The radicalization of Iraqi politics that has contributed to the current crisis in the country can be better understood with an appreciation of the role of Islamic messianism, especially among Iraqi Shiites. This trend may even be more prominent, because if there is a battle for Baghdad, it will be fought along religious and sectarian lines.
The advent of saviors is one of the salient features of all Abrahamic religions, and is an idea that manifested itself differently in all three of those religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This idea grows and evolves throughout history, usually as a result of harsh social and political circumstances that drove people into seeking divine intervention from a heavenly emissary that would restore the tide of history back onto the righteous path.
In Islam, the concept of a savior appeared in the form of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren named Mahdi, who would return at the end of times to save the world. The Shiites are not the only sect who believe in the Mahdi (the Guided One), for Sunnis also have similar — yet slightly different — beliefs that led to Sunni models of Mahdism. The latter includes the Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi movement (Al-Mahdiyya), which was established in Sudan in the 19th century, and the Juhayman al-Otaibi movement in Saudi Arabia, which occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks in 1979.
Mahdism garners greater acceptance and attraction in Iraq, where the social, political and economic tragedies that have befallen the country for a long time have led people to despair and seek solace in mythological solutions that promise salvation from widespread corruption and injustices. The Salafist tendencies that have permeated Shiite society in the past decades have strengthened the appeal of Mahdism in those societies and confirmed the imminent arrival of the Mahdi — a momentous event that those movements consider themselves responsible for paving the way for. Among the most prominent examples of this undertaking is the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which built its state on the basis that it represents the Mahdi, with the supreme leader who serves as deputy to the Mahdi, thus paving the way for the latter’s arrival.
In Iraq specifically, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, played a major role in reviving the idea of the Mahdi within Shiite society. Toward that end, Sadr wrote three large tomes that revolved around the concept of the Mahdi’s advent, imbuing them with modern details in the context of general political and military analyses that confirmed the arrival of the Mahdi as being imminent. The publishing of these tomes coincided with Sadr opening the doors of his religious school to large numbers of young people who came from southern provinces to study in Najaf, having grown despondent about the miserable political and economic situation that prevailed during the 1990s. The result was the emergence of a great potential to enshrine the Mahdist idea among Sadr’s pupils in subsequent years.
Notable among Mahdists is their anti-traditional view of religious schools, which can also be attributed to Sadr, who established the concept of a “vocal” Shiite seminary, instead of a silent one. He aimed to critique traditional religious schools that did not interfere in political affairs, and thus digressed from the true teachings of Shiism. This means that Sadr succeeded in merging Mahdist ideology with political Shiism and producing a dangerous form of Shiite Salafism, the consequences of which prominently took center stage after 2003.
The first of these consequences was the emergence of the Soldiers of Heaven, established by Diyaa Abdul Zahra al-Karaawi, who endowed himself with the title of “Heaven’s Judge.” Karaawi belonged to the Sadrist school of thought and claimed, in the 1990s, to be affiliated with Imam Mahdi, when he began developing his ideals during many travels to Iran and other countries. He also penned a book titled "Heaven’s Judge," in which he claimed to be the direct son of Imam Ali, who miraculously traveled in time to the present day in the sense that the sperm of Imam Ali had been safely kept to be transferred to his mother. Beginning in 2003, Karaawi managed to attract many followers until his became a dangerous movement, establishing camps to train an army to prepare the world for the Mahdi’s resurrection. His initial plans included killing the grand Shiite authorities of Najaf for the negative role that they played in Shiite society, in keeping with the Sadrist idea of a nonsilent religious school of thought. Karaawi and his followers were killed in a major engagement with Iraqi forces backed by US troops in January 2007.
Concurrently, a man by the name of Ahmad Ismail Kateh established a Mahdist movement built on the premise that there were 12 Mahdis and not just one, and that he was one of those 12 and a grandson of Shiism’s famous Mahdi. Kateh succeeded in gaining many followers in Iraq and Iran as well. He leaned toward espousing cultural, rather than confrontational, ideals to avert the same fate suffered by the Heaven’s Judge. Despite that, his followers and the Iraqi government clashed on many occasions. He ultimately disappeared, and his representatives in major Iraqi Shiite cities — such as Karbala, Najaf and Basra — began making propaganda for him in religious schools known as the seminaries for supporters of Imam Mahdi.
A third Sadrist-inspired movement emerged, in which leaders did not outwardly claim to be the Mahdi, though they did resort to religious symbols that implied Mahdism. Most prominent among them was Mahmoud al-Hassani, also known as al-Sarkhi, who currently lives in Karbala, southwest of Baghdad. It is worth noting that “Sayyed al-Hassani” refers to a main personage in Shiite lore expected to pave the way for the Mahdi’s return.
Wide-ranging disagreements have now emerged between the latter two types of movements, leading to violent protests by both sides on May 15. The atmosphere remains charged between the two movements in many Shiite cities such as Karbala, Basra, Diwaniyah, Al Kout and others.
The Iraqi Shiite community still possesses great potential for the emergence of Mahdist movements, as a result of the difficult security and living conditions, the decrepit educational system — which fails to develop Iraqis' rational thinking — in addition to the spread of ignorance, and the varied social and economic problems that continue to plague the country.