The Mahdi and the end-times in Islam

Beattie, H. (2013). The Mahdi and the end-times in Islam. In: Newcombe, Suzanne and Harvey, Sarah eds. Prophecy in the New Millennium: When Prophecies Persist. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 89–104.


The chapter begins by discussing the origins and historically significant features of Muslims’ ideas and beliefs about the Mahdi or ‘rightly-guided one’, and the figures and events usually associated with his appearance. These end-times paradigms drew largely on hadiths (traditions/reports), rather than the Qur’an itself; many of them emerged as a result of the civil wars in the 7th and 8th centuries CE, and were influenced by Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian traditions. As a result elaborate end-times scenarios evolved. Sunni and Shi’ite understandings, however, differed in some important ways. Whereas for Sunnis belief in the Mahdi was not necessarily central, for Shi’ites, and particularly the Imamis, the Imam-Mahdi became a key article of faith. For them especially he would bring a golden age in which true Islam would prevail, and peace, justice and prosperity would be enjoyed by all.

The chapter goes on to look at some of the religio-political movements which drew on mahdist discourses, including the Shi’ite Fatimids in North Africa and the Safavids in Iran, and the Sunni Muwahiddun in Morocco and Mahdawis in India. Turning to developments post-c.1800 it notes the importance of mahdist ideas in some mainly 19th century African Islamic movements. It explains that Mahdism played a part in the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979, and influenced some of those involved in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad. Its significance for Al-Qaida, however, is seen to be relatively minor. The new violent apocalyptic scenarios published in book form, mainly in Arabic, since the 1980s, are discussed, as are some more irenic contemporary mahdist paradigms. Reference is made to some modern Shi’ite understandings of the Imam-Mahdi, and their impact in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in Iran and Iraq.

The appeal of Mahdism is seen partly in its ability to express discontents of various kinds; however it is not always political, confrontational, or violent. Nor is it necessarily traditionalist. To better understand it we need to look at the contexts in which mahdist narratives operate, the meanings have for those who participate in them, and the ways they become compelling. Finally the point is made that there continue to be many differences of opinion about what form the coming of the Mahdi and the end times will take.

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