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We don't encourage all contents of this paper, because there are some basic misunderstandings happened by the writer, we published here for its researching method.

Alhassanain (p) Network for Islamic Heritage and Thought



by Yehezkel Landau

Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations

Hartford Seminary



Table of Contents

[Introduction] 3

An Overview of the Shi’ite Tradition on the Mahdi 4

The Mahdi Scouts in Lebanon: Exploiting Youthful Idealism 11

Iran after the 1979 Revolution 13

Jewish Messianism, Zionism, and Israel 16

Conclusion: Is Shi’ite-Jewish Solidarity Possible? 22


Notes 25


This essay is an exercise in comparative political theology, examining two different eschatological traditions with their hopes and envisioned scenarios for redemption. The primary focus is on Twelver Shi’ism and its teachings about theMahdi. The last of twelve Imams venerated by most faithful Shi’ites, theMahdi is sometimes called the “Hidden Imam” because of his centuries-long concealment, or occultation. His triumphant return to the stage of human history is eagerly anticipated as part of God’s plan to rectify global injustices and bring about the victory of Shi’ite Islam over its Sunni rivals. The spiritually ennobling aspects of this tradition will be explored, along with more problematic ones which are especially pertinent for our own time, when Shi’ites have attained political power in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.

A secondary focus of this essay isJewish messianism, a long and multi-faceted tradition in its own right and one which presents its own political challenges today, given the empowerment of Jews in the state of Israel and the claims of some Jewish Israelis to be catalysts of the messianic redemption.

The common thread linking these two eschatologies is the impact on human spirituality and on the wider society when piety and power politics are intermingled. In either case, the result of this admixture reflects a more general religious phenomenon that R. Scott Appleby calls “the ambivalence of the sacred.”[1] History has repeatedly shown that religion is a force for both good and evil. All religious traditions nourish the human spirit, bringing their adherents closer to the Divine and inspiring self-sacrifice; but they also exacerbate self-glorifying, intolerant, and even violent tendencies in the human personality. Especially when communities of faith experience powerlessness and persecution, they can be led astray by vengeful leaders who channel their followers’ anger in destructive ways. All too often these leaders invoke God and sacred texts as authorities for their violent actions. This negative tendency in religion is evident in contemporary Middle East affairs, with unfortunate repercussions worldwide.

The suffering engendered by militant messianists who hold extremist interpretations of the different Abrahamic faiths prompts some fundamental questions: What happens when end-time scenarios that have consoled and inspired the faithful over centuries become the agendas of nation states or armed political movements? Is there any way for the destructive potential within these eschatological traditions to be countered by more compassionate and peace-oriented elements within the same traditions? And could Shi’ite Muslims and devoutly religious Jews find common ground in their respective traditions about human suffering and God’s promise of ultimate redemption? These challenging questions are beyond the ability of any author to adequately address in a short essay. It is my hope that this reflection will stimulate further thought and constructive action in the service of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews.

An Overview of the Shi’ite Tradition on the Mahdi

The Arabic termmahdi does not appear in the Qur’an but, as Wilferd Madelung notes, “the name is clearly derived from the Arabic rooth-d-y commonly used in [the Qur’an] in the meaning of divine guidance. As an honorific epithet without messianic significance, the term was employed from the beginning of Islam,” with varying references to the Prophet Muhammad, the patriarch Abraham, Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, the central sacrificial figure for Shi’ites, and later Sunni caliphs. In early Islamic history, “after the death of Mu’awiya [in 680 C.E.], the term came first to be used for an expected ruler who would restore Islam to its original perfection.”[2] This yearning for restoration reflected the profound sense that, with the internecine strife that beset the Muslim community after the death of Muhammad, some pristine purity or perfection was lost. Consequently, redemption of the Islamicumma , indeed of all humanity, demanded that God bring about a global, if not cosmic, rectification. This redemptive climax to history, anticipated by all Muslims, is to have both a spiritual and socio-political dimension, just as Muhammad was both the spiritual and the political ruler of Medina. For Shi’ites, the tragedy of Karbala in 680 C.E., when Hussein and his companions were slaughtered by the Umayyad ruler Yazid, Mu’awiya’s son, added yet another level of loss and injustice. A profound existential trauma occurred with ripple effects throughout history. The spiritual violation experienced by Shi’ites as a result of Hussein’s martyrdom is of such a magnitude that it needs to be redeemed through Divine intervention. In this cosmic drama of redemption theMahdi plays a central role, especially for Shi’ites.

Sunni Muslims also believe in the coming of a Redeemer and Restorer called theMahdi , the rightly-guided eschatological ruler sent by God, citing varioushadith traditions as justification. They see him appearing at the end of history, together with the second coming of Jesus, as part of the eschaton. And some Sunni caliphs, especially of the ‘Abbasid period, assumed eschatological titles, includingMahdi, for themselves or their heirs to enhance their prestige and, perhaps, to presage a redemptive transformation of history. Still, Mahdism was not as central to Sunni piety as it became for Shi’ism. Madelung writes:

In spite of the support [for] the belief in the Mahdi by some prominent traditionists and Sufis, it never became an essential part of Sunni religious doctrine. Sunni creeds mention it but rarely. Many famous scholars like al-Ghazali avoided discussing the subject. This attitude was…probably less motivated by doubts concerning the truth of the belief than by fear of encouraging politically disruptive movements in the Muslim community.[3]

“Traditions supporting the view that the Mahdi would be a descendant of Muhammad and his daughter Fatima spread in the early ‘Abbasid age,” according to Madelung.[4] One hadith that circulated was: “The Messenger of God said, ‘The Mahdi will be from me, with a bald forehead and an aquiline nose. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with injustice and oppression and will rule seven years.” Another prophetichadith that spread was: “The Mahdi will be of my family from the descendants of Fatima.”[5] Such traditions supported Shi’ite claims to Islamic legitimacy and authority, since Shi’ism rests on the belief that the true heirs of the Prophet Muhammad, spiritually and politically, are his progeny or members of his household,ahl al-bayt, throughhis daughter Fatima and her husband ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph (also for Sunnis) and the first Shi’ite Imam. As Madelung observes:

Among the Shi’a, especially the more radical groups, longing for a restorer of justice and religion has usually been most intense. Belief in the coming of the Mahdi from the Family of the Prophet became a central aspect of the faith in radical [as well as normative - YL] Shi’ism in contrast to Sunnism. Distinctively Shi’i was also the common belief in a temporary absence or occultation (ghayba ) of the Mahdi and his eventual return in glory. As various members of theAhl al-Bayt were identified as the Mahdi but failed to fulfill the expectations about him in their lifetime, their followers transferred their hopes to a second coming.[6]

The Shi’ite scholar ‘Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i expounds on the identity and role of theMahdi :

The promised Mahdi, who is usually mentioned by his title ofImam-i ‘Asr (the Imam of the “Period”) andSahib al-Zaman (the Lord of the Age), is the son of the eleventh Imam [Hasan Al-‘Askari]. His name is the same as that of the Holy Prophet. He was born in Samarrah in 256/868 and until 260/872 when his father was martyred, lived under his father’s care and tutelage. He was hidden from public view and only a few of the elite among the Shi’ah were able to meet him.

After the martyrdom of his father he became Imam and by Divine Command went into occultation (ghaybah ). Thereafter he appeared only to his deputies (na’ib ) and even then only in exceptional circumstances…

The occultation of the twelfth Imam is…divided into two parts: the first, the minor occultation (ghaybat-i sughra ) which began in 260/872 and ended in 329/939, lasting about seventy years; the second, the major occultation [ghaybat-i kubra ] which commenced in 329/939 and will continue as long as God wills it. In ahadith upon whose authenticity everyone agrees, the Holy Prophet has said, “If there were to remain in the life of the world but one day, God would prolong that day until He sends in it a man from my community and my household. His name will be the same as my name. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny.”[7]

Tabataba’i, addressing the opponents of Shi’ism, defends the belief in the Twelfth Imam’s lengthy occultation and his anticipated return as theMahdi to redeem all of humanity. In so doing, he also elucidates the esoteric function of all twelve Imams in Shi’ite understanding:

The opponents say that if God wills to bring forth an Imam to reform mankind He is able to create him at the necessary moment and does not need to create him thousands of years earlier. In answer it must be said that such people have not really understood the meaning of the Imam, for…the duty of the Imam is not only the formal explanation of the religious sciences and exoteric guidance of the people. In the same way that he has the duty of guiding men outwardly, the Imam also bears the function of walayah and the esoteric guidance of men. It is he who directs man’s spiritual life and orients the inner aspect of human action toward God. Clearly, his physical presence or absence has no effect in this matter. The Imam watches over men inwardly and is in communion with the soul and spirit of men even if he be hidden from their physical eyes. His existence is always necessary even if the time has not as yet arrived for his outward appearance and the universal reconstruction that he is to bring about.[8]

Along with this esoteric function of the Imams, their role as communal leaders reflected a political function different from that of the Sunni caliphs. The latter ruled over the empowered majority within the Islamic empire; and because of Shi’ite opposition to their legitimacy, they were often suspicious of the Imams’ intentions and felt threatened by their followers’ messianic aspirations. Over time, one of the Shi’ite traditions about theMahdi was that he will rise up with a sword - hence the other primary epithet associated with the Redeemer,al-Qa’im , he who will arise[9] - to assume power and exact revenge on the Sunni rulers who had deprived Shi’ites of their rightful place in the Divine plan. As Hossein Modarressi explains, the termMahdi (as a general Islamic concept, “the rightly guided one,” shared by Sunnis and Shi’ites alike) originally had no Imamite connotations, but over time it was absorbed into Shi’ite tradition and amalgamated with the Imamate, crystallizing finally into the doctrine of the Twelfth/Hidden Imam.

The rank and file of the Imamites tended to identify this savior of the earth with theqa’im who would establish the rule of truth. The link between the two concepts [qa’im andmahdi ] had already been reportedly advocated by some splinter groups who “stopped” with certain Imams on the assumption that they were theqa’im and themahdi …[W]hile the reference to the concept ofmahdi in connection to the vanished son of Hasan al-‘Askari is absent in the Imamite works written in the last decades of the third/ninth century, even in those that describe him as theqa’im , by the first decades of the following century when Kulayni finished hisKitab al-Kafi and ‘Ali b. Babawayh al-Qummi wrote hisKitab al-Imama wa ‘l-tabsira min al-hayra , the vanished Imam was already the one who was to reappear to “fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and injustice.”[10]

To fully understand the role of theMahdi in Shi’ite eschatology, one must first grasp the status of the Imam in Twelver Shi’ism. For theMahdi is experienced - not just theoretically posited - as the twelfth and last Imam in the lineage extending from ‘Ali and Fatima. The historian and Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr offers this helpful overview:

The Shi’ites separated from the Sunnis upon the death of the Prophet when the question of succession became vital. The majority of the community chose Abu Bakr, the venerable friend of the Prophet, as the first caliph…,while a small number believed that ‘Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, should have become caliph. The problem, was however, more profound than one of personalities. It also concerned the function of the person who was to succeed the Prophet. The Sunnis believed that the function of such a person should be to protect the Divine Law, act as judge, and rule over the community, preserving public order and the borders of the Islamic world. The Shi’ites believed that such a person should also be able to interpret the Quran and the Law and in fact possess inward knowledge. Therefore, he had to be chosen by God and the Prophet, not by the community. Such a figure was calledImam . Although such a person did not share in the Prophet’s prophetic function (nubuwwah ), he did receive the inner spiritual power of the Prophet (walayah/wilayah ).[11]

Nasr explains that, for Shi’ites, the rightful successor to Muhammad was ‘Ali, the fourth caliph and the first Shi’ite Imam, “the later Imams all being descendants of ‘Ali and Fatimah, the daughter of the prophet.” Historian and comparative religionist Mahmoud Ayoub conveys his own understanding of the Shi’ite Imam’s status in the following statement:

One of the earliest and most elaborate responses to the problem of succession was the Shi’i doctrine of the imamate. This doctrine, however, was formulated by a persecuted minority, and over several centuries. While its ideal view of religio-temporal authority in Islam exerted much influence on Muslim, and particularly Sufi, piety, the Shi’i community had neither the strength nor the unity to implement it. Furthermore, the Shi’i option raised the imam to the status of the Prophet, insisted on Divine/Prophetic designation (nass ) rather than popular choice of the imam, and confined this Divine office to particular member of the Prophet’s family. Because, moreover, this ideal doctrine could not be realized within the earthly life of the Muslimummah , the imam, as the only true successor to the Prophet, was pushed out of world history altogether and into eschatological time…

The imam is not only a manifestation of Divine grace, but of Divine justice as well…Shi’ism, as a developed legal and theological system (madhhab ) still awaits a just and equitable state (dawlah ) under a just imam. This hope is daily prayed for by Twelver Imami Shi’is in the words: “O God, we beseech you for a noble state in which you bestow honor on Islam and its people and humiliation on hypocrisy and its people.”[12]

One of the most instructive examinations of theMahdi tradition in Shi’ite Islam, especially its pietistic dimension, is found in Ayoub’s book,Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ‘Ashura in Twelver Shi’ism . Ayoub is an appreciative scholar of different religions, including Christianity, as evidenced in the following passage:

The twelfthImam , theMahdi ,…mirrors in his personality and mission the judging and victorious Christ, the Christ who is to come on the clouds of heaven, whose return the community still awaits with anxious anticipation. The time of his concealment (ghaybah ) is a time of travail, a period of disintegration which must precede the final restoration. Finally, like the second coming of Christ, his reappearance or return (raj’ah ) will be a time of fear and remorse, of going astray and general chaos. All this, however, will be followed by a long period of peace, prosperity, and the final triumph of truth over falsehood when justice and equity will reign forever.[13]

Ayoub explores the “vast and complex” tradition surrounding the birth[14] , occultation, and return of theMahdi . He presents various aspects of this tradition, more than we can examine here in any detail. Overall, “[t]he personality of the hidden Imam has providedShi’i piety with rich soil for the most fantastic hagiographical imagination...The coming of theMahdi at the end of human history will be the fulfillment of the mission of all the prophets before him and the time of their final vindication.”[15]

Ayoub explains how Mahdism evolved in response to competing needs and pressures:

The last prophet, Muhammad, and theimams after him, announced the coming of theMahdi ; traditions related from theimams display an air of impatient expectancy on the part of the community…There is no doubt, in our view, that both theimams and their followers expected a victorious futureimam who would succeed where Husayn had failed and who would attain power for himself and his community. Such expectations could be very dangerous, and thus theimams had to keep this hope alive without kindling the zeal of their followers into an armed revolt. They therefore constructed an increasingly complex metaphysical and theological cult of theMahdi. His birth, occultation, and return were beyond the knowledge of any man and it was even unlawful for theimams’ followers to speculate about such things. Not even his name was to be mentioned; men were to refer to him only by his many titles and epithets, such as:al-Qa’im (the rising one),Hujjat al-Muhammad (the proof of the family of Muhammad),Sahib al-Zaman (master of the age), and, of course, theMahdi .[16]

Because the Mahdi “will come to complete the task of Husayn, the great martyr of Karbala…he shall appear, according to many traditions, on the day of‘Ashura [the tenth day ofMuharram , the first month in the Islamic calendar], the day on which Husayn, son of ‘Ali, was killed. He shall appear first in Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, but will make his headquarters in Kufa. There, where ‘Ali was killed and buried, and nearby Karbala, the sacred shrine of Husayn, theMahdi will have his seat of judgment.”[17]

As in other eschatological traditions (including Judaism and Christianity) that anticipate the appearance of a savior at the end of history, the return of theMahdi has a universalist or cosmic dimension, along with a more particularist or communal aspect. On the one hand, “theMahdi will save humanity and the entire creation from degeneration.”[18] Global corruption and tyranny will end with the dawn of a new era of universal justice and equity, followed by the final collective resurrection. Ayoub’s interreligious sensibility yields this comparative reading of Shi’ite tradition: “The era of the Mahdi is like the peaceable kingdom envisioned by the ancient prophet of Israel. The Shi’i vision of an era of absolute peace, prosperity and blessings goes further than the Isaianic vision, resembling more closely perhaps the new earth envisioned by the venerable seer of Patmos, St. John the Divine.”[19]

On the other hand, “Shi’i piety could not accept an eschatology which did not include the Prophet, ‘Ali, and his two sons, Hasan and Husayn. In particular, the return (karrah ) of Husayn to avenge his own blood was promised early.” Consequently, theMahdi and Husayn, two archetypal and iconographic Imams, are seen in Shi’ism as allies in the eschatological drama - in some scenarios accompanied by prophets and angels - with theMahdi , in sources that reflected centuries of oppression, “regarded first and foremost as an avenger and only secondarily as the messiah at whose hands God would establish equity and justice in the earth.”[20] In this “mixed blessing” anticipated by Shi’ite believers at the end of history, combining vengeance and violence with messianic peace and justice, we confront what Appleby terms the “ambivalence of the sacred.” This admixture of bloodshed and beatific harmony is perhaps most strikingly apparent in cases where chronically oppressed faith communities develop a violent “liberation theology.” They look forward to a future victory, and in the meantime they carry and pass along to future generations a reassuring message that promises triumphal vindication at the expense of their historic enemies.

In the case of Shi’ites, the devotional and political dimensions of Mahdism are so interwoven as to be inseparable. A whole cosmology, with Husayn at the center as the saintly “sacrificial servant,” merges with meta-historical symbolism that transforms communal suffering to redemptive victory. As Abdulazziz Sachedina asserts in his classic study,Islamic Messianism :

Raj’a in the Imamite creed means the return of a group of believers to this world before the final resurrection occurs, during the days of al-Qa’im’s rule, or before or after that period. Theraj’a will take place in order to show the believers the rule of the righteous Imam and to exact revenge from the enemies of theahl al-bayt . The purpose of raj’a would also require that a given number of non-believers and enemies ofahl al-bayt [foremost among them being Yazid, the Umayyad caliph whose soldiers slaughtered Husayn and his forces at Karbala] also be returned to earth so that revenge may be exacted from them...In respect to the twelfth Imam, who is the Hidden Imam of the Imamites, it is his appearance or emergence (zuhur ) which is awaited rather than his “return” (raj’a ), as in the case of the other Imams or even the Prophet. The concept ofraj’a when applied to the twelfth Imam refers to his function as the eschatological Imam…the delay in the appearance of the Imam, as al-Qa’im, the redresser of wrongs committed against the family of the Prophet, resulted in the accentuation of his function of al-Qa’im al-Mahdi of the Last Days.[21]

Sachedina underscores how essential Mahdism has been for the survival of Shi’ism in the face of repeated threats and persecutions:

The belief in the appearance of the Hidden Imam helped the Shi’ites to endure under unbearable situations and to hope for a just future pending the return of the Mahdi. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that without such a belief in the role of the twelfth Imam, the Imamite religion might not have been ale to survive persecutions under different dynasties in the course of Islamic history, before it became established as the official creed of the Safavid empire at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The spiritual aspect of the Mahdi doctrine was destined to gain importance in the face of the failure to establish temporal rule by the Imam. Already the often quoted Shi’i tradition describing the temporal function of al Qa’im al-Mahdi of “filling the earth with justice and equity as it is filled with tyranny and wickedness” sometimes assumed an esoteric interpretation. Sayyid Haydar al-Amuli (d. 1385), in explain[ing] this tradition says: “By ‘filling the earth with justice’ is meant that al-Qa’im al-Muntazar (the Awaited Qa’im) will fill the hearts with knowledge (and affirmation) of the Unity of God (tawhid ), after they had been filled with polytheism and ignorance.” This aspect of the Mahdi doctrine has become nothing less than the cornerstone of the Imamite spiritual edifice. It reflects the hopes and visions of its believers for a better existence.[22]

The vision of an ideal future community, fusing political authority with Islamic authenticity and integrity, has strengthened the faith of Shi’ites throughout centuries of persecution. Their faith was molded and tested in the crucible of history. Until recently that history proved to be tragic, often cruel. During the long period of the Greater Occultation, “the persistent faith in thefaraj (freedom from grief) through thezuhur required Shi’ites to be on alert at all times and also to pave the way for the Imam’s reappearance by constantly re-evaluating contemporary historical life.” This stance of faithful anticipation and vigilance, despite physical hardships, is clearly a positive dimension of Shi’ite piety. The devotional loyalty to the Imams, sacrificial submission to a higher authority transcending temporal rulers, together with a flowering of the religious imagination which, in turn, fueled idealism and hope in ultimate redemption - all of these spiritual attributes can be seen as the blessed fruits of Shi’ite piety as it nourished the faithful over centuries. The idealism engendered by visionary Mahdism served to inspire moral self-criticism and repentance, since the belief in the prospect of redemption presumes a worthiness to be redeemed. As Sachedina notes:

Had it not been this deep sense of paving the way for the reappearance of the Imam, the Shi’ites would not have felt the need to re-evaluate their social circumstances and the shortcomings of their present lives. Thus, theghayba of the Imam has acted as a creative force in the lives of the Imamites in order not only to help them bear with patience the difficult times, but also to prepare them to fulfill their historical responsibility of establishing true Islamic rule, even before the Imam assume the leadership of the Imamiyya.[23]

If, in Sachedina’s view, the spiritual dimension of Mahdism predominated so long as the Imams failed to exercise temporal power, the question today is whether this spiritual focus has been eclipsed, undermined, or even corrupted by Shi’ite political ascendancy in Iran and elsewhere. Sachedina himself observes: “The chiliastic vision of history in Shi’ism continues to be expressed, even today, in terms of radical social protest in the face of political oppression.” That expression may be a positive development, if the means to combat oppression are commensurate with just and noble ends. But what happens when the dark forces of hatred and revenge are mixed with this redemptive impulse?