Several weeks ago, when I was discussing the movie DUNE, I mentioned that one of the similarities the movie had to Islam was that Paul Atreides was to be the prophesied leader of the Fremen. Their term, the "Mahdi," is also an eschatological figure in Islam. I thought I would explore who and what the Mahdi is and how Muslims relate to him for this blog.
In popular Muslim belief, the Mahdi is a spiritual leader who will rule before the world's end and restore religion and justice. It is thought that he will appear alongside Jesus and establish the Kingdom of God. The Shiites believe he was the twelfth imam, expected to return and triumph over injustice. Many Sunni Muslims also believe in his coming. In Arabic, Mahdi means "the rightly guided one."
The term Mahdi does not occur in the Qur'an. His name also is not mentioned in hadith by al-Bukhari or Muslim, the top two canonical collectors of hadith. Hadith about the Mahdi are found in collections by Abu Da'ud, Ibn Majah, an-Nassa'I, and at-Tirmidhi. These collectors are reputable scholars but not as well-known as al-Bukhari or Muslim. Abu Da'ud reported that the Prophet said, "The Mahdi will be of my family, of the descendants of Fatimah (his daughter)." Since his name is mentioned in the hadith of lesser-known collectors, the expectation of his return is more myth than fact. Although the concept of a Mahdi is not an essential doctrine in Islam, it is a popular one.
Throughout the nearly fourteen centuries of Islamic history, many revolutions have been led by self-proclaimed mahdis. The most notable were the Fatimids in Egypt from 969 to 1171; the Berber Confederation in Morocco and Spain in 1130 to 1269; and the Sudanese Mahdists in 1881 to 1898. As recently as 1979, an abortive Mahdist movement attempted to overthrow the monarchy in Saudi Arabia.
In the decades since 1979, dozens of books have been written speculating on how and when the Madhi will emerge. For a long time, the leading contender was Usama bin Ladin. It was well known that his family tree included that of the Prophet. Gleaning facts from the hadith and other traditions that are out there, here are some of the stipulations that serve to describe the Mahdi and what he will do when he arrives:
· He will be descended from the Prophet;
· He will have the same name as the Prophet;
· He will have a distinct forehead and prominent nose;
· He will be highly generous and selfless;
· He will arise in Arabia;
· He will withstand attack by an army from Syria, which the desert will then swallow up;
· He will fill the earth with justice and equity;
· He will reign perhaps as co-ruler with Jesus.
I save one more prediction so that I may comment on it. The prediction is that the Mahdi's coming would be prophesied by raising the Black Standard flag in Khorasan. The Black Standard flag was Muhammad's battle flag, which is used today by the Islamic State. Khorasan is a historical eastern region on the Iranian Plateau in Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. In the past few years, the Islamic State has franchised an affiliate group called ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province) to establish an actual Islamic state in Afghanistan. The Black Standard has been raised in Khorasan. ISIS believes that it is in their best interest to initiate the apocalypse. They think that to save the world, it must first be destroyed. Therefore, it is no doubt that the ISKP was born to help bring about the Mahdi's appearance.
If the Mahdi works with Jesus to bring love and justice to the world, we have nothing to worry about because that should be our goal as well.