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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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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Misunderestimating Mahdism in the Muslim World--Yet Again
I should be prepping syllabi for the four Reinhardt University history classes I'm teaching this term, but in clearing off my desk I found an October 2016 article from The Economist--"Apocalypse Postponed: Islamic State's Loss of Dabiq"--upon which I had never gotten around to commenting.  So, in the interest of apocalyptic analysis, and not just procrastination, here goes....
AwaitedMahdianJesus.jpg The Mahdi flanked by his right-hand man, Jesus, and the rest of his posse. 
As usual with articles in that publication, the knowledge of the target subject is a mile wide but about a millimeter deep.  The momentous battle of Dabiq to which ISIS aspires (based on a hadith, or saying, of Muhammad's) is described several times as the "end-of-days" conflict--when in point of fact this battle will not usher in the end of the world but, rather, Islamic conquest thereof (according to mainstream Islamic eschatology, NOT just ISIS's allegedly-"extremist" understanding).  The Economist describes ISIS' eschatology as a "theology of death, judgment and the end of the world." But that is not true at all.  Death for infidels (both dhimmi--Christian and Jewish--and heretical Muslim) is not the goal, but rather the primary methodology by which Islamic rule is extended over the whole world; there is nothing in any of ISIS' many Dabiq publications about judgment at all, much less about riding to ruin and the world's ending.  The article presents ISIS' eschatological fervor "more as a recruitment tool than a tenet of faith"--but then my friend and Islamic apocalypse expert Dr. David Cook is adduced, and he says no such thing. Ratcheting up its level of ignorance, the author of this article (adducing this time an "expert" who seems to know little of the topic) then blames ISIS' Sunni eschatology on borrowings from Twelver Shi`ism--betraying a total ignorance of Sunni Islam's long, bloody history of Mahdist violence.  Mahdism such as ISIS exhibits is then described as "nihilistic," when in reality it is not meaningless at all but quite well-thought-out and volitional. 
This massive misunderestimating of Mahdism is typical of the Western intelligentsia (and, alas, probably of the intelligence community for the past eight years, as well).  Three major points:
1)  Mahdism has been as major a movement among Sunni Muslims as among (Twelver) Shi`is over the last 14 centuries--if not more so. The Economist's ignorance of this is breath-taking. While journalistic unfamiliarity with, say, the 12th century founder of the al-Muwahhids, Ibn Tumart, is to be expected, one might reasonably hope that writers on the Muslim world would have heard of the 19th century Sudanese Mahdi or the 1979 attempted apocalyptic coup in Mecca. Those, and other such movements, past and present, are detailed in my two relevant books: Ten Years' Captivation with the Mahdi's Camps: Essays on Muslim Eschatology, 2005-2015 and the older Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden. 
2) Likewise, the whole thrust of the article--in particular its dubious claim that eschatological beliefs are cynically manipulative and not deeply-held--shows that the writer never bothered to do any research on the power of Mahdist belief today. Well over 40% of all the world's 1.6 billion Muslims (Sunni as well as Twelver Shi`i) expect the Mahdi to come (back) in this lifetime, as I explained in a long 2012 article. So apocalyptic messianism is not some "extremist" outlier in Islam, but is rather quite mainstream and widespread.   
3) Finally, the vacuity of this article is well-illustrated by the illustration used therein:
TwelverImamsjpeg.jpg Attack of the Cloned Twelver Imams.
Those are the 12 Imams of, yes, Twelver Shi`ism.  ISIS and the hundreds of millions of Sunni Muslims do not believe in them but, rather, in a Sunni military-political leader who will emerge from their ranks and be (eventually) acknowledged as Allah's rightly-guided one and divine instrument for Islamic conquest of Earth--not in a bloodline descendant of Muhammad who has already been here and gone into mystical ghaybah ("occultation") for over a millennium.
This would be akin to writing an article about Evangelical Christian theology and putting a picture of St. Peter's in it.
Important tip for journalists writing about this topic in future: as a primer watch my lecture on topic at Potchefstroom University in South Africa (March 2016). Then call/email me before writing opining on such.  
1:48 pm est          Comments

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

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