WASHINGTON—Muqtada al-Sadr summoned one of Shiite Islam's most messianic images when he chose the name Mahdi Army for his militia. The mahdi is believed to be the successor to Muhammad who will return to save the world.
The word isn't mentioned in the Quran or in the collected sayings attributed to Muhammad, known as the hadiths. But the term is common to both Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam as the term for a leader who will bring righteousness to the world.
The title means "the divinely guided one" but refers to differing concepts, depending on the believer. Some Muslims believe the mahdi will come in conjunction with the second coming of Jesus.
For the largest branch of Shiites, however, the "mahdi" is the 12th imam or leader of the Muslim faith who is said to have gone into hiding in the ninth century and who Shiites believe is still alive and will return at the day of judgment.
The concept is so holy, say some, that few in Islam would dare use it to describe themselves, which makes the actions of al-Sadr's militia appear all the more audacious.
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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.