Back in 2011 few analysts fully expected Salafist and jihadist groups to contest Libya’s post-Gaddafi order. Yet even fewer foresaw Mahdism (Islamic messianism) in Libya’s future. Yet with the overtly eschatological group “Islamic State” (ISIS or ISIL) now ensconced there, we should expect the organization to draw legitimacy from North Africa’s long history of such movements and further exacerbate the struggle for power in the name of Islam in the region.
Belief in al-Mahdi, the “rightly-guided” one whom, according to Islamic hadiths (sayings of Muhammad’s), Allah will send before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim—helped by his returned prophetic friend `Isa, Jesus—is a staple not just of Twelver Shia but Sunni belief. According to 2012 Pew data, over 40 percent of Muslims worldwide expect the Mahdi to come in this lifetime. Movements led by a man claiming to be this Mahdi have occurred many times over the last millennium; perhaps the best-known were those of the Sudanese Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad and, more recently, the 1979 failed attempt to overthrow Saudi Arabia’s rulers, led by Juhayman al-`Utaybi who claimed his brother-in-law, Muhammad al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi. ISIS, which names its primary magazine Dabiq after a hadith about the site of the predicted eschatological denouncement and obsesses about the topic, is but the latest in this long line of such groups.
Africa, and the Maghrib in particular, have seen many eschatological Islamic movements. Ibn Tumart of the medieval Maghrib was perhaps the most successful Sunni Mahdi claimant of all time, creating the al-Muwahhid (Almohad) empire. Abd Allah Hassan, the early 20th c. “Mad Mullah” of Somalia was, along with the aforementioned Muhammad Ahmad, an eastern African Mahdi. In the Magrheb, men who took up the messianic mantle included the 17th c. Abu Mahallah and 19th c. Muhammad Amzian—both of whom fought against European invaders. Africa also saw several powerful and successful apocalyptic-tinged, Sufi jihads whose leaders fell short of proclaiming their Mahdiyah, but had it claimed for them by their followers: one led by Usman don Fodio in the early 19th c. which created the Sokoto Caliphate in what is now Nigeria; and the Sanusi tariqah (“order”) one created by Muhammad b. Ali al-Sanusi (d. 1859) in Cyrenaica (modern eastern Libya).
The Sanusis pushed a typical mystical (especially saint veneration) agenda predicated, at the same time, on study of Qur’an and hadiths within zawiyahs: walled fortress-compounds containing mosque, madrasah, living quarters and carvanserai, often located at an oasis. Al-Sanusi’s mystical transnational Islam—nearly 150 Sanusi zawiyahs existed, from the Egyptian border to Timbuktu—was presented as an alternative to the Ottoman Empire’s bureaucratic establishment one and won great adherence among the people of the Sahara. Many even thought he was the Mahdi. After World War I the Sanusis led the nationalist Cyrenaican, later Libyan, fight against the occupying Italians. This segued into Sanusi assistance for the British in World War II against the Axis, and when Libya was formally created by fusing Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan in 1951 the head of the Sanusi order, Idris al-Sanusi, became King—only to be overthrown by Muammar al-Qadhafi in 1969.
Throughout most of his reign, al-Qaddafi suppressed the Sanusis as well as the Salafists on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum of Sunni Islam. This suppression took place within the context of Qaddafi’s “Green Book” Islam: “desert democracy” wedded to his idiosyncratic brand of Qur’anic socialism. By 2010-2011, however, al-Qadhafi re-allowed Sanusi Sufism, seeing it as a valuable ally against the hardline Islamists. This move, however, came too little, too late to save the Colonel. And although Sufis like the Sanusis and militant Salafists such as ISIS generally despise one another, they do share a belief in the Mahdi.
ISIS may have lost control of Derna, but it stubbornly holds on in Sirte despite the best efforts of the Government of National Accord (GNA) forces; and there is no sign that, even if that comes to pass, either the GNA’s Libya Dawn forces in the west, or General Khalifa Haftar’s Dignity army in the east will be able to entirely eradicate ISIS from Libya any time soon. Even if ISIS does not relocate command and control of its caliphate to Libya, the organization will remain active in certain areas of the country, hoping to stitch together its mubaya`at (Arabic for “taking hand” or “allegiance”) in neighboring Algeria and Egypt into a caliphal, if not Mahdist, Maghribi cloak. The Sanusis may be the only ideological force that can stand in ISIS’s way in Libya. Of course, this is ironic given that Sufi order’s eschatological predilections have helped pave the way for acceptance of ISIS among some Libyans.
So far, ISIS has reached the second stage of Mahdist state-building in Libya. The first is eschatological propaganda undermining an extant regime and the second is formation of a renegade militant theocracy that attempts to seize power. ISIS in Syria and Iraq has of course attained the third level: creation of a territorial state that hopes to hotwire the apocalypse and cause the Mahdi to come and crush his “infidel” enemies. Preventing ISIS from doing the same in north central Africa will require not just kinetic opposition but winning hearts and minds away from it and al-Qaeda, which shares an eschatological mindset, albeit less severe. Both the GNA and Haftar would be wise to enlist the Mahdist, but anti-apocalyptic, Sanusis in this struggle.
*Dr. Timothy Furnish has served the U.S. 101st Airborne as Arabic Interrogator, and then as Chaplain. His former academic positions include Assistant Professor at Georgia Perimeter College, where he taught for 7 years, and Guest Lecturer at the Joint Special Operations University for 2 years. For the past three years, Dr. Furnish has worked as a geopolitical analyst for Jacobs Technology, specializing in transnational Islamic movements, Islamic sects, and comparative religion. Concurrently, he works as researcher and author on Mahdism (Islamic messianism), Islamic eschatology (End of Time beliefs), Christian-Muslim relations, Islamic warfare and jihadist ideology. Dr. Furnish has almost three decades of education and experience in the history, religion, culture, politics and geo-politics of the Islamic world. His stated professional goal is to shed light on and pose real-world-based solutions to vexing issues of national and civilizational security and religious persecution.
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