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Ashura in Iraq: Enter Mahdism?

By Reidar Visser (historiae.org)
29 January 2007

Violent ultra-radicals or the victims of agents provocateurs? Followers of Ahmad al-Hasan during a peaceful demonstration in Basra in August 2005

If press reports concerning the ongoing battle between armed militants and Iraqi government forces near Najaf are correct, this could mark a dramatic new development in the Iraq situation.

There have been several competing claims as to the identity of the militants. Most of these theories are comparatively unremarkable, suggesting that the fighters are either ultra-radical Sunnis (who have been engaged in this sort of activity for a long time) or splinter group Sadrists loyal to Mahmud al-Hasani (who have been involved in intra-Shiite violence earlier.) Ultimately, Mahmud al-Hasani represents a variation of the Sadrist phenomenon also seen in Muqtada al-Sadr and Muhammad al-Yaqubi – i.e. he claims to be the true custodian of the legacy of the late Muhammad al-Sadr (Sadr II), and he pays lip service to the orthodox view of the Shiite hierarchy in that he claims to be a mujtahid (a cleric who has the authority to interpret Islamic law).

If, on the other hand, reports concerning the involvement of Ahmad al-Hasan of Basra are correct, this would mean a qualitative change in the situation. In contrast to Sadr, Yaqubi and Hasani, Hasan represents full-blown Mahdism. His message is that he is the representative of the Mahdi – the Messiah-like figure whose appearance all Shiites yearn for, as a sign of the start of the apocalypse. Hasan believes that he possesses “divine authority” (wilaya ilahiyya) and is in a position to overrule the traditional Shiite clergy in any issue of jurisprudence. In another divergence from Sadr, Yaqubi and Hasani, he completely dismisses the concept of legal interpretation (ijtihad) and demands that in legal questions where the Koran is ambiguous, the faithful should refer to him as the sole source of emulation. In contrast to the Sadrist radicals, he uses his lack of scholarly training as decisive proof of his divine status (“How would I, a person without religious education, otherwise be able to disseminate Islamic knowledge?”)

To back up his claims to religious authority Hasan employs several Shiite traditions concerning the coming of the Mahdi – among them prophecies that an “Ahmad from Basra” will appear shortly before the Mahdi himself. Ahmad al-Hasan also says he is “the Yemenite” (al-yamani) described by many Islamic sources as a sign of the Mahdi’s imminent emergence, and resolves the apparent contradiction as regards his own Basra origins by claiming that Yemen extends into Hijaz and that all Arabs are in fact “Yemenis”. And to prove his point that the apocalypse is near, he refers to the appearance of the forces of evil in the shape of Dajjal – the deceiver – whose incarnations he identifies as the US military forces in Iraq as well as the leading establishment of the Shiite clergy (Hasan has been particularly critical of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani).

Hasan has been active in the south of Iraq, around Basra, Amara and Nasiriyya, since 2003, when he first declared his “revolt”. He has since been conspicuous in several clashes and disputations with small Sadrist splinter groups in that area. The traditional clergy have reportedly even accused him of links to the former regime. If it is indeed his followers that are currently fighting in such large numbers outside Najaf, this would mean that Mahdism has now entered Iraqi politics on a larger scale – with the inevitable evocation of past schismatic movements in Shiism similarly inspired at least to some extent by Mahdism, like Shaykhism and Babism, which for long periods during the nineteenth century created civil-war like conditions in Persia and the Ottoman provinces of Iraq.

UPDATE 30 January 2007

Claims and counterclaims as to the exact identity of the armed group in question continue to materialise. One piece of information that seems relevant is that one week ago, the group led by Ahmad al-Hasan publicly complained about severe harassment by local Najaf authorities – suggesting that there is a strong likelihood of at least some kind of involvement on their part, or perhaps on the part of a splinter group. If this interpretation is correct, the confusion surrounding the identity of the “leader” of the group may presumably be attributed to a special feature of the group’s ideology: Ahmad al-Hasan, who has been the leader of the group for several years, never claimed to be the Mahdi himself, but rather said he acted as his “representative” or “agent” (wasiy). In contrast, the “leader” killed at Najaf supposedly claimed to be the Mahdi, and this man, reportedly from the Middle Euphrates, must be distinguished from Ahmad al-Hasan. He may even have represented a breakaway faction in disagreement with the main branch on the question of the appearance of the Mahdi and its timing – this is certainly something Mahdists have been quarrelling over historically, and supporters of Ahmad al-Hasan have in the past used the name Ansar al-Imam al-Mahdi rather than any combination with jund or “army”, the appellation reportedly used by the Najaf unit now involved. (A different although not entirely incompatible version of events suggests that members of two major tribes in the area opposed to SCIRI hegemony in Najaf had been involved. Many of the radical Shiite splinter groups in Iraq increase their numbers of followers by attracting tribesmen from selected tribes or tribal sections, and the local authorities in Najaf, for their part, may have been interested in hyping the story to send a strong warning to Sadrists and other discontents.)

It can be expected that mainstream segments of the Shiite community will be quick to dismiss any unorthodox group for having links to “Baathists” and “foreign fighters”, and they may well produce exaggerated claims about the monstrosity of the aborted “plot”. (Admittedly though, the sheer firepower involved does suggest that something extraordinary was afoot.) This is a predicable strategy, frequently followed by the orthodox Shiite clergy in the past – for instance when they in the nineteenth century closed ranks against Shaykhi, Babi and Baha’i dissidents (all with various degrees of Messianic or Mahdist tendencies) and did not shy away from enlisting the support of the (Sunni) Ottoman government for this purpose. But Mahdist tendencies have been in evidence in southern Iraq for more than three years straight, and, far from being reducible to a conspiracy by Sunni militants, Ahmad al-Hasan’s group represents a point on a continuum from Shiite orthodoxy to Mahdism – a scale on which the various Sadrist groups (as well as supporters of Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad) also reside, albeit not quite as close to the Mahdist pole. Above all, this incident demonstrates the futility of a simplistic approach to Iraqi politics in which Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are considered as monolithic blocs that can be dealt with by establishing rapport with a few selected political elites, and where a tripartite formula is seen as the panacea that will bring an end to violence in Iraq. That kind of approach severely underestimates the degree of internal complexity for instance among the Shiites, and will in the long run entail the risk of creating even more violence.

UPDATE 31 January 2007

Ahmad al-Hasan’s group has now formally issued a statement describing the official Iraqi government accusations about their involvement in the Najaf incident as a defamation campaign. They say they disagree with the Najaf militants concerning their theories of the true identity of the Mahdi. At the same time, they confirm their own Mahdist theories and their belief in Ahmad al-Hasan as the true representative of the Mahdi. They repeat their leader’s intention to wage jihad against the US occupation, and condemn the clergy of Najaf and the Iraqi government for colluding with the Americans.

Their statement, along with the rumour that certain specific tribal groups were involved in the incident, contrasts strongly with the official Iraqi government explanation of what happened. The truth may well be somewhere in the middle. It would be rather reckless of the Iraqi government to concoct this story entirely from scratch. The presence in this very area of known supporters of Ahmad al-Hasan who one week ago loudly protested about highhandedness on the part of the local authorities means that the idea of an entirely separate, second Mahdist group – who just coincidentally shared the ideology and often the exact nomenclature of Ahmad al-Hasan’s Mahdists – also comes across as somewhat problematic. And the suggestion that the whole affair should be completely devoid of religious dimensions and political radicalism would seem strange given the intensity and scale of the fighting.

An alternative theory would be that a cell of Ahmad al-Hasan’s followers in a tribal area in Najaf (or a group loosely affiliated with him) had got into trouble with local authorities and had radicalised without their leader’s knowledge, possibly to the point where someone declared himself to be the Mahdi. After their failed uprising, it would be logical for the tribesmen as well as for the main branch of the movement to disclaim any connection with the religious aspect of the incident – and it would make sense for the government to talk up the affair, also with the aim of galvanising internal Shiite solidarity and thereby sending a signal to internal dissenters. It is however disconcerting (and indeed suspect) that no convincing account of events should be available almost a week after an incident that involved such a huge amount of Iraqi as well as American military power.


See also: related news story by Reuters, with a different angle here.


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