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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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Thursday, September 26, 2013

President Obama: Dhimmi, Da`i or Dunce?
My article with that title is up over at "Frontpagemag."  It examines the global persecution of Christians by Muslims and why the leader of the world's largest Christian country refuses to speak out against it.
Ottoman soldiers beheading Georgian Christians (courtesy of Raymond Ibrahim).
9:39 am edt          Comments

Friday, September 6, 2013

Intervening (in Syria) Like It's The End of the World?
Syria no doubt appears to many Americans as simply yet another foreign, Islamic land which the POTUS (this time Democrat, for a change) wants to bomb and/or invade despite (or even perhaps because of) the natives’ penchant for scimitar-wielding, jihad-waging and mass killing—like Afghanistan, Libya or Iraq.   While perhaps necessary, this view is woefully insufficient to do justice to the importance of Syria in Islamic history and eschatology.   And any understanding of apocalyptic Islam in the modern Syrian fitnah, or “civil strife,” is impossible without, first, a basic grasp of the historical and eschatological background to that crucial region. So put away your video poker games and pay attention! 
Afghanistan, with apologies to our (shrinking list of) Muslim allies there, has always been a backwards periphery of the Islamic world vis-à-vis the Arab Middle Eastern heartland.  It did have some eschatological resonance, however, stemming from the ancient traditions—enshrined in hadith, alleged sayings of Islam’s founder, Muhammad—that “black banners from the East” would come to Syria and Iraq and (re)establish true Islamic rule after a period of Islamic devolution.  This trope was, indeed, exploited early on in Islamic history when the fomenters of the Abbasid revolution (and eventual caliphate) invaded from Khurasan (eastern Iran/western Afghanistan) and overthrew the extant Umayyad Caliphate, centered in Damascus.   But Afghanistan has never been a major locus of Islamic learning or power since then, and its eschatological utility has been as a mere staging area, not a center of action. 
Jabhat al-Nusra's Black Banner, emblazoned with the Shahadah.

As for Libya, after the Islamic conquest it was little more than a barely-Islamized Berber frontier between Egypt and the more powerful and sophisticated polities to its west, and even after the Ottomans came “Cyrenaica” was of little import in any Islamic equations before the Sanusi Sufi jihad against the occupying Italians in the 20th century.  In terms of eschatological significance, Libya had and has none. Iraq has always been more more critical to Islamic history than far-eastern Afghanistan or thinly-populated North African Libya—albeit less so than Syria.  Iraq was on the fault-line between Western and “Eastern” civilizations, going back to Roman and Byzantine times, when it was a contested buffer zone between those empires and the various Persian ones.  The region of Iraq itself was divided, after the coming of Islam, into Sunni and Shi`i sections—the former often under Ottoman Turkish rule, the latter in the orbit of (or at least doctrinally sympathetic to) the Safavid , and subsequent other Shi`i, Iranian states.   To this day, especially post-American occupation (which empowered the Twelver Shi`i Iraqi majority to take power), Iraq is religiously and even eschatologically important for the Twelvers of the world primarily because six of the twelve Imams’ tombs are there and, after his reappearance, the returned 12th Imam al-Mahdi will rule from Kufa, Iraq.  However, despite Baghdad’s undeniable importance as a political and intellectual center from its founding in 750 AD to its demise at the hands of the Mongols in 1258,  Iraq pales in importance next to Syria for the majority Sunni Muslims, particularly Arab ones.  Syria was the first area outside the Arabian peninsula to be conquered, and not only was it wrenched away from the superpower al-Rum (the Byzantine Christian Empire), but al-Sham, “Greater Syria” centered on Damascus included Jerusalem, the capture of which “proved” Islamic superiority to the other, corrupted monotheistic religions: Judaism and Christianity.  This fervent triumphalism only intensified after the hated Crusaders were expelled from their 88-year occupation by the Syrian Kurd Salah al-Din in 1187,  and the “Zionist occupation” of al-Quds  (“The Holy” [city], Jerusalem) since 1948 is seen by many Arab (and other) Muslims are merely a temporary setback, which the Mahdi and Jesus will rectify—perhaps soon.  Thus many hadiths predict eschatological events transpiring in what the French and Brits used to call “the Levant,” the most important among them including:  al-Sufyani,  (a “type” of the Muslim antichrist, al-Dajjal, “the Deceiver”) will emerge from Syria; Christians will (re)conquer Syria;  the Mahdi will reveal himself; the Dajjal himself appear; Jesus will return by descending into Damascus;  the armies of the Mahdi and the Sufyani will battle; and Jesus will kill the Dajjal in or near Jerusalem.  After all this the Mahdi and Jesus will jointly rule over a Muslim planet, and eventually both will pass away. The true end of history, and the Final Judgement, will not come for some years after that.  Interestingly, the Sunni Mahdi and the Twelver Shi`i one perform virtually the same role, the major differences being 1) the former will step onto the stage of history for the first time, whereas the latter will return from a millennium-old mystical ghaybah, or “occultation;” and 2) Sunni eschatologists prognosticate that the person whom Shi`is believe to be their 12th Imam will actually be the Dajjal—and Shi`is say the same about the Sunni Mahdi!  Thus, Syria is the most important eschatological venue of Islam, bar none. Quoting sayings of some of their twelve Imams,  at least one Iranian government official has superimposed eschatological themes on the Syrian conflict—Hujjat al-Islam (or “Hujjatollah,” a cleric ranking below  Ayatollah) Ruhollah Husayniyan, who claims that the strife in Syria is the prelude to the Imam al-Mahdi’s coming and revolution.  (This sort of “newspaper exegesis” has been going on for years in Tehran and Qom, actually.)  And Twelver Shi`is in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon are not only enthused about this idea, but have been motivated by Mahdism to go join the fight for Bashar al-Asad and the Alawi regime over against its Sunni opponents!   As I pointed out in a recent article on Syria, the Twelver Shi`i Islamic Republic of Iran has supported the Syrian Alawi-Ba`athist rulers for decades, despite the latters’ heterodox, at best, quasi-Muslim (Alawi) beliefs and official Arab secular-socialist (Ba`athist) political affiliation. Why?  Because the ayatollahs have geopolitical and economic concerns that override mere doctrinal differences between Twelver Shi`ism and its offshoot sect Alawism:  access to their non-state proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon, giving them a salient against Israel;  an Arab state ally in Damascus; and potential access to the Mediterranean for any oil and gas pipelines, via Iraq.  Sunnis, particularly Salafi-jihadist ones, find it far harder to dismiss  Alawi religious aberrations, considering that the intellectual “godfather” of modern Sunni fundamentalism, Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328) issued fatwas against the Alawis some 700 years ago, and those condemnations—which make Alawis legally killable for Sunnis—have recently been reiterated by Salafi clerics.   There are credible reports that both the leadership and many members of Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahidin al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad (“The Front of Support to the People of Syria from the the Holy Warriors of Syria in the Battlefields of Jihad”), the most formidable opposition fighting force, and one of the most vociferous Salafi-jihadist ones—as its name clearly indicates—“believe that the Syrian revolution provides a golden opportunity for them to work towards the realisation of this prophecy, and they work in the hope that they may become the people mentioned in these hadiths.”  JaN also advocates re-establishment of the caliphate, imposition of shari`a to include relegation of Christians to second-class dhimmi status, and killing of Alawis.  All of these views are also present, to varying degrees, in the other major Islam-based opposition groups, which in toto comprise about half of the Syrian regime’s opponents (and a majority in the north and east of the country):  Ahrar al-Sham, “Free Men of Syria;” Kata’ib al-Faruq, “Battalions of Faruq” (a name for the second caliph of Islam); Liwa al-Tawhid, “Banner of Unity” (meaning strict monotheism—an implicit critique of Christian Trinitarianism;) Suqur al-Sham (“Falcons of Syria”); Ansar al-Islam, “Protectors of Islam;”  Ahfad al-Rasul , “Descendants of the Messenger [Muhammad]; and Ghuraba, “Strangers” or “Expatriates.”  
Ahfad al-Rasul's crest.  The scimitar is mightier--or at least longer--than the rifle.

The  Faruq Battalions were initially part of the Free Syrian Army, the largest opposition group, composed mainly of Syrians and military units that had deserted the Syrian Alawi-dominated military.  The FSA has been trying to downplay connection to the KaF, since one of the latter’s members was
filmed eating the heart of a dead regime soldier.   Even “moderate Islamists” like those in Suqur al-Sham [SaS] favor imposing the jizyah tax on Syria’s million of Christian, should they overthrow al-Asa.   No doubt the eschatological fervor varies across groups, as well—but is almost certainly extant, to some extent, in all of them, not just the ones deemed “extremist.”   As evidence thereof, I shall adduce Syrian Sunni Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqubi, a highly- and Western-educated Islamic scholar and preacher who supports the opposition—and also believes that the eschatological end game of Islam is playing out in Syria, with the Mahdi and the Sufyani soon to appear.  Al-Yaqubi, it should be noted, is also a Sufi, an Islamic mytic of the Shadhili order.   Islamic apocalyptic thought and praxis have often been connected to Sufism, and I have warned in numerous posts and articles about the threat posed by a confluence of mystical and Salafi-jihadist thought.   Now, this appears to be happening in Syria—as well as, it should be noted, in neighboring Iraq, where the Naqshbandi Sufis have waged jihad against not just the former American occupiers but Baghdad government forces.
"Did I behead six infidels, or only five? In all the excitement, I kinda forgot myself."  Wonderful art by Ahat al-Ghareb.

Eschatology is making both sides in the Levant—Sunni and Shi`i—more violent and zealous.   The quasi-Shi`i Alawi regime (backed by its Twelver Shi`i patron) may have used chemical weapons; but some of the Sunni groups it is fighting are increasingly employing  the equally-horrific practice of decapitation--which may have now passed from the mundane Qur'anic-based register of just deserts for infidels into a macabre realm of  sacrifices to Allah intended to "hotwire the apocalypse." While certain writers in the US obsess about Evangelical Christians trying to fit the Syrian Islamic civil war into a Christian eschatological blueprint, the truth is that they have no significant political power (and the ones I know are adamantly against President Obama’s proposed strikes on the al-Asad military)—they just like to opine, talk, and sell books.  The true believers in the Mahdi, the Sufyani and the return of the Islamic Jesus—who comprise hundred of millions of Muslims, according to polling data—should be the real focus of concern, most especially those of their ranks putting their beliefs into practice in Aleppo, Dayr al-Zur and Idlib.   The Obama Administration would do well to consider the apocalyptic aspects of the Syrian civil war before committing our forces  to helping those of the Mahdi (if we back the Sunni jihadist "opposition" via air strikes)  or the 12th Imam (if we do nothing, and tacitly assist al-Asad and his Twelver Shi`i allies).  

5:19 pm edt          Comments

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

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