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Ask the Expert: Dr. Timothy R. Furnish on Mahdism in Africa

May 7, 2013

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Ask the Expert: Dr. Timothy R. Furnish on Mahdism in Africa

May 7, 2013 

1. What is Madism in Islam and why is it important?
Mahdism is the belief in al-Mahdi, “the rightly/divinely-guided one” who will come before the end of time, along with the returned prophet `Isa, Jesus, to make the entire world Muslim (via conquest, persuasion–or both). This is according to hadiths, “sayings” attributed to Muhammad (in the Sunni view) and to the Imams (in the Twelver Shi`i view). It is important because Islamic history is rife with individuals claiming to be the Mahdi and leading, often, bloody rebellions or revolutions against established states (usually Islamic ones); prominent examples include Ibn Tumart and the al-Muwahhidun (“Almohads”) in the medieval Maghrib; Shah Isma’il and the Safavids, who forcibly converted Iran to Twelver Shi`ism starting in 1501; the Sudanese Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, who took over that country in 1885 and ended the career–and life–of General Charles Gordon; and the abortive Mahdist movement in Saudi Arabia, 1979, led by Juhayman al-Utaybi in the name of the Mahdi Muhammad al-Qahtani.

2. What defines Mahdist movements and groups from other Islamic movements and groups?
They are defined, first and foremost, by a charismatic leader claiming to be this eschatological figure and by followers who accept this claim. Mahdist movements tend to emerge from Sufi milieux, as the mystical orders are prone to both producing charismatic shaykhs, and also provide a ready-made cadre of followers/soldiers. What sets them apart from more conventional Islamic groups is their absolute certainty that they are preparing the world (or at least their part of it, initially) for eschatological time–which does not mean the destruction of the world but, rather, its total conversion (or at least submission) to Islamic rule and norms. And since the Mahdi is, by definition, Allah’s appointed ruler, he is free to interpret Qur’an, Hadith and shari`a as he sees fit, disregarding any previous ijma`, or scholarly Muslim “consensus.” This means the Mahdi has, in effect, no brakes on his behaviour other than his own intellect, personality and piety.

3. Have there been Mahdist movements or groups active in Africa? If so, please describe its activities?
Historically, Mahdism has been very prominent in Africa, particularly in the past several centuries. Shaykh Usman don Fodio (d. 1817), a shaykh of three different tariqat, founded the Sokoto Caliphate prior to British conquest and was thought by many Hausa to be the Mahdi–although he never claimed, openly, to be more than a mujaddid, “renewer” of Islam. Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi (d. 1902) was deemed by many adherents of the Sanusi order to be the Mahdi. The jihad of Salihi Shaykh Muhammad b. Abd Allah Hassan (d. 1920), of Somaliland, against the British and Italians led many to consider him the Mahdi. And of course, there is the aforementioned Muhammad Ahmad, immortalized in the 1966 film Khatroum. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Nigerian group Yan Tatsien or Maitatsine can certainly be labelled a Mahdist one, since its founder Muhammad Marwa Maitatsine (d. 1980) was thought by his followers–and perhaps by himself–to be the Mahdi. After his demise his disciple Musa Makiniki led the group until his arrest in 2004. The current violent Islamic group Boko Haram, in northern Nigeria, is considered by some to either be an offshoot of, or heavily influenced by, Maitatsine. Considering the great percentages of adherence to Sufism in sub-Saharan Africa (huge minorities in Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon; over half in Chad; almost all in Senegal), and the nexus between Sufism and Mahdism, Mahdist claims in Africa are to be expected going forward.

4. Is Mahdism an important aspect of Islam in Africa?
Yes, because as aforementioned the great numbers and influences of Sufis and Sufism in Africa–particularly (but not only) sub-Saharan parts of the continent–have tended to produce, in the past, jihads and/or Mahdism. Ironically, in the last several decades, Sufis and Mahdists have tended to coalesce around joint opposition to Salafis, who are seen as foreign in terms of being primarly Arab, and in terms of promoting a brand of Islam that is “unAfrican” in its intolerance for non-Muslims and for Muslim mystical spirituality. However, Sufis, while peaceful, are not pacifist and have not only waged jihad in the past but are doing so currently–most notably, in Africa, the Sufi organization Ahl al-Sunna wa-al-Jama`a in Somalia, which has been battling the Salafi, al-Qa`ida-oriented al-Shabab for several years in Somalia. Mahdism, in Africa and elsewhere in the umma, could quite plausibly emerge again–even in a violent form–out of these Sufi contexts.

4 Comments
  1. The true Mahdi, rightly or divinely guided one is the word of God. The world will willingly accept Islam, but only after Islam is cleansed; for Islam means total submission to the will of God. There is a lot of disinformation about the Bible, the Qur’an and other holy books; some of it is intentional to cause divisions for evil purposes. All holy books guide to live according to the law of God. Qur’an and Bible make it clear that the Torah, Laws of Moses, are the laws of God. Qur’an says to judge by Torah. Jesus-Isa showed their true meaning, one of peace and power to those who follow fully dedicated to God in truth.

    The first indication of submission to God will be correcting the Sabbath day of no work. Exodus 20:8-11 says the 7th day, Saturday, is the day of no work. Qur’an “[62:9 or 62:10] O ye who believe! when the call is made for Prayer on Friday, hasten to the remembrance of Allah, and leave off all business. That is better for you, if you only knew.” They leave their Friday work day because the evening begins Sabbath of Saturday. Christianity also must accept correction; the Lord’s day is the Sabbath day, Saturday. Exodus 20:8-11. “10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God” Insist your employer give you Saturday off and you will see the glory of God happen quickly, though there may be resistance. Ma Salam

    • Dwb permalink

      What nonsense! There is no legitimate basis on which to reconcile Islam and Christianity. A primary tenant of Islam is that “God has no son”. No amount of theological hand holding will overcome this!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Dr. Furnish on Mahdism in Africa | Joel's Trumpet
  2. Mahdism in Africa // What is it and Why is it Important? | Frontier Alliance International

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