[ by Charles Cameron — here Dr Furnish explores and explains the rival eschatologies afoot in the Syrian conflict ]
Timothy Furnish has a new post up on Syria at his MahdiWatch blog, supplementing his recent guest post on Zenpundit, Reprehending Ignorance about Syria, in which he discussed sectarian issues, with Intervening (in Syria) Like It’s The End of the World?, in which he zeroes in on the strands of Mahdist expectation and enthusiasm on both sides of the conflict. Dr Furnish’s new post is long, so I’ll offer you some key paragraphs as a teaser, then suggest you go read the rest.
Iraq has always been more more central to Islamic history than far-eastern or far-western peripheries like Afghanistan or Libya, albeit less so than Syria. Iraq was on the fault-line between Western and “Eastern” civilizations, going back to Roman and Byzantine times, when it was a contested buffer zone between those empires and the various Persian ones. The region of Iraq itself was divided, after the coming of Islam, into Sunni and Shi`i sections — the former often under Ottoman Turkish rule, the latter in the orbit of (or at least doctrinally sympathetic to) the Safavid , and subsequent other Shi`i, Iranian states. To this day, especially post-American occupation (which empowered the Twelver Shi`i Iraqi majority to take power), Iraq is religiously and even eschatologically important for the Twelvers of the world primarily because six of the twelve Imams’ tombs are there and, after his reappearance, the returned 12th Imam al-Mahdi will rule from Kufa, Iraq. However, despite Baghdad’s undeniable importance as a political and intellectual center from its founding in 750 AD to its demise at the hands of the Mongols in 1258, Iraq pales in importance next to Syria for the majority Sunni Muslims, particularly Arab ones.
Syria was the first area outside the Arabian peninsula to be conquered, and not only was it taken from the superpower al-Rum (the Byzantine Christian Empire), but al-Sham, “Greater Syria” centered on Damascus included Jerusalem, the capture of which “proved” Islamic superiority to the other, corrupted monotheistic religions: Judaism and Christianity. This fervent triumphalism only intensified after the hated Crusaders were expelled from their 88-year occupation by the Syrian Kurd Salah al-Din in 1187, and the “Zionist occupation” of al-Quds (“The Holy”=Jerusalem) since 1948 is seen by many Arab (and other) Muslims are merely a temporary setback, which the Mahdi and Jesus will rectify. Thus many hadiths predict eschatological events transpiring in what the French and Brits used to call “the Levant,” the most important among them including: al-Sufyani, (a “type” of the Muslim antichrist, al-Dajjal, “the Deceiver”) will emerge from Syria; Christians will (re)conquer Syria; the Mahdi will reveal himself; the Dajjal himself appear; Jesus will return by descending into Damascus; the armies of the Mahdi and the Sufyani will battle; and Jesus will kill the Dajjal in or near Jerusalem. After all this the Mahdi and Jesus will jointly rule over a Muslim planet, and eventually both will pass away. The true end of history, and the Final Judgement, will not come for some years after that. Also: the Sunni Mahdi and the Twelver Shi`i one perform virtually the same role, the major differences being 1) the former will step onto the stage of history for the first time, whereas the latter will return from a millennium-old mystical ghaybah, or “occultation;” and 2) Sunni eschatologists prognosticate that the person whom Shi`is believe to be their 12th Imam will actually be the Dajjal—and Shi`is say the same about the Sunni Mahdi!
Thus, Syria is the most important eschatological venue of Islam, bar none. Quoting sayings of some of their twelve Imams, at least one Iranian government official has superimposed eschatological themes on the Syrian conflict — Hujjat al-Islam (or “Hujjatollah,” a cleric ranking below Ayatollah) Ruhollah Husayniyan, who claims that the strife in Syria is the prelude to the Imam al-Mahdi’s coming and revolution. (This sort of “newspaper exegesis” has been going on for years in Tehran and Qom, actually.) And Twelver Shi`is in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon are not only enthused about this idea, but have been motivated by Mahdism to go join the fight for Bashar al-Asad and the Alawi regime over against its Sunni opponents!
Here are Dr Furnish’s concluding words.
While certain writers in the US obsess about Evangelical Christians trying to fit the Syrian Islamic civil war into a Christian eschatological blueprint, the truth is that they have no significant political power (and the ones I know are adamantly against President Obama’s proposed strikes on the al-Asad military) — they just like to opine, talk, and sell books. The true believers in the Mahdi, the Sufyani and the return of the Islamic Jesus — who comprise hundred of millions of Muslims, according to polling data — should be the real focus of concern, most especially those of their ranks putting their beliefs into practice in Aleppo, Dayr al-Zur and Idlib. The Obama Administration would do well to consider the apocalyptic aspect of the Syrian civil war, before committing our forces to helping those of the Mahdi or the 12th Imam.
As I suggested earlier, now go read the whole thing.
ICYMI, I think that final phrase — “before committing our forces to helping those of the Mahdi or the 12th Imam” — is one we should read with care in light of his earlier sentence:
Sunni eschatologists prognosticate that the person whom Shi`is believe to be their 12th Imam will actually be the Dajjal—and Shi`is say the same about the Sunni Mahdi!
Whichever side we might commit our forces to, in other words, we’d be supporting one strain of Mahdism or the other…