Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Messianic Shia Cult Emerges in Southern Iraq

Obscure Shi'ite Cleric Claims to be Herald of Imam Mahdi


Zarqa, IRAQ: Corpses lie on the ground as an Iraqi army soldier carries a poster of Samer Abu Kamar, leader of Shiite Muslim cult Jund al-Samaa (Soldiers of Heaven) 30 January 2007, two days after a raging battle pitted Iraqi and US troops against a group. QASSEM ZEIN/AFP/Getty Images

On January 28th, the Iraqi government announced that it had eradicated a heavily armed cult that was in the final stages of planning to storm the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, attack the Imam Ali shrine and kill top Shi’ite clerics along with pilgrims commemorating the holy day of Ashura. The cultists, who called themselves Jund al-Samaa’, or Soldiers of Heaven, fought ferociously and managed to shoot down an American helicopter before they were overwhelmed and surrounded in their encampment, amid palm groves in Zarga north of Najaf. Iraqi police said the fighters tapped into their radio frequency during the fighting, repeating the menacing message, “Imam Mahdi is coming.”

The Imam Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Shi’ite Islam, was the 12th imam and descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Shi’ite scriptures say the Mahdi disappeared into a cellar in Samarra, Iraq, during the ninth century. His return to “fill the earth with justice and equity, after it has been filled with oppression and tyranny” is a basic tenet of Shi’ite faith and it also signals the end of days. Dhiaa Abdul Zahra al-Gar'awi, the leader of cult who was killed in the battle, claimed he was the Mahdi.

The details about Jund al-Samaa’ remain murky, but the ill-fated Gar'awi was not the last to make such a claim. There is a new emerging movement in southern Iraq called the Ansar al-Imam al-Mahdi. Its leader, Ahmed al-Hassan, says he is the son and the herald of the Mahdi - or al-Yemani, as he is known in Shi’ite literature.

Al-Hassan's Background

Very little is known about al-Hassan. He moved to Najaf to receive religious training after he received his Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Basrah University during the late nineties. He immediately collided with senior ayatollahs when he called for reforms in the religious seminary, which he described as being rife with financial corruption and mediocre scholastic curricula, earning him the backing of disgruntled clerics and students. When Saddam Hussein had the Quran written with his blood, al-Hassan publicly called it “a work of the devil,” prompting authorities to chase him out of Najaf. Al-Hassan made use of the chaotic environment following the US invasion in 2003 to preach for his movement and gain followers. He remained under the radar, but his followers said he was placed under house arrest by the Iraqi government in Basrah last year, and many of his followers have been detained in several southern cities.

Al-Hassan’s name first appeared in the news during the Zarga battle four months ago. In a series of contradictory official statements on what happened that day, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh first said the slain cult leader was al-Hassan. Al-Hassan’s office in Basrah was quick to issue a statement the next day denying any link to Jund al-Samaa’, stressing that their movement is a peaceful one. “The state-run media was so forceful that day, that even some of our followers believed the battle was with the Ansar,” said Ahmed Jabir, a senior aide to al-Hassan in Basrah.

Ansar al-Imam al-Mahdi is just one of several Shi’ite millenarian movements that have proliferated in southern Iraq, such as that of Ayatollah Mahmud al-Sarkhi in Karbala whose followers have been detained by local Iraqi troops loyal to the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Iraq’s leading Shi’ite political party. Groups that preach the imminent return of the Mahdi are called Mahdawiya, and the clerical establishment in Najaf, headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, does not look favorably on them. Most are influenced by the teachings of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada al-Sadr. “Shi’ite millenarianism is widely present, but most Shi’ite thinkers put it in the distant future,” says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan; “more sectarian leaders say it is just around the corner. Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr seems to have been more the latter.”

Relations with Other Shi'ite Groups

Mocked and reviled by leading Shi’ite clerics in Najaf and regarded a heretic, al-Hassan says they have given orders for him to be detained or killed. Iraqi forces have closed down several offices and places of worship that the movement runs in Baghdad, Basrah, Amara, Karbala and Najaf. “Members of SCIRI requested permission from representatives of senior clerics to fight our movement,” al-Hassan told IraqSlogger in an exclusive email interview. “Days later, the oppressive authorities attacked and detained some of the Ansar in Najaf and closed our bureau and husseiniya.” Both SCIRI and Sistani’s bureau have declined to comment on the accusations.

Al-Hassan says he is constantly moving because he fears the government is seeking to detain him following the events of Zarga last January. Sources close to the office of Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri in Basrah said that he has issued a fatwa authorizing the killing of al-Hassan if he does not recant his claims. Sistani’s office in Najaf distributed fliers two months ago warning Shi’ite pilgrims from imposters claiming to be “messengers of the Imam Mahdi.” Two other senior Shi’ite ayatollahs, Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi and Sheikh Ishaq al-Fayyadh, also released statements stating that anyone declaring representation of the awaited Imam is a “slanderous liar.” Armed followers of Ayatollah al-Sarkhi attacked his main headquarters in Basrah weeks ago, and the Iranian al-Kawthar satellite channel recently dedicated a series of programs to discredit al-Hassan and his followers. Ahmed Jabir says the movement’s website is blocked in Iran, and the authorities there are also cracking down on their supporters. “I had good relations with senior clerics in the Hawza, but now most of them are calling for detaining or killing me,” said al-Hassan.

The Ansar are not known to have taken up arms yet. “Our movement is mostly ideological, to raise awareness in the Ummah,” says Jabir. “We are, however, in a defensive position against any possible attack by the government.” Al-Hassan said he has ordered his followers to lay low and move to other parts of the country to avoid a clash with authorities. According to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, sources from the Najaf provincial council said the campaign against unorthodox Mahdawiya groups has more to do with competition between rival Shi’ite militias struggling to control the oil-rich south.

Star of David as Symbol of Movement

Although similar Mahdawiya movements were not met with much success, Ahmed Jabir says al-Hassan’s movement has attracted several thousand followers in Iraq, some of them from the opposite Sunni sect, and even some Christians. Al-Hassan claims to have followers in Iran, Lebanon, the Gulf, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, and even among Shi’ite communities in Europe and North America, who help fund the group through donations. The group’s website on the Internet (http//www.almahdyoon.org) is gaining increased attention. “To his Excellency, the Deputy of the Savior,” wrote Emmanuel Raphael, a Coptic Christian priest in Egypt, to al-Hassan, “I have a sealed letter to you, written 322 years ago by Bishop Sarkhis Micha the Baptist, which I have failed to unravel, but the name of your Excellency is very clear in the letter.”

<br />Banners and seals of Ansar al-Imam al-Mahdi. Illustration by Zeyad KasimAl-Hassan uses the Star of David as a symbol for his movement, a controversial step that has brought him accusations of links to Zionist and Rightwing Christian groups by his detractors. “It is the choice of God,” he explained. “David was a prophet sent by God, and we are the heirs of prophets.”

And, indeed, al-Hassan says he is preaching not just to a Shi’ite Muslim audience, but also to all of mankind. “I tell the Christian nation in American and the West,” he said, “heed the words of Christ (peace be upon him): ‘When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself, but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak.’ (John 16:13) I am the messenger that complements God’s prophets. If you are searching for the truth, for here the truth has come.”