APOCALYPTIC (that which has been revealed):

i. In Zoroastrianism.

ii. In Muslim Iran.


i. In Zoroastrianism

The use of the term apocalyptic to define a particular type of prophetic utterance is a development of Judaeo-Christian studies, in which a need was felt to mark a distinction between the ancient prophets and the pseudonymous ones who flourished mainly in the intertestamental period. It is the literary products of the latter group which form Jewish apocalyptic, and which were the first within the Jewish prophetic tradition to consider all history, cosmological and spiritual, as a unity. “Apocalyptic sketched in outline the history of the world and of mankind, the origin of evil, its course, and inevitable overthrow, and the final consummation of all things” (R. H. Charles, Religious Development between the Old and New Testament, London and New York, 1914, p. 14 n. 1).

In Zoroastrianism this distinction between early prophecy and later apocalyptic does not apply, for Zoroaster himself spoke of all these things in his Gāthās. There he looks back to “eternity past” and the beginning of this world, and forward to the Last Judgement and “eternity to come,” and sees all that takes place between as part of the planned cosmic struggle between good and evil, leading to the final overthrow of the later, and the accomplishment thereby of God’s purposes. He has therefore been termed the “first apocalypt” (J. Duchesne-Guillemin, The Hymns of Zarathuštra, tr. M. Henning, London, 1952, p. 18). Because the thrust of his teachings was moral, he had a passionate concern for ultimate justice, hence for what has been termed “apocalyptic eschatology,” i.e., revealed knowledge of the last things (see, e.g., Charles, op. cit., p. 17). This knowledge he sought from God himself: “I ask Thee, Lord, about those things which indeed are coming and shall come” (Y. 31.14, cited in connection with later apocalyptic by E. W. West, SBE XXXVII, p. 181, n. 1). The essential features of his eschatology, adumbrated in the Gāthās, are spelled out in later Avestan and Pahlavi texts: There will be a final great struggle between good and evil in which good will triumph. The bodies of the dead will be resurrected, and the Last Judgement will take place. The earth will be purified by a torrent of fiery metal. Through which all mankind will pass. To the blessed it will be like walking through warm milk, but sinners will perish. Thereafter the kingdom of God will come upon an earth restored to its original goodness, this being Frašō.kərəti (Frašegird), the “making wonderful, or perfect;” and the blessed will rejoice there with the divine beings for ever.

Zoroaster appears to have believed that this consummation would take place not long after his own lifetime, achieved in part by another who would like himself be a saošyant, i.e., a bringer of salvation; and this hope was developed by his followers into the expectation that one day a son named Astvaṱ.ərəta would be born miraculously of the prophet’s own seed by a virgin mother, and would become the World Savior, the Saošyant. The myth that his mother will conceive him after bathing in a lake where the prophet’s seed is preserved is alluded to in verses from Yašt 19 which clearly predate the Achaemenian period: “(10) . . . Ahura Mazdā created many and good creatures . . . (11) in order that they shall make the world perfect, . . . in order that the dead shall rise up, that the Living One, the Indestructible, shall come, the world be made perfect at his wish . . . (88) We worship mighty Xᵛarənah . . . (89) which will accompany the victorious Saošyant, and also his other comrades, so that he may make the world perfect . . . (92-3) When Astvaṱ.ərəta comes out from Lake Kąsaoya, messenger of Ahura Mazdā, son of Vīspa-taurvairī, brandishing the victorious weapon which . . . Kavi Vištāspa bore to avenge Aša (Truth) upon the enemy host, then he will there drive the Drug (Falsehood) out from the world of Aša. (94) He will gaze with eyes of wisdom, he will behold all creation, . . . he will gaze with eyes of sacrifice on the whole material world, and heedfully he will make the whole material world undying. (95) His comrades . . . advance, thinking well, speaking well, acting well, upholding the Good Religion; and they will utter no false word with their tongues. Before them will flee ill-fated Aēšma (Wrath) of the bloody club. Aša will conquer the evil Drug, hideous, dark. (96) Aka Manah (Ill Purpose, see Akōman) will be overcome, Vohu Manah (Good Purpose) overcomes him. Overcome will be the falsely spoken word, the truly spoken word overcomes it. . . . Haurvatāṱ (Ḵordād, Health) and Amərətāṱ (Amurdād, Long Life, Immortality) overcome both Hunger and Thirst. . . . Aŋra Mainyu (Ahriman) of evil works will flee, bereft of power” (see Avesta, ed. Geldner, II, pp. 244, 256-58; on these verses as part of Zoroastrian apocalyptic see G. Messina, “Il Saušyant- nella tradizione iranica e la sua attesa,” Orientalia I, 1932, pp. 149-76). The final contest here described is known as the Great Battle (Pahl. ardīg ī wuzurg, wuzurg kārezār, Zātspram 34.52; Ayādgār ī Jāmāspīg, ed. G. Messina, Rome, 1939, 16.35).

This prophecy is conceived in purely religious and ethical terms, and with the cosmic breadth of Zoroaster’s own vision. It is also, in the spirit of that vision, millenarian in the broad sense of the term, i.e., the prophecy is that at the end of time happiness will come on this perfected earth to God’s own chosen creatures, the good, the upholders of the Good Religion. Apocalyptic, it has been said, is the literature of millenarism; and again, Zoroaster is the oldest known millenarian prophet, preaching, it seems, like all revolutionary millenarians, at a time of social upheaval and stress for his people (see Boyce, Zoroastrianism II, pp. 1-3). As Zoroastrian apocalyptic developed, his religious, social and cosmic message became nationalized by being linked with Iranian myth and legend. So in part of Yt. 19.93, omitted above, it is said that the “victorious weapon” which had been welded by Kavi Vīštāspa (Goštāsp), Zoroaster’s royal patron, was the same weapon which earlier “the mighty Thraētaona bore when Aži Dahāka was slain, which the Tūra Fraŋrasyan bore when the wicked Zainigu was slain, which Kavi Haosravah bore when the Tūra Fraŋrasyan was slain.” This development is plainly old, because it presents Fraŋrasyan as an Iranian warrior-hero, not as the alien villain he later became (see Afrāsīāb).

This interweaving of religious and heroic elements is characteristic of developed Zoroastrian apocalyptic; and a concept which gave it scope was that of the comrades of the Saošyant, among whom, it came to be believed, will be heroes of old who will return then to aid the Iranian peoples—“deathless chieftains” (rad ī ahōš) who, immortal in the flesh, wait in hidden or remote places for the call to action. (For their names see A. Christensen, Les Kayanides, Copenhagen, 1931, pp. 153-56.) Prominent among them is Av. Piši. Šyaoθna, pəšō.tanu (Pahl. Pišyōtan, q.v., NPers. Pašūtan/Bašūtan). He was one of Vīštaspa’s sons, and the growth of his story can be traced from that of a dead prince whose departed spirit is honored (Yt 13.103) to that of a hero who is “immortal, not aging, needing no sustenance, mighty of body and perfect in strength, full of glory, powerful, victorious . . .” (Dēnkard 7.5.12; see M. Molé, La légende de Zoroastre selon les textes pehlevis, Paris, 1967, pp. 64-65, and in detail on Pišyōtan M. Boyce, “On the Antiquity of Zoroastrian Apocalyptic,” BSOAS 46, 1984, pp. 59f.). In the early stages of his legend Pišyōtan was seen as one of the Saošyant’s future comrades, cf. Zand ī Wahman Yašt, where, after Ohrmazd has roused Pišyōtan (7.19-20), he will also summon the divine beings to play their part in the Great Battle (7.27f.). As in the Gāthās so in this later apocalyptic the sufferings of the good are dwelt upon; and the whole world is seen as afflicted in the last days by the power of the Evil Spirit. At that time “the sun’s rays will be very level and low-slanting, and year and month and day will be shorter. And the earth . . . will contract. . . . Crops will not yield seed, . . . and plants and bushes and trees will be small. . . . And people will be born very stunted, and will have little skill or energy. . . . It will not be possible for an auspicious cloud and a just wind to bring rain at its dire time and season. Cloud and fog will darken the whole sky. A hot wind and a cold wind will come and carry off all the fruits and grains of corn. . . . And the water of the rivers and springs will shrink and have no increase. . . . The plough-ox will have small strength and the swift horse little power. . . . That wicked Evil Spirit will be very oppressive and tyrannical, then when it becomes needful to destroy him (Zand ī Wahman Yašt 4.16-20, 42-44, 46, 48, 66).

Probably it was as a religion preaching thus powerfully about the last things, and hope in what lay beyond, that Zoroastrianism finally won acceptance in strife-torn Iran in the 7th century B.C. (see Boyce, Zoroastrianism II, p. 40). Once the Achaemenian Empire was established, however, it is likely that less emphasis was given to apocalyptic eschatology, at least in Persia proper; for the Persian kings sought to create a sense of their own God-given authority, and the stability and continuance of their rule. Yet teachings about the last times were too essential to Zoroastrianism to be neglected; and their wide currency even at this period is attested by Theopompos (b. 376 B.C.), who wrote of Iranian beliefs about the struggle between Horomazes and Areimanios (i.e., Ohrmazd and Ahriman) ending in defeat for “Hades” and happiness for mankind (apud Plutarch Isis and Osiris 47), and who referred also to Zoroaster’s teaching that the dead would rise again (apud Aeneas of Gaza, see C. Clemen, Fontes historiae religionis persicae, Bonn, 1920, p. 95). It was, it seems, during this epoch, however, that Frašegird became distanced through a triplication (characteristic of Zoroastrianism) of the figure of the Saošyant, although this development seems immediately due to a need to fill in the epochs of a scholastically created world year with periodically recurring events. Names were given to the two new Saviors which were harmonious with that of the Saošyant: Ušyaṱ.ərəta (Pahl. Ušēdār, q.v.), and Uxšaṱ.nəmah (Pahl. Ušēdārmāh, q.v.); and Iranian apocalyptic was modified accordingly. The present millennium belongs to Zoroaster, and began with his revelation; but after the golden time which attended this, evil has again gained ground, and is growing always stronger. At the millennium’s end Ušēdār will appear, renew the prophet’s revelation and defeat the forces of evil. There will be another golden time, another recrudescence of evil, the coming of Ušēdārmāh, and another defeat of evil; then a third repetition of golden time and decline, and at last the coming of the Saošyant, the final overthrow of evil, and all the events of Frašgird. For men living today it is the coming of Ušēdār which is of immediate concern; and to fill out the happenings of that longed-for event the apocalyptists transferred to him the aid of Pišyōtan, who in the surviving texts figures almost invariably as his comrade, bringing help thus at the end of this millennium (Zand ī Wahman Yašt 7.18; Ayādgār ī Jāmāspīg 16.51; Dk. 9.41.6; Bundahišn 33.28; Zurātušt-nāma, ed. and tr. F. Rosenberg, St. Petersburg, 1904, pp. 77-78; also implicitly, Pahl. Rivayat 49.18; Pahlavi Texts, ed. J. M. Jamasp-Asana, II, Bombay, 1913, p. 105). It seems probable that these new prophecies were made current through the composition of a late Avestan text, i.e., the Bahman Yašt and its vernacular renderings.

It has been reasonably argued that the collapse of the Achaemenid empire in 330 B.C. must have given powerful stimulus to the cultivation of Zoroastrian apocalyptic, with the Iranians shocked and dismayed, and their society disrupted. Evidence for an immediate prophetic response has been found in verses in the Sibylline Oracles 3.388-95, identified as an Iranian prophecy concerning Alexander (see W. Bousset, “Die Beziehungen der ältesten jüdischen Sibylle zur chaldäischen Sibylle. . . ,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 3, 1902, pp. 33-35), and probably composed in about 325 B.C. (see S. K. Eddy, The King is Dead, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1961, pp. 11-14). A Persian origin has also been assigned to another prophetic utterance of probably the early 3rd century B.C., which survives in the Book of Daniel (generally regarded as the oldest Jewish apocalyptic text). This is the vision of four beasts representing four kingdoms, the fourth, the Macedonian, being “different from them all, very fearsome, with teeth of iron, claws of bronze, that devoured and crushed, and stamped the remains” (7:19; on the Persian origin of the prophecy see J. W. Swain, “The Theory of the Four Monarchies: Opposition History under the Roman Empire,” Classical Philology 35, 1940, pp. 1-21). This is pseudo-prophecy, i.e., vaticinatio ex eventu, a widespread and ancient literary genre (see H. M. and N. K. Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, Cambridge, I, 1932, pp. 451-53, III, 1940, pp. 844-46). Much Zoroastrian apocalyptic is of this kind, though in theory all has its origin in revelation by Ahura Mazdā to Zoroaster. The surviving texts fall into three categories as to the presentation of their material: 1. The prophecies are explicitly presented as the revelation of Ahura Mazdā to Zoroaster (Zand ī Wahman Yašt; Dk. 9; Zurātušt-nāma); 2. they are uttered by Jāmāspa, who had obtained through Zoroaster the gift of knowledge (Ayādgār ī Jāmāspīg); 3. they are presented in direct narrative (Bundahišn; Zādspram 34; Pahl. Rivayat) though implicitly, as in 1, as part of Ahura Mazdā’s revelation to the prophet. The first group of texts alone has the concept of the millennium of Zoroaster (i.e., the present one) being divided into metallic ages. This idea is generally held to have been adopted by western Iranians from the Greeks, probably in the 3rd century B.C., and it is widely supposed to have then influenced the Daniel story (2.31f.) of an image made of diverse metals, representing successive kingdoms. (Otherwise J. Duchesne-Guillemin, “Apocalypse juive et apocalypse iranienne,” La Soteriologia dei Culti Orientali nell’Impero Romano, ed. U. Bianchi and M. J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 1982, pp. 753-61; against his arguments there for the Jewish origins of Zoroastrian apocalyptic see Boyce, in BSOAS 46, 1984, pp. 57-75).

As far as is known, no Iranian apocalyptic text, whether in Avestan or a vernacular, was written down by Zoroastrian priests before the Sasanian period; and apart from the Gāthās and the Yt. 19 verses, which would have been strictly memorized (the latter at least by the end of the Achaemenian period), the known texts belong to a fluid oral transmission, in which additions to the fixed elements (which included the essential core of Gathic teachings) could be made as circumstances demanded. This makes it impossible to assign a precise date to any individual work; and for the Seleucid and Parthian periods it is largely by foreign references or borrowings that the continuity of Iranian apocalyptic can be traced. Of importance in this regard are the Greek Oracles of Hystaspes, a work well known and respected as a source of apocalyptic wisdom in Syria and Asia Minor in the early centuries of the Christian era. (On it see H. Windisch, Die Orakel des Hystaspes, Verhandelingen der Konihklijke Akademie von Wetenschappen te Amsterdam, 28/5, 1929; and for further discussion F. Cumont, “La fin du monde selon les mages occidentaux,” RHR 103, 1931, pp. 64f.; Eddy, The King is Dead, p. 18f.; G. Widengren, Die Religionen Irans, Stuttgart, 1965, pp. 199f., all with additional references.) The work is first mentioned by Justin Martyr in the second century A.D., and is chiefly known through citations from it by Lactantius in the fourth century (see J. Bidez and F. Cumont, Les mages hellénisés, Paris, 1938, II, pp. 361-76). The passages which Lactantius cites have close parallels, even in details, in Zoroastrian apocalyptic, notably in the Zand ī Wahman Yašt. Hystaspes is of course the Greek form of Vištāspa, the name of Zoroaster’s royal patron; and the king is represented in the Oracles as having had a wonderful dream which is interpreted to him by a prophesying child (vaticinans puer), who, it is suggested, was Zoroaster himself in infancy (see E. Benveniste, “Une apocalypse pehlevie: le Žāmāsp-Nāmak,” RHR 106, 1932, pp. 377-79). The Oracles are generally held either to be the work of a Hellenized Iranian, or to have been put together by a Greek from Iranian oral traditions, probably in the second century B.C. Zoroastrian doctrines also appear scattered unsystematically through Jewish apocalyptic works of the intertestamental period, notably in the Sibylline Oracles, where among other matters there are repeated references to the final fiery torrent which will engulf the world (see Widdisch, Die Orakel, pp. 28-29); and in the Ethiopic Book of Enoch (see G. Widengren, “Iran and Israel in Parthian times with special regard to the Ethiopic Book of Enoch,” Temenos 2, 1966, pp. 139-77). The Jews were themselves at this period experiencing distress and disruption, i.e., they were in a classic position to evolve or to adopt millenarian beliefs (see S. R. Isenberg, “Millenarism in Greco-Roman Palestine,” Religion 4, 1974, pp. 26-45); and they seem to have absorbed and made their own a number of essential Zoroastrian teachings, coming above all to see “the world . . . as a battlefield between good and evil and history as a drama, advancing towards a climax, the final judgement” (Widengren, “Iran and Israel,” p. 177; against arguments put forward by R. H. Charles and others for denying Iranian influence see, cogently, J. R.

Hinnells, “Zoroastrian Influence on the Judaeo-Christian Tradition,” J. of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 45, 1976, pp. 1-23). Further evidence for the flourishing of Zoroastrian apocalyptic at this period is provided by Plutarch in his well-known summary of Magian teachings in Isis and Osiris 47; and the surviving Zoroastrian texts themselves, although all committed to writing by Persian priests, contain an acknowledgement of Parthia’s part in the continuity of the religious tradition, in that in one text out of seven “metallic ages” the honorable one of bronze is assigned to the Parthian king Valaxš (Zand ī Wahman Yašt 2.26).

Naturally, however, since it is the Persian line of transmission which alone is represented by the surviving apocalyptic works, Persian interests predominate in their later elements. So various “metallic ages” are assigned, in different texts, to this or that Sasanian king or high priest (i.e., that of copper to Ardašīr and Ādurbād in Zand ī Wahman Yašt 3.25; in the Dēnkard epitome [9.8.4] the third age to Ādurbād alone). The immortals, Pišyōtan and Kay Xusraw, will, it is foretold, champion the temple cult of fire against that of image worship, i.e., these ancient heroes are represented as supporters of the Sasanian iconoclastic movement (Zand ī Wahman Yašt 7.26, 36-37; Bundahišn 32.28). Other developments seem to belong to the sixth century, when “the terrible threats of war from all directions induced the feeling . . . that the last days foretold in the sacred books had arrived” (K. Czeglédy, “Bahrām Čōbīn and the Persian apocalyptic literature,” AOASH 8, 1958, p. 36). So the historical figure of the sixth century rebel, Bahrām Čōbēn, merges, it appears, with the greater figure of Bahrām, yazad of Victory, and takes on also the role of the immortal hero, so that Bahrām too becomes thought of as one of Ušēdār’s comrades. (See Czeglédy, pp. 21-43, and A. Destrée, “Quelques reflexions sur le héros des récits apocalyptiques persans et sur le mythe de la ville de cuivre,” La Persia nel Medioevo, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome, 1971, pp. 639-54.)

It was not, it seems, until the 9th century A.D. that the important Zand ī Wahman Yašt and Ayādgār ī Jāmāspīg were set down in their final fixed forms, probably losing much of their literary quality then through being recited from memory at slow dictation speed. (On the Jāmāsp-nāmag being a verse-text see E. Benveniste, “Une apocalypse,” 1932, pp. 337-80.) They and other Pahl. apocalyptic texts contain accordingly repeated references to the conquering Arabs and to the miseries brought by their rule, these miseries being seen as manifestations of the last age before the corning of Ušēdār. Hope of his appearance, together with Bahrām and Pešōtan, upheld the Zoroastrians during their sufferings in the centuries that followed, and reached a peak as the year 1620 approached, which by one calculation was seen as the end of Zoroaster’s millennium. (For the text see M. R. Unvala, Dārāb Hormazyār’s Rivāyat, Bombay, 1922, II, p. 390.8-9; for the transl. B. N. Dhabhar, The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyār Framarz and Others, Bombay, 1932, p. 606). The essential Gathic apocalyptic, modified by scholastic and religio-political developments down the ages, thus remained the mainstay of hope for the community into modern times.



See also H. G. Kippenberg, “Die Geschichte der mittelpersischen apocalyptischen Traditionen,” Stud. Ir. 7/1, 1978, pp. 49-80.

G. Widengren, “Révélation et prédiction dans les Gāthās,” Iranica, ed. G. Gnoli and A. V. Rossi, Instituto Universitario Orientale, Naples, 1979, pp. 339-64.

Idem, “Leitende Ideen und Quellen der iranischen Apokatyptik,” in D. Hellholm, ed., Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East, Tübingen, 1983, pp. 77-162.

T. Olsson, “The Apocalyptic Activity: The Case of Jāmāsp-Nāmag,” ibid., pp. 21-49.

A. Hultgård, “Forms and Origins of Iranian Apocalypticism,” ibid., pp. 387-411.

(M. Boyce)


ii. In Muslim Iran

Although the term “apocalypse” has no exact equivalent in Arabic, the material found in Sunni Hadith collections under Ketāb al-fetan wa ašrāṭ al-sāʿa (Book on civil strife and the signs of the Last Hour) deals with the extraordinary events that will precede the Last Judgment and forms the basis of apocalyptic traditions in Islam.

Various factors contributed to the growth of such literature. First, the doctrine of the Last Judgment vividly portrayed in the Koran describes the Day of Judgment as the complete upheaval of the cosmos, dislocating the earth and the heavens. Graphic descriptions of that day (sūras 81-82, 84, 88, 98-99, 101), imply that the Koran speaks not only of the destruction of the universe but also of its transformation and rearrangement to create new forms of life (F. Rahman, Major themes of the Qurʾān, Chicago, 1980, pp. 106-20). When the Prophet was asked about the time of the Last Hour, he replied: “The knowledge thereof is with my Lord only” (Koran 7:187, 31:34, 33:63, 43:85), or “The Hour shall come on them suddenly while they are unaware” (6:31, 12:107, 22:55, 43:66, 47:18), or “The matter of the Hour is but as a twinkling of the eye, or it is nearer still” (16:77, 42:17). Soon the coming of the Hour and the eschatological inventory depicted in the Koran received exegetical elaboration, and apocalyptic traditions ascribed to the Prophet emerged. Boḵārī and Moslem report a tradition that the Prophet told his Companions everything that would happen up to the Last Hour (Boḵārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, Cairo, 1378/1958, IV, p. 129; Moslem, Ṣaḥīḥ, Cairo, n.d., VIII, p. 172).

Second, the doctrine of the Mahdī evolved in an eschatological sense among the Shiʿites. The application of the term “Mahdī” to Moḥammad b. Ḥanafīya during Moḵtār’s rebellion in 66/685-86 suggests its early development in Islam (D. M. Macdonald, “al-Mahdī,” EI1 III, pp. 112; S. M. Ḥasan, al-Mahdīya fi’l-Eslām, Cairo, 1953, pp. 95-106). Numerous factors including the socio-political crisis and religious ferment following the assassination of the Caliph ʿOṯmān in 35/656 contributed to messianic hopes. Beliefs concerning a messiah taken over from other religions and cultures must have had some influence as well. The Sunnis believe that there will be a final restorer of Islam, but he is not mentioned by the name Mahdī in the Ṣaḥīḥs of Boḵārī and Moslem, nor is he dealt with in theology. In general the Sunnis hold that at the end of time a man from the family of the Prophet will appear to destroy the forces of evil, restore purity to Islam, fill the earth with justice and equity, and bring true guidance to all mankind (Tabrīzī, Meškāt al-maṣābīḥ, ed. M. Albānī, Damascus, 1961-62, III, pp. 24-26; tr. J. Robson, Lahore, 1975, II, pp. 1140-42; Ebn Ḵaldūn, Moqaddema, Cairo, n.d., pp. 311-30, tr. F. Rosenthal, Princeton, 1980, II, pp. 156-200).

For the Imamis the reappearance of the hidden Twelfth Imam, who went into occultation in the year 260/873-74 and is identified with the Mahdī, is a fundamental tenet of the creed, expressed fervently in an oft repeated prayer: “May God hasten release from suffering through his rise” (Kolaynī, al-Oṣūl men al-kāfī, ed. ʿA. A. Ḡaffārī, Tehran, 1388/1968, I, pp. 168, 371; Ḥellī, Šarḥ bāb ḥādīʿašar, Tehran, 1370/1950, p. 57; tr. W. Miller, London, 1958, p. 81; Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, al-Reḥla, Cairo, 1964, I, pp. 138-39; D. Donaldson, The Shiʿite Religion, London, 1933, pp. 226-41; Āl Kāšef-al-ḡeṭāʾ, Aṣl al-šīʿa wa oṣūloha, Naǰaf, 1965, p. 104; A. Ṣobḥī, Naẓarīyat al-emāna, Cairo, 1969, pp. 398-426). A. Sachedina has convincingly argued that the Mahdī doctrine about the Twelfth Imam grew and developed with eschatological significance following the period of the shorter occultation (al-ḡaybat al-ṣoḡrā), 260-329/873-941 (Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdī in Twelver Shiʿsm, Albany, 1981, pp. 150f.). There arose among the Imamis a literature dealing with the events that herald the Mahdī’s coming (ʿalāmāt-e ẓohūr, the signs of [the Mahdī’s] appearance). Al-Kāfī, the earliest Imami collection of Hadith, by Kolaynī (d. 329/941), does not contain anything on the signs that will precede the Mahdī’s appearance (ẓohūr); but in a brief section entitled karāhīyat al-tawqīt (abhorrence of fixing the time), he refers to the prohibition of fixing its date. As the Mahdī’s raǰʿa (return) and ẓohūr became an integral part of the doctrine of the occultation, most of the Imami divines who wrote on the occultation, beginning with Ebn Bābūya (d. 381/991-92), included a chapter entitled ʿAlāmāt ẓohūr al-Qāʾem (the signs of the Mahdī’s appearance), or Men al-ʿalāmāt al-kāʾena qabl ḵorūǰeh (some of the signs bound to happen before his coming). These apocalyptic visions of a future restoration through the dramatic intervention of God in history served as source of solace for believers and provided them with an added motive to preserve the faith during the difficult days of the occultation. The messianic expectations relieved them from any need to oppose the established authority actively; accompanying the traditions were reports on the merits of waiting for the ẓohūr in patience (Ṭabresī, al-Eḥteǰāǰ, Naǰaf, 1966, II, p. 50). The absence of any information on the exact time required the believers to be on their guard; they had to be prepared for his coming by a constant reevaluation of contemporary circumstances on the basis of the predicted signs. Familiar with this literature, every generation expected the ẓohūr to take place during its own lifetime.

In its development as an independent genre, ʿalāmāt-e ẓohūr drew mainly on Islamic eschatological (ʿalāmāt al-sāʿa) literature describing the catastrophic events preceding the end of time. The two Ṣaḥīḥs incorporate certain traditions stating that the Prophet told his Companions everything that would happen up to the Last Hour (Tabrīzī, Meškāt III, p. 3). Sunni collections place a great majority of the apocalyptic traditions directly in the mouth of the Prophet, whereas the Shiʿite collections generally ascribe them to the Imams, the legitimate heirs to prophetic knowledge. Among the books that the imam inherits from his predecessor two should be noted for apocalyptic traditions: Moṣḥaf Fāṭema and Ketāb al-ǰafr. The former is described as a scroll thrice the size of the Koran containing information about future events (ʿelm mā yakūn). It is related that after the death of the Prophet God sent an angel to console Fāṭema, who was in much grief and sorrow. So, whatever she heard from the angel she dictated to ʿAlī who wrote it down. Another report states that the moṣḥaf contains the names of all those who would rule the world until the Day of Judgment. Ketāb al-ǰafr is described as a leather container with the Psalms of David, the Torah of Moses, the Gospel of Jesus, the scrolls of Abraham, the knowledge of the lawful and unlawful and the Moṣḥaf Fāṭema (Kolaynī, al-Kāfī I, pp. 238-42). Another source for ʿalāmāt-e ẓohūr was the malāḥem literature, dealing with future events that were to happen in the Muslim community; such prophecies seem to have appeared first among Shiʿites in the doctrine of ǰafr (see T. Fahd, “Djafr,” EI2 II, pp. 375-77; D. Macdonald, “Malāḥim,” EI1 III, pp. 188-89). In the Fehrest certain books on malāḥem are attributed to early Shiʿite authors such as Esmāʿīl b. Mehrān and ʿAlī b. Yaqṭīn (Fehrest, Tehran, p. 279; tr. Dodge, I, pp. 542, 544 [malāḥem is translated incorrectly]). In short, the material found in Sunni Hadith collections (under Ketāb al-fetan) dealing with civil strife and sedition, the signs of the Last Hour, malāḥem, the account of the Daǰǰāl or Antichrist, and the descent of Jesus formed the nucleus around which the signs of the Mahdī’s advent developed. The ʿalāmāt-e ẓohūr, therefore, follow the same pattern as the Sunni Hadith, to which they show great resemblance in content.

It is clear from the vast amount of Sunni and Shiʿite apocalyptic literature that most of the later traditions were elaborations or expositions of earlier, authenticated traditions; often details of later political and social turmoil were appended as prophecies, and major political events, such as the disintegration of the caliphate, were interpreted as the fulfillment of predictions. Numerous traditions predict the final Muslim victory over the Byzantines and the conquest of Constantinople. The constant reference in the texts to conflict among enemies reflected the political tumult of the time and provided the Shiʿites with assurance that the great event of the Mahdī’s coming would take place. The great majority of the traditions are ascribed to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq and Moḥammad al-Bāqer, the rest to ʿAlī al-Reżā, Mūsā al-Kāẓem, ʿAlī Zayn-al-ʿābedīn, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, and various Companions of the Prophet. (In addition to the six canonical Sunni Hadith collections the main sources employed are Ebn Bābūya, Kamāl al-dīn wa tamām al-neʿma, ed. with Persian tr. M. B. Kamaraʾī, Tehran, 1378/1958, II, pp. 362-70; Shaikh Mofīd, al-Eršād, Naǰaf, 1962, pp. 356-66; Shaikh Ṭūsī, Ketāb al-ḡayba, Naǰaf, 1385/1965, pp. 265-80; Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, Tehran, 1384/1964, VI, pp. 295-316, LII , pp. 181-308; Mīrzā Ḥosayn Ṭabresī, al-Naǰm al-ṯāqeb yā Mahdī-e mawʿūd, Tehran, n.d., pp. 462-80). Leaving aside a great wealth of detailed descriptions and specific references, this amorphous material can be classified into a number of major themes:

Celestial signs. The Mahdī’s advent will be preceded by events against the natural order, such as the rise of the sun from the west, a solar and a lunar eclipse at the middle and the end of the month of Ramażān respectively, a lunar eclipse in the east and the west, and the sun’s remaining stationary in the middle of the day. Some traditions describing the halting of the sun state that the face of Sofyānī (see below) will be visible at its center portending his destruction. A shining star like the moon will rise in the east; redness will appear in the sky and spread on the horizon; fire will appear on the eastern horizon and remain from three to seven days. Time will contract, a year being like a month, a month like a week, a week like a day, a day like an hour, an hour like the kindling of a fire. Gabriel will proclaim from the heaven in the early morning, “Verily, the truth is with ʿAlī and his followers,” and his words will be heard by all the earth’s inhabitants in their respective languages. Satan will declare from the earth in the evening, “Verily, the truth is with ʿOṯmān (or Sofyānī) and his followers,” and the liars will waver in doubt. The Mahdī’s name will be proclaimed on Friday night, the 23rd of Ramażān. These celestial signs are conspicuous in the Imami sources.

Terrestrial phenomena. Extraordinary and calamitous events, such as earthquakes, famines, tremendous rains, and epidemics will take place on the earth; the yield of crops will decline and dates will rot on the branches.

Social anarchy. The Mahdī’s coming will be preceded by a period of terrible suffering, great commotion, and civil strife, and mankind will sink into a state of moral turpitude. Pretenders to prophethood and the imamate will arise and “a pure soul” from the progeny of Banū Hāšem will be killed at the Kaʿba. Many traditions state that Sofyānī, Ḵorāsānī, and Yamānī will rise simultaneously on the same day. During this period of violent convulsion two-thirds of mankind will perish.

Sofyānī. The Mahdī’s advent will he heralded by the coming of Sofyānī—a figure whom the Omayyads were accused of devising as a counterpart of the Shiʿite Mahdī (Aḡānī XVI, p. 88; Ebn Taḡrīberdī, al-Noǰūm al-ẓāhera, Cairo, 1929, I, p. 221; Ḥasan, al-Mahdīya, pp. 177-81; R. Hartman, “Der Sufyānī,” in Studia Orientalia Ioanni Pedersen, Copenhagen, 1953, pp. 141-51); he is not mentioned in the six canonical Sunni Hadith collections, although other Sunni collections mention him in detail. His name is ʿOṯmān b. ʿAnbasa and he will rise from among the descendents of Abū Sofyān. Of medium height with large head and marks of smallpox making him appear one-eyed, he will come from the desert in the month of Raǰab and march into Syria after defeating the Byzantines. After occupying Syria eight or nine months, he will be killed by the Mahdī.

Daǰǰāl (literally “deceiver”). The appearance of the Antichrist is a sign of the Last Hour. Endowed with miraculous powers, he will come before the end of time and do mischief right and left to lead people astray. He will rule the world with impurity and tyranny for forty days, one like a year, one like a month, one like a week, and the rest like other days. He is described as a corpulent, red-faced youth blind in the right eye, his eye looking like a floating grape, and the letters k, f, r (infidel) written on his forehead. He rides the ass and is attended by the sinners and hypocrites. Legends make his advent from the remote regions of the east, especially Khorasan. Despite his conquests he will be incapable of entering the mountain passes of both Mecca and Medina because the angels guard its gates. According to the Sunni traditions he will be killed by Jesus (A. Abel, “al-Dadjdjāl,” EI2 II, pp. 76-77). He does not appear in early Shiʿite works, though he is discussed in detail in Sunni Hadith. In later Imami works he is mentioned in a few traditions where he is said to be killed by the Mahdī, not Christ. Some traditions trying to reconcile the figures of Sofyānī and Daǰǰāl interpret Daǰǰāl’s emergence as a test for sifting true believers from false.

The Decent of Jesus. In Islamic apocalyptic traditions Jesus is assigned a significant role, and the description of his return, regarded as one of the signs of the approaching Last Hour, does not vary substantially in the sources. He will descend on a hill in the Holy Land, or on the white arcade of the eastern gate of Damascus with a spear in his hand to kill the Antichrist. He will then arrive in Jerusalem when the dawn prayer is being said. The Imam will try to give up his place to Jesus, but Jesus will refuse to lead and will pray behind the Mahdī. Thereafter he will break the cross, kill all the swine, destroy the synagogues and the churches, and will kill all the Christians except those who believe in him. The People of the Book will believe in him and will form one single community, that of Islam. He will establish the rule of justice and insure it for forty years; then he will die. His funeral will take place in Medina where he will be buried beside the Prophet (Ṯaʿlabī, Qeṣaṣ al-anbīāʾ, Bombay, 1306/1888, pp. 461-62; Bayẓāwī, Tafsīr, Cairo, n.d., IV, p. 132 [commentary of verse 43:61]; G. Anawati, “ʿĪsā,” EI2 IV, pp. 81-86). The Imami doctrine about the Mahdī’s coming at one point merges with the return of Jesus. Imami traditions emphasize that Jesus will descend during the Mahdī’s reign and that he will offer his prayer behind him. The function of killing the Daǰǰāl is also reserved for the Mahdī.

Al-Mahdī. The prohibition regarding the fixing of a particular time about the Mahdī’s advent seems to relate to the year, since many traditions mention the day on which he will appear. The most often cited date is ʿĀšūrāʾ, the tenth day of Moḥarram, on a Saturday in one of the odd-numbered years of the heǰra. Though the traditions differ about the place where the Mahdī will rise, his ẓohūr will take place in Mecca at the Kaʿba, between the rokn and the maqām, where his followers will swear allegiance to him. Then he will move to Medina and march triumphantly into Kūfa, which will become his capital (detailed description in Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, LIII , pp. 1-38; its summary in Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, pp. 161-66). In some early traditions ascribed to Imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer the number of years which had to elapse before the Mahdī’s coming was specified. The fact that the period passed without the prophecy being fulfilled was interpreted as badāʾ, a change in circumstances causing God to alter His ruling in the peoples’ own interest (see Ṭūsī, Ketāb al-ḡayba, p. 265; Goldziher and Tritton, “Badā,” EI2 I, pp. 850-51).

The Mahdī will be old in age but young in looks. Those who look at him think that he is forty or less. The proof that he is the Mahdī, is that he will not age with the passage of time until his death. He is described as of white complexion leaning to redness; he has a beautiful face with pretty black hair hanging down to his shoulders and two birth marks on his back: one like the color of his skin and the other resembling the birth mark of the Prophet. There is no agreement in the Imami sources about the duration of his rule. One report states that it will be 309 years (the number of years the Aṣḥāb al-Kahf slept in the cave), while another report states 7 years (Sunni sources), each year equal to 70 years; thereafter he will die. The purpose of ẓohūr is to secure justice and liberate the world from suffering, oppression, and war and to inaugurate an era of spiritual and worldly felicity. He will rule with the sword (hence the appellation ṣāḥeb al-sayf), fight the enemies, and restore the purity of the faith. His rule, therefore, personifies the millennial dream, the accomplishment of an ideal Islamic society.



See also M. Jabr, Ašrāṭ al-sāʿa wa asrārohā, Kuwait, n.d.; M. Hodgson, “A note on the millennium in Islam,” in Millennial Dreams in Action, ed. S. Thrupp, New York, 1970, pp. 218-19.

(I. K. Poonawala)

(M. Boyce, I. K. Poonawala)

Originally Published: December 15, 1986

Last Updated: August 5, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. II, Fasc. 2, pp. 154-160