The Imam's Return: Messianic Leadership in Late Medieval Shiʿism

Shahzad Bashir

in The Most Learned of the Shiʿa

Published in print August 2001 | ISBN: 9780195137996
Published online October 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199849055 | DOI:
The Imam's Return: Messianic Leadership in Late Medieval Shiʿism

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Although a majority of Shiʼi intellectual activity in the period of occultation (ghayba) has been carried out by scholars primarily categorized as mujtahids, there have also been individuals who have considered themselves divinely inspired beyond the capacity of ordinary persons, and at the same level as the Shiʼi Imams. One such category comprised those who claim to be the Mahdi, a designation reserved exclusively for the Twelfth Imam in normative Twelver Shiʿism. Being a Mahdi in a Shiʼi context necessarily requires going beyond traditional belief since the claimant has to argue against the very basis of the idea of twelve uniquely guided Imams who, according to the religion's orthodoxy, has already existed in history. Conversely, however, it is crucial for a Mahdi to access the charisma inscribed in traditions regarding the Twelfth Imam in order to acquire spiritual and political power through the claim. This tension, endemic to the situation of a Mahdi rising from a Twelver milieu, marks the claimant as one who is the gravest transgressor against accepted dogma while simultaneously being an embodiment of Shiʿism's greatest hope. It is understandable, then, that a self-proclaimed Mahdi such as Muhammad Nurbakhsh considered jurists, the guardians of traditional religion, to be his foes, as reflected in the preceding quote. This chapter illustrates the mechanics of the messianic claim as a paradigm of leadership in medieval Shiʿism by reviewing the history and thought of two 15th-century Mahdis. The careers of Muhammad b. Falah Musha'shaʼ (d. 1462) and Muhammad Nurbakhsh belong to the history of western and central Asia (present:day Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan), and their thought fits into a general pattern of heterodox religious activity characteristic of the period.

Keywords: medieval Shiʿism; Imam; Mahdi; Muhammad b. Falah Musha'sha'; Muhammad Nurbakhsh; Twelver Shiʿism

Chapter.  7636 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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