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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, July 23, 2008

Nowhere Man: The World Is At Your Command

     Last month (June 2008) the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) published an analytical piece entitled "The Emergence of the 'Infallible Jihad Fighter'--The Salafi Jihadists' Quest for Religious Legitimacy" by Dr. E. Alshech (  The point of the article is that Sunni jihadists, being unable to compete with the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in terms of scholarly training, theoretical knowledge related to the Qur'an and Hadiths as well as esteem, began claiming that their practical, on-the-ground experience in jihad made them more authoritative.  Ultimately at least some of the jihadists--most notably Shaykh Husayn b. Mahmud, an Islamist scholar--have reached the point of asserting that their leaders are  not just an alternative pole of authority (over against the establishment ulama) but actually ma`sum, or "infallible."  Other jihadist thinkers don't go quite as far, maintaining rather that their own leadership "possess[es] divinely inspired insight" (citing the Qur'an, Surah al-`Ankabut [29]:69: "As for those who strive in our cause, we will surely guide them in our paths").  Alshech argues--correctly, I would submit--that a close reading of Usamah bin Ladin's October 2007 statement supports his view of a growing belief in infallibility among the jihadists: "in practice they [some of UBL's jihadist supporters] regard [these orders] as infallible, even though...infallibility is a virtue that only Allah's Messenger possesses."  
     Alshech mentions thrice in this piece that infallibility is "a trait generally reserved for the prophets."  Actually, that is not entirely accurate.  Infallibility is also a trait of Mahdist claimants throughout history (and the Mahdi is NOT a prophet--for he comes not to bring new revelation but to restore the true worship and practice of Islam).  Ibn Tumart, founder of the Muwahhids who ruled the Maghrib and al-Andalus for over a century, claimed it; Muhammad Ahmad, who took over Sudan in 1885, claimed it.  Other, less successful Mahdis have claimed it.  This charisma-based authority is likened by Alshech to that of the Shi`ite imams and Sufi shaykhs, and he is correct to do so. But charismatic power par excellence has been much more the province of Sunni Mahdis througout history, and in fact I pointed this out--as well as predicted the future evolution of jihadist  thought into Mahdism--in my book Holiest Wars (2005), pp. 154 ff, in the section "Potential Mahdis on the Couch."  My hat is off to Dr. Alshech for a probing analysis, but I was examining such a trend three years ago. 
     Alshech sees two possible outcomes of this trend: 1) "complete anarchy in within this [Sunni jihadist] camp, with each faction blindly following the orders of its 'infallible' leaders; 2) creation of "an unmanageable, and thus more dangerous, breed of jihad fighter who is totally insusceptible to criticism by devout Muslims, and who refuses to heed the calls of the scholars...."
I would submit that there is a third outcome possible, similar to #2 but even more chilling: 3) a supremely charismatic (and successfully jihadist) individual, exploiting this trend, makes a claim to be the Mahdi.  The road to the Mahdiyah has been paved before, in Islamic history, with the solid bricks of ilham (divine inspiration) and ma`sum (infallibility).  And as I have written previously concerning this possiblility:
     "[W]hen Mahdism reoccurs, and it will, almost certainly it will greatly outstrip today's  merely Islamic fundamentalist-based terror on several levels: revolutionary power, mass appeal, Islamic legitimacy, and political, as well as military, threat to Middle Eastern and Muslim governments as well as to the United States and the West. For Mahdists...are not bound even by the loose fetters of tradition and rules of engagement that might constrain a mere fundamentalist Islamic leader. All the rules are off when a Mahdi is on the stage" [from Holiest Wars, pp. 162-63).
     The pieces are all in place for an open Mahdist claim: perception of an existential and thus eschatological threat to Islam; active fronts of jihad; Mahdist expectations; willingness among at least some (Sunni) Muslims to follow an infallible, charmismatic leader.  Shi`i Mahdism has erupted openly in southern Iraq, with the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi and splinter groups like Ansar al-Mahdi.  But since 1979's Mahdist uprising in Saudi Arabia led by Juhayman al-`Utaybi, no one has openly claimed to be an infallible Mahdi and gathered a substantial following.  Look for that to change in the near future. 

11:18 am edt          Comments

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

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