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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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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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Nowhere Man--American Policy Toward Islam Is At Your Command

One of the best lectures from the Boston University conference on Islamic apocalyptic is up--although it does not, ironically, really deal with the main topic of the venue.  Dr. Jeffrey Bale, eminent expert on terrorist ideologies across the board at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (CA), talked about "Refusing to Take Islamist Ideology Seriously."  

John Lennon's lyrics, "he's as blind as he can be/just sees what he wants to see," aptly describe (too) many analysts of jihad and terrorism today--and Jeffrey Bale lays out the ideological blinders of these Nowhere Men and Women. 


 "Dry Bones" nails it--as usual! 

10:21 am edt          Comments

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Apocalypse Now and Then

Today a dual helping of Mahdist-related posts shall be served up.

First, another lecture from the Boston University conference is now available: Cole Bunzel, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, examined the 1979 Mahdist coup manque in Saudi Arabia, in "From Apocalypse Now to Caliphate Now: Revisiting Juhayman al-`Utaybi's Siege of Mecca in 1979." (I also covered some of the same ground in Holiest Wars, as well as in an article in "The Weekly Standard" in 2008: "Enter the Mahdi."

Second, I was interviewed for an hour yesterday by Hezi Aris on WHYT (Westchester, NY); topics covered: Mahdism, ISIS, and Middle Eastern politics (particularly the situation in Turkey). 

SiegeofMecca.jpg The Casbah, er, Great Mosque getting rocked by al-Utaybi and his brother-in-law, the Mahdi. 

10:04 am edt          Comments

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The COIN of the Ottoman Realm Spent Against Proto-ISIS Groups

My lecture from the Boston University conference on Islamic apolcalyptic movements, "Rejecting Millennial Time: The Ottoman Empire's 700-year War against Mahdism" is up. Its two main points are that 1) eschatological/Mahdist groups are not new with ISIS, but have been around for centuries; and 2) the counter-insurgency (COIN) methods employed by the Sunni Ottoman state to fight such Islamic challenges to its rule are instructive for Muslim regimes today. 

Clonedjanissaries.jpg The usual Ottoman kinetic response to Mahdist rebellions started with the janissaries--but often this was supplemented with IO/IW in the form of fatwas and other religious salients.

7:26 am edt          Comments

Friday, May 15, 2015

ISIS' Islamic Apocalyptic Mindset Examined in Depth

Two more lectures from the Boston University conference on Islamic eschatology are up. In the first one, Dr. Will McCants of the Brookings Institute discusses "ISIS and the Absent Mahdi;" in the second, "Atlantic" editor and writer Graeme Wood describes pushback on his now famous article "What ISIS Really Wants" in a lecture entitled "On the Resistance to Seeing Global Jihad as Apocalyptic Movement." 


7:16 am edt          Comments

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Prepare Ye the Way of the Mahdi....Conference

The first video from the Boston University conference "Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams and Global Jihad" (May 3-4, 2015) is up: Dr. Richard Landes, conference organizer and former head of BU's Center for Millennial Studies, lays the groundwork and sets the parameters for the entire conference. 


8:58 am edt          Comments

Monday, May 11, 2015

Arguing Like It's the End of the World: Academics on Islamic Apocalyptic

My after-action report on the Boston University conference, "Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams and Global Jihad," has been published at History News Network under the title "Talking Honestly about Islamic Hate Speech." As I note at the end of that piece, video of the conference presentations is being prepared, and as soon as it is available I will link such here. 

TheProphetbigger.jpg "The Prophet" as portrayed in "Chick" comics (courtesy of

10:14 am edt          Comments

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Lone Wolves, Stray Dogs or Roaming Hyenas? A Modern Terrorist Bestiary

The bodies of ISIS epigones Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi had not yet even fallen to room temperature before the mainstream media was braying about them being “self-radicalized” terrorists—a liberal obsession by now, despite recent eviscerations (like this) of that myopic analytical lens.  

A “self-radicalized” (Islamic) terrorist is almost always, as well, labeled a “lone wolf.”  I dealt with this issue in an article about the Boston Marathon-bombing Tsarnaevs, back in spring 2013:  

“[I]t is no longer necessary to be formally attached to a terrorist organization in order to engage in Islamic-based terror.  Heretofore, solo jihadists were likely to be identified as exhibiting ‘Sudden Jihad Syndrome’  or as being ‘lone wolves.’  Now the neologism ‘stray dogs’ is being applied to them. The first term at least has the virtue of acknowledging the Islamic element in attacks by Muslims who say they are engaged in, well, jihad. But no one suddenly decides to ascribe to Islamic holy warfare and wage it; only a fairly long process of indoctrination can bring a person to that point. A lone wolf is a terrorist who takes up his bloody trade sans formal support from any larger group….The classification of stray dog, however, posits ‘men for whom Islam as a religion is less important than the search for adventure and a desire to be part of a historic, epic struggle’---striking me as yet another attempt by analysts to remove Islamic ideology from the calculation, for apologetic and emotional rather than rational reasons….[thus] viewing [Islamic terrorists]…analytically, as lone wolves, may give them too much credit; while classifying them as stray dogs neutered of religious ideology gives the Islamic element too little.  Perhaps a new paradigm, one of roaming hyenas, best describes [such violent Muslims]….”

Hyenas, like wolves, hunt in packs; but the former are more often scavengers who, if they do attack the living, prefer to go after weakened prey (while the latter will pursue more formidable foes). 

Shootinghyena.jpg The proper care and feeding (hot lead) of an attacking hyena....

What better way to describe ISIS, as well as its minions in the West—especially as ISIS has specifically called for attacks against unarmed “Crusaders” (rather an oxymoron, that), in “Dabiq” issue #4:  

At this point in the crusade…it is very important that attacks take place in every country that has entered into alliance against the Islamic State, especially the US, UK, France, Australia and Germany….the citizens of crusader nations should be targeted wherever they can be found. Let the muwahhid not be affected by ‘analysis paralysis’ stemming from undertaking only operations that cannot fail. ‘He should be pleased to meet his Lord  even if with just one dead kafir’s name written in his scroll of deeds.’”  IS even doubles down on this incitement to jihad: “Every Muslim should  get out of his house, find a crusader, and kill him.  It is important that the killing becomes attributed to…the Islamic State…. Otherwise, crusader media makes such attacks appear to be random killings.”  Exhortation to jihad in the West fi sabil Allah goes on: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian or a Canadian or any other disbeliever…wag[e] war…then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way….Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian, or military….”  

Hyenas follow the pack mentality (Qur’anic- and Hadith-literalist, violent Islam);  cravenly prefer to assault the weak or unarmed (Christians in the Middle East; cartoonists in Texas); and are known to feign death to escape being killed themselves (a self-serving, duplicitous animal form of taqiyya).   Furthermore,  hyenas have a very negative image in Islam—all the more reason to apply that label to those who would kill in the name of Allah.  They also suck—literally, at least in east Africa, where hyenas are believed to hoover up jinn.  Whether hyenas, four- or two-legged, are thereby possessed by such spirits is a topic for another day (although I have touched on this topic, at least tangentially, before). 

1:45 pm 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