In order to have an understanding of Islamic Mahdism, it is necessary to first accept the fact that there is not an established set of rules regarding the subject. There are a variety of factors that add to the subject's ambiguity, including a lack of Koranic scripture referring directly to the Mahdi himself. The word Mahdi is never mentioned in the Koran and therefore the concept emerges from a large canon of expanded religious traditions, known as Hadiths and Tafsirs, which one historian describes as a kind of Mahdist mythology.6 Depending on the tradition, the Mahdi will take on different titles and names, and was predicted to come from an array of geographical places. Most of these traditions describe a state of immorality and sinfulness which will exist on earth preceding the appearance of the Mahdi. 7 In addition to the spiritual battles that are to face humanity at the "end of time", the Hadiths and Tafsirs also mention earthly trials that are to accompany the Day of Judgment and the appearance of the world's great redeemer, or Mahdi. One tradition describes a worldly battle that develops after the coming of the Mahdi, which all mankind will witness. In this tradition, an epic battle takes place between the forces of good and evil and tells of cosmic smoke, ad-dukhan, the beast, ad-dabba, a sunrise in the west, three separate eclipses, and a fire emanating from the city of Aden in southern Arabia, all of which will drive mankind to the final place of gathering.8 Some traditions even describe the bodily appearance of the Mahdi. Historian Mutahhar Tahir reports from various accounts that the Mahdi will have brown eyes, teeth of extreme whiteness and a beauty spot on the cheek.9 Again, these various traditions come from a large quantity of sources, which inevitably adds some ambiguity when studying the concept of the Mahdi.
There is also difficulty in relating the concept of Mahdism with other millennial accounts, such as the ones recorded in the New Testament. In this sense, it is difficult to draw parallels between Islamic and Christian millennialism. One historian explains that because of the complexities concerning the development of Islam, it is nearly impossible to compare the concept of Islamic Mahdism with other monotheistic religions. He states, The history and ideas behind this notion should not be understood as eschatological in the traditional sense of the word. Therefore, comparisons with Jewish Messianism, or with the Christian conception of the second coming of Christ, will not aid in our understanding of the whole complexity of Mahdism in its Muslim context.10
The uncertainty surrounding the subject is also heightened by the divergent interpretations presented by both the Sunni and Shiite schools of Islamic thought. Both have developed unique doctrines concerning the nature of the Mahdi.
For the Sunnites, the Mahdi is known as the Expected Deliverer. The word Mahdi itself is a rough translation meaning the One led by God to the Truth. It has also been translated as the One who has been announced as good news.11 Most Sunni theologians agree on three basic principles describing the Mahdi's nature and appearance. First, he is to appear in the world when the planet is filled with injustice and inequity. According to many traditions chaos will reign on earth and it will be filled with anarchy. This state of disarray, according to the reports, is to precede the end of the world. Secondly, the Mahdi is to usher in a Golden Age and through his actions restore order to the planet through the rejuvenation of time honored values and pure religious teachings. The third concept revolves around the accepted notion that the traditions provide more precise conceptualizations of who the Mahdi is specifically. This relates to things such as where the Mahdi will appear and what he might look like.12
In certain Sunni traditions the Mahdi figure is associated with the personality of Jesus. He is known as Isa Ibn Maryam (son of Mary) and, depending on which school of Sunni thought, he is speculated be the Mahdi himself or the Mahdi's assistant while the former struggles on earth against the forces of evil. Certain Muslim theologians have used one particular passage from the Koran to associate Jesus with these traditions. One historian explains, on the assumption that the passage is continuous, the pronoun is usually taken as referring to Jesus 13 Yet, when examining the idea of Jesus as the Mahdi, some historians maintain that this concept primarily emerges from the traditions and not from the Koran. The above-mentioned historian emphasizes, Indeed there is no doubt among scholars that the concept of the eschatological Mahdi developed considerably later than that of Isa, and had only little by little managed to obtain a place in the already fixed scenery of the Last Things. The reason for this appearance lies undoubtedly in the fact that whatever position the figure of al-Mahdi may have enjoyed among the Muslim faithful, it remains that the word is not mentioned in the Koran.14 Again, the subjects ambiguity.
The Shi'as take a somewhat different approach in interpreting the concept of the Mahdi. One striking difference lies in their belief that the Mahdi will be associated with the return of the twelfth Imam. This school of thought believed the rightful successor of the Prophet Muhammad to be Ali, his cousin and son in law. For the Shiites, divine authority passed from Ali, by way of primogenitor, to his sons Hasan and Husayn, the second and third Imam respectively. This line continued through a series of leaders (twelve in number) and, according to certain accounts, the 12th Imam Muhammad al- Hasan al-Askara mysteriously disappeared in his home in the year 878 A.D. It is this figure that is to emerge from the earth at the end of time and bring justice to humankind.15
Besides the return of the 12th Imam, another form in which this great redeemer might manifest himself is that of Al-Qaim. This term is typically used in the connection that the Mahdi will return in the form of the Imam Husayn, considered by pious Shiites as the greatest martyr of their Faith. According to certain traditions, the Qaim will finish the task of ridding the earth of tyranny, starting his quest on the plains of Karbila.16
The theories and standpoints stated above reveal the complexity surrounding the study of Islamic Mahdism. It is also important to note the environment in which Ali Muhammad and Muhammad Ahmad made their claims. Both Iran and the Sudan were witnessing popular unrest when the Bab and Ahmad declared their missions, and many people in both countries wished for various types of reform. Also, both countries during this period were struggling to find ways to deal with the currents of modernization. One historian states, the conflict between tradition and process creates a religious tension greater that anything comparable in the countries of the West. He continues by asserting the problem is not simply how to reconcile the old and the new, but how to preserve the Islamic cultural inheritance while facing the West from a basis of material equality.17
Initially, Islam arrived in the Sudan by way of trade. Eventually, the Mamluk kingdom applied pressure to the region, and Islamic leaders began taking their place within the Sudanese government. As a result, the leadership, which was then mostly pagan and Christian, became predominantly Muslim by the 13th century. From this time onward, scholars attribute Sufi missionary activity as a major factor in creating a Muslim culture within the Sudan.18 Years passed and eventually a Muslim population, mostly speaking Arabic and claiming Arab descent, had established itself in the settled villages and grazing land.19 By the 19th century many of these villages and settlements were increasingly affected by the policies of Egypt. Ismail, who had gained power in Egypt by 1863, led a series of campaigns to take control of regions in the south such as the Sudan. One of his main goals was to curtail the slave trade within the Sudan to strengthen his own economic status. To accomplish this Ismail sent a British officer named Charles George Gordon to oppose those who might revolt against the new policies. The details and circumstances surrounding the events are numerous; but most scholars agree that because of these reforms the Sudan was left in a state of economic disruption by 1879, leading to what one historian describes as a state of near anarchy.20 Taxes were also high and many regions within the Sudan suffered greatly from depopulation during this period. It was from this chaotic environment that Muhammad Ahmad arose to take action against his enemies to the north.21
The Sudanese Mahdi first made his claim to his closest companions. He then made a public declaration of his mission on the Island of Aba in the year 1881.22 One of his initial goals was to assert military authority and fight the government of the Egyptians, then under the authority of the Ottoman Empire.23 In an account taken from the Sira of the Mahdi, a dialogue takes place in which an official pleads with Muhammad Ahmad not to take up arms against the government; Ahmad responds by stating, if it need be he would fight the government only with those present.24 The Sira of the Mahdi was written by Ismail Abd al-Qadir who lived during the time of Muhammad Ahmad, and contains numerous accounts of the Mahdi's wish to create a state and conquer any opposition by way of the sword.25
The Mahdi's companions used several traditions to support Muhammad Ahmad's claim to be God's mouthpiece on earth. One reads as follows: Al-Tabarani narrated in the Prophet's name that the Prophet had said: 'The Mahdi is of my offspring. His countenance is like the brilliant star. The complexion is an Arab complexion and the body is an Israelite body. He will fill the earth with justice as it was filled with oppression'.26 Early Mahdist believers used this tradition, and others like it, to validate Muhammad Ahmad's military pursuits. This validation was accomplished by calling attention to his initial successes against Ottoman and Egyptian authorities in the region. The Suri of the Mahdi states, He filled the earth with equity and justice after it had been filled with oppression and tyranny of the Turks.27 With regard to Muhammad Ahmad's physical makeup, the same text states, God made the Mahdi's bodily features perfect so that his beautiful body would be suited to the perfect soul. All this is in the way of inheritance from, and resemblance to, the Prophet Muhammad.28
The teachings of the Mahdi also reflect his great desire to purify Islam and return it to the same condition that existed during the time of the Prophet. There is evidence that shows the Sudanese Mahdi wished to break from traditional Sufi observances despite his Sufi background. In many respects it is probable that he felt Sufi order caused disunity between Muslims within the Sudan. The essence of the Mahdiyya was to enforce the pure Islam upon a society still pagan in many practices, and, on the other hand, divided by Sufi sectarianism.29 This ecchalogical break could also be witnessed in the Mahdi's stress of the recitation of the Ratib or addition prayer separate from the other five prayers that the Muslim faithful were bound to perform. The reason Muhammad Ahmad made the Ratib important was that it had its grounding in the Hadiths and Koran; a point the Mahdi wished to stress, due to the fact that many Sufi observances were not directly tied to time honored traditions and the Koran.30
Four years after his declaration, Muhammad Ahmad's followers took a major stronghold called Khartoum. Gordon and his men were slain, and a Mahdist theocratic state was established which lasted for about ten years. During this period the Mahdists minted coins, collected Quranic taxes, and permitted slavery and the slave trade once again to flourish.31
Following Muhammad Ahmad's death in 1885, he appointed one of his closest disciples, named Abdallahi, to be his rightful successor and preserver of the Mahdi's cause. In a document, provided by the Mahdi himself he states, Know that the Khalifa Abdallahi, Khalifat al-Saddiq, the Commander of the Army of the Mahdia, was designated in the prophetic vision.32
The intentions and convictions of the Sudanese Mahdi were primarily military oriented. From the onset of his declaration, a series of military campaigns ensued and, from what can be gleaned from primary sources, the Mahdi had no problem proclaiming Islamic jihad against the Turks, Egyptians, and any other group that apposed him. Muhammad Ahmad and his successor's provocative teachings and aggressive actions would impact the region in years to follow.33
Iran, similarly, witnessed political turmoil in the 19th century, which led the country into a variety of crises by the time of the declaration of the Bab in 1844. One writer described Haji Mirza Aqasi, a chief minister under Muhammad Shah, as lewd, ignorant, fanatic, and avaricious.34 Religiously the country generally opposed Qajar rule. Throughout his reign Muhammad Shah and his minister favored Sufis and Sufism against the established, conservative Shiite Ulama, a natural preference, considering the fact that many of the Ulama treated the Qajars as usurpers.35 Weak political leadership in government structure created a state filled with corruption and intrigue and made true reform difficult. The 18th century was also marked by the rise of imperial influence within Iran. Russia and Britain, for example, took great interest in Iran's natural resources and often tried to control Iranian leaders in an attempt to manipulate foreign policies. After Muhammad Shah's death his sixteen-year-old crown prince Nasir al-Din assumed power. The Shah appointed a zealous reformer named Mirza Taqi Khan Amir-i Kabir, known for his stern integrity for reform. Historians note Kabir lacked a sense of moderation in tackling the problems facing the country. He was dismissed and executed by Nasir Al-Din Shah in 1851 and was replaced by Mirza Aqa Khan Nuri known to be selfish and managed diplomacy and public affairs for his own advantage.36 The Shah eventually dismissed him in 1858 for failed policies concerning Afghanistan and Great Britain. For most of Nasir al-Din Shah's reign he secluded himself, and during his rule a growing number of clergy and the elite allied against him. Thus, the Qajars, despite some modest reforms, left their country in an undesirable condition. Nasir al-Din's assassination in 1896 provides one example of the discontent prevalent in Iranian society during the the 19th century.37 The Bab proclaimed his mission during this era of unrest. Consequently, it is not surprising that large numbers of Iranians, unsatisfied with the moral and social affairs of their country, joined his ranks and became loyal adherents of his teachings.
In 1844, at Shiraz, Ali Muhammad declared himself to be the promised one foretold in the Koran and the traditions.38 He claimed to have the divine power to inaugurate an age of peace upon the earth and rid it of its corruption. In one passage from his writings he emphatically asserts his claim to be the promised Qaim:
The perfection of the religion of Islám was consummated at the beginning of this Revelation; and from the rise of this Revelation until its setting, the fruits of the Tree of Islám, whatever they are, will become apparent. The Resurrection of the Bayán will occur at the time of the appearance of Him Whom God shall make manifest. For today the Bayán is in the stage of seed; at the beginning of the manifestation of Him Whom God shall make manifest its ultimate perfection will become apparent. He is made manifest in order to gather the fruits of the trees He hath planted; even as the Revelation of the Qá'im [He Who ariseth], a descendant of Muhammad--may the blessings of God rest upon Him-- is exactly like unto the Revelation of the Apostle of God Himself [Muhammad]. He appeareth not, save for the purpose of gathering the fruits of Islám from the Qur'ánic verses which He [Muhammad] hath sown in the hearts of men. The fruits of Islám cannot be gathered except through allegiance unto Him [the Qá'im] and by believing in Him. At the present time, however, only adverse effects have resulted; for although He hath appeared in the midmost heart of Islám, and all people profess it by reason of their relationship to Him [the Qá'im], yet unjustly have they consigned Him to the Mountain of Mákú. 39
The passion of Jesus Christ, and indeed His whole public ministry, alone offer a parallel to the Mission and death of the Báb, a parallel which no student of comparative religion can fail to perceive or ignore. In the youthfulness and meekness of the Inaugurator of the Bábí Dispensation; in the extreme brevity and turbulence of His public ministry; in the dramatic swiftness with which that ministry moved towards its climax; in the apostolic order which He instituted, and the primacy which He conferred on one of its members; in the boldness of His challenge to the time-honored conventions, rites and laws which had been woven into the fabric of the religion He Himself had been born into; in the role which an officially recognized and firmly entrenched religious hierarchy played as chief instigator of the outrages which He was made to suffer; in the indignities heaped upon Him; in the suddenness of His arrest; in the interrogation to which He was subjected; in the derision poured, and the scourging inflicted, upon Him; in the public affront He sustained; and, finally, in His ignominious suspension before the gaze of a hostile multitude--in all these we cannot fail to discern a remarkable similarity to the distinguishing features of the career of Jesus Christ.40In many of his writings, the Bab mentions a figure called Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest. He states that, by divine authority, this person will arise and establish himself as the true successor and inheritor of the Bábí cause.41 The concept of Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest is a crucial aspect of the Bab's teachings. Initially, many of the Bab's followers thought this divine heir to be Mirza Yahya, a convert to the religion during its initial phases of development. Overtime, followers of the Bab accepted Mirza Husayn Ali, known later as Baháullah as Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest.42 In one tablet the Bab states When the Day-Star of Bahá will shine resplendent above the horizon of eternity it is incumbent upon you to present yourselves before His Throne.43 In another passage the Bab writes
Indeed God hath created everywhere around this Gate oceans of divine elixir, tinged crimson with the essence of existence and vitalized through the animating power of the desired fruit; and for them God hath provided Arks of ruby, tender, crimson-coloured, wherein none shall sail but the people of Bahá, by the leave of God, the Most Exalted; and verily He is the All-Glorious, the All-Wise.44
He is the Most Glorious. HE is God, no God is there but Him, the Almighty, the Best Beloved. All that are in the heavens and on the earth and whatever lieth between them are His. Verily He is the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.
This is a letter from God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting, unto God, the Almighty, the Best Beloved, to affirm that the Bayán and such as bear allegiance to it are but a present from me unto Thee and to express my undoubting faith that there is no God but Thee, that the kingdoms of Creation and Revelation are Thine, that no one can attain anything save by Thy power and that He Whom Thou hast raised up is but Thy servant and Thy Testimony. 46
You ask me for some particulars of my interview with the founder of the Sect known as Babis He only once deigned to answer me, on my saying that I was not a Musulman and was willing to know something about his religion, as I might perhaps be inclined to adopt it. He regarded me very intently on my saying this, and replied that he had no doubt of all Europeans coming over to his religion. 48
We have no connection with any party: we are neither partisans of the Victorious Government nor do we share the opinions of the Glorious People. We stand aside from all strifes, wish well to all, and offer our prayers and supplications at the Throne of God that He will reconcile these two honourable elements with one another, so that they may become one element, and may work together for the glory and advancement of both Government and People. Praise be to God, by God's Grace we strive to be at peace and on friendly terms with all parties in the world; we shew friendship and affection to all, seek after righteousness, and spend ourselves in this Path. 51