The False Mahdi

Early in the morning of November 20th 1979,  an event occurred which would transfix the whole Muslim world and shake the Saudi royal family to its very foundations. It was the first day of the Muslim year 1400. The Grand Mosque in Mecca was crowded with worshipers for the dawn prayer. Many of them had slept in the mosque overnight huddled up on the floor, some of them accompanying coffins bearing the bodies of relatives upon whom they hoped the imam would bestow a blessing of the kind that could only be obtained in such a sacred place. Just as the imam completed the dawn prayer with the sacred call for the blessing of peace, shots suddenly rang out from within the crowd. As the people turned around in amazement and fear – to fire a weapon within the precincts of Islam’s holiest site was a grave sin – gunmen brandishing automatic weapons and clad in the simple white robes of pilgrims, began to emerge from the edges of the crowd. More and more of them, all converging on the sacred Ka’aba. Members of sacred mosque’s own police force, who were armed only with sticks, rushed forward to intervene but were unceremoniously gunned down. Turning in panic towards the mosque’s gates to flee, the tens of thousands of worshipers found that all the gates were barred, each one chained shut with groups of wild-haired, ruffian looking, gun wielding fanatics guarding them. Meanwhile yet more wild-eyed ragged-haired, bearded men were unloading yet more guns from some of the coffins– coffins which they had carried into the mosque the night before under the pretense of being mourners.

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Juhayman Ataiba shortly after capture by Saudi Security Forces

Now a slender man with dark burning eyes, flowing black hair and a beard, his head bare and wearing the simple white robe of a pilgrim appeared from deep among the shadows of the mosque. With an obvious air of authority and purpose he strode through the crowd, across the open marble-floored courtyard to the Ka’aba. He was Juhayman Ataiba, the son of the former Ikhwan warrior who had fought alongside Ibn Bijad at the battle of Sibilla in 1929, the one – time student who had attended lectures given by bin Baz. Over the intervening years, Juhayman had turned into a fiery Islamic preacher and founded a small, militant, fundamentalist reform movement-The Movement of Muslim Revolutionaries of the Arabian Peninsula. Snatching a microphone from the elderly imam who had been conducting the dawn prayers, Juhayman barked a set of military orders to his followers, instructing them to immediately shoot down any government soldier or policeman who attempted to intervene. Then, with his voice booming over the Grand Mosque’s loudspeakers into every corner of the building and out from the loudspeakers at the top of the almost three – hundred – feet- tall minarets over the surrounding city of Mecca, Juhayman began to address the crowd. ‘Mecca, Medina and Jeddah are all now in our hands’, he told them. He and his fellow rebels had come to cleanse the Kingdom of materialism and corruption, to end the rule of the sinful and unjust Al Saud, and to terminate the country’s relations with ‘infidel powers‘. Then Juhayman handed the microphone to one of his fellow rebels. Addressing the crowd with obvious authority and in the cadences and tones of the classical Arabic of a learned Muslim scholar, this new speaker told them that the wicked ways of the House of Saud were a clear sign to all true believers that the world was coming to an end and that, in accordance with prophecy, Islam’s final triumph over unbelief was at hand. The preacher listed a whole catalogue of sins and corruptions for which the Saudi state was responsible: the debauchery of many of those who ruled over them-the governor of Mecca, a brother of the present King, was singled out for special opprobrium; the corruption fuelled  by television, the pollution of minds brought by infidel Westerners to the very cradle of Islam, the desecration of the moral  purity of women caused by their employment, the pagan scourge of the newly introduced game of soccer, the fact that the royal family had become mere pawns of infidel foreign powers.

All these things and many more rendered the Al Sauds no longer worthy to rule over true Muslims in the birthplace of Islam, the land of the Prophet Muhammad Himself. The people’s oaths of allegiance to the Saudis were therefore no longer valid. They were null and void. But, he was too proud to tell them, relief was now at hand! Citing relevant Hadith, and other prophecies dating back to the centuries immediately after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the rebel preacher announced that the Mahdi had arrived and was here in the Grand Mosque with them. At that moment the gunmen started pushing back the crowd of worshippers to open a corridor through them to the Ka’aba. Then from within the deep shadows of the mosque’s encircling arches there emerged a tall, pale, fair-haired young man, his head loosely covered in a red chequered headcloth and carrying a sub-machine gun. With no outward show of emotion ‘the Mahdi’ approached the Ka’aba, the crowd gasping at his youth. Having reached the Ka’aba, he turned and stood impassively as one after another the gunmen knelt before him and in turn kissed his hand, pledging their allegiance in the same words with which the first Muslims are reported to have pledged their allegiance to the Prophet Muhammad: “We will obey you in weal and woe, in ease and hardship and evil circumstances . . . except in what would disobey God.” The ‘Mahdi‘ then launched into an hour-long sermon denouncing the House of Saud and the corruptions, sins and deviations from the true path of Islam of the Kingdom they had created.

The figure of the Mahdi ( literally ‘the Guided One’) is common to all branches of Islam but also controversial, especially among Sunnis. He is not mentioned in the Qur’an although he does appear in one Hadith and later prophecies and learned Muslim texts. He is prophesied to be going to appear at the end of time, just prior to the Day of Judgement. He will bear the name Muhammad and, in a time of strife, when ‘the princes have corrupted the earth’, he will be sent to ‘bring back justice’. Throughout history there have been people who have claimed to be the Mahdi, perhaps the best known being the ‘false’ Mahdi who led an uprising against the British during the 1880s which resulted in the humiliation of a British and Egyptian army and the death of the charismatic General Gordon-Gordon of Khartoum

The ‘Mahdi’ that Juhayman Ataiba and his fellow rebels presented to the crowd in the Grand Mosque in Mecca on the morning of November 20th 1979 was Muhammad Abdullah al-Qahtani. Young Qahtani came from Asir, the poor region in the south west of the country. He had met Juhayman a few years earlier while he had been studying Islamic law at the Islamic university of Riyadh where the writings and sermons which Juhayman had begun to deliver had started to attract a considerable following amongst the most ardently Islamic students. It was Juhayman and his followers who first convinced the rather dreamy and impressionable young Qahtani that he was the Mahdi who, as promised in the Hadith, would come to cleanse Islam and redeem all true Muslims. As Juhayman pointed out to the worshippers in the Grand Mosque on that November morning, young Abdullah al-Qahtani  fulfilled the specific prophecies made about the coming of the Mahdi: after all the wars and revolutions that had wracked the Muslim world in recent decades he did indeed come ‘in time of great discord’, at the start of a new Muslim century, at a moment when the princes were ‘corrupting the earth’ and Muslims had been drifting away from the faith; he bore the first name Muhammad and had features similar to those attributed in the Hadith to the Mahdi–he was tall, had a fair complexion, a large birthmark on his cheek, and claimed descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad. He came now, Juhayman and his fellow rebels assured the crowd in the mosque, to fulfil the prophecy, to lead the true Muslims in a cataclysmic encounter with the forces of evil, to overcome those forces of evil and to ‘fill the Earth with peace and justice as it will have been filled with injustice and tyranny before then’.

When Qahtani finished speaking some hundreds among the thousand-strong crowd were convinced. Falling to their knees, they hailed him as the Mahdi and volunteered to join the rebels in the fight. The rebels then opened more coffins and handed out yet more guns to these new followers. The rebels then allowed most of the able-bodied worshippers who had not volunteered to join them to begin making their escape through the mosque’s narrow windows, while keeping back a few hostages.

In the streets around the mosque, as word of what had happened spread, people started to flee. When a police car approached the mosque to investigate, it was riddled with well-aimed fire by rebel gunmen stationed in the Grand Mosque’s minarets and most of the policemen in the car were killed. Throughout the rest of that day other armed policemen or soldiers who approached the mosque were also summarily gunned down.

As news of what had happened reached Riyadh, members of the royal family came together in anxious huddled conference. What should they do? Crown Prince Fahd, responsible for day-to-day rule in the Kingdom, was not even in the country. He was in Tunis attending a conference of Arab leaders. Prince Abdullah, the Head of the National Guard, was holidaying in the south of France and the prince who headed the security service was with Fahd in Tunis. A total blackout of information was ordered on broadcasting stations and all lines of communication out of the country were disconnected.
It was the following day before Crown Prince Fahd discovered the details of what had happened. Meanwhile the rebels continued broadcasting their demands out over the city of Mecca from the Grand Mosque’s loudspeakers, while on the streets of the country’s major towns leaflets mysteriously began to appear detailing the rebel’s accusations and demands. The rebels demanded the dismissal of named corrupt high-ranking princes, the end of sales of Saudi oil to Western countries, a return to the true canons of Islam and the expulsion of all foreign military advisers from the Kingdom.

Back in Riyadh King Khalid and the senior princes had decided that they could not negotiate with the rebels: their demands were wholly unacceptable. The rebels had to be overpowered and control of the Grand Mosque wrested back. By seizing Islam’s holiest site and issuing their demands and accusations, the rebels were challenging the very foundations of the Al Saud’s claim to the right to rule. The rebels posed the most serious threat to the Al Sauds that they had faced since Ibn Saud had put down the Ikhwan rebellion fifty years earlier.

But dare the Saudis order their forces to attack the Grand Mosque? The rebels had already committed one of the gravest of sins by shedding blood in it. So dare the Al Sauds, who claimed to be the true guardians of Islam’s Holy Places, now desecrate the holiest site of all by risking damaging it with gunfire and killing perhaps many hundreds of worshippers? Not even a bird was allowed to be killed inside the precincts of the Grand Mosque, nor a plant uprooted. Khalid issued an urgent summons to bin Baz and the Kingdom’s other senior ulema.

It took until the next day to assemble the ulema, many from the farthest corners of the Kingdom. But once they were gathered they concluded, after careful consideration of all the known facts about the rebels and their actions, that not all the preconditions set forth in the prophecies about the coming of the Mahdi had been met. Al-Qahtani, the young man being hailed by the rebels as the Mahdi, could therefore not be the true Mahdi. So he must be another impostor, like all the previous impostors who down the centuries had claimed to be the Mahdi. King Khalid asked the ulema to issue a fatwa against the impostor, officially declaring him not to be the Mahdi, condemning the rebels and sanctioning the retaking of the Grand Mosque by force. Without such a fatwa the call by the rebels for the ending of corruption in the state and a return to the full rigours of the Islamic moral code might prove very attractive to many Saudis disillusioned with the behaviour of some of the royal princes and what they saw as the growing moral anxiety that was sweeping the Kingdom.

Bin Baz was quite happy to issue a fatwa denouncing the Qahtani’s claim to be the Mahdi and condemning the rebel’s action in seizing the Grand Mosque and shedding blood. However, the rebel’s call for an end to corruption and return to the true path of Islam was very attractive to him and his fellow ulema. The rebels were in many ways true Wahhabis and their movement was one which bin Baz and his fellow conservative clerics had done much to help to inspire. So bin Baz and the ulema drove a hard bargain. They would give the King what he wanted. They would permit the King and his forces to drive the rebels from the Grand Mosque, would issue a fatwa proclaiming that al-Qahtani was not the true Mahdi and reaffirm the regime’s Muslim legitimacy, but in return they required the King and the state to live up to its Islamic obligations. The policies of liberalization must be halted and where possible rolled back. There must be an end to licentiousness and the drinking of alcohol, to women appearing on TV and gaining employment, and to the screening of ‘lewd’ western films. And a greater part of the billions of dollars of oil money flowing into the country must be put to shoring up Wahhabism in the Kingdom and spreading the faith around the world. As some of the royal princes who were present at the negotiation put it, it amounted to the ulema demanding that King Khalid adopt Juhayman’s agenda in return for their help in getting rid of him.

But even after the ulema had issued their fatwa and their condemnation of the rebels as ‘renegades‘ and ‘deviationists from Islam’ had been broadcast across the country on Riyadh Radio, the regime’s forces were still faced with the serious practical problem of how to retake the mosque and overcome the rebels. They could not just go in ‘all guns blazing’, smashing up the Grand Mosque and killing hundreds of people in the process. It was clear that the rebels were well prepared and skilled in using firearms. In fact, many of the rebels were disillusioned former National Guardsmen from the Bedouin tribes which, like Juhayman’s own tribe, had been involved in the Ikhwan rebellion on 1929. There were somewhere between two and three hundred of these rebels well-embedded in good positions throughout the mosque. They had been joined by some hundreds of volunteers from among the original worshippers, making a total opposition force of perhaps one thousand. The regime’s forces were therefore going to have to attempt to retake the mosque by unconventional means, a fact which became more obvious when their first attacks were easily repulsed by the rebels.

Although they deeply disapproved of Shi’ism and the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, the rebels had concluded that if Khomeini and the Iranian students could overthrow a regime as powerful as that of the Shah, they could achieve a similar revolution in Saudi Arabia. Days passed and the rebels repeatedly beat off ineffective sorties by Khalid’s forces. But the rebels suffered one major disappointment. Although there were some scattered risings against the regime elsewhere in the country and a more serious uprising and rioting by Shia in the oil producing Eastern Province, there was no widespread general revolt such as had occurred in Iran. The Saudi rulers, for all their faults, were not as unpopular as the Shah, nor were they as brutal.

After days of unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the rebels, the Saudi authorities realized that their troops simply did not have the necessary know-how and specialized equipment to dislodge the rebels from the Grand Mosque on their own. However, they could not simply call in foreigners to do it for them. To do so would not only amount to a very humiliating public admission that the Saudi regime and their armed forces were not up to dislodging a few hundred fanatics from Islam’s holiest site, but to allow non-Muslims to enter the Holy City of Mecca, the Grand Mosque and even approach the sacred Ka’aba itself, would be totally haram–strictly forbidden under the most sacred laws of Islam. So a top-secret channel was opened between the highest levels of the French Government and one of the senior Saudi princes. As a result three French specialist commando officers with a great deal of experience of dealing with terrorist attacks and hostage crises were flown in the utmost secrecy to Saudi Arabia, together with a large amount of specially selected equipment and munitions, to devise a strategy, train one hundred and fifty of Saudi Arabia’s best and most fearless troops and supervise the operation.

The final assault on the mosque, exactly two weeks after the rebels had seized it, was fought mainly in the maze of cellars below the mosque. After almost twenty- hours of close-quarters fighting, in which large quantities of gas and chemicals were used as well as guns, the last of the rebels were either killed or captured. Qahtani was killed early in the operation, but Juhayman was captured alive. Asked by his captors, pointing to the desecrated shrine, “How could you do this?” Juhayman is reported to have replied, “It was God’s will.”

The official casualty figures were 12 Saudi officers killed, 115 other ranks, and 450 seriously  injured, 117 rebels killed, 26 worshippers killed and 110 wounded, many of them foreign nationals. The real figures were almost certainly a lot higher than this–American government sources suggested around 1,000. On January 9th 1980, Juhayman was executed in Mecca, while those of his fellow conspirators who had been captured were executed at the same time in Saudi Arabia’s other eight most important cities. The Saudi authorities were determined to leave Saudis across the Kingdom in no doubt about who ruled.

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Fatwa: an opinion or judgement given by a suitably qualified Muslim legal expert, a mufti, on legal or personal matters.

Hadith: accounts of the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad compiled by scholars as an authoitative guide as to how individual Muslims and Muslim communities should live and act.

Ikhwan: literally ‘brothers’ or ‘brethren’, the name adopted by members of a radical Wahhabi religious and social movement which became a powerful fighting force.

Ka’aba: the cube at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in the side of which is the black stone, said to be part of what came down from heaven to provide light for Adam and Eve and which was subsequently rededicated to the worship of God by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Muslims perambulate around the Ka’aba during the Hajj and ritually touch or kiss it.

Ulema: learned men, authorities and guardians of legal and religious traditions of Islam.

Wahhabism: uncomprisingly pure and strict form of Sunni Islam, inspired by a mid-eighteenth-century Sunni preacher, Muhammad al-Wahhab, who formed an alliance with the Al Sauds. The dominant form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

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With courtesy of : Ibn Saud by Michael Darlow & Barbara Bray, first published in the UK by Quartet in 2010

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3 thoughts on “The False Mahdi

  1. It was during a crew slip over in Damascus with another captain on way to or returning from Europe somewhere in the late seventies that we were visiting the grand mosque in Damascus where our captain wanted to offer his Friday prayers. A British flight engineer (ex-BOAC) was also part of the crew. The captain was explaining to him about the term ‘Mahdi’ and how according to Muslim belief he (the Mahdi) was supposed to alight on one of the minarets of that famous mosque just prior to Doomsday. This was the first time I had heard of the term and of what he was saying. Of course he belonged to the Shia faith, and I said nothing. Many a times I have been mistaken for a Shia because of my name ending in Husain and with the Syed attached to it. I personally do not believe in classification.

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  2. Pakistan International Airlines lost a B707-340 aircraft on November 26, 1979 within twenty minutes after departing Jeddah that evening.
    The action in the Grand Mosque in Mecca started on November 20, 1979 and lasted two weeks. So it was ongoing at the time the PIA aircraft crashed. The crash was never explained by PIA properly to the crew or the people. It was attributed to a fire in the cabin caused by a gas stove of a returning Hajj passenger. There were stories also circulating about it having been shot down by a missile as it had strayed near Taif, where a prohibited area was established. The aircraft crashed near Taif.
    The flight had originated from Kano, Nigeria as a Saudia (SV) flight with a PIA aircraft. On departure from Jeddah for Karachi it was operating as PK 740.The crew had boarded the aircraft at Jeddah while the crew from Kano went to the hotel.

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    1. My friend, retired now, from the Air Force who flew the first helicopter to the crash site near Taif confirmed to me today that no missile hit this aircraft. The last message on the tape was of the copilot who had asked the captain to ‘heave’ as the ground came up suddenly. It was nightime; the aircraft landed on its belly on a sort of plateau with rocks strewn around.

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