January February 2005Leading Posts

Living through an uncreative tension: The case of Messianic thinking among Muslims

Future Islam

Having lost much of their confidence and self-esteem in post-9/11 situation the Muslims world over are living through an uncreative tension and idly though anxiously waiting for a Messiah. It is high time to find out if there is any ideological basis for the emergence of a future Messiah or such expectations are only misplaced visions of the future. Whether it is the arrival of Mahdi or the emergence of Messiah, whether it is the wait for the Imam-e Ghaib or the quest for the future mujaddid, the fact remains that they run counter to the concept of the finality of prophethood. The one who had to come had already come. No one will come after him. The rapport between the earth and the heavens has severed for all times. Now whatever needs be done should be done by his followers for whom there is the promise of  (انا له لحافظون) through the Protected Book and that is about all.

However, the irony is that even in the minds of great and known people the idea of a new prophet has got such strong hold that serious scholarly criticism and continuous denial for centuries have not been able to rid them of their self-invented notions. The Holy Quran claims to be a book of complete guidance. In the absence of the Prophet its existence is enough to keep people on the straight. There is enough material here to remove internal aberrations and offer correctives to misguided attitudes. This promise of vice regency enjoined upon by the Holy Quran still stands valid, with all its attendant conditions, for the Muslim community. But, for us who have become accustomed to an easy life and have caught the disease of ancestor worship, it has become a difficult task to understand directly this heavenly message and accept this invitation. On principle we accept the fact that the door of prophethood has been closed, but in practice, we are still waiting for the appearance of a false prophet. Those scholars belonging to Ahl-e Sunnah wal-Jama’h who declare the notion of Imam Ghaib or the emergence of Mahdi and Messiah as running counter to the Islamic faith still offer justification for the coming of a mujaddid, and here also there is scope for a larger-than-life-size leader. So much so that even a person like Abul Ala Maududi who applies very rigorous standard for the status of a leader, cannot rest content without declaring the good tidings of the arrival of a perfect mujaddid. According to him, “The position of a perfect mujaddid is still vacant. But the mind wishes, nature requires and changing circumstances of our life demand that such a leader be born. He may be born now, or several thousand years hence. He will be called Imam Mahdi, about whom clearer indications can be found in the saying of the Prophet.” (Abul Ala Maududi, Tajdeed wa Ahya-e Deen, p. 49).

In sum, an elaborate discipline of future forecasts has come into being amongst us on the basis of detailed indications about Imam-e Ghaib, the promised Messiah and the future mujaddid that have found place in popular compilations. Those who have tried to investigate the authenticity of such traditions have reached the conclusion that such stories and tales are mere fabrications, and do not have the remotest connections with the Prophet. We think that this entire discipline of future forecasts has been borrowed from the Judaic sources, the non-Arab culture of the Abbasid period had contributed significantly to give it flesh and blood and take flights of fancy.  Suffice it to say here that the famed tradition about mujaddid that has become part of our common knowledge, the reference to which is found in Abu Dawood, cannot be considered correct even on the basis of text, quite aside from the question of its authenticity. The actual words of the tradition are purported to be as follows: عن ابي هريرة فيما أعلم عن رسول الله  إن الله يبعث في أمتي على رأس كل مأة من يجدد لها دينها.(ابوداؤد كتاب الملاحم) According to the scholars of tradition, this hadith is extremely feeble, according to the parameters of testing that takes into account the profile of the transmitters (rijal). “There are many such traditions about whose authenticity objections have been raised, but events seemed to have verified them. The same is true of this hadith, and the history of Islam is witness to its truth.” (Maulana Shah Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, in Muqaddama Deen Tajdeed-e Kamil  by Abdul Bari, Lucknow, 1956).

Just this one hadith of doubtful provenance has kept the entire Muslim community involved in  debates and disputes as to who can be called a real mujaddid, and who can be given the status of a perfect mujaddid. Since the conventional scholars of traditions themselves have disagreement about the authenticity of this hadith, we would not launch here into a debate about “rijal” and content ourselves with an analysis of the text only.

The statement that Allah would send a mujaddid in each century cannot be a saying of the Prophet for this reason also that the concept of the Hijri Era/ century had not come into vogue during his period. The counting of the calendar year from the time of hijrat had been instituted by Caliph Omar (r.a.). That is why those who, after finding Hazrat Omar bin Abdul Aziz ensconced in the seat of caliphate at the end of the first century hijra, provide justification for the reliability of this hadith, should keep this in mind. Another thing which is even more significant than this  is – how will the mujaddid be identified in each century? There are no instructions regarding this. In the absence of any clear instructions about the identity of such a significant leader, how can people benefit from his emergence? This hadith has got profound scholars of traditions in a bind – who should be regarded the mujaddid of which century? It is said that in this respect the first initiative was taken by Imam Ahmad bin Hambal who had declared Omar bin Abdul Aziz (d.101 hijra) as the mujaddid of the first century hijra, and Imam Shafi’ (d. 204) as the mujaddid of the second century hijra. After that each scholar or man of letters appointed his own panel of mujaddids according to his own insight and preference. It is said that Abul Hasan Ashari is the mujaddid of the third century, Imam Alharamain Javini is the mujaddid of the fourth century and Ghazali that of the fifth century. Some even considered it important to include their own names into the list as they identified the mujaddids of the past centuries. Jalaluddin Sayuti, after properly naming the mujaddids of the past eight centuries as Omar bin Abdul Aziz, Imam Shafi’, Hafiz Ibn-e Sharih, Imaam Baqlani, Imam Ghazali, Imam Razi Ibn-e Daqeeq al-Eid, Imam Bilqini, listed his own name for the august position of the mujaddid of the ninth century. But this century has also Imam Sakhawi whose claim for this position still holds. It is said that as Sayuti belonged to the Shafi school, he crammed the list with the names of those belonging to this school. In India, Jamal Ahmad Sirhindi, who has the status of Great Mujaddid of the second millenium, insists on the fact that what to speak of a hundred, there may be even a thousand with their own individual status. Who will decide on such an important issue? And who would be considered to be the mujaddid of the time? This is an issue on which debates have been going on in the community for about twelve centuries. As we pointed out, some are not ready to accept anyone as the perfect mujaddid. According to them, a perfect mujaddid is yet to come. Ahmad Sirhindi was awarded the epithet of mujaddid by Abdul Kalim Sialkoti, which gradually became a part of his name. When Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi, the famed dewbandi scholar of the Indian subcontinent, was asked whether he considers him as the mujaqddid of the period, he said: “ I too feel so, but nothing more than that. Others also should not say anything with certainty. There are possibilities, but no one can be absolutely sure about any mujaddid.” (Abdul Bari, Tajdeed Deen-e Kamil, p.25)

It is a pity that our leaders and pathfinders have remained overwrought over something so insubstantial, in fact a non-issue, so that some insist on the arrival of a perfect mujaddid while someone else suffer under the delusion that the imam supposed to arrive from the world of Unseen could be himself! Because in the study of history and evaluating the inheritance of our ancestors, an attitude of reverence rather than a critical stance has been preferred, once some wrong notion crept into the books of the ancestors through some doubtful/ wrong sources, it went in perpetuity and no one tried to rectify the error. Rather it gathered force with the passage of time. We think that the first echo about this tradition was heard during the period of Mamun who headed the Muslim world at the end of the second century hijra. It does not seem surprising that such traditions were brought to the fore at the time because of political considerations. The existence of a towering figure like Omar bin Abdul Aziz at the beginning of the century could have actuated Mamun and his supporters to acquire legitimacy through this tradition. Imam Ahmad bin Hambal (r.a.) who was known for his anti-establishment stance in this period named Imam Shafi’ as the mujaddid of the second century, after Omar bin Abdul Aziz. This can be seen as an effort to deprive Mamun of the advantages that he could derive from taking recourse to the above tradition.

About Jesus, the Holy Quran very clearly uses the word “متوفيك” (Aale Imran : 55). In this universe everyone is fated to die. “كل نفس ذائقة الموت” is, in fact, a declaration of this reality. Jesus was one of Allah’s great prophets who had been sent to the Israelites to breathe a new life of spirituality in them. It is regrettable that when the community of the Israelites who had been waiting for a messiah for a long period was blessed with such an invaluable gift, rather than seeking guidance from him and deriving benefit from his presence, they made his life and the lives of his companions miserable. As a matter of fact, according to their own understanding of facts, they have crucified him.

The Holy Quran does not provide many details about the death of Jesus. The word “رافعك” led many to the wrong belief that Jesus was lifted to the heavens when he was still alive, and that is why his reappearance became a common belief among people. Some of our commentators have been very simplistic in using the Judaic sources, as a result of which some Judaic and Christian beliefs and notions have crept into our belief system. According to our view, the notion of Jesus’s reappearance has been borrowed from external sources. There is no internal evidence in the Holy Quran to support this, nor can it be argued on the basis of Quranic evidence. Those who tried to make space for Jesus’s reappearance in the Islamic view of life think that he would appear as a follower of Prophet Muhammad, and his job would be the restoration and protection of the Mohammedan Shariah.

Some sources have it that Messiah’s appearance would take place in Damascus towards the east near some white minaret. He would be dressed in a saffron robe, similar to the ones the Egyptians wear. And he would come with his hands on the arms of angels on either side. Water would drip down from his hair as though he had just come out of a bath. Some other sources have it that he would marry and have children, and he would die after 40 years in Madina. Some people have even recorded that he would be buried beside Hazrat Omar. According to Ibn Abi Wasil, the awaited imam of the Shias, i.e., the Great Messiah (Maseehul Masaih) is none other than him. Some mystics do not believe in the appearance of either Mahdi or Messiah. We feel that all such beliefs that have gained roots in the common mind have, in fact, been borrowed from Christian sources. However, having been repeated time out of count they have become part of common knowledge. The second and the most important reason is that those who want to keep the Muslim community in their current state of decline desire it earnestly that rather than trying to identify our aberrations from Islamic thought we should sit idle, waiting for the promised Messiah.

Muatta Imam Malik, regarded as the most reliable collection of traditions because of its proximity to the Prophet’s (s.a.) period does not contain any indications regarding the coming of the Messiah, although Bukhari contains two references to it. But it also contains reference to Jesus’s death. The first hadith in this regard has been recorded in the chapter “Emergence of Isa Alaihis Salatu Wassalam”: حدثنا محمد بن بشار حدثنا غندر حدثنا شعبة عن قتادة. وقال لي خليفة: حدثنا يزيد بن ُزريع حدثنا سعيد عن قتادة عن ابي العالية ابن عم نبيكم ـ يعني ابن عباس رضي الله عنهما ـ عن النبى   قال: “رأيتُ ليلة أًسريَ بي موسى رجلاً آدم طُوالاً جعداً كأنه من رجالِ شنوءةَ، ورأيت عيسى رجلا مربوعا، مربوع الخلق الى الحمرة والبياض، سبط الرأس، ورأيت مالكاً خازن النار، والدجال في آيات أراهن الله اياه، فلا تكن في مرية من لقائه. قال أنس و أبوبكرة عن النبي  : تحرس الملائكة المدينة من الدجال.”

(Quoted in Fatahul Bari p.362; Kitab Bada Al-Khalq, vol.6, Cairo, 1988). The second hadith is regarding the appearance of Dajjal which can be found in Kitab Al-muftan as follows:عن عبد الله ابن عمران أن رسول الله   قال: بينا أنا نائم أطوف بالكعبة فاذا رجل آدم سبط الشعر ينطف ـ أو يهراق ـ رأسه ماء، قلت من هذا؟ قالوا: ابن مريم، ثم ذهبت ألتفت فاذا رجلٌ جسيمٌ أحمر جعد الرأس أعور العين كأن عينه عنبة طافية، قالوا: هذا الدجال، أقرب الناس به شبهاً ابن قطن رجل من خزاعة.” (Quoted in Fatahul Bari , p.97, vol.13.)

However, at none of the above two places can one find any mention of the coming of Messiah, nor any mention of the fact that Dajjal would be killed by him. There is only the reference to a dream of the Prophet in which he (s.a.) saw Jesus. The scholars of traditions have declared these two hadiths “feeble” on the basis of testing (rijal). A detailed discussion regarding this issue can be found in Allama Tamanna Imadi’s Intizar-e Mahdi O Masih (Waiting for Mahdi and Messaiah). He has established on the basis of historical evidence the sociological motivation for such hadiths and why they cannot be considered as reliable.

In this regard a hadith has been recorded through Umru bin Aas in Sahih Muslim; another hadith of this kind has also been recorded in Sahih Muslim through  Jabir bin Abdullah. Apart from these, another hadith of this group can be found in Abu Dawood through Abu Sariha Huzaifa. Tirmizi and Ibn Maja are also not devoid of this kind of traditions. If one looks at the narrators/ transmitters of all these hadiths collectively one realises that despite their long line of narration and recording, they are limited in scope, and among their narrators there are those whom scholars of traditions do not regard as reliable.

If Muslims have taken recourse to waiting for a Messiah in their era of decline, one of its significant causes is the psychology engendered by continuous backwardness. Those who were unnerved by civil wars among Muslims were compelled to make compromises with major aberrations from Islamic ways, to ensure unity among Muslims. They had also witnessed, despite the continuous opposition of great scholars and men of wisdom, the failure of the experiment to bring the caliphate back to the objective of prophethood. For them, to believe in an extraordinary and charismatic figure was not difficult, psychologically. Particularly when such a notion was presented, draped in the robe of the Book and the sunnah. Another reason for this was that there was enough material in the Judaic and Christian traditions to impart respectability to such a view. In the initial periods, the Judaic tradition had gained the status of an objective and positive additional source. That is why when the resurrection of Christ was presented in the perspective of time, very few people realised the fallacy in such a notion. Moreover, apart from the people of the Book, the idea of Messiah was also available in the Indo-Iranian sources. Thus, those people from the non-Arab tradition who had embraced Islam, did not find anything strange in such a notion. We have already referred to the second arrival of Messiah in the Christian sources. Matthew contains vivid description of the appearance of Messiah from the clouds. It is also said that before his emergence angels would be sent around the world to herald his arrival, so that his adherents can gather from everywhere on that occasion. Such indications can also be seen in Mark 13/24 and Luke 21/25. According to the Jews, the name of the newly arrived would be Emmanuel. As per Daniel’s dream, he would also appear from the clouds, and after his arrival the Jews would get back their lost glory. For aeons, the Jews had been waiting for a combative and warlike Messiah who would release them from the bondage of the Romans. Though things on the ground have changed now, the Jews have not yet got over their obsession with Messiah. Among the Zoroastrians, Sao Shyant is a similar character who would be sent to the materialist world to revive spiritual life, and who would lead a global mission, unlike the local mission of Zarathushtra (Zoroaster). A similar notion is found among the Hindus with reference to Krishna. It is clear from Bhagwad Gita 4/78 and Vishnu Puran 4/24 that when the world would be filled with sins and oppression, then Krishna would reincarnate himself in a new avatar.

We feel that the popular interest about the emergence of Messiah need be understood in this perspective. Allama bin Hazm has expressed the view in Al-Milal Wal-khal that the community that is disgraced because of its reprehensible actions waits longingly and wishfully for the emergence of a figure that would remove their distress, and delude themselves with this thought. Such communities sit idle and expect the Messiah to take them out of the quagmire of their disgraceful state. The belief among the Christians about the emergence of Messiah in the final era from the clouds, or the belief among the Shias about the emergence of the twelfth imam hinges on this despair. In the seventeenth century the emergence of Sabbatai Zawi among the Israelites had created such a commotion as a result of which the entire Judaic world was thrown into the abyss of despair once again.

In Muslim thought the notions of the return of Messiah, the emergence of Mahdi or the arrival of the mujaddid have led to the prevalence of non-Quranic and unnatural beliefs that had unseemly consequences. These consequences were manifested in distorted views and thoughts of people. In the earlier years, the alleged emergence of Mahdi in Sudan, and in India the existence of believers in Mahdi are witness to the fact that bizarre thoughts can lead our caravan to such a blind alley that it will find no way out of it. As long as the believers do not get rid of such non-Quranic beliefs, the appearance of false Messiahs and self-styled Mahdis amongst us will go unabated.

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