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.