Apocalyptic rhetoric returns to Middle East as conflict heats up

(Update with Tanriverdi resignation in second paragraph.)


As Turkey geared up to begin deploying troops to Libya in late December, the head of SADAT, the Turkish government-linked private security firm that reports say is already active in the Libyan conflict, grabbed headlines by declaring the imminent arrival of the Mahdi, a messianic leader some Muslims believe is destined to appear before the world ends.

The comments eventually led to SADAT head Adnan Tanrıverdi's resignation from his role advising President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but not before sparking a slew of news stories on his apocalyptic statement.

Days after Tanrıverdi made the comments, Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, declared that the Mahdi was coming to “end injustice and grant our wishes”. Then, the killing by U.S. forces in Iraq of Iranian Quds Forces Commander Qassem Soleimani brought talk of the Mahdi and other religious and supernatural forces to a fever pitch.

With public figures discussing the messiah, the antichrist and holy wars between Muslims and crusaders, it may seem discourse has taken a uniquely apocalyptic turn. But theology experts and writers say the concept of the Mahdi has existed since before Islamic times, and history has seen the passing of thousands of pretenders to the title.

The idea of the Mahdi was one of many that passed to Islam from Christianity and Judaism, in this case from Jewish apocalyptic texts, writer Mustafa İslamoğlu said.

It was propagated among Muslims under the reign of the Abbasid and Umayyad Caliphates, a time İslamoğlu described as an apocalyptic period in Islamic history, during which oppressed subjects placed their faith in the idea that a Mahdi would come to free them from tyranny.

But that concept is inherently a deferred dream that cannot come true, İslamoğlu said, pointing to the example of Zayd ibn Ali, the great grandson of the Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law and fourth Caliph of Islam, Ali.

On the day Zayd began his revolt against the Umayyad Caliphate, he commanded 100,000 followers, but by that night just 218 of his supporters remained, İslamoğlu said.

The story of Ali and his successors, particularly his slain grandson Hussein, fuelled the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims that is often discussed by analysts of the Middle East today.

The Mahdi concept is an important one for Shia Muslims, who believe a hidden imam and successor of Ali will one day come to redeem Islam and save humankind, columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak said.

“This is an article of faith for Shias, and when Ahmedinejad was president they thought the same. When the United States occupied Iraq, he called the Iranian Army the army of the Mahdi, and referred to the troops sent to Iraq by President (George W.) Bush as the army of Christ,” Dilipak said.

But while events in the Muslim world brought the apocalyptic rhetoric back to the headlines, Dilipak noted that similar beliefs are still strong among Christian sects.

“Evangelists talk about forcing God’s hand to Armageddon. At the beginning of the year, the Christian world is talking about the return of the messiah. Politics and belief in prophecies have become intertwined; they are affecting one another and it seems each side is using the other,” he said.

While the Mahdi does not appear in the Quran, the concepts appear in hadiths, the sayings attributed to Mohammad, the writer said. But the Muslim holy book does include verses and concepts related to the end times analogous with the Christian concepts, including the antichrist, known by Muslims as Dajjal.

Theologist and activist İhsan Eliaçık believes the focus on messianic figures and the world’s end can be used as a means of political control.

“Muslims shouldn’t waste their time with this kind of thing, but the belief exists among Sunnis and Shias,” he said. “In fact, it’s the official view of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They accept that their task is to prepare the world for the coming of the Mahdi.”

This view is not accepted by all Shias, though, said Ahval contributor Gökhan Bacık, noting that many believe Muslims must stay out of politics until his return. But when it comes to populist religious structures, parallels can be drawn between many different faiths, he said.

“The Evangelical Christians and Islamists are not developed on a theoretical level. They’re populist structures,” he said. “This is innate in religious movements in Turkey, too, like the Naqshbandis and the Işıkçılar congregation.”

“This populism is found in the United States, too. Some say President Donald Trump is the chosen one,” he said.Talk of the doomsday tends to seize the agenda whenever tensions rise, Eliaçık said, adding that the recent talk of war between the United States and Iran had brought this talk to a crescendo.

“Some say there will be a final battle between Muslims and Christians, and that this will bring the Mahdi with it. That’s why this captures the agenda when things get tense. But it will pass before long,” he said. “Thousands have declared themselves the Mahdi throughout history. Each one ended in a fiasco.”

Followers of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher whose religious movement is accused of infiltrating the Turkish state and orchestrating the coup attempt in 2016, also attribute messianic properties to their spiritual leader, while some members of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party use the same language for their leader, Bacık added.

“It’s like a cancerous thought that comes in and kills rational thought,” he said.

Or it may in fact be an all-too-rational part of political life in this century, according to Hüseyin Siyabend Aytemur, a writer whose work focuses on religion.

“The Mahdi concept in our period is a discourse that aims to justify the political powers’ official ideologies and policies. It’s a part of the relation between religion and the state,” he said.

“The Mahdi here is a foundation of the state, a determinant that explains the lineage and aristocracy of Persians and Turks, an opiate for the masses. The official religion is the religion of the state’s doctrine. And the Mahdi is an element of that,” he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.