In early 1848, most of the followers of the Bab believed He was the Mahdi (meaning the “Guided One”).
This traditional Islamic was that a messianic figure, the Mahdi, would emerge at the end of time to signal the day of judgement. The appearance of the Mahdi is not found in the Qur’an, and the beliefs about him changed over the centuries.
‘Mahdi’ seems to have originally meant a liberator who would bring the Arab tribes of Southern Arabia back to their ancient glory, like the idea of a ‘Messiah’ for Jews, a king who would liberate the Holy Land. This idea then merged with beliefs about righteousness against corrupt rulers, the resurrection of the dead, the day of judgement, and, in Shi’a Islam, the occultation (a ‘disappearance’ from which he would one day return) of the last Imam as well. In the Sunni tradition, the ‘Mahdi’ seems to have been thought of more as a ruler in this world.
Over the centuries, there were many claimants to being the ‘Mahdi’—from rebels, to founders of dynasties and Sufi mystics, who emerged in Persia, Central Asia, and the Sudan, among other places.
The Bab, though, was claiming to be much more—that he was the bringer of new Divine Revelation and the forerunner of a second Manifestation of God, referred to as “the One Whom God will make manifest.”
One of the prophecies regarding the Mahdi was that he would appear in the Eastern province of Khurasan with a black flag as its standard. The Bab instructed Mulla Husayn to initiate this episode by raising the black standard in the province of Khurasan and journeying westward. The Bab moreover issued a general call to his disciples to rally to the black standard.
In that same province, other Babi leaders gathered in the village of Badasht to ascertain the true nature of the Bab’s claims.
Click below for an overview of the Life of the Bab and a documentary on a political claimant to be the Mahdi from the Sudan: