Messianism

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Belief in a figure who will come to the world in the end-time to combat the forces of darkness or evil is a theme common to the Western religious traditions. Meaning in history is brought to vindication through this potent image of a cosmic conflagration, succeeded by a just resolution and the ultimate victory of the good. The Muslim messianic figure, known as the Mahdi, or ''guided one'', is generally presented in hadith chapters called the books of crises, calamities or civil wars (fitan). For most Sunnis the Mahdi concept has not been particularised around strong millenarian expectations, although in times of crisis it may be invoked, for example in various historical Mahdist movements, and in some Sufi-influenced, or politically driven movements featuring millenarian overtones. The last significant Mahdist movement was that of the Sudanese, Muhammad Ahmad ibn 'Abd Allah (d. 1885). Among earlier (and very diverse) examples of millenarianism were the Abbasid revolution of the eighth century, Ibn Tumart (d. 1130) of the Berber Almohads, and a South Asian movement, the Mahdawiyya, that revered Syed Ahmad Jaunpuri, a seventeenth century charismatic figure, as a messianic leader.

In Twelver Shi'ism the Mahdi is experienced in a more concrete way.10 Since the Shi'i Muslims existed as a minority and in an oppos-itional role for much of their history, it is understandable that the idea of vindication and deliverance from a marginal situation would evolve into a resonant theological concept. Therefore the Messianic doctrine of the Mahdl receives greater elaboration and devotional longing in this branch of Islam.

The Mahdi is identified by Twelver Shi'a as the twelfth Imam or spiritual and political successor to the Prophet Muhammad. This Imam disappeared as a child in the year 939 and went into ''occultation'' (ghayba). Twelvers believe that as a guiding and inspiring spiritual presence he remains accessible to scholars and to his loyal devotees. He is known by additional apocalyptic titles such as al-Qa'im (the one who will rise up) and Sihib al-Zaman (ruler of the times). Most Shi'ite political theory in the pre-modern period posited that no political order could be legitimate in the absence of this returned Imam. In general, therefore, one may say that the expectation of a specific deliverer has led to political quietism for the bulk of Shi'i history.11

As a counterpoint to the negative or fearsome elements connected with the eschaton, there exist in both Sunni and Shi'i understandings derived from the hadith corpus descriptions of a period in which the world will return to an ideal state during the Mahdi's reign. According to such hadith the Mahdi will come to restore justice, harmony and truth to all humanity by defeating the forces of evil, which will be led by a figure known as the Dajjal.12 The implications of this word entail falsehood and deception, as in the term ''the false Messiah'' (al-masih al-dajjal). This figure is said to be a deceiver and ''one-eyed''. Specific speculations about this ''Antichrist'' figure feature in genres of Muslim devotional texts and more recent apocalyptic allegory, reflecting particular historical anxieties rather than authoritative doctrine expounded in texts of kalam. The Qur'an itself does not refer to such a person, or to a millennium of any description.

Nonetheless, in Islamic history millenarian movements have at times arisen that read into particular cruxes of history the culmination or fulfilment of cycles, on the basis of symbolic divinations of an astrological or numerological type. Contemporary sociologists of religion analyse such movements as instances of how religion can rapidly transform into charismatic and affective rather than traditional forms.

There is a further concept of ''centennialism'', based on a prophetic tradition that a Renewer (mujaddid) would appear in the Muslim community at the beginning of every century. Mujaddids have all been scholarly figures recognised after the fact;the list is not firmly established, and in contrast to Mahdism, this concept has not usually been used as an element in political mobilisation.

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