By M Aamer Sarfraz
03 Oct 2014
Recent events in Islamabad have highlighted once again how desperately we await a messiah to come and sort out all our problems. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad eloquently put together two possible and inter-linked reasons for our national psyche in his famous book ‘India Wins Freedom’. He had predicted that religion alone would not be able to hold two distant parts of the new country together and that Pakistan would continue to be marred by political unrest because people in West Pakistan never struggled or made sacrifices for the country they got on a plate.
Our national search for a messiah started with Ayub Khan and currently rests with Imran Khan. The latter has something to shout about but what exactly is Mr Tahir ul Qadri doing there? How does he fit into this jigsaw puzzle? If we look deeper into history, all nations and peoples have suffered religious adventurism at one or the stage in their national or communal lives. Some have since moved on by separating the state from the religion while others remain stuck. Muslims seem to have a particular issue with the notion of a saviour or messiah, possibly due to a steady global decline in their socioeconomic and political capital, as they continue to live through this conceptual nightmare.
The messiah complex is a symptom in which people who suffer believe that a certain mission is chosen for them and that they have to fulfil it at any cost. They do not realize that God may have other people He can use to carry out difficult missions. They have a tendency to make and believe in their own publicity, often feeling as if they have a direct line to the heaven. This complex is usually the result of an inferiority complex and the related low self-esteem. Such individuals are always out to ‘prove’ themselves and are prepared to ‘die for the cause’. They confuse their social or religious status as a path to Godliness (narcissism!) instead of the fruit of Godliness. This symptom may or may not be a part of a full blown psychiatric disorder, as up to 10% of the normal population may hold this belief for themselves. Prominent religious examples include Jim Jones who led 909 of his followers to a mass suicide in Guyana (1978), and David Koresh who repeated the same feat with 75 followers in Texas (1993).
Muslim religious adventurers have used different masquerades to epitomise the concept of a messiah; the most popular among those has proved to be the Mahdi. The Mahdi is supposed to be a Muslim saviour who would appear and rule the world for a period before the end of times and get rid of the evil. This concept starts getting complicated from there on because the variety of Sunni and Shiite traditions take a diverging course. The basic Sunni concept is that of the Mahdi of the Prophet’s (PBUH) lineage appearing at a time of great strife when Hajis get looted, fighting breaks over the mountain of gold in Euphrates and a tyrant is ruling in Syria, etc. The Shiite tradition claims that the Mahdi was born in as Muhammad ibn Hasan (12th Imam) but disappeared at the age of five. He would reappear after red (violence) and white (plague) deaths kill two thirds of the world population, various figures including Antichrist (Dajjal) are here, and conflict and violence in Syria and Iraq is rife, etc.
Throughout history, the belief and then appearance of the Mahdi has received a new emphasis as it coincided with times of crisis for the Muslims. The Quran does not mention the Mahdi and almost no reliable Hadith concerning him can be established. Many orthodox Sunni theologians have, therefore, questioned Mahdist beliefs. Among Shiite, Zaidis and Ismailis reject this concept, but Mahdist beliefs are an essential part of the twelve Shiite doctrine. Modern scholars including Imdadi, Kandhalvi and Parwez reject this doctrine while Maududi twists it to propose a figure that would be a religious reformer only and may be declared a Mahdi posthumously. Javed Ghamidi rejects the authenticity of the Hadith this concept is based on and describes how some narratives fit the caliph, Umar bin Abdul Aziz (RA). He does not believe there is any need to wait for any Mahdi.
The Muslim world has been in a crisis since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. This has revived calls for the establishment of Khilafah among certain quarters, and others in Pakistan started re-visiting signs for the appearance of the Mahdi. As I write these words, air strikes have started and an international force ‘led’ by at least 10 Muslim states is being cobbled together to take out the latest Mahdi and his followers in Iraq. Mr Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State (IS) with a reward of $10 million for information leading to his capture or death. He is reported to have a university degree and has risen through the ranks of Al Qaeda affiliated militant outfits spending some time as a prisoner of the American forces in Iraq along the way. The particulars in the rest of his CV are murky, as on one hand he was affiliated and then broke away from Al Qaeda and on the other he was supported by the West through ‘technical assistance’ to fight the Assad regime until he went rogue. The jury is out on whether he is a stooge on his way to carve out a Sunni state between Iraq and Syria or is someone suffering from a messiah complex inching closer to his and his followers’ demise each day.
All known religions are waiting for ‘the one’ who would take them back to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. The Hindus are excepting a Kalanki Autaar; the Buddhists are waiting for Matiyaa Autaar; the Jains are expecting the last Mahaweer; the Zoroastrians look forward to a Mateera; the Jews anticipate the advent of a final Israeli prophet and the Christians look out for the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ. Each of them is supposed to come in the same time period (close to the end of the world) and prevail over all other religions and make his own faith supreme. I am finding it hard to imagine the scenario and its aftermath in which all of them actually arrive at the same time.
Magian culture suffered repeated breakdown and restoration of its communities while experiencing religious adventurism until Islam emancipated the mankind from this morbid anxiety through belief in the Finality of Prophethood. Allama Iqbal considered these concepts to be alien to the soul of Islam.
Mr al-Baghdadi and Mr Qadri started raising their heads to fulfil their relevant missions in 2012. One is ahead of schedule and has raised panic alarms and the other is lagging behind having a second bite at the cherry. The lesson from history is that the Mahdis who worked with the establishment, eventually died peacefully in their sleep after reasonably successful campaigns and a lasting ‘legacy’ – the others who went rogue were crushed along with their progeny.
M Aamer Sarfraz is a consultant psychiatrist and a senior research fellow based in London