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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.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Furnish on Jihad: Painting It Black, or Sympathizing with the Devil?
2:36 pm edt
Friday, April 26, 2013
You Can't Always Get Who You Want--for the Mahdi
When last I blogged (this past Monday), the topic was my new and lengthy
article for History News Network dealing with the possible eschatological influence on the Brothers Tsarnaev (the
Boston jihadists) of the “black banners from Khurasan”(eastern Iran/western Afghanistan/Central Asia)—whence
will come the Mahdi and his army, according to a number of Sunni hadiths. Now it appears that,
as Dr. Egon Spengler said in Ghostbusters: “it looks like it may actually happen” (although he was referring
to the coming of Gozer the Gozerian, “moldy” Sumerian deity—not the Islamic Mahdi). “The
Economist,” in its latest edition, is reporting that the Islamic Republic of Iran suffers from a plague of mahdis, in
“You’re a fake: Iran’s multiplicity of messiahs.” A “score” of “fake messiahs
were picked up by security men in the courtyard to the mosque in Jamkaran, a village near Qom, whose reputation as the place
of the awaited Mahdi’s advent has been popularised nationwide by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” The
article also states that according to an Iranian “seminary expert,” Mehdi Ghafari, “more than 3,000 fake
Mahdis were in prison” and that an unnamed Tehran psychiatrist says “Mahdi-complexes” are common in Iran;
in addition, the “Economist” correspondent alleges that Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi
was incarcerated in 2007 for claiming to be the Mahdi, not merely the Mahdi’s representative (as most accounts describe).
The article closes by imputing the blame for Mahdist fervor in Iran to Ahmadinejad, with his speeches
about the topic and his telling Iranian ambassadors that they were “envoys of the Mahdi.”
2:00 pm edt
Yours truly, Jamkaran, 2008. No fake mahdis were harmed in the taking of this picture.
1) At the risk of redundancy (but being for the benefit of media and government types who may
read my blog): both the Sunni and Twelver Shi`i brands of Islam contain traditions about the coming of al-Mahdi,
the “rightly-guided one” who will make the entire world Muslim (either through conquest, suasion, or a combination
thereof); for Sunnis he has not yet truly appeared (despite the many claimants over the centuries) but will, eventually, emerge
onto the historical stage via political and military exploits—while for Twelver Shi`is he has already been here as the
12th male descendant of Muhammad who went into ghaybah, divine “concealment,” some 11 centuries ago but
who will return and Islamize the planet.
Heretofore the vast majority of self-styled mahdis—technically speaking, mutamahdis, or “false”
ones—in modern Islamic history have been Sunni ones (as documented in many posts on this blog, going back to 2006).
Twelver Shi`ism has tended to manifest not full-blown mahdis but rather clerics who claim to be
somehow in contact with him—such as two Iraqis, Ahmad al-Hasan al-Yamani, leader of the sect Ansar
al-Mahdi, and Mahmud al-Sarkhi, head of Jaysh al-Husayn (Husayn was one of Muhammad’s grandsons and the
second Twelver Imam, “martyred” at Karbala in 680 AD). There are exceptions to this, however,
going further back in history: for example, the man responsible for Iran’s conversion to Twelver Shi`ism was the Safavid
Shah Isma’il I (d. 1524), who allowed his followers to cast him as the Mahdi in order to conquer
Iran. (See Colin P. Mitchell, The Practice of Politics in Safavid Iran: Power, Religion and Rhetoric, 2009, particularly
pp. 30ff.) Interestingly, the founder of the modern Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989), also did not discourage
imputations of Mahdism to himself. But for the most part, men claiming to actually BE the Mahdi in Iran have been the
exception, not the rule, for one major reason: such a claim is politically risky, as it challenges not
just the religious establishment—which for a millennium has had a vested interest in the occulted Imam al-Mahdi—but
the political one, implicitly delegitimizing any and all rulers. This is particularly the case under the
Islamic Republic post-Khomeini, whose very raison d’être depends on preparing the way/state/armaments
for the Mahdi, but not actually handing power over to someone claiming to be him. Wanna-be mahdis cropping
up in the world’s primary Twelver Shi`i country are a novel, fascinating and potentially hazardous phenomenon.
Shah Isma'il, the last guy in Iran to successfully pull off the "I Am the Mahdi" claim.
The sword helped.
3) The “Economist”
correspondent who filed this story speculates that the mahdist multitude might be a result of Iran’s “economic
doldrums.” Of course, those of us who read the “Economist” know that that fine magazine
tends to reduce most conflicts to economic motives (many of its writers even seem wedded to the now-discredited thesis that
poverty causes terrorism). Deprivation, whether real or relative, does play a part; but of equal or greater
importance is probably “the shift of the Mahdi paradigm from the [historical] expression of anti-establishment yearnings
to an ideological tool sponsored and advocated by the state….” (Abbas Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian
Shi`ism, 2009, pp. 244-45). The clerical regime seems to have been attempting to tame the rural Iranian
populist tradition of the “thirteenth Imam” (Farhad Kazemi, “Ethnicity and the Iranian Peasantry,”
in Esman and Rabinovich, eds., Ethnicity, Pluralism and the State in the Middle East, 1988, pp. 201ff)—whom
the masses think will come and humble arrogant rulers (and clerics) and empower them instead. But instead
they may have simply proved the truth of the prediction that “[s]ooner rather than later there will be an unpredictable
turn from merely expecting the Mahdi to the actual manifestation of the Mahdi that does not necessarily bend to their
[the ayatollahs’] authority” (Amanat, p. 250; emphasis added).
4) I seriously doubt that Iranian
jails are full of thousands of self-styled mahdis; I suspect many of them are guilty of nothing more eschatological than complaining
too publicly about the price of gas or having too large a satellite TV antenna on their homes. But even
if reduced by a factor of ten, the Islamic Republic does nonetheless appear to have a serious problem with apocalyptic antipathy
toward the government. And a regime predicated, in no small part, on Mahdist ideology finds itself being
hoist by its own philosophical petard. As Dr. Peter Venkman observed in that jail cell in Ghostbusters:
“Somebody’s comin’…whoa oah!” The ayatollahs in charge just may not like who shows up
5) How might Mahdist claimants in Iran be
"hazardous?" Well, on one hand, they could be a danger to the regime itself, if not clearly and presently
but perhaps chronically, in that their constant manifestation could prove corrosive to Tehran's legitimacy, both religiously
and politically. On the other hand, I have been warning for years about a possible convergence between Sunni and Twelver
Shi`i Mahdism (as does Amanat, p. 70), particularly of the non-state, populist variety. Heretofore such Mahdist
zeal seemed to be coming mostly from the Sunni world--but now the other side of Islam has its free-lance eschatology, too.
Should both trends somehow unite under one apocalyptic banner, pressure cooker IEDs will be the least of our worries.
Although, as per Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.
Monday, April 22, 2013
The Brothers Tsarnaev and Islamic Eschatology
12:45 pm edt
My long (2700-word) analysis of the Tsarnaev brothers' jihad is up over at History News Network under the title "The Ideology Behind the Boston Marathon Bombing
." It examines influences on them, including Islamic eschatology ("black banners from Khurasan"), and
proposes a new typology for such terrorists. The Abbasids, the original black banner wielders/Islamic eschatology exploiters, 8th-13th
|Jamkaran Mosque near Qom, Iran (during my trip there Aug. 2008)