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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: http://hnn.us/articles/13146.html; for more in-depth info, see the links here to my other writings, including my book on Mahdism.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Please Come to Boston--To Learn About the Mahdi and Islamic Apocalyptic

In two weeks (May 3-4, 2015), Boston University will host "Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams, and Global Jihad."  Topics covered will include: ISIS's and Boko Haram's eschatological ideas; reluctance of Western analysts and commentators to see the connection between global jihad and Islamic apocalyptic; Iranian apocalpytic thought; etc.  I will present a paper on how the Ottoman Empire responded to Mahdist movements within its borders, and what that might teach Muslim governments today.  There are some major-league presenters--both academic experts (Will McCants; Brookings; organizers Richard Landes, BU; David Cook, Rice; Jeffrey Bales, MIIS) and "lay" (Graeme Wood; Ayaan Hirsi Ali). 

Journalists, academics and government analysts interested in this important topic should please come to Boston!  

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11:40 am edt          Comments

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mahdi(s) of Arabia

Earlier this week the current affairs analytical shop Wikistrat asked me to opine on the conflict in Yemen. Here it is: 

"With Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni powers carrying out airstrikes in Yemen and accusing their regional nemesis, Iran, of instigating the Houthi uprising in the country, Wikistrat asked its Senior Analyst Dr. Timothy Furnish, who is an authority on especially Shia Islam, Mahdism and other Islamic sects, to provide background on the conflict and explain to what extent Iran really is involved.

Dr. Furnish notes that Yemen has been a battleground for rival brands of Islam for over a millennium.

In the 900s, it was contested by dueling Shiisms: the (then-militant) Seveners, or Isma’ilis, from North Africa waged dawah and jihad against Fivers, or Zaydis, from Iran. (This was before Iran’s forcible conversion to Twelver Shiism by the Safavids in the sixteenth century.) The Zaydis won and established a militant Imamate in northern Yemen. The Ottomans occupied Yemen twice in order to safeguard the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as well as Red Sea trade. Both times, Zaydi insurgents forced them out, despite massive Ottoman efforts to delegitimize the Zaydi Shii Imamate.

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Iran would like this map--because there's no Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But they'd dislike the return of the Ottoman Empire. 

In the 1960s civil war, staunchly Sunni Saudi Arabia (ironically) backed the Zaydis while Nasser’s Egypt supported the “republicans” who ultimately emerged victorious. After unification in 1990, the Sana’a government largely ignored the needs and demands of the 40 percent of the Yemeni population that was Zaydi, contributing to the sense of disenfranchisement felt by the main Zaydi tribe, the Houthis — which has now led to civil war again.

Iran has various aims in fanning the flames of the Houthi rebellion, Dr. Furnish explains:

  • Leveraging “persecution” of Shia into regional geopolitical influence for Tehran-Qom;
  • Appealing to, and exploiting, historical connections with Shia Muslims of Yemen and greater Arabia;
  • Undermining and delegitimizing the Saudi government;
  • Strengthening its strategic position on both sides of the Red Sea;
  • Strengthening the anti-Israel Islamic front;
  • Searching for allies wherever they can be found.

But Dr. Furnish also cautions that Iran neither created nor controls Yemen’s Zaydi discontent.

One might well argue, instead, that the Houthis Zaydi leadership is using Tehran more than the other way around.

For much of the last 1200 years, Zaydis have ruled over much of Yemen and they do have legitimate grievances against both the recent Sunni leadership in Sana’a and, of course, against Sunni jihadists like Al Qaeda and (allegedly) ISIS there.

Saudi Arabia’s reflexive theological and political fear of Shiism in the peninsula is understandable as well. Besides Yemen, there are large minority pockets of Twelvers in eastern Saudi Arabia and of Seveners in Najran.

Also, Mahdism has been a real fear since 1979, when Juhayman al-Utaybi declared his brother-in-law, Muhammad al-Qahtani, the Mahdi and their forces occupied the Great Mosque — a fear that has grown in recent years as Saudi Arabia has suffered a rash of “lone wolf” Mahdis across the kingdom.

Simply bombing Yemen is not going to stop such eschatological fervor, though, Furnish warns. If anything, it could drive more than just Houthis into Iran’s embrace.

Some means of redressing legitimate minority — Shia of all three denominations, that is — grievances must be part of the equation. Perhaps Oman, whose Ibadi Islam is tolerant of both Sunnis and Shiis and whose government is on good terms with Iran, can play a key role here.

Finally, Furnish urges Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to keep in mind that the self-declared “Islamic State” to the north is ultimately far more dangerous than the Zaydis to the south."

Also, in 2013, I was in Israel lecturing on this topic, at Haifa University. Here is the audio link.

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The scimitar of the Zaydi Imam(s): Iran didn't forge it--but is helping aim it (at the Saudis).  

8:54 am edt          Comments

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

ISIS' Short Journey from JV Team to Global Champions of Jihad

In the final battle, it wasn’t even close: ISIS handily dispatched its cousin Boko Haram to the tender care of the houris, making mincemeat, er, baba ghanouj of those pretenders from the Africa regional—as well as of the Obama analysis that ISIS was “the JV team.”  Ultimately, ISIS’ full-Mideast press, its much-maligned but politically-brilliant caliphate declaration, and its literally slashing approach to both offense and defense won the day.  

ISISwinsMarchBadnessbigger.jpg 

So ISIS will have a full year’s worth of bragging rights as jihadist champions—unless some other power declares a new tournament to challenge al-Baghdadi and his 7th century club.  

But that appears bloodly unlikely.  

ISIStroops.jpg We're Number Wahid! We're Number Wahid! 

10:32 am edt          Comments

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Clash of the Terrorism Titans: ISIS and Boko Haram In March Badness Championship

And then there were two…. After a grueling weekend of terrorism contests, the championship match is set: Boko Haram, emerging from the African regional, will take on its ostensible master, ISIS/ISIL/Da`ish, which rode roughshod over all pretenders in the Middle Eastern bracket.  

BHvISISMarchBadness4.2015.jpg 

Ansaru, like Michigan State, really stood little chance against its big brother Boko Haram—especially when ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) canceled plans for a joint, zone defense against BH, thus freeing up the African jihadists par excellence to roam around the court almost at will.  

ISIS, unlike Kentucky, continued its string of victories, adding recruitment of American Muslim women to its already well-established reputation for  artifact-plundering, er, “idol-smashing.”  At the same time, ISIS took the fight directly to HAMAS, which choked...literally on its own blood, with ISIS beheading one of its shaykhs in Syria. HAMAS’  joint Western-Islamic approach proved no match for ISIS’ brutally literalistic, Qur’an-derived playbook.  

Which Muslim terrorist team will lay claim to being the true Army of the Mahdi, come midnight Monday? Allah alone knows! 

LATemptation.jpg ISIS' women's team won't dress like this (except under their burkas)--but they will sport similar scimitars! 

9:29 pm edt          Comments

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Final Four of March Badness: the Terrorism Danse Macabre Card is Set!

The Sweet Sixteen of March Badness has been decimated down to the Final Four of Fear.  Boko Haram danced a jungle boogie of death on the Haqqani Network; al-Nusrah Front easily penetrated the Muslim Brotherhood’s too-political zone; Ansaru, in a surprise upset, rode its Sokoto Caliphate-inspired agenda to victory over Twelver Shi`a Hizbullah; Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan [TTP] bearded CAIR into oblivion; ISIS ripped the veils off the al-Mulathimun Battalion; core al-Qa`idah [AQ] sidelined its franchise in the Islamic Maghrib; Ansar al-Din of Mali took out Jemaah Anshourat Tawhid, as the latter—due to defections to ISIS—was down to only four starters; and HAMAS routed the upstart, neighboring Army of Islam (Gaza Strip).  

Burqaball.jpg ISIS's female hoops team warms up. We couldn't  get pix of the male team, because they decapitated the photographer. 

In the Evil Eight, we first saw Boko Haram pull ahead of al-Nusrah Front: the latter’s capture of Idlib was gruesomely trumped by the former’s novel use of chainsaws in decapitating some 40 Nigerians. Then Ansaru continued its upset trend by sending TTP to a premature meeting with the houris.   ISIS sent AQ slinking back to its Waziristan caves, while Ansar al-Din fell to the that perennial powerhouse HAMAS.  

So the danse macabre card is set: the winner of Boko Haram v. its offshoot Ansaru, in the African terrorism final, will meet the ISIS-HAMAS winner in the all-acronym Middle East conference.  Stay tuned! 

BHvAnsaru.jpg 

ISISvHAMAS.jpg 

8:50 pm edt          Comments

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

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