Men claiming to be the Messiah or the Mahdi – including Fethullah Gülen – are not a new phenomenon. Since the earliest decades of Islam, many have built a following around them, using charisma and exploiting societal and political upheaval to convince followers they are the promised saviors, and their community is destined to herald the final utopia before the current world ends. Faruk Yaslıçimen, Editor-in-Chief of The New Turkey, talked with Dr. Ahmet Yaşar Ocak, professor of History at TOBB University of Economics and Technology, about the striking commonalties between modern day "Messiahs" and the phenomenon seen throughout centuries. Prof. Ocak is a prominent historian with his numerous pioneering books and articles on Islamic heterodoxy and heterodox communities in the Ottoman Empire.
Prof. Ocak, you believe that there are common characteristics of Messianic movements in history. How far can we take this? Can you give us a few examples?
Messianic movements usually emerge under similar conditions and with similar characteristics. Historical trajectories both in the West and East attest to this. One should keep in mind that any attempt to understand such Messianic movements by focusing merely on ideology and theology would be incomplete. These movements are, indeed, the products of their time and political, social, economic, cultural, ideological as well as geographical factors play their roles. Messianism is actually a mentality that was largely created by these conditions.
I should emphasize that one should search for theological and political explanations only after studying the sociological and psychological dimensions of these movements and their leaders in detail.
Do you think Messianic movement can be categorized?
Well, actually it is possible to categorize these movements into two groups: in the first group, there are Messianic movements that result from political and economic strains. In the second group, we see such movements emerging out of political ambitions. Messianic movements are found not only in the Islamic world or in the pre-modern societies, but also today, in any part of the world. These movements are closely linked to several political, sociological, economic, and ideological factors and have many characteristics in common. To give but a few examples, almost all the leaders of the Messianic movements in history argued that the existing order was corrupt and the political leader was unjust and cruel. These Messianic figures claimed themselves as the creators of the fair and ideal socio-political order.
Well, how does this process work in practice?
There are several ways. A self-claimed Mahdi might see himself as the chosen one, entrusted with the mission to cure prevalent socio-political crises, and imposes this idea on those around him. He sometimes sincerely puts forward some suggestions to construct his ideal society. Messianic figures may also engineer a systematic propaganda mechanism to satisfy their political ambitions. Some of them perpetuated this propaganda very successfully, with incredible methods. That’s exactly where the problem begins. Why does a person claim to be a "Mahdi" and how does he become a candidate for solving the problems he believes exist and formulate his propaganda accordingly?
You have mentioned earlier a socio-psychological factor.
Yes, I think it is possible to explain this factor in two stages. In the first stage, the person who puts forward the claim of being a Mahdi questions the troubles that he had experienced in his inner world, thinks about their reasons, and finally finds the political authority responsible for all the troubles. In the second stage, he starts believing that he is the one chosen by a divine power to end injustice. It is this two-stage process that we call the "socio-psychological factor." What one needs to be aware of here is that this process leads the individual with the mindset of the "Mahdi" to an inevitable psychological position.
I wonder, which individuals come to your mind first in this regard?
Several such figures emerged in almost the same manner in the Islamic world and in Europe.
The case of Baba İlyas is one of them. To put it briefly, one begins to believe that he is responsible for removing injustices. Or, as in the second group of Mahdi movements I mentioned earlier, the politically-motivated Mahdi acts as if he is the one chosen by the divine power to offer a remedy to the prevailing problems. He believes in his mission and begins to convince the others.
There are several Mahdis in history that achieved their aims. The oldest messianic claim in the Islamic world, for instance, was put forward by Muhtar es-Sakafi, who rivaled the Umayyad power in 684. He aimed to satisfy his political ambition and became a headache for the Umayyad government.
As you can see, there are similar psychological factors in the first and second group of the Messianic movements. To be able to understand these factors correctly, we must have recourse to psychological analysis, which is largely lacking in Turkish historical studies. As far as I know psychological biographies of historical figures and political leaders – except for a work on Atatürk – have not received the attention they deserve in Turkey.
Do we have any example of messianic movements, which emerged in Anatolia?
Of course, the Babai revolt, which took place in 13th Century Seljuk Anatolia under the leadership of Baba İlyas, is a typical example of these movements. I studied this revolt for my doctoral dissertation and looked into what were the main motivations for people who took part in the revolt. I asked the question of why Baba İlyas and his followers felt the need for opposing the political authority in such a self-sacrificing manner. Historical accounts in our hands indicate that Baba İlyas sincerely believed that God guided him. There were several reasons behind his revolt: the Anatolian Seljuk Sultan Gıyasettin Keyhüsrev II’s unfair and incompetent administration, oppression of the Turkmens, and heavy taxation. The revolt started when a tax collector insulted Baba İlyas in Adıyaman. Another typical and tragic example, which the leftist circles in Turkey are more concerned with, is the revolt of Shaykh Bedreddin in 1416 during the early Ottoman period.
So, what were the fates of Baba İlyas and Sheikh Bedreddin?
When we look at the historical accounts, it seems that Baba İlyas really believed that God appointed him. He sincerely believed Gıyasettin Keyhüsrev II was a cruel ruler, that his government must be overthrown, and that it was himself who would do it. When Amasya was besieged by the Seljuk forces, Baba İlyas received a fatal wound between his shoulders. He felt he was dying. When people around him asked, "Why are you injured and about to die although you told us that you are immortal," he said, "I will consult with God and ask why this misfortune has come to us." Baba İlyas died in seclusion. His followers did not find his body immediately. They chose to believe that he did not die but went into the presence of Allah to bring help to them. They continued to fight until their last strength. The same process also took place in the revolt of Sheikh Bedreddin.
Then what happened?
The Seljuk forces found the body of Baba İlyas, they desecrated it, dangling it over the walls of the city. Their goal was to convince the Turkmens to believe that Baba İlyas died and thus to put an end to the revolt. In the case of Sheikh Bedreddin, his opponents hanged him at Serez in front of his disciples.
Let me remind you here once again that the figures who initiated and directed these movements were those who sincerely believed in their missions. It is necessary to distinguish these figures from the ones who revolted against the authorities out of their political ambitions.
You mentioned that the Mahdis are usually charismatic people. How does charisma work? In what stage does the charismatic person proclaim himself as a Mahdi? When do his followers begin to believe in this claim?
Max Weber had several interesting observations on how charisma works. Suffice it to say here that charisma is partly related to the nature of the person in question. Some people have inborn reactive qualities to certain physical, behavioral, and external factors. Most importantly, they are persuasive figures. Their words and deeds have an influence on those around them. A person who believes that he is the "Mahdi" and who is regarded as such in his circles uses his charisma to increase his followers and controls them psychologically to achieve his goals. The "Mahdi" becomes ready for his mission when he feels it fully. Those people around him are already mentally ready to accept it. Of course, this is a simplified version of the events. This process is not as easy and simple as I narrate it here.
You are saying that these movements reconstructed exclusive worldviews and historical perceptions. How does this process take place? How do they build legitimization processes, rationality, and a different way of thinking, believing, and perceiving than the rest of the society?
It was the political, social, and economic turmoil and crises, which helped these movements to build their legitimacy and discourse. A disrupted socio-political order leads people to search for an idealized world. This search inevitably asks for a new worldview and a different perception of reality. It also requires a virtual sense of history based on an ideal "age of happiness" (asr-ı saadet) and a "golden age." The so-called Mahdi and his followers focus on how to bring about this "age of happiness" in their lifetimes. This is a very strong psycho-social motivation behind the Messianic movements. Without such a strong motivation, it would be hard for the leaders of these movements to set their followers into motion.
Do these movements have primarily a political or a religious motive?
Since the aim of these movements is to remove and replace the existing political authority, which they accept as the cause of the prevailing political and socioeconomic crises, their motive primarily is a political one. To explain his cause to his followers and to ensure legitimacy for the movement, the Mahdis use religion, which is the most valid argument. Historical accounts show us that the leaders of messianic movements and their followers believed that a divine authority appointed them for a special mission. They were convinced that they would succeed in their actions with divine support. Without this belief and hope, it was impossible for these movements to emerge and pursue their claims.
Politics is starting to get into the business after a while.
Of course, their goal is to remove the political authority that they oppose, to exercise power in person, and to establish their idealized "worldly paradise."
Do these movements have certain characteristics that are specific to the Shi’ite or the Sunni world?
Shi’ite influences and efforts of the Sufis played a great role in the spread of these movements in the Sunni world. There are many hadiths attributed to the Prophet Muhammad in this regard, but neither their chains of narration (sanad) nor their texts (matn) are authentic. These hadiths are revealed in books written after 950 AD, when the Abbasids took power. It was the same time period when the Shi’ite ideology emerged with a claim that the imamate, or the leadership, belongs to the Shi’ites. The term "imam" means here the person appointed by God to rule the society. He is an infallible figure who takes his knowledge directly from God via inspiration. According to this ideology, the imams are the deputies of the Prophet Muhammad. The Mahdi concept of the Shi’a, with all these characteristics, has a reflection in the Sunni world, especially in the mystical circles. So, there is not much difference.
You are talking about the Mahdi belief in Shi’ite...
Yes, this is the position of the Mahdi in the Shi’ite ideology. The 12th Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, the son of the 11th Imam Hasan al-Askari, is believed to have disappeared in Samarra. It is held that he will emerge at a date close to Doomsday. Today, historical studies show us that Hasan al-Askari had never had a son. But the Shi’ite theology created a fictional 12th Imam to have an everlasting idea of the imamate in its ideology and to keep the Mahdi belief alive among the believers. Although Muhammad al-Mahdi was a person who never really existed nor ever lived, the Shi’ite doctrine chose to maintain the Mahdi belief in the form of a virtual imam.
At first, there was not any place for the idea of the Mahdi in the Sunni doctrine. With the intensification of Sufi influences in the beginning of the 10th century, however, we see the emergence of this motive in the Sunni world. Many leading Sufis such as Hâkim Tirmizi and Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi played a role in the spread of this idea. In the 14th century, Ibn Khaldun felt the necessity to point out that the idea of Mahdi was not a part of Islam and had nothing to do with it.
In fact, the origin of the term the "imam of the universe," which was attributed to Fethullah Gülen by his disciples, has its roots in these centuries. This Shi’ite expression has become widespread among the Sunni people through mysticism. Although there is no such thing in the Sunni doctrine, people chose to believe that a Mahdi would emerge in times of troubles. This idea was widespread both at the time of the Seljuks and the Ottomans, and to some extent, even today. From the 10th century on, people fabricated some hadiths on the emergence of the Mahdi at a date close to the end of the times. These hadiths, some which were included into collections of reliable hadiths, narrate the characteristics of the Mahdi in detail. There were and still are several Sunni scholars who have rejected these hadiths. Although this is the case, refuting the idea of Mahdi in Islam might cause trouble even today. The fanatics of this belief will immediately prepare a place for you in hell.
Do we have any example of counter-propaganda by political authorities against the Messianic movements in history? If so, what is the nature of it?
Yes, there is counter-propaganda against the messianic movements. We can give the example of Firdevsi-i Rumi in making propaganda for the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512) in his Kutbnâme against the Şahkulu Baba Tekeli rebellion in 1511.
Şahkulu Baba Tekeli proclaimed himself as the Mahdi and rebelled against the Ottoman government. He gathered around 30-40 thousand men – there are different numbers in the chronicles – and defeated the Ottoman forces more than seven times. There was intense Shi’ite propaganda in Anatolia at that time, initiated by the newly emerged Safavid state. The belief in the Mahdi was also widespread among the Sunnis because of this propaganda. Firdevsi-i Rumi, one of the leading authors of the period, claimed that the true Mahdi was Bayezid II. He wrote his Kutbnâme to support this claim. This was a counter-movement aimed at reducing the pro-Iranian messianic movements in Anatolia to an illegitimate position in the eyes of people, thus ensuring the security of the Ottoman state. Similar movements and rebellions continued during the reign of Süleyman the Lawgiver (r. 1520-66), when the Ottoman army was enjoying great victories on the Western front. Melami circles, for instance, took an opposition stand. They engineered a different type of propaganda and implied that the Ottoman sultans were cruel, they were not able to govern the people, and their sheiks, whom they called "Qutb," had to take over the administration. The Melami movement was, in fact, a messianic movement. Although it is hard to find it in their sources unequivocally, one needs to read between the lines to find this.
Well, does this really have anything to do with the lack of political foresight, or with the military and economic losses the state experienced at that time?
Of course, these factors played a significant role. These movements emerged after severe political, economic, and military crises. Think about the battles that the Ottomans fought on numerous fronts, in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The Ottomans were also fighting with the Safavids in the east and with the Mamluks in the south. Military activities mean a loss of money, property, and human resources. It also means that society cannot be sure of its future. The state levies extraordinarily high taxes, called avârız, on people to finance the military expeditions. It is even said that Yavuz Sultan Selim (r. 1512-20) received loans from Jewish bankers to meet the expenses of the Egypt campaign. These initiatives created a disturbance among the people.
The tax issue is very important. The heavy taxes that the Seljukids demanded from the Turkmens also created an important reason for the Babai to revolt. It is known that the Turkmens were not willing to pay taxes throughout history. If you impose extra taxes during a war to meet military expenses, it will spark a further reaction. The propaganda of the Shi’ite Safavids and the heavy taxes caused a series of messianic rebellions during the reign of Suleiman the Lawgiver. As historian Cornell Fleischer said, some Ottoman intellectuals engaged in propaganda on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan, saying he was the true Mahdi, to suppress these revolts.
How did the society react to this claim?
It is possible to argue that people accepted this claim. The historical sources, however, do not provide us many details of their reaction.
The sultans are considered "blessed" people. Does it have anything to do with it?
Yes, these two are related. Since the Middle Ages, Turkish rulers were seen as divinely blessed. It is written in the Orkhon inscriptions that "Bilge Kagan, who found kut [favor] in the blue sky." According to the pre-Islamic Turkish tradition, God blesses the ruler. The one blessed by God has the right to rule. Other members of the dynasty have no such right. That is the reason people had not interfered with the power struggle among princes in Turkish history. Turkish princes had their support base among bureaucrats and soldiers, not laypeople, since laypeople believe that whoever God wills, it is he who will rule. Tursun Bey also refers to this belief in his Tarih-i Ebu’l-Feth. Whoever wins, that is the will of God. Obeying him is, therefore, considered obedience to God.
If we talk about the present, do you think that Fethullah Gülen’s case is the most recent messianic movement in the Islamic world?
We know that Gülen has received his early education and training in the Nur movement (also called Nurculuk). As an academic working on religious movements, I was following the publications of various religious circles in the 1980’s. It was at that time when I read Said-i Nursi’s Sikke-i Tasdik-i Gaybi and understood that Said-i Nursi, the founder of the Nur movement, had a belief in the Mahdi. I also listened to and watched some the sermons of Gülen – I even owned around 10 cassettes belonging to him – I wanted to know and to get an idea of this movement. Although his sermons gained popularity in the 80’s, I never believed in the sincerity of Gülen. Some television stations used to broadcast his sermons. I carefully watched these sermons and examined his gestures. It seems to me that he was doing theater. He was crying and acting hectically and in a tumultuous way.
On the other hand, Gülen has his own charisma. What does this mean for his alleged Mahdism?
Gülen is a charismatic figure and I think we should mention him in the first group of Mahdis. In other words, Gülen is a sincere believer in his mission. He claims that he communicates with the Prophet and even with God. Remember the case of the Babais I mentioned earlier. Baba İlyas too claimed that he was having a conversation with God. Gülen was able to gather around hundreds of thousands people due to the rigid Kemalist government, which pushed religious people to look for ways to survive or, better, to find ways of ending the cruelty. These were the main political and sociological factors that prepared the ground for Gülen’s messianic movement. Then come the other factors, like the personal one, I mean the one related with the leadership of the movement. Recently, Gülen was claimed to be a Sabataist, actually a crypto-Muslim disguising his Jewish faith and that his Messianic mission was linked to this culture. You know, such claims are occasionally made and it’s not possible to prove them. Yet, it is well-known that when Sabbatai Zevi, founder of the Sabbatean movement and claimed to be the long–awaited Jewish Messiah, appeared in the 17th century during the time of Sultan Mehmed IV, he was able to find many followers from Ottoman Jews. Zevi disguised his Jewish faith by pretending to be a Muslim and there is an abundant literature and information, both speculative and scholarly, on Sabataists in the Ottoman Empire.
Do you see it as a kind of schizophrenia that the leaders of such movements have?
I do not know that. But when we look at the other examples in history, it is possible to argue that these types of Mahdis are usually schizophrenic.
For example, they say that "the Prophet came to me tonight, I chatted with him, and he said to me this and that," or "Khidr came to visit me after the Isha prayer," "Khidr performed the Isha prayer behind me," etc. We can give many other examples: "After performing the Fajr prayer Khidr took me with him. I traveled with him through the seven skies. On the first level, I chatted with the Prophet Moses. On the second level, I chatted with the Prophet Idris."
Many Sufi sources, particularly the hagiographies, are full of these and other similar stories. In some modern publications, the Prophet Idris was portrayed as a Qutb rose to the second heaven to command all the celestial / empyrean affairs. Some studies refer to the God Thoth in ancient Egypt as the figure who has the power and privilege of commanding the celestial affairs. These studies establish similarities between him and the Prophet Idris.
In short, there is a need for creating a "Mahdi" typology based on examples in history. While doing it, we should do historical, theological, sociological, and especially psychological analysis and put them into good use. I think this is an important job not only to understand what happened in history, but also to understand similar cases today.
Thank you very much Prof. Ocak for this very illuminating interview.