Amongst some of the most bizarre e-mails that I have received, is one from a mysterious and strange fellow who eloquently identifies himself as ‘the Mahdi’ (the chosen one who will guide the world before the day of judgement). This fellow generously sends with his e-mails a number of web links along with photos of himself wearing extremely elegant attire.
The man is genuinely convinced that he is the Mahdi. He speaks confidently and calmly without overly enthusiastic bursts concerning his mission, as if casually discussing the weather in Britain. It is as if one should be indifferent when hearing such claims.
On a more serious note, there are many who believe that the Mahdi is on the verge of appearing, each one with his own vision of the form and characteristics attributed to the Mahdi, based on his or her traditional vision of what he will look like and what he will do. Thus, the Mahdi of the Shia differs from that of the Sunnis who in turn, is different from that of other Islamic sects and sub-sects.
Among the Mahdi zealots (albeit not as elegant as my laid-back email friend) is Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia cleric. He became famous by his controversial standpoints and famous pictures that his followers carry in which he features usually pointing with his forefinger and staring sharply. Written roughly underneath each poster, the following words, “We will never be humiliated,” appear.
During his visit to Kuwait last week, Al-Sadr was quoted by news agencies as saying “the American forces did not come to Iraq for the sake of the Sunnis or the Shia, rather, they came driven by a right-wing, Western ideology to prevent and confront the emergence of the awaited Mahdi who will appear in Iraq.”
Another character, close to Al-Sadr on both the intellectual and cultural level is the passionate Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On 16 November 2005, as he addressed a religious crowd in Iran, he stated, “the main task upon my government is to pave the way for the glorious return of the Imam Al-Mahdi.” The Iranian society takes pleasure nowadays in gossiping about the preparations made by Ahmadinejad as Tehran’s governor, to prepare the city for the return of the Mahdi.
In the case of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is actively seeking nuclear warheads, the whole matter is not one to be laughed at, but should provoke an anxious and distressed response. History informs us that firm believers in metaphysical notions could make history at some point and decide the fates of millions, despite reality. In fact, they become the “realists” as history unfolds according to their plans.
The “Mahdist” obsession and the prophecy of epical answers to the political challenges are not restricted to Al Sadr who believes that the Americans are in Iraq to prevent the “Mahdi.” Nor is it restricted to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who believes that his raison d’etre is to pave the way for the “Mahdi” and who believes that recently, a circle of light was surrounding him during his U.N speech. Moreover, it is not only restricted to Muslims, but this is another story.
The notion of “Mahdism” symbolically or literally, expresses the human aspiration for justice. The point should then be realized that politics has its conditional rules that are distinct from religious narratives.
The dilemma is that many politicians attempt to ride the wave of religious legitimacy by identifying with certain narratives. They try to impress their citizens as embodiments of divine will. Most of them are brutal dictators yet they feel that they have cleared their conscience since they are the trustees of God’s will. The founder of the brutal Almohads, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Ibn Tumart was a glaring historical example.
At present, many political actors whether in government or part of the opposition have sought to attach attributes of the “Mahdi” to themselves. In Sudan, Mohamed Ibn Ahmad who was born in 1844, claimed to be the Mahdi who would bring justice to the world. The illegitimacy of such claims has often led to disastrous conclusions, for example, the 15-day siege of the Grand mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Juhayman Al Utaibi. Many were killed in the following clashes with the Saudi security forces. The followers of Juhayman claimed that the awaited “Mahdi” was amongst them.
The strangest thing is that many Sunnis nowadays believe that the various Bin Laden attacks around the world are in preparation for the coming of the Mahdi. Therefore, we are faced with a sweeping chaos of interpretation with the impurity of politics and greed on one hand, mixed with the purity of religion on the other. After all, could we really prevent this story from its disastrous conclusion and Ahmadinejad from paying allegiance to the “Mahdi” whilst riding a nuclear missile? I wonder.