Media in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia report that two Palestinians are on trial for working with Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and also for supporting “Daesh” (ISIS). Besides allegedly “planning terrorist activities during the upcoming Hajj,” “[o]ne of them has also been accused of claiming to be Al-Mahdi.” Furthermore, “[t]he Mahdi claimant has also been accused of using illegal drugs, violating the Kingdom’s laws by overstaying after Hajj and giving false information about himself.” (This version of the story, dated yesterday, is up at riyadhvision.com.sa. The one at arabnews.com originally was exactly the same–but today the information about the Mahdi claimant has been edited out.)
For anyone unfamiliar with Islamic eschatology, the Mahdi is the “divinely-guided one” described in hadiths (alleged sayings of Islam’s founder Muhammad)–not in the Qur’an–who will appear before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim via both conversion and conquest. Dozens of major, and hundreds of minor, Muslim personalities have claimed to be the Mahdi over the last 14 centuries–as I discuss in two books on the subject: Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads, and Osama Bin Laden (2005) and Ten Years Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps: Essays on Muslim Eschatology, 2005-2015 (2015). And this doctrine is not some arcane one, limited only to the fringes of Islam: hundreds of millions of Muslims, Sunni as well as Twelver Shi`i, profess belief in the coming of the Mahdi.
Smoke is always rising from…Mecca. At least when it’s under apocalyptic assault. (Wikipedia, public domain).
Many Muslim rulers are wary, to put it mildly, of Mahdism because the doctrine has been the motivation for many of the most violent jihads in history–many, if not most, of them rebellions directed at extant Islamic authorities. The Saudis, in particular, detest Mahdist manifestations because one of them almost overthrew the House of Saud in 1979.
Any hint of Mahdism–however deluded the person claiming it might be–causes the royal family major thawb bunching, since only Allah knows whether such might herald another Juhayman al-Utaybi, who along with his brother-in-law, the Mahdi claimant Muhammad al-Qahtani and a legion of followers, took over Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 for several weeks. The obvious vacillation over reporting the Mahdist dimension of this trial is evidence of that–but, I suspect, also demonstrates that one of the accused did indeed make such a claim, because it’s extremely doubtful that Saudi authorities would inject this element simply to highlight ISIS’ actual apocalyptic aspects.
Portrait of a failed Mahdi: Juhayman al-Utaybi, before his beheading in Jan. 1980. (Wikipedia, public domain).
In addition, the charge that Palestinians are spying for Israel has several dimensions. The Saudis’ historical support for the former over against the latter seems to be waning with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman [MbS], who just recently told the Palestinians to either negotiate with the Jewish state or “shut up and stop complaining.” Bin Salman has also been moving the Kingdom toward cooperation, if not quite alliance, with Israel over against what both of them consider the greater threat: the militantly-Shi`i Islamic Republic of Iran. So arresting two Palestinians on charges of helping Israel might represent both a warning shot to the former and an olive branch vis-a-vis Saudis who blanch at rapproachement with the “Zionists,” insofar as it implies that the Israelis are, if not stirring, at least spicing the ISIS pot.
Finally: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent public announcement that Iran had been lying about not trying to develop nuclear weapons (sure to overjoy the Saudis–or at least the supporters of MbS) was based on a massive trove of documents which Mossad stole out from under the ayatollahs’ noses in Tehran. But of course if the Mahdi, now revealed to be a Palestinian Arab Sunni and not a Persian Twelver Shi`i, was working with Israeli intelligence–it all now makes sense!
More seriously: traditional Islamic eschatology, both Sunni and Twelver Shi`i, says that the Mahdi and the returned prophet Muslim Jesus will join forces to defeat the Dajjal, “Deceiver,” and his minions of unbelief (non-Muslims). Modern Sunni books often add that the Shia Mahdi will in reality be this very Dajjal, while books by the Shia make the same exact claim about the Mahdi whom the Sunnis will follow. Sunni exegetes may have the upper hand, however, as they can point to hadiths to the effect that the false Shia Mahdi–really the Dajjal–will have as his main body of supporters “70,000 Jews from Isfahan.”
Eschatological prognostication, contra what many journalists maintain, is not only–or even primarily–the province of American Evangelical Protestants; based on my two decades of study, it’s far more prevalent in the Islamic world. And Muslim eschatologists add a strong element of conspiracy theorizing, which usually blames “the Jews”–sometimes aided by their Christian, “Crusader” allies–for any negative development in the ummah, whether real or perceived. There were Muslims who claimed that the US invaded Iraq in 2003 in order to track down and stymie the Mahdi. So you can be sure that linking Mossad with the Mahdi was not done by accident–whether MbS approved or not.
My shelf of Arabic books on the Mahdi, Dajjal, etc. Don’t wait for the movies!