Terrorists are media celebrities par excellence, and Usama bin Ladin has become the most celebrated one of all time. But what if he is not satisfied with the transient fame conferred by the media and his status as darling of those Muslims who resent and revile the West? What if bin Ladin has much more grandiose aspirations: to stride upon the stage not only of history, but of eschatology, as the Mahdi, the "Rightly-guided One," whose coming is part of the Islamic concept of the end of days?

If he survives, could this be a way he might capitalize on his successful defiance of the world's greatest superpower? Some Western commentators have already observed that bin Ladin may consider himself Saladin reborn,1 at least in terms of his desire to expel the new "Crusaders"—the Americans and Israelis—from the Abode of Islam (dar al-Islam), just as Saladin defeated the real Crusaders in the year 1187. The analogy may have been dented by the destruction of his allies, the Taliban, in Afghanistan. However, if bin Ladin remains at large, it would not be out of character for him to launch another surprise attack—a religious coup, achieved by hijacking some of the most evocative titles in the Islamic lexicon.

There are two formal titles, resonant with Muslims worldwide, which bin Ladin might seize in order to foster his own religious and political legitimacy in the umma, the world Islamic community. They are, in ascending order of hubris: caliph and Mahdi. Both titles have a powerful resonance in the Sunni Muslim world. While no one has established an effective claim to either in recent times, there is an apparent yearning among many contemporary Muslims for a divinely guided leader to direct the present Islamic revival. They await the appearance of a chosen one, and bin Ladin has shown many of the signs. What are his options, if he chooses to raise the stakes?

Caliphate Bid

Bin Ladin could attempt to legitimize his de facto role as leader of the anti-Western wing of Islam by attempting to revive the caliphate. Caliph means "successor" to the Prophet Muhammad as political leader of the Islamic community, not as religious divine (although the title does carry a patina of religious legitimacy). The first four caliphs to follow the Prophet Muhammad—Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali—were accepted by practically all Muslims of their time. After the assassination of ‘Ali in 661, however, civil wars erupted over possession of the caliphate. The eventual winners were the Damascus-based Umayyads, who defeated the shi‘at ‘Ali, or "faction of ‘Ali," a group which insisted that the caliph must be descended from the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali. (This latter group is the predecessor of today's Shi‘ites.) The caliphate continued throughout Umayyad times and was then assumed by their conquerors, the ‘Abbasids, in 750. But in 1258 the Mongols destroyed the ‘Abbasid state and put an end to the legitimate Sunni caliphate for nearly half a millennium.

The Ottomans, starting in the eighteenth century, resurrected the caliphate as a rallying point for Muslims against Russian, British, and French imperialism.2 Late Ottoman rulers were attempting to recapture some of the religious legitimacy that had been lost with utilization of the prosaic titles of padishah and sultan, by setting themselves up as the world's preeminent Muslim rulers. This attempt ultimately failed to rally the Islamic world to their side at times of trouble, and Kemal Atatürk abolished both the sultanate and caliphate following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1924. Despite occasional attempts to transfer or revive the caliphate—by Sharif Husayn of Mecca right after World War I and by King Faruq of Egypt on the eve of World War II—the institution became moribund throughout the twentieth century.

In recent years, there has been a growing debate among Islamists about the need to restore the caliphate. One international Islamist movement, Hizb at-Tahrir ("the Liberation Party"), has kept this idea alive intellectually for over fifty years by publishing tracts on the subject.3 Members of the party, and those Islamists influenced by them, argue that a prerequisite for the empowerment of the Muslims is the restoration of the caliphate in some "liberated" part of the Muslims' world. This pure Islamic state, under a caliph, would then turn into a base for further expansion.

After the Taliban seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1996, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan became the focus of many of these expectations. In this spirit, Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar took the title of Commander of the Faithful (Amir al-Mu'minin), a title historically belonging to the caliph. Bin Ladin reputedly offered his allegiance to Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar. Yet there seem to be sentiments in the Muslim world for according bin Ladin this role beyond Afghanistan, and a few of his enthusiasts—outside of al-Qa‘ida—have urged bin Ladin to lay claim to the caliphate. Here are two curious examples:

• German authorities indicted a Turkish Islamist in Cologne, Metin Kaplan, for ordering the killing of a rival. Members of Kaplan's organization, Hilafet Devleti, were reportedly sent by him to Afghanistan to push for bin Ladin to assume the caliphate.4

• A website, registered by a Kansas City association, has been established to take nominations for a new caliphate. The only two nominees to date are Usama bin Ladin and Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar. The text of the website, owned by a black civic organization, makes this argument:
If we can select a common Amir ul Monineen [sic] … across geographical boundaries, we cannot only establish the Khilafat in very short time but also put a tremendous amount of pressure on secular Islamic countries to adopt Islamic law.
It advises Muslims to "start the Khilafat movement yourself. Accept no leader who does not implement the Deen [true religion, or Islam]."5

What of bin Ladin's own views, however? He has made no explicit reference to the caliphate, but his public statements indicate that he may be thinking in such terms. For example, he:

• calls his Afghan base "Khurasan,"6 a term today referring only to a province of Iran, but which is remembered by Muslims as the area of Afghanistan and Central Asia where the eighth-century ‘Abbasids launched their quasi-messianic rebellion against the Umayyads, to reestablish the true caliphate;

• purports to issue instructions for all Muslims, in particular regarding killing Americans;7

• reminds Muslims of eighty years of "humiliation" and "disgrace"—perhaps a reference to the destruction of the Ottoman caliphate, which occurred eighty years ago (by the lunar, Islamic calendar).8

Should he survive, bin Ladin has set the stage for attempting to claim the caliphate. (Should he not, any other potential claimant could conceivably pick up with the same litany of grievances.) In fact, he may be more emboldened to do so, and his supporters everywhere more enamored of him doing so, by virtue of the prestige he will have gained by defying the Americans and escaping their posse.

But while a caliphal claim by bin Ladin is a very real possibility, it might not amount to much, considering its Islamic context.

The caliphate throughout Islamic history has been proclaimed and legitimized by representatives of the extant power structure--that is, by political rulers, such as the Ottomans, in concert with the ulema in their court. A caliph must have a firm territorial base for his claim to be tenable, and he must win the allegiance of members of the religious establishment, who make him caliph by swearing obedience.9 Bin Ladin would presumably find it difficult to make an acceptable caliphal claim for the very reason that he has no territorial base, and there are no respected Islamic jurists in his camp (again, at least not yet) to corroborate and legitimate any claim by him to the exalted office of caliph.

"The Rightly-guided One"

Operating without a territorial base, as a virtual fugitive, bin Ladin could resort to claiming the most powerful, yet most hazardous, title in Islam: the Mahdi.

The Mahdi, or "Rightly-guided One," is one of two positive eschatological figures who, according to Islamic teachings, will appear at the end of time—Prophet Jesus being the other. Together, these two will combat unbelievers and the forces of evil: the antichrist-like Dajjal, or "Deceiver"; the Dabbah, or "Beast"; and the murderous, rapacious hordes of Yajuj wa-Majuj, who appear earlier in the Bible as "Gog and Magog."10 After emerging victorious, they will then usher in a worldwide Islamic state and redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor on a global scale. The Qur'an mentions Jesus,11 the Dabbah,12 and Yajuj wa-Majuj;13 they are also mentioned in a number of hadiths, or actions and sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur'an says nothing about the Mahdi or the Dajjal, however; their basis in Islamic thought stems entirely from hadiths about them. For this reason primarily, some Islamic scholars throughout the centuries—the most prominent being the great North African historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406)—have argued that the Mahdi is a myth and superstition. Nonetheless, most Muslims throughout history have accepted the idea of an eschatological deliverer known as the Mahdi.

What has this to do with Usama bin Ladin? Throughout the nearly fourteen centuries of Islamic history, many revolutions have been led by self-proclaimed mahdis. To mention only the most notable, there were the Fatimids, who ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171; the Muwahhids (Almohads), rulers of northwestern Africa and southern Spain from 1130 to 1269; and the Sudanese Mahdists, who ruled Sudan from 1881 to 1898. In addition, as recently as 1979, an abortive Mahdist movement attempted to overthrow the monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Bin Ladin can thus point to a long tradition of Mahdist movements by way of precedent.

Furthermore, the idea of the Mahdi is not one that died out a century ago. Dozens of books speculating on the Mahdi, and precisely when he will emerge to deliver the Islamic community from its dire straits, have been published in the Sunni Arab world in the last several decades, most of them since 1979—the date not only of the Islamic Revolution in Iran but also of the abortive attempt to overthrow the Saudi regime.14

How might Usama bin Muhammad bin Ladin exploit this yearning and take up the mantle of the eschatological Mahdi? First, he would appeal to the hadith and cite his compatibility with them. (All the traditions about the Mahdi come from the secondary hadith collections.)15 The description of the Mahdi that emerges from these sources can be summarized as follows; he will
 be descended from the Prophet via his daughter Fatima;

 have the same name as the Prophet, and his father's name will have been the same as the Prophet's father;

 have a distinct forehead (receding hairline?) and prominent nose;

 be extremely generous and altruistic;

 arise in Arabia and be compelled by popular acclamation in Mecca to lead the Muslims;

 withstand attack by an army from Syria, which will be swallowed up by the desert;

 fill the earth with justice and equity, as it had been previously by oppression;

 and reign for five, seven, or nine years, perhaps as co-ruler with Jesus (after which, an unspecified amount of time later, the last trumpet will sound and the Judgment will ensue).
Bin Ladin has some of these characteristics: "Muhammad" as part of his name; the correct facial physiognomy; Arab origin; a seemingly gracious personality, at least one-on-one; and an emphasis on putting oil wealth to work for the good of the disadvantaged Muslim masses.16 But the specific requirements have often been overlooked in past Mahdist claims. The most important single prerequisite for any Mahdist claim—based on analysis of past such movements, most notably that of Muhammad Ahmad in Sudan in the nineteenth century—is baraka, or personal charisma, combined with success. Bin Ladin arguably has the first. It remains to be seen if the bombings of the Khobar towers, the American embassies in east Africa, the U.S.S. Cole, and the World Trade Center towers mark the extent of his success. But so far, he can claim to have done more harm to the major enemy of Islam than any other Muslim figure alive—an important buttress to any possible Mahdist aspiration.

Modern Mahdis

The two most recent Mahdist movements—one successful, one not—shed some light on the possibility that bin Ladin might consider himself the Mahdi.

In 1881, Muhammad Ahmad in Sudan declared himself the Mahdi and initiated a jihad against the country's overlords—Egyptian forces commanded by British officers under nominal Ottoman authority. Convinced of his own appointment as Mahdi by a series of dreams and visions, Muhammad Ahmad led his followers on a "withdrawal" for regrouping (hijra), modeled on the seventh-century withdrawal of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. From a remote region of Sudan, they returned to conquer Khartoum and defeat the Turco-Egyptian forces under the command of a British general, Charles "Chinese" Gordon. Muhammad Ahmad established a state based on Mahdist principles, which survived his own death in 1881, and lasted until the Sudan's re-conquest in 1898 by combined British and Egyptian forces. The Mahdist movement of Sudan is a particularly relevant precedent, because it was aimed not only against European imperialism, but first and foremost against allegedly illegitimate Muslim rulers.

Another Mahdist movement with even more parallels to bin Ladin's jihad took place in 1979, when Juhayman al-‘Utaybi (d. 1980) led an attempt to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia. He and several hundred of his followers seized the Great Mosque in Mecca m and occupied it for nearly two weeks, until they were dislodged by Saudi security forces (possibly with foreign assistance). The surviving attackers were executed. What is interesting about this movement is the very fact that it was a Mahdist one: ‘Utaybi led the revolt in the name of the Mahdi, his brother-in-law Muhammad bin ‘Abdallah al-Qahtani (d. 1979), who participated in the attack. They called for severing of relations with the West; overthrowing the illegitimate Saudi regime and redistributing its wealth; and expelling all foreigners from Arabia.17

This agenda could have been written by Usama bin Ladin. What is particularly significant is that a strict Wahhabi such as ‘Utaybi would attempt to wield Mahdism as an oppositional tool. Wahhabism is known not only for its puritanism in matters of behavior but also for its eschewal of mysticism and its distrust of non-Qur'anic elements in Islam, including (at times) hadith. Yet this did not prevent ‘Utaybi from presenting Qahtani as the Mahdi, suggesting that Mahdism has penetrated the ranks even of extreme Wahhabis. ‘Utaybi, Qahtani "al-Mahdi," and their Mahdist followers were gunned down or executed by the Saudi authorities. But their claim to have an eschatological figure in their midst—one, furthermore, quite unhappy with the existing Muslim regime—demonstrates that Mahdism can take concrete form, even in the modern Sunni world and, indeed, in the very heart of conservative Islam

Negating Mahdism

Since this Mahdist movement was crushed in 1979, Mahdism has gone underground, its true believers in the Sunni Arab world relegated to churning out writings predicting the eventual appearance of a Mahdi who will restore Islam to its rightful place of global preeminence.18 The Mahdi that these books describe awaits realization. Might Usama bin Ladin attempt to fulfill these expectations? The possibility cannot be ruled out, and it may be greater than at any time in recent history.

If bin Ladin—or some other Islamist leader—were to declare himself the Mahdi, should that make a difference to American policy makers? Yes. It would no longer suffice for the American president to dismiss him as "The Evil One," to be dealt with by Daisy-cutters and A-teams. Whatever Americans, Westerners, and the elites in the Muslim world might think of such a claim, the expectation of the Mahdi is a very real one in the Muslim world, Sunni as well as Shi‘ite. The United States and its Muslim allies might do well to study the approach of the last two regimes that had to deal with Mahdist uprisings, learning from the mistakes of the nineteenth-century Ottomans and the success of the twentieth-century Saudis. The Ottoman sultan dismissed Muhammad Ahmad as a insignificant and learned too late of the threat he and his movement posed. The Saudis made no such mistake. The basic lesson of both episodes is this: to defeat a Mahdist uprising, it is necessary to generate counter-Mahdist propaganda, alongside the necessary military measures to contain and quash that uprising.

The first step in dealing with any self-proclaimed Mahdi would be for the United States and its Muslim allies to rely on Muslim scholars, preferably practicing Muslims themselves, to denigrate Mahdist claims, by portraying Mahdism as a kind of superstition, and by pointing out incompatibilities between the Mahdist claimant and the hadiths. For example, were bin Ladin to reveal himself as the "Rightly-guided One," ulema and muftis could draft and disseminate official fatwas (legal opinions) challenging his Mahdist claims by noting that: 1) the Mahdi must be born in Medina, whereas Usama bin Ladin was born in Yemen; 2) the Mahdi must not kill other Muslims, as bin Ladin and al-Qa‘ida have done in Tanzania, Kenya, New York, and Afghanistan; 3) the Mahdi is to be preceded by not only the Muslim antichrist, the Dajjal, but also by Jesus, neither of whom is known to be present on earth.

The Ottomans took this approach against Muhammad Ahmad, but since they and their ulema were seen as interlopers in Sudan, they could not discredit the movement. The Saudis, on the other hand, succeeded with their anti-Mahdist propaganda blitz, for they were fighting on their own turf, both rhetorically and militarily. It is not too early to encourage the development of a counter-Mahdist doctrine, as a kind of immunization against a future claim by bin Ladin or anyone else.

The second and most important aspect to defeating any revolutionary leader claiming the title of Mahdi is military power. The destruction of the Taliban regime is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a military victory over bin Ladin. So long as he lurks in some corner of the Islamic world, he will remain a latent contender for the leadership of any millenarian trend in Islam.

Of course, Usama bin Ladin may not have the ambitions speculatively ascribed to him in this article. He may very well die in Afghanistan, or survive but never arrogate to himself the title of Mahdi. Even so, the spread of Mahdist belief in the contemporary Sunni Muslim ethos, wedded to resentment against dire socioeconomic conditions, repressive political regimes, and Western and Christian global dominance, practically ensures that Mahdism will at some point erupt. When it does, it will threaten not only the Islamic world, but very possibly the entire world. This is an eventuality for which the United States would do well to prepare.
Timothy R. Furnish teaches world history at Georgia Perimeter College and holds a doctorate in Islamic history.
1 Mary Anne Weaver, "The Real bin Laden," The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2000, pp. 32-38; Alexander Rose, "The Final Saladin," The New Republic, Oct. 10, 2001.
2 Selim Deringil, The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876-1909 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1998), pp. 46-48, 171.
3 Suha Taji-Farouki, A Fundamental Quest: Hizb al-Tahrir and the Search for the Islamic Caliphate (London: Grey Seal, 1996), pp. 153-87.
4 "Caliph of Cologne aimed for Islamist state with bin Laden," Agence France-Presse, Oct. 1, 2001.
5 At http://www.ummah.net/action/km/candidates.html. The website is registered to the United Minority Media Association and is hosted by the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center, both in Kansas City.
6 The Ladenese Epistle: Declaration of War (I), Oct. 12, 1996, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A4342-2001Sep21. http://www.vitrade.com/sudan_risk/laden/laden_msanews_links.htm
7 Statement, World Islamic Front, Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, Feb. 23, 1998, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A4993-2001Sep21.
8 Bin Ladin video, first broadcast by Al-Jazira, Oct. 7, 2001, transcript at http://www.msnbc.com/news/639389.asp
9 Gibreel Gibreel, "The Ulema: Middle Eastern Power Brokers," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2001, pp. 15-23.
10 The Biblical parallels for these figures can be found in Revelation, chapters 13ff; II Thessalonians, 2; Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39; and Daniel, chapter 10ff.
11 Jesus is mentioned in 15 suras of the Qur'an and is the subject of 93 verses.
12 Sura an-Naml 27: 82.
13 Sura al-Kahf 18: 92-94; al-Anbiya' 21: 96.
14 David Cook, "Muslim Fears of the Year 2000," Middle East Quarterly, June 1998, pp. 51-62.
15 They appear in those of Abu Da'ud (d. 888), Ibn Majah (d. 887), an-Nasa'i (d. 915), and at-Tirmidhi (d. 892); they are absent from those of Muslim (d. 875) and al-Bukhari (d. 820).
16 Interview with bin Ladin, June 10, 1999, The Terrorism Research Center, at http://www.terrorism.com/terrorism/BinLadinTranscript.shtml.
17 See ‘Abd al-‘Azim Mat‘ani, Jarumat al-Asr: Qissah Ihtilal al-Masjid al-Haram: Ruwayah Shahid ‘Aiyan [The Crime of the Age: Eyewitness Account of the Occupation of the Sacred Mosque] (Cairo: Dar al-Ansar, 1980); Rif`at Sayyid Ahmad, Rasa'il Juhayman al-‘Utaybi, Qa'id al-Muqtahimin lil-Masjid al-Haram bi-Makkah [The Letters of Juhayman al-`Utaybi, Leader of the Invaders of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca](Cairo: Matba‘ah Atlas, 1988); Joseph A. Kechichian, "Islamic Revivalism and Change in Saudi Arabia: Juhayman al-‘Utaybi's ‘Letters to the Saudi People,'" The Muslim World, Jan. 1990, pp. 1-17; and Nazih N. Ayubi, Political Islam: Religions and Politics in the Arab World (London: Routledge, 1991).
18 Timothy Rhea Furnish, "Eschatology as Politics, Eschatology as Theory: Modern Sunni Arab Mahdism in Historical Perspective" (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 2001).