Book Review: Pseudo-Messianic Movements in Contemporary Muslim South Asia (Yoginder Sikand)
by Nasir Khan
Messianic hopes and expectations are common to almost all religions. The messianic figure that almost all religions expect to arrive some time towards the end of the world is generally portrayed as representing the forces of good, as an agent of God and as eventually vanquishing, in a war of global and cosmic proportions, the forces of evil. This battle, it is believed, will ultimately herald the end of the world as we know it. In some traditions, this battle results in the triumph of one religion, that represented by the awaited messianic figure, over all others. Presumably, ‘true’ believers in that one supposed ‘true’ religion and followers of that messianic figure are saved, and all others, probably the majority of human beings, are killed and then sent to painful punishment in hell.
Messianic expectations and beliefs are not present in the Qur’an, which, although it speaks of a final Day of Judgment, does not contain any references to a messianic human figure who would herald the end of the world. This figure, however, is referred to on numerous occasions in the form of the Imam Mahdi in the corpus of Hadith, traditions attributed to or claimed to be about the Prophet Muhammad. Some critics regard many of these statements as fabrications, and it is indeed likely that at least some of the material about the Imam Mahdi in Muslim tradition, both Shia and Sunni, reflects Christian and Jewish messianic influences and borrowings. This book deals with three lesser-known messianic, or Mahdist, movements rooted in the broader South Asian Muslim tradition that have a fringe following.
Much has already been written on pseudo-messianic movements, and, in terms of theoretical arguments, the book does not contribute anything new or substantial. Rather, it has a very modest aim. It presents in-depth case studies of three twentieth pseudo-messianic movements that emerged in twentieth century South Asian Muslim environments, focussing, in particular, on the ways in which their founders sought to interpret Muslim messianic traditions in order to put forward their own personal claims of being divinely appointed guides, not just for the Muslims alone, but, indeed, for the whole of humanity. All three figures were characterized by a marked degree of pugnacity and a proclivity to violence, whether symbolic or physical.
The case studies discussed in the book deal in considerable detail with the varied strategies that these pseudo-messianic figures used to win followers and to combat their opponents, both Muslims as well as others. They also deal with the complex processes of how the movements that these figures spawned gradually evolved into separate religious communities, particularly through emphasizing their differences with other groups that they opposed.
The first section of the book discusses the Hyderabad-based Deendar Anjuman, which was banned around a decade ago by the Government of India on grounds of being allegedly involved in a series of bomb blasts that targeted churches, mosques and temples across south India. Sikand traces the roots of the movement to the 1920s, a time of fierce competition between Hindu and Muslim revivalist groups for numbers, when Siddiq Husain, the founder of the Deendar Anjuman, appeared on the scene. A follower of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the pseudo-prophet of Qadian, the founder of the heretical Ahmadiyya movement, Siddiq Husain went even beyond his master’s messianic claims by insisting that he was God’s messenger to the whole humanity, specially charged with the task of converting the Hindus of India to (his brand of) Islam. For this purpose, as Sikand discusses in great detail, he evolved his own characteristic mode of preaching to the Hindus of the Deccan, where he lived and worked, by claiming to be the incarnation of Channabasaveswara, a saint revered by the Lingayat sect, an anti-Brahminical movement that had a large following particularly among the ‘lower’ castes. He drew parallels between Hinduism and Islam in order to stress his claim that by accepting (his version of) Islam, the Hindus, in particular the Lingayats, would not be converting to a radically new and different religion, but, rather, would supposedly be fulfilling the prophecies of the Hindus themselves. This was no generous ecumenism, though. As Sikand illustrates with copious quotes from the writings of Siddiq Husain himself, these seeming overtures to the Hindus were accompanied by hate-driven anti-Hindu rhetoric, and Siddiq Husain even devised plans to gather an army of Pathan tribesmen from the northwest of India, descend on the Indian plains and forcibly destroy all the temples of the Hindus in the name of jihad.
In post-1947 India, Sikand shows, the Deendar Anjuman could no longer afford to exhibit its violent proclivities openly. Instead, it sought to project itself as a movement committed to inter-faith harmony. However, a section of the movement, led by one of the sons of Siddiq Husain who had migrated to Pakistan, sought to drive the group to take to the path of terror in the name of jihad. This resulted in the series of bomb attacks, found to have been the handiwork of Pakistan-trained Deendar Anjuman activists, which finally resulted in the movement being proscribed by the Government of India in 2001.
The second pseudo-messianic movement that Sikand looks at is the Atba-e Malak, an offshoot of the Daudi Bohra Ismailis, who, in turn, are one of several splinter Shia groups. A striking feature of Ismaili history through the centuries, Sikand shows, is the frequent occurrence of succession disputes to the office of the Imam or leader of the community, resulting in the setting up of splinter groups led by charismatic personalities, based on their own messianic claims. The office of the Imam is considered to be hereditary, running in the line of direct descendants of Imam ‘Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. The Imamate is crucial to Shia Islam, for its bearer, or, in the case of some Ismaili groups, his agent, is considered to be the mediator between God and ordinary believers. He is also a key figure in Shia messianic thought. Consequently, disputes centred round who should succeed a deceased Imam or, in cases of sects that believe that he is in occultation, his deputy, take on charged, sometimes violent, forms as it has to do with critical messianic beliefs.
Disputes over succession to the office of da‘i-i-mutlaq or deputy to the Imam Mahdi, and the control of valuable community resources, Sikand shows, are as central to the on-going controversy among the Atba-i Malak as are contestations over certain messianic expectations that characterize this group as a whole and which account for its distinct identity. This, of course, is by no means unusual in the history of inter-sectarian disputes among the Indian Ismailis, being more of a rule than an exception. What, however, is striking about the Atba-i Malak case is the role of the modern state in the controversy, with the issue having been taken to the Indian courts in order to enforce a decision. The involvement of the courts brings out clearly the central role of the issue of control over communal property and resources in the dispute, in which debates about messianic beliefs are very clearly used as a means for advancing rival claims over material resources. By appealing to the courts to intervene, the mundane factors that seem to lie behind the charged religious dispute over messianic beliefs clearly come into focus. While questions of power and property as well as convoluted arguments about messianic beliefs have probably been fundamental in almost all sectarian disputes among the Ismailis, in modern India, with the intervention of the agencies of the state, the role of material factors is more readily apparent as rival claimants confront each other in the courts, each claiming the right to the control of community resources and interpretation of messianic beliefs and traditions.
The third chapter of the book examines the origins and development of the cult of Riyaz Ahmad Goharshahi (1941-2001), who, a large section of his followers believe, claimed to be the Imam Mahdi referred to in Muslim tradition. After a brief description of his teachings and his life, it goes on to deal with the cult after his death, when his followers split into two main groups: the London-based Mehdi Foundation International (MFI) and the Pakistan-based Anjuman-e Sarfaroshan-e Islam (ASI). It then focuses, in particular, on the beliefs of the former group and its political involvement in Pakistan and elsewhere. It focuses particularly on how the MFI has sought to present Goharshahi as God himself, and as a messianic figure who has allegedly been predicted about in the major religious traditions of the world. Despite the MFI’s rhetoric of ‘universal love’, Sikand shows through a detailed examination of the group’s literature that the organization is characterized by a powerful streak of hatred and violence, and it may well, as some critics argue, have been responsible for a series of violent attacks in Pakistan.
The chief merit of this book is the rich details that it supplies about each of the three movements it discusses, including the background of their founders, their messianic claims, the methods they employed to win over followers and counter their opponents, as well as their political involvement. Where the book disappoints, however, is in not providing a broader theoretical framework within which these movements need to be located. The vital issue of how these three movements relate to similar pseudo-messianic movements in Muslim milieus, past and present, is completely neglected. The book could have been enriched by drawing parallels between these movements and the tendencies they represent in other contemporary Muslim movements, which, though not messianic in the strict sense of the term, share certain distinct features in common, including a marked tendency to resort to violence and to see the world in stark, dualistic terms, and a stern, rigid exclusivism. That said, this book is a very welcome contribution to studies on contemporary Muslim South Asia.
Name of the Book: Pseudo-Messianic Movements in Contemporary Muslim South Asia
Author: Yoginder Sikand
Publisher: Global Media Publications, New Delhi (http://www.gmpublications.com)