Friday, 12 May 2017


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman refuses to have any dialogue with Iran. Because of Imam al-Mahdi. The awaited world-deliverer Shia Muslims revere. Iran’s aim is to dominate the whole of Islam, the Prince claims – meaning: even Arabia.

Iran aside, the Prince is right to shake in his boots about the Mahdi. In 1979 about 500 armed militants – calling themselves the Ikhwan, pious brothers - stormed the Grand Mosque of Mecca, where Islam’s holiest shrine, the Kaaba, is situated. They weren’t Iranians but pure Saudis. Led by a fiery young man with the face of a handsome prophet, Juhaiman al-Utaybi. His brother in law, Muhammad Abdullah al-Qahtani was proclaimed the Mahdi. Their aim: the overthrow of the House of Saud, guilty of corruption and consorting with infidels. It took the authorities two weeks of fierce fighting to kill or flush out the rebels. Saudi rulers had to call in French commandoes to do the job (so vindicating Juhaiman’s claims, perhaps). The putative Mahdi died in the battle and Juhaiman was captured and later publicly beheaded.

The failed uprising put the fear of Mahdism into the Saudi rulers’ heart. Regardless of a key distinction. All Muslims believe in this messianic redeemer but the Sunni idea is different from the Shia’s. Sunni Muslims believe the Mahdi will be born one day but not yet. By contrast, the Shia’ contend that he was born many centuries ago, the twelfth Imam in a chain of direct descendants from the Prophet’s family. Later Imam al-Mahdi went into occultation, from which he will return to purify Islam, defeat its enemies and establish a universal rule of righteousness and peace, prior to the Last Days.

So, the unlucky Juhaiman and his failed Mahdi were Sunni Arabs, not Iranians. Despite their failure, memories of the episode must haunt the sleep of fat-cats like the Saudi Crown Prince and his lot. (Western leaders relying on the Saudi autocracy for oil and strategic interests might be a bit jittery, too.) It is easy to whip up anti-Iranian feelings amongst Arab Saudis - Iranians are a different race, as well as hated as heterodox – but what if other Sunnis, Arab or otherwise – sought to emulate Juhaiman’s daring exploits? Might they not succeed, maybe? Whose heads would then be gorily cut off by executioners in Mecca?

A would-be Sunni Mahdi also troubled the mighty British Empire. Muhammad Ahmad of Dongola, Sudan, rose up with a Dervish army against British-backed Egyptian rule. A Sufi mystic, he declared himself the Mahdi. Destroyed many troops sent against him and laid siege to Khartoum.  General Gordon, a strong evangelical Christian, bravely defended Khartoum but the Dervishes took the city and killed him. Gordon’s head was brought to the Mahdi who apparently deprecated the deed. Alas, the conqueror died of natural causes shortly afterwards. The British avenged Gordon years later at the battle of Omdurman, wiping out the Dervishes and throwing the Mahdi’s corpse into the Nile.

Serious Christians should resist pooh-poohing figures like the Mahdi as expressions of exotic, fanatical Middle-Eastern creeds. Because Christianity too awaits a deliverer – indeed the Deliverer par excellence, Jesus Christ. He ascended into Heaven after his Resurrection in AD 33. Belief in Christ’s return is proclaimed in the Creed and affirmed every time believers celebrate Holy Communion. ‘Oh, but that’s different!’ the uninstructed will rejoinder. ‘Christ does not come as a war-like figure but as a bringer of peace.’ Indeed. Yet, readers of the Book of Revelation should know that prelude to the Second Coming won’t be quite like a Vicarage Tea Party. ('The Day of the Lord will be darkness, not light', says the Prophet Amos.) And there have been many messianic movements in history who have caused much unrest amongst the comfortable elites – from the Reformation’s Anabaptists to the Boxers revolt in Imperial China.

Muslims too look forward to Nabi Issa - Prophet Jesus’ return. Islamic eschatology coheres to some extent with Christianity. Scholars like al-Tabari, al-Qurtubi and Shaltut even argue that Jesus’ birth from the Virgin Mary – affirmed in the Qur’an – is a proleptic sign of the Day of Judgment. But there are problems. Who will have priority in prayer? Hadiths in the Sunan Ibn Majah suggest that Jesus will pray behind the Mahdi, implying subordination. Given that the highest rank in Islam is that of a prophet, should it not be the other way around? In my Islamic Studies MA Dissertation I have discussed the knotty matter.

Christians should not forget that when the Second Coming takes place, it will be a cataclysmic, cosmos-shaking but also joyful event. Christ will surprise us all – as God is a God of surprises. So perhaps it is best not to be dogmatic about its precise character. After all, when Christ first came it shocked the Jewish religious establishment. They expected a Che Guevara-type of Messiah. A political and military liberator. A nationalist warrior. Instead, they got someone utterly different and it made them angry. So much that they insulted him and strove to have him crucified. Who knows whether even the Church won’t be mightily upset when Christ returns? Maybe that will be good…

The Saudi Crown Prince is right to fear the Mahdi’s arrival. But he should fear even more the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Because Christ is Lord over the whole world – even over Saudi Arabia.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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