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al-Mahdi is "the rightly-guided one" who, according to Islamic Hadiths (traditions),
will come before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim. Over the last 1400 years numerous claimants to the
mantle of the Mahdi have arisen in both Shi`i and Sunni circles. Modern belief in the coming of the Mahdi has
manifested most famously in the 1979 al-`Utaybi uprising of Sa`udi Arabia, and most recently in the ongoing
Mahdist movements (some violent) in Iraq, as well as in the frequently-expressed public prayers of Iranian
President Ahmadinezhad bidding the Mahdi to return and, in the larger Sunni Islamic world, by claims that Usamah bin Ladin
might be the (now occulted?) Mahdi. This site will track such Mahdi-related movements, aspirations, propaganda and beliefs
in both Sunni and Shi`i milieus, as well as other Muslim eschatological yearnings.
For a primer on Mahdism, see my 2005 article, "What's Worse than Violent Jihadists?," at the History News
Network: http://hnn.us/articles/13146.html; for more in-depth info, see the links here to my other writings, including my book on Mahdism.
Friday, January 3, 2014
Jeremiah Johnson, Islam and CT Analysis.
One of my favorites movies of all time is the 1972 atypical Western "Jeremiah Johnson," starring Robert Redford. Johnson is a mountain man somewhere in the Rocky Mountains of the western US in the
mid-19th century, fighting the elements, bears, wolves and of course Indians (no they aren't' "Native Americans,"
because they too came to the Western hemisphere from elsewhere--they just did so some millennia before the Europeans).
4:54 pm est
At one point Johnson is asked to guide a US Cavalry unit and a Protestant minister through a sacred Crow Indian
burial ground, in order to relieve a band of trapped American settlers. Johnson replies that doing so could be dangerous
because the area is "big medicine." Reverend Lindquist sneers "you don't believe that!" To which
the mountain man retorts "it doesn't matter; THEY do!"
After being reminded of this insightful scene by my
good friend Reverend Chuck Treadwell, it occurred to me that most modern American counter-intelligence, intelligence and area
studies analysts could learn something from Jeremiah Johnson. I can't even recall how many times I've read, or been
told in person--by members of the Intelligence Community, State Department, media, chaplains or even our military--that "jihadists
aren't REALLY motivated by Islam" or "no Muslims REALLY believe in the Mahdi" or (perhaps my favorite) "I
don't have to read the Qur'an to know that it's a 'peaceful' book."
US CT policy would be better off heeding this guy than the Mark Sagemans of the world.
This was the point I was making in an interview I did with the "Jerusalem Post" (during my trip to Israel in November 2012), regarding analysis of the Islamic world:
"We have to look at the culture, economics, politics and psychology in addition to religion—but it cannot be ignored.
In intelligence analysis, much like historical analysis, you put yourself in the others' position. It is very important
to understand the others—even when we do not agree with them.”
That way, maybe, the Muslim equivalents
of Paints-His-Shirt-Red will eventually call off their jihad against us and raise their hands in peace--as that
Crow chief did toward Johnson at the end of the movie. But that only occurred after the bearded and heavily armed
white Christian had defeated all the braves sent to kill him.
Monday, December 23, 2013
Mahdi Is Just All Wrong For Thee
Just in time for the Christmas season
comes this heart-warming tale from the “Dhaka [Bangladesh] Tribune:” “A self-proclaimed pir (religious preacher), who claimed himself to be Imam Mahdi, his son
and four disciples were slaughtered in a house…last evening.” Lutfor Rahman “had long been claiming…to be Imam
Mahdi as well as the last Nobi [sic] (Prophet) and his residence [had come] under attack several times by extreme Islamists”
from organizations like Shahshantantra Andolan, Khelafat Andolan, Khelafat Majlish and Islami Oikya Parishad. A local high-ranking police official—ironically named
Mehedi [Mahdi] Hasan, said that Rahman had been arrested at least three times by police, and jailed once, in recent years
for his Mahdist claims and for “hurting religious sentiments.” Rahman was also said to have
disseminating leaflets stating that he was the Mahdi. His recompense for this: being tied up, mouth
taped, and killed by fellow Muslims in an unspecified manner (although I'd wager blades were involved).
11:24 am est
Obviously this Mahdi has ingested plutonium--so I must perform radical surgery!
I often blog on the dangers that Mahdism presents to others—especially in macro terms, as evidenced by numerous examples
of such movements from Islamic history—this is the micro, flip-side thereof: claiming to be the Mahdi
can be hazardous to one’s health. (For two prominent 20th century examples of unsuccessful Mahdism
being a death warrant, take a look at the case of the failed Turkish Mahdi of 1930 and, more famously, the Mahdist revolution manque in 1979 Saudi Arabia.)
Pir is a Persian term for a Sufi shaykh. I don’t know Bengali, so perhaps the term in Bangladeshi
Islam has lost its mystical connotation and simply means—as the article translates—“religious preacher.”
But I suspect Sufism is involved here, knowing that historically the Islamic mystical orders are the primary ground
whence Mahdism sprouts.
3) The primary opposition to Lutfor Rahman’s self-styled Mahdist da`wah came from political
Islamic groups, notably ones interested in resurrecting the caliphate (“Khelafat”). These were
almost certainly fundamentalist Sunni, as Bangladesh’s 150 million population is 89% Muslim, and of that the vast majority
(95% or so) is Sunni. It’s possible that Rahman was part of the small minority of Shi`a; but, on
the contrary, he may have been Sunni—since Sunni Mahdism is quite prevalent in Islamic history (as per my book).
Once again, a major news organ in a predominantly-Muslim country demonstrates ignorance of basic Islamic doctrines and history,
in stating that belief in the Mahdi is the province of “a sect of Muslims.” No, such belief
is mainstream across space and time in the Islamic world—although articulation thereof is, obviously, fraught with danger in modern Islam.
5) Contrast the violent retribution meted
out to Mahdist pretenders with that directed at false Christs in the Christian world. Men like Alan John Miller and Apollo Quiboloy, far from being eradicated, can build up movements and, presumably, make a comfortable living via messianic pretensions—whereas
Mahdist poseurs are little t0lerated in the ummah. The two major reasons for this, of course are
that: Islamic political thought still does not draw a line between the religious and the political—so a claim in the
former realm threatens the latter order; and Islamic societies are simply far less tolerant than Christian ones, whether the
issue is messianism, atheism or homosexuality.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Mahdism: It's Not Just for Muslims (and Evangelicals) Anymore
11:01 am est
Not all those
who wander onto my website are lost, I realize; but many seem a bit confused about my religion (Christian--conservative
Lutheran division; NOT Muslim or even Evangelical Christian), and my aims with Mahdiwatch (to
analyze Mahdism and Islamic eschatological beliefs as geopolitical issues which the West needs to consider and possibly counter--not
shoehorn them into the book of Revelation). Perhaps the following brief eschaton-centric CV will help visitors
to this site better grasp my perspective (especially if they're looking for a guest lecturer on such topics!):
Doctoral Dissertation (Ohio State University, 2001): “Eschatology as Theory, Eschatology as Politics: Modern
Sunni Arab Mahdism in Historical Perspective” using Arabic sources (274 pp.)
Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Greenwood, 2005)
Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearizing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?,”
Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis , Special Report No. 12, January 2011
“The Modern Impact of Mahdism and the Case of Iraq,” chapter in Political Islam from Muhammad
to Ahmadinejad (Praeger, 2009), pp. 182-192
“Appearance or Reappearance? Sunni Mahdism in History and in Theory and Its Differences from Shi`i
Mahdism,” in Imam Mahdi: Justice & Globalization (London: Institute of Islamic
Studies, 2004), pp. 113-131
“Bin Ladin: The Man Who Would Be Mahdi,” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 2 (Spring 2002),
“Islam[ic Eschatology],” Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements (2000), pp.
“Islamic Eschatology and Politics since 1967,” Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern
World Newsletter, Vol. IV (December 1999), p. 22
“Ibn Khaldun on the Mahdi,” Journal of the Association of Graduates in Near Eastern Studies,
Vol. VII, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1997), pp. 16-22.
“The Ideology Behind the Boston Marathon Bombing,” History News Network [HNN], April
“Mahdism (and Sectarianism and Superstition) Rises in the Islamic World,” HNN, August 13, 2012
“Nowhere Man: The Islamic World Is At Your Command,” HNN, May 5, 2011
“Iran’s New Mahdism Da`wah Video: Letting Slip the Jinns of Jihad?,” HNN, April 4, 2011
Messiahs: Jesus v. the Mahdi in Iran,” “The Lutheran Witness,” Feb. 2009
"The Importance of being Mahdist: Among Iran’s Twelvers,” “The Weekly Standard,” Sep. 8, 2008
“Will Iraq Stokes Flames of Islamic Messianism?,” PJ Media, April 7, 2008
“Enter the Mahdi,” Review of Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca, “The Weekly Standard,”
Feb. 25, 2008
“Islamic Unity: Bin Ladin’s Version v. Khameini’s,” HNN, Sep. 10, 2007
“Symposium: Ahmadinejad’s Armageddon,” Frontpagemag, Sep. 4, 2006
"Does Fiver + Sevener = Twelver?
Iranian Mahdist Da`wah among the Zaydis of Yemen and the Isma'ilis of Saudi Arabia," Truman Center, Haifa University
(Israel), November 2013
End of the World: Modern Christian and Muslim Views of Post-Apocalyptic History,” Southeast World History
Association “The Ends of the World” Conference, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, October 2012
“Mahdism and Violent Apocalyptic Threats in Islam,” Monterey Institute of International Studies,
“Doomsday Threats, Real and Imagined,” Monterey, CA, July 2012
History and Eschatology: An Overview,” Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management, Wright-Patterson Air
Force Base, Dayton, OH, June 2012
"Eschatology in the Middle East since 9/11,” Concordia University-Irvine, CA, September 2011
“Modern Worldviews, Activites and Trajectories of Iraqi Millenarian Groups,” CENTRA Technology,
Arlington, VA, April 2011
“Shi`i Eschatology and the Iranian Vision: Awaiting the Return of the
Mahdi,” Ethics & Public Policy Center/Hudson Institute, Washington,
DC, June 2010
“The Importance of Being Mahdist: The Islamic Republic of Iran, Geopolitics and Jihad,” School of
Advanced Military Studies, Ft. Leavenworth, KS, February 2009
“Through a Glass Darkly: A Comparison of Past Mahdist Movements to the Shi`i Ideal of the Eschatological
Mahdist State Yet to Come,” Fourth Annual Mahdism Conference, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran, August, 2008
“The Strategic Implications of Islamic Messianism and Shi`i Jihad for US Policy,” U.S. Army War
College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, April 2008
“The Modern Impact of Mahdism and the Case of Iraq: The Return of Shi`i Jihad,” Association for
the Study of the Middle East and Africa [ASMEA], Washington, DC, April 2008
“Acting Like It’s the End of the World: The Role of Eschatology in the Islamic World Today,”
Rice University, Houston, TX, March 2007
“The Eschatological Struggle of Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and Bin Ladin,” Southeast Regional Middle
East and Islamic Studies Seminar, Valle Crucis, NC, Oct. 2006
“Modes of Muslim Jihad: Mystical, Fundamentalist, Messianic,” Georgia Political Science Association,
Savannah, GA, Nov. 2005
“Blogging for the Mahdi: Muslim Eschatological Cybercommunities,” “Muslims’
Experiences of Globalization,” Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, April 2005
“Challenging Pax Islamica: Mahdist Rebellions against Islamic States,” “Pax et Imperium—Dream
or Delusion: Empires and Imperialism in World History?,” Southeastern World History Association,
University of Alabama-Huntsville, 2004
“Mahdist Invocations from Ibn Tumart to Usama bin Ladin,” Islamic Da`wah, Ben
Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheva, Israel, 2003
"Ya Mahdi:" Wonderful Artwork by Iktishaf.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Domes of the Rock and Chain v. A Dome of Iron: Which Best Protects Israel from Islamic Attack?
Over Thanksgiving I spent eight days in Israel, having been invited there by my friend Dr. Moshe
Terdiman, founder of the think-tank “Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa.” I lectured at the Truman Center of Hebrew University on “Iran’s Global Da`wah—Focus on Africa” and at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, Haifa University, on “Does Five Plus Sevener Equal Twelver? The Shi`a of Yemen and Arabia and their
Relationship to Iran.” Also, on Thanksgiving Day (November 28) I delivered the keynote
address, “Sufis v. Salafis in Islamic Africa,” at the first (hopefully hereafter annual) “Islam in Africa”
conference held in Israel and attended by several Israeli ambassadors to various African countries, as well as the ambassadors
of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Ghana to Israel. When
not working, I had four days to investigate the Old City of Jerusalem. Although I had been there twice
before (2003 and 2007), this trip was uniquely interesting in a number of way. First, compared to
my first two trips, there were many, many more African Christians (Nigerians and Ghanaians, in particular) on pilgrimage.
Possible reasons might include: the growing wealth of Africans; greater awareness of transnational
Christianity on their part; easier access (both from home and by the Israelis) to Jerusalem; increasing piety among African
Christians; or some combination thereof. A countervailing trend was the presence of many more Muslim women
wearing the niqab (face-covering) and burka (body-covering), not simply the hijab (head and chest
covering)—proving that even in Israel the idea that Islam al-hall, “Islam is the solution,” continues
to gain in popularlity. Most
importantly, I was finally able, at last, to gain access to al-Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews and Christians as the
Temple Mount; and although I could not access Qubbat al-Sakhrah, the “Dome of the Rock,” I was at least
able to get close and take pictures as well as explore the area around it (in the meagre hour allotted for “infidels”).
One of the most fascinating edifices which is accessible to Christians and Jews is Qubbat
al-Silsilah, the “Dome of the Chain” immediately to the east of the Dome of the Rock:
1:48 pm est
When I got back home, I researched this strange structure,
mainly via a superb, scholarly article by Gülru Necipoğlu, entitled “The Dome of the Rock as Palimpset: `Abd al-Malik’s Grand Narrative and
Sultan Süyleman’s Glosses” from Muqarnas, Vol. 25 (2008), pp. 16-105. According
to Necipoğlu, even before the building of the Dome of the Rock the Umayyad caliph Mu`awiya “propagated the use
of the term ‘land of the Gathering and Resurrection [on the Day of Judgment]’ (ard al-mahshar wa ‘l-manshar)
with regard to Jerusalem” and he “furthermore attempted to extend Jerusalem’s sanctity to the entire province
of Syria-Palestine (al-sham), the locus of his capital, Damascus.” Mu`awiya “thus
established a precedent for identifying the holiness of the sanctuary in Jersualem with cosmology, eschatology, and the legitimization
of dynastic caliphal authoriity….” (Necipoğlu, p. 19). The later Umayyad caliph `Abd
al-Malik had built the Dome of the Rock before he died in 705 AD as well as, most probably, the Dome of the Chain, constructed
“on the site where David [was said to have] judged the Children of Israel by means of a chain of light suspended between
heaven and earth….which could distinguish those who were speaking the truth in legal disputes from those where were
lying [and which was] withdrawn to heaven when a disputant attempted to trick it. The same tradition identifies
the Dome of the Chain as the place where the Prophet [sic] encountered the maidens of Paradise at the time he was miraculously
transported to Jerusalem on his Night Journey.”
Dome of the Chain, in front of the famous Dome of the Rock.
Yours truly inside the Dome of the Chain. Thankfully no infidels were harmed in the taking
of this picture. My prior visitation means that on Judgment Day I will get to cut to the front of the line!
Night Journey, or Night Moves? Muhammad certainly has a
way wiith the ladies, er, houris....
Also, Necipoğlu mined Islamic pilgrimage guides—Arab, Ottoman Turkish and even
Persian—from the ninth through the 16th centuries AD for how they viewed the structural layout of
the Temple Mount. Many of them play up the eschatological meaning of the various edifices on the area around
the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as the surrounding topography; for example, the “Straight
Bridge” (sirat al-mustaqim) which “is visualized…as leading from the Mount of Olives to the Haram
al-Sharif” simultaneously “evokes the ‘straight path’ repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an….”
(p. 77). In sum, the Dome of the Rock and Chain, and “the signs of the Hour mapped onto the surrounding
complex are only reminders and precursors of their real versions, a preview of things to come.” (p. 79).
Overall, says Necipoğlu, the Dome of the Rock in Islamic thought “salutes the end of time….”
How the 1.3 million Muslims in Israel feel about the eschatological heritage of al-Haram al-Sharif—or
even whether they are aware of it—is beyond my ken; but it is noteworthy that in the bookstores of the Old City I found
five books on the Mahdi and the Muslim End of Time, four of which I purchased and plan to read (the other one was too thick
and expensive to buy and cart back home): 1) Ahdath al-Kafiyah wa-Fitan Akhar al-Zaman (“Traditions of Secrecy
and the Conflicts of the End of Time”), Cairo, 2012; 2) Nihaya al-`Alam: Ashrat al-Sa`ah al-Sughra
wa-al-Kubra (“The End of the World: Minor and Major Signs of the Hour,” Riyadh, 2010; 3) al-Qawl al-Sunni
fi Fitnah al-Dajjal wa-Zuhur al-Mahdi (“The Sunni Doctrines on the Conflict of the the Dajjal and the Appearance
of the Mahdi,” Cairo, 2011; and Ashrat al-Sa`ah wa-al-Fitan al-Malahim (“Signs of the Hour and the Conflicts
and the Epic Battles,” Gaza, 2012. Cairo, along with Beirut, is one of the major Arabic-language
publishing venues, so I assign no great import to Islamic eschatological works published there. However,
the publication of any work on this topic in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is striking, considering how much the Saudis fear
a repeat of the regime-threatening attempted Mahdist coup of 1979; and a publisher in Palestinian Gaza putting out a book
stirring the Islamic eschatological pot may well indicate that the Palestianian Muslims are ready for apocalyptic battle with
the Israelis—or, conversely, that they are ready to throw in the kaffiyeh on their own human efforts and, rather, just
wait for the Mahdi to come smite their oppressors.
Muslim eschatological fervor is boiling over in nearby Syria, as I analyzed on this site in September, 2013. The extent to which
Muslims in Israel are aware of, and inflamed by, this is unknown; what is known is that Damascus and Jersualem are much more
prominent in Islamic traditions (both Sunni and Shi`i) about the coming of the Mahdi and the subsequent eschatological events
than are Mecca and Medina. Therefore, it would behoove Western geopolitical and intelligence analysts—both
in and out of government—to put some effort into studying this topic, rather than relegating it to
the theater of the absurd or myopically obsessing over what Evangelical Christians think about the end of the world. I
would also add that the historical eschatological significance of Jersualem to Muslims is a major argument against
the thesis that the Iranian regime wants nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel (I have already argued at length elsewhere that this charge little accords with Twelver Shi`i doctrines): Islam’s third-holiest
site is that religion’s most important eschatological locale, and no one is more respectful of such traditions than
the ayatollahs in Qom and Tehran. Thus, if al-Quds is nuked or even contaminated with fall-out from
a bomb on Tel Aviv, the Mahdi and Allah will not only be displeased but unable to stage the eschatological denouement. The
presence of the Domes of the Rock and Chain in Jerusalem is thus, in my studied opinion, and even greater deterrent to Islamic
nuclear attack on that city than is Israel's more prosaic Iron Dome anti-missile system.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Days of Future Mahdism Have Not Passed
Some time back I was asked by a friend/follower
on Twitter about scenarios that could lead to a Mahdist movement taking power somewhere in the modern Muslim world.
I will now attempt to construct a plausible set of circumstances that would encompass a Mahdi claim
being taken seriously by a sufficient number of Muslims such that it would become a political and military movement.
12:09 pm est
First, for the scoffers, let me adduce (again)
the 2012 empirical polling data from Pew, “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.” The data on Mahdism in particular I broke down for History News Network last year, pointing out, inter alia, the following crucial data: some 42% of Muslims (surveyed
in 23 countries) expect the “imminent” appearance—meaning in their lifetimes—of the Mahdi.
In actual numbers, that amounts to about 670 million Muslims. Belief in the Mahdi’s coming
is highest in: Afghanistan, 83%; Iraq, 72%; Turkey, 68%; Tunisia, 67%; Malaysia, 62%; Pakistan, 60%; Lebanon, 56%; Morocco,
51%; Palestinian territories, 46%; and Egypt, 40%. So much for the academic theory that Mahdism is just
a medieval holdover in Islam, held by only the uneducated and marginal; on the contrary, Mahdism is quite strong in the Islamic
world, across sectarian lines—for of the 10 countries listed above, only two (Iraq and Lebanon) are majority Shi`i;
the rest are predominantly Sunni.
Mahdism , then, is as
potent a belief in the Muslim world today as it ever has been—although in the past it tended to take reified form (both
Sunni and Shi`i) more often and, if not always more successfully—certainly often violently.
For example, Ibn Tumart (d. 1130 AD) claimed to be the Mahdi and created a movement that conquered much of what is
now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisian and Spain. The Isma’ili Shi`is took over Egypt in the 10th century
AD and their Imam-Caliphs ruled it, as well as much of the Maghrib and even the Hijaz, until Salah al-Din ended that dynasty
in 1171. Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885) of Sudan is perhaps the most well-known Mahdi in history, thanks to Winston
Churchill’s The River War and the movie Khartoum. The Ottoman Empire was bedeviled, over the centuries, by dozens of chaps (usually Sufi mystics) who believed themselves to be the Mahdi and led rebellions
(as, for that matter, was true of the Sudanese Mahdi—legally an Ottoman subject and a Sufi, too). One
self-styled Mahdi even cropped up in Republican Turkey in 1930. Twelver Shi`i Mahdism was a major impetus
for Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran in 1979—but it was also, the same year, the motivation for the Mahdist
revolution manqué of Juhayman al-`Utaybi (d. 1980) and his messianic brother-in-law Muhammad al-Qahtani (d. 1979) in
Saudi Arabia. But since
1979, Mahdist movements have seemed rather puny by comparison. The Islamic Republic of Iran remains the
only state purveyor of the belief system. On the non-state side, Iraq (post-US occupation) has seen the
rise of not just Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi [Army of the Mahdi] and its even more violent offshoot Asa’ib
Ahl al-Haqq [Battalions of the Family of Truth] but also, albeit less known: Ansar al-Mahdi
[Helpers of the Mahdi], the extremely jihadist Jund al-Sama’ [Army of Heaven] and the more benevolent Jaysh
Husayn [Army of Husayn]. JaM has become a political force in Iraq, and JaS engaged
in combat with US and Iraqi government forces—but neither came close to taking power, either via the ballot box or the
gun. Non-state Mahdist movements exist, as well, in Morocco (also called Ansar al-Mahdi) and in
Kyrgyzstan (another Jaysh al-Mahdi). Solo, free-lance Islamic messiahs have also proliferated
in Saudi Arabia in the last few years—much to the chagrin of the establishment, quite paranoid (with good reason) about
Mahdism since al-`Utaybi and his men occupied the Great Mosque of Meccas for three weeks in 1979. Nigeria
saw a Mahdist movement known as Yan Tatsine between WWII and the late 1970s. Several
Mahdist Muslims have arisen and developed followings in India and Pakistan since 1947 (as Yoginder Sikand
details in Pseudo-Messianic Movements in Contemporary South Asia, Global Media Publications, 2008). Even
Turkey is home to a non-jihadist strain of Mahdism, developed by Adnan Oktar, a.k.a. “Harun Yahya,” whose followers
claim that his esposual and re-working of Said Nursi’s (d. 1960) Sufi Lite metaphysic makes him the true Mahdi.
Mahdism’s path to power has three stages (according to Jan-Olaf
Blichfeldt, Early Mahdism: Politics and Religion in the Formative Period of Islam, Brill, 1985): 1) disseminating
revivalist propaganda aimed at undermining an extant (Islamic) regime; 2) forming a renegade “military theocracy”
and attempting to seize power; and 3) conquering, or forming separately, a territorial state based on Mahdist beliefs—one
that eventually wanes in ideological fervor and is supplanted or conquered in turn (albeit sometimes after a number of years).
Many pre-modern movements made it to levels one or two, and some—Ibn Tumart, the Sudanese Mahdi, others on a
smaller scale—even reached level three. Since 1979, however,
no Mahdist movement has made it past the second level (al-`Utaybi’s), and most have been stymied at the first (the aforementioned
groups in Iraq, Morocco and Kyrgyzstan; and the authors of reams of pro-Mahdist books, articles and websites).
For a modern Mahdist movement to gain ground among Muslims as not just an abstract belief system but a concrete political
and/or military movement, reaching Blichfeldt’s third stage, it would seem that it would need to win support in one
(or more) of the following: 1) a state; 2) a transnational organization; and/or 3) a terrorist organization.
Other than the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Twelver Shi`ism
is the regnant ideology but which—because of Sunni antipathy—is limited in the reach of its Mahdist da`wah
(“summons, propaganda”) to Yemen, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and a few pockets elsewhere, state Mahdism faces at best
slim prospects. (And even in Iran, no one dares claim to be the Mahdi, because to do so would shatter the
future hope of the Twelfth Imam’s return which is the regime’s raison d’être. )
Although a man claiming to be the Mahdi ran for the Egyptian Presidency last year, and a number of self-styled
Mahdis have announced themselves in Saudi mosques in the last several years, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which
a Mahdi claimant could first win an election, or seize control, in a major Sunni Muslim nation-state. His path to power would probably start in a non-state venue.
Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, the last major Sunni leader to be thought the Mahdi.
What about the transnational
organizations with an Islamic bent? I would submit that the four major ones are the
Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir and the obscure, but quite influential, Tablighi Jama`at. The
OIC is the Islamic “UN,” if you will (and, indeed, is the world’s second-largest transnational organization,
behind only the UN itself)—and that organization’s potential as the springboard to a new caliphate has already been examined. The Muslim Brotherhood is the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost Islamist political movement, primarily—but not solely—Arab.
Hizb al-Tahrir, or “Party of Liberation,” is a transnational movement to resurrect the caliphate (Sunni Muslim rule under one
man) which is banned in many countries (but not the US) as a terrorist group. And Tablighi Jama`at is an ostensibly non-political Islamic re-pietization movement which began in India but has spread to
many countries of the world and is said to have as many as 80 million members. The OIC is dominated by
men who strive for (greater) Islamic unity, and long for the days when “Islamdom” was the only global counterweight
to the West’s “Christendom”—but these are decidedly non-mystical and non-messianic, and so any attempt
by a self-styled Mahdi to have himself elected Secretary-General of this organization would likely falter as the elector Foreign
Ministers either fell out of their chairs laughing or ran to reach for their decorative daggers and scimitars.
The MB, unlike the OIC, is a popular, conservative grass-roots Sunni (mainly Arab) movement that aims for Islamic unity
and polity via re-Islamizing society from the ground up; as such, and following its founder Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949) and
his “apostle” Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), the MB has little tolerance for Sufi mysticism—the usual provenance
of Mahdism. One can hardly imagine an Islamist technocrat like Muhammad Morsi adopting Mahdist beliefs.
Whereas the OIC works at the rarefied Foreign Ministry level between Islamic states and the MB does so via the more
mundane local political processes within Islamic countries, HT strives to do a bit of both, albeit sans any official state
blessing (and, indeed, often outright state opposition and repression). HT has tried
declaring a caliphate—as in, for example, Zanzibar—then hoping that Muslims would jump on the bandwagon and lobby
for it to replace the extant government; alas for them, such has not yet come to pass. Still, the group
is active in many countries (including the US) and continues to churn out theoretical tracts, and hold conferences, on how
a caliphate might be (re)constructed. And a caliphate would be a very plausible platform for a self-proclaimed
Mahdi to appropriate. TJ is the most far-reaching and arguably influential transnational Islamic organization,
rather akin to the Catholic Church’s Opus Dei program for revitalizing the laity’s faith and putting it into action.
It has been deemed by some a “conveyor belt” to terrorism—but this is true only insofar as TJ is
a path to stricter adherence to more conservative, indeed fundamentalist, Islamic norms (see my article on this topic). Unlike the MB, however, TJ is not totally opposed to Islamic mysticism, and even incorporates
some Sufi practices (such as dhikr, “remembrance” of Allah via repetitive prayers) into its program.
A charismatic, mystically-oriented Muslim leader with Mahdist aspirations is probably more likely to emerge from TJ’s
ranks than from any of these other organizations. If such a man were to bridge the gap between TJ and HT,
wedding the former’s piety, Muhammadan emulation and transnational reach to the latter’s political program, zeal
and activism—then a non-state caliphate with a Mahdi in charge is possible. Both
are Sunni, too, so neither could accuse the other of heretical Shi`ism. The biggest obstacle to a
TJ-HT Mahdiyah would be HT’s technocratic bent (akin to that of the MB), which could conceivably be overcome by its
zeal for one-man Islamic rule; possible since a Mahdi would be a super-caliph, and thus—perhaps—acceptable.
What of the legions of Muslim terrorist groups? Would any of them be amenable to Mahdism?
Many are Salafi/Wahhabi or MB, and most Muslims of that bent are ardently opposed to mystical Islam
and thus, presumably, to Mahdism. But the gap between Salafis and Sufis can be overstated—it is not
always absolute. In the past Sufis waged some of the most violent jihads in history, and many Sunni Mahdis
came from Sufi contexts (because of the orders’ penchant for charismatic leadership and extant quasi-military organization).
Even today some Sufi orders, such as the Qadiris, often agree with the Salafis on the
importance of shari`ah and Islamic government. Others, like the Naqshbandis, have historically
been fond of waging jihad against Islam’s enemies. And a fusion of Sufism with Salafism or MB ideas
has been attempted before, as by Sa’id Hawwa (d. 1989), a Syrian Naqshbandi Sufi who also belonged to the MB and envisioned
the Naqshbandi order as the spiritual guide for the politically-active MB and, more relevantly for the issue at hand, that
jihad should be off-limits until the caliphate’s reestablishment. At least one Sufi terrorist group
exists (Iraq’s Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandiyah [Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order]) and many
more of them have strong eschatological doctrines—such as the Haqqani offshoot of the Naqshbandiyah. On
the Salafi side, at least some of those groups have been infused with eschatological and Mahdist fervor—as, for example,
Jabhat al-Nusra [Support Front] in Syria, whose members already view that country’s civil war as the precursor to the End Time events of the Islamic hadiths. And at least 10 of the groups on the State Department terrorist
organization list claim to be fighting to reestablish a caliphate: all the al-Qa`idah [AQ] affiliates; Abu Sayyaf (Philippines);
Lashkar-e Taiba (South Asia); Jemaah Islamiyah (Southeast Asia); Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami (Bangladesh); al-Shabab (East Africa);
Indian Mujahidin; and most likely the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (transnational). This
is not Mahdism per se, but as aforementioned with HT any desires for one-man Islamic rule are ipso facto complementary
to Mahdism, which, essentially, constitutes an eschatological one-man polity. AQ members
reportedly held mystical, if not Mahdist, veneration for Usama bin Ladin (see my book Holiest Wars, pp. 156ff).
A future AQ leader, who manages to plan and execute an even more “successful” attack on the US or Israel
than 9/11—say, via a nuclear weapon—might gain caliphal or even Mahdist cachet sufficient to bring together not
only a number of terrorist groups but perhaps even the like of HT and TJ. It might be a “virtual
Mahdiyah” with no geographic center and a peripatetic leader—but a sort of transnational, messianic entity nonetheless,
commanding the political and religious loyalty of tens (or hundreds) of millions of Muslims and having a ready-made military
wing in several Islamic terrorist organizations. Such a leader might even be able to draw support, if not
allegiance, from Twelver Shi`i groups like Lebanon’s Hizbullah or the various ones in Iraq, if he were to adduce a genealogy
that included any of the Twelver Shi`i Imams (such as was done by the 15th century AD Indian Mahdi, Sayyid Jawnpuri, who although
Sunni claimed descent from Musa al-Kazim, the seventh Imam).
Logo of the "Army of the Men of the Nasqshbandiyah Order:" "With the help
of Allah, Victory is Near!"
Mahdism is, historically, closely tied to belief in the mujaddid, the “renewer”
of Islam predicted in several hadith to come every 100 years; thus, eschatological expectations in Islam have tended to skyrocket
as the turn of each Muslim century approaches, as was the case in 1979 (al-`Utaybi), 1881 (the Sudanese Mahdi), etc.
The year 1500 AH (After Hijra) will occur in 2076 AD. Couple that with the empirical data
from Pew indicating strong eschatological beliefs among many Muslims, the global Islamic community’s growing sense of
victimization at the hands of the Christian West (and Russia), the burgeoning influence of transnational Islamic movements
like the pious TJ and political HT, as well as the continued (indeed, flourishing) popularity and power of jihad-waging terrorist
groups—and the emergence of a political and/or military Mahdist movement in the coming decades appears to be a good
Bottom line: An alliance of non-state groups like TJ and/or HT with AQ Central (and very possibly the South Asian terrorist
organizations) naming one man as caliph, who then reveals that he also considers himself the Mahdi, is the most likely path
to modern Mahdism. Such a hypothetical movement would be powerful and dangerous enough if it merely
stalled at the renegade military theocracy stage. Should this new Mahdi and his followers gain the support
of (or take over) an extant Muslim-majority state (Egypt? Turkey? Post-Saudi Arabia?), moving into stage three of political
Mahdism, the world would have its hands full—especially were he to do so where he would gain a nuclear arsenal, such
as in Pakistan. I won’t be around in 2076, but my boys’ (and grandchildrens’?)
celebration of the American Tricentennial might well be tempered by the threat of an Islamic Mahdi.
|Jamkaran Mosque near Qom, Iran (during my trip there Aug. 2008)