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The Promised Mahdi

Dr. Yahya Jahangiri

Imam Mahdi is considered to be the twelfth divine successor of the Holy Prophet Muhammad SAW. He’s the son of the eleventh divine successor (Imam) - Imam Al-Hassan, and was born in the 255th year of the lunar calendar in a city called Samarra.

Prior to the martyrdom of his father, Imam Mahdi lived alongside him for a brief period of five years. Upon the passing away of his father, Imam Mahdi became the one to carry the message of Islam. 

According to historic documents, Imam Mahdi went on occultation (gheyba) after the commencement of his successorship (Imamate). In Shia theology, this was considered the Imam’s first occultation. Due to its short timespan compared to the second occultation (gheybat ul kubra), this occultation is referred to one of a minor (gheybat ul soghra). During both occultations, Imam was in contact with close representatives.

The second occultation, is considered as the major occultation because it has carried on until today. It began with the passing away of the final disciple of Imam Mahdi. Imam Mahdi has yet to return and but is expected to one day.

According to the existing teachings of the family of the Prophet Muhammad (his Ahlulbayt), Imam Mahdi will reappear in the form of a young man, despite having aged for so many years. But how can this be? How is it possible to live for this long? And how can he live for so long and not age physically?  This paper is going to address these questions using Qur’ anic verses and authentic narrations as references.

  1. The first story:

In the Qur’ an, we find the story of the Companions of the Cave, “As’hab Al-Kahf.”  We find verses stating that upon awakening from their sleep, the companions were asked how long they had been sleeping for. Their answers circulated around ideas of half a day or one full day. They were surprised then, when the Almighty (Allah), revealed to them that they had been asleep for three hundred years. They were amazed at this and left the cave to find out for themselves. They witnessed the changes that the city had undergone and realized that they had indeed slept for longer than they thought. They came to understand then, that there was truth in what Allah had told them.

“And similarly, We awakened them that they might question one another. Said a speaker from among them, "How long have you remained [here]?" They said, "We have remained a day or part of a day." They said, "Your Lord is most knowing of how long you remained. So send one of you with this silver coin of yours to the city and let him look to which is the best of food and bring you provision from it and let him be cautious. And let no one be aware of you.” Qur’ an 18:19

“And they remained in their cave for three hundred years and exceeded by nine.” Qur’an 18:25

“Say, "Allah is most knowing of how long they remained. He has [knowledge of] the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth…” Qur’an 18:26

Ironically though, the changes on their appearance reflected their hypothesis of being asleep for only one day or half a day. And yet, the changes in their surroundings demonstrated that they had been asleep for more than three hundred years. Though this was all impossible for them to understand, they believed when they saw it for themselves. Thus, although the world around them had aged for three hundred years, they had only aged for one full day or half a day.

B. The second story:

In another part of the Qur’an, we examine the story of Prophet Uzair. When he questioned Allah on the process of resurrection, Allah asked him what he was holding in his right and left hands. He fell asleep and woke up from it after. When he woke up, Allah asked him about the duration of his sleep. He responded with the same answer as As’hab Al-Kahf - one full day or half a day. The apparent changes on his body indicated that he had only slept for as long as he had guessed for. But Allah told him that he had been sleeping for a hundred years. It was difficult for him to accept this and he asked Allah how this was possible? And how despite the timeframe, no changes had taken over his body.

“Or [consider such an example] as the one who passed by a township which had fallen into ruin. He said, "How will Allah bring this to life after its death?" So Allah caused him to die for a hundred years; then He revived him. He said, "How long have you remained?" The man said, "I have remained a day or part of a day." He said, "Rather, you have remained one hundred years. Look at your food and your drink; it has not changed with time. And look at your donkey; and We will make you a sign for the people. And look at the bones [of this donkey] - how We raise them and then We cover them with flesh." And when it became clear to him, he said, "I know that Allah is over all things competent.” Qur’an 2:295

Allah told Prophet Uzair to glance over at his donkey. When he did, he saw all that had remained from his donkey were the bones. He asked Allah if these bones belonged to his donkey, and if so, how long had it been since the donkey died? He thought that it must’ve been more than one hundred years at least.

Allah reminded Prophet Uzair to keep his patience. Allah then inquired about the condition of his food. Prophet Uzair looked over at the food and judging from its condition, he thought it must’ve been only day or half a day. Interestingly, the food and the donkey demonstrated two different timeframes. This portrayed the notion that there must be more than one form of recording time.

In conclusion, we find that these are two historic accounts on time and ageing. During the lives of the Ahlulbayt as well, people would ponder over the concept of time and aging. Namely, Imam Hussain and Imam Sadiq were both asked in regards to Imam Mahdi. The replies given by Imam Hussain and Imam Sadiq were similar - that Imam Mahdi would reappear and he would do so in the form of a young man.

The physical characteristics of Imam al Mahdi

In addition to Hazrat Mahdi’s good manners and excellent intellect, our Prophet (PBUH) also described the physical characteristics of the Imam in great details as well. These descriptions of Hazrat Mahdi are so detailed and explicit that when he reappears, people will be able to immediately recognize him.

It is revealed in one verse that the People of the Book will recognize our Prophet (PBUH), “As they recognize their own sons.” (Surat al-Baqara, 146).

This verse is also a figurative reference to the recognition of Hazrat Mahdi). When Hazrat Mahdi reappears, people will recognize him in the light of our Prophet’s (PBUH) descriptions - as they recognize their own sons. Despite this however, some people will still deny him.

Astonishing details regarding the physical appearance of Hazrat Mahdi's and how we can recognize Him:

In the traditions, there are no comprehensive depictions provided by our Prophet (PBUH) like the one of Imam Mahdi. These traditions go on to foreshadow that the Imam will reappear with Prophet Jesus (PBUH) and they will face the antichrist. And yet, neither Prophet Jesus (PBUH) nor antichrist have such detailed descriptions. The characterization of the Imam extends just his physique, it also includes his morale and the activities that he will engage in. In summary, the attributes of the Imam are clearly outlined and done so with the purpose of his easy recognition.

For example, the Prophet (PBUH) refers to marks on the body of the Imam such as a MOLE, or a MARK, a SIGN or a SEAL and likens these to a LEAF, PEARL or STAR. In addition to these, Hazrat Mahdi’s complexion, hair and beard color, stature, build, the general outline of his face, the shape of his head and forehead and features such as his eyebrows, nose and teeth are also mentioned in the most astounding detail.

For example, in one hadith the Prophet (PBUH) says: “Hazrat Mahdi will have a BLACK MARK on his RIGHT leg.” He does not just speak of a mark, but provides distinctive detail, saying that not only will the mark be BLACK in color, but it will also be found on the RIGHT LEG.

Contrastingly, according to other narrations, we find that there will be people who reject the Imamate of Imam Mahdi when he returns due to the time and age paradox. Through the analysis  of the previous verses though, we understand the possibility of this phenomenon. These Qur’anic verses and narrations indicate that we can understand how different changes can take place in one event. The main idea here is the preservation of time and its control on us.

What we must comprehend is that Imam Mahdi has been given the titles of the Timeless Imam or Imam of the Time, “Imam Zaman”, and the One of Compact Age, “Waliyul Asr.” Consequently, these attributed names illustrate that time is in his hands and changes over him are as well.  And none of this is by chance - there is divine wisdom behind it.

Author is a professor at a Hawzah in Qom, Iran.