The Mahdi literally means “the guided one”, and has come to mean in an individual way, the divinely guided one. While Allah himself is called al-Hadi in the Quran (Al-Hajj 22:54; Al-Furqan 25:31) the figure of al-mahdi or mahdi, and his mission is not mentioned at all. Islam uses the term of certain individuals in the past and of an eschatological individual in the future. The Mahdi is interpreted differently by Sunnis and Shi’a although both look for one who will arise to restore the purity of Islam and usher in a Golden Age in which Islamic revelation will reign in the ideal community, the umma.
The Sunni Mahdi
Sunni belief in a final restorer is affirmed but is not developed by their systematic theologians, Al-Ghazzali in his Ihya, for example, concentrates on the final falling away from the faith of all men but there is no mention of the mahdi.
Mahdi has been used as an honorific title for several prominent figures in Islam. The non-eschatological use of mahdi was applied to the the first four khalifas those who were ‘guided in the right way’ and other pious men such as the son of Ali (the fourth caliph), Hussain, and the Ummayad caliph Umar 2. In general, the term mahdi gradually hardened from being a general honorific into a special designation, and even a proper name, for the Restorer of the faith in the last days.
Islam takes a very pessimistic view of human nature; men always fall away from the faith and have to be brought back. This will be so especially toward the end of the world. Men will become thoroughly secular and Allah will leave them to their own devices. The Ka’aba will vanish and even copies of the Quran will become blank paper, its words will vanish and Allah’s word will vanish from the memories of men. Then the end will come when the mahdi shall come and Islam shall triumph. Some theologians consider there is no mahdi but Isa who will not return as a prophet, but be like an ultimate khalifah. He will descend (nuzul) and rule according to the Shariah law of Muhammad, marry, beget children, die, and be buried in Medina. Mahdi or Isa will restore and rule by the consensus of Islam under the ultimate and infallible interpreter of the revelation given through Muhammad.
The essence of Sunni Islam is that the Muslim people can attain truth and certainty by their own exertions. When the qualified scholars (Mujtahid’s) have applied the three governing principles of the Quran, the Sunna and Qiyas to any point of Islam and have come to an agreement on it (ijma) that point is assured and the acceptance of it is binding on all Muslims. The idea of an absolute infallible guide is rejected on the basis that it is blind submission to a human teacher.
The Shi’a Mahdi
The Shia’ believe they have been deprived of their rights and are convinced that only the descendants of Ali are the rightful rulers of Islam. They failed to persuade the rest of the Islamic community and now take refuge in the restoration through the mahdi. In the midst of growing darkness and uncertainty with many concerns in the areas of politics, social, moral and theological matters they clung to the idea of a restorer.
The Mahdi is an essential part of the Shia’ creed but not the Sunni creed. They do not accept that authority exists in the consensus of the Muslim people or by the knowledge of their own scholars. Certainty can only be gained from the instruction of the hidden imam, who is divinely protected against all error and sin and whose function is to interpret Islam to men. The mujtahid’s of the Shia are Allah’s intermediaries with men, but they may err but when the hidden Imam returns he will rule by divine right. The Shia’, especially the Twelvers, (the majority of Shiites), follow twelve imams which were said to have been initiated by Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. The twelfth imam is said to have gone into occultation, namely the temporary, supernatural removal from visible existence, until in the last days when he will re-appear to save the world from evil and oppression.
The idea of the Mahdi appears to be a development in the second and third centuries of Islam. In the case of the Shi’a Mahdi many scholars have suggested that there is a clear inspiration coming from the Messiah figure of Christianity and its ideas of a judgement day in the hands of a religious renewer. While there are many similarities between the Mahdi and the Messiah, there are also many variations.
The majority of the Traditions regarding the ‘restorer’ are put directly into the mouth of Muhammad and a very small number go back to ‘Ali. The later traditions are often expansions and expositions of better authenticated and older traditions.
Twelve recurrent characteristic themes concerning the Mahdi in the Traditions
From amongst the numerous traditions we list only those which characteristically reoccur. 1) He will be of Muhammad’s house (min ahl baiti); 2) He will be of my kindred (min ‘itrati) and nation (min umma) of the offspring of Fatima (min walad Fatima) 3) He will resemble Muhammad in disposition but not in appearance for he will be bald on the forehead and have a hooked or high-nose: 4) He will find the world full of evil and ungodliness and fill it with equity and justice; 5) He shall rule according to the example of Muhammad and give strength and stability to Islam. 6) Muslims will enjoy under him prosperity never known before and the earth will be prosperous; 7) money will be insignificant; 8) he will come suddenly and unexpectedly; 9) he will rule for either five, seven or nine years; 10) In the early traditions he will come from the East (Al-Mashriq, Khurasan) from beyond the River (Oxus); in later traditions from the wide unknown lands of the Maghrib (West); 11) he will arise under the black banner of jihad; 12) If there was only a single day remaining before the end of the world Allah will lengthen it to ensure the coming of the restorer.
The Political Mahdi
The later the Traditions the more extravagant the picture becomes of the new day which the mahdi will introduce but from time to time the masses were not satisfied during times of political, social or moral darkness, with an eschatological Messiah of the distant future. They looked for a little millennium before the end. These new Messiahs’ rose up from the ranks of the ulema to form new Muslim sects or dominate groups by their personalities and prestige. Yet for the most part, mahdist belief has traditionally expressed itself in political neutrality, even passiveness. By stressing that knowledge of the Mahdi and his return the Twelver Shiite authorities have generally managed to restrain political subversiveness. Throughout history, various individuals have claimed to be the Mahdi. These have included Muhammad Jaunpuri, founder of the Mahdavia sect; the Báb (Siyyid Ali Muhammad), founder of Bábism; Muhammad Ahmad, who established the Mahdist state in Sudan in the late 19th century; and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadiyya sect.
When Muslims felt oppressed or humiliated by European rule, mahdis arose with banner and sword in hand. The doctrine of the mahdi and their appearance has historically produced significant political events to the colonial possessions of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands. The mahdi of the Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad, born in 1843, whose khalifa, successor fought the British and Egyptian troops with fire and sword, a similar fanatic revolt occurred in Somaliland. Both of these mahdis and others like them in Sumatra, North-West India and North Africa were politico-religious leaders who assumed large spiritual as well as temporal power. The mahdi of Sudan, for example, even changed the call to prayer, substituted jihad for pilgrimage to Mecca, exercised totalitarian powers as military leader, and demanded absolute obedience.