[ by Charles Cameron — catching the apocalyptic mention in a broad sectarian overview ]
I’d like to discuss the last four paragraphs of a recent NYT piece on the influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria:
Iraqi Shiites did not initially take sides in Syria. Many Shiites here despise Mr. Assad for his affiliation with the Baath Party, the party of Saddam Hussein, and the support he gave foreign Sunni fighters during the Iraq war.
But as the uprising became an armed rebellion that began to attract Sunni extremists, many Shiites came to see the war in existential terms. Devout Shiites in Iraq often describe the Syrian conflict as the beginning of the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time by predicting that an army, headed by a devil-like figure named Sufyani, will rise in Syria and then conquer Iraq’s Shiites.
It was the bombing of an important shrine in Samarra in 2006 that escalated Iraq’s sectarian civil war, and many Iraqis see the events in Syria as replicating their own recent bloody history, but with even greater potential consequences.
Hassan al-Rubaie, a Shiite cleric from Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province, said, “The destruction of the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Syria will mean the start of sectarian civil war in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”
There’s a lot going on there, and I just want to point you to the little diagram I posted above, which features what I consider one very significant point that jumped out at me on this occasion from the “larger picture”.
It’s my impression that the name Sufiyan will be far less familiar to most readers than the names Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Iraq, Syria and so on are nations – real geopolitical entities with territories, wealth, militaries, populations, factions, fighting and so forth. The Sufyani, by contrast, is a single person, perhaps a figure of legend.
For the contemporary western mind, therefore, it is easy to read those last four paragraphs and be struck by the breadth, the sheer physical extent of the potential conflict described there – and after noting the basic concept of sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, that may in fact be the major “takeaway” from the article: this thing could be huge.
I want to suggest there’s a more significant, and less studied takeaway – that Sufyani is the key word here, because Sufyani is a figure in a specifically end-times narrative, a precursor to and noted adversary of the Mahdi.
That’s my bottom line here – that this individual the Sufyan may be less known and less impressive-sounding than a swathe of nations between the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf – but he represents the power of end-times belief, and the intensity that inevitably accompanies the final showdown between good and evil, with heaven and hell the only possible outcomes of one’s chance and choice to participate.
There is not a whole lot of documentation in English regarding the Sufyani, especially as viewed in Shiite eschatology, but this quick excerpt archived from an Iranian state media site will give us a basic overview:
According to narrations Sofyani, a descendant of the Prophet’s archenemy Abu Sofyan will seize Syria and attack Iraq and the Hejaz with the ferocity of a beast. The Sofyani will commit great crimes against humanity in Iraq slaughtering people bearing the names of the infallible Imams, and his army will lay siege to the city of Kufa and to Holy Najaf. Of course, many incidents take place in this line and finally Imam Mahdi sends troops who kill the Sofyani in Beit ol-Moqaddas, the Islamic holy city in Palestine that is currently under occupation of the Zionists. Soon a pious person from the progeny of Imam Hasan Mojtaba (AS) meets with the Imam. He is a venerable God-fearing individual from Iran. Before the Imam’s appearance he fights oppression and corruption and enters Iraq to lift the siege of Kufa and holy Najaf and to defeat the forces of Sofyani in Iraq. He then pledges allegiance to Imam Mahdi.
The Rice University scholar David Cook gives a worthwhile account of the Sufiyani in Shiite perspective, in his Hudson Institute paper Messianism in the Shiite Crescent [CC note: this paragraph added about an hour after first posting]:
First among the major omens connected with the belief in the Mahdi’s imminent return is the appearance of his apocalyptic opponent, the Sufyani. Mainstream tradition tells that the Sufyani will be a tyrannical Arab Muslim ruler who will hail from the region of Syria and who will brutally oppress the Shiite peoples. Before the 2003 collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, many messianic writers in both the Sunni and Shiite traditions identified Saddam Hussein as the Sufyani. Since 2004, however, there has been a tendency to gloss over the classical belief in the Sufyani’s Syrian-Muslim identity and to identify him instead with the United States (as many Iraqis hold the U.S. responsible for the slaughters in their country.) Another recent trend within Shiite messianism has been to identify the Sufyani with prominent Sunni radicals such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed June 2006), who was virulently anti-Shiite. From the perspective of the classical sources, Zarqawi would have indeed been an excellent candidate, because his hometown in Jordan is extremely close to where the Sufyani is supposed to come from.
Abu Musab al-Suri looks with favor upon a hadith that speaks of the restoration of Islam by an armed force “coming from the east.” This will be the vanguard of the Mahdi, known by its black banners and led by Shuaib ibn Saleh, whom every believer will join “even [if it means] marching in the snow.” The Sufyani, whose face is scarred by smallpox, will rise up against it in Damascus and ravage Palestine, Egypt, and Hijaz, proceeding as far as Mecca, where he will kill the “Pure Soul.” Yet it is also at Mecca that the Mahdi will appear, and he will reconquer Damascus after eighteen years…
Meanwhile, out there on the wild profusion of the net, there’s naturally controversy as to who the Sufyani might be – suggestions I’ve seen include Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Abdullah II of Jordan – in much the same way that the identity of the Antichrist is debated in Christian eschatological circles, with candidates ranging from the Emperor Nero to Ronald Reagan and more recently Oprah Winfrey [link is to an amazing video clip which also features President Obama and Louis Farrakhan].
So. Rather than – or in addition to – considering the sheer extent of geopolitical space referenced in the NYT piece, I’d suggest we should pay attention to the intensity factor signaled by the mention of the Sufyani. Following that tack, after all, we will also be considering a wide swathe of territory —
in Abu Musab al Suri’s terms, from Syria via Palestine, Egypt, and the Hijaz, to Mecca – but with the added intensity that apocalyptic war brings with it.