Mahdi means the one who is guided by God. In Islamic hadiths, “Mahdi” is a title of the Islamic savior, and according to Shiite beliefs, this is the title of the Twelfth Imam (a) who is going to fill the earth with justice. Since the Prophet (s) prognosticated the emergence of a savior called “Mahdi” from his own household, since few days after the demise of the Prophet (s) until now, Muslims are waiting for the emergence of Mahdi (a).
Some Islamic sects such as Zaydiyya and Banu 'Abbas gave the title, “Mahdi,” to leaders of their uprisings against established governments and promised to enforce justice and remove injustices, whereby they managed to attract masses of people, who believed in the promised Mahdi (a), to themselves and thus they established their own governments. On some accounts, in the early Islamic period, the title, “Mahdi,” was used for prominent figures as a sign of honor and respect. Some scholars contend that the first person who used “Mahdi” in its doctrinal use as a savior was Abu Ishaq Ka'b b. Mata b. Haysu' al-Himyari (d. 34/654).
In Arabic, “Mahdi” is an object adjective, meaning the one who is guided by God. The word comes from the root, “h-d-y,” which means guidance from grace and benevolence. Guidance here seems to be contrasted to misguidance, implying spiritual guidance. The word, “Mahdi,” does not appear in the Qur'an, although other cognates of the word do appear therein, including two verses in which the subject adjective of the root, “h-d-y,” which means the one who guides appear.
In Islamic hadiths, when unqualified, “Mahdi” means the promised savior from the household of the Prophet (s), who will fill the world with justice when it was filled with injustice. According to Shiite doctrines, he is the Twelfth Imam who is occulted at present. In Imami Shiite hadiths, Mahdi is referred to with other titles as well, such as “Qa'im Al Muhammad.” Sunnis often use “Mahdi” in its plural form to describe the four caliphs immediately after the Prophet—those they call “Rashidun Caliphs”—as “al-Khulafa' al-Rashidun al-Mahdiyyun” (the guided Rashidun Caliphs).
In hadiths transmitted by both Shi'as and Sunnis, the Prophet (s) promises that a man from his family named “Mahdi” will appear, stating that he will fill the earth with justice, as it was filled with injustice. Thus, since the days after the demise of the Prophet (s), Muslims were waiting for the emergence of Mahdi (a).
In the early Islamic period, the title of Mahdi was given to prominent figures as a sign of honor and respect. Hassan b. Thabit (d. 54/673) wrote an ode for the Prophet (s) in which he used the title for the Prophet (s) as well:
- Alas, al-Mahdi [the Prophet] is now buried
- O the best person who has inhabited the earth, do not go away!
The Title, Mahdi, in Kaysanites
Karbiyya, a branch of Kaysanites, believed after the death of Muhammad b. Hanafiyya that he was still alive and that he was the expected Mahdi. Some authors of religions and sects hold that Muhammad b. Hanafiyya was the first person in Islamic history who was given the title of Mahdi.
In Titles of Abbasid Caliphs
Official titles, especially early after the Abbasid movement—that is, the period of the first five Abbasid caliphs—had a Mahdawi nature. Abbasids used these titles for certain goals and purposes, because these titles expressed people’s emotions, particularly those of poor and impoverished people who always hoped for better days to come.
Mahdi or the expected savior meant the end of injustice, cruelty and a harbinger of a golden age and the age of justice and well-being. Such an attempt was made by Abbasid Caliphs to attracted masses who believed in Mahdi to the new government. This helped the victory of their movement to a large extent, and then it established the tenets of the new government. The ruling caliphs constantly transmitted the hopes of masses to their crown princes and the next caliph. The task was done with the choice of a new title in order to display him as savior.
When the Abbasid government was solidified and established, it was no long necessary to deploy the tactic of using such titles. Thus, less emphasis was put upon them, and Abbasids forgot their old revolutionary slogans, and adopted more moderate ones which would guarantee the permanence and establishment of their government. This might be a reason why their followers—especially the fanatics among them—were disappointed and then led riots against the Abbasid government. Others tried to find a new non-Abbasid savior to fulfil their wishes, although others complied with the government and began serving in in the variety of their institutes.
Common titles in the first Abbasid period (particularly, those of Abbasid caliphs) can be divided as follows:
- Public official titles, such as Amir al-Mu'minin, Khalifat Allah, and Malik;
- Private official titles, such as al-Imam, al-Qa'im, al-Murtada, al-Mansur, al-Mahdi, al-Rashid, al-Mu'tasim billah, and so on;
- Personal titles, such as “Dawaniqi” which was the title of al-Mansur, al-Natiq bi-l-Haqq which was Ibn al-Hadi’s title. His father wanted him to be his crown prince, instead of Harun.
In Titles of Zaydi Imams
Throughout the history, the title, Mahdi, was used for some Zaydi Imams such as al-Nafs al-Zakiyya, Yahya b. 'Umar, Sahib al-Fakhkh, Yahya b. al-Husayn, and so on. Some scholars of Islamic sects claim that branches of Zaydiyya consider every imam who calls people to himself and qualifies for imamate as an Imam and Mahdi. On this view, “Mahdi” is not limited a particular person.
- The material for this article is mainly taken from مهدی in Farsi WikiShia.