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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: http://hnn.us/articles/13146.html; for more in-depth info, see the links here to my other writings, including my book on Mahdism.
Sunday, April 26, 2015
Acting Like Obama Is Causing the End of the World
11:59 pm edt
No one, not even George W. Bush, has been able to infuriate the Left quite like
former Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R, MN). For just one hyperbolic example, here's what "Rolling Stone" had to say about her in 2011: "Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions
and paranoid delusions." I have often defended her, both because I thought such attacks unfair, and because a few years
ago the Congresswoman and I spoke over the phone about my dismissal from lecturing jobs at Joint Special Operations University
and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (DHS) because of Obama Administration orders to deep-six folks who discussed
jihad in counter-terrorism training. I found her to be intelligent, articulate, polite and well-informed on Islamic issues--at
least for a non-specialist.
Alas, Ms. Bachmann has gone off the eschatological deep-end. This past week she said that the Apocalypse is nigh--because of Barack Obama, who "is intent...to ensure that Iran
has a nuclear weapon. Why? Why would you put the nuclear weapon in the hands of mad men?" President
Obama's speechwriters couldn't resist having the TOTUS (Teleprompter-of-the-US), er, POTUS zing her over that at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And frankly, I don't
blame them--or him (for a change).
Imam Mahdi, the Caliph Husayn!
Ms. Bachmann is the ultimate (bad) example of
an unfortunate and pernicious trend: the inundation of GOP politics by one particular stream of Evangelical Protestant eschatology.
I first spoke on this trending flow at Concordia University-Irvine back in 2011, but it's now become a flood. To briefly list
the major elements of this worldview: the Antichrist of Revelation will be a Muslim leader (perhaps someone claiming to be
the Mahdi); such a figure may very well come from Iran (or, alternatively, from a revived Ottoman Empire); and, ipso facto, the ayatollahs/Islamic clerics want nuclear weapons in order to use
them against Israel and thus "hotwire the apocalypse," causing Allah to send Islam's primary messianic figure.
I am convinced that a number of Republican and Tea Party politicians base their foreign policy views--particularly
their antipathy for the Islamic Republic--in large measure on this line of reasoning. And while I bow to no one in my
respect for the power of Islamic apocalyptic movements across space and time, I think an objective analysis of Iranian political
and Twelver Shi`i religious thought clearly shows that the leaders of Tehran are neither "mad," nor do they believe
in hotwiring the apocalypse. (Please see my rather long scholarly paper on the topic, or, if you're in a hurry, dear reader, my most recent previous blogpost on topic. And for some real entertainment, check out this "NewsmaxTV" exchange between me and a clueless Tea Partier on topic.) Of course, it's also absurd for Bachmann to claim
that Obama wants to provide Iran WMDs--but once you're on this particular crazy train, you might as well just keep throwing coal into the engine.
I should add
that, as I've blogged, lectured and said in media interviews dozens of times since last summer, there ARE
Sunni jihadist groups trying to violently immanentize the eschaton--most notably, and dangerously, ISIS. But the ayatollahs of Iran are not of that particular ilk.
Finally, what is particularly galling to me as a Christian--albeit a Lutheran with Orthodox leanings, NOT an Evangelical--is
the ignorant hubris of those like Michelle Bachmann who think that they know better than Christ Himself about The End: "of
that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (St. Mark's Gospel,
After all, even Bono knows that one can get carried away talking about the end of the world.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Hitch a Ride to Boston to Get Some Peace of Mind about the Mahdi!
10:09 pm edt
The Boston University conference on Mahdism, May 3-4, entitled "Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams
and Global Jihad" has a new weblink and a new poster. How about that JJ Abrams-esque lens flare on the Mahdi?!
My paper is entitled "Rejecting Millennial Time: The Ottoman Empire's 700-year War against Mahdism
in its Realm." I'm honored to be sharing the stage with the likes of the august folks listed above!
If you're anywhere near Boston in 10 days, come on out! After all, although the
Mahdi is certainly a man I'll never be, I still expect to be feelin' satisfied after this conference! But that could just be because I'm used to bad news....
Sunday, April 19, 2015
Macbeth and the Mahdi's Missiles
9:26 pm edt
Last week I appeared on the Christian current events radio show "View from the Bunker" to discuss Iran's nuclear program in light of its Twelver Shi`a theology and how that relates to the
modern Middle East. I spent an hour refuting the now-entrenched position of my fellow conservatives: that Iran wants nukes
to use on Israel and/or the US in order to 1) annihilate the Jews and 2) spark the coming of the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi. Folks
like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and even John Bolton may not be idiots, yet they're spouting little but sound and fury on this
topic (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5).
Wonderful artwork from josephhubbard.com!
Give it a listen. Host Derek Gilbert is
amazingly well-informed and, well, I know a bit myself!
Saturday, April 18, 2015
Please Come to Boston--To Learn About the Mahdi and Islamic Apocalyptic
11:40 am edt
In two weeks (May 3-4, 2015), Boston University will host "Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams and Global Jihad." Topics covered will include: ISIS's and Boko Haram's eschatological ideas;
reluctance of Western analysts and commentators to see the connection between global jihad and Islamic apocalyptic; Iranian
apocalpytic thought; etc. I will present a paper on how the Ottoman Empire responded to Mahdist movements within its
borders, and what that might teach Muslim governments today. There are some major-league presenters--both academic experts
(Will McCants; Brookings; organizers Richard Landes, BU; David Cook, Rice; Jeffrey Bales, MIIS) and "lay" (Graeme
Wood; Ayaan Hirsi Ali).
Journalists, academics and government analysts interested in this
important topic should please come to Boston!
Friday, April 17, 2015
Mahdi(s) of Arabia
8:54 am edt
this week the current affairs analytical shop Wikistrat asked me to opine on the conflict in Yemen. Here it is:
"With Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni powers carrying out airstrikes in Yemen
and accusing their regional nemesis, Iran, of instigating the Houthi uprising in the country, Wikistrat asked its Senior Analyst Dr.
Timothy Furnish, who is an authority on especially Shia Islam, Mahdism and other Islamic sects, to provide background
on the conflict and explain to what extent Iran really is involved.
Dr. Furnish notes that Yemen has been a battleground
for rival brands of Islam for over a millennium.
In the 900s, it was contested by dueling Shiisms:
the (then-militant) Seveners, or Isma’ilis, from North Africa waged dawah and jihad against Fivers,
or Zaydis, from Iran. (This was before Iran’s forcible conversion to Twelver Shiism by the Safavids in the sixteenth
century.) The Zaydis won and established a militant Imamate in northern Yemen. The Ottomans occupied Yemen twice in order
to safeguard the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as well as Red Sea trade. Both times, Zaydi insurgents forced them out, despite
massive Ottoman efforts to delegitimize the Zaydi Shii Imamate.
Iran would like this map--because there's no Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But they'd dislike the return of
the Ottoman Empire.
In the 1960s civil war, staunchly Sunni Saudi Arabia (ironically) backed the
Zaydis while Nasser’s Egypt supported the “republicans” who ultimately emerged victorious. After unification
in 1990, the Sana’a government largely ignored the needs and demands of the 40 percent of the Yemeni population that
was Zaydi, contributing to the sense of disenfranchisement felt by the main Zaydi tribe, the Houthis — which has now
led to civil war again.
Iran has various aims in fanning the flames of the Houthi rebellion, Dr. Furnish
- Leveraging “persecution” of Shia into regional geopolitical influence for Tehran-Qom;
- Appealing to, and exploiting, historical connections with Shia Muslims of Yemen and greater Arabia;
- Undermining and delegitimizing the Saudi government;
- Strengthening its strategic position on
both sides of the Red Sea;
- Strengthening the anti-Israel Islamic front;
- Searching for allies wherever
they can be found.
But Dr. Furnish also cautions that Iran neither created nor controls Yemen’s
One might well argue, instead, that the Houthis Zaydi leadership is using Tehran
more than the other way around.
For much of the last 1200 years, Zaydis have ruled over much of Yemen and they
do have legitimate grievances against both the recent Sunni leadership in Sana’a and, of course, against Sunni jihadists
like Al Qaeda and (allegedly) ISIS there.
Saudi Arabia’s reflexive theological and political fear of Shiism in the
peninsula is understandable as well. Besides Yemen, there are large minority pockets of Twelvers in eastern Saudi Arabia and
of Seveners in Najran.
Also, Mahdism has been a real fear since 1979,
when Juhayman al-Utaybi declared his brother-in-law, Muhammad al-Qahtani, the Mahdi and their forces occupied the Great Mosque
— a fear that has grown in recent years as Saudi Arabia has suffered a rash of “lone wolf” Mahdis across
Simply bombing Yemen is not going to stop such eschatological fervor, though, Furnish warns. If anything, it could
drive more than just Houthis into Iran’s embrace.
Some means of redressing legitimate minority —
Shia of all three denominations, that is — grievances must be part of the equation. Perhaps Oman, whose Ibadi Islam
is tolerant of both Sunnis and Shiis and whose government is on good terms with Iran, can play a key role here.
Finally, Furnish urges Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to keep in mind
that the self-declared “Islamic State” to the north is ultimately far more dangerous than the Zaydis to the south."
Also, in 2013, I was in Israel lecturing on this topic,
at Haifa University. Here is the audio link.
The scimitar of the Zaydi Imam(s): Iran didn't forge it--but is helping aim it (at the Saudis).
|Jamkaran Mosque near Qom, Iran (during my trip there Aug. 2008)