Having spent the previous three months immersed in how the Ottoman Empire dealt with rebels, to include apocalyptic ones, I now return to examining such movements in the modern world. One comes from Bangladesh, where a certain Mustak Muhammad Arman Khan has claimed to be the Mahdi. Or at least that is according to the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. Khan (insert Captain Kirk scene here) has been “claiming that he is a descendant of prophet Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh) and that he has been nominated as Imam Mahdi in a dream….” He is said to have moved to Saudi Arabia in 2016, and that he “has served as the leaders of various organizations including [Ansar] Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) where he was previously a soldier.” Back in May of this year the CTTC had arrested 17 members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), who “were trying to travel to Saudi Arabia to meet Mahadi [sic].” They were “inspired by his ideals” and “preparing to serve under him.”
Khan is a graduate of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. His videos are available in English and Bengali. The former lays out the usual Salafi litany of woes befalling the Muslim world, and blames most of them on the West. The latter, as near as I can ascertain from the visuals–which include the Qur’an and the written notes in Arabic–seems to take a numerological exegetical approach to the eschatological passages in the former. In neither video did I hear or read any overt claim by Khan to be the Mahdi, however. As for the two groups with which he is allegedly connected: AGH (“Helpers of the Battle of India”) is an apocalyptic-leaning jihadist group, affiliated with al-Qa`idah and the Taliban, which operates primarily in Kashmir; JMB (“Assembly of Muhajidin–Bangladesh”) is a 10,000-man strong jihadist organization that has been killing people in the name of an Islamic state since the early 21st century. It may be that the Dhaka authorities are simply trying to implicate Khan by association, in order to extradite and arrest him. But if seasoned terrorists from one or both of these groups are indeed flocking to the banner of this self-styled Mahdi, then not just South Asia and Saudi Arabia–but the whole world–has a major headache.
But an even bigger potential eschatological problem is brewing in NATO member Turkey. In January of this year, “the founder of Turkey’s influential government-linked private security firm SADAT…resigned from his role as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s adviser weeks after telling an audience…that his company was paving the way for the coming of the Mahdi….” Adnan Tanriverdi is a retired Turkish Army Brigadier General who heads up SADAT, a Turkish military “consulting” group that fills in for the Republic’s actual military in certain foreign operations and training roles. It has been described as the President’s “shadow army.” Another source reported that Tanriverdi, whose speech was delivered at the Islamic Union Congress meeting in Istanbul in December 2019, called for a “union of Muslim states,” as well–a theme that was also pushed by keynote speaker Ali Erbaş, head of Turkey’s Diyanet (religious affairs department). And of course the Turkish participants argue that their President should head up such a Union. The conference is sponsored by a quasi-governmental organization headed by Tanriverdi, called ASSAM–which in Turkish is an acronym for “Strategic Research Center for Defenders of Justice.”
Back in 2013 I wrote an essay on how someone claiming to be the Mahdi might actually take power in the Sunni world. (It’s in my book Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdis’ Camps, pp. 76-83.) I posited that a self-styled Mahdi, in order to pose a viable political threat, would have to gain the support of a major transnational Islamic organization: the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir or Tablighi Jama`at. We can add the Turkish-dominated Islamic Union Congress to those possible platforms.
This Turkish movement is far more serious than a deluded Bangladeshi to whom a handful of jihadists have sworn loyalty. Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO, enormous cachet in the Dar al-Islam as the heir to the Ottoman Empire, and the largest non-petro-dollar empowered economy in the Middle East. At least one of Erdoğan’s Ottoman predecessors had Mahdist aspirations. “Süleyman very likely believed, at least until his last years, in his own messianic identity.” Such a figure can be either “the protector of right religion” or “the messianic general who extends its sway over the whole earth” (Cornell H. Fleischer, “Mahdi and Millennium: Messianic Dimensions in the Development of Ottoman Imperial Ideology,” in Ottoman Philosophy, Science and Institutions (Ankara: Yeni Türkiye, 2000), pp. 49, 51). Perhaps the Turkish President sees himself as (merely) the protector of Islam–but what if his advisors convince him he’s the End of Times Muslim warlord? Tanriverdi was forced out of his public role–but was that because of disagreement with his stated eschatological beliefs, or because he simply jumped the gun in revealing them? According to Pew data, 68% of Turks expect the Mahdi to come in their current lifetime; only Afghans and Iraqis believe that at a higher rate (and the latter are Twelver Shi`is, for whom that belief is central).
It might well be that “religious faith in the ‘Mahdi’ could bring catastrophe to Turkey“–but not before bringing the same to the Middle East, and perhaps the entire world.