We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Messianism and Islamic Law - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Messianism and Islamic Law

Rodrigo Adem
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

Related Content

Messianism and Islamic Law

Messianism in Islamic society is a call for a reordering of the religious establishment centered on the authority of an eschatological figure called al-Mahdī (“the guided one”) in an End Times scenario. Messianic movements in Islamic history have been accompanied alternately by both intensified legalism as well as notions of antinomianism or the supercession of the Sharīʿah.

Mahdīsm in the Sunnī Context.

Belief in the Mahdī is scripturally based, and the Sunnī ḥadīth depict him as a righteous leader who establishes justice on Earth for a period of seven years before the return of Jesus and the final battle against the Antichrist. The details of his rule are not elaborated, though it has been commonly understood that the Mahdī works to enforce the Sharīʿah properly after a long period of decline; this is an archetypal understanding for the Islamic tradition as a whole. The Mahdī is also thought to be from the lineage of the Prophet, though improper pedigree has never stopped people from claiming the title: the most successful of these claimants in a classical Sunnī context was Ibn Tūmart (d. 1130), the Berber founder of the reformist Almohad state of North Africa and Spain, who presented himself as the Mahdī, arisen to purify Islam from what he characterized as the anthropomorphic theology and legalistic arbitrariness of the Almoravid Mālikī scholars. His movement was characterized by an austere and strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Modern Messianism in the Shade of Colonialism.

The encroachment of Western powers on the Islamic world has suggested the need for a messianic figure to inaugurate a period of renewal. The nineteenth century saw two contrasting visions: Muḥammad Aḥmad b. ʿAbd Allāh (d. 1885) in Sudan and Ghulām Aḥmad (d. 1908) in India. The Sudanese Mahdī combined a call to jihād against the intrusion of Egyptian/British rule with the spirit of tarīqah Sufism and the eschatological fervor of apocalypticism. He and his followers briefly established a state characterized by strict legalism, albeit as modified by rulings supposedly of divine inspiration; after his death his teachings continued to provide an inspiration for Sudanese independence from British influence. The distinguishing feature of Ghulām Aḥmad’s claim, made under British colonial rule (and aside from his controversial claim of prophethood) was the abolishment of armed jihād. His followers now constitute a group with international presence that proselytizes to his particular pacifist understanding of Islam on the basis of Ghulām Aḥmad’s prophetic authority to reinterpret law. Equally noteworthy were the stymied efforts of Juhaymān al-ʿUtaybī (d. 1980) from Saudi Arabia, who took over the holy mosque of Mecca in an attempt to enact the prophecies of the Mahdī’s arrival (whom Juḥaymān believed a friend of his to be). His accompanying message was to revive the call to jihād and purify the Muslim holy land from Western influence. Studies in recent years have mentioned him as an example of an increased apocalypticism in Islamic rejectionism of the West and its political presence in the Middle East.

Shīʿī Forms of Messianism.

The earliest messianic movements in Islamic civilization are linked with the development of Shīʿīsm. Although the candidates have historically been numerous, the religious program of the Shīʿī messiah, called both Mahdī and Qāʾim (“the one who rises up”), is one: to establish justice on Earth and fight the forces of evil in order to give victory to the Shīʿī interpretation of Islam. On this note it can be added that Shīʿīsm has traditionally allocated more urgency to the coming of the Mahdī than Sunnīsm because of its sense of marginalization in Islamic society.

Periods of Shīʿī Apocalyptic Fervor and Antinomianism.

One unique aspect that has often accompanied Shīʿī messianism is the belief in the abrogation of the Sharīʿah. The late seventh century witnessed a number of extremist Shīʿī sects believing in the return of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib’s son Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyyah as the Mahdī and the overturning of Islamic law. The Abbasids made use of these legends once they took the reins of the revolutionary movement against the Umayyads. On coming to power in 750, however, they crushed the apocalyptic Shīʿīsm they had previously endorsed. Nevertheless, the sentiment persisted in the Persian regions of the empire and manifested in revolts characterized by syncretistic Islamo-Zoroastrianism with noted disregard for Sharīʿah, which persisted for two centuries.

Starting in the latter half of the ninth century, a new intensification of Shīʿī apocalyptic fervor began. The Ismāʿīlī movement began its call to the immanent return of a descendant of ʿAlī called Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl, and its forces raided the populations of Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf region, preparing the way for the Mahdī to emerge. Their doctrine was a form of extreme Shīʿīsm that believed that the role of the Mahdī was to replace the exoteric (ẓāhir) form of the Sharīʿah with its esoteric (bāṭin) meaning; flagrant episodes of antinomianism and disregard for Islamic rites are reported of its followers. In 930, Mecca was sacked by followers of the movement from the Persian Gulf region, the Black Stone removed from the Kaʿba and desecrated. By that time, the leaders of the Fatimid wing of Ismāʿilism in North Africa had long since explained away the mahdiship of Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl as a ruse, and in the ensuing period worked to defuse the unstable elements of apocalypticism to establish a Fatimid state. The Fatimids thus developed their classic compromise with the Islamic Sharīʿah, stressing the need to implement both the exoteric and esoteric elements of the religion as taught by their imams, and even tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the return of the Black Stone to Mecca (it was recuperated by the Abbasids in 951).

The rise of the Ismāʿīlīs described here coincided with the early formation of Twelver (Imāmī) Shīʿīsm after the death of al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī (d. 874), considered by this sect to be the eleventh imam in a line of the Prophet Muḥammad’s descendants. Although the Twelfth Imam’s anticipated emergence as Mahdī was likewise high at the turn of the tenth century, the sect’s scholarly representatives feared a decline into antinomian chiliasm from its own extremist elements and retreated into the formulation of a nomocratic scholarly authority which even today claims to have received the right to exercise religious authority from the Mahdī himself (though the details of legal interpretation were to be elaborated by the scholars themselves). In recent times, the influence of this Mahdī-given authority has been studied in the rhetorical justification of the Iranian Islamic Republic.

Finally, one ought to note that the millennial anniversary of “the occultation” of the Twelfth Imam according to the Islamic calendar (i.e., A.H. 1260/1844 C.E..) was a time of great apocalyptic portent for Twelver Shīʿīs of the Shaykhiyyah sect. It is among them at this time that ʿAlī Muḥammad Shirāzī (d. 1850) claimed to be the Bāb (portal) to the Twelfth Imam. He and his followers soon proclaimed a new dispensation through the abrogation of exoteric Islamic law, whereas one of their successor movements, Bahaism, eventually began its call to a new religion altogether.


  • Amanat, Abbas. “The Resurgence of Apocalyptic in Modern Islam.” In The Continuum History of Apocalypticism, edited by Bernard McGinn, John J. Collins, and Stephen J. Stein, pp. 582–606. New York: Continuum, 2000. Find it in your Library
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. “The Crisis of the Imamate and the Institution of Occultation in Twelver Shiʿism: a Sociohistorical Perspective.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 28.4 (1996): 491–515. Find it in your Library
  • Cook, David. Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic. Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 2003. Find it in your Library
  • Daftary, Farhad. The Ismāʿīlīs. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Find it in your Library
  • Filiu, Jean-Pierre. Apocalypse in Islam. Translated by M.B. DeBevoise. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Find it in your Library
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice