At dawn this date in 1980, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia publicly beheaded over 60 Islamic extremists who had seized Mecca’s holy Al-Masjid al-Haram the preceding November — one of the formative and strangely forgotten events in the birth of radical Islam.
On November 20, 1979, with 100,000-plus pilgrims bustling in Islam’s holiest shrine on the hajj, a few hundred multinational messianic militants took it over with a cache of smuggled firearms.
For two embarrassing weeks, the Saudi government struggled to respond, bumbling a couple of military operations and delicately negotiating the ecclesiastical permission it would require to commit violence within the Grand Mosque. (Strict Moslim prohibitions against same had left the kingdom’s unarmed guards essentially defenseless against the initial takeover.)
In exchange for that fatwa, the House of Saud struck a Faustian bargain: agreeing to roll back secularization and impose strict Islamic law.
The balance of military materiel, of course, would prove to be no contest at all; Riyadh had troops, heavy armament, and now, permission to use them (and to damage the mosque … which they did). Most of the Mahdists were slain in the decisive assault; the survivors* (except for a few who were underage) were publicly beheaded in various cities around Saudi Arabia on this date, including the operation’s leader, Juhayman al-Otaibi.
But their deed — second-tier news at the time in a United States distracted by the Iranian Revolution — would have dramatic long-term repurcussions. Though intimations of deeper bin Laden family involvement** seem sketchy, it certainly appears to have inspired the 22-year-old Osama bin Laden; he soon made his way to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, a war that began in earnest just days after the end of the siege and to whose prosecution Saudi Arabia and the west would gratefully direct Islamist energies.
Meanwhile, the Saudi government’s pact with the clergy that gained it permission to assail the Grand Mosque saw it subsequently bankroll Wahhabi religious instruction in Saudi Arabia and beyond … arguably the hand that rocked the cradle of present-day Islamic radical movements like al-Qaeda.
On this date in 1850, a Persian merchant who claimed to be the Islamic messiah was shot in Tabriz for apostasy.
The Bab — the handle means “Gate”; he was born Siyyid `Alí Muhammad — started preaching as a young man in 1844 and attracted a following unwelcome to the orthodox Shi’a clergy and the powers that were.
The Bab would claim to be “that person you have been awaiting for one thousand years”: the Mahdi. And in a John the Baptist-like pose, he would also pledge to be preparing the way for another, “He whom God shall make manifest,” to follow his footsteps.
Authorities cracked down on this subversive faith and its heretical claim to have a divine messenger, hailing the Bab before a clerical tribunal that found him a blasphemer and an apostate. After dawdling a couple of years, the government finally ordered him shot … to which punishment a young disciplie submitted himself voluntarily as well.
Reputedly, the public execution by firing squad was quite a fiasco for the government, and/or a miracle for the Bab. It is said that the entire sizable regiment deployed to volley at the Bab and his devotee managed to miss everything, but to shoot through the rope that was holding the prophet suspended a few meters above the ground. In the Baha’i version, he miraculously disappears from the first execution attempt and is found later calmly conversing with a secretary in his prison cell, at which point he’s (successfully) executed a second time.
A less pious version of the story commencing from the same starting point of unmarksmanlike executioners has the Bab shot out of his rope and availing the smoke of the discharge to scramble out of the courtyard, only to be detained before he could make good an escape.
Inevitable disputes about the succession to this charismatic figure ensued his death, and several claimed to be the Bab’s Promised One. The main current of the tradition evolved into the Baha’i faith, accepting the claim of Baha’u'llah to this position. (A tiny remnant of Babism still persists who dispute Baha’u'llah’s legitimacy and still await the Promised One.)