Monday, January 9, 2017

Misunderestimating Mahdism in the Muslim World — Yet Again

Islam scholar and Mahdism expert Timothy Furnish responds to a recent article on the subject in The Economist. His critique serves as a much needed primer on the subject of the Mahdi and Islamic eschatology.

Key highlights:
  • "Mahdism has been as major a movement among Sunni Muslims as among (Twelver) Shi`is over the last 14 centuries--if not more so.
  • "Over 40% of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims expect the Mahdi to come (back) in this lifetime.
  • "Apocalyptic messianism is not some 'extremist' outlier in Islam, but is mainstream and widespread.
  • "Massive misunderestimating of Mahdism is typical of Western [media] and, probably of the intelligence community."

Anticipation of the coming of the Mahdi, and Islamic eschatology as a whole, are powerful motivators for devout Muslims (including, but not limited to, the violent jihadi type), and should be kept front and center in our considerations of Islam. So, as Tim Furnish states in this article, "In the interest of apocalyptic analysis, here goes..."

Misunderestimating Mahdism in the Muslim World--Yet Again
by Dr. Timothy R. Furnish, Mahdi Watch, January 7, 2017:

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....

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:

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.