A New Empire of the Mahdi? Libyan and Iranian Pan-Islamic Agendas

News Abroad

Mr. Furnish, Ph.D (Islamic History), is Assistant Professor, History, Georgia Perimeter College, Dunwoody, GA 30338. Mr. Furnish is the author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Praeger, 2005).

On Easter weekend 2007, two important Muslim leaders issued proclamations which may prove supremely portentous for the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The more publicized announcement was by Libya’s leader Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi, who called for “the establishment of a second Shi`ite Fatimid state in North Africa.”1 Less well-known was the call by the real leader of Iran, Ayatollah Sayyid `Ali Khamanah’i [Khamanei], for a “charter of Islamic unity.”2 Neither of these statements can be understood without some recourse to Islamic history, whether ancient or more modern.

To understand al-Qadhafi’s declaration, one must know something of the Fatimids, a Shi`ite group that controlled much of the Maghrib during the 10th century CE, until they conquered Egypt and transferred their headquarters there, ruling it from 969-1171 CE.3

(The name of the dynasty comes from their claim of descent from `Ali, cousin of Muhammad, through his wife Fatimah—who was one of the daughters of Islam’s founder.) Two notable aspects of the Fatimid state were: its leaders—at least some of its caliphs in the early years—were considered to be Mahdis, or “(divinely) rightly-guided ones,” who were ushering in the kingdom of Allah; and it was a militantly-expansionist state, especially vis-à-vis its main opponent, the Sunni empire of the Abbasids centered in Baghdad. At its height the Fatimid state ruled Egypt, much of what is now Israel, Palestine and Syria, as well as the Hijaz (Arabia’s western region encompassing Mecca and Medina)—and had designs on the entirety of the Muslim world, planning to displace rivals via military conquest or undermining them by disseminating Fatimid doctrines via da`is, or professional propagandists: “the Fatimids proclaimed aloud that universal sovereignty was given to them by divine decree and that they were called to displace the Umayyads of Spain as well as the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Byzantine emperors.”4

al-Qadhafi’s wish to resurrect the Fatimid polity may be dismissed as just another of his hare-brained merger schemes; but perhaps we should not be so quick to do so. It could also just as plausibly be seen as a legitimate Islamic appeal for bridging the Sunni-Shi`i divide and, thus, as a renewal of the pan-Islamic ideal—especially since the Libyan leader “rebuked the Arab League for ‘hating Iran.’”5 al-Qadhafi seems to take a rather overly-rosy view of the Fatimid system, however: he claims that “this grand Fatimid state generously allowed the existence of mini-states in its interior” and that in it “you can remain Egyptian, Libyan, Algerian, Tunisian, Mauritanian, Nigerien, Malian and so on, and [you can] stay in Sudan, the Fertile Crescent, in Jordan—but the identity will be a Fatimid identity.”6 While briefly moving onto more solid historical ground by asserting that the Fatimid state was the first truly Shi`i one, he quickly heads back into historical quicksand with statements that “we the Arabs…are attached to `Ali” [which]…means that all of the Arabs are Shi`ites”7 and that “if being Sunni means that you believe in Muhammad and his sunna8 …then the Iranians are Sunnis.”9 Eliding over 14 centuries of Islamic history, al-Qadhafi claims that the very existence of Sunni and Shi`i branches of Islam is an artificial construct imposed by colonial powers, the “foreign occupation and the Zionist settlement.”10 And finally, in what is most likely a naked attempt to curry political favor with the Palestinians and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Libyan leader says that “the two holy sites are not the two that we say they are today. The two holy sites are Mecca and Jerusalem.”11

al-Qadhafi’s neo-Fatimism can perhaps best be understood when compared and contrasted with the similar calls for pan-Islamic unity coming out of Tehran. Contrary to much conventional wisdom, Iranian calls for Islamic unity did not begin with the Ahmadinezhad administration. Indeed, wahdat-i Islami, “Islamic unity,” has been a major emphasis of the state since 1979.12 Going back to the Ayatollah Khomeini, this doctrine was centered around two main points: belief in the West as Muslims’ common enemy, and the three core trans-Islamic beliefs of tawhid (divine unity), nubuwwah (prophethood of Muhammad) and ma`ad (resurrection and Judgment).13 Building on the precedent of the Dar al-Taqrib, “House of Rapproachement,” which existed in Cairo from 1947 until the 1970s,14 the Revolutionary Iranian government set up two bodies aimed at pan-Muslim activity: al-Majma` al-`Alami lil-Taqrib bayna al-Madhahib al-Islamiyah, or “The World Assembly for Reconciliation between the Islamic Denominations;” and Majma` al-`Alami li- Ahl al-Bayt, or “The World Assembly for the People of the House [of Muhammad].”15 The former’s goal is the functional unity of the seven “legitimate” sects of Islam: the Hanafiyah, Hanbaliyah, Malikiyah, Shafi`iyah (all Sunni); and the Ja`fariyah, Zaydiyah and Ibadiyah (all Shi`i). Interestingly, considering the close relationship between Iran and Syria today, the `Alawiyah (to which the al-Assad family, as well as most high-ranking Syrians, belong) are excluded from the World Assembly as non-Muslim, as are the Isma’iliyah and the Druze.16 This organization, as might be expected considering its grandiose goals, has met with, at best, limited success—so far. However, Khamanah’i’s “renewed call for Islamic harmony” over against “modern time Crusades” and “the failed projects of the American-led front of arrogance in…Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon”17 needs be seen as the latest installment in this Iranian bid to be the arbiter of Islamic unity. As for the second organization, the World Assembly for the People of the House [of the Prophet], it has a more realistic goal: to bring Shi`is under Tehran’s sway. The close relationship between Iran and Hizbullah indicates that it is having much more success than its more ecumenical, pan-Islamic partner.

What has this to do with al-Qadhafi? No North African country, at least by official tally, has more than 3% Shi`i population.18 So concerns about a Tripoli-Tehran axis would seem to be much ado about very little. However, the Egyptian government recently began to express concern about the alleged conversions of Sunnis to Shi`ism in that country—a number that may be even greater if, as some claim, many of them as masquerading as members of the Sufi (mystical) orders. The number of Shi`is in Egypt is said to be as low as 700,000 and as high as 1.5 million.19 If the “Shi`ite Crescent”—first so named by King `Abd Allah of Jordan--should be extended into Egypt and, via al-Qadhafi, into the Maghrib, perhaps it should be re-visioned as a “Shi`i Sickle”—with the handle reaching across North Africa. Furthermore, as history indicates, a state need not be majority Shi`i in population in order to play the role of a Shi`i actor on the world stage: under the Fatimids the majority was always Sunni, yet the foreign policy and military campaigns ordered by Cairo were most definitely militantly Shi`i.

Might al-Qadhafi’s neo-Fatimism, assisted by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s aspirations, transmogrify into a real and present danger to the United States and the West? Consider: the most obvious common elements of both al-Qadhafi’s and Khamanah’i’s recently-articulated platforms include a papering-over of the Sunni-Shi`i divide and the creation of a united front against the West. However, perhaps the most striking, and potentially powerful, commonality to both the Libyan’s neo-Fatimism and the Iranian’s pan-Islam is, ominously, belief in the Mahdi.20 Recall that several of the Fatimid caliphs considered themselves, and/or were proclaimed, the Mahdi. And while eventually the state ideology was forced to concede that “the victory over the Infidels which the Mahdi was expected to bring about had been postponed to the end of time,”21 there is no shortage of Muslims today, both Sunni and Shi`i, seized with eschatological fervor about the nearness of The End and the imminent coming of the Mahdi:22 in January of this year a self-proclaimed Mahdi led his forces into battle against Iraqi and American troops;23 some books and websites openly speculate that Usamah bin Ladin might be the Mahdi;24 President Ahmadinezhad of Iran frequently invokes the Mahdi;25 and Hizbullah has created the “Imam Mahdi Scouts” to assist him when he arrives.26 Recall, too, that the very Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran declares that the state apparatus as such is in effect only until such time as the Imam Mahdi returns from his state of hiddenness (“occultation”).27 In such a climate, would it really be surprising if the Ahmadinezhad administration declared someone the returned Mahdi? Or if al-Qadhafi pledged allegiance to the same?

Even if Libya and Iran never reach the point of agreeing upon a candidate for the Mahdiyah, the convergence between the two on at least some policy matters—and of, thus, a potential framework for political cooperation—marks the re-emergence of Pan-Islamic ideology onto the stage of state actors; heretofore, for the last few decades, ecumenical politico-religious efforts in the Islamic world have been largely limited to non-state, somewhat marginal, actors, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir28 and al-Qa`idah. Now it is at least possible that the Shi`i Sickle may be wielded, if not by the strong arm of the Mahdi, at least by the sinews of the state—either of which pushes the GWOT that much closer to an openly-declared clash of civilizations.

1 “In Overture to Iran, Qaddafi [sic] Declares North Africa Shi`ite and Calls for Establishment of New Fatimid State,” MEMRI, April 6, 2007: http://memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD153507

2 “Islamic Scholars Expected to Work Out Charter of Islamic Unity,” Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting [IRIB], April 6. 2007: http://www.iribnews.ir/Full_en.asp?news_id=234534

3 A good background on this movement and state is the article “Fatimids,” in the Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition [EI²].

4Ibid., p. 855.

5 “In Overture to Iran….,” MEMRI, April 6, 2007



8Sunnah means “habitual practice, customary procedure, norm, usage sanctioned by tradition,” Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, s.v. “sunna.”

9 “In Overture to Iran…,” MEMRI, April 6, 2007.



12 On this topic see Wilfrid Buchita, “Tehran’s Ecumenical Society (Majma` al-Taqrib): A Vertiable Ecumenical Revival or a Trjoan Horse of Iran?,” in Rainer Brunner and Werner Ende, eds., The Twelver Shia in Modern Times. Religious Culture & Political History (Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 333-353.

13Ibid., p. 335.

14Ibid., pp. 335-36.

15Ibid., p. 338.

16Ibid., pp. 345-46.

17 “Islamic Scholars….,” IRIB, April 6, 2007.

18 See the entries for Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia in Mir Zohair Husain, Islam and the Muslim World (Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill, 2006).

19 L.Azrui, “Debate over the Status of Shi`ites in Egypt,” MEMRI, December 27, 2007: http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=ia&ID=IA31106

20 For a detailed outlining of the history and current status of Mahdism, see my book Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005).

21 “Fatimids,” EI², p. 859.

22 For an ongoing appraisal of Mahdist hopes, see my website www.mahdiwatch.org

23 “Iraqi Mahdi Claimant Killed in Najaf Battle,” “Daily Times,” http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007%5C01%5C30%5Cstory_30-1-2007_pg7_38


See, for example, Ihab al-Badawi and Hassan al-Zawam, Usamah bin Ladin: al-Mahdi al-Muntazar am al-Masikh al-Dajjal? [Usamah bin Ladin: The Awaited Mahdi or the False Messiah?] (Cairo: Madbuli al-Saghir, 2002).

25 NPR.org, “Transcript of Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech,” September 19, 2006: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6107339

26 “Egyptian Weekly on Hizbullah’s Armed Children’s Militias,” MEMRI, September 1, 2006: http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP127606

28 This is a group dedicated to the re-establishment of the caliphate.

This article was first published by Praeger Security International and is reprinted with permission.

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Despite the inordinate importance given by the author to the "mahdi" issue this is an unusually well thought out, for Professor Furnish, and researched piece.
Nevertheless it is, inevitably, marred by a subjective, self serving/propagandist and ultimately irrelevant conclusion:
"….either of which pushes the GWOT that much closer to an openly-declared clash of civilizations."

Why should a Sunni/Shiite rapprochement necessarily be a cause for concern by Professor Furnish and, by implication, for the Judeo/Christian WEST?

This seemingly instinctive reflex can only be understood by the author's implacable enmity to any thing and everything Arab and /or Moslem; whether united or disunited.

That reflex , to the degree that it is affecting western nations and policies, would be, is presently, the most vigorous force that is leading all of us "closer to an openly-declared clash of civilizations."

That a Sunni/Shiite unity would/could eventually lead to closer and much more amicable, or enmity free, Moslem/Judeo-Christian relations by the eradication of the root causes of this enmity ,Western imperialism and Zionist racist colonialism and expansionism, should be welcomed by all for whom a "clash of civilizations” is to be avoided and the forces militating for it should be derailed.

However the real question is :"Is it in the real interest of Western imperialism and Zionist racist colonialism to avoid such a clash or to further it?"

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Mr Rodden
I have no idea.You have to ask an Iranian about that or a proIran Islamist( Islamist is the key bword here.)

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Indeed Mr Friedman; and one of the dirtiest episodes in recent history is Israeli/ex(Apartatheid) South African mutual help and cooperation particularly un nuclear matters.
However the successors of Mandela are doing a lot about the dirt of the past.

Jeannie Rutenburg - 5/5/2007

The terrible impact of the Arab oil price-rise on African economies in the 1970s is talked about in Shiva Naipaul's great travel book North of South (1978).

Jeannie Rutenburg - 5/5/2007

Oh, and Omar? Since you;re so concerned about Africa? During the Oil Shocks of the 1970s, many African govts begged the Saudis and the Gulf States to sell them oil at reduced prices, because the increased cost of oil was something that sturdy western economies could absorb but that fragile African economies could not. The Arabs refused. The result of the increased cost of oil was the collapse of those fragile African economies, and enormous direct suffering.

The Arab states also diplomatically backed the genocidal war of the Sudanese govt in the southern part of the Sudan, the African, non-Islamic--Christian or animist-- part of the Sudan from the 1960s through the 1990s, as the Arab states stand by indifferently from the genocide in Darfur today. The number of deaths in the southern Sudan from this war is usually put at 1.5 to 2 million (and of course it includes the notorious Muslim slave-raiding and slavetrade to the North that is still going on). Since the Muslims of the North do not consider themselves "Africans" but "Arabs", this was, in addition to being a religious genocide, a racist genocide, and on a grand scale. Meanwhile, Muslim scholars safely ensconced in the U.S., such as Ali Mazrui at the State University of New York at Binghampton, wrote complacently of the inevitable triumph of Islam in that part of the Sudan: it's in his book "The Africans."

Elliott Aron Green - 5/5/2007

Zbig B, jimmy carter's national security advisor, worked to build up Islamist forces to fight the USSR in Afghanistan, as NF indicated. After 9-11, Zbig was asked if that was the right thing to do. Zbig said that he had no regrets and minimized the Islamist threat.

Omar, for your info, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was quite happy to sell oil to apartheid South Africa.

Further, in the 1930s, when Mussolini's fascist Italy conquered Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia sent to Mussolini a message of congratulations. Haj Amin el-Husseini supported Nazi Germany to the point of spending most of the WW2 period in the Nazi-fascist domain in Europe. Among other things, Husseini collaborated in the Holocaust with the Germans. Both of these facts are documented in the book of Lukasz Hirszowicz, The Third Reich and the Arab East.

Before I forget, Husseini also gave a speech --a pep talk-- to the Bosnian Muslim SS division [the Handschar] in which he said that Islam was very similar to German National Socialism.

N. Friedman - 5/5/2007

Mr. Rodden,

It is far from clear that Iran is advancing a traditional nationalist agenda. That, to me, is a difficult case to make. In fact, I think it highly unlikely

What seems self-evident to me is that Iran's leaders are religious fanatics bent on the dream of recreating Islamic hegemony. Whether that involves a Mahdist version or merely a more readily understood Islamic version of that dream is an open question - assuming the two can really be truly separated in a Shi'ite setting.

That, however, does not mean an unwillingness by the Islamists of Iran to use infidels to advance an Islamic agenda. Recall, with a different group of Islamists, that those who created al Qaeda worked with the US. Recall, in Iran, that the revolution involved cooperation between Islamists and leftists - only to have the leftists oppressed and persecuted once the Islamists gained control of the government. Recall that many on the far left have joined with Islamists (e.g. the Respect Party in the UK) where the two groups hold agendas that seem to clash except on two issues - hatred of the US and hatred of Israel -. Consider people believing in equal rights for women allying with people who believe in having multiple wives, women behind masks, the right to beat (albeit only lightly) their wives, etc., etc. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Recall that Stalin decided to change sides, on a dime, to reach a pact with Nazi German but, later, the USSR joined with the allies - as strange an alliance as can be imagined. Again: politics is a nasty business. But, that does not mean that the politicians have no aims. They do. But, their aims are not always simple nationalist aims.

Glenn Rodden - 5/4/2007

Mr. Friedman:

Point well taken. Politics is a dirty and some times funny business. It appears that Iran is following its traditional national interest in the Persian Gulf area and is seeking allies regardless of religious affiliation.

I also suspect that Russia is helping Iran because it seeks an ally to balance US and British influence in the Middle East.

N. Friedman - 5/3/2007


Politics is always a dirty business. For Iran, seeking help from those who will help it pursues its goals makes sense so that is what Iran does. The better question is why Russia helps Iran.

Glenn Rodden - 5/3/2007

If the Irania government is pursuing Islamic unity, why is that government allied with Russia? Afterall, Russia has fought two recent brutal wars against Muslims in Chechnya.