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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.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Apocalypse Row: Netanyahu, Nukes, and Iranian Eschatology

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak to a joint session of the US Congress on Tuesday, March 3, 2015.  If his speech earlier today at the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was any indication, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons will be the major topic.  Partisan bickering (about whether the Republican majority in the House and Senate wished to insult President Obama) aside,  the central issue boils down to whether Bibi is correct in his long-held belief that the IRI leadership amounts to a “messianic, apocalyptic, radical cult” which must be stopped at all costs from going nuclear (as he first said six years ago).   

He is not.  

Now as my usual friends and colleague sharpen their knives, allow me to explain.  First off, I am a staunch supporter of Israel, as both a Christian and an American, and have been there three times in the last decade.  Also, now that Turkey, under Sultan Erdoğan, has slipped back into Neo-Ottomanism, Israel is the only truly democratic nation in the Middle  East.  Along with the Kurds, the Israelis are our closest allies in that region.  

But that does not mean that everything Israeli is automatically correct.  And this claim that Iran wants nuclear weapons in order to use them on Tel Aviv and thus spark the coming of the 12th Imam al-Mahdi is a gross misreading of Twelver Shi`i doctrines as well as of Iranian politics. 

I examined this issue in depth for the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis back in 2011, in a paper entitled “A Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?”  The major points therein follow, after this pictorial message:

Ismail.jpgSafavid Shah Isma'il (L), founder of the 16th c. dynasty that converted Iran to Twelver Shi`ism. HE would not have hesitated to use nukes (in fact, his turban itself is weaponized).  But Khamenei? Not bloody likely.

Z  Belief in the return of the 12th Imam from ghaybah, “occultation,” is not “fringe” or “extremist” but a mainstay of this brand of Islam (just as is the doctrine of Jesus’ return for all orthodox Christians).

Z The 12th Imam’s reappearance is totally up to Allah’s discretion; nothing humans can do will advance his timetable.  “Hotwiring the apocalypse” depends not on WMD usage or any other violent activity but, rather, hinges on creating the Mahdist state in microcosm (i.e., the IRI) and then waiting on Allah to send the Mahdi to rule it.

Z The anjuman-i hujjatiyeh (“Hujjatiyeh Society”) is not some insane group dedicated to destroying Israel but an organization dedicated to re-converting Baha’is to Twelver Shi`ism—and, furthermore, was banned in the early 1980s for being insufficiently supportive of Ayatollah Khomeini’s clerical rule.

Z As per the excellent article by Ze’ev Maghen, “Occultation in Perpetuum: Shi`ite Messianism and the Policies of the Islamic Republic,” the ruling ayatollahs are probably the most vociferous opponents of a true Mahdist claim on the planet—because acknowleding anyone as such would end their rule of Iran, and with it their wealth, power and privilege. 

Z Twelver Shi`i views of jihad mandate that jihad-i ghalaba, “victorious holy war,” be prohibited until the return of the 12th Imam—NOT employed to importune him to appear.  Usage of nuclear weapons is thus really not allowable for the apocalypse-hotwiring which many pundits impute  to Iran.

Z Yes, some Iranian leaders have spoken, repeatedly, of Israel being “erased from the pages of history.”  But I believe that this means they believe in a gradual demographic disintegration of the “Zionist entity,” and not a mushroom cloud over Israel.

Z It is possible for men to have long beards, wear turbans, express eschatological beliefs and yet still be rational political actors. The Supreme Leader and his cronies all know that were Iran to use a nuclear weapon against Israel, their nation would be a radioactive ruin about 15 minutes later. The Mahdi has no desire to rule over such a wasteland. Plus, it would deprive the clerics of their wives and Rolls Royces.

Z All of the above by no means makes the IRI a peaceful or trustworthy state.  The ruling ayatollahs want nuclear weapons not only to hold onto their power (as per the ruling clique in Pyongyang) but to provide immunity against possible American military strikes and to increase Tehran’s regional clout—just not to summon the Mahdi via a nuclear conflagration.  

President Jarrett, er, Obama and SecState John Kerry are fools to think that any written agreement will disabuse Khameini and his ilk of their lust for nuclear weapons.  But attempting to counter the administration’s naiveté with inane bluster that misepresents our enemy’s beliefs and intentions amounts to falling off the horse on the opposite side.  Instead, let’s try sitting upright on a strong horse and avoiding partisan extremes of misapprehension.  

12:55 pm est          Comments

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Is Islam Really 99.981% Terrorism-Free? Refuting Fareed Zakaria on ISIS

Fareed Zakaria penned a rather inane article in “The Washington Post” last week, entitled “The limits of the Islamic label” (which he adduced at length in his “GPS” show this morning).  The point therein: to criticize Graeme Wood for his “Atlantic” article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” in which the latter dares to state that ISIS is profoundly Islamic, and even apocalyptic, in its belief system and actions. Zakaria supports President Obama’s Machiavellian “terrorism means never having to say ‘Islam’ ” strategy on the grounds that it avoids alienation of 1.6 billion Muslims, and takes Wood (and those of us like-minded) to task with the metric that ISIS’s 30,000 members only comprise .0019% of the world’s Islamic population.


99.44% pure Ivory soap's got nothin' on me! 

But ISIS isn’t the only terrorist organization which adduces Islam as its raison d’etre—it’s only the most brutal.  I scrutinized the data on the other three dozen major terrorist groups which are Islamic, on the US State Department site as well as several others, and came up with a rough membership number for all the non-ISIS Sunni Muslim terrorist groups of some 65,000.  Adding in ISIS’s 30,000 puts the global Sunni dedicated terrorist ranks into the 100,000 range—especially when we consider that State enumerated the membership strength of a number of these entities as “unknown:” it’s certainly reasonable to estimate that these half-dozen groups (which include the likes of al-Qa`idah [AQ] central and the Abd Allah Azzam Brigades) count several thousand adherents.  

But wait, there’s more that refutes Zakaria’s specious claim.  The core ISIS ideology centers around several key Islamic concepts: Islam as the only true religion; the need for a caliphate to rule all Muslims and impose shari`ah; the necessity of not just da`wah but jihad to achieve those ends; the belief that the Qur’an should be literally followed, even if need be to the point of beheading opponents.  This interpretation and articulation of Islam is virtually synonymous with that of the Wahhabis of the Arabian peninsula, the Deobandis of the Indian subcontinent, and even, arguably, apolitical piety-minded “missionary” groups like Tablighi Jama`at [TJ]. Active Wahhabis number at least 5 million in the Gulf; Deobandis make up some 20% of Indian Muslims (30 million) and 20% of Pakistani ones (35 million); and TJ’s membership has been put in the 20-80 million range (see my entry on this group in the World Almanac of Islamism).  In addition, while Wahhabis and Deobandis can all be subsumed under the category of Salafism, not all Salafis are Wahhabis or Deobandis—and this latter category would include at least 10 million more Muslims.  

Even taking the lowest estimates for Wahhabis, Deobandis, TJ members and Salafis, we arrive at a count of some 95 million.  This comprises about 6% of the world’s total Muslim population—or, since we’re actually working here only with the Sunni population, about 8% of  the world’s 1.36 billion Sunnis.  (Yes, there are Twelver Shi`i terrorist groups—notably Hizbullah—but such tend to be as much nationalist as Islamic, and they are rarely as brutal as the Sunni terrorist ones, plus, they are not as enamored with imposing shari`ah, much less a caliphate.)  

Furthermore, according to Pew data, large minorities—indeed, majorities in some parts of the Islamic world—believe not only that shari`ah is ordained by Allah, but also that components thereof such as cutting off hands for stealing or stoning for adultery should be the law of their lands.  This differs very little from ISIS ideology.

Likewise for apocalyptic beliefs: some 42% of the world’s Muslims, or about 670 million people, indicate they expect the Mahdi to come in their lifetime; and a further 35%, approximately 560 million, say the same about the return of Jesus.


Quite a far cry from Zakaria’s .0019%. 

Fareed Zakaria finished his “WaPo” piece by citing an Egyptian-turned-terrorist, then pontificated that “calling him Islamic really doesn’t help you understand” why this chap did so.   Au contraire, Mr. Zakaria: it helps very much,  despite your sophistic attempts at muddying the analytical waters.
3:31 pm est          Comments

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jihad, Apocalypse and Terrorism: Is ISIS Acting as Lucifer's Hands?

As most purveyors of this site know by now, the mainstream media has (finally) discovered that Islamic apocalyptic thought drives ISIS: Graeme Wood wrote an excellent piece covering this in "The Atlantic," and Peter Bergen did the same for CNN.  

Apocalyptic traditions and movements, led by a Muslim claiming to be the End Time Mahdi ("rightly-guided one"), are not new with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusrah or any of the other modern groups proclaiming belief in such. They go back to the early days of Islam, and are intrinsically connected to the more general Muslim practice of jihad, or holy war against "infidels." 

Soudanwar.jpg British troops fighting troops of the 19th c. apocalyptic Islamic State: the Mahdiyah of Sudan.

As someone who's studied this topic for almost two decades now, I was asked to put together a three-day seminar on it for the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and I taught this class via 17 hours of contact time over Super Bowl weekend.  Thirty MA students signed up (including many Muslims), and it went very well.

Here is how I organized the material:

I) Jihad

A Brief History of the Islamic World 

Qur'an and Hadiths: Basic Teachings

Pew Data on Key Modern Muslim Beliefs

Moderate Islamic Actors 

II) Apocalyptic

Acting Like it's the End of the World: Islamic Eschatology

Christian and Muslim Eschatology since 9/11

Twelver Shi`i Eschatology and the Iranian Vision 

III) Terrorism

Terrorism: A History of Violence

4GW, 4th Terrorism Wave, or Forthcoming War? Sunni and Shi`i Jihad Analyzed

Fighting for the End of the (Christian) World: ISIS's Jihad Eschatology 

This seminar is intended for a secular audience, but much of it can easily be adapted to a more religious venue, Christian, Jewish or even Muslim--if the latter are willing to be intellectually honest and open-minded.

One major aspect of this seminar, reflecting my own well-researched opinion, is that ISIS and its ilk (like the "moderate" [sic] Jabhat al-Nusrah) are legitimately Islamic in waging jihad and hoping for the apocalyptic defeat of Western Christian forces. BUT I also firmly believe that such Islamic violence and triumphalism are predicated on a literal reading of the Qur'an and Hadiths, as well as a slavish following of Muhammad's more unsavory practices; and that Islamic sects and movements which interpret the religion non-literally can, eventually, perhaps pry Islam out of Lucifer's hands.  

If anyone is interested in having me present this workshop (or a shorter version thereof) to an interested organization, please contact me through this site. 

11:21 am est          Comments

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Media Is Never Late: It Discovers Islamic Apocalyptic Precisely When It Means To!

Since this is Lent, I must choose charity over envy: it is, indeed, a net positive for the world that "The Atlantic" and CNN have discovered that ISIS is Islamic, and that eschatological belief is one of its major drivers. However, as someone whose very doctorate is in Islamic End Times movements ("Eschatology as Politics, Eschatology as Theory: Modern Sunni Arab Mahdism in Historical Perspective;" 290 pp., The Ohio State University, 2001), who has published numerous articles and delivered a legion of lectures on this topic as well as advised the US military on same--I do have to say: "what took you so bloody long?"

My take on Graeme Wood's excellent "Atlantic" piece has just today been written up by WND;  but I do have some further observations on Wood, as well as on Peter Bergen's CNN piece: 

* Wood's description of ISIS's worldview as being that of "medieval Islam" is not entirely accurate, as it comes from the 7th-9th century AD; "early Islamic" would be better. (My historian's distaste for automatically equating "medieval" with barbaric is showing, I freely confess.) 

* "Quietist Salafism" as the antidote to ISIS's brutally literalist Islam is a stretch, since that approach is also one of Sunni fundamentalism. What's needed is a brand of Islam that eschews Qur'anic/hadith literalism, and that is found, rather, in sects such as the Ahmadis, Isma'ilis, and some Sufi orders

* Bergen's labeling of ISIS as a non-rational actor implies that its members are, well, crazy--which they are not.  They are entirely rational, once you accept their eschatological premises--which, according to Pew data, hundreds of millions of Muslims actually do.  

Still and all, I am glad that Wood and Bergen, and their respective outlets, are interested--FINALLY--in this important issue.  

But at the risk of hubris: is it too much to ask that, in future, said news entities cut out the (journalistic) middle men and go straight to a chap who's been studying this topic since 1999?  


10:55 am est          Comments

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When Fictional Spokeswomen are Better than Real Ones: Éowyn v. Marie Harf on Our Enemies

A very important point which no one in the analytical, and few in the journalistic, community wants to admit (hence State's Marie Harf adducing phantoms such as poverty-driven jihad): the ISIS Caliph and his minions refer to the United States of America as "defender of the cross."  Not "proponent of Ayn Rand," "guardian  of the Enlightenment" or "warden of Jeffersonian democracy."  Caliph al-Baghdadi and his decapitating/immolating rank-and-file forthrightly (if inconveniently) spell out exactly why they hate us: because, in their eyes, we are a Christian nation.   There are those who will dismiss this as a mere progagandistic trope.  But they would be wrong to do so.  IS, along with Boko Haram and al-Qa`ida and Jabhat al-Nusra and the Taliban (to name only a few of the Islamic legions), as well as the non-terrorist but Muslim fundamentalist movements such as Wahhabism, Deobandism and Salafism, all view the world through a simplistic but legitimately Islamic lens of Dar al-Islam v. Dar al-harb: the "house of Islam" v. the "house of war."  And for 14 centuries the vanguard of the latter has been Christendom.  Some decry pointing this out as crass  "Crusaderism."  But as that combat veteran J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out--via his main female protagonist, Éowyn, "it needs but one foe to breed a war, not two"--and when that enemy declares its war on us in religious terms, why should we pretend otherwise? 

HildebrandtEowyn.jpg Should I help the Witch-king get a real job--or just stab him in the face? (Thanks, TH.)

11:02 am est          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