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Lesson Plan: Shī'ite Messianism

Lynda Clarke
Associate Professor of Religion and Islam
Concordia University, Montréal

Audience: This lesson plan is intended for a college undergraduate audience.

Course: Introduction to Islam Syllabus Section: Shī'ite Islam

Course: Shī'ite Islam
Syllabus Section: Messianism

Course: Jewish, Christian, or world messianisms
Syllabus Section: Comparison with messianism in Shī'ite Islam

Course: Middle Eastern Politics
Syllabus Section: Contemporary Islamic (or Shī'ite) messianism

Introduction and History of Messianism

Messianism refers to the hopeful expectation of a personality who will come to sweep away corruption and injustice from the earth. The frequent references in the Quran to the end-times do not explicitly address messianism or use the most common term for the Islamic messianic figure, Mahdī. Islamic messianism emerged only after the conquest of areas of the Middle East populated by Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, and some of its features may have been inspired by these religions. Messianic ideas, however, are found in many religious traditions and represent an apparently innate human tendency to look forward to an ideal future, especially when suffering under difficult conditions. Islamic messianism developed under the influence of both this human tendency and contact with other religious traditions.

Two aspects of Shī'ism favoured the development of messianism. One was veneration of 'Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and his descendants (with different Shī'ite sects choosing different lines). 'Alī was the closest male relative of the Prophet Muḥammad, and adherents of his Shī'ah or "partisans" regarded him and those of his blood as continuing the Prophet's charisma. Shī'ites hoped that the Imāms or "ideal leaders", as these figures were called, would combine perfect political and religious leadership as it was believed the Prophet had done and 'Alī had also attempted to do during his brief and tumultuous caliphate. These ideas fell on fertile ground especially in Kūfah in southern Iraq, where there was much discontent with the ruling powers as well as a mix of religious ideas among recently converted peoples. The second aspect of Shī'ism favouring messianism is its oppositional character. 'Alī had taken up the cause of groups in Iraq and elsewhere who felt they were treated unfairly by rulers based in far-off Madinah and Damascus, and Shī'ites continued to regard the subsequent Umayyad and 'Abbāsid dynasties as unjust and illegitimate. Uprisings sometimes broke out, for example the movement in 686 CE in Iraq in favour of a son of 'Alī, Muḥammad ibn al-ḥanafīyah, and revolt in Mecca in 762 of a great-great grandson of 'Alī called by his followers "The Pure Soul" (al-Nafs al-Zakīyah). These and other movements were crushed or went underground. Yearning for an ideal leader came together with a feeling of hopeless opposition to create a messianic belief in the coming of a saviour or deliverer.

The Twelver school of Shī'ism, to which the vast majority of Shī'ites belong today, holds that their Twelfth Imām descended from 'Alī went into Occultation in Samarra, Iraq and will come back at the end of time as the Mahdī or "Guided One". Twelvers divide the Occultation into two stages. The Lesser Occultation began in 874 and refers to the time during which four prominent members of the community are believed to have been the successive "agents" of the Imām able to deliver and bring back messages from him. The Greater Occultation began in 941with the complete disappearance of the Imām after the last Agent brought a message predicting his own death and saying there would be no more communication. Twelver Shī'ītes today believe themselves to be still living in the age of the Greater Occultation, which will last until the Mahdī comes back to establish his rule. Though the Twelfth Imām will not reappear until God decrees, he is always the "Master of the Age" (แนขāḥib al-Zamān) living incognito somewhere in the world, and as the Qā'im or "He Who Rises Up", he will finally come back to "fill the earth with justice as it has been filled with injustice", as Shī'ites say. No-one knows the time of the appearance of the Mahdī and it is forbidden to predict or try to hasten it, but it will be preceded by signs, such as a voice calling from the sky, the sun rising from the West, earthquakes, plagues, war, false prophets, corruption of religion and general moral decline. The many different portents and events connected with the coming of the Mahdī are described in statements attributed to the Imāms and Prophet, who have knowledge of these future things. Stories of the signs and the advent of the Mahdī are colourful and detailed. They include many references to specific places such as Kūfah and Khurāsān and personalities such as the Sufyānī, a singularly oppressive ruler of the Levant, and the Dajjāl, a one-eyed, false Messiah. Verses of the Qur'ān such as 26:4 and 21:97 are also sometimes cited as evidence that the coming of the Mahdī is part of God's plan. Although the verses do not explicitly refer to messianism, the Imāms, who are believed to know the full meaning of the Qur'ān, read them in this way in statements attributed to them in Shī'ite sources.

Shī'ite sources say that the Mahdī will finally defeat the Sufyānī, Dajjāl, and his other opponents, partly with the aid of Jesus. The coming of the Mahdī marks the final triumph of Shī'ism after a long history of oppression. 'Alī and his martyred son ḥusayn will come back from the dead along with their supporters in an event called "The Return" to rout their resurrected enemies. The Mahdī will lead believers in bloody battles in which all opponents of the Imāms and Shī'ites will be slaughtered. With the appearance of the Mahdī, everyone will adhere to the true, original religion, which is Islam. The Mahdī will establish peace and prosperity on the earth, and his rule will eventually be followed by the final resurrection and judgement.

The Twelver Shī'ite doctrine of messianism developed gradually over time. Before the idea of a Mahdī became identified with the Twelfth Imām, it was attached to numerous other descendants of 'Alī, including Muḥammad ibn al-ḥanafīyah, the "Pure Soul", and several previous Twelver Imāms. Even the number of twelve Imāms was settled on only after struggles between different factions. Historical documents show that the Shī'ites who would later become the Twelvers disagreed about the existence of a son of the eleventh Imām, especially since some of his relatives denied that he had ever had a son and the child was seen, according to legend, by only a few people before he disappeared into the Lesser Occultation at the age of five. The final disappearance of the Imām into what became known, in retrospect, as the Greater Occultation confused many Shī'ites who could not understand why God would take away a divinely-appointed leader from his followers. During the Lesser Occultation, which lasted the normal life-span of a human being, and even after, many Shī'ites continued to hope for the Twelfth Imām's imminent return, to the extent that some thought that religious taxes due to the Imām should be buried in the ground so he could find them when he came. The Shī'ite scholars who finally took charge of the community's affairs in the absence of the Imām tried to address these issues. They suggested, for instance, that the Imām had gone because he had too few supporters and needed to wait until a better time to fight, and they pointed out that an ideal leader was beneficial to his followers even if he was hidden, just as the sun gives light and warmth even when it is covered by clouds.

More than a thousand years after the Occultation, Twelver Shī'ites are still waiting for the reappearance of the Twelfth Imām. Shī'ites often follow mention of his name with the formula "May God hasten his relief" to express their firm faith that God will end the Occultation one day. A small underground chamber in Samarra is shown as the place where the child-Imām disappeared, and pilgrims to a mosque in the village of Jamkarān, near Qom in Iran drop communications into a well so the disappeared Imām can read them. It is believed that the Twelfth Imām can appear in dreams and that some people have recognized him in chance encounters, though these events are thought to be rare.

The messianism of the Ismā'īlīs, the second-largest Shī'ite sect to have survived to the present day, is different from that of the Twelvers. The line of 'Alī's descendants recognized by the Ismā'īlīs diverged in the eighth century from that of the Twelvers at an Imām called Ismā'īl. Some early Ismā'īlīs believed that this Imām was still alive and would return as the Qā'im or "He Who Rises Up". Still others focused on Ismā'īl's son Muḥammad, admitted he had died, and thought he would return as the Qā'im after he was revived. Here again we see the variety and fluidity of Shī'ite messianic ideas. The majority branch of the Ismā'īlīs today, called the Nizārīs after a supposed eleventh-century descendant of Ismā'īl, had yet another view. In a rather mysterious event that took place in the twelfth century in one of the Nizārī Ismā'īlī castles in Iran, it was announced that the Imām had appeared or "risen" to establish a new age by abolishing the ritualistic exoterism of the Sharī'ah and providing access to inner (bāṭin), spiritual meaning. Announcing the Arising may have been a way of renewing the revolutionary vigour of the community, which was often engaged in a struggle with the non-Ismā'īlī Muslim world, by bringing the expectation and excitement of messianism to the present.

Present-day Nizārī Ismā'īlism also has overtones of messianic fulfillment. Nizārīs do believe that a descendant of their line of Imāms will come in the future to perfect the world, but this figure and events surrounding him are vague and little emphasized. Attention is focused instead on the current Imām, called by his followers "The Present Imām" (ḥāz̤ir Imām). The Imām is present because, in contrast to the Twelvers whose last Imām is in Occultation, the Nizārīs have had a continuous line of living Imāms, the current "Present Imām" being Shāh Karīm al-ḥusaynī, known as Aga Khan IV. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather Aga Khan III, Aga Khan IV emphasizes the Ismā'īlī mission to improve the lives of Muslims and others through development work and inter-religious understanding. This approach suggests "constructive" messianism, i.e. a belief that one should not just wait for the coming of the Messiah to save the world, but prepare for his return by improving it as much as possible now. Since the Nizārī Imām is present, his mission to improve the world may be understood as an indication that the fulfilment of the messianic age has begun, with improvement expected to continue through the agency of the Imāms one after the other until an ultimate perfection.

Modern Twelver Shī'ism has moved toward constructive messianism. Traditional Twelver messianism depicts history up to the arrival of the Mahdī as an entirely dark age during which the community will continuously suffer oppression. Statements attributed to the Imāms tell their followers that the greatest virtue in this trying period is faithfully awaiting the Mahdi's return. It is wrong to openly struggle or rise up, since Shī'ite suffering can only be relieved by the appearance of "He Who Shall Arise". Modern Twelver thinkers who are in favour of constructive messianism radically alter this picture. 'Alī Sharī'atī, for instance, insisted that proper expectation requires fighting on the side of justice in humanity's constant struggle with tyranny and working toward the establishment of a classless society. Ayatollah Khomeini preached that it is necessary to establish an Islamic state even before the appearance of the Mahdī in order for Islam to be fully practised and rescued from Western imperialism. Some expressions of this new, constructive Twelver messianism omit mention of Shī'ite oppression and a final, bloody revenge, suggesting instead that the coming of the Mahdī will be a positive event for all.

Messianism exists in Sunnite as well as Shī'ite Islam. Many of the colourful details of the coming of the Mahdī are actually the same in Shī'ism and Sunnism, since they date from a time in which the two branches were not as clearly distinguished as they are today. One difference is that Shī'ites believe the Mahdī to be a specific person descended from 'Alī who will come back at the end of time, whereas the Sunnites think of a Mahdī as a charismatic personality who appears on the stage of history at a crucial juncture to defend or renew Islam, the famous Sudanese Mahdī who fought against the British in the nineteenth century being just one example among many. Another difference is that Sunnite messianism aims to restore the golden age and norms of the Prophet's time, including Sharī'ah, in the present world. Twelver Shī'ite messianism, in contrast, is utopian, that is it looks forward to the establishment of an entirely new world. The idea of a new world transformed by the coming of the Imām has led in the past to tension with Sharī'ah, as seen in the Nizārī announcement of the Arising. It also facilitated the creation in nineteenth-century Iran of the new religions of Bābism and Bahā'ī faith.

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

Abdulaziz Sachedina's article on Messianism provides a thematic and historical perspective on messianism in Islam overall. Daniel C. Peterson's article on Eschatology links messianism to Muslim concepts of the end-times, from the Qur'an to the modern era. The chapter on "The Twelfth Imam, His Occultation and Return" in Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press 1985) includes a list of commonly cited signs of the Mahdī's advent and other material from primary sources, while the chapter on the "Return of the Mahdi" in Abdelaziz Sachedina, Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver Shi'ism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1981) traces the development of messianism in Shī'ite thought. For modern Twelver messianism, read Yann Richard's article on "expectation" or Intiẓār along with the biography of 'Alī Sharī'atī. Popular Shī'ite messianism and a tendency to link contemporary events to traditional Mahdī legends are discussed in David Cook, "Messianism in the Shiite Crescent." Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 11 (2011): 91-103.

Questions for Discussion

  • What similarities and differences do you see between Shī'ite and [Jewish, Christian, etc.] messianism?
  • Search online for material posted by Twelver Shī'ites about the Mahdī. Some active English-language sites are www.shia.org, www.al-islam.org, and the "Imam Mahdi Forum" at http://www.shiachat.com/forum . You will see different views about the coming of the Mahdī, since the traditional stories are not entirely consistent and popular views in all religions evolve and change. You may also see debates with Sunnīs and Ismā'īlīs. Students or the instructor should bookmark interesting pages for class or group discussion.
  • Western media outlets as well as some scholars of Islam speculate that elements in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran from 2005-2013, expect the Mahdī to return and bring victory very soon. Search online for material supporting and rejecting this view. Students or the instructor should bookmark interesting pages for class or group discussion. Note the sources of the pages carefully and consider how different opinions may be conditioned by the authors' backgrounds and worldviews.
  • Do you recognize any themes of Shī'ite messianism in Bābism and Bahā'ī faith?

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