Will Iraq Stoke Flames of Islamic Messianism?

Opponents of the Iraq war used to argue that it was creating more problems than it was solving via rejuvenating, rather than enervating, jihadist Islam. With the success of the "surge" motivating many Iraqi Sunnis to turn against al-Qaeda, that line now rings hollow. But Bush’s critics may turn out to be right for the wrong reasons, since there is an even greater Islamic danger than jihadism incubating in American-occupied Iraq: Muslim messianism, or Mahdism. And there are worrisome signs that this movement may be on the verge of metastasizing worldwide.

Mahdism is the ancient Islamic belief in the eschatological figure called al-Mahdi, the “rightly-guided one,” who will before the end of time bring global peace and justice via a planetary caliphate. Both Sunnis and Shiites share this tradition, with some differences. For Sunni Muslims, the Mahdi has never before come but he will, perhaps soon, emerge onto the historical stage, taking the helm of the Middle East and, eventually, the whole Earth. For Shiites, the Mahdi is the last in the line of imams descended from the prophet Muhammad through the bloodline of his cousin and son-in-law Ali. Shiite sects differ in enumerating which descendant of Ali was the Mahdi, but the largest group — the majority in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon — are the “Twelvers,” who maintain that the Twelfth imam was the once and future Mahdi; furthermore, unlike the Sunnis, they believe that he never died but went into a state of mystical hiddenness whence he shall return.

In recent years the mainstream media has finally taken notice of this Islamic belief system but continues to get important points wrong. For example, Mahdism is often described as solely a Shiite phenomenon, whereas — as per my book Holiest Wars — most movements, many violent, throughout Islamic history centered around a leader claiming to be the Mahdi have been Sunni ones. Also, both journalists and analysts often claim that Mahdist movements are “doomsday” or “apocalyptic,” and regularly deride them as mere “cults.” But in fact the goal of Mahdism, whether Sunni or Shiite, is not to spark a conflagration but to conquer the world intact; furthermore, Mahdists’ beliefs are mainstream in Islam, not simply the province of extremists.

Mahdism, historically, has tended to occur in times and places where Muslims perceive — rightly or wrongly — that their faith is under attack and their rulers are impotent to stop, or even complicit with, this assault. Such is the case now in Iraq, where there are at least three major Mahdist movements extant. The infamous Jaysh al-Mahdi (Army of the Mahdi), headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, is well-known and often treated as a mere militia with political aspirations, but it is in fact a group claiming to be the armed vanguard of the coming Mahdi. However, two other, more shadowy Iraqi Mahdist groups have surfaced within the last year: Ansar al-Mahdi (Followers of the Mahdi), led by Ahmad al-Hassan, who goes by the name Sayyid al-Yamani and claims to be the “agent” and “messenger” of the Mahdi; and Jund al-Sama’ (Soldiers of Heaven), whose leader was killed fighting American and Iraqi government forces earlier this year. The Baghdad government conflates these movements as “violent extremists” all, but members of Ansar al-Mahdi have informed me that they are distinct from other groups, nonviolent, and ecumenical — welcoming Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims — although they reject the legitimacy of the Iraqi government since it does not derive from “the governorship of God and the Imam Mahdi.” However, perusing the Arabic portion of Ansar al-Mahdi’s website, one gets a different impression viewing articles from the group’s newspaper al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (The Straight Path), such as “America Will Be Struck by the Hand of the Mahdi” and, from Christmas Eve 2007, “Sayyid Ahmad al-Hassan Addresses Christians in America and the West: Accept Obedience to Allah and Reject Obedience to Satan.”

Besides Mahdists, another broad-based Islamic movement has come out against the Baghdad government: the Sufis, or Islamic mystics, as reported by Fadhil Ali. He identifies at least three such Iraqi groups and correctly notes that while usually quietist and peaceful, “at various times and places — such as 19th century Africa or the 19th and 20th century North Caucasus — Sufi orders have formed the core resistance to colonial and imperial occupation efforts.” What Ali seems unaware of, however, is that many Mahdist movements throughout history sprang from Sufi contexts and were led by charismatic Sufi shaykhs, such as the 19th century’s Muhammad Ahmad in Ottoman Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad in French Algeria, and Ahmad Barelwi in British India. If the Sufis — who can be either Shiite or Sunni and, in Iraq, seem to predominate among the latter — are taking up arms, it is probably just a matter of time before tactical, and eventually ideological, cooperation develops between them and the Mahdists.

There are two major reasons we should be paying close attention to these developments. First, while Mahdism is not a “doomsday cult,” it is to jihadism what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones. Self-proclaimed Mahdis throughout Islamic history were not bound by Islamic law or even the Koran and traditions; in fact, several were brutal in ways that would put a Saddam to shame — Ibn Tumart, the Mahdi of the medieval Maghrib, for example, had hundreds of thousands of his own followers put to death for insufficient fervor in acclaiming his Mahdiyah. If a full-blown Mahdi claimant were to emerge in Iraq, and garner support from the 3 million or so Sufis there, we could kiss the surge and its success goodbye.

Second, and more ominous, is the possibility that Mahdism might emerge from Iraq — as strains of influenza do from southern China — and infect the larger Sufi world, which numbers perhaps some 40 million adherents worldwide. If that were to happen, we would have the ideological equivalent of avian flu, spread primarily by the Internet and rapidly infecting a sizable portion of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. Since most Sufis are Sunnis, that would provide a vector for transmission of active Mahdism far beyond its original patient zero — whomever that might turn out to be — in southern Iraq.

The larger Muslim world is already primed for the coming of the Mahdi: in the last year alone, outside of Iraq, there have been claims of Mahdism in the Palestinian territories (a man in a Gaza mosque claimed he was the Mahdi; a shaykh claimed the Mahdi has been born there), Indonesia (an active Mahdist claim), Bangladesh (the Mahdi’s “military chief” arrested), and India (another Mahdist claim). Websites have been saying for several years that Osama bin Laden is the Mahdi. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a constitution which states that the government in Tehran only exists until the Mahdi returns. And Iran’s Lebanese client Hezbollah steeps its youth in Mahdist fervor via the “Mahdi Scouts.”

The violent tragedy of Mahdism has been visited upon the Islamic world many times in history. Let us pray that the American attempt to re-create Iraq does not unleash Mahdism upon the world again, this time as even bloodier farce.

Timothy R. Furnish, Ph.D. (Islamic History), is a former U.S. Army Arabic interrogator and college professor, currently working as an editor for Praeger Security International. He has a website that tracks Islamic messianic movements: www.mahdiwatch.org.