Thursday, August 26, 2004

The Mahdi

I recently came across this quote from a letter claimed to be from Moqtada al Sadr rejecting the demand of the Iraqi government to disband the Mahdi Army;

Let everyone know that this army is the Imam Mahdi's base and I have no right to ever disband it.
Previously, all I knew of the Mahdi (the guided one) was that he was a messianic figure within some of the traditions of Islam. A bit of reading on the net suggests that this belief, which is in no way unified, may be playing a major role in some of today's global conflicts.

Especially among the Shiite, there are some who believe that the Mahdi will return (or reappear, having been hidden and waiting) on the Judgment Day to begin a time of peace and justice. In Islam, the Mahdi's return will coincide with the return of Jesus.

One chronology of events that I found was that after Armageddon, in which two thirds of the Jews will be killed, the Mahdi will defeat the remaining one third, followed by a Christian/Muslim war, called al-Malhama al-Kubra (Great Slaughter of the Intercessor). The Mahdi's Army will then fight the Antichrist, but will not prevail. Jesus will descend, pray behind the Mahdi, kill the Antichrist and unite all believers as Muslims.

I have no idea how widespread this belief is. It seems that the hope of the return of the Mahdi is very common among both Shiite and Sunni, although the apocalyptic inclination seems more prominent among the Shiite. This may be because of the claim among some Shiite that the Mahdi will avenge the injustices of the Sunni upon Husayn and his followers at Karbala.

According to one site I read today, what happened in Karbala in the year 680 is critical in understanding the current situation. When the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali died (and whose tomb in Najaf is currently the center of global attention), the leadership of the Muslim community was given to the governor of Syria, with the promise that leadership would once again belong to the family of the Prophet when he died. When the time came to declare a successor, he named his son Yazid as heir.

Those who felt the leadership of Islam should remain within the family of the Prophet asked Ali's eldest son, Husayn (in some places appearing as "Hussein"), to lead them against Yazid. Yazid's army caught up with Husayn at Karbala and massacred nearly every member of the Prophet Muhammad's family that were traveling with him.

Some suggest that Karbala was the beginning of a number of new traditions within Islam that accentuate the differences between the Shiah and the more orthodox Sunni. One of these new ideas was "atonement through sacrifice", which, although nothing new to either Christianity or Judaism, was not previously a part of the Islamic tradition.

The article concludes with this summary;

So, when Muqtada Sadr and his band of disaffected and impoverished Iraqi youths managed, during those first hectic months after the fall of the Sunni tyrant Saddam Hussein, to take control of the sacred cities of Kufa, Karbala, and Najaf, it seemed that the Army of the Mahdi had truly arrived to finally avenge Husayn. Sadr has stoked the traditional sentiments of Iraq's Shiite community by brazenly framing his rebellion in apocalyptic terms. He sets himself apart as the herald of the messiah and calls his followers the last true Muslims in Iraq. Taking refuge next to the body of the blessed Imam Ali, in what was once the most glorious shrine in Shiism (but which has now become a wrecked and ramshackle garrison), Sadr claims he is fighting a holy war against both foreign oppressors and treasonous hypocrites. Vowing to follow in the footsteps of Husayn, he has convinced his ragged band of followers to fling themselves recklessly at American troops, only to be mowed down by the hundreds.
There is another curious connection to the Mahdi that I stumbled across as well. It appears that the Mahdi was the title taken by a leader in the Sudan during the 19th century. His followers, the Ansar, were successful in defeating the Anglo-Egyptian forces from 1882 to 1898.

Since the Mahdist uprising, Mahdism has continued as a political force in Sudan. The Ansar were under the authority of Muhammad Ahmad's (the Mahdi's) family (the ashraf). In 1986, Sadiq al Mahdi formed a coalition government in Sudan. He is the brother-in-law of Hassan al-Turabi, a major player in Sudanese politics.

In 1989, the current ruler, Lt. General Omar al-Bashir, lead a military coup that Turabi supported. Turbari is known for publicly stating his goal to "Arabize Africa." Sadeq Al Mahdi, who is now head of opposition Umma Party, is thought by some to be more supportive of the political ideas of his brother-in-law than in the religious ideals of the Mahdists. This has caused internal conflict within the Mahdist movement.

If one reads between the lines, with an understanding of some of the history behind today's headlines, a fuller picture of what is going on in this world begins to take shape. I'm not sure today's explorations have provided me with any answers, but they have certainly helped me form new questions.

If you're interested in making your own exploration, here's a few sites to get you started;

Identification of the Prophesied Imam Mahdi

Who Is Imam al-Mahdi?

Al-Mahdi Army

End of Days

Sudan's Osama

More Equal Than Others

J.

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