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Mahdi - (Arabic, Al-Mahdi, the Guide). The Mahdi concept is the approximate Muslim  equivalent of the Jewish and Christian Messiah, believed to a different extent in different branches of Islam. The Mahdi is of minor and theoretical importance in Sunni Islam, but is a major tenet of Shia and Sufi Islam. In addition to its theological significance, "Mahdi" has a definite political significance, especially as in 19th and 20th century Islam several "Mahdi" claimants have presented themselves specifically to fight colonial rule.

All branches of Islam evidently agree that the Mahdi will be named Muhammad and be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. The Shia, and evidently some Sunni, believe the Mahdi is a precursor of the end of days who will appear and purify the world together with Jesus, in preparation for the last judgment. His appearance may be signaled by various calamities and portents, such as the rising of the Sun in the West, the destruction of Syria, a catastrophic war and a plague. The Mahdi is believed by some to be a descendant of Muhammad through the house of Fatima who will unify the Arabs and rule for seven years.  Some other characteristics of the Mahdi according to one source:

* He will be tall.
* He will be fair complexioned.
* His facial features will be similar to those of Muhammad.
* His character will be exactly like that of Muhammad. 
* His father's name will be Abdullah.
* His mother's name will be Aamina.
* He will speak with a slight stutter and occasionally this stutter will frustrate him causing him to hit his hand upon his thigh.
* His age at the time of his emergence will be forty years.
* He will receive Knowledge from Allah.

(See http://www.islam.tc/prophecies/imam.html 

Whereas these beliefs are largely theoretical in mainstream Islam, Shia and Sufi Muslims may take them quite literally. Twelver Shia believe that the Mahdi is the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al Mahdi, whom they believe was born in 868, and was hidden from the world by God. The eleventh Shi'a Imam Hasan al-Askari died on January 1, 874 AD (8th Rabi' al-awwal, 260 AH) and since that day, his son Mahdi is believed by Shi'as to be the Imam appointed by God. On the same principle, Ismaili Muslims accept Ismail bin Jaffar or other Imams as "the hidden Imam" and potential Mahdi. At the correct time, according to this belief, the Mahdi will reappear.

Belief in the imminent appearance of the Mahdi is a cornerstone of the faith of Twelver Shi'ism as practiced in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and especially in the theology of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their approach welds traditional theology to anti-colonialism and a Muslim version of liberation theology. The book, Al-Imam al-Mahdi, The Just Leader of Humanity, is quite explicit that the Mahdi will return soon and wage war by all means, including perhaps nuclear war, against the unbelievers. The faith of Islam will be taught in its true form from the holy city of Qom.  The monotheistic Jewish and Christian faiths may remain until the end of days, or possibly, most of the Earth's population who are not Muslim will be destroyed. (see here).

Previously, there had been numerous Mahdi claimaints. Mahdism formed a central part of several Shi'a and Sufi violent extremist political movements. The Ismaili Qarmatians  accepted a young Persian prisoner, Abu'l-Fadl al- Isfahani, from Isfahan as the Mahdi, Muhammad ibn Ismail. He claimed to be the descended from the Persian kings. The Qarmatians changed their qiblah (direction of prayer) from the Kaaba to the Zoroastrian-influenced fire.  The Qarmatians violently rampaged throughout Middle-East. They stole the Black Stone from the Kaaba in Mecca about 930.  After they returned of the Black Stone in 951 and were defeated by the Abbasids in 976, they faded out of history.

In recent times Mahdism was associated with rebellion against colonial rule. A significant outbreak of Mahdi-ism occurred in the 19th century in Sudan. Muhammad Ahmad, born in 1844 on the island of Dirar. He gathered around himself a following who were convinced he was the Mahdi. The basis of his support was unrest and dissatisfaction of the Arab minority over the British and Egyptians. The Arabs constituted a minority of the Sudanese population, and had  evidently enslaved of of the Sudanese Africans. The British challenged this social arrangement, and the Arabs fought back.

In 1881 Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself Mahdi. He proceeded to wage war on the British and Egyptian forces in Sudan with his followers, overpowering the vastly outnumbered forces in Khartoum in 1885  and murdering General Charles Gordon, a former governor of Sudan who had been returned from Britain to oversee the evacuation of foreign nationals. A dilatory rescue force under Lord Wolseley arrived too late to save Gordon, but Muhammad Ahmad died later that year of typhus in Omdurman.

The British finally mustered adequate and well organized forces under Horatio Herbert Kitchener. The Mahdi army under under Abdualla al-Taashi, successor to the Mahdi, was headquartered at Omdurman, outside Khartoum. At the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898, Kitchener's army of about 8,000 regular British troops and 17,000 Sudanese and Egyptians defeated the 50,000 man dervish army of Abdullah al-Taashi. The defeat was a rout. About 10,000 Mahdi troops were killed, 13,000 wounded and 5,000 taken prisoner. British casualties were minimal. Kitchener had remains of the Mahdi exhumed and burned and the ashes were scattered.   At the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat in 1899, al-Taashi was killed and the Mahdi revolt in Sudan was finally over.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian (1835-1908) in British India also claimed to be the  Mahdi. Contrary to accepted Muslim belief, he also proclaimed himself  the reincarnation of Jesus.  He founded the Ahmadiyya Movement within Islam in 1889.

Ghulam engaged in religious polemics and controversies with Christian, Hindu and Muslims. He authored about 80 books. He promoted the peaceful propagation of Islam and emphatically argued against violent Jihad.  

Muhammed Abdullah Hassan of Somaliland was called the "Mad Mullah." He raised rebellion against British and Italian authorities in Africa from 1900 to 1920.  He was a charismatic figure credited by his followers with supernatural powers. With his Dervish army, he attacked British, Italians and Ethiopians, vowing to drive the Christians into the sea. He gradually advanced throughout Somaliland, taking special advantage of British preoccupation elsewhere during World War I.

However, in the beginning of 1920, the British struck the dervish areas and fortifications with a well-coordinated air and land attack and inflicted a stunning defeat. The forts of Hassan were damaged and his army suffered great losses. Hassan and his forces  fled to Ogaden to regroup. After refusing a British compromise offer, Hassan attacked their delegation on their return route. However, Hassan was forced to flee again, as about  half his troops had died of influenza and rinderpest and the rest were routed in a tribal raid instigated by the British. He fled to to Ethiopia and died there of influenza.   .

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985.

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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