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Apocalypse Row: Netanyahu, Nukes, and Iranian Eschatology — Tim Furnish

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

[ guest post by Tim Furnish, posted by Charles Cameron ]
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Blog-friend and occasional guest poster Dr Tim Furnish just posted this very timely piece at his MahdiWatch blog, and I am delighted to post it in its entirety here with Tim’s permission.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak to a joint session of the US Congress on Tuesday, March 3, 2015.  If his speech earlier today at the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was any indication, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons will be the major topic.  Partisan bickering (about whether the Republican majority in the House and Senate wished to insult President Obama) aside,  the central issue boils down to whether Bibi is correct in his long-held belief that the IRI leadership amounts to a “messianic, apocalyptic, radical cult” which must be stopped at all costs from going nuclear (as he first said six years ago).   

He is not.  

Now as my usual friends and colleague sharpen their knives, allow me to explain.  First off, I am a staunch supporter of Israel, as both a Christian and an American, and have been there three times in the last decade.  Also, now that Turkey, under Sultan Erdoğan, has slipped back into Neo-Ottomanism, Israel is the only truly democratic nation in the Middle East.  Along with the Kurds, the Israelis are our closest allies in that region.  

But that does not mean that everything Israeli is automatically correct.  And this claim that Iran wants nuclear weapons in order to use them on Tel Aviv and thus spark the coming of the 12th Imam al-Mahdi is a gross misreading of Twelver Shi`i doctrines as well as of Iranian politics. 

I examined this issue in depth for the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis back in 2011, in a paper entitled “A Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?”  The major points therein follow, after this pictorial message:

Ismail
Safavid Shah Isma’il (L), founder of the 16th c. dynasty that converted Iran to Twelver Shi`ism. HE would not have hesitated to use nukes (in fact, his turban itself is weaponized). But Khamenei? Not bloody likely.

Z  Belief in the return of the 12th Imam from ghaybah, “occultation,” is not “fringe” or “extremist” but a mainstay of this brand of Islam (just as is the doctrine of Jesus’ return for all orthodox Christians).

Z The 12th Imam’s reappearance is totally up to Allah’s discretion; nothing humans can do will advance his timetable.  “Hotwiring the apocalypse” depends not on WMD usage or any other violent activity but, rather, hinges on creating the Mahdist state in microcosm (i.e., the IRI) and then waiting on Allah to send the Mahdi to rule it.

Z The anjuman-i hujjatiyeh (“Hujjatiyeh Society”) is not some insane group dedicated to destroying Israel but an organization dedicated to re-converting Baha’is to Twelver Shi`ism—and, furthermore, was banned in the early 1980s for being insufficiently supportive of Ayatollah Khomeini’s clerical rule.

Z As per the excellent article by Ze’ev Maghen, “Occultation in Perpetuum: Shi`ite Messianism and the Policies of the Islamic Republic,” the ruling ayatollahs are probably the most vociferous opponents of a true Mahdist claim on the planet—because acknowleding anyone as such would end their rule of Iran, and with it their wealth, power and privilege. 

Z Twelver Shi`i views of jihad mandate that jihad-i ghalaba, “victorious holy war,” be prohibited until the return of the 12th Imam—NOT employed to importune him to appear.  Usage of nuclear weapons is thus really not allowable for the apocalypse-hotwiring which many pundits impute  to Iran.

Z Yes, some Iranian leaders have spoken, repeatedly, of Israel being “erased from the pages of history.”  But I believe that this means they believe in a gradual demographic disintegration of the “Zionist entity,” and not a mushroom cloud over Israel.

Z It is possible for men to have long beards, wear turbans, express eschatological beliefs and yet still be rational political actors. The Supreme Leader and his cronies all know that were Iran to use a nuclear weapon against Israel, their nation would be a radioactive ruin about 15 minutes later. The Mahdi has no desire to rule over such a wasteland. Plus, it would deprive the clerics of their wives and Rolls Royces.

Z All of the above by no means makes the IRI a peaceful or trustworthy state.  The ruling ayatollahs want nuclear weapons not only to hold onto their power (as per the ruling clique in Pyongyang) but to provide immunity against possible American military strikes and to increase Tehran’s regional clout—just not to summon the Mahdi via a nuclear conflagration.  

President Jarrett, er, Obama and SecState John Kerry are fools to think that any written agreement will disabuse Khameini and his ilk of their lust for nuclear weapons.  But attempting to counter the administration’s naiveté with inane bluster that misepresents our enemy’s beliefs and intentions amounts to falling off the horse on the opposite side.  Instead, let’s try sitting upright on a strong horse and avoiding partisan extremes of misapprehension.  

David Brooks gets his Islamic eschatology wrong on NewsHour

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — why scholarship should inform punditry ]
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I am a bit surprised, I have to say, that I haven’t seen — and Google doesn’t seem to have found, either — a clear rebuttal to one highly significant detail in David Brooks‘ discussion with Mark Shields and Judy Woodruff on Islamic eschatology.

In the PBS NewsHour segment labeled Shields and Brooks on fighting Islamic extremism (above), Brooks makes the statement:

I do think you have to take the religion seriously, that these people are — it’s not like they can’t get what we want. They want something they think is higher than what we want. Their souls are involved. And I’m saying you have to conceive of them as moving, as acting in a religious way.

And you have to have religious alternatives. And they are driven by an end times ideology. They think there’s going to be some cataclysm battle and Mohammed will come down. And if you ignore that part of it, write it off as sort of marginal, that they are being produced by economic dysfunction, I just think you’re missing the main deal.

I’m largely in agreement with this, but the phrase “and Mohammed will come down” is just plain wrong. In Islamic eschatology, it is claimed that Jesus (‘Isa ibn Maryam) — not Muhammad — will “come down” from heaven at the ‘Umayyad mosque in Damascus:

God will send the Messiah, son of Mary, and he will descend to the white minaret in the east of Damascus, wearing two garments dyed with saffron, placing his hands on the wings of two angels. When he lowers his head, beads of perspiration will fall from it, and when he raises his head, beads like pearls will scatter from it.

The return of Jesus and his “breaking the cross” and preaching the one faith of Submission (Islam) may be what Brooks should have mentioned — or perhaps he meant the arrival and recognition of the Mahdi, who does not “come down” to us but is already among us by the time his end times role begins.

I can see how this may seem a slight slip-of-the-tongue to David Brooks, who is after all not solely preoccupied with IS, Islam, and / or apocalyptic — but it’s not something that should go unchallenged if we are to “take the religion seriously”.

Two new hipbonegamer appearances: Lapido & WotR

Friday, February 20th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — two recent posts elsewhere, and two forthcoming posts here on ZP ]
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About LapidoMedia, including a great short Simon Schama clip

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My second post for LapidoMedia went up a couple of days ago, along with my first appearance on War on the Rocks.

The LapidoMedia piece summarizes much that I have written here about the Islamic State / Daesh and its apocalyptic view as expressed in Dabiq magazine. From Lapido’s statement of purpose:

Many news stories do not make sense – whether to journalists or policy makers who feed off what they report – without understanding religion. Lapido Media is an internationally networked, British-based philanthro-media charity, founded in 2005, that seeks to increase understanding among journalists and opinion formers of the way religion shapes world affairs.

It’s called religious literacy. We run media briefings, publish research and essays and work with journalists around the world. Our stringers practise on our website the kind of religiously literate journalism we wish to see, going deeper to the sources of social motivations, and providing a resource for other journalists. And we work with civil society groups on campaigns and media strategy to improve the flow and quality of stories with a religion dimension.

My Lapido piece, ANALYSIS: ISIS’ magazine Dabiq & what it tells us, begins:

THE TITLE, and much of the content, of the Islamic State’s magazine, Dabiq, emphasises the ‘end times’ nature of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate.

The beheadings, crucifixions and most recently the burning of 45 people in Al-Baghdadi, grab the West’s attention, and are intended to trigger a military over-reaction, proving to those who are willing to believe it that the West is in a ‘war with Islam’.

But the Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq has a different audience and a distinctly different message.

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I was also delighted to make a small appearance at War on the Rocks, thanks to both August Cole and Ryan Evans. WotR is working closely with the Brent Scowcroft Center’s Art of Future Warfare project, and it was my piece for that project’s first Challenge that landed me on WotR’s pages.

My story was excerpted on WotR with a link to the whole thing, and since I really like the opening, I’ll repost it here:

Flashing across my sub-eyes and a few dozen others today, those tiny edge of vision thunderclouds that when my saccade leaps to them indicate increasing war chance – lit by a single bolt of miniscule lightning. As my transport turns itself into its parkplace, too far from the Ed’s for me to throat her a quick morning buzz, I flipvision up and “Temple” appears in yellow and red across the sub-world, and an accompanying jolt from the adrenals gets me out of the comfort of my now stationary pod, through visual check-in and up to my console where I can dig into deets..

Not my usual Zenpundit style, but great fun to write!

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I want to note in passing that I am working on a few major posts, though they may take a while.

  • I intend to comment in detail on Graeme Wood‘s major piece, What ISIS Really Wants in The Atlantic. It gets one huge piece of the puzzle right, and for that reason I’m delighted to see some of the things Tim Furnish and I have been pounding away at for years getting visibility. Various scholars have weighed in, and one very interesting comment has come from JM Berger — I’d definitely like to weigh my response to his view, too. So that’s one forthcoming piece.
  • Another, which would have been teh major piece for me this month all on its own if Wood’s article hadn’t appeared, will cover “countering violent extremism” — the topic, the White House event, the many interesting comments from Humera Khan, Clint Watts and others.
  • Also worth mentioning — in response to a suggestion from T Greer, I have a piece in the works listing the best books to read on Islamic apocalyptic, both for its content and context. But first, my responses to both Graeme Woods and the current interest in CVE — with a few quick posts along the way, while those twon are in preparation.

    Brief brief: from cost-benefit to apocalypse

    Friday, February 6th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — a bullet train of thought re Daesh from the New Yorker ]
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    Kenji Goto, friend of Syrians

    Kenji Goto, friend of Syrians

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    George Packer, in Why ISIS Murdered Kenji Goto a couple of days ago, connects a longer distance between ideas faster than the bullet train from Beijing to Guangzhou

    The Islamic State doesn’t behave according to recognizable cost-benefit analyses. It doesn’t cut its losses or scale down its ambitions. The very name of the self-proclaimed caliphate strikes most people, not least other Muslims, as ridiculous, if not delusional. But it’s the vaulting ambition of an actual Islamic State that inspires ISIS recruits. The group uses surprise and shock to achieve goals that are more readily grasped by the apocalyptic imagination than by military or political theory,

    That took us from cost-benefit analysis to the apocalyptic imagination in one short paragraph, an almost unimaginable feat.

    Which is precisely why bureaucratic “military or political” minds might overlook it.

    Q.E.D.

    And may Kenji Goto rest in peace.

    On the Prophet’s banner, and the Coming One

    Sunday, January 25th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — from battle-flag to transcendent symbol ]
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    Father of the Imam Mahdi, postcard from Masshad, Iran, author's collection

    Father of the Imam Mahdi, postcard from Masshad, Iran, writer’s collection

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    I have written so much on the topic of the black banners from Khorasan [eg], which in turn arguably derive from the black raya or battle-flag of the Prophet, that I thought these ahadith from the Shia text by Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi, Bihar ul Anwar, would be of interest. They are drawn from the section titled:

    Flag of the Qaim is same as the flag of the Prophet

    Note here that the Qa’im — literally “He Who Arises” — is a Shia term for the Mahdi, as is Imam Zamana — “Imam of the Age”.

    129- Ghaibat Nomani: It is narrated from the same chains from Abdullah bin Hammad from Abdullah bin Sinan from Abi [Abdullah] Ja’far [bin Muhammad] that he said:

    “The Almighty Allah has fixed the time of the reappearance of Imam Zamana (a.s.) against the time fixed by the time-fixers. The flag of the Qaim is the same flag as that of the Prophet, which Jibraeel brought from the heavens in the Battle of Badr and he waved it during the battle.

    Jibraeel said: “O Muhammad, by Allah, this flag is not of cotton, flax or silk.” I said: “Then what is it of?” He said: “It is of the leaves of Paradise. The Prophet (s.a.w.s.) spread it on the day of Badr and then he has folded it and gave it to Imam Ali (a.s.). It was still with Imam Ali (a.s.) until he spread it on the day of the battle of Jamal against the people of Basra and gained victory. Then he folded and kept it safe. It is with us and no one is to spread it until the Qaim (a.s.) appears. When he appears, he will spread it and then everyone in the east and the west will curse it. Terror will move a month before it, a month behind it, a month on its right side and a month on its left side.”

    Then he said: “O Abu Muhammad, he (the Qaim) will appear depressed and angry because of the anger of Allah with the human beings. He will appear wearing the Prophet’s shirt, which the Prophet put on in the battle of Badr, turban, armor and holding the Prophet’s sword Zulfiqar. He will unsheathe the sword for eight months. He will kill excessively. [ .. ]

    Here the banner is woven of no earthly cloth but of an angelic provenance…

    130- Ghaibat Nomani: It is narrated from Abdul Wahid bin Abdullah from Muhammad bin Ja’far from Ibne Abil Khattab from Muhammad bin Sinan from Hammad bin Abi Talha from Thumali from Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s.) that he said:

    “Once Abu Ja’far Baqir (a.s.) said to me: “O Thabit, as if I can see the Qaim of my family coming near to your Najaf.” He pointed to Kufa and then added: “When he comes to your Najaf, he will spread the banner of the Prophet (s.a.w.s.) and then the angels of Badr will descend to him.”

    I asked him: “What is the banner of the Prophet (s.a.w.s.)?” He said: “Its pole is from the pole of the Throne of Allah and from His mercy. The rest of it is from the assistance of Allah. Everything that he swoops on with this banner Allah will make it perish.” I asked: “Is it kept with you until the Qaim (a.s.) appears or it is brought then?” He said: “No. It is brought then.” I asked: “Who will bring it?” He replied: “Jibraeel (a.s.).” [ … ]

    Here the banner is clearly transcendent, cosmic in scope.

    134- Ghaibat Nomani: It is narrated from Ali bin Ahmad from Ubaidullah bin Musa Alawi from Muhammad bin Husain from Muhammad bin Sinan from Qutaibah Aashi from Aban bin Taghlib that he heard Imam Ja’far Sadiq (a.s.) say:

    “Abu Abdullah Imam Sadiq (a.s.) said: “When the banner of the truth (the Mahdi) appears, the people of the east and the west will curse it. Do you know why?” I said: “No, I do not.” He said: “That is because of what harms the people receive from his (the Mahdi’s) family before his appearance.”

    And here, one reading of the English translation would suggest that “the banner of the truth” is the Mahdi himself, though I’d need the help of a linguist to know if that’s a plausible reading in the original..

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    In any case, the first two, at any rate, are clearly referring to spiritual realities rather than exclusively to a flag of cloth, and can thus serve as correctives to a more literal understanding.


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