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al-Mahdi is "the rightly-guided one" who, according to Islamic Hadiths (traditions), will come before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim.  Over the last 1400 years numerous claimants to the mantle of the Mahdi have arisen in both Shi`i and Sunni circles.  Modern belief in the coming of the Mahdi has manifested most famously in the 1979 al-`Utaybi uprising of Sa`udi Arabia, and more recently in the ongoing Mahdist movements (some violent) in Iraq, as well as in the frequently-expressed public prayers of former Iranian President Ahmadinezhad bidding the Mahdi to return and, in the larger Sunni Islamic world, by claims that Usamah bin Ladin might be the (occulted) Mahdi.  Now in 2014 Mahdism is active in Syria, as the jihadist opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra claims to be fighting to prepare the way for his coming; and in the new "Islamic State/caliphate" spanning Syrian and Iraqi territory, as its leadership promotes the upcoming apocalyptic battle with the West at Dabiq, Syria.  This site will track such Mahdi-related movements, aspirations, propaganda and beliefs in both Sunni and Shi`i milieus, as well as other  Muslim eschatological yearnings.
For a primer on Mahdism, see my 2005 article, "What's Worse than Violent Jihadists?," at the History News Network:; for more in-depth info, see the links here to my other writings, including my book on Mahdism.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Reading Like It's the End of the World

Sorry for my month-long hiatus from posting--but I've been finishing three manuscripts, which should publish as books in a few months.

Here is the first one:


And the second: 


My third book is on Tolkien; it is entitled High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-earth (to be followed, next year, by Bright Swords and Glorious Warriors: A Military HIstory of Middle-earth). The cover, however, is not yet available.   

12:13 pm edt          Comments

Friday, June 26, 2015

It's Not Easy Being Green--Unless You're Discussing the Mahdi

Yesterday (June 25, 2015) I was a guest on Tom Trento's excellent "The United West" radio/TV show.  For some 40 minutes Tom and I discussed Mahdism in general and the Iranian Twelver Shi`i variant thereof in particular.  For much of the time, Skype--or perhaps the Hidden Imam--caused me to appear in green.  Personally, I think it's a sign from God; but don't quote me on that. 


5:26 pm edt          Comments

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Islamophobia, Iconophobia, and Islamic Images of Muhammad

The rather obscure realm of Islamic art, and in particular whether it’s “unIslamic” to portray Islam’s founder, Muhammad, therein, has become an important—indeed, potentially lethal—topic, first with the murders of the Charlie Hebdo publishers, then with the Garland, Texas, attack on the organizers of “Draw Muhammad” which resulted in two self-styled jihadists being dispatched to consort with the houris.  The brains behind “Draw Muhammad”—Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller—inspired another similar event in Phoenix this past Friday (May 29, 2015).  Geller, the lightning rod of the Spencer-Geller counter-jihad duo, recently mixed it up on CNN with Chris Cuomo, as the latter compared her push for people to draw Muhammad with using the “n-word” in referring to black Americans.  

Muhammadandhouris001.jpg Muhammad cavorting with houris, from the Ottoman palace museum--THIS should upset Muslims more than anything from "Draw Muhammad."

Whether one feels that “Draw Muhammad” events are intentionally provocative,it’s clear that they are certainly legal on First Amendment grounds—so I do not wish to rehash that debate.  Rather, I think it more important to examine the history of Islamic attitudes toward art in general and the portrayal of humans, particularly prophetic figures, in particular.  Media experts are all over the map on this issue:  some maintain that images of  Muhammad are strictly forbidden in the world’s second-largest religion, while others argue that “the koran [sic]” does no such thing.

For a reasoned and exhaustive take, yet one accessible to us philistines, I have turned to the chapter “The Visual Arts in an Islamic Setting, c. 1258-1503,” pp. 501-520 in The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods by the brilliant historian Marshall G.S. Hodsgon.  Hodgson situates the topic into the the long history of the “Irano-Semitic lands,” and of the monotheistic religions therein, and pegs the distaste for visual symbolism—particularly of humans, and even more specifically of those deemed prophets—to a rejection by Jews, some Christians, and later Muslims for the “figural images” which were a staple of non-monotheist nature cults in the Middle East.  This “iconophobia” is not spelled out in the Qur’an, true; but Islam’s intense focus on abstract monotheism derived from the Qur’an meant that “any other symbolism, particularly in such seductive forms as music and visual imagery, must appear as a rival to the Qur’anic presence.”  Thus, “Shar’iah-minded Islam” eventually “banned all figural imagery…on the ground that it might tempt the weak to idolatry. Hanafi and Usuli [Twelver] Shi`i law books banned images…Shafi`is and Malikis implicitly linked art to luxury...but they all came to like conclusions”—contra artwork that showed holy humans, that is.   The Hanbali school of jurisprudence, which did not develop until centuries later, doubled (at least!) down on this artistic puritanism (Wahhabism and Salafism stem from Hanbalism); it is from this particular Islamic interpretive ideology that most of the world’s terrorists now come—including the al-Qa`idah-linked killers in Paris, and the ISIS destroyers of any and all art which they can get their bloody jihadist hands on.

JesusandMuhammadwithOttomantitle.jpg Jesus and Muhammad, the original easy riders. Neither seems too uptight about being painted. 

There are those who got around the portrayal prohibition—especially in the areas of the Islamic world conquered by the Mongols, to which less restrictive ideas about painting and imagery were exported from the Far East, particularly China.  In Afghanistan and Persia, in particular, and between 1300 and 1600 AD, “miniatures” which portrayed humans—as well as prophets, up to and including even Muhammad—were allowed, and often even patronized by Islamic rulers. 

Even in the central (Arab) Islamic lands, the Shari`ah-minded “iconophobia” was not the only perspective: often at loggerheads with that was Sufism, the broad, mystical movement more concerned with inner than outer piety, and thus not always averse to depictions of prophets and other holy figures. But In so far as the Shari`ah-minded have come, since 1600 AD,  to dominate Islamic thinking and adjudicate acceptable Islamic piety—“where if a peasant came upon ancient paintings or statues he was likely to destroy them at once, or even a scholar (with the sanction of fiqh law) might actually draw a line across the throat of a painted figure to show that it was not alive”—the Sufis (who number perhaps 100 million, all told) now comprise not just the numerical but the ideological minority. 

So does Islam ban portrayals of its founder, Muhammad? Yes—and no.  The majority opinion of Muslims—certainly of the `ulama, the cleric-scholars, in all five major interpretive schools—is that it is “idolatrous” to paint/illustrate any human, much more Jesus or Muhammad. However, it is also quite clear that such depictions were done in the past by Muslim artists, and thus that the Shari`ah-minded consensus of the last 400 years could very well be rolled back to what held before that—if Muslims were willing to give the Sufi side of Islam another chance.  Until then, while it is not true that cartoons of Islam’s founder are the visual equivalent of the “n-word,” a more effective means of exposing the majoritarian intolerant strain of Islam might be to eschew modern drawings of Muhammad (and certainly intentionally insulting ones) and, rather, stage exhibits with examples of ISLAMIC paintings of him.  That would make the point more historically and legitimately, and less provocatively, in my opinion.  

MoChuckJustin.jpg Muhammad "the Lawgiver" flanked by two others a bit more relevant to Western civilization: Charlemagne and Justinian.  Why haven't Muslims rioted over this graven image on the US Supreme Court building? Well, the millennium IS young....

[The three images used on this page all come from the "Mohammed Image Archive" at  


6:26 pm edt          Comments

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Debating Islam and Eschatology at Boston University

Having  been out of town recently, I fell behind in posting videos from our early May conference at BU.  Herewith I shall catch up.

First, here is the Q & A which followed panel 1 (Richard Landes, Will McCants and Graeme Wood--already linked earlier on this site).  

Then, Charles Cameron, futurist extraordinaire and perspicacious blogger, had the unenviable task of trying to pull together, thematically, panel 2 (my talk on Ottoman responses to to Mahdists, Cole Bunzel's discussion of the 1979 al-Utaybi uprising, and Jeffrey Bale's merciless exposure of Western "useful idiocy" regarding Islam--all of which, again, are already linked, below).  He did so admirably, even adducing the messianic themes in "Dune!" 

That gets us up to panel #3, the first lecture of which--David Cook's on "ISIS and Boko Haram" I have already posted.  The other two lectures in that grouping were the Brookings Institute's J.M. Berger on "The Role of Communications Technology in Mediating Apocalyptic Communities" and Professor Michael Pregill's on "Shi`i Militancy, Apocalyptic Islam, and Othering the Other."  The latter's talk was quite...interesting. Pregill is an "interlocutor" at BU (which seems to be some sort of faculty position) and clearly a learned man on the topic of early Islam.  The part of his lecture that dealt with the Fatimids, the medieval Severn Shi`i movement that ruled Egypt for several centuries, was quite fascinating and enlightening.  However, Mr. Pregill seemingly could not resist the urge to politicize the issue at hand--even, at one point, likening the Jesus-will-return eschatology of Evangelical Christians in the Tea Party to ISIS.  One wonders why such an intelligent person feels impelled to drag in not only an irrelevant, but an illogical, analogy. 

And, finally (for now) here is the Q & A which followed panel #3.   

Fatimids.jpg The Fatimid Empire (the dark green blob stretching across North Africa).  What it has to do with the Tea Party is anyone's guess. 

9:25 am edt          Comments

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Will the Mahdi Bless the Rains (of Terror) Down in Africa?

Another fine lecture from our Boston University conference on Islamic apocalyptic is up: Dr. David Cook, probably the world's foremost expert on Muslim eschatological hadiths, spoke on "ISIS and Boko Haram: Profiles in Apocalpytic Jihad."

Shekau.jpg Abubakr Shekau, head of Boko Haram--and potential wazir (prime minister) for Mahdi al-Baghdadi?

11:58 am edt          Comments

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Jamkaran Mosque near Qom, Iran (during my trip there Aug. 2008)

Mahdi, Mahdism, Eschatology, Usama bin Ladin, Dajjal, Ahmadinejad, al-Sadr, Hizbullah, Yajuj wa-Majuj, Dabbah, Jesus, `Isa, Holiest Wars, Nasrallah, End of Time, Twelfth Imam, Middle East Politics, Iran, Iraq, al-Sistani, Awaited Mahdi, al-Mahdi, the Mahdi, Hojjatiyeh, Armageddon, Dabbah, Muhammad, Hadith, Jihadists, Apocalypse, Consultant, Islamic Mahdis, Osama bin Ladin, al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda, al-Qa`ida, Azzam, Muhammad Ahmad, Ibn Tumart, al-Utaybi, Islam, Islamic, Muslim, Messiah, Ahmadinezhad, Khamanei, Ayatollah