Rejecting a “Mahdi” vs. rejecting the idea of the Mahdi

Apparently, there are some who believe that the noted (and, in my estimation, vastly overrated) anti-Evolution polemicist Harun Yahya is the Mahdi.  I don’t know whether HY himself has made this claim, though it seems unlikely that people would be promoting him as such without his tacit approval.

What I find most interesting about this is not that he may have made this claim, but rather how vicerally so many Muslims react against the very idea.

For the record, I have no interest in promoting (or opposing) any claim to this status, as I lack the knowledge to evaluate it.  In the case of HY, for example, I don’t know him well enough to say with any certainty either way, though I certainly have my suspicions (and they’re not in his favor in this regard).  To the contrary, my goal here is to explore what some Muslim discourse on the question of Mahdis reveals about THEM rather than the claimant involved.

Thanks to a complicated background and a lifelong interest in prophecy and eschatology, I think I’ve pondered this topic more than most Muslims.  I’ve never viewed it as a purely abstract, academic question.

While I can certainly understand people instinctively reacting emotionally against any claim to being the Mahdi, I don’t think it should be treated as a prima facie sign of deviance, wickedness,
madness, etc. I don’t think you should treat a claimant to being the Mahdi the same way one would treat a claimant to, say, prophethood (i.e., after the Holy Prophet). Thus, I think criticism of such a person should be based on the person’s character, actions, and proofs for his claims, not the fact that he made such a claim, however uncomfortable it may make us.

I think there is more to this question than meets the eye. 

I wouldn’t want to encourage all sorts of claims (or for Muslims to cease being critical of those claims). 

1) If we really do believe in the ahadith mentioning the Mahdi,Dajjal, etc., in some form–I don’t assume these traditions are meant to be taken literally–I don’t think we can talk about the idea as if it were inherently absurd. That’s just inconsisent; either we believe in it or we don’t.

2) Isn’t it presumptuous and potentially disrespectful to the Prophet upon whose words these beliefs are based to mock the idea? Unless we believe we have reason to repudiate those ahadith–and if we’re willing to do so openly–I think we must treat the question of the Mahdi etc. arriving in modern times as a possibility, however remote and hard to imagine. We should remain critical and cautious, of course, but I don’t think we should treat it as inherently ridiculous.

3) Finally, I think many Muslims unconsciously reinforce a mechanistic and overly rationalistic worldview in the way they scornfully discuss this question. I think the same reasoning that leads one to laugh at the idea of the Mahdi arriving today in the modern world naturally leads to the denial of Allah’s continuing involvement in people’s lives. It leads naturally to the denigration of Sufism, for exampmle. And it is only a small step away from the cold "clockmaker" cosmology of Deism (where God created the world and disappeared). I find that view theologically problematic, not to mention a bit depressing.

I sometimes wonder if the way many Muslims now discuss this topic is an early sign of their steady secularization. Like proper postmodernists, we can no longer discuss prophecies without sneering,
or at least giggling. Westerners in other religious traditions have just "advanced" to a point where they can discuss these matters more consistently (read: they can openly repudiate the authority of the sacred in their lives).

Allahu `alim. I don’t know who the Mahdi is/will be, when he’ll arrive, or how he’ll arrive, but until I do, I intend to approach the topic with a modicum of humility. Far too often, that seems to be a rare trait among the Muslims who choose to participate in these debates.

Note:  The Modern-day Moor at Planet Grenada was kind enough to link to this posting.  A really interesting discussion ensued over there that’s worth reading.

  • Yakoub

    I’m so glad to hear of someone else who shares my views on Harun Yayha. I have to say, when I first read about this (on Planet Grenada?) I hit the roof. Now I’m laughing. Still, I pray someone writes and publishes a lengthy response to his anti-evolutionary polemics.

  • Abul Layth

    Mahdi – many traditions nearly all of them weak.
    “We should remain critical and cautious, of course, but I don’t think we should treat it as inherently ridiculous.”
    Certainly the scholars of old remained cautiously vigilant as well.
    Don’t you think though that when (if) the mahdi comes, his signs will be so obvious that speculation would be futile?

  • svend

    Salaams, Abul Layth
    Thanks for the comment. Well, I’m not convinced of that. Those of us not blessed with some kind of inspiration must operate in a “disenchanted” world where nothing (save perhaps the Quran, being I’jaz) around us obviates the need for reflection and prayers. So many of Allah’s signs are subtle and open to debate, and there are so many seeming contradictions within the overall corpus of eschatological ahadith. Perhaps in keeping with this quality to post-Muhammadan existence prophecies will not be fulfilled in a dramatic, self-evidently supernatural manner.
    Muslims have long interpreted some of the prophecies of the Hadith Jibreel figuratively, for example. I don’t see why one must take the ahadith on the Madhi literally. In fact, I’m not sure it’s possible to do so in the sense of taking them all equally at face value due to variations and contradictions; one must inevitably be selective and, thus, implicitly ignore or metaphorize some.
    Still, the belief in the Mahdi, Hazrat Isa’s (AS) return, … seems to be have been consistently affirmed by the shuyukh, so I’m hesitant to reject anything outright. (Though I must confess that there are some doctrines that I find problematic–Naskh, for example–that seem to have been nearly universally upheld by the ulama. The question then becomes *why* they consistently felt the need to do so in the past and whether perhaps that imperative applies today. I don’t believe that public discussions of Aqidah need to be identical in all times and places; in one time, Ibn Arabi’s notion of the Wahda al-Wahjud could be subversive to the faith of the masses, and in another era it could be undisruptive or even very inspiring to the masses. For example, I know that some scholars have set aside ahadith narrated by Imam Ghazzali concerning the sensual pleasures of Jannah, feeling that he…umm…embellished these traditions for pious reasons–namely, motivating simple men to live upright lives with promises of rewards they can instinctively relate to–that are perhaps no longer applicable. For example, I think it’s unquestionable that many modern Muslims find the literal readings of the Hur al-`Ayn harder to accept, even if some traditionalists would decry this as simply weak faith.)

  • Saqib

    Both the doctrines of the Mahdi and of Naskh have had criticism by a small number of scholars. Notably, amongst the classical scholars, Ibn Khaldun was well known to have had doubts concerning the Mahdi. Some of the more interesting work on these fields, in my opinion, is actually being conducted by modern scholars, such as Qaradawi’s re-assessment of naskh, and how the use of the term the way we now understand it evolved over time – his contention being that in many (if not most) cases, it was initially used by scholars to mean ‘qualification’ rather than ‘abrogation’.
    The Mahdi is a fascinating topic though. I suppose there’s no reason to believe that the Mahdi himself, if we are to accept his coming, will ever really be certain that he is the Mahdi? I mean, how could he be? By revelation? By relying on weak ahadith? It’s rather like the idea of a mujaddid – it’s a matter of judgement and opinion, and any given scholar to whom it’s applied in his lifetime may disagree, agree, or even actively promote the idea.

  • svend

    AA, Saqib, and thanks for the very interesting comment. I think you raise a valid question, albeit one that many people will find unsettling. But then the mysteries of life are unsettling, too. Why should this be any different merely because we want simple, “deus ex machina” solutions to our problems?
    Even if one takes these spiritual “offices” (i.e., the Mahdi, the Mujaddids, Hazrat Isa’s (AS) return) at face value, it seems to me that the criteria by which one would evaluate claimants are inherently a bit fuzzy.
    One thing I’d like to know more about is whether classical scholars commented specifically on the Christian tradition that John the Baptist was Elijah’s “return”–which the Jews expected before the Messiah’s arrival. If we accept that belief (which is articulated explicitly in the Book of Matthew), there’s already ample precedent for figurative readings of such eschatological prophecies.

  • Saqib Hussain

    That certainly would be very interesting to know!
    I guess this is part of a broader discussion regarding the extent to which metaphor and symbolic interpretation may be allowed when examining the primary texts of any religion, particularly in matters which relate to ‘aqidah/theology. I’m not sure that such an investigation was ever systematically conducted by any classical Muslim theologian, which is a little surprising given that (i) all schools of theology have to have some recourse to metaphor in defending their various positions (which is perhaps what gives rise to the inherent fuzziness of the criteria by which a Mahdi claimant is to be judged?), such as the Mu’tazilah when it comes to the ahadith concerning the beatific vision of God, or the Ash’aris when it comes to Quranic verses which indicate the existence of secondary causation, and (ii) the schools invariably accuse their opponents of dismissing or belittling primary textual evidence whenever their opponents use metaphor as an interpretive tool.
    As a very general rule, I think I’d be reluctant to accept a metaphorical interpretation of a primary text, such as a hadith, if it could be established that the Prophet taught that thing on a number of occasions (which would suggest that it was to be taken “more seriously” than a simple metaphor, if you’ll excuse my lack of preciseness in phrasing that), or if the implications of the literal meaning being true were particularly momentous. Hence, a metaphorical understanding of some parts of the Jibreel Hadith (such as a a slavegirl giving birth to her master, which, as far as I know, is only mentioned in this hadith), can convincingly be understood metaphorically, while I’d be much more reluctant to accept a metaphorical interpretation of ahadith concerning the Dajjal or the second coming of Christ for the reasons mentioned.

  • svend

    Quite understandable. These are areas in which I tread lightly, even if I do find some of the traditional responses one hears difficult to accept.
    BTW, speaking of the question of whether classical studies of aqidah were always systematic, there’s a really interesting article in a recent issue of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (AJISS) exploring Quranic usage of the terms nabi and rasul. The author argues that some of the distinctions that have been enshrined in Islamic tradition aren’t supported by a close examination of the text. Allahu alim.
    Whatever that or this case may be, I do think we sometimes overlook how different scholarly norms were in premodern times, before technology made extremely exacting standards of textual analysis and cross-referencing much more possible. Imam Bukhari was an incredible genius but imagine the things he could’ve done with a computer.

  • Yursil

    It is a clear fact that the Sahabis believed in Isa (AS) return, Mahdi (AS), and Dajjal.
    There is a vast difference in the impact to our lifestyle in explaining it away as being something without practical consequence and taking it as a fact.
    Modern thinking gets us thinking of situations and beliefs as binary issues, the subtle and fluid nature of Islam refuses to be restricted to this framework..
    Muslims have managed to believe in these concepts, strongly, without being ‘apocolyptic’.
    While one can believe quite ‘literally’ in Armageddon, the Day of Judgment, etc, their impact on Muslim lives has been one of tempering our love for this world, giving us a foundation for looking forward, all while not shirking our worldly responsibilities to ourselves, our families and each other.
    What do the traditional understandings state about ‘identification’? The general lesson is that reducing such a discussion to facts and figures is fallacious.
    Perfect your character and you will be on the side of truth, and it will be apparent to you.

  • svend

    Salaams, Yursil
    Thank you for sharing the profound observations.
    I agree with so much of what you write, but the ironic thing, it seems to me, is that so many Muslims do indeed reduce it all to dry “facts and figures” by insisting that all eschatological ahadith be taken as straightforward factual reports. I realize I am no muhaddith, but it seems to me that we sometimes impose very modern sensibilities on the matter in the name of fidelity to tradition.
    Allahu alim.