose, differing from the Prophet (peace be upon him) in physical appearance, but resembling him in character and personality traits. Furthermore, he will come to spread justice in an unjust world full of tyrannical and oppressive governments.
It is reported that one of the signs for the appearance of the Mahdi will be seen in the heavens, such as a lunar and solar eclipse occurring in the holy month of Ramadan.
Some Hadith suggest that the Messiah (second coming of Jesus) and the Mahdi are synonymous. For example the Hadith recorded in the Sunan of Ibn Maja:
لَا الْمَهْدِيُّ إِلَّا عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ
“There is no Mahdi except Jesus son of Mary”
Although there is weakness in the Sanad of this Hadith, an authentic Hadith confirms that Jesus in his second coming is described as the Mahdi:
يُوشِكُ مَنْ عَاشَ مِنْكُمْ أَنْ يَلْقَى عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ إِمَامًا مَهْدِيًّا ، وَحَكَمًا عَدْلًا ، فَيَكْسِرُ الصَّلِيبَ ، وَيَقْتُلُ الْخِنْزِيرَ ، وَيَضَعُ الْجِزْيَةَ ، وَتَضَعُ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا
“Whoever lives (long) among you will meet Jesus son of Mary, Imam, Mahdi, a just arbiter. He will break the cross, slay the swine, abolish the Jizya and put an end to war”
(Musnad of Imam Ahmad)
The eminent Tabi (student of the Sahaba), and exegete, Mujahid b. Jabr (d. 722 C.E) likewise stated:
الْمَهْدِيُّ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ
“The Mahdi is Jesus son of Mary”
(Musannaf Ibn Abi Shayba; Kitab-uz-Zuhd)

To summarize this point, as we have repeatedly proven elsewhere on this blog concerning the natural death of the original Jesus of Nazareth, the prophecy of his second coming is best understood as the appearance of a righteous person from within this Ummah who will be his resemblance. The above-cited Hadith and reports suggest that it is the figure of the promised Mahdi, a man from within the Ummah and from the progeny of the Prophet, who will fulfill the role of Jesus’s second coming.
Apart from those confused and mistaken Muslims, usually modernists, who deny altogether the concept of the Mahdi, there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum who have mythologized the Mahdi. They are the Shi’ites along with some extreme and esoteric Sufis. They often describe the Mahdi as having supernatural abilities. For example, the Ithna Ashari sect of Shi’a believe that the Mahdi is Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-‘Askari. According to them, the eleventh Imam, al-Hasan al-Askari, had a son who was born in secrecy to protect him from the tyrannical Abbasid government. The Twelver Shi’a believe he went into Ghayba (occultation), but is still alive, even though a millenia has passed without his having re-appeared.
However, many scholars and historians seriously doubt the existence of a son born to the eleventh Imam. For example, a faction of the Imamiyah Shi’a disavowed the Imamate of the eleventh Imam al-Hasan al-‘Askari because he died without a son. They therefore claimed that he was not a true Imam, but that the true eleventh Imam was his brother Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Hadi.
According to the admission of the Twelver Shi’a themselves:
“Having noted these two things, it must be pointed out that it was certainly decreed by God that in such a threatening environment and in such a home of importance a son had to be born to Imam Hasan 'Askari who should remain protected from all sorts of dangers. It was for this reason that all necessary precautions had to be taken. Hence, to begin with, according to the related accounts, there were no signs of pregnancy in his mother. Moreover, Imam Hasan 'Askari did not reveal her real name. In addition, at the time of the delivery only Hakima Khatun, and probably some slave girls were present. This is despite the fact that usually in such circumstances assistance is sought from a midwife and other experienced women. In fact, nobody knew whether Imam Hasan 'Askari was married or not and, if he was married, no one knew the identity of his wife.”
Now it is quite interesting that on one hand the Twelver Shi’a admit that there were no signs of pregnancy in the eleventh Imam’s alleged wife and mother of the so called twelfth Imam, and on the other hand, a faction of the Imamiya Shi’a at the time rejected the Imamate of al-Hasan al-‘Askari because he died without issue. These are just some of the many compelling reasons to strongly doubt the existence of the so called twelfth Imam Muhammad b. al-Hasan. Rather, what appears to be the case is that the story of the birth of a son to al-Hasan al-‘Askari was invented by influential leaders within the movement, who, claiming to be his agents, collected the Khums from the Shi’a community on his behalf.
The concept of the Ghayba (occultation) of the Imam al-Mahdi has no basis in Sunni tradition. Rather it was invented as a justification to deny the death of various Imams that were absent. For example, the Kaysaniya Shi’a sect first made use of this idea of Ghayba when the Imam Muhammad b. al-Hanafiya died. A faction of the Kaysanites denied that Muhammad b. al-Hanafiya (Rahimahullah) had died, instead claiming that he had gone into occultation on Mount Radwa near the sacred city of Medina. Likewise, a faction of Shi’ites denied the apparent death of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (Rahimahullah) and believed he had gone into occultation. Known as the Tawusiya, they attributed the following saying to Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq: “If you see my head rolling to you from the mountain, you should not believe that, for I am your Sahib.”
Likewise, the infamous Waqifa sect of Shi’a claimed that the seventh Imam, Musa al-Kadim (Rahimahullah) did not die but went into occultation.
The Tayyibi subsect of Isma’ili Shi’a believe that their twenty-first Imam, al-Tayyib b. al-Mansur, did not die but went into occultation. They are still in existence, though divided into many branches such as the Bohra communities. They are governed by the office of the Da’i al-Mutlaq who acts as an agent of the twenty-first Imam for the duration of his occultation.
According to a Hadith, the Prophet (peace be upon him) described the Mahdi as having the name Muhammad son of ‘Abdullah, when he said:
اسْمُهُ اسْمِي وَاسْمُ أَبِيهِ اسْمَ أَبِي
“His name is my name, and his father’s name is my father’s name”
(Sunan Abi Dawud)
This Hadith has been cited as evidence for the identity of the Mahdi as being the great Imam Nafs al-Zakiya, Muhammad b. ‘Abdullah, a descendant of the Prophet’s beloved grandson al-Hasan al-Mujtaba (Allah be pleased with him). He led an uprising against the tyrannical Abbasids in the holy city of Medina in the mid-8th century, C.E.
A faction of Imamiya Shi’a known as the Fathiya or Aftahiya considered the legitimate seventh Imam to be ‘Abdullah b. Ja’far al-Aftah. He apparently died without issue, resulting in most of his followers rejoining the Shi’a mainstream under the leadership of Imam Musa b. Ja’far. However, a faction of the Fathite Shi’a believed that Imam ‘Abdullah had a son named Muhammad, and claimed that he was the Mahdi, as he bore the name Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah. It is interesting to see how another faction of Shi’a (the Fathites) before today’s Ithna Ashariya emerged, had likewise invented a son for an Imam who apparently died without issue, and then claimed that that son (also named Muhammad) was the hidden Imam and Mahdi and is in occultation.
More recently, Sayyid Muhammad Ahmad, son of ‘Abdullah, (1844 1885), and a descendant of the Prophet (peace be upon him) through his grandson al-Hasan, claimed to be the Mahdi and led an insurrection against the British in the Sudan.
However, his rebellion was crushed, and six months after the British captured Khartoum, he died of typhus. He instead became the founder of a new Silsilah known as the Mahdiya or “Mahdists”, who till this day have an influential position in Sudanese society.
Yet another “Mahdist” sect are the followers of Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri (1443 1505). His father’s name was ‘Abdullah, and he was a descendant of the Prophet (peace be upon him) through the progeny of Imam Musa al-Kadim. His movement is still in existence, including the Zikri sect found in the province of Baluchistan.
In modern times there have been many Mahdi claimants, most of them inconsequential, though some having made an impact on history. We have already mentioned in brief the seizure of the sacred Ka’ba in 1979 by Juhayman al-‘Utaibi, who claimed that his brother in law, Muhammad b. ‘Abdullah al-Qahtani, was the awaited Mahdi.
Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908 C.E), founder of the successful Ahmadiyyah movement, likewise claimed to be the Mahdi, and cited the occurrence of the lunar and solar eclipse in the month of Ramadan in the year 1894 as a great Heavenly Sign for the veracity of his claim. Nevertheless, his claim of being the Mahdi (lit. “guided one”) was more in a linguistic sense from the meaning of the title, and focused more on his claim of being the Promised Messiah. For this reason, Ghulam Ahmad stated:
 میرا یہ دعوی نہیں ہے کہ میں وہ مہدی ہوں جو مصداق
من ولد فاطمة ومن عترتی وغیرہ ہے

“I do not claim to be that Mahdi for whom it is said ‘from the children of Fatima and from my progeny’, etc.”
Reference: Ruhani Khaza’in; v. 21, p. 356

Regarding the advent of such a Mahdi as described by the literal purport of the Hadith, Ghulam Ahmad said:
اور ممکن ہے کہ امام محمدص کے نام پر بھی کوئی مہدی ظاہر ہو
“It is possible that a Mahdi with the name Imam Muhammad (S) will appear”
Reference: Ruhani Khaza’in; v. 3, p. 379

To be continued ان شاء الله

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