Who Is the Mahdi?
Why do eyes glaze over when I bring up the subject of the Mahdi? People don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Mah-di, I say pronouncing each syllable as if they were deaf. What? They respond. Not what but who, I reply with a sigh. You heard of the Ayatollah Khomeini? Well, yes, they reluctantly respond. That guy with the big green turban and bushy eyebrows that chased the Shah out of Iran? Yes, that man, I reply. Are you aware, I ask knowing full well they’re not, that the masses on the street initially greeted Khomeini as their long awaited messiah? The one who would bring peace and tranquillity to the earth. Though it soon became apparent that he was not the one they longed for.
When I talk about the Mahdi, some people mention Muqtada al-Sadr, the fat-faced cleric in Iraq, the leader of the Mahdi Army. He thinks he is the messiah? No, I quickly assure them. He makes no claim to be anything other than a leader of a militia army in Baghdad. I then go on to explain:
Imam Mohammed al-Mahdi was born in 868 AD. He then disappeared without any explanation. Shiites believe he will reappear on doomsday to lead believers to a just Islamic state. I have no problem with that premise, they have their messiah and we have ours. But they have taken this too far when they say the Mahdi, believed to be the successor to the Prophet Mohammed, will return to save the whole world. That translate into the flag of Islam flying over the United Nations in New York, and yes, over the White House.
Someone invariably reminds me of the Dune novels by Frank Herbert. One of the main characters was proclaimed by his followers to be the Mahdi. In the literary world this persona has captured the imagination of various writers. I have written two novels based on the premise that millions of Muslims are eagerly waiting for the return of the Mahdi. In their view, he is omnipotent, omnipresent and can appear and disappear at will. Like Jesus of Nazareth, he can enter a closed room with locked doors. Again, like Jesus, he will return at the end of ages to restore peace to the earth. But in Muslim theology and tradition, the Mahdi will supersede Jesus Christ. And of course, both Shiite and Sunni vehemently deny that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God. The Koran calls Mary’s son a holy man in the tradition of Moses, Abraham and David, nothing more.
How does Western civilization relate to this? How does the Judaic/Christian ethic respond to a Muslim messiah figure? The EU and the UN are in denial, neither able nor willing to confront the coming threat precisely because it is both political and spiritual. The President of the United States is willing to confront Muslim extremism in all forms, but even he backs away (at least publicly) from the mystical dynamics that underpin this Muslim messianic movement.
How do I, as a follower of Jesus Christ, relate to the rise of Mahdi-ism? First, as I look to the guide book and reread well known stories in the New Testament, a faint ray of light penetrates my beleaguered mind. The Gospel of John, chapter four, tells me that the Lord and his disciples traveled up to Jerusalem one hot, dusty day, long, long ago. They passed through Samaria, currently known as the West Bank. Entering a town, Jesus rests beside a well while the others go into town to buy food. Jesus then asks a local woman to draw him a drink of water from the well.
She recognizes by his accent and clothing, that he is a Jew, and reminds him that Jews and Samaritans have no dealings with each other due to their deeply divergent interpretation of holy scripture.
Undaunted by her warning, Jesus expounds to this woman the way of life, offering her the gift of living water. He also tells her many things about herself.
She perceives that he is a prophet and brings up one of the differences between Jews and Samaritans. “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, Mount Gerizim, and you Jews say that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
Jesus replies, most succinctly, that the time has come when neither this nearby mountain nor Jerusalem is the place to worship. “You worship what you know not: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour comes and now is; when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seek such to worship him.” John 4:22-23
Jesus knew that the gulf between her people and his people was great. Contempt and disgust were mutual between Jews and Samaritans. This did not deter Jesus from engaging this woman in meaningful conversation. Touched and changed by his words, she rushed back to town and invited all to come hear him. They then invited him to stay and teach them more about the Father and he obliged and stayed two more days.
What does this story have to do with today’s headlines or the subject of a Muslim messiah? This one simple statement, salvation is of the Jews, explains President Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic threat to wipe Israel off the face of the map. It also throws light on groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. They hate Israel with blind rage and insist that the Jewish messianic ethos (Zionism) can not continue on any parcel of land in the Middle East. As for the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ, they believe he will return, but in subordination to the Mahdi.
How can I relate this to current realities? Muslim mobs daily chant death to Israel and death to America. The gulf between their world and ours is great. What would Jesus do in our times? Perhaps, the same as he did two thousand years ago. He related to each individual where they were. This woman at the well had some understanding of theology. She worshipped as best she knew and at the same time longed for something more. Muslims know not what or who they worship as they face Mecca on bended knee. Still, I believe they innately long for something more, a way of life that is purer than what is, a yearning in the heart for a messiah figure to come and restore peace and tranquillity to their world. Bin Ladin’s agenda is misguided and lethal, but his yearning for something better than the corrupt debauchery of the House of Saud is his way of saying there must be something better.
Author’s Biography: The author was a bookkeeper for the United Nations Development Program in Tehran, a production assistant for CBN television in Jerusalem, as well as myriad other jobs in the Middle East such as a cook in a convent in the Galilee, and baby nurse in an orphanage. Currently, she lives with her husband in San Diego and writes novels. She has published two books, Daughter of Jerusalem and The Samson Option (Faithwalk Publishing). Her latest novel The Time of Jacob’s Troubles will be released soon.
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