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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.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I'm Not the Mahdi--Now $%*# Off!
Many analysts and journalists who cover the Islamic world focus on the likes of  al-Qa`idah [“al-Qaeda” for those of you from Monkey’s Eyebrow, KY] and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Far fewer spend much time on an equally important Islamic movement: that of the Turkish neo-mystic Fethullah Gülen.  (For a rough metric of the relevant interest in these three, try a Google search for each and you’ll find the following results: AQ, 107 million; MB, 86 million; Gülen, 1.3 million.)  Such relative disinterest is unfortunate, because this Turkish-American movement (Gülen has lived in Pennsylvania since his eviction from a much more secular Turkey in 1991) is important on three levels: 1) Mahdism;  2) global educational reach; and 3) within Turkish politics.

No, this is not a selfie of Shelob, but rather Ottoman calligraphy that reads "Ali, vice-regent of Allah."

In terms of Mahdism
, both G
ülen and another prominent, albeit much more idiosyncratic, Turkish religious leader named Adnan Oktar, are devotees of the late Turkish mystic
Said Nursi (d. 1960), known to his followers as “Bediüzzaman” (Arabic badi` al-zaman, “wonder of the age”).   Nursi in his writings stressed the compability of Islam with modern science and education, and advocated “jihad of the word” over “jihad of the sword.”  Nursi very likely considered himself to be a, if not the, Mahdi—tantamount to the Islamic mujaddid, “renewer,” who is predicted in some hadiths to come every century.  That would seem to be the same view that Gülen holds of himself, as evidenced by an interview in “Today’s Zaman” last Friday: “I am not claiming to be the Messiah or Mahdi; I am just an ordinary man….” He continued: “Some circles have attributed similar remarks to Bediüzzaman in the past.  They exploited his comments and views on the return of the Messiah or Mahdi, arguing that he considered himself the Mahdi or Messiah.”   And Gülen reiterated his denial: “On this matter, I follow in the footsteps of Mevlana [Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rûmi, d. 1273 AD).  I am not claiming to be the Messiah or Mahdi.”   Also like Nursi, Gülen is an Islamic mystic but holds no formal membership in any of the hundreds of tariqat, or Sufi orders.  

His educational system,
however, is pedagogically and religiously a mixture of Nursi’s ideas and Gülen’s thought, with a dose of Naqshbandi Sufism—specifically, the need to be involved in politics—thrown in. (On this topic, see Erol N. Gulay, “The Gülen Phenomenon: A Neo-Sufi Challenge to Turkey’s Rival Elite,” in C ritique: Critical Modern Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 2007, pp. 37-61.)   The “Gülenistas” have created perhaps the world’s largest charter school system, which as of 2012 was also the largest such system in the United States, numbering 135 schools and 45,000 students.  Although the schools in America are said by administrators and proponents to be STEM-oriented ones that eschew Islamic indoctrination,  critics are doubtful.   Overseas, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, Gülen schools unabashedly teach Islam—but a neo-Sufi, indeed kinder and gentler version of that faith than is disseminated by the Wahhabis and Salafis of Arabia or the Deobandi-influenced Taliban of South Asia.

, the ruling AK Party of Turkey—particularly its leader and the current Prime Minister,
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—has increasingly been at loggerheads with Gülen and his people, accusing them of constituting a “deep state” which wields the real power behind the scenes.  The actual reasons for this split between two erstwhile allies are byzantine (pun intended), but seem to center around who has more power in Turkey; view of and relations with Israel vis-à-vis other Muslim states; and the profits from Turkey’s gold-for-oil trade with Iran. 

Leaked AK plan to take out Gülen during his coffee break.  Left-handed guitarist killing is optional, especially if he's singing "Band on the Run."


1) As I’ve remarked before,  I’ll take any day, and twice on Friday, a Mahdi or Mujaddid who states that  “the conquest of the world will be achieved, not on the back of a horse, a sword in the hand, a scimitar at the waist” but rather by “penetrating into people’s hearts with the Qur’an in one hand and reason in the other” (Gulay, p. 42)—as has Gülen.   This IS truly moderate Islam, and far from lumping Gülen’s people in with the jihadists we should be encouraging the spread of his charter schools across the Islamic world, with their Sufi Lite message of educational, not bloody, jihad (which, really, is tantamount to da`wah, “proselytization”).  

2) However, also regarding these charter schools and their place in the US (or any other non-Islamic society):  great scrutiny should be applied to them here, to ensure that they stick to teaching science, technology, engineering and math and do not attempt to inculcate Islamic values among the 99.4% of the US population that is non-Muslim.  If they can do that, let them operate. If not, shut them down more quickly than Duke in this year's NCAA tournament.

3) Regarding Turkey’s internal politics and this Erdo
ğan-Gülen struggle—I don’t have a dog in that fight, but it looks increasingly as if the latter is the only force that can prevent the former from asserting neo-Ottoman-style authoritarian power.  A Gülenized Turkey might become the first truly moderate Islamic state; certainly the Gülenists are much more likely to drive such a result than the poseur moderates like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Today's post title comes from Monty Python's brilliant 1979 satire of messianism, "Life of Brian"--specifically, the scene "I'm not the Messiah!"

10:43 am edt          Comments

Monday, March 17, 2014

Don't Lose Your Head Over Mahdi Beheading Threats
While in Iran in the summer of 2008 to present a paper at the annual Mahdism conference in Tehran,  I sat in on a number of panels that discussed various aspects of the future rule of the returned Twelfth Imam.   (My own presentation compared self-proclaimed Sunni Mahdis to the Twelver Shi`i prognostications about this expected utopian rule by their “true” Mahdi.)   As I reported in my post-trip article “The Importance of Being Mahdist” (in The Weekly Standard), one Iranian presenter discussed whether the Mahdi would allow non-Muslims to convert—or simply kill us all.   Opinion was divided as to which was more likely, although as I recall the latter option was deemed well within the Rightly-Guided One’s purview.  As a Christian, and American, I decided then was not the time to offer my own two riyal’s worth.
No detail was provided as to the Mahdi’s preferred execution method—until now.  According to a Mehr story, explicated by Reza Kahlili in The Daily Caller, last week the interim Friday prayer leader in Iran’s capital, Ayatollah Muhammad Emani Kashani, warned that “when Imam Zaman [“Imam of Time,” or the Mahdi] comes, he will behead the Western leaders” although he will “not harm the oppressed nations.” 
At least with the Mahdi, only beheading of infidels--not impaling--will be required.  (Photo source)


1) Khalili’s hyperventilating aside, the idea of the Mahdi as a violent Islamic warlord is neither new nor—for any of my readers from the CIA or mainstream media—a “hijacking” of the concept.   Also, it is not particularly Shi`i.  Both Sunnis and Shi`is believe in this eschatological figure who will create a global caliphate, mainly via force.  (As I’ve explained many times on this site  and in other writings and lectures, the biggest difference in the Muslim view of the Mahdi is that Sunnis think he has not been here yet, while Twelver Shi`is think he is a blood descendant of Muhammad who disappeared in the 8th c. AD and will return.)  The Mahdi simply emulates and recapitulates the mission and career of Muhammad—and thus is not, contra Khalili, a “prophet” because he brings no new message from Allah but simply continues and expands Islamic conquest.

2) Decapitation is a favorite method of Islamic execution of “infidels,” and has been practiced by Muslims—both leader and lay—for millennia.  Again, it is not “extremist” in Islamic terms.  Please see my heavily-sourced article “Beheading in the Name of Islam” if you have any doubts as to the Islamic legitimacy of the practice.

3) Khalili’s article also adduces a 2011 eschatological video sponsored by the Iranian government.  I broke down this video, in terms of Mahdist tropes and images, in an article for History News Network entitled “Iran’s New Mahdism Da`wah Video: Letting Slip the Jinns of Jihad?” At the risk of hubris, I think my analysis is more comprehensive than his, especially as regards the clear influence of Evangelical Christian eschatological writings on the Islamic world.

4) Ayatollah Kashani’s reference to the Mahdi not harming “oppressed nations” (nor, presumably, their leaders) is part-and-parcel of the Islamic Republic’s “Muslim liberation theology” rhetoric, which crudely divides the world into mostazafan, “oppressed,” and mostakhbaran, “oppressors.”  The sources for such a worldview are two: Twelver Shi`ism’s victimization mentality, and modern Iranian thinkers’ and clerics’ neo-Marxist influences.  Since 1979 Iran has been using this ideology as part of its global da`wah in both creating an anti-Western/Christian bloc, and in spreading (Twelver Shi`i) Islam to the Sunni masses in Africa and southeast Asia, and even to the Christians of Latin America (as seems to have worked with Hugo Chavez).

5) Yes, Christianity also has its violent eschatological figure—the Second Coming Christ, particularly as described in Revelation 19:11ff: eyes of flame, riding a white horse, robe dipped in blood, wielding a sword and a rod of iron which he uses to kill His enemies.   However, there is a major difference between Christianity and Islam in terms of each’s violent messiah.  In Christendom, it’s difficult bordering on impossible for an earthly leader to assume or claim to be the returned Christ and lead such a crusade (the few exceptions, such as Hong Xiuquan, leader of the 19th c. Taiping Rebellion in China, prove the rule).  In the Islamic world, on the other hand, self-styled Mahdis leading jihads have been a staple of history in both Sunni and Shi`i realms (although predominantly in the former).  I fully explored this topic in a paper I wrote for an eschatology conference at Georgia State University, the condensed version of which
is available here.

(This post's title comes from one of Queen's lesser-known songs, "Don't Lose Your Head"--which was the unofficial soundtrack to the movie "Highlander.")

11:38 am edt          Comments

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Love (of Islam) Is Blindness
In Shakespeare’s works, particularly King Lear, “blindness is not [merely] a physical quality, but a mental flaw some people possess.”   More authoritatively, and perhaps more pithily expressed by the Gospel writers, Jesus said that “if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (St. Matthew, 15:14).   It’s easy to see how this describes the Obama Administration as a whole—but particularly its policy towards Islam and the Islamic world.  And the main spokesman for this visual and intellectual impairment is CIA Director John Brennan.
Even Christ might have a hard time fixing John Brennan's view of Islam, unlike with this chap

 I commented on Brennan’s, and indeed his entire agency’s, (willful?) blindness to Islamic realities last year.  But as Ronaldus Magnus once said to an equally clueless opponent, “there you go again.”   At the Council on Foreign Relations two days ago, the man who oversees the mission to “provide…leaders with the best information possible to help them make policy involving other countries” expressed egregiously bad information on Islamic history and beliefs—and not for the first time, either.   Brennan, who once worked as CIA station chief in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and who is said to hold a M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas-Austin, said the following:  that al-Qa`idah’s [AQ] Islamic ideology is “a perverse and very corrupt interpretation of the Qur’an” and that that organization has “hijacked” Islam and “distorted the teachings of Mohammed [sic], for violent purposes.”    I first refuted this ludicrous claim—particularly the “hijacking” one—almost a decade ago.  And I will leave for others to deal with the legion of violent Qur’anic passages that disprove Brennan’s laughable claim about AQ’s exegesis.   Instead, let’s focus on the founder of Islam, Muhammad.  According to not just the Qur’an but Hadiths (sayings attributed to Muhammad) and sirât, or biographies of him, Muhammad not only practiced violence but seemed to enjoy and recommend it.   And this was not “defensive” war, as the apologists would have it—it was more often than not offensive, attacking peoples and states who had done no harm to any Muslims.  Muhammad of course (in)famously presided over the beheading of between 600 and 900 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayzah tribe in Medina who refused to acknowledge him as a “prophet.”  He also supervised the beheading of a Meccan poet, al-Nadr b. al-Harith, who opposed him.  Muhammad furthermore enjoined warring against other Muslims whom he deemed insufficiently devoted to jihad—even ordering that a mosque built by such be burned down.  The “prophet” of Islam also employed torture in addition to killing, as when Muhammad ordered the torture by fire of the Jew Kinana b. al-Rabi` until he revealed where he had hidden his wealth.  
Muhammad hijacking Brennan's fairy-tale Islam by directing troops in battle

Muhammad’s military campaigns have been the subject of a number of works in recent years, such as Russ Rodgers, The Generalship of Muhammad and Richard Gabriel, Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General.  The latter’s book was the basis of a long article in “Military History Quarterly” (2007), entitled “Muhammad: the Warrior Prophet,” the conclusion of which is worth quoting: “Classical [Sunni] Islamic law is less tolerant [than Twelver Shi`ism] of non-Muslims….Conservative Sunnis, such as the Wahhabis of Arabia, and modern militant jihadis in Iraq and Pakistan still adhere to the traditional doctrine. It is among these militant conservative Muslims that the military legacy of Muhammad is most alive today.” 
"MHQ:" a "perverse and very corrupt" portrayal of Islam's founder, I suppose?

Maybe U2, not Shakespeare or even Christ, got the relationship between the current American administration and Islam most correct: “love is blindness.”
11:37 am edt          Comments

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Face To Face, In A Dry And Waterless Place....
Last week Time ran a fascinating story : “At Weekly Exorcisms, Egypt’s Muslims and Christians Unite Against the Demons.”  It’s about Father Sama`an Ibrahim, a Coptic priest who  exorcizes both demons and ajnan (“jinns”) from Christians and Muslims in Cairo’s St. Sama`an the Tanner Monastery church.  (Jinn possession is not just an issue for Middle Eastern Muslims, either.) “Time” of course highlights the sensationalistic and (allegedly) ecumenical aspects of Fr. Ibrahim’s ministry.  But I find the spiritual and  theological dimensions much more noteworthy—particularly in three respects.  

1. Jesus has (far) more power over demons and jinn than does Muhammad.   This, albeit not in so many words, is the belief of Egyptian Muslims.  “The demon that had possessed the elderly Muslim woman was so strong that,” according to one Egyptian, “even an Imam couldn’t get rid of it.  So her family opted for a priest.” The woman’s daughter continued:  We went to a mosque for healing, but the demons who harm her are more afraid of the Christian priest.   A taxi driver named Mahrous adds that “Christians rarely get possessed, because they are baptized young.” Most tellingly, one posssessed Muslim woman “repeatedly interrupts the prayer with caterwauled exhortations that ‘There is no god but Allah” (the first half of the shahadah, Muslim declaration of faith).   Why doesn’t that seem to help her? Well, as a Christian I would submit that James 2:19 is relevant: “You believe that God is one? You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” Tawhid—belief in the unity of God--alone does not protect one from demons (nor, for that matter, does it effect salvation).
Christ exorcizing the Gadarene demoniacs (courtesy of

2. Imams, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, put religious allegiance ahead of practical results.  As Fr. Ibrahim exorcizes those in the congregation who need it, a Christian volunteer “grab[s] the hands of two male Muslim onlookers—family members of the possessed—and urges them to join in.  They resist stiffly.  Though the demons may be more afraid a Christian priest, they are still afraid of their Imams.”  In this regard, the Sunni Muslim clerics of Egypt very much resemble the Jewish ones of the first-century, who despised Jesus for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6); told the blind man whom He had healed that Jesus was a nobody and a sinner (John 9:1034).  At least they aren’t reported as attributing Fr. Ibrahim’s healing exorcisms to Iblis—yet (Matthew 12:22-29). 
3. Is this modern-day evidence that alleged divine guidance in Islam is/was actually diabolical? 
Several of the sirât or “biographies” of Islam’s founder Muhammad indicated that he feared that he was possessed by a jinn, and/or that he exhibited the characteristics thereof.  Granted, Socrates claimed to have a daimon which not just inspired but spoke to him; but Socrates did not found a religion which spread child marriage, wife-beating and jihad across three continents and which claimed that every key teaching of Christianity is wrong.  Muhammad’s epigones—those claiming to be the Mahdi—also almost always have invoked some kind of supposed divine guidance.  For example, the most successful such leader of the last millennium, Muhammad Ahmad of the Sudan (d, 1885), heard “disembodied voices that addressed him as ‘O Mahdi of God’” and saw visions of “the Prophet of Islam and deceased Sufi shaykhs appear, validating his claim to Mahdihood” (my book Holiest Wars, p. 50, drawing upon, in particular, Muhammad Sa`id al-Qaddal, al-Imam al-Mahdi: Muhammad b. `Abd Allah, 1844-1855; Beirut: Dar al-Jil, 1992).   Megalomania is certainly necessary, but is it actually sufficient, to account for a personal belief in Allah’s deputization as leader of the world’s second-largest religion?  One might well speculate that larger, darker powers are at work in such cases.
Jinn attacking a sleeping man (16th c. Ottoman, courtesy of 

By the way: the title of this  blogpost comes from U2's song "The Unforgettable Fire."
6:21 pm edt          Comments

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

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