Turkish Messiahs, Mahdis, and “False” prophets

The Turkish messiah scene has lately become overcrowded. Various community leaders and lone prophetic individuals claim to be the messiah or mahdi. As Islamist politics in Turkey turns into a wholly disenchanted farce, it is only natural that we witness the proliferation of heretofore-repressed messiahs, prophets and saviors.

The Turkish messiah scene has lately become overcrowded. Various community leaders and lone prophetic individuals claim to be the messiah or mahdi. The spectrum is quite wide: it includes shy mahdis, colorful Jesus claimants, disgruntled prophets. On Nov. 19, 2019, a cult leader, İskender Evrenesoğlu (1942-2019) died in exile in Norfolk, Virginia, where he had migrated with some of his followers after reactions to the scandalous claim that he received revelation directly from God. His funeral in Turkey shocked media circles when several thousand people attended the burial—a significant number for a man frequently depicted in the media as a “false prophet.”

Adnan Tanrıverdi, a retired general and military advisor to President Erdoğan, said in an interview during a conference on the Muslim world (Dec. 29, 2019) that his government’s work in restructuring and building a stronger military was paving the way for future unity of the Muslim world, which will happen with the arrival of Mahdi. He noted that “only God knows when Mahdi will arrive, but our job is to prepare the ground for his arrival.” His religious talk- which in another setting would have been totally uncontroversial- led to a maelstrom of reactions. Slightly distorted by the news media, the words of the retired general and founder of what many believe to be Erdoğan’s “parallel army” (SADAT) were heard against the backdrop of a decline in the secular character of the Turkish military and the rise Erdogan’s imperial foreign policy. Tanrıverdi had to resign from his post after reactions from both secular and religious circles, including AKP members. Though many religious people would not deny these elements of religion- for they are deeply rooted in the prophetic traditions (hadith)- they do not like to see such seemingly irrational and politically risky ideas bandied about in public, either.

Mahdi is in some sense an Islamized messiah and stands in an ambivalent relationship to Jesus. Sunni and Shia traditions have slightly different versions of the idea of mahdi. In Shiism, mahdi is the last of the twelve imams; he is currently in occultation. Not unlike the second coming of Jesus, Imam Mahdi’s re-appearance will mark the beginning of the End Times. For Sunnis, mahdi is a figure who will appear with Jesus to usher in the millennial times. He fights Dajjal but, unlike Jesus, he is not a prophet. Often small-scale claimants of redemptive salvation adopt the title of mahdi. The more successful ones can weave together the traits of the two apocalyptic figures, mahdi and messiah (as in the case of Fethullah Gulen). 

The famous cult leader Adnan Oktar was shy about proclaiming his self-designation as “mahdi”. He nonetheless managed to create a unique profile with his warm and cheerful spiritual cult (perhaps also a sex cult), mostly consumed by the larger public as an eccentric form of televangelism. In his television shows Oktar and his scantily-clad, depersonalized young female devotees (popularly known as his “kittens,”) would engage in religious conversation interspersed with dancing to the latest pop music hits. Famous outside Turkey for his creationist propaganda literature, Oktar’s image in Turkey was shaped by his television show and his occasional efforts to appease the political leaders and power brokers. As part of the Erdogan regime’s post-July 15, 2016-coup crackdown on religious groups that might have political leverage, Adnan Oktar and hundreds of his cult members were arrested in July of 2018. Oktar’s claim to mahdi-status was persistent but always indirect. Like most others, when asked if he claimed to be mahdi, he would deny it.

Turkish history is no stranger to various millenarian movements and messianic claims. When a seventeenth-century Kabbalist, the Ottoman Jewish Rabbi Sabbatai Zevi, declared himself as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, he had powerful impact on Jewry across Europe and Russia. Had he more directly instrumentalized religion, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk might have been seen as a messianic figure, given that doctrinaire Kemalists were already inclined to view him as the eternal savior of the Turks. Many religious people, on the other hand, saw him as anti-Christ. A modern Kurdish Muslim theologian, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, faced demands from his Turkish followers to accept Mahdi status. He resisted the idea, but only partially. His resistance consisted in redefining the mahdi/messiah-versus-Dajjal story as a metaphor for a perennial conflict between ideologies of belief and unbelief. At the height of the Cold War, Nursi saw Communism (here understood primarily as atheism) as the anti-Christ, against which a Muslim-Christian alliance would fulfill the function of the return of Jesus and arrival of Mahdi. Nursi’s followers, the Nurcus, for long speculated that Ataturk was Dajjal (or sometimes the lesser figure of Sufyan, the Islamic anti-Christ). Said Nursi arguably failed to resist the pressure placed on him by his followers who insisted on seeing in him wonderworks and apocalyptic powers. Nursi’s impersonal conception of mahdi only partly lifted the pressure on him; it did not shut the door to future claims of mahdi-hood by a diverse cast of characters- many directly influenced by him- ranging from Gulen to Adnan Oktar.

Individuals who are shy about claiming the post of mahdi for themselves or someone they admire frequently resort to a lesser messianic figure. Nursi himself had to concede to his followers that the Nur movement was not a mahdi movement but was simply laying groundwork in the domain of “belief.” For Nursi, the redemption sought under the metaphoric notion of mahdiism included three levels of societal transformation: spiritual, social, and political. Deprived of social and political power under the Kemalist regime, Nursi self-limitingly defined his movement as a project of spiritual transformation where reason was to be “re-incorporated” into Muslim faith. Later claimants who could not directly impute mahdi status to themselves or to someone they liked would use other designations, such as Jahjah or Qahtani. Those figures are believed to be either the precursors, military commanders or political successors of Mahdi. A few years ago, a not-so-bright Turkish law professor and sycophant declared Mr. Erdogan the political “mujaddid” (centennial renewer). He was forced into this rather odd terminology because his community of Nurcus had already reserved the status of Mahdi and/or mujaddid for the books of Said Nursi.

Perhaps the most interesting recent figure on the Turkish messianic scene is Hasan Mezarcı. Mezarcı declared himself Jesus, the Messiah, in the early 2000’s after years of prison and persecution during Turkey’s secularist era. Mezarcı has both theology education and clerical practice as imam to his credit. The Turkish public knows his name in the context of the heated political polemics of the ‘90s and the secularist suppression of Islamist politicians. Mezarcı was a member of parliament from the Refah Party at that time. After imprisonment in Turkey and exile in Europe, Mezarcı returned home, donned a white cassock and golden mantle to go with his indisputable Jesus hair, and declared his new vocation. Currently living in a modest house in Düzce with a small group of followers, Mezarcı, who goes by the name of “Mesih (Isa, Hasan Mezarcı)” on Twitter, has generated controversy by lifting shar’ia rulings on gender segregation and adultery—by tweet. Last week (Jan. 16) Mezarcı was summoned by the prosecutor for allegedly “insulting the religious sentiments of the public.” 

Many people are surprised at the progressive character of Mezarcı’s message. A striking example is his tweet in response to the recent earthquake in Elazığ. “News of the recent earthquake scared us all. Why is it that so many lives are lost in Muslim countries? Instead of explaining tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes with reference to God and religion, you should explain them with science and take the necessary precautions. Build earthquake-proof structures. May God have mercy on the dead and give healing to the injured.”

An invention of Jewish tradition, messianism is a political principle that has kept hope alive in the face of hardship for all the Abrahamic religions. That prophethood is sealed in Islam with Prophet Muhammad leaves no eschatological post but Messiah or Mahdi to be coveted by cult leaders with political ambitions. As Islamist politics in Turkey turns into a wholly disenchanted farce, it is only natural that we witness the proliferation of heretofore-repressed messiahs, prophets and saviors. While many of them are mere figures of fun, their existence raises questions about prophecy, politics, and the limits of tolerance within Islam. 

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