Eight hundred and thirty years ago to the day, on 2 October 1187, Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi liberated Jerusalem from Crusader forces after an 88 year occupation of the city. Muslims everywhere rejoice, dreaming of such a hero for today. The world is awaiting another Salah al-Din, chant the masses: a great warrior; an honest leader; a brave Muslim!
But, oh no, it is better than that! Sayiddina Mahdi, alayhi wa salam, is on his way! This we know without a shadow of a doubt, cry true believers everywhere: pray that it happens in our lifetimes! Yes, indeed: his coming is very near. The exact time is known only by Allah, but the Scholars are saying his arrival is near, for all of the signs are set out before us, exactly as expounded by hadith we would normally classify da’eef.
It is the eternal chatter in every circle of knowledge, whenever a believer is wont to mutter a word of despair. Oh felicitations to you, oh young, mournful soul: the promised one is born and dwells amongst us, soon to bring about his seven-year rule of equity and justice.
Imagine that: seven years of peace! Just enough time to complete a Medical Degree, or a Ph.D. So pray that it happens in your lifetime, though you might want to catch a lift on Elon Musk’s rocket ship to Mars to avoid the horrific lunacy and slaughter prophesied to descend at the end of his three-quarters of a decade rule.
With every crisis to befall us, the spectre of the Mahdi is invoked. He pops up in threads all over social media. Nameless scholars are forever quoted as telling their followers that he will be with us soon. Students too young to remember the last set of promises to the last set of students — and too young yet to realise that the everlasting seven years of childhood is unequal to the fleeting seven years of full-time employment — jump up and down with glee at these fabled tidings.
Sadly these anonymous scholars in their circles never seem to tell their disciples to break out the history books or visit the library, or to sit at the feet of old pensioners who lived through past conflicts. For if they did, these students of knowledge apparent would soon realise that every generation for centuries has claimed that the Mahdi is very near. From the eighth century CE to the present, numerous individuals have come and gone as the promised Mahdi presaging the end of times.
He was invoked throughout the Middle Ages and numerously in the anti-colonial struggles of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Each time, his emergence was deemed imminent based on the peculiar interpretations of the very same signs of their particular time. The bare-footed bedouins competing in building high buildings, nowadays attached to the property developers of Dubai and Saudi Arabia, spoke then of the people of Shibam Hadhramaut, famous for their mud brick towers of Yemen. And the terrible wars in Sham?
I am sorry to break it to my young companions, but like the ever returning Mahdi, the battles for Sham have been a recurring theme of history for centuries too. The exact same prophecies invoked today, have been conjured up thousands of times before. In each generation, a military leader has spoken of great apocalyptic battles — wars to end all wars — and of sacred duties in defence of a chosen people, sanctified by ancient scriptures.
How conveniently we forget that for the previous 15 years, before his conquest of Jerusalem in 1187, Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi had mostly been at war with other Muslims, in an effort to take control of Aleppo, Damascus and Mosul. There is nothing unique about contemporary battles masquerading as signs of the Hour. From medieval times to the colonial period, and during Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman and French rule, Sham has been the centre of numerous battles, in which the masses have been mobilised by the same apocalyptic hadith employed today.
Each new generation interprets these hadith in light of the events of their era, interpreting the signs in accordance with how they appear to them. And yet the very notion of signs of the Hour seems to contradict the words of the Qur’an, in which the Prophet, peace be upon him, is commanded to disclaim all knowledge of its timing:
They ask you, [O Muhammad], about the Hour: when is its arrival? Say, “Its knowledge is only with my Lord. None will reveal its time except Him. It lays heavily upon the heavens and the earth. It will not come upon you except unexpectedly.” They ask you as if you are familiar with it. Say, “Its knowledge is only with Allah, but most of the people do not know.” — Qur’an 7:187
Expectance of the arrival of the Mahdi serves to grant a forlorn people optimistic hope. Like the Jewish people awaiting their Messiah in ancient times, it is our Good News. He is the Promised One: the saviour who will liberate us from our abiding quagmire. He is the Oracle, an uncertain friend and potential foe: we know not if he is a true liberator, or merely a manufactured concept meant to deprive us from our own influence in the world and enslave us to the prevailing conditions.
This yearning for the arrival of our heroic redeemer has almost become a form of idolatry. For instead of placing our hope and trust in Allah, we rely instead on visions of a mortal sent to save us, mimicking the evangelists preaching of salvation. We do not strive to change ourselves and struggle for a better world of our own making: instead we await a protector of our own flesh who will arise from amongst us to vanquish the tyranny which besieges us.
This grand vision sounds enticing: a trophy worthy of sincere investment. But it begs a question: had Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi waited for the promised Mahdi to save his people from the sullen situation they found themselves in — conscious of the same signs so apparent in his time — would he have mobilised his forces to take Jerusalem? Or is that just it: are we forever the actors in a great play, continually reenacting the same scenes said to presage the arrival of the blessed one? And if so, how many more rehearsals will we take part in before the actual star-studded performance and the eventual grand finale?
Perhaps it would be better to defer to the answer that our Prophet, peace be upon him, was commanded to give:
People ask you concerning the Hour. Say, “Knowledge of it is only with Allah. And what may make you perceive? Perhaps the Hour is near.” — Qur’an 33:63
This is something we can cling fast to. This certainty is an antidote to all this madness we subject ourselves, with our perpetual refrain over centuries about the imminent arrival of the Mahdi. Only Allah knows when the Hour will come. But perhaps the Hour is near.