ISIS’ (now IS) announcement in June 2014 that it was establishing a Caliphate (Khilafah) with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph was strongly criticised across the Muslim world even by many radical and militant ideologues. Groups and movements that yearn for restoration of the Caliphate strongly rejected the idea that one single Muslim group can monopolise the right, believed to be entrusted to the entire Muslim Umma or nation, to create one. Similarly, al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph, has been portrayed by critics as a fake, bogus Caliph. Some Muslims also wondered, on varied media platforms, if al-Baghdadi intends to declare himself also as “the expected Mahdi” (al-mahdi al-muntazar); a few even derogated him as false Mahdi.
The idea of the Mahdi in Islam is strongly linked to Muslim messianic, apocalyptic traditions. According to these, the Mahdi (lit. “the guided one”), is said to appear shortly before the Day of Judgment in order to restore Islam to its former glory by removing evil and re-establishing righteousness. The Mahdi’s appearance and rule are believed to coincide with the second coming of Jesus Christ (Isa), who is supposed to support the Mahdi in fighting and winning the final apocalyptic battle against Al-Masih ad-Dajjal (the false messiah), the embodiment of evil.
It is common to identify the idea of the Mahdi in Islam mainly with the Shi’ite Islam, and in particular with the concept of the “Hidden Imam” (al-imam al-ghaib) in the dominant twelver Shi’ite tradition. But in actuality the history of the Sunni world has also been replete with apocalyptic traditions and Mahdist expectations and movements.
A particularly salient example in modern history is the case of Muhammad Ahmad ibn ‘Abdallah (1844-1885), leader of a Sunni millenarian movement in Sudan who proclaimed himself Mahdi in 1882, the same year that the British occupied Egypt. The narrative of his movement, the Mahdiyyah, is known largely due to the forceful resistance by its army, the Ansar, against the then Ottoman-Egyptian rule of Sudan and British efforts to expand into Sudan. This army, whose number reached to some tens of thousands, achieved impressive military victories over the Anglo-Egyptian forces during the1880s, capturing Khartoum in 1885 and invading both Ethiopia and Egypt in the late 1880s.
Though the idea of jihad played a very significant role in the Mahdiyyah, its narrative is more than a litany of wars; it is actually a story of a militant Mahdist state (1880s-1890s), with its own governing administration and Shari’a-based judicial system, like IS. The messianic figure of the Mahdi, as ruler by grace of God, was very central to this political entity or state. Shortly after the capture of Khartoum, the Mahdi died of disease and was succeeded by three Caliphs, chosen by him. This political setup caused strong internal rivalry from which one of three successors, ‘Abdullah ibn Muhammad, emerged as the winner and single Caliph. It was not until the final year of the 19th century that the historical chapter of this militant, centralised theocratic state came to its end as the result of strong military action by Anglo-Egyptian forces.
The Mahdiyyah movement in Sudan was bound with Islamic messianic and apocalyptic eschatology. Various contemporary militant jihadist groups, including the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia, have also been motivated by messianism and apocalyptic spirit.
Similarly, IS doctrines also abound with apocalyptic motifs. Thus, the IS digital magazine Dabiq is named after a place in Syria that is believed, according to certain traditions, to be the site of an apocalyptic battle between the Islamic army and Rome. It seems that the contemporary West in general and the US-led military coalition in particular are now being fitted, in IS’ view, into the ancient image of Rome or the Romans – side by side with the common jihadists’ perception worldwide of the West generally, and the US in particular, as “modern crusaders”. Accordingly, the war in Syria is portrayed by the IS as the beginning of the battles that will bring the end times. In addition, the black banner that IS employs, along with other militant groups, is also interwoven with apocalyptic beliefs and Mahdist expectations. Apocalyptic traditions in which “al-Sham”, greater Syria, is reputed to be the site of the “final battle” between Islam and “evil” likely serve to help motivate zealous Muslims worldwide to join the ranks of the IS.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, in Muslim media discussion about the self-proclaimed Caliphate of the IS, including al-Baghdadi’s self-proclamation as Caliph – parallels are also often drawn back to the jihadist Mahdist state in Sudan. And while these two jihadist-political entities had their own distinctive character, they also share several significant elements – including the militant jihadist approach and messianic-apocalyptic perceptions.
These parallels might enable the careful drawing of some insights from the earlier Mahdist case in Sudan for analysis of IS as a strategic threat. Firstly, messianic, apocalyptic ideas appear to have considerable contagious effect; the success of the Mahdist movement in Sudan during the1880s was known then among Muslim communities worldwide, including in Southeast Asia. It even helped to spread millenarian, messianic ideas in Java of the 1880s which probably even helped inflamed the peasant revolts there at the time.
The second insight relates to the military challenge posed by messianic Islamist entities. It seems that during the preliminary stages of the Mahdist movement in Sudan, the British seriously underestimated the extent of the challenges posed by the new jihadist, messianic state, in particular its military power and capabilities. Later, lessons they learned from mistakes and failures provided the British with valuable insights that enabled successive military victories over the Mahdist army during 1890s that eventually brought an end to Sudan’s militant Mahdist chapter just before the turn of the 20th century. More precisely, the British seemed to learn that the challenge posed by the jihadist messianic state and political movement should be countered by much more decisive military operations, based on intensive preparations, including especially improvement of transportation logistics – and in particular the extension of railways southwards. Consequently, the Anglo-Egyptian forces under the command of Gen. Herbert Kitchener succeeded in creating a very substantial shift of the battlefield context, thus optimising their clearly superior fire power and technology, and leading to a decisive result.
Dr. Giora Eliraz is a Research Associate at the Harry S. Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Affiliated Fellow at KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, and Research Fellow at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.