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Mahdism (and Sectarianism and Superstition) Rises in the Islamic World

Muslims praying. Credit: Wikipedia

Last week the prestigious and non-partisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a new study on beliefs and attitudes in the Islamic world, entitled “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.” Surveying over 28,000 Muslims in 24 countries, this massive report is not only statistically sound and extensive in geographic scope -- it’s the first to examine a number of topics of profound importance to U.S. foreign, defense and intelligence policy which have heretofore been largely off the radar screen of analysts as well as pollsters. Clearly the most fascinating -- and disturbing -- data in the Pew study is that revealing the great depth of belief in the “imminent return” [sic] of the Mahdi, the Islamic messianic figure who according to both Sunni and Shi`i traditions will make the entire world Muslim. (1) (“Sic” because the good Pew folks don’t seem to totally understand Mahdism, in which the Mahdi only returns for Twelver Shi`is; for Sunnis, the Mahdi has yet to step onto the historical stage, despite the plethora of mutamahdis, or “false Mahdis,” who have declared themselves over the centuries.) This has been my academic specialty, upon which I wrote my doctoral dissertation and first book, Holiest Wars, as well as many articles; I also maintain a website following Mahdism. But while I have long suspected, based on anecdotal and qualitative research, that Mahdism was and still is endemic in the Islamic world, I was nonetheless taken aback by Pew’s quantitative data which clearly shows the breadth and depth of such belief:

In South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, clear majorities of Muslims expect the Mahdi’s coming in the next few decades. Almost a third in Central Asia do so, as well. Only in Southern and Eastern Europe is the figure below 20 percent. (Pew, for some reason, did not ask this question in the sub-Saharan African Muslim region -- but if it had, I would wager that the percentage would be even higher than anywhere else, knowing what I do of historical Mahdism in Africa.) Looking at specific countries, the highest percentage of the population expecting the Mahdi’s near-term appearance is found in Afghanistan (83 percent), followed by Iraq (72 percent), Turkey (68 percent) and Tunisia (67 percent). Sixty percent of Pakistanis, 51 percent of Moroccans, 46 percent of Palestinians and 40 percent of Egyptians are looking for the Mahdi in their lifetimes. The conventional wisdom in recent decades among many journalists, and not a few area “experts,” has been that Mahdism is an eccentric outlier belief held mainly by (Twelver) Shi`is and the uneducated on the fringes of the Sunni world. This Pew data, among other things, shows the intellctual vacuity of such biases. The average for the 23 countries Pew surveyed on this issue of Mahdism comes out to 42 percent, and extrapolating from that to the entire Muslim world means there are over 670 million Muslims who believe the Mahdi will return here in the first half of the twenty-first century.

What does this Pew information on Mahdism mean? First and foremost, Mahdism must be taken seriously as an intellectual, sociological and even political strain within the entire Islamic world -- not dismissed as archaic, mytical nonsense. In addition, the good, the bad and the ugly faces of Mahdism throughout history need to be considered -- political correctness be damned. The good is that Mahdism (mainly Shi`i, but also Sunni) does have peaceful social justice elements, akin to Catholic Christian “liberation theology,” that can be harnessed to improve Muslims’ lives (as is done on a regular basis by the Isma’ili, or Sevener, Shi`is, who define jihad as nonviolent benevolence) and ecumenical proclivities toward other “People of the Book” (as preached by the Turkish Mahdist Adnan Oktar and his followers). The bad is that Mahdism has often manifested as a political movement, against not just occupying non-Muslim (generally Christian) powers, but in point of fact far more often as a counter-Islamic-establishment revolutionary program. And the ugly truth about belief in the Mahdi is that Islamic history is rife with violent jihads led by self-styled Muslim messiahs and waged by their followers -- from Ibn Tumart in medieval Morocco to nineteenth-century Sudan’s Muhammad Ahmad (of Khartoum fame) and, more recently, 1979’s attempted Mahdist putsch in Saudi Arabia as well as the flare-ups of Mahdist violence against U.S. and Iraqi government forces in Iraq in 2007, led by Jund al-Sama’ (“Army of Heaven”). If even 1 percent of the 672 million Muslims who believe in the Mahdi take the jihad route, that provides the AQN (al-Qa`ida Network) with a pool of almost seven million jihadists.

In terms of specific countries: the stratospheric Mahdist belief rate in Afghanistan is very likely connected to the fact that that country is occupied by “infidel” Christians; Turkey’s very high eschatological proclivities might be attributable to the influence of the aforementioned Adnan Oktar, as well as to another neo-Mahdist strain of thought coming from the followers of Fethullah Gülen; (2) and Mahdist expectations in Tunisia could very well be due to the still-lingering legacy of Ibn Tumart and other Mahdist movements in the Maghrib in centuries past. In terms of policy ramifications, it is worth considering that: Mahdist fervor in Afghanistan could very possibly be contributing to the opposition to the continued presence of U.S. forces there; we should be thankful that the predominant strain of Islamic messianism in NATO’s only majority-Muslim nation is, at least so far, pacific -- while at the same time wary of what appears to be a burgeoning alliance between Turkish Mahdists and the neo-Ottomanists in the AK party in power; and such high levels of Mahdist belief in the vanguard country of the “Arab Spring” might very well be a harbinger of this political movement trangmogrifying from an Arab “liberation” one into a more violent eschatological register, as at least one prominent Muslim intellectual is already preaching. One might also observe that when over half of the Lebanese, almost half of the Palestinians, millions of Egyptians and a large plurality of Jordanians expect the Mahdi soon, the Israelis might have good reason to fear the Arab eschatological pot being brought to boil by the those arch-Mahdists in the Islamic Republic of Iran (a country which, curiously, was not included in Pew’s polling on this or other issues). As for Pakistan, the fact that six in ten of its people are looking for eschatological deliverance in the near-term means that even Deobandi fundamentalism -- the South Asian equivalent of (Saudi) Arab Wahhabism -- is far from immune to Islamic messianism.

Pew also reports that significant minorities of Muslims believe in Jesus’s imminent return. In both Sunni and Shi`i hadiths (alleged sayings of Muhammad), the prophet "Isa will return from heaven, having been taken up there before he died on the cross," (3) and once back will work with the Mahdi to defeat the forces of evil led by al-Dajjal, “the Deceiver” (or Antichrist). Across the 22 countries Pew surveyed on this issue, an average of 35 percent of the Muslim population believes Jesus is coming back soon -- with the strongest expectations in Tunisia (67 percent), Turkey (65 percent), Iraq (64 percent), Lebanon (52 percent) and among Thailand’s Muslims (51 percent). This pales in comparison to the 79 percent of Christians who look for Christ’s Second Coming (as per Pew, from a 2009 study), especially considering there are 2.2 billion Christians (far more than there are Muslims); but whereas Christian history is not replete with violent crusades led by men claiming to be the returned Jesus, Islamic history has witnessed legions of Mahdist claimants, many militant -- as explained previously. The import of some 435 million Muslims looking for Jesus’s return in the early twenty-first century would seem to be mainly as another apocalyptic signifier, reinforcing the more primary Islamic eschatological expectation of the Mahdi.

The Pew data on Muslim interpretations of Islam, and views of Islamic sects, are two sides of the same coin.

Interestingly, Pew included 16 sub-Saharan African countries in this survey question, as well as 23 in other parts of Eurasia. The overall average for all 39 countries is just at 61 percent--meaning over six in ten Muslims “say there is only one interpretation of Islam,” ranging from a high of 78 percent in Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt to a mere 34 percent in Morocco. Pew also asked, separately, whether Ahmadis, (4) Alawis (5) or members of Jaringan Islam Liberal (6) are Muslims. An average of 41 percent of respondents said Ahmadis were not; 38 percent (of Lebanese, the only nationality polled on this sect) said Alawis were not; and 58 percent of Indonesians rejected Islam Liberal members as Muslims. Relatedly, Muslims in 23 countries were asked whether Sufis (7) were Muslims; on average, 21 percent said they most decidely were NOT Muslims -- ranging from a high of 44 percent in Egypt and Indonesia to a low of 6 percent in Thailand’s Muslim provinces. However, large percentages in each of these 23 countries also said that they either “had never heard” of Sufis, or “didn’t know” whether they were Muslims; and since Pew didn’t break that data out further, it’s safe to conclude that the percentage of Muslims who suspect Sufis are not really within the Islamic fold is much higher than 21 percent. This is important because Sufis still exist in large numbers in the Islamic world: majorities of Muslims in Senegal and Chad belong to Sufi order, as does over 25 percent of the Muslim population in nine other African countries; 26 percent of Bangladeshi, 17 percent of Pakistani, and 9 percent of Egyptian Muslims claims to be Sufis, as well. Thus, that would mean there are some 38 million Sufis in Bangladesh, 30 million in Pakistan and well over 6 million in Egypt. Historically, and still to this day, Salafists -- Islamic fundamenalists who strive to emulate the “ancestors” of Muhammad’s time -- dislike Sufis, and vice-versa. The daily news reports are rife with accounts of Islamic sects like the Ahmadis being persecuted by Muslims, as well as of Sufis and their beliefs being attacked by Salafists, Wahhabis, and/or jihadists, and sometimes fighting back. Yes, Christianity is divided into even more denominations and sects than is Islam -- but since the Thirty Years War and the Enlightenment, Christians have abandoned killing each other in the name of their religion and, in fact, Western Christian civilization is the one among the world’s cultures that developed the idea of religious tolerance. Southern Baptists may doubt that Roman Catholics are true Christians, but they certainly don’t plant IEDs on the Catholics’ cars during Mass. Muslims and the Islamic cultural zone, however, are still mired in religious intolerance and, far too often, violence against their own sects -- a sad reality which no amount of American occupation and constitution-writing will change. As I argued three years ago on HNN, the reigning Qur’anic exegetical paradigm in Islam is a literalist, fundamentalist one -- and until that changes (something only Muslims can do), Muslim sectarian minorities have every reason to fear the (usually Sunni) majority far more than they do Christians, Hindus, Buddhists or even Jews.

Pew also asked Muslims in 23 countries whether they believed in jinn (8) and witchcraft. Fifty percent of Muslims are convinced the former exist, while 33 percent feel the same way about witchcraft. Regarding jinn, belief is highest in Morocco and Bangladesh (each over 80 percent); Malaysia, Tunisia, Pakistan and Lebanon (each over 70 percent); Egypt, Palestinian territories and Turkey (each over 60 percent). Furthermore, some 16 percent of Muslims overall claim that “they have experienced evil spirits [being] driven out of a person” -- ranging from almost half of Ethiopian Muslims, to over 20 percent of Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Afghanis and even 11 percent of Palestinians, arguably the most Westernized of all the Arabs. As with Mahdism, the lowest percentages of belief on this issue were found in the former Soviet Central Asian republics: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. Did eight decades of Marxist occupation and indoctrination inoculate Central Asian Muslims against such beliefs? Or is some other factor at play in the ‘stans?

Pew finished the study with a few questions aimed at U.S. Muslims -- the results of which hold some good news. Whereas six in ten of Muslims outside the US say there is only one true interpretation of Islam, only 37 percent of American Muslims believe that. While 80 percent of global Muslims believe that the Qur’an should be read literally, only half of Muslims in the U.S. agree. The first bit of data indicates that Muslims in America seem to have imbibed at the well of American religious tolerance far more than their foreign co-religionists. The latter information, while positive, is not all that reassuring, however; what it means is that while eight in ten of the world’s Muslims believe that a literal reading must be made of passages such as “behead the unbelievers,” (9) “beat your wives,” (10) and the infamous “Sword verse” of the Quran, “fight and slay the infidels wherever you find them,” (11) only half of the Muslims in America would go that far -- not exactly a reason to celebrate.

Several real-world policy ramifications for the U.S. State and Defense departments, as well as the IC (Intelligence Community), can be drawn from this Pew study. First, a civilization laden with eschatological expectations AND a historical track record of militant movements motivated by messianic leaders, infused with intolerance toward its own schismatics, convinced of ongoing problems with demonic entities and witches and in thrall to a literalist reading of a violent religious text might not be amenable to rational actor theory in international relations. Second, political consolidation and/or jihadist movements led by self-styled Mahdis should be considered as real possibilities in the twenty-first century, especially as we approach key dates such as the hundred year mark from the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate (2024) or the year 1500 of the Muslim calendar (2076) -- since Mahdism, historically, clusters around such important dates which spark attempts to create rival caliphates, often violently. The vast geographic breadth, and suprising depth, of Mahdist belief in the Islamic ummah evidenced in this Pew data makes Mahdi-inspired movements, including jihads, quite plausible in the near future. Third, the Islamic Republic of Iran may not be pursuing a pipe dream by seeking de facto leadership of the Islamic world -- especially once it has nuclear weapons (and short of U.S. Army and Marine boots on the ground, it is hard to see how Tehran’s quest for them can be stopped). An Atomic Ayatollah-ate will not only be seen as the strong horse in the region; it will thus be all that more convincing, as the self-styled “Mahdist state in microcosm,” in its appeals to the almost 700 million Muslims who are waiting on the Mahdi. Finally, the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq have the highest levels of Mahdist beliefs in the Islamic world tells us, very likely, that U.S. -- “Christian, Crusader” -- invasion and occupation, while ameliorating some problems (better roads, schools and hospitals, for example), greatly exacerbates another one: Muslim messianism and attendant jihadism. What does it profit an occupier if it gains new infrastructure, but loses the eschatological war?

* * * *

1 For an overview of Mahdism and the differing views of it in Sunnism and Shi`ism, see the first four pages of my article “A 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.

2 On Oktar and Gülen and their joint intellectual descent from the 20th c. Turkish Mahdist Said Nursi, see my blogpost on “Gülen Charter Schools,” May 12, 2012.

3 As per Sura al-Nisa’ [IV]:157-158.

4 An Islamic offshoot group founded on the belief that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908) of India was both the Mahdi and the returned Jesus.

5 A pseudo-Shi`i sect in Syria which believes that the 10th Shi`i Imam, Ali al-Hadi (d. 868 AD) was Allah Incarnate.

6 An Indonesian Islamic moderate/modernist group that is trying to resurrect the Islamic rationalism of the Mu`tazilah, a movement in the early history of Islam that was quashed, over against Islamic militants and jihadists.

7 Sufis are Islamic mystics whose devotional practices—all-night meditative prayer, visits to saints’ tombs/shrines, reverence (bordering on worship) for the shaykhs of their orders, attempts to achieve union with Allah, etc.—often have been deemed not just excessive but heretical by other Muslims, mainly Sunnis.

8 Jinn are in Islamic tradition spiritual beings mid-way between humans and angels which, although they can possess humans, are not always evil or demonic.

9 Sura al-Anfal [VIII]:12

10 Sura al-Nisa’[IV]:34

11 Sura al-Tawbah [IX]:5