14 Aug 2010


Theology of the Shia Crescent


Friday, April 08, 2011

Messianism in the Shiite Crescent

By David Cook, Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University.

Expectations that the world is soon to end are rife throughout the contemporary Muslim world. Because so many Muslims today face such a dismal situation, the religious climate is primed with anticipation and popular longings for the appearance of the Mahdi, or the Muslim messiah. Books, pamphlets, and internet chat rooms are replete with stories of the Mahdi and speculation about the coming time when he will finally appear to usher in the messianic state and sweep away the modern world's suffering and injustice.

The popular belief in the coming appearance of the Mahdi is deeply rooted in both Sunni and Shiite Islamic traditions. Sunni Islam traditionally associates the Mahdi either with an official descendent of the Prophet Muhammad's family (or a dynasty claiming such descent), or alternatively, with a self-appointed claimant who believes that he is the best and purest of all possible Muslims in a given era. This latter messianic tendency, which reflects the essential egalitarianism of certain streams of Islam, allows for even non-Arabs to claim that they are the Mahdi. And indeed, a great many have: In the recent past, claimants have arisen in countries as diverse as Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In our times, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan (1996-2001), has also assumed messianic titles. Some Muslims have even wondered whether Osama bin Laden is the Mahdi, although he has made no such claim.

Messianic upheaval in contemporary Islam has its roots in the social and political turbulence that swept across the Muslim world in 1978-79. Significantly, those years corresponded with the Islamic year 1400, or the dawn of a new century. In many Islamic traditions, the start of a new century is seen as a time when a widespread renewal of religion should take place; moreover, it is seen as a time when the Mahdi should appear. In the words of one Hadith, "God will send to this community at the beginning of every century someone who will renew its religion." The existence of these traditions and the fact that many still fervently believe in them helps to explain the widespread upheaval in the Muslim world almost thirty years ago. In 1979, Juhayman al-Utaybi, a Saudi militant, took over the Holy Mosque in Mecca and proclaimed his companion to be either the Mahdi or the Qahtani (another messianic claimant). In that year, there was a major messianic upheaval in northern Nigeria in the form of the Maitatsine movement, which is still a problem today, as well as Mahdi claimants in Pakistan and other countries. All of this unrest occurred against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which provided the burgeoning radical Islamic movement with a rallying point and opportunity to coalesce around a common jihad. The jihad movement was eventually triumphant over the Soviet Union, and this victory only further fueled international jihadism's growth-eventually spawning al-Qaeda and other groups.

Yet among all of the events that took place in the late 1970s, the Islamic Revolution in Iran stands out as the most notable, as well as the most consequential for contemporary messianism. Led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a disparate group of Shiite Islamists, left-wing secularists, and religious conservatives overthrew a staunch American ally, the Shah of Iran. It is commonly believed that the Iranian revolution itself was an apocalyptic occurrence, happening as it did in the year 1400 hijri, and Khomeini skillfully used messianic passions to mobilize ordinary Iranians against the Shah. He framed the revolution, for example, as a struggle against the satanic forces of Yazid (the Shah) by the righteous forces of al-Husayn (the Iranian revolutionaries). He thus recreated in the minds of many the Battle of Karbala as it should have been (with the righteous side winning this time) at the end of the world-a messianic trope from the classical materials. Although Khomeini was careful never to explicitly identify himself as the Twelfth Imam, he did claim for himself unique honorifics (such as "Imam Khomeini") that alluded to the Twelfth Imam, and his followers actively used messianic language and symbols to cultivate a personality cult around the revolutionary leader. While Khomeini used messianism for political ends throughout his rule, his successors, the wheeler-dealer Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and the pragmatic Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), did not and allowed the political mahdism of the revolutionary era to wither away. However, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rise to power in 2005, messianism underwent a broad-based renewal in the Iranian public sphere that has also spread across the Shiite world.

The Justice of the Mahdi

Within Twelver or Imami Shiism, the dominant stream of Shiism, the beliefs in the coming of the messiah focus entirely upon the figure of the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who tradition claims disappeared and went into occultation in 873 CE. According to the conventional accounts, the reason for the Twelfth Imam's occultation was self-protection. Both the Sunni and Shiite traditions contain a substantial amount of material about the Mahdi (although the traditions treat the messiah differently), and both traditions elaborate in great detail upon the timeline and future events that will herald his appearance. This timeline includes the various portents of the end of the world-a series of events of profound political, economic, religious, or cosmological significance that will make humankind aware that the world's end is near and compel them to prepare for the Mahdi's return. Naturally, these messianic traditions have become grist for the mill of radical preachers, who use messianic language to interpret current events in an apocalyptic fashion and thereby compel their followers to take radical action in preparation for the end of days.

In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi figure is ultimately the final in a chain of twelve imams who are all, with the exception of Ali b. Abi Talib (the son-in-law and fourth successor to the Prophet Muhammad), descendents of Muhammad. These Shiite imams differ from those found in Sunni Islam in that they are believed to possess exclusive knowledge of the past and future, have access to interpretations of the Quran to which no one else is privy, and constitute something of a continuation of the prophetic experience of Muhammad in that they have a unique connection with God. Consequently, according to Shiites, these imams alone have the legitimate right to rule the Muslim community. Prophecies associated with these imams are considered authoritative and are included in most Shiite collections of the Hadith. In Shiism, the Twelfth Imam or Mahdi is considered to be present in this world, although he is not in immediate contact with humanity and will remain hidden until his final return.

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.

Classical messianic literature says that the Sufyani's appearance will occur either together with or in close connection to Byzantine (al-Rum) invasions of the Muslim world, as the Byzantines are expected to conquer the northern areas of Syria and Iraq. It is widely accepted that U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 fulfilled these predictions, and both Sunni and Shiite radicals routinely play upon these popular beliefs as part of their propaganda efforts to stir-up hostility toward American forces. The Muslim world, according to the predictions, will be attacked on all sides. At this particular junction, the classical sources say the Mahdi will appear, either in the region of Mecca and Medina (associated with the time of the hajj pilgrimage) or in the region of Khorasan (eastern Iran and Afghanistan). Alternative places associated with the Mahdi are his future capital of Kufa (in southern Iraq) and the messianic pilgrimage site of Jamkaran (near Qom in Iran), where he is traditionally believed to be located or at least accessible.

In the popular Shiite view, the Mahdi is a vengeful figure who will first take vengeance upon those Sunni Muslims who have opposed the rights of the family of the Prophet Muhammad to rule and who will then establish a messianic state that will encompass the world. The classical sources are unclear about whether or not the Mahdi will convert humankind to Islam. What the sources do make clear is that the Mahdi will be especially ruthless toward existing Islamic religious establishments: he will destroy mosques because they have become over-adorned and not true places of worship, and he will kill the ulama, or religious scholars, because they have failed to establish a just and properly Islamic order. In every way, the appearance of the Mahdi will cause a sharp and total break with existing Islamic norms.

The popular attraction and appeal of messianic teachings is doubtlessly connected to the belief that the Mahdi's return will usher in revolutionary social and political change. One of the core Hadith concerning the Mahdi and recognized by both Sunni and Shiite authors claims that he "will fill the earth with justice and righteousness just as it has been filled with injustice and unrighteousness." The foundation of this messianic state and the establishment of worldly justice is one reason why people hope for the Mahdi's coming. Because Shiites generally see themselves as the mustadafin fi al-ard (the downtrodden of the earth, cf. Quran 8:26) and have a long history of persecution at the hands of Sunnis, the longing for total revolution and the messianic state within Shiism in particular has often been quite intense. This fact is evident in the highly personal literature and letters dedicated to the Mahdi that may be found in contemporary Iran and Lebanon, as well as in Shiite communities worldwide.

The Dajjal, or the Antichrist, is another key figure in Muslim apocalyptic literature. Since the Dajjal is said to be a Jew, contemporary Sunni writers often use this figure to inject anti-Semitic conspiracy thinking into mainstream apocalyptic writings. The Dajjal was virtually absent in traditional Shiite writings, although nowadays the figure is gaining more and more prominence in contemporary Shiite apocalyptic materials. Classically, the stories concerning the figure of the Mahdi and his opponent the Sufyani were much more important among Shiites. However, the fact that the Sufyani does not represent an absolute demonic evil in the same way that the Dajjal does has probably created a need among contemporary Shiite radicals to re-focus Shiite apocalyptic discourse upon the latter. Indeed, Dajjal stories have become loci for demonizing the West as a whole, which is routinely portrayed as the embodiment of the Antichrist. Furthermore, anti-Semitic references to the Dajjal regularly appear today in Shiite apocalyptic literature; only a few years ago such references were nonexistent.

Historically, it was not in the interests of the Shiite religious leadership, or the hawza, to encourage apocalyptic expectations. The religious authorities instead sought to manage popular mahdism by focusing messianic attentions toward the distant future rather than upon the immediate future. A strong and influential religious leadership could accomplish this, because traditionally the return of the Mahdi was never associated with any actual dates. Speculation about the Mahdi's return, when it did arise, was quickly diverted by the hawza onto more practical matters, including personal spiritual renewal or the improvement of society. However, when the authority of the hawza was weakened, popular messianic longings often resurfaced. This occurred during the beginnings of the Babi or Bahai movement in the 1840s. Nowadays, apocalyptic beliefs within the Shiite world are undergoing enormous changes and revival. Messianism is slipping free of the control of the religious establishment, and it is increasingly used by lay preachers to interpret current events and to compel their followers to take action-often according to a radical agenda. In significant ways, these changes within Shiite messianism have mimicked similar patterns of change that have occurred within Sunni Islam and among some Christian evangelical movements in the contemporary era. These changes have had important ramifications for Shiite social and political life.

Iran, Iraq and Lebanon

In the period before the Muslim messiah's ultimate return and the end of days, Islamic messianic traditions hold that the Mahdi's influence is manifest in various ways within the physical world. This perception of the Mahdi's influence in the world has been a constant feature of the Shiite religious landscape ever since his greater occultation in 941 CE. That event led to the growth of vast and often deeply personal literature concerning revelations, dreams, healings, visions, and other occurrences all attributed to the Mahdi's personal intervention.

Today, the three largest Shiite populations of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are experiencing a dramatic transformation in the nature and scope of messianic expectation. In the past, these societies often passively accepted the teachings of religious authorities about the Mahdi, which tended to be conservative and exercised restraint over popular messianic hopes and longings. However, because of the breakdown of traditional religious authorities and the related rise of rogue and more radical clerics, there is today growing anticipation among the wider public that the Mahdi's return is imminent. This has led to the rapid spread of now widely-available literature about predictions and prophecies concerning the messiah and his imminent appearance. These writings describe the Mahdi's coming in great detail, including the manner in which he will overturn the modern order and establish the just state, the time and place in which he will appear, and the methods by which he will take vengeance upon his enemies. While Shiite Islam has always possessed an elaborate literature concerning the Mahdi, never before has this literature been as copious, publicly available, detailed, or socially explosive (in terms of its stress on the imminence of the Mahdi's return) as it is today.

Hezbollah provides a good example of this dramatic attitudinal change in messianic expectation. This revolutionary Shiite organization, which was originally created to fight the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon (1982-2000), had at its inception been rather secular and even Marxist in its ideological orientation and use of terminology and symbolism. While Hezbollah has routinely utilized tropes that are traditionally Shiite (for example, the revered martyr Husayn is frequently utilized by Hezbollah as a revolutionary model to be emulated), the movement's ideologues have conventionally placed little emphasis on the revelation of the Mahdi. This has definitely changed since approximately 2004, when a flood of books about the Mahdi began to spring from the popular presses of Beirut. These books have aimed to not only introduce classical prophecies about the Mahdi to ever-wider audiences, but have also provided religiously-charged interpretations of contemporary events in terms of the Mahdi's imminent return designed to compel readers to take action. For example, prior to 2000, there were virtually no references to the Mahdi's appearance in Hezbollah's resistance literature concerning Israel. Yet with the 2006 campaign against Israel, Hezbollah published a record of the "miraculous occurrences" that took place during the war. The Mahdi is featured prominently in this account, such as in the following anecdote:

One of us began to pray the ordained prayer during the mid-day, when a man giving off rays of light appeared to him. The fighter said to him in surprise and fear, "Who are you? How did you get here?" The man said: "I am the Imam al-Hujja, your master, I appear by the permission of God to our supporters whenever I wish and in whatever place, and I would like to speak with you." He said: "My master, I am not alone, but there are other fighters in position."

So the man guided the Mahdi to the other fighters. "Just at that moment the Zionists approached with their tanks and bulldozers" and when Israeli missiles began to rain towards the three fighters, the Mahdi pointed with his hand, and one of the missiles fell upon an Israeli tank instead. Then the three fighters began to attack the other tanks, and one of them succeeded in firing an RPG right at it, and destroyed it. "Then the Imam called out to the fighters, saying to them: ‘Now, retreat' and the fighters retreated, but they were victorious with his divine help."

Of course, the appeal of militant mahdism is not confined to Lebanon's Hezbollah exclusively. In contemporary Iraq, there is even more opportunity for radical Shiite elements of the Mahdist movement to express themselves-far greater, in fact, than there is in neighboring Iran. This is a consequence of both the Iranian regime's control over religion and also of the general breakdown in social order in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam regime. Many Iraqis harbor deep suspicions of U.S. intentions in their country, and there are frequent assertions in the apocalyptic literature produced in Iraq that state that the purpose of the U.S.-led invasion was to initiate an apocalyptic war-in this case, to find the Mahdi and to kill him. Members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army likely also share this view, believing that their mission is either literally to defend the Mahdi from American forces or figuratively to defend the Shiite community.

Even more extremist mahdist tendencies in Iraq have appeared in the form of movements like the Soldiers of Heaven, which was exposed in January 2007. Although a great deal is still unclear about this group's origins and make-up, it was an ecumenical apocalyptic group that adhered to the idea that Iraq's ulama were the source of all of the country's problems and that they must be killed. Although it is possible to find beliefs that oblige violence against religious scholars in apocalyptic literature, there are no other messianic groups in Islamic history that actually attempted to carry them out. The figure behind the Soldiers of Heaven revolt was a charismatic leader named Ahmad al-Hassani. Hasani had taken for himself the title of al-Yamani, a minor forerunning messianic figure said to oppose the Sufyani in battle. His group numbered several thousands, spanned the Shiite-Sunni divide, and preached the destruction of the religious elite. Although a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation suppressed the Soldiers of Heaven in a January, 2007 battle that left hundreds dead, their doctrines raise interesting questions concerning the direction that such apocalyptic beliefs could take in the future. The ability of the Soliders of Heaven to bridge the sectarian gap was striking-especially in a country as divided as Iraq. While many analysts have noted how ideological differences often present difficulties for radical Shiites and Sunnis to work together, belief in the apocalypse is one thing they share and could thus plausibly provide grounds for a common agenda in the future.

Meanwhile, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the primary focus of popular messianic expectations is the shrine at Jamkaran (located a short distance away from Qom), where the Mahdi is said to dwell. With the strong backing of President Ahmadinejad, the Jamkaran mosque has been undergoing a complete renovation and expansion in recent times. Additionally, the mosque has been printing an enormous volume of publications concerning the Mahdi and apocalyptic events. The ubiquity and tenor of these publications helps to illuminate the profound transformation of messianic expectation within Iran in recent years. This transformation has moved popular expectation away from the future-oriented, more speculative range of traditional, narrative forms of messianism (hitherto the most common content of apocalyptic Shiite materials) and into a more imminent and practical focus that permits much greater exegetical latitude. Thus, instead of merely relating to tradition and classical sources, contemporary messianic exegesis seeks to relate to current world events (in some respects, this is similar to the contemporary Biblical messianism of evangelical preacher Hal Lindsey.) These publications contain popular accounts similar to those found in classical sources of personal visitations with the Mahdi during which he miraculously heals ordinary people. But they also provide religiously-charged interpretations of current events such as the Iraq War and Hezbollah's struggle with Israel, and they speak of the Mahdi's imminent return and the looming advent of the messianic state.

The celebration of militancy and martyrdom, a key feature in the Islamic Republic's propaganda, is also deeply connected with the Mahdi. Although Iran has not fought a major war since the devastating Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), popular histories of the war retroactively describe Mahdi appearances and interventions during that time. The books sold at Jamkaran give many examples of the Mahdi personally intervening as the initiator of martyrdom attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. Because both religious radicals and more secular nationalists strongly supported the war and Iran's struggle against the Saddam regime, the fact that the Mahdi is said to have played a role in the struggle is significant-it is designed to promote unity across the regime. In the contemporary era, President Ahmadinejad has aggressively promoted the cult of the Mahdi, and appealing to popular messianic longings and expectations has been a key feature of his political rule both domestically and internationally.

The President and the Mahdi

Since the close of the revolutionary era and especially since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Iran's leaders have generally tended to behave more pragmatically. For most of the late 1980s and the whole of the 1990s, the language of worldwide Islamic revolution was reduced to a minimum, and the legacy of Khomeini, who clearly sought to bring revolution to the whole Muslim world, was ignored. That changed with Ahmadinejad's election in the summer of 2005, which either resulted from or catalyzed the apocalyptic upheaval in the Shiite world. Most probably this upheaval was brought about by a number of factors, including the fact that after the 2003 overthrow of the Saddam regime the Shiite holy places of Iraq were once again returned to Shiite control and also because the Shiite presence and dawa activities have become more aggressive in recent years throughout the Muslim world (including missions in Africa, Indonesia, and elsewhere).

In sharp contrast with his immediate predecessors, Ahmadinejad has emphasized his own beliefs in the Mahdi's imminence and has even suggested that he will play a personal role in the coming of the Mahdi. For example, in a now notorious speech at the United Nations on September 17, 2005, Ahmadinejad said,

"From the beginning of time, humanity has longed for the day when justice, peace, equality and compassion envelop the world. All of us can contribute to the establishment of such a world. When that day comes, the ultimate promise of all Divine religions will be fulfilled with the emergence of a perfect human being who is heir to all prophets and pious men. He will lead the world to justice and absolute peace...O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace."

Although the phrases used in this speech are not substantially different from those voiced commonly by Iranian politicians at the U.N., the end prayer calling on the messiah to hasten his appearance is unique and illustrates the sense of immediacy that Ahmadinejad frequently seeks to convey when speaking about the Mahdi's appearance. According to Ahmadinejad's own account, as he made this call to the Lord he was bathed in a green light, which he took as a sign that the Mahdi himself was blessing the speech.

Interestingly, Ahmadinejad's later speech at the U.N. on September 19, 2006 also focused upon messianic themes. He frequently spoke about humankind's obligation to hasten the foundation of a just state:

"We are all members of the international community and we are all entitled to insist on the creation of a climate of compassion, love and justice...Together, we can eradicate the roots of bitter maladies and afflictions, and instead, through the promotion of universal and lasting values such as ethics, spirituality and justice, allow our nations to taste the sweetness of a better future...Peoples, driven by their divine nature, intrinsically seek Good, Virtue, Perfection and Beauty. Relying on our peoples, we can take giant steps towards reform and pave the road for human perfection. Whether we like it or not, justice, peace and virtue will sooner or later prevail in the world with the will of Almighty God. It is imperative, and also desirable, that we too contribute to the promotion of justice and virtue."

Ahmadinejad concluded by directly appealing to popular longings for the world's "real savior." Although he does not mention the Mahdi by name, there is little doubt that the Iranian president has him in mind:

"I emphatically declare that today's world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet."

These types of calls set Ahmadinejad apart not only from his immediate political predecessors but also from the Iranian religious elite who, as a matter of faith, concede that the Mahdi's appearance is desirable but who also do not encourage these types of fervent calls. Ahmadinejad is a calculative and deliberate politician, and it would be a mistake to assume that his appeals to messianism are a sign of lunacy or a result of his religious belief exclusively. Instead, by appealing to the Mahdi, an authority higher than the clerics, Ahmadinejad hopes to negate the influence of some of his country's religious elite and to promote a more vigorous spread of Iranian Islamist ideology throughout the Muslim world. Messianism thus permits the Iranian president an opening to accomplish his goals within an accepted Shiite framework.

Messianic Futures

Messianism is an important driver of political life in the Shiite world whose power is too often underestimated and too easily misunderstood by outsiders. One obvious and legitimate source of deep concern for outsiders has been the potential combination of activist Shiite messianism and the Iranian nuclear program. But there are deeper issues as well.

It has become increasingly likely that a messianic claimant will arise in the near future to send shockwaves across the Shiite world. Apocalyptic literature and other materials are currently ubiquitous in both Sunni and the Shiite societies, and belief in the Mahdi's imminent return is now gaining wider audiences. A combination of factors-the approach of the hijri year 1500 (approximately 2076 CE), as well as the pent-up frustration, despair and sense of humiliation that is so common in the contemporary Muslim world-could also contribute to an upsurge in popular messianism. Historically, such eruptions were infrequent because of the tight grip that the Shiite religious hierarchy maintained over messianic belief. However, recent revolts-most notably the Soldiers of Heaven in Iraq, the virulently anti-ulama messianic movement-demonstrate that the influence of traditional authorities over messianism has broken down in today's generally volatile Shiite religious landscape. Moreover, it is also possible that a Shiite messianic movement could quickly transcend the Sunni-Shiite divide in much the same way that radical Shiite groups have recently gained prestige among Sunnis (for example, Hezbollah after its various victories) and have prompted popular conversions to Shiism.

Dating the appearance of the Mahdi should be a factor in the appearance of a messianic claimant. For instance, the 1000-year anniversary of the Mahdi's occultation was a time of enormous messianic disturbance that ultimately led to the emergence of the Bahai faith (1844-50). The 1200th anniversary of the occultation will occur in approximately 2039, and given the importance of the holy number of 12 in Shiism, the twelfth century after the occultation could also become a locus of messianic aspirations. In one scenario, either a messianic claimant could appear or, more likely, one or several movements hoping to "purify" the Muslim world (or the entire world) in preparation for the Mahdi's imminent revelation could develop. Such movements would likely be quite violent; if they took control of a state, they could conceivably ignite a regional conflict.

It should be noted that most of the violence described inside the Shiite apocalyptic literature targets Sunnis or the Shiite religious establishment and not non-Muslims. However, this fact does not necessarily mean that future apocalyptic movements would confine their violence simply to these stated targets. Their ultimate goal is the establishment of a messianic state, and their reason for attacking the ulama in particular derives from their belief that the existing religious authorities are unjust and prevent the creation of a just state. In principle, any other force seen as obstructing the establishment of the messianic state could quickly become a target for violent mahdist movements.

Religious belief has a major impact upon populations in politically consequential countries worldwide. We learned this, at great cost, during the Islamic Revolution in Iran and then again on September 11, 2001. Shiite messianic movements are dangerous and will probably exact a heavy toll in lives in coming years until either the violence associated with them runs its course or, more hopefully, until the movements themselves embrace a more constructive vision for a just and equitable future.


Spiegel on Shias


German magazine SPIEGEL give history of how sunnis and shias split to form two major rival groups of muslims.


Islam's Old Sectarian Divide 

Part 1: Islam's Ancient Divide Fuels Middle East Conflicts
Part 2: Islam's Curse


The Prophet's Curse

By Christoph Reuter - Spiegel, September 6, 2012.

Part 1: Islam's Ancient Divide Fuels Middle East Conflicts

They began as a cry for freedom in the Middle East, but the Arab rebellions have become increasingly characterized by an ancient sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. SPIEGEL examines how the power struggle between the two groups is sparking new fears along old frontlines.

In the countries that follow the Muslim faith, the lines between past and present often blur, making it seem as though the past is not over, and certainly not forgiven. Indeed, the past can come terribly alive here, and it can turn terribly deadly, again and again, every day.

When representatives from around the world convened in the Iranian capital of Tehran last Thursday for the start of a Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, an annual meeting of 120 nations that view themselves as not aligned for or against any major powers, the focus was suddenly on 1,300-year-old battles, murders and power struggles. The host was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Shiite. Next to him on the dais was Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, a Sunni.

Morsi began his opening address with a mention of the Prophet Muhammad, but then continued: "May Allah's blessing be upon our masters Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali."

Iranian media immediately took the statement as a provocation. Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were Muhammad's successors after the Prophet's death in 632. Sunni Muslims venerate them as the first caliphs -- but Shiite Muslims consider them usurpers and traitors to the faith, hated figures whose very names should not be spoken. Muhammad's true successor, Shiites say, was Ali, their first imam, who later fought against the other three before being murdered.

Morsi went on to discuss the present situation in Syria, where Bashar Assad is overseeing the massacre of rebels who are mostly Sunni. Assad and his clique belong to the country's Alawite minority, which is more closely aligned with the Shiites. "The bloodshed will not stop without intervention from outside," the Egyptian president declared, saying that Assad's regime had lost all legitimacy. Morsi, a Sunni, made these statements while sitting next to the Shiite Ahmadinejad, who has been providing the Syrian regime with weapons and now fighters, too.

Morsi must know that any country that intervenes in Syria risks ending up at war with Iran, as well. The frontlines of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites run through many countries in the Middle East, and those who fan the flames in one part of the region may find themselves under fire in another part entirely.

An Ancient Conflict

From Tunisia to Bahrain, the Arab Spring began as a rebellion against despots and their rapacious clans. It began with a cry for freedom, justice and prosperity. But, increasingly, these rebellions are being sucked into the maelstrom that is the ancient conflict between these two different camps of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites.

It was power that was at stake after Muhammad's death, and it's still at stake today. Like tectonic plates that explode into motion after long periods of apparent calm, there is always friction under the surface between these two groups. In the past, that tension has often burst forth as carnage, for example, in the Iraqi civil war, which began in 2004 and still hasn't really ended. In late July of this year, 27 separate explosions killed 107 people within the space of a few hours. Most of the victims were Shiites, and it's assumed the bombers were Sunnis.

But rarely have so many countries and regimes experienced active tensions at once. There has been far more of this since the rebellions of the Arab Spring began in North Africa, in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, toppling moribund despots or forcing them into crisis and even open warfare. There are also rumblings in Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, everyone is afraid of each other, while Iran fears an attack from Israel.

The rebellions all began in a similar way -- people wanted to topple their dictators and bring an end to despotic rule. But these political battles have also fanned new fears along old fronts.

Arab Spring Momentum

When Sunnis in Syria fight their country's Alawite regime, they receive help from Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. At the same time, Iran supplies Damascus with money, weapons and, more recently, troops.

When Shiites in Bahrain fight their country's Sunni king, they're applauded by Iran and by Syria's regime. At the same time, Saudi Arabia supports Bahrain's despot.

For years, representatives of Bahrain's Shiite majority, who are treated as second-class citizens, have been demanding more rights from their king. The conflict had been brewing for a long time, but it was the momentum of the other Arab revolutions that brought thousands of Bahrainis out to the streets.

When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a consortium consisting primarily of the oil-rich states around the Persian Gulf, met in March 2011, it declared that Libya's Colonel Moammar Gadhafi should resign because he had lost all legitimacy by deploying tanks against his own people. Shortly after, GCC member Saudi Arabia sent tanks into Bahrain to crush the peaceful protests there.

The silence from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the two major satellite news channels operated by the Sunni states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively, is also telling. On some days, these broadcasters provide hourly reports on murders in Syria, yet they give little coverage to the violence in Bahrain.

Syria's state-run media, on the other hand, deplore the harsh treatment of the largely Shiite opposition in Bahrain -- even as Syria's own regime has turned to carpet-bombing entire neighborhoods in which primarily Sunnis live.

Power and Faith

The war that the regime in Damascus is waging against Syria's mostly Sunni rebels is increasingly taking on denominational characteristics, and not just within the country. The struggle is also drawing in external participants belonging to both camps. Soldiers from Lebanon's militant Islamist group Hezbollah, which is Shiite, have come to help the regime, as have elite forces from Iran, while Libyan volunteers have joined the rebels, who also receive significant amounts of money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In Iraq, attacks by Sunni radicals are on the rise once again as the Shiite government forces Sunnis out of positions of power. Sunni terrorists groups in Pakistan murder Shiites, and even a Shiite mosque in Belgium was the target of an arson attack this March that killed the mosque's imam. The presumed attacker, a radical Sunni, declared after his arrest that he had acted out of revenge for Iran's military aid to Syria.

Shiites make up only 10 to 13 percent of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims, but their representation in the states around the Persian Gulf is significantly higher. Shiites account for 90 percent of the population in Iran, 70 percent in Bahrain, over 60 percent in Iraq, 35 percent in Kuwait and around 10 percent in Saudi Arabia.

In the Islamic world, where power and faith have always commingled, political conflicts often become religious ones, turning into a question of power that cuts along one of the region's most important frontlines.

Part 2: Islam's Curse

It began with a question of power, as well. When the Prophet Muhammad died, he left behind a problem that would become his religion's curse: the question of succession. Unlike Jesus, for example, Muhammad was not only a prophet, but also a military commander. He was both a religious and a political leader, and he left behind a correspondingly large power vacuum. A dispute quickly arose as to whether his legitimate successor should be selected from within the prophet's circle of close associates, or whether it was more important that it be a relative of Muhammad's -- for example, Ali ibn Abu Talib, his cousin and son-in-law. Supporters of this second viewpoint were known as "Shiat Ali," or "followers of Ali," the source of the term "Shiite." Initially, though, the other faction gained the upper hand, and Ali wasn't chosen as caliph until three others -- Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman -- had preceded him. Ali was then murdered in 661.

The initial struggle for power continued for more than two decades until something strange occurred: During the Battle of Kerbala in what is now Iraq, an enemy army killed Ali's son Hussein, and thus his last faithful successor. The struggle was over, and the Shiat Ali had lost.

Yet instead of vanishing into obscurity like so many other minor religious denominations, the Shiites grew stronger. Hussein's downfall became "the big bang that created and set into motion the rapidly expanding cosmos of Shia Islam," says Heinz Halm, an expert on Shia Islam at the University of Tübingen, in Germany. "For Shiites, Kerbala is the pivotal point around which their faith revolves." In other words, it is a faith that grew out of defeat and has defined itself through resistance.

Within Islam, two competing ideas established themselves. There are the Sunnis (named after the Sunnah, the canon of Muhammad's teachings), who see power and faith as one. The Shiites, meanwhile, held little power over the centuries and were left with only the mythos surrounding the hero of their religion, Ali.

An unbroken succession of imams, Ali's successors, continued for the next two centuries. According to legend, the 12th imam disappeared in 874, but did not die. It is believed that this 12th imam will return one day as the enforcer of God's will.

Everlasting Mistrust

But if any legitimate authority on Earth must wait until the return of the 12th imam, what does that mean for real world powers? Nothing good, it turns out, since Shiites' true loyalty is already committed elsewhere.

The result is an everlasting sense of mistrust on the part of Sunni rulers toward their Shiite subjects. The two groups' roles and tensions remained largely the same: Sunni caliphs ruled over Shiite subjects, who were often denied entry into the military or top positions at court.

Then, in the 16th century, the Safavid dynasty came to power in Iran and forced its subjects to adopt Shia Islam. This was the beginning of the rivalry that still smolders today between Shiite Iran and the Arab countries, with their majority Sunni populations. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab world's religious center shifted toward the Arabian Peninsula, where Mecca and other holy sites are located, and where, in 1902, young Ibn Saud took advantage of a religious alliance established by his forefathers to conquer large parts of the peninsula -- an area that became Saudi Arabia, with Ibn Saud as its king.

Here, the particularly narrow-minded Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam became the state religion, and Shiites from the conquered eastern provinces were condemned as heretics. Then came oil. With each new source discovered, the Saudi kingdom grew to become one of the world's largest energy suppliers, and was then able to put enormous sums of money toward financing Wahhabi preachers around the world.

But Saudi Arabia's enormous oilfields are all located in the east of the country -- where the Shiites live. If the Shiites were to break away from Saudi Arabia, it would spell the end of the country's oil wealth. Yet simply making the Shiites citizens with equal rights would amount to a declaration of war against the country's religious establishment, as well as against large parts of the population, which have been raised in a culture of hate. Saudi Arabia's general population is far more conservative than its 88-year-old monarch Abdullah -- and even he has not yet managed to allow women the right to drive a car.

Declining Western Influence

The same conflict between Sunnis and Shiites also runs through Iraq. In the decades under the ironclad dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, religion in Iraq was a private matter -- not because the Iraqis themselves had decided it should be, but because any show of partisanship amounted to a challenge to the state, and that was a dangerous thing. Even during the eight years of war with Iran that began in 1980, participants on both sides shot at enemies who shared their faith. Many of the Iraqi soldiers were Shiites -- as were most of their Iranian opponents.

Soon after the US Army swept out Saddam's regime over the course of 19 days in 2003, Iraqi Sunnis began fighting the Americans who had forced them out of power. Shiites also fought against the US troops. But more than that, fanatics from both sides began killing each other. Starting in 2004, Baghdad alone was often rocked by multiple attacks a day.

Karl Marx described religion as the opiate of the masses, but religion also serves as a sort of cocaine for those eager to fight, a first-rate means of inciting groups against one another. Iraq remains a divided country to this day, with neighborhoods, local governments and even garbage collection split along denominational lines. Currently, power is in the hands of a Shiite government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iraq is ruled by the fear that its Sunni minority could take strength from the coming downfall of Syria's regime and threaten the Iraqi government once again.

The conflict between these religious factions has become so virulent partly because perceived enemy forces from outside the region are growing weaker. The West, and especially the United States, no longer plays such an important role. The occupation of Iraq is over, the US would prefer not to get involved in Syria either and, in general, the Arab revolutions caught the country off guard. When the GCC approved the invasion of Bahrain, it didn't even ask the US, although the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy is stationed there. Saudi Arabia was far more concerned with the possibility that a Shiite takeover in Bahrain, located so close to Saudi Arabia's own Shiite minority, would jeopardize the Saudi rulers' control over oil production.

A Dangerous Rebellion

Yet, in a sense, the Sunnis' rise to power in the face of Assad's coming downfall is little more than an adjustment to reflect the demographic situation in Syria, which is home to considerably more Sunnis than Alawites.

Something similar happened in 2003, when the Shiite majority took over power in Iraq at the same time that Hezbollah, also Shiite, was making gains in Lebanon. In 2005, Jordan's King Abdullah II, a Sunni, warned of a "Shiite crescent" that would soon stretch from Baghdad to Tehran. Now the pendulum is swinging back in the opposite direction.

For a time during the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it seemed that the divide between Sunnis and Shiites didn't play a significant role. But things look different in Syria, which is another reason why this is a particularly dangerous rebellion.

There is an apocalyptic prophecy in Islam that some attribute to the Prophet Muhammad. It's only a fragment, the legend of an evil being known as the Sufyani that will one day arrive to sow death and ruin among the faithful. This tradition, supposedly ascribed to Muhammad, says the Sufyani will rise from the depths of the Earth beneath Damascus.



Iran Takes Over


Iran Takes on the World

By Jamsheed K. Choksy, Professor of Iranian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Islamic Republic of Iran is today challenging the world. The Iranian leadership's appetite for power is growing, for they have become thoroughly convinced that no outside power-the U.S. included-will derail their rise to regional and even global prominence. "Whether you like it or not," the Iranian cleric and politician Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, an influential figure and on-and-off mentor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, publicly boasted to the U.S., "you have to regard Iran as a great power in the political sphere. The people of Iran have realized there is nothing you can do to us now or will be capable of doing [in the future]. So rather than using all your resources in failed attempts to oppose Iran, you should work with us."

Volume 11 of "Current Trends in Islamist Ideology"


Iran shows respect to Sunnis Beliefs

The Islamic Republic's Cross-Sectarian Outreach

April 12, 2011

At a time of unprecedented popular unrest in key Arab states of the Middle East, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in a February 21, 2011 speech that two simple remedies are required to solve the problems that afflict the contemporary Islamic World. According to Khamenei, "unity among Muslim [states]" and "the weakening of America" are the two necessary steps that all Muslims must take to secure a "bright" future for the umma or the worldwide Muslim Nation.

These twin messages-unity of the Muslim Nation and struggle against the United States to repel its influence in Muslim lands-have formed the core of the Islamic Republic's outreach to Muslims globally. This overall message is simple and straightforward, and Iranian officials have continuously repeated it ever since the 1979 revolution.

As the spill-over effect of Arab unrest has gripped new countries from Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain, Tehran has intensified its efforts to "Islamicize" the popular revolts. For example, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, stated that people in the region had woken up to the call of Islam and that "Iran would help any uprising in the region that was anti-Israeli and anti-American." These sentiments were subsequently echoed repeatedly by other senior Iranian figures.

Islamic Republic has also in recent years redoubled its broad-based information campaign aimed at promoting its message of Islamic unity and its purportedly anti-sectarian agenda to Sunni Muslims both at home and abroad.

A recent fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khamenei is commonly enlisted in Iran's Sunni outreach. On October 2, 2010, Khamenei in reply to a questioner ruled that "insulting the symbols of the Sunni brothers, including the Prophet Muhammad's wife [Aisha], is forbidden. This includes the women of all prophets and especially the holy Prophet Muhammad."

The ruling was in reaction to the common Shiite practice of denouncing Sunni Islam's first three Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) and their families, whom the Shiites do not consider the rightful heirs to the Prophet Muhammad. The fatwa was swiftly publicized by Iran's state-controlled and pro-regime media as ground-breaking. It was also praised as a ruling that generated much excitement and appreciation among Sunni scholars worldwide.

The World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought-which was established in the early 1990s on the order of Khamenei as the main agency to promote pan-Islamic reconciliation-was quick to publicize what it claimed to be widespread praise among Sunni Arabs for the supreme leader's fatwa. The forum, which is known in short as the "Taghrib," reported in particular that Shaykh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the head of Cairo's al-Azhar University, welcomed the supreme leader's fatwa as "prudent" and "timely" and hailed it as a decision that "would help ram the door shut to fitna [division among Muslims]." To convey the impression that the fatwa's impact reached well beyond mainstream Sunni religious corners, the case was also made that even vehemently anti-Shia voices had been persuaded to see the light after the supreme leader's ruling. Omar Bakri Muhammad, the renowned Salafist cleric and someone otherwise linked to anti-Shia takfiri ideology, said on Al Jazeera television that his views on the Shia had been transformed because of Khamenei's ruling. In December 2010, Recep Erdogan became the first Turkish prime minister to attend an Ashura ceremony in Istanbul. His address at the ceremony implored "Sunnis and Shia to put aside their differences and unite."

Iran and Arab Revolutions

In propagating its message of Islamic unity and anti-Western struggle, Iran has consistently sought to avoid issuing any statements that might be interpreted as sectarian or construed as favoring the Shia in the Middle East as this could be counterproductive to its larger agenda. However, this policy position has been severely tested since mid-March 2011 when the ruling Sunni Khalifa government of Bahrain, backed by the Saudi Arabian military, began a crackdown against mainly Shia protesters. Iranian discourse began to openly express sympathies along sectarian lines but without taking on a stridently anti-Sunni tone. However, Iran's anti-Saudi and anti-Wahhabi message has remained as strong as ever, and Tehran has accused Riyadh of pursuing a bloody crackdown against the Bahraini Shia. Meanwhile, a top Iranian priority in this information operation has been to assert that the Saudi military's deployment to Bahrain only began after Washington's consent had been secured. This has been meant to underscore Iran's larger claims that a Saudi-American axis operates throughout the region to defend the interests of extra-regional powers and at the expense of repressed local Muslim populations (mustadafin).


Shia Map



Rise of the Crescent after 9/11

Graphic: Areas populated by Shiites in the mainly Sunni Middle East.

Coming Shia Crescent


Iranistan - The Coming Shiite Crescent

By Bill Salus - 2010

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s October 11, 2010 pre-condition for Mideast peace may be the shot in the arm Iran needed to accelerate its move to form a Shiite Crescent inside the Fertile Crescent.

Presently, peace talks have hit a stalemate opening a window of opportunity for Iran to make its move on the Middle East. It is commonly understood in the region that the present Iranian regime seeks the formation of a Shiite Crescent starting with Lebanon and Syria that subsequently moves deeper into the Sunni Arab states of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Iran has been building inseparable relations with Hezbollah and Syria and developing a nuclear program that should facilitate the Crescent’s formation in the foreseeable future.

In its bid to revive the ancient Persian Empire, Iran could achieve the killing of three birds with one stone in a coming conflict: the destruction of Israel, the establishment of a Palestinian State in its place and the allegiance of Lebanon to Iran. Iran seeks a Palestinian State in their Shiite pocket. Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s continued threats to wipe Israel off the map hint of a greater plan to control Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city, by establishing a Palestinian proxy state to replace Israel.

Jordanian King Abdullah II has expressed his concern about this Shiite crescent possibility on numerous occasions. Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and possibly Iraq falling like dominoes into Iran’s grand Shiite scheme puts Saudi Arabia and the other smaller oil nations in a precarious position.

Saudi King Abdullah is extremely concerned about the prospects of Iran taking over the Middle East. If Iran first controls Jerusalem through a proxy Palestine and subsequently captures Mecca and Medina, it can promote Shiite theology on a wider scale within Islam.

Seemingly, for this reason Saudi Arabia has temporarily allowed Israel a strip of airspace to pre-empt a strategic strike against Iranian nuclear sites, and contracted to purchase 60 billion dollars worth of advanced American aircraft

Making matters worse for Israel, Hezbollah has the backing of Iran, Syria and the Hamas should another conflict occur. Iran has feverishly worked with Syria to arm Hezbollah with skillfully trained troops and 60,000 rockets over the past four years. In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah lobbed 4,000 rockets into northern Israel averaging 117 strikes per day. Presently, Hezbollah has 15 times as many more advanced rockets and arrogantly boasts it can hit any target inside of Israel including Dimona Israel’s main nuclear site.

Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah recently said, “We do not believe in multiple Islamic republics; we do believe, however, in a single Islamic world governed by a central government.” .......“Jerusalem and Palestine will not be regained with political games but with guns.” ....... "Hezbollah can destroy one-half of Israel's army."