The Muslim Messiah


By Dr. Young Oon Kim

From World Religions, Vol. 1

The Imam and Mahdi

For Jews the Messiah is the long-awaited man "anointed of God" to provide the chosen people and the world at large with a just, durable and peaceful social order in accordance with the Torah and God's ultimate purpose for mankind. For Christians Jesus was the Messiah (Greek: "Christ") who came to fulfill that hope, teach men the religion of love, serve as an example of what God expects of His children, cleanse them of original sin, joint them toward the kingdom to come wherein God's will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Since the first advent did fully accomplish this, traditional Christianity looks forward to the return of the Messiah to complete the restoration of the world. Like many Christians, not all Muslims expect an end of the world g the immediate future. However, Sunnite doctrine teaches that at some future time, a Mahdi will come to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Shi'ites believe that this Mahdi to come will be the hidden Imam they have long awaited. For Muslims the Imam-Mahdi is a figure with a function comparable to that of the Christian Messiah. Thus, like Judaism and Christianity, Islam can be called a messianic faith.


The Doctrine of the Imam

For Shi'ite Muslims the Imam holds the most exalted position available to man, second only to the Prophet Muhammad. Besides being considered the living Proof of God, he is called the Caliph of od, the Representative of those sent in the past (e.g., the Prophets Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus), the Guardian of the secrets of the two worlds, the Last Gift of God, the Door of approach to God, the Light of God that will never be extinguished.

Majlisi's Life of Hearts, a work of the late 17th century written by the most famous Persian theologian, provides a full (explanation of the Imam in Shi'ite thought." As in the Quran God says to Abraham, "Truly I appoint you as a Leader (imam) of men" (II, 118), an 8th century thinker declared: "... so the Lord of We Worlds has not left your members and senses without an imam guide to explain what He desires and to banish their doubts. Can we think, therefore, that He has left all creation in confusion and pas not given mankind an imam in order that they may take their doubts and uncertainties to him, that he may guide them to the truth and set them free from doubt?"

The Imams asserted: "We are the leaders of the Muhammadans and the Proofs of God among all men, and through us, on the Day of Judgement, the Shi'ites will approach Paradise with their faces and hands and feet pure white, as though they had been washed with light. As the leaders of the faithful we will save the people of the Earth from the wrath of God. As long as the stars are the guards of the sky, the angels also have no fear of the Judgement, for as long as we are on the Earth the Judgement will not come and punishment will not occur. But when we shall be taken from the Earth, this will be a sign of its destruction and of the death of all those dwelling upon it...."

Two corollary beliefs about the Imam follow from his high position. First, as the representative of God, the Imam is sinless. Since there are definite statements in the Quran that all men, including Muhammad, are subject to sin, the Shi'ite theologians have to qualify their belief in the sinless Imam. Sometimes the Imam himself must repent. Though usually the Imams' "desires are fixed on God and his service, and their thoughts are bound to exalted things," they occasionally "descend from these heights, and busy themselves in eating or drinking or in sexual matters, things that are inconsequential" and voluntarily "call these acts sinful and ask forgiveness for them."" Second, the Imam recognises that all his purity, knowledge and talent are bestowed upon him as a gift revealing the great kindness of God. For any human to be chosen to the imamate is nothing less than an act of divine grace. For the Shi'ite, therefore, the Imam serves as the mediator before God on behalf of his followers. By following the Imam, they will be recipients of Allah's mercy.

The classic Imam for Shi'ite Muslims was Husain, the son of Ali. Husain was one of many casualties of the bloody disagreement among those claiming to be Muhammad's successors, but because he died for his faith, he is treated as a valuable intercessor God. His death is therefore commemorated as a voluntary and redemptive offering for the sins of the Muslim world."


The Hidden Imam

According to Twelve-Imam Shi'ism, Imam Hasan al-Askari Iraq (d. circa 865 A.D.) appointed his six or seven-year-old son , succeed him. This child, Muhammad, seems to have been a markable person about whom all kinds of marvelous tales have been preserved." When Imam Hasan died, his words to his son were: "O my dear child, you are the Master of the Age, you are the Mahdi, you are the Proof of God on earth, my child, my Representive, and, as my offspring, you are Muhammad, my good son, a child of the Apostle, the last of the Imams, pure and virtuous. The apostle of God has informed the people about you."

Imam Hasan passed away, and soon after, the son disappeared. According to one story, he walked down the steps into the cellar of his home and vanished. Some sceptics of the time say that Hasan never had an heir. Others claim a boy was born who died during the Imam's lifetime. Shi'ites, however, believe he is still alive but in concealment, and by God's will he shall reappear at the End of Time. Iranian Muslims treasure a large number of stories , about this Hidden Imam, how he miraculously reappeared at the .." funeral of his father, how he has revealed himself to believers in time of need, etc. For centuries it has been believed that the Hidden Imam can help those who send him brief letters. In Majlisi's , handbook for pilgrims, a sample form is provided for those who ," wish to contact the concealed Master of the Age. These practices may be dismissed with derision by Westerners, but they testify to an apocalyptic dimension to Islam. For the Muslim, as for the follower of Jesus, life can be infused with eschatological and messianic hope. Orthodox Christianity awaits the second coming of Christ; Shi'ite Islam looks forward to the reappearance of the concealed Imam. In many ways there are remarkable parallels between the Messiah-to-come and the long-expected Mahdi.

According to the Shi'ite theologian, on the Day of Judgment a great resurrection of the dead will occur. The most evil men will return to earth to be punished for their wickedness, especially their persecution of the faithful. This resurrection will be limited to both the notorious evildoers and the Muslim saints and martyrs. Others will remain in their graves. In this preliminary judgement, followers of the Hidden Imam will be able to punish their oppressors. Ali himself will return to earth, carrying the staff of Moses and wearing the magical ring of Solomon. He will rally his supporters, assemble a vast army of Shi'ites on the banks of the Euphrates, and march off to destroy Satan and his host of infidels. Then Muhammad (the Prophet) who is the Hidden Imam will appear with well-armed battalions of angels. When Satan sees him he will recognise that his cause is lost. Finally - so the Muslim story goes - Muhammad will thrust a spear of light into Satan and God's victory will become assured.

Another prophecy, equally dramatic, describes the appearance of Sa'if ibn Said, the Anti-Christ or Dajjal (The Deceiver), who will attract a multitude of followers. According to the Muslim apocalypticists, the Anti-Christ will be a Jew and the son of a sorcerer. How can we know when he comes? Islamic writers warn that the approach of Dajjal will be marked by several ominous signs. Large numbers of people will no longer pray. Religion will lose its grip on the masses. Moral laxity will become widespread and fashionable. There will no longer be any of the traditional respect for law and order. And at least since Ibn Babawaihi, who died in 1053 A.D., Muslims have predicted that a women's liberation movement of the most shocking sort will signal the End of the Age."

Ever since the Twelfth Imam disappeared from his home in Samarra, pious Muslims have visited a shrine erected in his honour. At the entrance to the cellar into which the Hidden Imam vanished the faithful pilgrim prays for his return to inaugurate God's kingdom. With intense longing and great hope, the Muslim pleads to the long-awaited Mahdi: "I bear witness that thou art the estab- lished truth, that there can be no mistake or doubt, and that God's promise of thy coming is sure. But I am dismayed at thy tarrying so long, and do not have patience to wait for the distant time...O my Leader, if I am living on the bright day of thy coming, with its littering standard, then am I thy servant to command. May I have opportunity for martyrdom before thee!"