The return of Sunni Messianism

In January, the Turkish media reported the sudden resignation of Adnan Tanriverdi, a close adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and member of the Presidency’s Security and Foreign Policy Committee. Mr. Tanriverdi was facing a backlash for his messianic prognostications about the impending advent of the mahdi (divine redeemer), and the announcement that his private security company, the SADAT International Defence Consultancy, was preparing “a suitable environment” for the mahdi to establish Pan-Islamic unity.

This development could have been ignored as an inconsequential occurrence in Turkish politics had Hagia Sophia not been converted into a mosque or had Mr. Tanriverdi not revealed his plans for the creation of a “Confederal Republic” of Muslim-majority countries which were announced in November 2017 during the first International Islamic Union Congress held in Istanbul under the aegis of SADAT’s sister organisation, the Association of Justice Defenders Strategic Studies Center (ASSAM).

Editorial | Museum to mosque: On Hagia Sophia

A single political entity

The ASSAM Congress is an annual event which seeks to unify 61 Muslim nations in a single political entity called ASRICA (from Asia-Africa) and bring them under the leadership of Turkey without altering their “national borders and structures”. Constitutionally, ASRICA will have a Shariah-based presidential form of government with Istanbul as its capital. On assuming office the Asrican President shall swear “before the great Quran” that he will “safeguard the Islamic Unity”, “remain loyal to Qur’an and Sunnas”, and introduce only such laws that are deemed suitable by a supreme religious body called the High Council of Religious Affairs.

But more worrying is the fact that the confederation is underpinned by an objectionable new neo-Ottomanism which benchmarks it against a romanticised notion of the Ottoman Empire and imagines a civilisational clash for political supremacy between the Christian West and the Islamic East. Put differently, Asrica’s raison d’être is the fear that western nations, taking advantage of the Muslims’ loss of authority after the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate, intend “to take over the Islamic geography” through asymmetrical wars using “terrorist organisations under their control”.

It is in the backdrop of these portentous developments that Mr. Tanriverdi’s mahdism assumes significance. In Sunni apocalyptic literature, the mahdi is a divinely guided saviour who will appear shortly before the end of the world to save it from evil. Although Mr. Tanriverdi did not claim to see a mahdi in Mr. Erdogan, the allusion was unmistakable.

Comment | Re-conquering Constantinople

Mr. Erdogan himself has for long been harbouring hopes of being recognised as the rightful potentate of an Ottomanic Republic which in his view is solely capable of leading the Muslim world. For him, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is not just a reversal of a Kemalist decree, but a watershed in Islamic history foretokening the establishment of a powerful league of Muslim nations to take on the West. Indeed, conservation architect Pinar Aikac’s research reveals that not long ago four other Hagia Sophias were converted into mosques in different parts of Turkey, not to mention last week’s mosquification of the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora.

Mr. Erdogan’s address to the nation on July 10 provides a stunning insight into this grand narrative of Muslim redemptionism. In this atavistic speech, delivered on the day he signed a decree annulling Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, Mr. Erdogan can be seen panegyrising the 1453 conquest of Constantinople and the seizure of Hagia Sophia as being among “the most glorious chapters in Turkish history”. He likened himself, with megalomaniacal relish, to “the Fatih” (Sultan Mehmed) and termed the reconversion of Hagia Sophia as the “second conquest” and a “new resurrection” that symbolises “the re-rise of our [Muslim] civilisation’s sun” and heralds the liberation of Al Aqsa mosque.

Delusions of grandeur

For two reasons it would be unwise to see this vulgar display of triumphalism merely as Mr. Erdogan’s desperate attempt to hold on to power. First, even if a smaller Asrican alliance comes into existence, say with just 20 countries, it will polarise the Muslim world into opposing camps and pit the confederacy against countries that have not joined it. Second, if as proposed a full 61-member theocratic bloc really does emerge (despite the bad blood the UAE-Israel deal has caused) it will keep the Muslims in a state of permanent conflict with the rest of the world, especially the West.

An indication of it is Mr. Erdogan’s provocative promise to liberate the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem which appears to have been made in the full knowledge that Semitic religions see Jerusalem as the eschatological theatre of Armageddon, a climactic confrontation between good and evil.

In Jewish apocalyptism, Armageddon is preluded by the arrival of a redemptive moshiach (messiah) who will restore the Davidic kingship, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and herald a Messianic Age of universal peace. With equal zeal Christian Chiliasm awaits the second coming of Jesus on Mount Olivet in Jerusalem to inaugurate and lead a 1000-year rule of “priests of God and of Christ”. Sunni Muslims too are expecting a mahdi to appear just before the descent of prophet Jesus on a Damascene minaret and help him establish Islamic rule worldwide. It is this cataclysmic intersection of theologically volatile narratives that Turkey’s pan-Islamists seek to exploit.

Watch | Turkey turns iconic museum Hagia Sophia into mosque

However, Muslims must realise that eschatological prophesies attributed to the Prophet have been part of their messianic mythos since the Second Fitna (680-692 CE), the armed struggle against the early Umayyad Caliphate. Their authenticity is suspect because the Prophet had already been made to say: “I do not know what will be done with me or with you” (Quran 46:9). Besides, Islam teaches that humans lack divinatory powers and only God knows the unseen (ghaib).

According to researchers Wilferd Madelung and Mehdy Shaddel, apocalyptic traditions were ex post facto compositions fabricated to justify the claim of rival claimants to the Caliphate during Umayyad times. The celebrated historian, Ibn Khaldun, rejected all hadiths on mahdi and the second coming of Christ. He was backed by the philosopher-poet, Muhammad Iqbal, whose iconoclastic couplet found in his unpublished work, Baaqiyaat-e-sher-e-Iqbal advised Muslims: Meenaar-e-dil pe apne khuda ka nuzool dekh / Yeh intizaar-e-mahdi-o-eesa bhi chod de (Witness the descent of God on the minaret of your heart / Give up this wait for mahdi and Jesus). Given this reality, if the global Muslim community allows itself to be manipulated by Mr. Erdogan’s chimeric ambitions and delusions of grandeur it may unwittingly end up participating in its own political downfall.

A. Faizur Rahman is an independent researcher and Secretary General of Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought. Email:

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 9:20:33 AM |

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