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The Sunni Books on the Characteristics of the Mahdi

The session began on time at Dr. Fahimi's house. Dr. Fahimi welcomed the group and without wasting much time formulated his question with a brief introduction outlining the problem as he saw it.

Dr. Fahimi: The personality of the Mahdi in the Shi'i traditions is prominent and clear. However, in the Sunni traditions it is mentioned briefly and that also with much ambiguity. For example, the story of his occultation which is recorded in the majority of your traditions, and which is regarded as the fundamental aspect of his attributes, is entirely absent in our traditions. The promised Mahdi in your hadith has different names such as Qa'im, Master of the Command and so on, which, in our sources, is lacking and he is mentioned only by one name, that is, Mahdi. More particularly, the Qa'im is totally missing in our hadith. Do you regard this as something normal, or do you see a problem with such an absence?

Mr. Hoshyar: Apparently, the reason could be that during the Umayyad and 'Abbasid periods the subject of Mahdiism had assumed a political dimension. As such the recording and dissemination of the traditions about the promised Mahdi, especially the signs of his appearance and all the details dealing with his occultation and revolution, was suppressed. The rulers were extremely fearful of the spread of the hadith about the occultation and subsequent emergence of the Mahdi. They were certainly sensitive about the terms 'occultation', 'rise', and 'insurrection'.

If you refer to the historical sources and study the social and political conditions that prevailed under the Umayyad and the 'Abbasid caliphate, you will agree with my explanation as to why such information was suppressed by these caliphs and their administrators. In this short time we cannot go into any detail to investigate the major events of the period. However, to prove our point we have to direct our attention to two important issues:

First, since the story of Mahdiism had deep religious roots and since the Prophet himself had given the information that when disbelief and materialism become widespread and injustice and tyranny become the order of the day, the Mahdi will rise and will restore the pure religion and ethical order. It was for this reason that Muslims always regarded this prophecy as a source of great consolation and awaited it to be fulfilled. Under adverse conditions when they had lost all hope for the restoration of justice, the prophecy was even more in circulation, and those who sought reform, including those who had the ambition to abuse the simple faith of the people, took advantage of this prediction.

The first person who took advantage of the people's faith in Mahdiism and its religious underpinnings was Mukhtar. Following the tragic event of Karbala in 61 AH/680 CE, Mukhtar wanted to avenge the martyrs of Karbala and overthrow the Umayyad government. But he realized that the Hashimites and the Shi'is had lost hope in seizing the caliphate for themselves. Consequently, he saw the belief in Mahdiism as the only way to awaken the people and make them hopeful. Since Muhammad b. Hanafiyya's name and patronymic were the same as that of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) (this was one of the recognized signs of the Mahdi) Mukhtar decided to seize the opportunity and introduced Muhammad b. Hanafiyya as the promised Mahdi and himself as his vizier and envoy. He told the people that Muhammad b. Hanafiyya was the promised Mahdi of Islam. At the time when the oppression and tyranny were increasing and Husayn b. 'Ali, his family, and companions were killed mercilessly at Karbala, the Mahdi had decided to rise in order to avenge the martyrs of Karbala, and restore justice on earth as it had been filled with wickedness. He then introduced himself as the Mahdi's representative. In this manner Mukhtar launched an insurrection and killed a group of murderers who had participated in killing Imam Husayn. This was, by the way, the first time that an insurrection had been launched against the caliphate.

The second person who manipulated the faith in the Mahdi for his own political ends was Abu Muslim of Khurasan. Abu Muslim organized a widespread movement against the Umayyads in Khurasan with the pretext of avenging the blood of Imam Husayn, his family and companions who were killed in the tragic event of Karbala. In addition, he rose to avenge the cruel murders of Zayd b. 'Ali during the caliphate of Hisham b. 'Abd al-Malik and of Yahya b. Zayd during the caliphate of Walid. A group of people regarded Abu Muslim himself to be the awaited Mahdi. Others saw him as a forerunner of the Mahdi and as one of the signs that preceded the final revolution under he who would appear with black banners from the direction of Khurasan. In this insurrection the 'Alids, 'Abbasids and all other Muslims formed a united front against the Umayyads that finally overthrew their rule over the empire.

Although these movements were heavily based on restoring the usurped rights of the ahl al-bayt and avenging the unjust murders of the 'Alids, the 'Abbasids and their supporters manipulated the insurrection to their own advantage. With treachery and treason they distorted the actual direction of the movement and seized power from the supporters of the 'Alids, thereby establishing themselves as the ahl al-bayt of the Prophet and as the new caliphs of Islam.

In this revolution, which was founded upon Shi'i ideals of justice and equity, the people had succeeded in proving their ability to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Umayyads. They were pleased that they had eliminated the source of Umayyad corruption and had helped to return the right to rule to its rightful leaders among the ahl al-bayt. After all, they had at least succeeded in getting rid of Umayyad oppression. The success had led them to aspire to a better life and a more equitable society. In fact, they had congratulated each other in those terms. However, within a short period they were awakened to the cruelty of the new dynasty, the 'Abbasids, and realized that the new rulers were not very different from those they had replaced. There was no change in their living conditions, no justice, no equity, and no peace. Their lives and property were not secure from the worldly rulers and administrators of the new state. The promised reforms and promulgation of the divine ordinances were far from being realized. Gradually, as people became aware of the failure of the revolution they had helped to launch, they became conscious of their error in judgement regarding the 'Abbasids and their deception in the name of the promised Mahdi.

The 'Alid leaders also found the 'Abbasid behavior towards them and towards Islam and the Muslims not very different from that of the Umayyads. In fact, the 'Abbasids proved themselves to be even more manipulative and brutal towards the descendants of 'Ali b. Abi Talib. They were left with no alternative than to launch their resistance anew and fight the 'Abbasids also. The best persons among them to lead such resistance were undoubtedly the descendants of 'Ali and Fatima (peace be upon them). The reason was that there were a number of their descendants who were known for their piety, wisdom, knowledge and courage. In fact, they were regarded as more qualified candidates for the caliphate. Moreover, they were the true descendants of the Prophet and their direct lineage to him generated a sense of loyalty and love for them. In addition, because their rights had been usurped and they had suffered wrongs at the hands of the Umayyads, the masses had a natural inclination and sympathy for the ahl al-bayt.

Consequently, as the 'Abbasids persisted in committing atrocities against the ahl al-bayt the people were, more than ever before, drawn towards them and rallied to their cause in opposing the rulers and in rebelling against them. In addition, they made use of the notion of the Mahdi that had from the time of the Prophet taken deep roots in the minds and hearts of Muslims and introduced their revolutionary leader as the promised Mahdi. This required the 'Abbasids to confront some of the most popular, highly respected, and very learned rivals to their power. The 'Abbasid caliphs knew the 'Alawid leaders well, being fully aware of their personal qualities and honorable family lineage and the prophecies that were foretold by the Prophet about the future coming of the Mahdi, the restorer of Islamic purity. They knew that in accordance with the traditions reported from the Prophet the awaited Mahdi would be one of the descendants of Fatima (peace be upon her). He would be the one to rise against tyranny and oppression and establish the rule of justice on earth. Moreover, they knew that his victory was guaranteed. The promise of justice through the appearance of the Mahdi had an enormous spiritual impact upon the people and the caliphal authority was fully informed about its potentially explosive repercussions in the empire. It is probably correct to say that the most formidable challenge to 'Abbasid authority was from these 'Alawid leaders, who had caused them to loosen their grip on the regions under their control and face the consequences of their corrupt rule.

The strategy that was adopted by the 'Abbasids in the light of this growing opposition to them was to divide the followers of these 'Alawid leaders and prevent them from rallying around them. The leaders themselves were kept under constant surveillance and, the famous ones among them were either imprisoned or eliminated. According to Ya'qubi, the historian, the 'Abbasid caliph Musa Hadi tried his utmost to arrest the prominent descendants of 'Ali b. Abi Talib. He had even terrorized them and had sent instructions all over his realm demanding that they be arrested and sent to him.1 Similarly, Abu Faraj Isfahani writes: "When Mansur became the caliph all he was concerned about was the arrest of Muhammad b. 'Abd Allah b. Hasan [b. 'Ali b. Abi Talib] and finding out about his plans [regarding his claim to being the Mahdi]."2

1 Ta'rikh (Najaf edition, 1384 AH), Vol. 3, p. 142.

2 Maqatil al-talibiyyin, p. 233-234.

Adopted from the book : "Al-Imam al-Mahdi (a.s.); the Just Leader of Humanity" by : "Ayatullah Ibrahim Amini"

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