The Mahdi (or Mehdi), in Islamic eschatology, is a man who will come at the end of the times. The exact nature of the Mahdi differs between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims.
The Mahdi in Sunni traditions
The exact nature of the Mahdi is not completely clear, but according to Sunni traditions a basic overview is as follows:
The Mahdi will appear during the last days of the world, and will precede the second coming of Jesus, who Muslims believe to be the messiah. The two are different individuals, but they will work together to fight evil in the world and to cement justice on Earth. Mahdi means "the guided one" and he will apparently come from Mecca and rule from Damascus. He will not defeat the false Messiah, known as Dajjal; that will be done by Jesus, who will slay the pretender. Once Dajjal is defeated, Jesus and the Mahdi will live on Earth for a number of years. According to some traditions, Jesus will get married and have a family, and then die. There are claims that a grave is dug for him next to Muhammad's in the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, but whether or not this is factual is unknown.
Some hadith about the Mahdi give the following information believed by Sunnis:
Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph, reported that the Prophet Muhammad said, "Even if only a day remains for Qiyamah (Day of judgement) to come, yet Allah will surely send a man from my family who will fill this world with such justice and fairness, just as it initially was filled with oppression."
According to other reported sayings of the Prophet Muhammad some of the features of al-Mahdi are:
- He will be tall
- He will be fair-complexioned
- His facial features will be similar to those of the Prophet Muhammad
- His character will be like that of the Prophet Muhammad
- His father's name will be Abdullah [same as Prophet Muhammad's father]
- His mother's name will be Aamina [same as Prophet Muhammad's mother]
- He will speak with a slight stutter
- He will occasionally hit his hand upon his thigh when he stutters
- His age at the time of his emergence will be forty years
- He will born in a medina (literally a city or township)
- He will receive knowledge from Allah
The Mahdi in Shiite traditions
Twelver Shia Muslims believe that the Mahdi is the last (i.e. 12th) of the Imams and is alive but in hiding. While he is not visible to humans, he is active in everyday life, and can be asked for help and will only reappear at the end of the world.
The Mahdi was actually born in 868, but went into occultation when he was five. For more information see: Muhammad al-Mahdi
Like in the Sunni tradition, Shiites believe that the Mahdi will return to Earth at the end of times and will usher in a new age of peace and help defeat the false messiah.
The Mahdi in other Islamic traditions
According to the Hadith and the Ahmaddiya movement, one of the signs which will indicate the emergence of al-Mahdi will be that in the month of Ramadan prior to his emergence two eclipses will occur, one of the sun and one of the moon, both being visible from the East and West. These signs were visible right after the claim of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to be the Promised Messiah and Mahdi. These claims are disputed by many non-Ahmadi Muslims.
The title has been claimed by various individuals in history, including Muhammad Ahmad, who founded a short-lived empire in Sudan in the late 19th century, and the Punjabi Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who founded the Ahmadiyya Movement within Islam in 1889.
Another historical claimant was born in northeastern India, in a town called Jaunpur (now in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). This town is known for its Islamic universities, which produced a number of great Islamic scholars. He was named Syed Mohammad and is also remembered as Syed Mohammad Jaunpuri (1443 C.E. - 1505 C.E.).
People who saw themselves as Mahdi
The Mahdi in fiction
Several authors, with varying degrees of understanding of the Sunni and Shia beliefs, have used the concept of the Mahdi within their fictional stories. Perhaps the best known is Frank Herbert, whose Dune science fiction novels centered on the character of Paul Atreides, who was proclaimed by his followers, the Fremen, to be the Mahdi. Paul's Fremen name, "Muad'Dib", is also from Arabic, meaning "teacher of adab (manners and respect)".