Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī
The Awaited Imam
All Muslims believe in the prophecy that a reformer will come to usher in an age of global justice. This doctrine cannot be denied by anyone with an understanding of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (s.a.w.a).
Muslim traditionists are unanimous in saying that the Prophet foretold the coming of a global reformer to fill the world with justice, put an end to hostilities and implement the true teachings of Islam on a worldwide scale. Through the advent of this awaited Imam, God fulfils His promise to bring about justice in the world. To that effect, we highlight the following two verses of the Qur’an as the basis for this belief:
‘Allah has promised those of you who have faith and do righteous deeds that He will surely make them successors in the earth, just as He made those who were before them successors, and He will surely establish for them their religion which He has approved for them, and that He will surely change their state to security after their fear, while they worship Me, not ascribing any partners to Me. And whoever is ungrateful after that – it is they who are the transgressors.’ (Q24:55)
‘Certainly We wrote in the Psalms, after the Torah: “Indeed My righteous servants shall inherit the earth.”’ (Q21:105)
Muslims believe that the appearance of this awaited Imam will prepare the way for the establishment of a global Islamic government and the restoration of the dignity of the Muslim world. The only point of difference between Muslims is that while the Shīʿa say the awaited Imam is the son of their Eleventh Imam, al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī, born on the 15th of Sha’ban 255/869. According to the Shīʿa, the Imam was raised by his father for six years. During this time, Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī granted many people the honour of seeing his son and said that he would succeed him. The birth of Imam al-Mahdī was discussed by Imam al-Hādī and ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm Ḥasanī.
Meanwhile, most Sunnī scholars say the Awaited Imam will belong to the progeny of Fāṭima (a.s) but that he has not yet been born. Some Sunnī aḥādīth have identified the Imam’s father as ʿAbd Allāh. However, there are a minority of Sunnī scholars who have acknowledged the Awaited Imam’s birth.
Some Sunnī scholars have authored books about Imam al-Mahdī. Some of them are as follows:
Ṣifāt al-Mahdī, by Abū Naʿīm al-Iṣfahānī
al-Bayān fī Akhbār Ṣaḥib al-Zamān, by al-Kunjī al-Shāfiʿī
al-Burhān fī ʿAlāmāt Mahdī Ākhar al-Zamān, by Mullā ʿAlī Naqī
al-ʿUrf al-Wardī fī Akhbār al-Mahdī, by Jalāl al-Din al-Suyūṭī
al-Qawl al-Mukhtaṣar fī ʿAlāmāt al-Mahdī al-Muntaẓar, by Ibn Hajr
Shīʿa scholars have authored more detailed books about Imam al-Mahdī, his birth and his Imamate. We mention only two of the most important ones here:
Muntakhab al-Āthār fī Akhbār al-Imām al-Thāni ʿAshar, by Grand Ayatollah Luṭf Allāh Ṣafī Gulpaygānī.
al-Mahdī ʿInd Ahl al-Sunna, a collection of quotes from more than 40 Sunnī scholars about the birth of Imam al-Mahdī printed in two volumes in Beirut.
No Sunnī scholar has entirely rejected the traditions about Imam al-Mahdī because they are so many and nobody can call their authenticity into question. Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) is the only major figure to cast doubt on the issue of Imam al-Mahdī because of his lack of access to Islamic sources. A Moroccan scholar, Muḥammad Ṣiddīq al-Maghribī, has written a book criticizing Ibn Khaldūn’s views on the issue of the Mahdī.
In 1400/1979, extremist Wahhabis led by Juhaymān al-ʿUtaybī staged an armed takeover of the Holy Sanctuary of Mecca. He and his armed men took control of the sanctuary and introduced a man with them as Imam al-Mahdī, calling on worshippers to pay allegiance to him. The occupation and violence lasted for several days until the Saudi government intervened by sending military troops backed by artillery fire and tanks. The insurgents were killed or arrested. In the aftermath of this takeover, Saudi preachers began to deny the existence of Imam al-Mahdī. Some media supported them in this regard, but some knowledgeable Saudi scholars of traditions insisted that belief in Imam al-Mahdī was a pillar of Sunnīsm. They even wrote books on the topic, amongst which Bayn Yadayy al-Sāʿa is the best one.
In this book, we read: ‘The doctrine of the Mahdī is not only mentioned in one or two aḥādīth, or in one or two narrations that can be easily ignored. These narrations have been referred to in different books. There are 80 of them and confirmed by hundreds of scholars.’
So why should we reject these narrations? Are they all unfounded? If that is true, one can easily call into question all the other aḥādīth narrated from the Prophet. I don’t see any disagreement about the advent of Imam al-Mahdī or the world’s need for such a reformer. The difference between Muslims is only over one point: Namely is he already born or will he be born later on? To that effect, many people have claimed to the Mahdī, but their claims could not be taken seriously.
How can anyone reject the aḥādīth pertaining to Imam al-Mahdī while some of them have been mentioned in the Ṣaḥīḥ collections of Bukhārī and Muslim? Muslim quotes Jābir b. ʿAbd Allāh as saying: ‘I heard the Prophet say: “A group of my community will wage jihād on the right path and will remain victorious until the Day of Judgment. Jesus son of Mary will descend and the leader of my community will ask him to lead the world and he will reply: ‘Some of you must lead some others and this is a characteristic of this community.’ (Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 1/59, Cairo edition).
Other traditions make clear that this event will occur after the appearance of Imam al-Mahdī and that Jesus will accept the leadership of Imam al-Mahdī.
In another ḥadīth, the Prophet is quoted as saying: ‘What will your condition be when Jesus son of Mary descends and your Imam is amongst you?’ (Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, tradition no. 3449). This is another distinguishing feature of Imam al-Mahdī; a messenger of God accepts him as his leader!
A full discussion of the birth, occultation, longevity and philosophy of Imam al-Mahdī is beyond the scope of the present volume. However, many reliable books have been authored since the time of Shaykh al-Ṣadūq.