According to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi’s tenure will coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, who is to assist the Mahdi against the Dajjal (Antichrist). Some sources list the Mahidi as the first of the major signs and others leave him out. For example, in a modern book, The Signs before the Day of Judgement, Ibn Kathir wrote:
After the lesser signs of the Hour appear and increase, mankind will have reached a stage of great suffering. Then the awaited Mahdee will appear; he is the first of the greater, and clear, signs of the Hour. There will be no doubt about his existence, but this will only be clear to the knowledgeable people. The Mahdee will rule until the False Messiah (al-Maseeh ad-Dajjaal) appears, who will spread oppression and corruption. The only ones who will know him well and avoid his evil will be those who have great knowledge and Eemaan (Arabic “faith”). [i] (emphasis added)
It’s not very surprising that Middle Easterners believe the Mahdi’s arrival is imminent. In Iraq and Syria, most Christians are experiencing tribulation and many gruesome abominations that make what was once holy, desolate. Increasingly, Muslims of both houses are claiming the fulfillment of Islamic beliefs about the end times. The Pew Forum surmised, “In nine of the 23 nations where the question was asked, half or more of Muslim adults say they believe the return of the Mahdi will occur in their lifetime, including at least two-thirds who express this view in Afghanistan (83%), Iraq (72%), Turkey (68%) and Tunisia (67%).”[ii] From this data, Furnish argues, “Mahdism must be taken seriously as an intellectual, sociological and even political strain within the entire Islamic world—not dismissed as archaic, mystical nonsense. In addition, the good, the bad and the ugly faces of Mahdism throughout history need to be considered—political correctness be damned.”[iii] It seems fair to say that well over half of the Middle East is preparing for the apocalypse in one form or another (is this merely coincidence?); the question then becomes which eschatological scenario one subscribes to.
Interestingly, the Pew Forum also employed Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Bernard Lewis, to conduct research on American perceptions of Islam. Lewis has often been described as the West’s greatest historian and interpreter of Islam. Lewis writes:
Surveys we have done with the Pew Research Center find that only 4 out of ten Americans have a favorable view of Islam, and unfavorable views in this country are driven by what many perceive to be a close association between Islam and violence. It is a sobering fact, as our survey from last summer revealed, that more than half of the American public now believes the terrorist attacks over the last few years are, or soon will be, part of a major civilizational conflict between Islam and the West.[iv]
It seems like Armageddon is written into humanity’s collective consciousness. While most readers likely recall Harold Camping’s failed Rapture date, a major Sunni website has already set dates: “Based on our numerical analysis of the Quran and Hadith, the official beginning of the End of Time and the coming of the Imam Mahdi will most likely be in…2016 and Jesus Christ (p) will come down from Heaven to Earth in 2022, in-sha Allah (if Allah is willing).”[v] While date setting has a 100 percent failure rate so far, we find it indicative of the rise in Sunni Mahdism now under examination. Eschatological hope is in the air in all so-called “Abrahamic” religions.
While lacking the contextual specificity necessary to construct a viable sequence, the Hadith describes the end-time events leading up to the Day of Judgment through ten major (greater) signs known as alamatu’s-sa’ah al- kubra (“the major signs of the end”). Islamic scholars are in wide agreement that none of these major signs has yet happened.
The Prophet said, “The last hour will not arrive till you have seen ten signs. He then mentioned the Smoke, Dajjal, Beast, Rising of the Sun from the place of its setting, the Descent of Isa, Ya’jujMa’juj, Three Landslides: one in the East , one in the West and one in the Arabian Peninsula, after that a Fire would spread from Yemen and drive the people to their place of gathering.” (Muslim)
This comes from a collection of Hadīth compiled by Imām Muslim ibn al-Hajjāj al-Naysāburi (rahimahullāh). His collection is considered to be one of the most authentic collections of the Sunnah of the Prophet.[vi] Another, more obscure, Hadith contains remarkably similar major signs:
Major signs are events of extraordinary nature prophesied by our Prophet (PBUH) to take place before Qiyamah like all the events mentioned in the following Hadith narrated by Hudhaifa ibn Usayd that the Prophet (PBUH) said, “The last hour will not arrive till you have seen ten signs.” The Prophet (PBUH) then mentioned the Smoke; Dajjal, Beast, Rising of the Sun from the West, the Descent of Isa, YajujMajuj (Gog and Magog), Three sinking of the earth where an earthquake swallows an entire city, earthquake sinking in the East, one earthquake sinking in the West and one earthquake sinking in Saudi Arabia between Madina and Mecca. Let me clarify the East and West earthquake. This prediction was given in the time of our Beloved Prophet (PBUH) so West here means to the West of Mecca, Saudi Arabia and East means to the East of Mecca, Saudi Arabia and the final is that a Fire would spread from Yemen and drive the people to their place of gathering (Assembly). (Sahi Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud).[vii]
Sunnis rank this collection of Hadiths by Abu Dawudas fourth in veracity out of their six major Hadith collections.[viii] But its correspondence with the Imam Muslim collection gains it theological weight amongst Muslim scholars. Interestingly, neither mentions the Mahid. Thus, the ten major signs are:
- The Dajjal will appear as a one-eyed man. He displays supernatural signs and will claim to be God and to hold keys to heaven and hell. He will lead many astray, although believers will not be deceived. The Dajjal would be followed by seventy thousand Jews.
- The return of Isa (Jesus) from the sky to kill the Dajjal.
- Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj (Gog and Magog), two tribes of vicious beings which had been imprisoned by Dhul-Qarnayn, will break out. They will ravage the earth, drink all the water of Lake Tiberias, and kill all believers in their way (or see). Isa, the Mahdi, and the believers with them will go to a mountaintop to pray for the destruction of Gog and Magog. Allah will eventually send disease and worms to destroy them.
- A huge black smoke cloud will cover the earth.
- Dabbat al-ard (“the Beast”) will come out of the ground to talk to people.
- The sun rises from the west.
- Three massive sink holes open up in the earth: one in the east,
- One in the west,
- And one in Arabia.
- The last trumpet will be sounded, the dead will return to life, and a fire will start in Yemen that will force everyone to gather all to Mahshar Al Qiy’amah (“The Gathering for Judgment”).
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It seems strange that the Mahdi is not listed as a major sign, but we explain later in this series why The Last Roman Emperor Becomes the Muslim’s Mahdi (we believe the Mahdi is based on a later Christian pseudepigraphal work, and that such a belief was foreign in Muhammad’s day). A popular explanation is that the Mahdi appears just prior to the arrival of the Dajjal (the first of the ten major signs).
According to Furnish, “Contra conventional wisdom in the field, belief in the Mahdi, is as vital in Sunni as in Shi‘i Islam.”[ix] Much attention has been focused on Iran, likely because of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s frequent statements to the news media indicating his personal belief in the Mahdi’s imminent return. While such certainly plays well with young males in the Iranian voter demographic, this has led to an overemphasis of Shi’ite belief in an occulted twelfth Imam when it is actually radicalized Sunnis (like the IS) who are actively attempting to bring end-time prophecy to pass. Furnish argues, “I would maintain that IS atrocities like the beheading of James Foley and the mass murders of Shi`is and Yazidis are, in effect, ‘bizarre rituals intended to bring about the end of the world’—or at least to spark the Mahdi’s coming. I truly think that IS has passed into the realm of trying to hotwire the apocalypse.”[x] Furnish makes a compelling case.
Shia and Sunni Mahdism
Joel C. Rosenberg is the author of many bestsellers featuring Islam in an apocalyptic setting: The Last Jihad, The Last Days, The Ezekiel Option, The Copper Scroll, Dead Heat, The Twelfth Imam, The Tehran Initiative, Damascus Countdown, The Auschwitz Escape, and The Third Target. Don’t confuse Rosenberg with Joel Richardson, author of The Islamic Antichrist, a nonfiction eschatological argument that connects Islamic and biblical prophecy. In contrast, Rosenberg writes mostly fiction based on real current events. A sample of his latest novel, The First Hostage, features the Islamic State:
With these words, New York Times journalist J. B. Collins, reporting from the scene of a devastating attack by ISIS terrorists in Amman, Jordan, puts the entire world on high alert. The leaders of Israel and Palestine are critically injured, Jordan’s king is fighting for his life, and the US president is missing and presumed captured.
As the US government faces a constitutional crisis and Jordan battles for its very existence, Collins must do his best to keep the world informed while working to convince the FBI that his stories are not responsible for the terror attack on the Jordanian capital. And ISIS still has chemical weapons.[xi]
Of course, Rosenberg’s work incorporates the latest Middle-East news in a captivating style that has resonated with American readers. In the past, his books focused on Iran and Shia Islam, so it is of note to read that he has now incorporated the more mouth-foamingly rabid, Sunni Mahdism of the IS.
Shia is a branch of Islam that holds that Muhammad’s proper successor was his son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, who ruled over the Islamic caliphate from AD 656 to 661.[xii] While Sunnis consider Ali the fourth and final of the rightly guided caliphs, Shias regard Ali as the first Imam after Muhammad. Shias also believe that Ali and the other Shia Imams (all of whom are members of the Ahl al-Bayt, Muhammad’s household) are the rightful successors to Muhammad. This disagreement split the Muslim community into the Sunni and Shi’i branches.
The term “Twelver” refers to Shia’s belief in twelve divinely appointed Imams (leaders of Islam), and their belief that the last Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was occulted (mysteriously disappeared) and will reappear as the prophesized Mahdi. Shia only consists of around 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population.[xiii] Since the overthrow of Iran’s secular government in 1979, Shiite Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has held control. He is credited with planning the first suicide bomb attacks in 1982, which inspired Hezbollah in Lebanon to cite Surah 9:111 and to promote the mythological martyrs paradise staffed with seventy-two celestial virgins as a distinctly Persian eschatology. Like the papal indulgence, the perverse promise has led uncounted thousands of starry-eyed adolescents into hell. In 2012, 85 percent of Shias were estimated to be Twelvers.[xiv]
In contrast, most Sunnis believe that Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was his proper successor. Until the United States invaded Iraq, the Sunnis looked down their noses at enthusiastic apocalypticism as being a predominately Shia error. Jean-Pierre Filiu has argued that most modern Sunni Muslims viewed apocalyptic thinking with suspicion before the United States invaded Iraq, but the 2003 “new crusade,” War on Terror, changed everything. William McCants, a Brookings Institute scholar of Near Eastern Studies,[xv] wrote:
The US invasion of Iraq and the stupendous violence that followed dramatically increased the Sunni public’s appetite for apocalyptic explanations of a world turned upside down. A spate of bestsellers put the United States at the center of the End-Times drama, a new “Rome” careering throughout the region in a murderous stampede to prevent violence on its own shores. The main antagonists of the End of Days, the Jews, were now merely supporting actors. Even conservative Sunni clerics who had previously tried to tamp down messianic fervor couldn’t help but conclude that “the triple union constituted by the Antichrist, the Jews, and the new Crusaders”[xvi] had joined forces “to destroy the Muslims.”[xvii]
The Iraq war also changed apocalyptic discourse in the global jihadist movement. The languid apocalypticism of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri now had to contend with the urgent apocalypticism of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and his immediate successors. Iraq, the site of a prophesied bloodbath between true Muslims and false, was engulfed in a sectarian civil war. As Zarqawi saw it, the Shi’a had united with the Jews and Christians under the banner of the Antichrist to fight against the Sunnis. The Final Hour must be approaching, to be heralded by the rebirth of the caliphate, the Islamic empire that had disappeared and whose return was prophesied.[xviii]
Of course the War on Terror did not end when President Obama kept his necessarily uninformed campaign promise to bring home the troops. In fact, US national interest in the Middle East is far worse now than it was in 2003. Of course, it depends on what one believes our national interest actually is; as Bernard Lewis pointed out, it was defined as the “prevention of the emergence of a regional hegemony—of a single regional power that could dominate the area and thus establish monopolistic control of Middle Eastern oil”[xix] and not the spread of democracy and Western values. Bush and Obama’s revisionism aside, it is inextricably related to Islam. The success of the IS is a byproduct of Shia/Sunni tensions and the Mahdist uprising amongst Sunnis in response to the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and a bungled exit strategy.
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Recalling the recent scientific survey by the Pew Research Center that revealed that at least half of all Muslims in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia expect the imminent appearance of the Mahdi, groups like the IS should not surprise us.[xx] The Mahdi—whom they believe is alive today—is a Muslim political leader who Islamifies the world. In accepting that belief, almost anything goes to pave the way. Hence, the recent horrors in Jerusalem involving meat-cleaver attacks are absolved by definition.[xxi] The original founder of the IS believed the Mahdi’s return was so soon, he ordered the infrastructure necessary for his global inauguration. McCants pointed out that as far back as 2006 (!), “Masri ordered his men to build pulpits for the Mahdi to ascend in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.”[xxii] Whether Islamic prophecy truly predicts the future or not, does not change the fact that millions of passionate believers and jihadi turned Mahdists (like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) are desperately trying to bring it to pass—a state of affairs that seems apocalyptic, in and of itself, given today’s geopolitics. Sahid has pointed out an outside influence from Persia.
In Yatrib, city of the Prophet, Muhammad was more exposed to the Jews, the Christians, the Zoroastrians, or former adherents of these religions who were converted to Islam. But the impact of Christianity and Zoroastrianism on the Islamic eschatology was far more dominant than Judaism. In the eschatological realm the Jews, and the person of the Antichrist, manifested the forces of evil.[xxiii]
Sunni’s distinguish themselves from Persian (Shias), but Persian Zoroastrian influence also led to the myth of seventy-two virgins for the carnal indulgence suicide bombers in Paradise, leading many popular reference books to deny it.[xxiv]
While both houses of Islam expect the Mahdi’s arrival, Sunni and Shi’ite Islam have different beliefs concerning his identity. The Shi’ite “Twelvers” continue the line through other descendants of Ali to Muhammad al-Mahdi, the twelfth imam. Furnish disabuses a popular misconception that the Shi’ites dominate the field,
Even among scholars there is a stereotype that Mahdism is chiefly a Shi’i phenomenon, whereas in reality throughout Islamic history most Mahdist movements have sprung from the brows of charismatic Sunni holy men with an axe to grind against a usually Islamic regime.[xxv]
Furnish sounds an ominous warning, “Mahdism is much more likely to occur, and as the province of freelancers in Sunnism—and this is exactly what history demonstrates.”[xxvi]
And make no mistake: Mahdists would have even fewer constraints on their behaviour than do jihadis. Since the end result of the Mahdi’s plans would be, they believe, a global caliphate nothing would he asked would be beyond his followers: detonating a nuke in Vegas or Manhattan, intentionally infecting oneself with plague or smallpox and then criss-crossing American aiports, suicide-bombing Christian day care centers in the Midwest. Helping the Mahdi restore Islam to planetary predominance would obtain one even more glory than the promised 72 huris in Paradise.[xxvii]
Historically, Sunni Islam has derived religious authority from the caliphate, who was in turn appointed by the companions of Muhammad at his death. The Sunnis view the Mahdi as the successor of Mohammad, the Mahdi is expected to arrive and establish global Sharia law.
Mahdists of both houses believe his arrival to be imminent. The arrival of the Mahdi is the first sign of the third and final period of Islamic eschatology. One of the leading Muslim scholars of the fourteenth century. Ismail Abu Al-Fadl’ Umar ibn Kathir, was educated chiefly in Damascus, initially specializing in the study of Hadith. As a Syrian scholar, he would have been very familiar with extrabiblical Christian apocalyptic texts like the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. Even in Islam, the Mahdi does not really replace Jesus, he paves the way for Him. The next entry will examine the origins of the Mahdi legend from Syrian Christian pseudepigrapha.
UP NEXT: The Last Roman Emperor Becomes the Muslims’ Mahdi
[i]Ibn Kathir, The Signs Before the Day of Judgement (London, Dar Al-Taqwa, 1991), 18.
[ii] “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” Pew Research Center, April 6 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/08/09/the-worlds-muslims-unity-and-diversity-executive-summary/ accessed December10, 2015.
[iii] Timothy Furnish, “Mahdism (and Sectarianism and Superstition) Rises in the Islamic World” History.com August 13, 2012, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/147714#sthash.F5v4ndOR.AY0ZuBzB.dpufIt, accessed January 12, 2016.
[iv] Bernard Lewis, “Islam and the West: A Conversation with Bernard Lewis,” http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/islam-and-the-west-a-conversation-with-bernard-lewis.html, accessed September 11, 2015.
[v] “Islamic ‘Messiah’ al-Mahdi to Return by 2016, Followed By Jesus? Islamic ‘Messiah’ al-Mahdi to Return by 2016, Followed By Jesus?” Israel, Islam and the End Times May 19, 2015, http://www.israelislamandendtimes.com/islamic-messiah-al-mahdi-to-return-by-2016-followed-by-jesus/accessed January 3, 2016.
[vii] “Major Signs of the End of the World,” http://www.khorasaan.net/major-signs-of-end-of-the-world.php.
[ix]Furnish, Holiest Wars, 150.
[xi] Joel C. Rosenberg, The First Hostage: A J. B. Collins Novel (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015), sample: http://www.joelrosenberg.com/product-details/?isbn=978-1-4964-0615-6#sthash.fXS9J1hE.dpuf, accessed October 8, 2015.
[xii]lla Landau-Tasseron, History of Al-Tabari, Volume 39: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, Suny Series in Near Eastern Studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996) 39–40, https://books.google.com/books?id=ztahJV58oLcC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
[xiii] “Mapping the Global Muslim Population,” Pew Research Center, October 7, 2009, http://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/07/mapping-the-global-muslim-population/, accessed December 19, 2015.
[xiv] Mathieu Guidère, Historical Dictionary of Islamic Fundamentalism, Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012), 319.
[xvi] Jean-Pierre Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam, translated by M. B. DeBevoise, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 121–140.
[xvii]Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam, 131.
[xviii] William McCants, “How ISIL Out-Terrorized Bin Laden,” Politico Magazine, August 15, 2015, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/isis-jihad-121525#ixzz3o6YPGmIx, accessed October 9, 2015.
[xix] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Kindle Edition, (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2003), Kindle Locations 1208–1211.
[xx] “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” Pew Research Center, August 9, 2012, http:// www.pewforum.org/ 2012/ 08/ 09/ the-worlds-muslims-unity-and-diversity-executive-summary/, accessed October 6, 2015.
[xxi] “GRAPHIC IMAGES: East Jerusalem Arab Rams Car into Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Then Stabs Them” Jerusalem Post, October 13, 2015, http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/GRAPHIC-IMAGES-East-Jerusalem-Arab-rams-car-into-ultra-Orthodox-Jews-then-stabs-them-423831, accessed December 28,2015.
[xxii] William McCants (2015-09-22), The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (Kindle Locations 529–530). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
[xxiii] ṢamūʼīlʻAbd al-Shahīd, The Last Trumpet: A Comparative Study in Christian-Islamic Eschatology (Longwood, Fla.: Xulon Press, 2005), 28.
[xxiv] Christine Huda Dodge, The Everything Understanding Islam Book: A Complete Guide to Muslim Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, 2nd ed., An Everything Series Book (Avon, MA: Adams Media Corp., 2009), 185.
[xxv] Timothy R. Furnish, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden (Kindle Locations 114-116). Kindle Edition.
[xxvi]Timothy R. Furnish, “Through a Glass Darkly: A Comparison of Self-Proclaimed “Mahdist” States throughout History to the Theory of the (True) Mahdist State Yet to Come,” International Conference of Mahdism Doctrine, http://www.mahdaviat-conference.com/vdchtqnkd23nz.102.html.
[xxvii] Furnish, “Through a Glass Darkly.”