In order to approach this topic – that of awaiting the signs of the Hour, like the Mahdî and the second coming of Christ – we must first embark upon a study of how the word “to wait” is used in the Qur’ân.
I believe that referring back to the Qur’ân is a sensible approach, since it is the book that contains guidance and light for all such matters whenever and however they occur. I looked at every verse of the Qur’ân that contained the term “to wait” or any of its synonyms and found that these verses can be classified into three categories:
The first category: verses that threaten the unbelievers by telling them to await their punishment in the Hereafter.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) would tell the unbelievers to wait until their punishment arrives, as is mentioned in the following verses of the Qur’ân:
“They say: ‘When will this decision be, if you are telling the truth?’ Say (O Muhammad): ‘On the Day of Decision, no profit will it be to the unbelievers if they then believe, nor will they be granted a respite.’ So turn away from them and wait. They too are waiting.” [Sûrah al-Sajdah: 28-30]
The “Day of Decision” is – and Allah knows best – the Day of Resurrection, since it is described as a day that “no profit will it be to the unbelievers if they then believe, nor will they be granted a respite”. The Prophet (Peace be upon him) is commanded to wait. What he must wait for is the final outcome and the fulfillment of the promised resurrection, judgment, and recompense that also awaits the unbelievers.
A similar verse is: “On the day that certain signs of your Lord appear, no good will it do a soul to believe in them if they believed not before or earned righteousness through faith.” [Sûrah al-An`âm: 158]
It would be correct to understand that the sign referred to here is the Sun rising in the West, for on that day, faith will be of no benefit for a person who had not believed from before.
It may also be correct to say that what is meant here is a certain type of sign from Allah and for this reason, the verse refers to “certain signs of your Lord”. There are other signs of Allah; for example, the throes of death, since Allah accepts the repentance of a person before they are overtaken by the throes of death, but not afterwards.
Therefore, they await the Great Hour. After its signs appear, like the Sun rising in the West, a person will not benefit by embracing the faith. They might also be awaiting the lesser Hour which is death, for when a person dies, his day has come. The signs of this day are the throes of death and the sight of the angels who come to take away his soul. At that point in time, it is to no avail for that person to start believing.
This is why the verse calls to works, faith, and reform before the coming of the end – regardless of which end it is – when these things will no longer be possible. When Allah says: “…no good will it do a soul to believe in them if they believed not before or earned righteousness through faith” He is referring to that specific time and encouraging people to earn good through faith and works before it is too late.
The meaning of “waiting” here is not to place your cheek in your hand and wait for something to happen. The meaning here is to strive and try to get ahead of something that you dread is going to happen.
The second category: verses that threaten the unbelievers to await their punishment in this world.
Sometimes, the unbelievers seek to hurry on the punishment as a way of expressing their skepticism about it and lack of concern for it. This can be seen in the story of Prophet Hûd (peace be upon him) and his people: “They (Hud’s people) said: ‘Do you come to us that we should worship Allah alone and give up what our fathers used to worship. Bring us what you threaten us with if you are telling the truth’. He said: ‘Punishment and wrath have already come upon you from your Lord. Do you dispute with me over names that you have made up, you and your fathers, without any authority from Allah. Then wait. I am amongst you, also waiting’.” [Sûrah al-A`râf: 70-71]
Those people asked for punishment, requesting it to be hastened upon them, and they were commanded to wait.
The same situation can be seen in the following verse about the people of Yûnûs (Jonah, peace be upon him): “Are they waiting for anything except for the days that befell those who passed away before them? Say: ‘Then wait. I am amongst you, also waiting’.” [Sûrah Yûnus: 102] The “days that befell those who passed away” refers to the punishments and hardships that had descended upon them in this world.
Also: “Say to those who do not believe: ‘Act according to your own way, and we shall act in our way. And wait! We too shall be waiting’.” [Sûrah Hûd: 121-122]
Look at how waiting and acting are placed together. The disbelievers are given the following challenge: “Act according to your own way, and we shall act in our way and await what Allah will decree between us.”
Allah says elsewhere:
“Be patient until Allah decides between us, for He is the best to decide.” [Sûrah al-A`râf: 87]
“Say (O Muhammad): ‘Wait, for verily I will wait with you’.” [Sûrah al-Tûr: 31]
This is the wait for Allah’s punishment to descend upon the unbelievers in this world.
The third category: verses that refer to waiting for a sign from Allah.
The unbelievers used to demand the Prophet (peace be upon him) to bring them a sign from Allah. They wanted Mount Safâ to be turned into gold for them or have a piece of the sky fall upon them among other miracles. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) would say to them what Allah ordered him to say: “The Unseen is only for Allah to know.”
This comes in the Qur’ân: “They say: ‘Why is not a sign sent down to him from his Lord?’ Say (O Muhammad): ‘The Unseen is only for Allah to know. So wait. I too will be waiting with you’.” [Sûrah Yûnus: 20]
There are important lessons to be learned from these three types of verses:
1. Matters of the Unseen must be left to Allah. This is why He said: “The Unseen is only for Allah to know.” The descent of Allah’s wrath and the Day of Resurrection are matters of the Unseen that Allah does not reveal to anyone. Allah says: “Verily the Hour is coming. My design is to keep it hidden for every soul to receive its reward by the measure of its endeavor.” [Sûrah TâHâ:15]
The Unseen is Allah’s domain. He reveals it to no one “except a Messenger whom He has chosen.” [Sûrah al-Jinn: 27] There are some matters of the Unseen that He does not even reveal to the angels and Messengers. Allah keeps them completely to Himself. No one is allowed to delve into these matters in any way. A person might sometimes find within himself an inspired thought or feeling and construe it to be something, but he must never believe it with conviction. He might have a vision of something good for the Muslims or something horrible for the unbelievers, but it remains a mere speculation nonetheless.
We see this to be the case even with the Prophet Yûsuf (Joseph, peace be upon him). Allah says: “And he (Yûsuf) said to the one who he thought was about to be saved…” [Sûrah Yûsuf: 42] Though he was a prophet who received revelation from Allah, he did not speak with certitude about his interpretation of the dream, but only conjectured.
Likewise, when a man came to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and told him about a dream that he had. Abû Bakr interpreted it and then asked: “O Messenger of Allah, I swear that you are as my father. Did I get it right or wrong?”
Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) replied: “You were right in some of it and wrong in some.”
Abû Bakr said: “I swear by Allah, inform me of what I got wrong.”
Allah’s Messenger replied: “Do not swear.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (7046) and Sahîh Muslim (2269)]
Expectations, possibilities, speculations, and hopes have a wide scope but do not offer a person certainty of any kind when it comes to the Unseen. This is because what they are waiting for is something that will only occur in the future.
Allah says: “The Unseen is only for Allah to know.” [Sûrah Yûnus: 20]
2. Allah has given no human being, not even the Prophets, any involvement in His punishments that await His servants. This is why Allah addresses His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the following manner:
“You have nothing to do with the matter. Whether he turns to them in mercy or punishes them, for they are indeed the wrongdoers.” [Sûrah Al `Imrân: 128]
“Whether We show you some part of what We promised them or We take up your soul before that, to Us is their return” [Sûrah Yûnus: 46]
These verses point to the fact that these matters are the affairs of Allah alone. People must submit and accept the decree of Allah as well as His will and His command. People must not delve into matters that do not concern them. These verses indicate that those people who ask for signs should be informed that such things are purely Allah’s concern and He does not share them with any of His creatures.
3. We are encouraged to work and to set things right and hurry in our efforts before the end overtakes us, whether that end be death or the Day of Resurrection. We are not supposed to just wait. We are supposed to engage in diligent, fruitful work. We must base our work on both the causes established by Islamic teachings as well as the natural causes set forth by Allah in His Creation.
We find no text in the Qur’ân or in the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) that places us in a state of waiting and anticipation, not even for the Hour itself. Every believer must believe in the Hour and know that it is coming. Nevertheless, we are not supposed to wait in anticipation for it or seek to hurry it on.
Anas b. Mâlik relates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “If the Hour arrives and one of you is holding a date palm sapling, then he should go ahead and plant it before getting up from his place if he is able to.” [Musnad Ahmad 12981]
Note that he did not say: “..and if one of you is praying he should complete his prayer” but mentioned a worldly matter “…if one of you is holding a date palm sapling…” and still said that he should not to get up from what he was doing. Worldly work is blessed if it is performed with a noble intention, even more so if it brings good to others, like assisting the downtrodden and weak or being kind and compassionate to children or giving to the needy and hungry. How much more a person’s work will be blessed and rewarded if it is for the good of the religion? What if a person guides someone who is astray or in unbelief or deviance? What if he teaches another Muslim who is ignorant of his religion, or reconciles between Muslims who are divided or reforms a sinner?
There are even some variations of this hadîth that read: “If you hear the Antichrist and you are holding a date palm sapling…” [al-Bukhârî, al-Adab al-Mufrid (480)]
Some people live in expectation of these events, and this inspires within them a kind of laziness and lethargy that produces only silence and languid inactivity.
The issue at hand is that of diligent and earnest work. The value of work is one of the most important values that Islam advances and inculcates in the hearts of the believers.
There is an event related in the hadîth that has great bearing on what we are discussing. Yasîr b. Jâbir relates [Sahîh Muslim: 2899] that a red wind stirred up in al-Kûfah. A man came who had nothing better to say than: ‘O `Abd Allah b. Mas`ûd, the Hour has arrived.” `Abd Allah b. Mas`ûd, who had been reclining sat up straight . This was a sign of his concern, but it could also have been an indication of his anger and disapproval. He said: “The Hour will not arrive until inheritance stops being divided and receiving war spoils is not a cause of happiness.” Then he made an indication with his hand towards Syria and mentioned some of the major signs that must come to pass right before the Hour.
Ibn Mas`ûd condemned that other man’s hasty conclusions and bad estimation of events. This is because Ibn Mas`ûd was erudite and sharp and had acquired his knowledge directly from Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him). He made it clear that the Hour would not arrive until the signs occurred that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) had informed us about.