Posts by TimothyFurnish:

    Domes of the Rock and Chain v. A Dome of Iron: Which Best Protects Israel from Islamic Attack?

    January 28th, 2014



    By Timothy Furnish.


    Over Thanksgiving I spent eight days in Israel, having been invited there by my friend Dr. Moshe Terdiman, founder of the think-tank “Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa.”  I lectured at the Truman Center of Hebrew University on “Iran’s GlobalDa`wah—Focus on Africa” and at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, Haifa University, on “Does Five Plus Sevener Equal Twelver? The Shi`a of Yemen and Arabia and their Relationship to Iran.”  Also, on Thanksgiving Day (November 28) I delivered the keynote address, “Sufis v. Salafis in Islamic Africa,” at the first (hopefully hereafter annual) “Islam in Africa” conference held in Israel and attended by several Israeli ambassadors to various African countries, as well as the ambassadors of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Ghana to Israel.  When not working, I had four days to investigate the Old City of Jerusalem.

    Although I had been there twice before (2003 and 2007), this trip was uniquely interesting in a number of way.   First, compared to my first two trips, there were many, many more African Christians (Nigerians and Ghanaian’s, in particular) on pilgrimage.  Possible reasons might include: the growing wealth of Africans;  greater awareness of transnational Christianity on their part; easier access (both from home and by the Israelis) to Jerusalem; increasing piety among African Christians; or some combination thereof.  A countervailing trend was the presence of many more Muslim women wearing the niqab (face-covering) and burka (body-covering), not simply the hijab (head and chest covering)—proving that even in Israel the idea that Islam al-hall, “Islam is the solution,” continues to gain in popularity.  Most importantly, I was finally able, at last, to gain access to al-Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount; and although I could not access Qubbat al-Sakhrah, the “Dome of the Rock,” I was at least able to get close and take pictures as well as explore the area around it (in the meagre hour allotted for “infidels”).   One of the most fascinating edifices which is accessible to Christians and Jews is Qubbat al-Silsilah, the “Dome of the Chain” immediately to the east of the Dome of the Rock:


    Dome of the Chain, in front of the famous Dome of the Rock. 


    Yours truly inside the Dome of the Chain. Thankfully no infidels were harmed in the taking of this picture.  My prior visitation means that on Judgment Day I will get to cut to the front of the line!

    When I got  back home, I researched this strange structure, mainly via a superb, scholarly article by Gülru Necipoğlu, entitled “The Dome of the Rock as Palimpset: `Abd al-Malik’s Grand Narrative and Sultan Süyleman’s Glosses” from Muqarnas, Vol. 25 (2008), pp. 16-105.  According to Necipoğlu, even before the building of the Dome of the Rock the Umayyad caliph Mu`awiya “propagated the use of the term ‘land of the Gathering and Resurrection [on the Day of Judgment]’ (ard al-mahshar wa ‘l-manshar) with regard to Jerusalem” and he “furthermore attempted to extend Jerusalem’s sanctity to the entire province of Syria-Palestine (al-sham), the locus of his capital, Damascus.”  Mu`awiya “thus established a precedent for identifying the holiness of the sanctuary in Jerusalem with cosmology, eschatology, and the legitimization of dynastic caliphal authoriity….” (Necipoğlu, p. 19).  The later Umayyad caliph `Abd al-Malik had built the Dome of the Rock before he died in 705 AD as well as, most probably, the Dome of the Chain, constructed “on the site where David [was said to have] judged the Children of Israel by means of a chain of light suspended between heaven and earth….which could distinguish those who were speaking the truth in legal disputes from those where were lying [and which was] withdrawn to heaven when a disputant attempted to trick it.  The same tradition identifies the Dome of the Chain as the place where the Prophet [sic] encountered the maidens of Paradise at the time he was miraculously transported to Jerusalem on his Night Journey.”



    Night Journey, or Night Moves?  Muhammad certainly has a way wiith the ladies, er, houris….

    Also, Necipoğlu mined Islamic pilgrimage guides—Arab, Ottoman Turkish and even Persian—from  the ninth through the 16th centuries AD for how they viewed the structural layout of the Temple Mount.  Many of them play up the scatological meaning of the various edifices on the area around the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as the surrounding topography;  for example, the “Straight Bridge” (sirat al-mustaqim) which “is visualized…as leading from the Mount of Olives to the Haram al-Sharif” simultaneously “evokes the ‘straight path’ repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an….” (p. 77).  In sum, the Dome of the Rock and Chain, and “the signs of the Hour mapped onto the surrounding complex are only reminders and precursors of their real versions, a preview of things to come.” (p. 79).  Overall, says Necipoğlu, the Dome of the Rock in Islamic thought “salutes the end of time….” (p. 81).

    How the 1.3 million Muslims in Israel feel about the scatological heritage of al-Haram al-Sharif—or even whether they are aware of it—is beyond my ken; but it is noteworthy that in the bookstores of the Old City I found five books on the Mahdi and the Muslim End of Time, four of which I purchased and plan to read (the other one was too thick and expensive to buy and cart back home): 1) Ahdath al-Kafiyah wa-Fitan Akhar al-Zaman (“Traditions of Secrecy and the Conflicts of the End of Time”), Cairo, 2012; 2)  Nihaya al-`Alam: Ashrat al-Sa`ah al-Sughra wa-al-Kubra (“The End of the World: Minor and Major Signs of the Hour,” Riyadh, 2010; 3) al-Qawl al-Sunni fi Fitnah al-Dajjal wa-Zuhur al-Mahdi (“The Sunni Doctrines on the Conflict of the the Dajjal and the Appearance of the Mahdi,” Cairo, 2011; and Ashrat al-Sa`ah wa-al-Fitan al-Malahim (“Signs of the Hour and the Conflicts and the Epic Battles,” Gaza, 2012.  Cairo, along with Beirut, is one of the major Arabic-language publishing venues, so I assign no great import to Islamic scatological works published there.  However, the publication of any work on this topic in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is striking, considering how much the Saudis fear a repeat of the regime-threatening attempted Mahdist coup of 1979; and a publisher in Palestinian Gaza putting out a book stirring the Islamic scatological pot may well indicate that the Palestinian Muslims are ready for apocalyptic battle with the Israelis—or, conversely, that they are ready to throw in the kaffiyeh on their own human efforts and, rather, just wait for the Mahdi to come smite their oppressors.

    Muslim scatological fervor is boiling over in nearby Syria, as I analyzed on this site in September, 2013.   The extent to which Muslims in Israel are aware of, and inflamed by, this is unknown; what is known is that Damascus and Jerusalem are much more prominent in Islamic traditions (both Sunni and Shi`i) about the coming of the Mahdi and the subsequent scatological events than are Mecca and Medina. Therefore, it would behoove Western geopolitical and intelligence analysts—both in and out of government—to put some effort into studying this topic, rather than relegating it to the theater of the absurd or myopically obsessing over what Evangelical Christians think about the end of the world.

    I would also add that the historical scatological significance of Jerusalem to Muslims is a major argument against the thesis that the Iranian regime wants nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel (I have already argued at length elsewhere that this charge little accords with Twelver Shi`i doctrines): Islam’s third-holiest site is that religion’s most important scatological locale, and no one is more respectful of such traditions than the ayatollahs in Qom and Tehran.  Thus, if al-Quds is nuked or even contaminated with fall-out from a bomb on Tel Aviv, the Mahdi and Allah will not only be displeased but unable to stage the eschatological denouement.  The presence of the Domes of the Rock and Chain in Jerusalem is thus, in my studied opinion, and even greater deterrent to Islamic nuclear attack on that city than is Israel’s more prosaic Iron Dome anti-missile system.

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    Days of Future Mahdism Have Not Passed

    November 26th, 2013


    By Timothy Furnish.

     Some time back I was asked by a friend/follower on Twitter about scenarios that could lead to a Mahdist movement taking power somewhere in the modern Muslim world.   I will now attempt to construct a plausible set of circumstances that would encompass a Mahdi claim being taken seriously by a sufficient number of Muslims such that it would become a political and military movement.

    First, for the scoffers, let me adduce (again) the 2012 empirical polling data from Pew, “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.”  The data on Mahdism in particular I broke down for History News Network last year, pointing out, inter alia, the following crucial data: some 42% of Muslims (surveyed in 23 countries) expect the “imminent” appearance—meaning in their lifetimes—of the Mahdi.  In actual numbers, that amounts to about 670 million Muslims.  Belief in the Mahdi’s coming is highest in: Afghanistan, 83%; Iraq, 72%; Turkey, 68%; Tunisia, 67%; Malaysia, 62%; Pakistan, 60%; Lebanon, 56%; Morocco, 51%; Palestinian territories, 46%; and Egypt, 40%.  So much for the academic theory that Mahdism is just a medieval holdover in Islam, held by only the uneducated and marginal; on the contrary, Mahdism is quite strong in the Islamic world, across sectarian lines—for of the 10 countries listed above, only two (Iraq and Lebanon) are majority Shi`i; the rest are predominantly Sunni.

    Mahdism , then, is as potent a belief in the Muslim world today as it ever has been—although in the past it tended to take reified form (both Sunni and Shi`i) more often and, if  not always more successfully—certainly often violently.  For example, Ibn Tumart (d. 1130 AD) claimed to be the Mahdi and created a movement that conquered much of what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisian and Spain.  The Isma’ili Shi`is took over Egypt in the 10th century AD and their Imam-Caliphs ruled it, as well as much of the Maghrib and even the Hijaz, until Salah al-Din ended that dynasty in 1171.  Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885) of Sudan is perhaps the most well-known Mahdi in history, thanks to Winston Churchill’s The River War and the movieKhartoum.

    The Ottoman Empire was bedeviled, over the centuries, by dozens of chaps (usually Sufi mystics) who believed themselves to be the Mahdi and led rebellions (as, for that matter, was true of the Sudanese Mahdi—legally an Ottoman subject and a Sufi, too).   One self-styled Mahdi even cropped up in Republican Turkey in 1930.  Twelver Shi`i Mahdism was a major impetus for Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran in 1979—but it was also, the same year, the motivation for the Mahdist revolution manqué of Juhayman al-`Utaybi (d. 1980) and his messianic brother-in-law Muhammad al-Qahtani (d. 1979) in Saudi Arabia.   But since 1979, Mahdist movements have seemed rather puny by comparison. The Islamic Republic of Iran remains the only state purveyor of the belief system. On the non-state side, Iraq (post-US occupation) has seen the rise of not just Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi [Army of the Mahdi] and its even more violent offshoot Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq  [Battalions of the Family of Truth] but also, albeit less known: Ansar al-Mahdi [Helpers of the Mahdi], the extremely jihadist Jund al-Sama’[Army of Heaven] and the more benevolent Jaysh Husayn [Army of Husayn].

    JaM has become a political force in Iraq, and JaS engaged in combat with US and Iraqi government forces—but neither came close to taking power, either via the ballot box or the gun.  Non-state Mahdist movements exist, as well, in Morocco (also called Ansar al-Mahdi) and in Kyrgyzstan (another Jaysh al-Mahdi).  Solo, free-lance Islamic messiahs have also proliferated in Saudi Arabia in the last few years—much to the chagrin of the establishment, quite paranoid (with good reason) about Mahdism since al-`Utaybi and his men occupied the Great Mosque of Meccas for three weeks in 1979.   Nigeria saw a Mahdist movement known as Yan Tatsine between WWII and the late 1970s.   Several Mahdist Muslims have arisen and developed followings in India and Pakistan since 1947  (as Yoginder Sikand details in Pseudo-Messianic Movements in Contemporary South Asia, Global Media Publications, 2008).  Even Turkey is home to a non-jihadist strain of Mahdism, developed by Adnan Oktar, a.k.a. “Harun Yahya,” whose followers claim that his esposual and re-working of Said Nursi’s (d. 1960) Sufi Lite metaphysic makes him the true Mahdi.

    Mahdism’s path to power has three stages (according to Jan-Olaf Blichfeldt, Early Mahdism: Politics and Religion in the Formative Period of Islam, Brill, 1985): 1) disseminating revivalist propaganda aimed at undermining an extant (Islamic) regime; 2) forming a renegade “military theocracy” and attempting to seize power; and 3) conquering, or forming separately, a territorial state based on Mahdist beliefs—one that eventually wanes in ideological fervor and is supplanted or conquered in turn (albeit sometimes after a number of years).

    Many pre-modern movements made it to levels one or two, and some—Ibn Tumart, the Sudanese Mahdi, others on a smaller scale—even reached level three. Since 1979, however, no Mahdist movement has made it past the second level (al-`Utaybi’s), and most have been stymied at the first (the aforementioned groups in Iraq, Morocco and Kyrgyzstan; and the authors of reams of pro-Mahdist books, articles and websites).  For a modern Mahdist movement to gain ground among Muslims as not just an abstract belief system but a concrete political and/or military movement, reaching Blichfeldt’s third stage, it would seem that it would need to win support in one (or more) of the following: 1) a state; 2) a transnational organization; and/or  3) a terrorist organization.

    Other than the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Twelver Shi`ism is the regnant ideology but which—because of Sunni antipathy—is limited in the reach of its Mahdist da`wah (“summons, propaganda”) to Yemen, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and a few pockets elsewhere, state Mahdism faces at best slim prospects.  (And even in Iran, no one dares claim to be the Mahdi, because to do so would shatter the future hope of the Twelfth Imam’s return which is the regime’s raison d’être. ) Although a man claiming to be the Mahdi ran for the Egyptian Presidency last year, and a number of self-styled Mahdis have announced themselves in Saudi mosques in the last several years, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which a Mahdi claimant could first win an election, or seize control, in a major Sunni Muslim nation-state.  His path to power would probably start in a non-state venue.
    Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, the last major Sunni leader to be thought the Mahdi.  

    What about the transnational organizations with an Islamic bent?  I would submit that the four  major ones are the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir and the obscure, but quite influential, Tablighi Jama`at.   The OIC is the Islamic “UN,” if you will (and, indeed, is the world’s second-largest transnational organization, behind only the UN itself)—and thatorganization’s potential as the springboard to a new caliphate has already been examined.   The Muslim Brotherhood is the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost Islamist political movement, primarily—but not solely—Arab.  Hizb al-Tahrir, or “Party of Liberation,” is a transnational movement to resurrect the caliphate (Sunni Muslim rule under one man) which is banned in many countries (but not the US) as a terrorist group.

    And Tablighi Jama`at  is an ostensibly non-political Islamic re-pietization movement which began in India but has spread to many countries of the world and is said to have as many as 80 million members.  The OIC is dominated by men who strive for (greater) Islamic unity, and long for the days when “Islamdom” was the only global counterweight to the West’s “Christendom”—but these are decidedly non-mystical and non-messianic, and so any attempt by a self-styled Mahdi to have himself elected Secretary-General of this organization would likely falter as the elector Foreign Ministers either fell out of their chairs laughing or ran to reach for their decorative daggers and scimitars.   The MB, unlike the OIC, is a popular, conservative grass-roots Sunni (mainly Arab) movement that aims for Islamic unity and polity via re-Islamizing society from the ground up; as such, and following its founder Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949) and his “apostle” Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), the MB has little tolerance for Sufi mysticism—the usual provenance of Mahdism.

    One can hardly imagine an Islamist technocrat like Muhammad Morsi adopting Mahdist beliefs.  Whereas the OIC works at the rarefied Foreign Ministry level between Islamic states and the MB does so via the more mundane local political processes within Islamic countries, HT strives to do a bit of both, albeit sans any official state blessing (and, indeed, often outright state opposition and repression).   HT has tried declaring a caliphate—as in, for example, Zanzibar—then hoping that Muslims would jump on the bandwagon and lobby for it to replace the extant government; alas for them, such has not yet come to pass.  Still, the group is active in many countries (including the US) and continues to churn out theoretical tracts, and hold conferences, on how a caliphate might be (re)constructed.  And a caliphate would be a very plausible platform for a self-proclaimed Mahdi to appropriate.

    TJ is the most far-reaching and arguably influential transnational Islamic organization, rather akin to the Catholic Church’s Opus Dei program for revitalizing the laity’s faith and putting it into action.  It has been deemed by some a “conveyor belt” to terrorism—but this is true only insofar as TJ is a path to stricter adherence to more conservative, indeed fundamentalist, Islamic norms (see my article on this topic).   Unlike the MB, however, TJ is not totally opposed to Islamic mysticism, and even incorporates some Sufi practices (such as dhikr, “remembrance” of Allah via repetitive prayers) into its program.  A charismatic, mystically-oriented Muslim leader with Mahdist aspirations is probably more likely to emerge from TJ’s ranks than from any of these other organizations. If such a man were to bridge the gap between TJ and HT, wedding the former’s piety, Muhammadan emulation and transnational reach to the latter’s political program, zeal and activism—then a non-state caliphate with a Mahdi in charge is possible.   Both are Sunni, too, so neither could accuse the other of heretical Shi`ism.   The biggest obstacle to a TJ-HT Mahdiyah would be HT’s technocratic bent (akin to that of the MB), which could conceivably be overcome by its zeal for one-man Islamic rule; possible since a Mahdi would be a super-caliph, and thus—perhaps—acceptable.

    What of the legions of Muslim terrorist groups?  Would any of them be amenable to Mahdism?  Many are Salafi/Wahhabi or MB, and most Muslims of that bent are ardently opposed to  mystical Islam and thus, presumably, to Mahdism.  But the gap between Salafis and Sufis can be overstated—it is not always absolute.  In the past Sufis waged some of the most violent jihads in history, and many Sunni Mahdis came from Sufi contexts (because of the orders’ penchant for charismatic leadership and extant quasi-military organization).   Even today some Sufi orders, such as the Qadiris, often agree with the Salafis on the importance of shari`ah and Islamic government.  Others, like the Naqshbandis, have historically been fond of waging jihad against Islam’s enemies.  And a fusion of Sufism with Salafism or MB ideas has been attempted before, as by Sa’id Hawwa (d. 1989), a Syrian Naqshbandi Sufi who also belonged to the MB and envisioned the Naqshbandi order as the spiritual guide for the politically-active MB and, more relevantly for the issue at hand, that jihad should be off-limits until the caliphate’s reestablishment.  At least one Sufi terrorist group exists (Iraq’s Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandiyah [Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order]) and many more of them have strong eschatological doctrines—such as the Haqqani offshoot of the Naqshbandiyah.

    On the Salafi side, at least some of those groups have been infused with eschatological and Mahdist fervor—as, for example, Jabhat al-Nusra [Support Front] in Syria, whose members already view that country’s civil war as the precursor to the End Time events of the Islamic hadiths.   And at least 10 of the groups on the State Department terrorist organization list claim to be fighting to reestablish a caliphate: all the al-Qa`idah [AQ] affiliates; Abu Sayyaf (Philippines); Lashkar-e Taiba (South Asia); Jemaah Islamiyah (Southeast Asia); Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami (Bangladesh); al-Shabab (East Africa); Indian Mujahidin; and most likely the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (transnational).    This is not Mahdism per se, but as aforementioned with HT any desires for one-man Islamic rule are ipso factocomplementary to Mahdism, which, essentially, constitutes an eschatological one-man polity.   AQ members reportedly held mystical, if not Mahdist, veneration for Usama bin Ladin (see my book Holiest Wars, pp. 156ff).

    A future AQ leader, who manages to plan and execute an even more “successful” attack on the US or Israel than 9/11—say, via a nuclear weapon—might gain caliphal or even Mahdist cachet sufficient to bring together not only a number of terrorist groups but perhaps even the like of HT and TJ.  It might be a “virtual Mahdiyah” with no geographic center and a peripatetic leader—but a sort of transnational, messianic entity nonetheless, commanding the political and religious loyalty of tens (or hundreds) of millions of Muslims and having a ready-made military wing in several Islamic terrorist organizations.  Such a leader might even be able to draw support, if not allegiance, from Twelver Shi`i groups like Lebanon’s Hizbullah or the various ones in Iraq, if he were to adduce a genealogy that included any of the Twelver Shi`i Imams (such as was done by the 15th century AD Indian Mahdi, Sayyid Jawnpuri, who although Sunni claimed descent from Musa al-Kazim, the seventh Imam).

    Logo of the “Army of the Men of the Nasqshbandiyah Order:” “With the help of Allah, Victory is Near!”

    Mahdism is, historically, closely tied to belief in the mujaddid, the “renewer” of Islam predicted in several hadith to come every 100 years; thus, eschatological expectations in Islam have tended to skyrocket as the turn of each Muslim century approaches, as was the case in 1979 (al-`Utaybi), 1881 (the Sudanese Mahdi), etc. The year 1500 AH (After Hijra) will occur in 2076 AD.   Couple that with the empirical data from Pew indicating strong eschatological beliefs among many Muslims, the global Islamic community’s growing sense of victimization at the hands of the Christian West (and Russia), the burgeoning influence of transnational Islamic movements like the pious TJ and political HT, as well as the continued (indeed, flourishing) popularity and power of jihad-waging terrorist groups—and the emergence of a political and/or military Mahdist movement in the coming decades appears to be a good bet.

    .:  Bottom line: An alliance of non-state groups like TJ and/or HT with AQ Central (and very possibly the South Asian terrorist organizations) naming one man as caliph, who then reveals that he also considers himself the Mahdi, is the most likely path to modern Mahdism.   Such a hypothetical movement would be powerful and dangerous enough if it merely stalled at the renegade military theocracy stage. Should this new Mahdi and his followers gain the support of (or take over) an extant Muslim-majority state (Egypt? Turkey? Post-Saudi Arabia?), moving into stage three of political Mahdism, the world would have its hands full—especially were he to do so where he would gain a nuclear arsenal, such as in Pakistan.   I won’t be around in 2076, but my boys’ (and grandchildrens’?) celebration of the American Tricentennial might well be tempered by the threat of an Islamic Mahdi.

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