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Pew on the prevalence of Mahdism — take heed!

[ by Charles “told you so” Cameron — Pew figures for Mahdist expectation, also the Second Coming, Israel, and the potential influence of apocalyptic ideation on foreign policy ]

The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity, p. 65


I am Qualit, not Quant by nature, really much more interested in the workings of the imagination that in the aggregates of poll responses, so it’s a bit like pulling teeth for me to report on a Pew report — but in this case I can legitimately say “I told you so”, which massively outweighs the reluctance I might otherwise feel…


Recently, Pew has been including questions about the expectation of the Mahdi in some of its reports, and even Tim Furnish — who wrote the book on Mahdist movements and has long been saying we neglect them at our peril — even Tim was surprised at how widespread Mahdist expectation is, as reported in their just released The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity. In a post aptly titled Don’t Leave a Live (or Occulted) Mahdi Out of Your Calculations, Tim says the report contains “The most notable — indeed, strikingly important — news” in the form of “fascinating — and disturbing — data on belief in the Mahdi’s imminent (in one’s lifetime) return.”

See graphic above.

I recommend you read Tim’s analysis for the full range of his points — I won’t, for instance, be touching on what he says about Turkey — here I am going to select a couple of his key issues, and make just a point or two of my own.



Of the 23 countries whose Muslim citizens were polled, nine have majorities which expect the Mahdi in their lifetimes, with the overall average percentage at 41.8% … it is safe to extrapolate this percentage to Islam as a whole; ergo, 42% of 1.6 billion = 672 million Muslims who believe in the Mahdi’s imminent return! This is FAR greater than I had supposed.

Furnish also notes that Iran, the world’s most intensely Shi’ite nation and the one whose President has been speaking openly of Mahdist expectation, is not even included among the 23 countries Pew sampled.

Simply put, we have been blind to a very real phenomenon, and now we have a statistical alarm call to wake us up.

More subtly: there’s a difference between answering yes to the question “do you expect the Coming of X in your lifetime” and being on the edge of your seat, viewing every week as threshhold. Damian Thompson is very good on this in his book, Waiting for the Antichrist, and Stephen O’Leary in Arguing the Apocalypse suggests there’s an optimal “arousal” period — if you believe the Coming is too far away, you won’t be motivated to prepare for it quite yet, and if it’s too close it may be too late for you to do much to spread the word…

So, Pew — next time, ask a question with the opinions “in the next five to ten years” and “in my lifetime” — okay? The distinction is important, and a shift towards the shorter time-span would be highly significant.


Furnish again:

Despite the conventional wisdom (repeated even by Pew, in the face of their own data) that Mahdism is primarily the province of Shi`is, note that three of the four countries with the highest percentage expecting the Mahdi are majority-Sunni ones: Afghanistan (83%), Turkey (68%) and Tunisia (67%). This has ramifications, respectively, for: US policy in a country we are currently occupying; the only NATO Muslim-majority nation; and the vanguard state of the “Arab Spring.”

In his Conclusions, Furnish says:

The usual State/Defense departments’ “rational actor” approach to international relations might be quite simply irrelevant, if almost half the world’s Muslims expect the imminent return of their eschatological deliverer.

So there you have it. I discussed the “rational actor” versus Scott Atran‘s “devoted actor” in a recent post. And yes indeed, there are “ramifications for U.S. policy”…

Notably with regard to Afghanistan …


Here’s Furnish again:

Afghanistan is so rife with Islamic messianism because the 80% of the population that is Sunni and the 20% that is Shi`i (albeit Sevener/Isma’ili, as well as Twelver) both are in the middle of a war and occupation by a “Christian” power — which tends to ratchet up such expectations …

And again, in his Conclusions:

Afghanistan is a lost cause: over eight in ten of its people expect the Mahdi in their lifetime, and no amount of roads and clinics and girls’ schools built by the infidels will change that.

I don’t want to argue that second point in detail, although I think there’s a great deal more to life that Mahdist expectation for many who would answer “yes” to Pew’s question about expecting the Mahdi in one’s lifetime — see my comment on Damian’s book above. But how can I put it? A background Mahdist expectation can become a passionate involvement in a Mahdist movement if the right trigger comes along.

But what I find most striking here is that Afghanistan should be the country with the strongest Mahdist current out of all those Pew selected. And I’m struck not because Afghanistan has been a battlefield for so much of recent history — indeed, for so much of its history, period. I am struck because, in Al-Qaida’s recruitment narrative, supported by a number of ahadith, Afghanistan as Khorasan is the very locus from which the Mahdi’s victorious army will sweep out to conquer (finally) Jerusalem. And this too I have been posting about, eg in my discussions of Ali Soufan‘s The Black Banners and Syed Saleem Shahzad‘s Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

So the highest level of Mahdist expectation also happens to be found in an area with a potentially major role to play in an end times scenario…


There’s at least one earlier report in which Pew raised the question of Mahdist expectation — this time tied in with both the expectation of the Caliphate, and Christian hope of the Second Coming — their 2010 report Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Here, for instance, we learn:

Both Christians and Muslims believe they are living in a time that will undergo momentous religious events. For example, at least half of Christians in every country with large enough samples of Christians to analyze believe that Jesus will return to earth during their lifetime, including nearly seven-in-ten Christians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (69%).

And at least half of Muslims in 10 of the 15 countries with large enough Muslim populations to analyze say they believe that the caliphate, the golden era of Islamic rule, will be re-established in their lifetime; this belief is most common among respondents in Mozambique (69%). And in 12 of these 15 countries, roughly six-in-ten or more Muslims believe in the return of the Mahdi, the guided one who will initiate the final period before the day of resurrection and judgment, though the survey did not ask respondents whether they expect this to occur during their lifetime.

And here is the relevant data on sub-Saharan Mahdist belief. In Q51 of this poll, Muslims were asked whether they believe “in the return of the Mahdi, the guided one who will initiate the final period before the Day of Resurrection and Judgment? Here’s the table of responses:

Given the “religious fault line” of mixed conflict and amicable coexistence between Christians and Muslims running across Africa from (so to speak) Nigeria to Somalia, with Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab among the less delightful participants, keeping an eye out for signs of Mahdist “semiotic arousal” would be important here, too.


And “semiotic arousal” — that reminds me. Richard Landes, who coined the term, has the definitive, encyclopedic book out about all the many forms of apocalyptic, and why they’re important: Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience Essential reading, if you ask me, on a hugely neglected and no less critically important subject.


Finally, here’s yet another Pew graphic

— to be viewed in conjunction with this one, illustrating the ways in which belief in the Second Coming of Christ correlate with opinions about scriptures and the State of Israel:


Prophecy has impact, both on public opinion and on believing leaders. Jews with an expectation of the Messianic era, Christians expecting the soon Coming of Christ, and Muslims with Mahdist expectations each have their own apocalyptic scenarios, and in each case those scenarios exert some influence on policies relating to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian situation in particular.

The bottom line?

Scriptural interpretation — and prophetic eschatology in particular — can no longer be assumed to be a quiet backwater topic for rabbinic students, seminarians and future mullahs to study, each in terms of their own tradition. It is now a series of conflicting drivers of current affairs — of war and peace.

15 Responses to “Pew on the prevalence of Mahdism — take heed!”

  1. Tim Furnish Says:

    Excellent analysis. And yes, there’s more to what’s going on in Islamic life, even in Afghanistan, than Mahdism.  I was a bit too glib in my take, and I will refine it in a piece I’m writing today for History News Network.
    I emailed the Pew folks and asked some questions of whomever had the sense to put in the Mahdism (and Jesus’ return) questions.  Let’s see if I hear back.
    I would note that regarding the expectations of Jesus’ return among Christians, and the Mahdi’s (and the Islamic Jesus’) coming among Muslims, that historically the former does not usually result in violent holy war, whereas the latter often has.

  2. larrydunbar Says:

    As the Red States are about to elect the first non-Christian as 1/3 of the government, it is too bad Pew didn’t include non-Christians in the U.S. polls. Perhaps this is the Sign?  🙂

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Tim.
    I look forward to your HNN piece — and I’m glad you’ve written to Pew, I was thinking of doing the same. Please keep us updated…
    WRT the expectations of the Coming / Return / Raj’a), it always strikes me that the big questions include whether the prophetic expectation includes a war either (a) before or (b) at the time of the return, and also whether the arrival can be brought on / hastened by bringing about (c) war, or (d) peace on earth — the “birthpangs of the Messiah / Hotwiring the apocalypse” question with which you’re only too familiar, and on which I often quote you.
    As to the Christian expectation and violence, material or spiritual — a lot depends (IMO) on how one interprets passages like Ephesians 6.14 (“having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness”) and Revelation 19.21 (“And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh”).
    There’s an interesting passage in LaHaye and Jenkins’ Glorious Appearing (the last in the Left Behind series) which somehow manages to make a literal (and martial) meaning out of what I take to be a metaphorical (and spiritual) one:

    “Now many have asked what is to happen when Antichrist comes against God’s chosen people and the Son intervenes. The Bible says He will slay our enemy with a weapon that comes from His mouth. Revelation 1: 16 calls it ‘a sharp two-edged sword. ‘ Revelation 2: 16 quotes Him saying that He ‘will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.’ Revelation 19: 15 says that ‘out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations.’ And Revelation 19: 21 says the enemies ‘were killed with the sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse.’
    “Now let me clarify. I do not believe the Son of God is going to sit on His horse in the clouds with a gigantic sword hanging from His mouth. He is not going to shake His head and slay the millions of Armageddon troops with it. This is clearly a symbolic reference, and if you are a student of the Bible, you know what is meant by a sharp, double-edged sword..
    “Hebrews 4: 12 says the Word of God ‘is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’
    “The weapon our Lord and Messiah will use to win the battle and slay the enemy? The Word of God itself! And while the reference to it as a sword may be symbolic, I hold that the description of the result of it is literal. The Word of God is sharp and powerful enough to slay the enemy, literally tearing them asunder.”

    There are (again, IMO) a lot of tripwires and traps in scriptural interpretation…

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Larry:
    I’m off to do some paid work, but I’ll be back… 

  5. Tim Furnish Says:

    But Charles, I would submit that there are several light-years of difference between mere violent exegetical rhetoric (as is the norm in Christian circles) and actual violence (as is far too often the norm in Islamic Mahdism. 

  6. morgan Says:

    Larry, if you assume the current occupant of the White House is a Christian., I have my doubts.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    I don’t have any doubts as to the faith that Obama professes, but I do think Mark Twain had a point — not the only point by any means, but an incisive one, when he said in his Notebook (1898):

    There has only been one Christian. They caught him & crucified him — early.

    Or to put that another way — we’re extremely fortunate when a finite being manages to be reasonably transparent to the infinite. The Imitation of Christ is not an easy matter.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Yes, I agree — but having had a father who fought Hitler and a mentor who battled apartheid, I’m also aware that hatred can at times sweep across whole nations to disastrous and inhuman effect.
    It’s the potential for hatred — on whatever side — that worries me.

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    BTW, Tim:
    Joel Richardson now has a piece up about the Pew / Mahdi poll figures, and quotes you:
    See also:

  10. morgan Says:

    Charles, let’s just say I respectfully disagree 

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Respectfully agreed.

  12. Tim Furnish Says:

    Gentlemen: I turned the blog into a 2,700 word article: http://hnn.us/articles/mahdism-and-sectarianism-and-superstition-rises-islamic-world

  13. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Tim.
    I have a post in the works on Pew’s findings on belief in the jinn — I’m glad to see at a first glance that you’re also exploring that angle.  
    Oops, I almost typed angel — perhaps unconsciously following St Gregory‘s maxim Non Angli, sed angeli, or simply confusing two ranks of supernaturals.

  14. Tim Furnish Says:

    I saw that, Charles, but have yet to read it all.  I will, however! 

  15. Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini Says:

    Hey Charles,

    When I last read about the Mahdi (before our recent conversations) I found it interesting how different the Muslim Eschatology is from the Christian and Jewish ones: for the Mahdi to return violence seems to be a requirement to herald his coming; for Christ to return it is said that one of the requirements is the establishment of Israel; and for the Mashiach to come Jews must be righteous and do good deeds. 
    It is very interesting.

    Marvellous post and yes, we should take heed indeed.


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