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A Modern Mahdi

During the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80, the American periodical Harper's Weekly ran a full-page illustration showing an Afghan man in traditional garb in front of a British firing squad. The caption said "Execution of an Afghan Muslim fanatic who attacked British troops."

A Talib in 1880? Fighting British colonialism? Religious xenophobia? Terrorism?

The history of Islamic radicalism is long. One of the characteristics of Islam is the regular appearance of mahdis. In Sunni Islam, a mahdi (Arabic: mahdîy) is essentially a self-appointed renewer and reformer of religion, whereas in Shi'i Islam there can be only one mahdi, similar to the Christian messias.

"The Arabic term "mahdi" is best translated with "divinely guided one". A saviour figure in Islam, for which there are several different interpretations in Sunni Islam ... The main principle of the mahdi is that he is a figure that is absolutely guided by God. This guidance is a stronger form of guidance than normal guidance, which usually involves a human being willfully acting according to the guidance of God. The mahdi, on the other hand, has nothing of this human element, and acts the will of God directly. The figure of mahdi, or his mission, are not mentioned in the Koran, and there is practically nothing to be found among the reliable hadiths on him either." (A hadith is a narration about the life of the Prophet or what he approved - as opposed to his life itself, which is the Sunna) "The idea of the mahdi appears to be a development in the first 2-3 centuries of Islam." (Encyclopedia of the Orient;

At any given time there are usually one or more mahdis active in the Islamic world. The most famous one was, of course, Mohammed Ahmed El-Mahdi (1844 - 1885), who united the Sudan under his religious leadership.

"El Mahdi led a national revolution and an 'Islamic revivalism' uprising against the ruling Turks which was culminated by the fall of Khartoum and assassination of Gordon Pasha in 1885. Even though El Mahdi died shortly after the fall of Khartoum, his mahdist Islamic regime survived until 1889 when the Anglo-Egyptian forces under Kitchener captured Khartoum, regained control ..." ( Even today, the followers of the El Mahdi, organized in the Umma party headed by Sadek al-Mahdi, are still a factor in Sudanese politics.

Another important mahdi was Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), the founder of the Islamic school of the muwahhiduns, also known as Wahhabism — the official religion of Saudi-Arabia, a particularly strict version of Sunni Islam. (The term 'Wahhabism' is not used by the Wahhabites themselves. The term they use is 'muwahhidun' and means 'unitarians')

An early modern mahdi with global visions and aspirations was Baha'u'lah, the 19th century Iranian prophet and founder of the Baha'i sect, who urged his followers to work for peace through helping to establish a world government, making the Baha'i strong supporters of the United Nations organizations: "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." (Baha'ul'lah)

During the second half of the 20th century, the phenomenon of mahdism assumed new aspects. It is, for instance, plausible that even an eminently secular leader such as Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya benefited from the tradition of mahdism when he deposed King Idris in 1969 who himself, as religious leader of the Sufi sect of the Senoussi, had been of mahdi origins.

In the case of Osama bin Laden, however, there is a clear cut claim to traditional mahdism. Having risen from rich playboy origins to the role of instigator of Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation, and finally to the position of Sheikh, indicating a religious authority, it required only one more step to be understood as mahdi by his followers. By frequently issuing a fatwa (religious ruling) he indicated that he, indeed, sees himself as a mahdi and (like every mahdi) as the only legitimate mahdi of our time (although he has never claimed the somewhat old-fashioned title).

In his function as a mahdi of Wahhabism, bin Laden is by definition at the cutting edge of Islamic radicalism. Xenophobia and religious fervor are traditional in the essentially medieval world of the desert tribes of Arabia, and Wahhabism is their expression.

In past decades, this fundamentalism served as a boon for travelogue writers, Arabists and religious scholars. It was considered by many a colorful ethnic and religious specialty that deserved to be protected from the suspected onslaught of modernization and homogenization on Beduin life.

However, the impact of modernization on the tribes of Central Arabia did not bring the expected results: more widespread secular thinking, a gradual weakening of religious fervor, and a progressive opening to the outside world. Instead, modernization magnified and highlighted the contrast between ‘us' and ‘them', between a strict national religious identity and an international mixture of religious laxity, erroneous beliefs and outright atheism. Since 1990, Wahhabism has become even more strict in its rejection of other forms of Islam, not to speak of other religions. The persecuted Shiite minority of eastern Arabia, officially called rafidha or 'dissenters', which means polytheists and apostates, cannot marry Sunni wives; the meat they slaughter is not considered edible, and their small mosques husayniyyas are destroyed.(UN/ECOSOC

Saudi Arabia's slow but unstoppable modernization spawned the desire for action among the fundamentalists. Action to preserve a religion seen as endangered, by ‘cleansing' belief and purging society; action to drive out the foreigners and abate their influence: action to rebuild the Beduin world of yesteryear; a typical mandate for a mahdi.

There was a candidate for this position who appeared fully qualified: young, of warrior fame, good looking, with beard, turban and jellaba. One aspect, however, distinguished him from earlier mahdis: he was rich and well versed in world finances, the illicit diamond trade, and modern technology.

Imagine the Knights of St. John or any other crusader disposing of the medieval equivalent of a few billion dollars, plus access to cutting edge technology, unleashed not only on Constantinople and Jerusalem, but on Damascus, Baghdad, Mecca and Medina — just to name a few pet targets of early Christian hatred of Islam!

The current revival of Islamic fanaticism is essentially the combination of fear, medieval intolerance, ample funding and modern means of travel, technology and communication. The main problems — zealotry and mahdism — will continue to exist until the radical sects and brotherhoods of Islam either disappear or become stable and self-assured enough to accept religious tolerance as a basic principle. This, however, is unlikely to happen in the near future because the raison d'ętre of these sects is the fight not only against infidels but against mainstream Islam which, on the whole, continues to move away from 7th century puritanism toward 21st century Western modernity, a trend which infuriates the fundamentalists.

Given these circumstances, how can a mahdi such as Osama bin Laden, be contained or rendered less powerful? Apart from mundane strategies such as trying to reduce or destroy his economic base, capturing or eliminating him, it is his claim to be a religious authority where he is most vulnerable.

Wahhabism has no official spiritual head commanding an importance similar to that of the Sheikh of al-Azhar University in Cairo, the head of Sunni Islam. In principle, the al-Sauds are not only monarchs but also spiritual heads of Wahhabism because, in 1744, Mohammed Ibn Saud — the founder of the al-Saud dynasty — who had struck an alliance with the itinerant mahdi Ibn Abdul Wahhab — married his son Abdul Aziz with the daughter of Abdul Wahhab. Since then the al-Sauds are practically the hereditary heads of Wahhabism, supported in this role by the ulema, the religious scholars.

"These men devote their lives to the study of the Qur'an and Sunna, the two main sources of the Shari'a (Islamic law) and are regarded as specialists in the religious sciences. Considered to be the keepers of Islam by the masses, the ulema are entrusted with interpreting and administering the Shari'a, and this in turn gives them many roles: they are educators, religious and moral guides to their community, activists and advisors. They are consulted on every issue, from the proper way to keep a kitchen to children's education to the rules of warfare." (The Ulema: Middle Eastern Power Brokers by Gibreel Gibreel. The Middle East Quarterly

Although not hierarchically organized, a group of ulema can, for instance, jointly issue a powerful fatwa. Continued support by the ulema is a question of survival for the al-Saud dynasty and explains many of their actions. Similarly, any aspiring mahdi must try to win over the ulema if he wants to achieve his goal.

Saudi Arabia, like many other muslim countries, has a Council of Ulemas presided over by a Grand Mufti who, in theory, is the country's highest religious authority but remains under supervision by the king who appointed him. Over the decades, the Council and the Mufti have jointly issued thousands of fatwas.

Bin Laden clearly enjoyed for considerable time the support of many ulema, and of parts of the al-Saud royals. To what extent the 9/11 mayhem and the following battles against his brand of terrorism have changed that is not clear. Wanton killings are all too commonplace in an essentially medieval theocracy such as Saudi Arabia in which, for instance, unfaithful wives are killed by stoning. It is possible that many Saudis were more impressed by the forceful American and Western reaction to 9/11 than by the tragic loss of human life.

It would be interesting to know if bin Laden still receives significant amounts of zakat, the religious tax of roughly 2.5 percent of net income every devout muslim is obliged to give for charitable purposes. There is reason to doubt official Saudi assurances that this steady and large flow of funding to al-Qaeda has been stopped. Pivotal in this respect are the ulema who alone can instruct the faithful to stop giving to bin Laden.

To pull an ulema away from bin Laden is probably as difficult as pulling a bear away from a honey pot. After all, this man — apart from proselytizing among non-Wahhabi muslims abroad — attempts to repeat what Imam Mohammed ibn Saud accomplished for the mahdi Ibn Abdul Wahhab: to lend him a sword and help him pursue the basic tenet of Wahhabism, the jihad:

Ibn Abdul Wahhab "preached the virtues of a permanent jihad (holy war) against Islamic modernisers, hypocrites as well as the infidel."(The Kingdom of Corruption; The Saudi Connection By Tariq Ali.

Crossed swords decorate the coat of arms of Saudi Arabia, symbol of the permanent jihad.

Even if al-Qaeda continues to be financially strong enough to maintain a permanent worldwide terrorist threat without receiving funding from Saudi Arabia, the role of the Saudi ulema remains crucial for bin Laden. Any fatwa against him from a group of ulema would destroy his mahdi image and hence his ability to issue a fatwa himself and recruit pious young men. Under heavy pressure from the royals concerned about the image in America, the Ulema took some action of a window-dressing nature:

Already four days after September 11, the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC issued a press release saying: "Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and Chairman of the Senior Ulema [Religious Scholars] Shaikh Abdulaziz Al-Ashaikh issued a statement today condemning the terrorist acts that have taken place in the United States, saying categorically: "Such acts run counter to the teachings of Islam."

In October 2001, the Mufti issued another fatwa, according to the official Saudi newspaper:

"The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Shaikh, has issued a ruling banning the killing of non-Muslims in Islamic countries. Sheikh Abdulaziz said those who kill non-Muslims with whom Muslims have treaties will never see paradise."

The Economist commented: "The kingdom's Council of Ulema, or religious scholars, recently issued a scathing condemnation of attacks on non-Muslim civilians as a form of deviancy. But Islam is a broad faith. Muslim scholars of a more independent stripe are speaking openly of the duty to resist America's aggressiveness, even by force of arms." (2/15, 2003)

Clearly, the Mufti's soft-pedaling fatwas are not going to discourage any diehard fundamentalists. The al-Saud dynasty should be working in direction of a direct condemnation of bin Laden and al-Qaeda if their government was serious in its claim of participating in the global fight against terrorism. Only the al-Saud theocrats, weak as they may be, are able to nudge the ulema in this direction. How successful they would be is, of course, another question.

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—— Ihsan al-Tawil