Jumuah lecture on Friday 17 April 2020 (23 Shabaan 1441)
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Respected brothers and sisters, last week we discussed Imam Mahdi (a.s) as the manifestation of the divine promise, the divine light which we are all expecting to appear to save and liberate us. Imam Mahdi (a.s) is the embodiment of that hope which Almighty Allah (SWT) has given to all of humanity in the most difficult and challenging situations.
As I mentioned, this element of hope is the basic fibre of every theology which calls people to follow, because without giving them the guarantee of success or a concrete promise of the victory of their thoughts over others, they will never be able to draw anybody towards them. However, more particularly in Islam, this promise that the final victory belongs to Haqq (Truth) is something beyond any doubt.
Therefore, in a Hadith narration from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), he is recorded to say that hope is one of the mercies from Almighty Allah (SWT) upon the Ummah (Muslim nation). He goes further to explain that if this hope was not there, then a mother would never be able to feed her baby, nor will a farmer be able to plant a tree if he does not have confidence in the future.
BELIEF IN MAHDI (A.S) IS A CULTURE OF OPTIMISM
More particularly in the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s), this whole tenet of our faith, namely Mahdaviat, is a culture of hope and being optimistic about the future. This is in complete contrast to some other trends of thought in mainstream Islam and other faith traditions, which believe in the downfall or deterioration of earth.
A Hadith which is often quoted from Rasulullah (SAWA) to back up this notion is where he is reported to have said that the best of centuries is his century and the best of people are the people of his time. There are plenty of similar Hadith that is often referenced, from both Sunni and Shia resources, which suggests Rasulullah (SAWA) warned that society will simply deteriorate over the generations.
A bleak picture is painted as a result and that humanity is not moving towards anything better. Rather, it is just getting worse and worse. A very focussed perspective will help us understand very clearly, especially from the Quranic approach, that this is not the case. There is still progress, despite all the challenges and sufferings which humanity will have to endure. We are moving towards a better place than before. This is the culture of hope!
Those Hadith narrations noted above which speak about the regression of this world need to be understood in a different context.
What I am trying to say is this culture of hope in Imam Mahdi (a.s) as the saviour of humanity, is the culture of optimism and the final victory of truth. This will not happen miraculously through pressing a button or through some big bang where everything will come right. Quite the contrary – it is a gradual process based on the same divine traditions which Almighty Allah (SWT) has established.
All 124,000 divine Prophets (a.s) came to promote the divine message and divine mission to the people. They strived and struggled on this path based upon the same divine traditions which Almighty Allah (SWT) established. They did not go through an exceptional route. Miracles play a different role. Miracles are not a strategy to achieve the Prophetic goal.
In light of this very important and well-established Quranic principle, we believe that things are moving towards a better prospect, and not worse.
ENEMIES LOVE TO EXPLOIT THIS CULTURE OF OPTIMISM IN MAHDI (A.S)
Naturally, this hope and promise of a bright future and the final victory of the oppressed will rightfully create excitement and a great deal of zeal and interest in the hearts of people who are suffering and love justice to prevail.
Now, this excitement and zeal also has some challenges, which I want to elaborate on today.
Firstly, the challenge is that there are always people who will try to exploit this interest in the belief of the final victory of truth and justice in the form of Imam Mahdi (a.s). Here we find, historically, a huge chapter of deviation opens in the history of Islam and other religions.
People with the own ulterior motives try to exploit this beautiful and most constructive faith and belief for their own agendas, by claiming that they are the ones who are the awaited saviour, and the time has arrived, and these are the signs to prove their legitimacy, and on that basis, they hope to fool the masses and recruit followers.
BAHA’ISM AND AHMADISM ORIGINATE FROM EXPLOITING THE PHILOSOPHY OF MAHDAVIAT
As I mentioned, the potential is there for this exploitation, because people love to see this time. They want to be present for this time of success and salvation.
There are plenty of phenomena in history which can attest to this, such as Baha’ism which is a good example of a movement conceived from the philosophy of Mahdaviat. Someone with Shi’i ideology, where this philosophy of Mahdaviat is such a prominent feature, came up and claimed to be the special representative and gate to Imam Mahdi (a.s).
Gradually, this movement he created evolved into claiming he is actually the promised Mahdi. It did not stop there. This movement further evolved where it was professed that he is the manifestation of all the divine Prophets (a.s), whereby he has brought the final manifestation of hope which supersedes prophecies delivered previously.
The example of Ahmadis is no different. Again, the issue surrounding the return of Nabi Eesa (a.s) and the arrival of the promised Mahdi (a.s) were mixed, whereby the founder of the Ahmadi movement claimed to be both. He created a new movement with this approach.
The list can go on and on of people who created false claims of being the promised Mahdi (a.s) in history.
OUR ENEMIES PORTRAY OUR BELIEF IN MAHDI (A.S) AS A FAIRYTALE WITH A HAPPY ENDING
The issue is that the Ahlul Bait (a.s) warned us very clearly that this phenomenon will be exploited and will end up in the form of deviation and misguidance. They warned us on a regular basis that we should be wary and not allow this exploitation to occur.
In fact, I would like to draw your attention, in particular to the followers of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), that the exploitation of the philosophy of Mahdaviat resulted in people denying the belief in the promise and final victory of Islam through Imam Mahdi (a.s) because it became a tool in the hands of certain people to exploit. This resulted in people with weak faith to completely deny the belief in Mahdi (a.s).
Wahhabis and other enemies of the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s) used these exploited approaches to accuse us Shia of believing in false stories and deviation. Materialists also made full use of this opportunity to mock our belief in the final victory of Islam led by Imam Mahdi (a.s).
While we very strongly believe in the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s), without any doubt, we should not allow this issue in our emotional approaches to reach a point where it becomes a purely emotional, romanticised issue, thereby opening the opportunity for those with deviant intent to exploit, resulting in people deviating from its true path and people looking at it with contempt, because this then results in the destruction of the very foundation of this school of Ahlul Bait (a.s) which has the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) as the cornerstone of its belief.
The unfortunate reality is that not only have Baha’is, Ahmadis and false Mahdis in history exploited and deviated from the orthodox path. We find examples in history where very religious scholars fell in this trap, out of their love and zeal for Imam Mahdi (a.s). They started issuing statements out of love and zeal for Imam Mahdi (a.s) which unfortunately damaged this very faith.
When we try to romanticize this philosophy of Mahdaviat and make it take the form of a story with a happy ending, then it becomes a very serious challenge.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF REAPPEARANCE OF THE PROMISED MAHDI (A.S)?
Another important topic for discussion is the issue of the signs of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s). This is naturally a vast ground of deviation and misunderstanding and exploitation. The Imams of Ahlul Bait (a.s) have addressed this topic in great detail, pertaining to the signs of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
Therefore, our religious scholars from the very early days, across the ages up to today, have written a great deal of literature in this regard. This is also delved into extensively in the compilation of Hadith books of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) as well as Sunni resources of Hadith, which gives lots of clear guidance on the signs of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
It is not an easy task to simply take one or two Hadith from this chapter and predict when will Imam Mahdi (a.s) reappear or apply certain Hadith narrations on this subject upon certain personalities or phenomena in history. Let us unpack a few crucial points in this regard:
The very first point which is overwhelmingly established in these Hadith narrations is that the time of reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) is unknown. Even Imam Mahdi (a.s) does not know when he will reappear! We believe that the Imams of Ahlul Bait (a.s) have access to divine knowledge, but not everything. This issue, being the timing of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) is one such example.
HISTORICAL RECORDS FROM THE AHLUL BAIT (A.S) ON THE REAPPEARANCE OF THE PROMISED MAHDI (A.S)
The 6th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) has unequivocally explained that only Almighty Allah (SWT) knows the timing of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s). He made reference to verse 66 of Surah Zukhruf (chapter 43) in this regard:
هَلْ يَنْظُرُونَ إِلَّا السَّاعَةَ أَنْ تَأْتِيَهُمْ بَغْتَةً وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ
“Do they only wait for the Hour – that it should come on them all of a sudden, while they perceive not?”
The 8th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Ali Ridha (a.s) says that he narrates from his forefathers (the earlier Imams) that Imam Ali (a.s) asked from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) at what time will the awaited saviour appear from amongst your descendants? Rasulullah (SAWA) responded that the example of the return of Imam Mahdi (a.s) is like that of the Day of Judgement. It will never be exposed but by Almighty Allah (SWT).
There is another very interesting Hadith which is crucial in understanding this matter pertaining to the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s). This Hadith is also narrated from Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s), where he really clarifies our responsibility and position when it comes to the signs of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) says that those who explain the time for the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) are liars and banished are those who are in a rush. He says further that indeed, safe and secure are those who are surrendered to the Will of Almighty Allah (SWT). They do not predict or speculate when will Imam Mahdi (a.s) reappear.
This is so crucial to understand, because this is how the Imams of Ahlul Bait (a.s) blocked the exploitation of this culture of hope embedded in the philosophy of Mahdaviat.
In fact, there is an even clearer hadith recorded directly from Imam Mahdi (a.s), where he says that whoever claims to have met him or has special access to him is a liar and fabricating stories. So, this clarifies our principle approach.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN BEFORE THE PROMISED MAHDI (A.S) REAPPEARS?
Let us study these narrations which are recorded in huge numbers in Shia and Sunni Hadith resources, about what will happen before the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) ie. the signs of his reappearance.
We need to reflect on these Hadith narrations with the background I presented, namely that there is a huge potential for exploitation on this subject. Therefore, we need to carefully analyse such Hadith from various angles, as follows:
- Who is included in the chain of narrators?
- Is the text/content of the Hadith authentic?
- Is the Hadith referring to the signs or conditions of Imam Mahdi’s (a.s) reappearance?
Regarding the chain of narrators, we need to test whether the entire chain is reliable and authentic, or is there any semblance of infiltration from those who wanted to use this subject for their own agenda? This is our primary criterion and there are plenty of Hadith recorded which are immediately nullified on this basis as weak and unreliable.
The content and text of the Hadith is crucial, over and above the chain of narrators being reliable, because there are many waiting to exploit for their ulterior motives. I have cited 2 major examples in this regard, namely Baha’ism and Ahmadism.
Baha’ism was infiltration in Shia Islam and Ahmadism was infiltration in Sunni Islam. Hence, because of this risk, it should be validated that the content is consistent with the Quranic principles and the overwhelmingly established principles from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) and his purified Ahlul Bait (a.s).
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SIGNS AND CONDITIONS OF IMAM MAHDI’S (A.S) REAPPEARANCE?
We must also test whether these Hadith narrations are talking about the signs of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s). A very important point to consider is whether there are signs of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) or conditions for his reappearance, because there is a distinction between the two.
The signs of his reappearance are not within our control. It will happen, and Hadith are there to explain this. But conditions for the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) are upon us. Imam Mahdi (a.s) will not appear for as long as we are not ready.
There is an insightful statement by the great Khwaja Naseeruddin Tusi of the 13th century, who said that the occultation of Imam Mahdi (a.s) is due to us. All the grace and kindness is through Imam Mahdi (a.s), but we are in fact the ones who are in occultation to not see it, and not him! This is an important point to reflect on when it comes to the conditions of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
It is our responsibility to prepare ourselves and be ready for that global revolution. Hence, we should not mix signs with the conditions of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
LOW PROBABILITY SIGNS OF MAHDI’S (A.S) REAPPEARANCE IS THE FERTILE GROUND FOR CONFUSION
In Hadith narrations, signs of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) are characterised into various categories. There are signs which are regarded as certain, and then are signs which we are unsure of, as they are mentioned as a possibility rather than being highly probable.
The list of signs which are assigned high probability are very few, while the list of signs which may possibly occur is quite lengthy. Since this is a lengthy list which we are unsure of, it is open to misunderstanding and exploitation. As I noted earlier, it is not necessarily only those with bad intentions who will get lost. Many pious people with great love and excitement for the great hope which Imam Mahdi (a.s) brings, also fell in this trap.
Let me explain with an example. There is a great personality in the school of Ahlul Bait (a.s) by the name of Allama Hilli. He was a very highly respected scholar and one of the pillars of the Shia school with his academic excellence. He had a brother who wrote a book about the signs of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
In this book, he narrates the relevant Hadith in this regard and concludes in his time, which was hundreds of years ago, that all the signs are evident, and on that basis, we will witness the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) very soon. He even goes as far as to say that he will hopefully be amongst those who will be there for the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s). So, what happened? Clearly, nothing!
This man passed away hundreds of years ago, and the enemies of Imam Mahdi (a.s) and the Ahlul Bait (a.s) exploited an opportunity to target and attack this esteemed school of Ahlul Bait (a.s). We see this even in our contemporary era, where high ranking scholars presented theories on the signs of reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) based on some correlation they are able to draw from the long list of low probability signs alluded to earlier.
This is clearly not consistent with the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), because these signs are not certain and the application of these signs on particular phenomena is not convenient for us to do it.
IS CORONAVIRUS A SIGN OF THE REAPPEARANCE OF IMAM MAHDI (A.S)?
Let me reference an example from Imam Ali (a.s), where he says that before Imam Mahdi (a.s) will appear, two thirds of the world’s population would have already died and the remaining one third would subscribe to the Wilayah of the Ahlul Bait (a.s). People are trying to strike an ill-informed correlation between this Hadith and the Coronavirus, concluding that we are near the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
Now, what if this theory proves to be wrong tomorrow? Are we then going to claim that Imam Ali (a.s) was wrong or that this Hadith is wrong? Clearly not, neither is Imam Ali (a.s) wrong nor is this Hadith necessarily wrong. The problem is that it is our short-sighted interpretation which is wrong.
There is another interesting Hadith from Imam Ali (a.s) I wish to share, to crystalize the point. He says that death will be widespread just before the appearance of the awaited saviour, Imam Mahdi (a.s). Imam Ali (a.s) describes it as red death and white death. He says further that locusts will come to attack crops in their usual season and also outside of their season.
The red death which Imam Ali (a.s) is referring to will be from the sword ie. the result of wars, and the white death will be from a pandemic. Naturally, many people are trying to strike a correlation between this Hadith and the coronavirus pandemic which has terrorised the whole world.
Now, if this Hadith is deemed authentic from the chain of narrators, then there is possibly a connection with the current crisis. But does it mean that this is exactly the time when Imam Mahdi (a.s) will come? We obviously cannot say, because the reference to the signs before the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) does not have a specific timeline assigned to it. It could be hundreds of years and not necessarily an imminent sign.
We need to also bear in mind that perhaps the understanding of this Hadith could be different. Therefore, it is not possible to interpret such Hadith with conviction regarding what will happen before the appearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s).
SELF-DEVELOPMENT AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY PREPARES US FOR THE RETURN OF IMAM MAHDI (A.S)
I would like to conclude this discussion with the reminder of what Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) taught us, which is to not define a time for the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s), nor should we try to hasten in this situation. Instead, we should rather surrender to the Will of Almighty Allah (SWT).
We should be more concerned about the conditions of the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s), instead of exhausting our effort on the signs of his reappearance. The signs are not in our hands, as explained in this discussion. However, the conditions for the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s), are our responsibility, starting from Taqwa (God consciousness) and piety at an individual level.
Abstinence from Haraam and self-development is the most important condition. This is on the grassroots level. Furthermore, our social responsibility requires us to prepare the ground and create awareness in society so that humanity can reach the level of maturity and understanding where a global revolution based upon the teachings of Islam and Tauheed will be possible.
This awareness campaign and mission on the grassroots level is the responsibility for each of us.
We have orphans across the world today. They are not only oppressed economically or financially. They are oppressed socially, politically and most importantly ideologically too. Until this oppression of the power to think is not addressed and awareness of the global mission of Imam Mahdi (a.s) does not permeate at a global level, then the important condition for the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) has not been fulfilled.
Let us make dua (supplication) to Almighty Allah (SWT) to hasten the reappearance of Imam Mahdi (a.s) and grant us the Taufeeq to prepare the ground for this all-important occasion, for which only He knows the timing.