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May 5, 2011 8:19 am

Nowhere Man: The Islamic World Is At Your Command

Usama bin Ladin’s termination with extreme prejudice by US Navy SEALs—under, to his great credit, President Obama’s orders—should hopefully lead to the 9/11 mastermind’s memory “becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape” (as Gandalf said of Sauron, post-Ring-destruction, in The Return of the King).  

But will it?  The Islamic world, unlike Western Christian civilization (or its fictional analog, Middle-earth) , has a long  and internally-legitimate tradition of messianic and quasi-messianic figures who appear to die but actually go into ghaybah, or “occultation,” only to return later within history to set matters aright—that is, to re-invigorate the Islamic community and to lead it to victory over its enemies, usually via jihad.  (Christendom has, of course, the messianic imperative fulfilled in Jesus Christ—but He will return not within history but, rather, above it at its eschatological denouement .)  Islam’s largest branch, Sunnism, as well as its largest sect, Twelver Shi`ism, both contain traditions and popular beliefs about al-Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one,” who will step onto the stage of history at some point and, with the help of the returned Muslim prophet Jesus, create a global caliphate (or, more properly, Mahdiyah) through a combination of  soft (persuasion and, some expect, miracles) and hard  (violent jihad) power.  For mainstream Sunnis the Mahdi has yet to arrive—despite the  numerous self-proclaimed mahdis that have plagued Islamic civilization for fourteen centuries, such as 19th century Sudan’s Muhammad Ahmad,  of Khartoum fame).  For Twelver Shi`is the Mahdi has already been here, in the person of the 12th male descendant of Islam’s founder through his son-in-law (and cousin) Ali;  also named Muhammad this rightful leader of the entire ummah was (like his 11 predecessors) persecuted and driven from power by the perfidious Sunnis, and so retreated into ghaybah in 872 AD/258 AH [“after Hijrah”]—whence he will return ( unlike Jesus Christ in Christianity, well before the cosmic calendar runs out) to Islamize all of humanity.  This  concept of mystical Mahdist hiding has, at times ,crossed over from Shi`ism into Sunnism, as with the Sunni Mahdist claimant Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi who declared, in 1821 India,  a jihad against the British and their Sikh allies and was killed by the latter—but since his body was never recovered, “his supporters transformed the seeming tragedy into a victory by claiming it was merely an occultation and that Sayyid Ahmad would eventually return as the Mahdi” (Furnish, Holiest Wars, p. 42).  To further complicate matters Sunni Muslims, in particular, have often in history conflated the Mahdist imperative with that of the mujaddid, a “renewer,” said to have been predicted by Muhammad to come every century.  

What has any of this to do with Bin Ladin?  At least  some  members of al-Qa`idah [AQ] as far back as 2003 seemed to believe that Usama was the Mahdi.  Since the 9/11 attack Youtube videos have been uploaded claiming the same thing.  (As well as the contrary: the influential Turkish Mahdist and Creationist Adnan Oktar has decried Bin Ladin as a mutamahdi, or “false mahdi,” created by the United States.)  Unlike the three men who have declared themselves mahdis in post-US-invasion Iraq (see my chapter on this topic in Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad), or the several who have tried to grab the Mahdi’s ring in stauchly-Sunni Saudi Arabia over the past few months—hearkening back to the abortive Mahdist uprising led by Juhayman al-Utaybi in Mecca in 1979—Bin Ladin was the only one with a truly global reach and stature sufficient enough to make the creation of a movement centered around belief in him as the Mahdi a very real possibility.  Perhaps, like Ayatollah Khomeini, he figured that it was better to keep his mouth shut and be considered the Mahdi by some, rather than to open it and, by claiming the title, to remove all doubt that he was, in fact, not. 

Popularizers of Mahdism such as the fiction writer Joel Rosenberg (author of The Twelfth Imam) and his friend, TV and radio personality Glenn Beck—as well as more sober analysts, such as Michael Ledeen—obsess  about the dangers of Iranian Twelver Shi`i Mahdism.  While Iran, especially if armed with nuclear weapons, is certainly a threat to the region, the thesis that the Islamic Republic’s leadership aims to “hotwire the apocalypse” by a nuclear assault on Israel in order to cause Allah to send back the 12th Imam is a misreading of Shi`i theology (as I pointed out in this paper for the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis).   In sum, Shi`i teachings are that while the world will be going to hell in an infidel’s handbasket before the Mahdi returns, Muslims are not called upon to raise that hell; and even if they could or did, such an attempt to force Allah’s hand would be hubristic folly.  Furthermore, while it is true that Mahdist expectations are high in Iran today, and that the vilayet-i faqih system of clerical rule established by Khomeini offically exists only until such time as the 12th Imam returns, the last thing the clerical establishment in Qom and Tehran would do is to recognize any living human being as the returned Mahdi and thus bring their power and wealth to a crashing end as the Mahdi takes over and redistributes their rials to the undeserving masses, a la Michael Moore.  So barring some supernaturally-assisted Mahdist claimant—as in Rosenberg’s  evangelical Christian take, wherein the 12th Imam shows up in Iran with clear diabolical support from Satan—Shi`ite Iran is perhaps the last place an open Mahdist bid would be launched.

However,  as history indicates, most Mahdist leaders and movements have arisen in the Sunni world, for two major reasons: the frequent lack, in certain times and places (medieval North Africa; 19th c. Ottoman Sudan; etc.) of a pervasive and consistent clerical bureaucracywith enough institutional power to  rule against mutamahdis and make it stick; and the fact that any self-styled Sunni Mahdi does not have to emerge from occultation in Jamkaran, Iran.   Also, the aformentioned concept of hotwiring the apocalypse does exist in Sunni Islam today, among at least some of the jihadist groups—which is why AQ and its affiliated groups have always been a much greater threat to use WMDs against us or Israel than Iran. 

So to return to the topic which began this Mahdist discussion: now that Usama bin Ladin is (ostensibly) rotting in Davy Jones’ locker, Arabian Ocean division, apocalyptic Sunni Mahdism has been washed out to sea—right?   Not necessarily.  The Obama Administration’s attempts to make a virtue out of the alleged necessity of interring him in a salty sepulchre  (no Muslim country’s willingness to bury UBL in its soil, coupled with Washington’s unwillingness to see his tomb become a jihadist shrine), reinforced by its refusal to release the photos of the dead jihadist leader, have assured that many in the world’s second-largest religion will doubt, if not outright deny, that he is dead.  Bin Ladin will very likely become another Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi, whose  mystical , mythical power and stature will grow yearly and whose return will be come to be expected at any time.  After all, Saddam Hussein is now believed by some Iraqis to be alive or to have never died, based on phone calls from him to his former supporters.  And Bin Ladin had and has far more Islamic legitimacy than Saddam ever did. 

So what?  Does it matter if some (nutty, conspiracy-steeped) Muslims 1) refuse to believe UBL is dead, and 2) hope for his return?  Yes, if these  Bin Ladinists fight on against “Crusaders and Zionists” in the name of Imam bin Ladin and draw strength from the lack of a body.  Barelwi’s followers fought on against the British in his Mahdist name for decades after his “occulatation” in 1821—and they couldn’t even envision getting their hands on weapons powerful enough to spark the apocalypse, as  AQ members can at least aspire to today.   One can even imagine Bin Ladinists deciding that detonation of a nuclear weapon, or some commensurate man-caused disaster, is just what  the Doctor (al-Zawahiri) ordered  to persuade Allah to send (back) Usama al-Mahdi.    President Obama’s decision to make Usama a real nowhere man thus, ironically,  puts at least some of the Islamic world at Bin Ladin’s command.

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