7.4.2010. Timothy Furnish: The Soft Mahdism of Neo-Ottoman Expectations
Tim Furnish: Occidental Jihadist
Much virtual ink has been spilled, recently, about the global Islamic movement headed by the Turkish expatriate Fethullah Gülen (who, two years ago, was ranked the world’s #1 public intellectual). Many analyses are positive, whether intensely or mildly so; others , on the contrary, portray Gülenists as crypto-Islamists threatening not just Turkey but the United States. I’m still forming my opinion of this movement, but at this juncture I tend to side with those who see the Gülenists as neo-Ottoman Sufis (or perhaps neo-Sufi Ottomans?) rather than as Muslim Brothers with moustaches. One important aspect of Gülenist ideology that often gets missed by commentators is its sub rosa, “soft” Mahdism, which derives from Fethullah Gülen’s own personal adherence to the teachings of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960) as elucidated by Zeki Saritoprak. Nursi was a late Ottoman/early Turkish Republic Islamic thinker and writer who was heavily influenced by Turkish Sufism. And Sufism, with its mystical and charismatic proclivities, has always been quite susceptible to Mahdist trends—Nursi’s Sufi leanings being no exception. He did, however, differ with traditional Sunni Mahdist thought on some levels: for example, according to Saritoprak, “we may say…that in Bediüzzaman’s view every age has its Mahdi,” from which “it is understood…that the Mahdi is not an individual.” Most importantly, “he [Nursi] does not consider the Mahdi to be someone who will set everything in order…with the sword. He sees him [the Mahdi] as a normal human being and great reformer” who will “revive the Sunna of God’s Messenger” and whose “service will become increasingly brilliant until the start of the 16th century of the Hijra, following which an evil movement will gain dominance.” But Nursi’s thought seems to exhibit some cognitive dissonance on the topic of the Mahdi: while in some writings he stresses the non-individual concept of the Mahdi as almost a Star Wars-like “force” rather than a person, in other places Nursi does admit that “the Great Mahdi expected at the end of time is the last of the Mahdis and reformers.”
1)Nursi’s/Gülen’s pacific Mahdism is a welcome break from the normal martial messianic view of the Mahdi espoused in many Sunni, and some Shi`i, sources (and embodied by any number of self-styled Mahdis over the last millennium of Islamic history); however….
2)This same view of the Mahdi as an apolitical mujaddid, “reformer,” who exists in every age also allows for relative ease in donning the mantle of the Mahdi by a sufficiently self-assured, pious and charismatic Muslim leader—as may very well be the case with Fethullah Gülen himself, or with another prominent, Nursi-influenced Turkish Mahdist, Adnan Oktar (whom I interviewed , in Istanbul, in 2008).
3) The 16th Islamic century begins in 2076 AD. Thus, Said Nursi and, presumably, his disciple Gülen both see the first three-quarters of the 21st century as a period of increasing Mahdist, and almost certainly Turkish, influence. Will the Mahdi restore the Ottoman caliphate before the American tricentennial?
4)Someone, somehow, needs to ascertain the extent to which neo-Ottoman Nursian Mahdism influences the ruling AK Party in Turkey. It may be that Turkey’s soft Mahdism proves more problematic to the West, in the long run, than Iran’s harder version.