According to Twelver Shiism, the state religion in the Islamic Republic of Iran, al-Mahdi (‘the chosen one’) is the ‘Absent Imam’. According to Shiite doctrine, Mohammed Ibn Al-Hassan Al-Askari, who they claim is the final Imam, was born in Samarra in 255 Hijra [869 AD], and is still alive, but in a state of suspension or occultation (Ghaibah). This figure is revered by Shiites, who call him Al-Mahdi, Sahib Al-Zaman (‘The Lord of the Age’), and Al-Hujjah Ibn Al-Hassan. When his name is mentioned, Twelver Shiites express their veneration by chanting, “May Allah hasten his release”, to end his occultation and accelerate his reappearance.
♦ Twelver Shiites await the Absent Imam
Due to the hidden status of the ‘Absent Imam’, Shiites repealed many of the Islamic laws and duties, which, according to their beliefs, cannot be enforced during the period of his occultation such as Jihad, Jum’ah prayer, and the establishment of a state. Until the creation of the Jurist Leadership [Wilayat-e Faqih] doctrine, Shiite scholars had prohibited enforcement of these Islamic laws and duties for centuries, with the Jurist Leadership superseding this by claiming to be the Absent Imam’s deputies acting on his behalf in religious issues and conferring his permission by proxy to establish a state during his occultation, the Safavid state established in the year corresponding to 1500 in the Gregorian calendar, on the condition that it be ruled by the Jurists’ leadership.
♦ The Islamic Republic of Iran Prepares for the Coming of the Chosen One “Al-Mahdi”
With the creation of the Republic of Iran in 1979, Khomeini changed the existing Jurists’ representation of the Imam on religious issues into an absolute leadership by the Jurists, conferring on them the sole right to run the state. Khomeini also revoked the Shiite doctrine of being in a state of perpetual “waiting” from a doctrinal and scholastic viewpoint, despite the fact that a central premise of the Islamic Republic, which he founded, is that it is awaiting the emergence of the Absent Imam; Khomeini as “positive waiting” redefined this status.
Khomeini made it a central mission of the Jurist Leader to prepare Al-Mahdi Army which would, according to Shiite doctrine, fight all the other peoples of the world to restore justice and equity on earth following violence and corruption.
According to the two intertwined doctrines of the Jurist Leadership and Mahdism formulated by Khomeini and his followers, Al-Mahdi’s army would consist of only “Ahl al-Bayt” Shiites who believed in him, waited, and prepared all means to hasten his reappearance and prepare his army.
Before Khomeini, the Great Shiite Authority in Najaf and Qum distanced itself from politics and prohibited the establishment of an Islamic government or even participation in any such entity since, according to traditional Shiite doctrine, it is one of Al-Mahdi’s responsibilities that nobody but the Absent Imam can be involved in, with all such activities prohibited during the period of his occultation. Khomeini, however, brushed aside this central doctrine and disregarded traditional Shiite beliefs, using the belief in Al-Mahdi as a basis for the revolution, and to justify Jihad, and to escalate sectarian tensions. Consequently, Khomeini’s fundamentalist doctrine has been used as a political tool and a pretext for war and terrorism based on narrative rather than substantial evidence.
The focus of the Islamic Republic’s founding doctrine rests on weak narratives which suggest that Al-Mahdi will never reappear unless everything is properly prepared in readiness for his return; these preparations include the eruption of a great war in the Levant region, the destruction of Damascus, the separation of Kurds from Syria, the Western countries’ interference in the Shaam [Levant] region, and other legends, which are in fact deployed as useful tools to camouflage the Iranian regime’s extremist and supremacist ideologies and expansion in the region .
Nevertheless, following the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the creation of its constitution, one of the most important responsibilities of the Jurist Leader assuming power was to adopt a suitable policy to hasten the reappearance of Al-Mahdi who would supposedly be accorded full authority following the regime’s “export” of the revolution or re-colonization of the region. According to a central tenet of the Jurist Leadership, “A descendant of the Prophet went into occultation one thousand years ago and will reappear during the time of wars to spread justice and equity before the day of judgment.”
Based on that supposition which is the core of the Islamic Republic’s ruling doctrine, a constitution has been introduced and legislation passed which basically authorizes massive corruption and repression on behalf of the ‘Absent Imam’, administered via regime-run administrative bodies under the pretext that al-Mahdi has approved those practices.
This doctrine is deployed politically to suppress social movements for change in Iran, particularly any reformist-oriented movement. According to Ali Sae’ed, a senior representative of the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), one of the reasons for the delay in the reappearance of the Absent Imam is the existence of Iranian liberals and secularists, a not very veiled criticism of the country’s reformists . Another senior representative of Khamenei, Mohammed Hassan Rahimian, who administers Jamarkan Mosque affairs, has claimed that he was an eyewitness to 13 meetings between Khamenei and Al-Mahdi , meaning that any decision taken by Khamenei is a divinely authorized decision by Al-Mahdi and cannot be rejected. As for Ahmadinejad, he allocated an empty chair in his cabinet to the Absent Imam, with the seat decorated with text reading “The Expected One, Al-Mahdi”. A favorite regime cleric, Murtazaddin Aga Tehrani, meanwhile, said that Al-Mahdi had changed his mind about reappearing due to citizens’ sins and wrongdoing, deciding instead to remain hidden .
♦ The Chosen One “Al-Mahdi” for Sunni Muslims
Many Sunni scholars do not believe in the idea of Al-Mahdi since there is no single article of indisputable evidence in the Holy Quran proving it. According to this group, all Sunni beliefs are derived from the Quran and Hadeeth (the sayings of Prophet Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him). These scholars argue that there is no true Hadeeth in Al-Bukhari and other Islamic texts concerning the words and deeds of the Prophet (PBUH, adding that claims about al-Mahdi in other books are weak and don’t hold up to analysis. As the renowned Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun wrote in his famous work ‘The Introduction’ [Mukadimah], “A very small number of these Hadeeths were not subject to criticism; even less” . The Salafi scholar Sheikh Abdullah Ibn Zaid Al Mahmoud, the head of the Shari’a (Islamic law) courts in Qatar wrote a significant letter in which he rejected the idea of al-Mahdi titled, “No Mahdi is expected after the Prophet, the best of humanity.”
The importance of Sheikh Abdullah’s letter that it was written by one of the greatest Salafi scholars who specialized in Hadeeth and the analysis of Islamic theology. Al-Mahmoud confirmed that the belief in al-Mahdi is not part of the Sunni ideology and was never mentioned by either the Prophet’s companions or their followers. He added that the Hadeeths about this belief are weak and lack any reliable sources. According to Sheikh Abdullah, even Ibn Taimiah, who was interested in ideological analysis, never mentioned al-Mahdi in any of his books. Sheikh Ali Jum’ah, the Egyptian Mufti also said that Sunni Muslims reject the so-called ‘Chosen One’ [Al-Mahdi], asserting that this is a Shiite belief never followed by Sunnis. Jum’ah added that more than 13 people in Egypt have claimed to be the ‘Chosen One’ [Al-Mahdi] .
A great Islamic theologian Mohammed Mohiiaddin Abdulhamid in his comments on the book “Al-Hawi Lilfatawi for Al-Siouti” said, “Some researchers consider everything about Al-Mahdi to originate from the Israelites that were planted by the Shiites and Batinies” . Mohammed Rasheed Riza also considered that the belief in Al-Mahdi originated from the Israelites, quoting his own teacher Mohammed Abdoh, whose teachings were also adopted by the Revival School (the Revivalists and Reformists as they were named by Radwan Al-Saied).
There is, however, another school of thought within Sunnism that relies on some acceptable, true, and weak Hadeeths (those sayings which were only mentioned once and did not recur elsewhere). According to these individuals, the belief in al-Mahdi belief should be one of the central doctrinal tenets of Sunni Muslims. Those who believe this, however, disagree on who Al-Mahdi is, arguing over whether he might be Prophet Issa (PBUH), known to Christians as Jesus Christ, or a righteous man from the descendants of Al-Hassan Ibn Ali.
Hence, it can be said that even among the small number of Sunnis who believe in al-Mahdi, is a minor point in Sunni theology rather than a central doctrine which could see anyone cast as a heretic for refusing to accept it.
The source of disagreement is that individuals who don’t accept the Hadeeths of Ahad as part of their ideological foundation don’t believe in Al-Mahdi (this is the first party that consists of Asha’irah, Mu’tazilah, and Matridiah.) The other party includes those who accept the Ahad Hadeeths as part of their ideology and believe in Al-Mahdi, whoever he is defined as being, such as some Hanbalis, Asha’irah, the People of Hadeeth, and, more recently, traditionalist Salafis.
We must note that all those who acknowledge the existence of Al-Mahdi have not adopted the tenets of political Shiism in this belief. They believed that Al-Mahdi that would appear before the Day of Judgment is Issa Ibn Miriam, a.ka. Jesus (PBUH). Others argue that a righteous man will appear before the Day of Judgment from among the descendants of Al-Hassan Ibn Ali.
» All of this means that there are several differences over the subject of al-Mahdi between Sunnis and Shiites, which can be listed as follows:
1. For Sunnis there is nothing called Al-Mahdi; even those who believe in his appearance before the Day of Judgment assert that he is Issa Ibn Miriam or a righteous man from the descendants of Al-Hassan Ibn Ali, but not from Al-Hussein. These adherents have never attempted to assign an identity to al-Mahdi since they believe he has not been born yet, while the Twelver Shiites believe that he was born over a millennium ago and is alive, but remains in hiding.
2. For Sunnis, the belief in al-Mahdi has no political or ideological uses, being primarily limited to scholarly circles.
3. For both Sunnis and Shiites, their central doctrines are based on unquestionable, recurrent events and Hadeeths, and certainties; they cannot be built on uncertainties. Hence, for Sunnis those who do not believe in Al-Mahdi remain Muslims since it is not a pillar of Islam, while for Shiites, those who deny Al-Mahdi are absolute Infidels despite their shared views on the inadmissibility of uncertainties; this means that they have adopted the uncertain evidence of Al-Mahdi in the same way as certainties.
4. No Sunnis or Sunni countries deploy any belief in Al-Mahdi politically, militarily, nor ideologically. The theocratic regime in Iran, however, has made this belief central to its existence, as well as making it the essence of war and Jihad, claiming it as the rationale for mobilizing thousands of followers domestically and regionally, and sending them to war outside its borders, winning unswerving loyalty from Shiites and naïve followers through this belief in Al-Mahdi.
5. Al-Mahdi belief is a marginal religious aspect for Sunnis and cannot be used in politics, economics, and international relations. On the other hand, it is one of the pillars of the Iranian regime’s Shiite ideology incorporated into every aspect of religious affairs and everyday life, as well as in politics, economics, major decisions, and international relations. In fact, the Iranian regime has officially centralized this belief and put it to devastating use through mobilizing people for wars and escalating sectarian conflicts.
♦ Mahdis in Shiite History
After the death of Mohammed Ibn Al-Hanafiah in 81 Hijra [700 AD], the Shiites divided into two sects: the first claimed that he did not die, with a number of figures and his brother’s grandson Mohammed Al-Baqir that claimed he buried him. The other sect acknowledged his death, proclaiming Mohammed Al-Baqir to be the fifth Imam who took over after the death of Ibn Al-Hanafiah . This second group further claimed that Mohammed Al-Nafs Al-Zakiah (100-145 Hijri date) was the awaited one “Al-Mahdi” because he resembled Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in manners and looks, and had his and his father’s names. Whenever he rode on his horse, people would reportedly scream, “Al-Mahdi, al-Mahdi!” .
After the death of Ja’far Al-Sadiq, Shiites disagreed over which of his sons he had recommended succeeding him, Mousa Al-Kazim or Ismail. Some claimed that he appointed Mousa Al-Kazim, while others asserted that he appointed his elder son Ismail; this later group subsequently became known as the Ismailis for their claim that Ismail was the expected one “Al-Mahdi” .
Some Al-Waqifah Shiites claimed that Mousa Ibn Ja’far Al-Kazim (the seventh Imam for Twelver Shiites) was al-Mahdi. Others claimed to have corresponded and met with Al-Kazim. Nevertheless, Twelver Shiite scholars reject these claims since, according to the theologian Al Nobakhti, Mousa’s death was confirmed and people had seen his body and his burial, showing that claims 150 years later to have met or corresponded with him were unbelievable since nobody could claim to have met him after his death .
Since Mousa Ibn Ja’far died around 150 years earlier, then the birth of a son to Al-Hassan Al-Askari during that period of time was doubtful because if his birth had been clear to people, they would not have disagreed with him. We note also that Al-Nobakhti concluded by asserting that the existence of the Imam’s occultation was possible only under the condition of not passing the logical and normal occultation (30 years at that time). However, he said, the period of supposed occultation for Al-Nobakhti lasted centuries after his death (now 1,178 years), making it impossible. This goes beyond the acceptable limits, suggesting that the Shiite scholars created new ‘evidence’ to prove their doctrines through the use of philosophical tools to eliminate these glaring discrepancies. It should be noted that that in each historical period, the Twelver Shiite scholars seem to create new evidence about the Absent Mahdi.
After the deaths of each of the venerated Shiite Imams, it seems that new Shiite sects have emerged to claim that, despite his death, he is al-Mahdi. These events have also been accompanied by some false Hadeeths created by Hadeeth-manufacturers and extremists pursuing political and wholly worldly agendas. After the death of Mousa Alo-Kazim (the seventh Shiite Imam), for instance, some of his companions claimed he was Al-Mahdi. This can be attributed to a number of reasons, including ambiguity of some of the occultation narratives and similar vagueness in the evidence required by the Shiite Imamate, as well as a general lack of credibility. Ibrahim Ibn Saleh Al-Anmati claimed that Al-Kazim was the expected one “Al-Mahdi”, writing ‘The Book of Occultation’, in which he included all the stories he had heard from the Imams he consulted about this issue. However, it is noted that scholars and jurists of the fourth and fifth centuries used the same narratives of Al-Anmati concerning the seventh Imam, Mousa Al-Kazim, in relation to the Twelfth Imam based on the grounds of his existence.
Another Shiite jurist, Ali Ibn Al-Hassan Al-Anmati, claimed that Ali Al-Kazim was the expected one, “Al-Mahdi”, writing a book about his doctrine. Al-Anmati was extremely stubborn and biased against those who opposed him. He had a dedicated disciple called Ibn Sama’ah who lived a long life and died three years after the death of Al-Hussein Al-Askari (the eleventh Imam). He wrote the “Occultation” book and referred to the seventh Imam “Al-Kazim” as the expected one “Al-Mahdi”. However, his evidence submitted supposedly to prove this theory, was later adopted by Shiite scholars regarding the Twelfth Imam as the expected one “Al-Mahdi”. But the existence of Al-Kazim cannot be denied, while Ibn Al-Hassan Al-Askari can be.
All of these contradictory and conflicting reports show that the field of Mahdism research is exceptionally vague and mysterious, adopting many different analytical approaches, which lack scientific clarity or organized methodology. Hence, it is incorrect to consider this a legitimate doctrine since it has been adopted by a regime which plans its policies on the grounds of these obscurantist mysteries.
Things were no clearer even during the lifetimes of the Shiite Imams. Following the death of each Imam, there was disagreement over the appointed successors, with even the brothers of those Imams differing on this issue such as Mohammed Al-Baqir (the fifth Imam) and his brother Zaid (the founder of the Zaidiah sect named after him), who contested the appointment of his brother Al-Baqir and insisted that the Imamate should be reserved for himself. Another example is the events following the death of Ja’far Al-Sadiq in 148 Hijra, date when the Shiites were divided into six sects .
All these problems and complexities show the ambiguity of the narratives about the twelve Imams and their identities, and support the argument that there is no divine or prophetic evidence for this ideology, leading to disagreement between Shiite scholars and effectively exposing the doctrine surrounding the expected one “Al-Mahdi” as false since doctrines can only be built on truths and certainties rather than mysteries, even for the Shiite scholars themselves.
♦ Was the Expected one “Al-Mahdi” born in Reality?
This is a very crucial question asked by most Shiite thinkers and scholars: was Al-Mahdi ever actually born to date? Did Al-Hassan Al-Askari have a son or did he die childless? Many Shiite scholars believe that Al-Mahdi has not yet been born yet, using credible scientific and historical proof to substantiate their claims. The leading Shiite thinker Ahmed Alkatib wrote an important book rejecting the birth of Ibn Al-Hassan Al-Askari entitled, “Discussions with the References, Scholars, and Thinkers about the Existence of the Twelfth Imam,” in which he referred to historical and intellectual evidence proving Al-Mahdi’s Imamate. In this work, he wrote, “The historical proofs of the existence of Al-Mahdi were weak and do not prove this doctrine. The intellectual proofs cannot prove it either , while the narrative articles of evidence were all weak and could not attain an adequate level of evidence after they were investigated and demolished by Ayatollah Alborqo’i and others” .