Messianism

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 Mahdï, or ''guided one'', is generally presented in hadith chapters called the books of crises, calamities or civil wars (fitan). For most Sunnïs the Mahdï 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 Jaunpurï, a seventeenth century charismatic figure, as a messianic leader.

In Twelver Shï'ism the Mahdi is experienced in a more concrete way.10 Since the Shï'ï 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 Mahdi receives greater elaboration and devotional longing in this branch of Islam.

The Mahdï is identified by Twelver Shï'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 Sïhib al-Zaman (ruler of the times). Most Shï'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 Shï'ï history.11

As a counterpoint to the negative or fearsome elements connected with the eschaton, there exist in both Sunnï and Shï'ï 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 kalaim. 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.

apocalyptic

As the end of the world nears, various ''signs of the Hour'' are anticipated. Specific sequences of these are elaborated in the hadith, for example:

You will not see the Hour before you see ten preceding signs. The first will be the sun rising from the West, then the Smoke, then the Dajjal, then the Beast,13 three lunar eclipses,14 one in the East, one in the West, and one in the Arabian Peninsula, the appearance of Jesus, upon whom be peace, then Ya'juj and Ma'juj,15 and the last will be a fire coming out of Yemen, from the lower part of Aden.16

In the context of the early political and social turbulence of Islamic history, eschatological expectations combined with religious symbolism in generating a range of apocalyptic narratives, some of which achieved the status of admission to the hadith anthologies. Some of these reports suggest the Prophet's prior knowledge of the fates of the Roman and Persian Empires and predict the civil wars (fitan) that would disturb the emerging Muslim polity. An entire genre of apocalyptic literature developed, in many cases derived from a shared corpus of ancient Near Eastern motifs. Some of the hadith compilations of the third Islamic century include chapters devoted entirely to the topic of crises and civil wars (fitan), grouping hadiths predicting political struggles in this world (malaahim) with other reports describing the trials and rewards of the next life. Entire volumes of reports such as the Book of Seditions (Kitab al-Fitan) of Nu'aym ibn Hammad (d. 844) indicate the scale and popularity of this literature.

A further apocalyptic element is the second coming of Jesus, who will reappear before the day of judgement and, in a way that was never precisely adumbrated, assist the Mahdi in defeating the forces of evil. This was inferred from a set of hadith, and also from Qur'an 43:61, ''And he [Jesus] shall be a sign of the [last] Hour''. The precise Islamic position on this aspect of Jesus' Messiahhood is open to argument. It is clearly eschatological in its association with the closing episodes of sacred history. Muslim rejections of the crucifixion arise both from the fact that since there is no original sin, redemption is neither necessary nor possible, and the fact that as the ''Messiah'' Jesus would not be killed by his opponents (Qur'an 4:157). As a culmination, Jesus's return must reflect the Islamic reading of history as a site of multiple, fully saving divine interventions and ubiquitous and omnipresent signs; his second coming has nothing to do with any vindication of superseded Jewish or Christian claims. For this reason the hadith reports identify the returned Jesus as a Muslim who follows the law of the Qur'an. Jesus's humanity as one among God's prophets is affirmed by reports that he will die of natural causes before the judgement day, for ''every soul shall taste death''.17

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