[ by Charles Cameron — first part of a post on misreading Mahdism in Iran ]
Our blog friend Pundita has been relying on Reza Kahlili, the pseudonymous Iranian author of A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, quite a bit recently, pointing to his recent discussion with John Batchelor and some reports of his on World Net Daily.
There are a number of people whose views on the religious issues surrounding an Iranian nuclear weapons program interest me — I leave other aspects of the problem to others better informed than I — some because they have insight, some because they have megaphones, and so on.
I’m not the person you’d want to ask whether Reza Kahlili was a CIA source, whether he was trusted, and if so, on what issues – issues which might range from troop movements to popular opinion of the IRG rank and file to theology and apocalyptic, a range that no single source is likely to be omnicompetent in – but WND is a media source I’ve followed off and on for a dozen years, it’s strongly associated with one of the strands of recent Christian apocalyptic with its own messianic take on Islam and Mahdism, and it isn’t necessarily a source I’d trust without verification…
So I did some checking of my own on Reza Kahlili, and found that he, or more likely some ghost writer employed to write his book for him (along with his publisher’s copy editor), simply doesn’t know what a hadith is. A hadith is a statement attributed to the Prophet (or in the Shi’a case, one of the infallible Imams who succeeded him) and passed down through an authoritative train of transmission (isnad). For a practicing Muslim, the corpus of hadith is second only to the Qur’an, and knowing what a hadith is is like knowing what the Epistles are for a practicing Christian: basic. For a theologically nuanced scholar from Qom or Najaf, it’s kindergarten.
Kahlili gets the use of the word “hadith” right early on in his book, but when he starts talking about the return of the Twelfth Imam or Mahdi he writes (p. 334.):
Like others who think as he does, Ahmadinejad believes that many of the signs of Mahdi’s return have emerged. Known as hadiths, these signs include the invasion of Afghanistan, the bloodshed in Iraq, and the global economic meltdown. According to prophecy, the hadiths will grow increasingly furious as Mahdi’s return comes closer, including “persecution and injustice” engulfing the earth, “chaos and famine,” and “many wars.” The hadiths predict that “many will be killed and the rest will suffer hunger and lawlessness.” People like Ahmadinejad so completely believed that these conditions would hasten the return of the twelfth Imam that they were willing to foment universal war, chaos, and famine to bring it about.
That’s at best very sloppy writing — the signs are known as ayat (as are the verses of the Quran), and the Quran states (28.59):
Nor was thy Lord the one to destroy a population until He had sent to its centre a messenger, rehearsing to them Our Signs; nor are We going to destroy a population except when its members practise iniquity.
Some translators actually render what this translation calls “signs” as “verses”.
Giving this passage from Kahlili a charitable reading, it could be understood to mean that signs as described in reliable hadith “include the invasion of Afghanistan, the bloodshed in Iraq, and the global economic meltdown” – though there’s a lot of interpretive scope in there, as there is in locating Gog and Magog (are both place names, or is one a prince of the other?) in comparable Christian eschatological circles.
Taliban recruiters (Sunni) certainly take “Khorasan” as mentioned in some Mahdist hadith as referring to “Afghanistan” – see Ali Soufan‘s book, The Black Banners – but an Iranian would read “Khorasan” as referencing the region of that name in Iran, or perhaps a wider zone that includes it, but also encompasses portions of Afghanistan and other neighboring states – it was, after all, the name of Iran’s largest province until divided in three parts, North, South and Razavi Khorasan in 2004:
Interestingly too, the hadith traditions in question are considered likely to have been written by and for the Abbasids. David Cook, for instance, in his magisterial Contemporary Islamic Apocalyptic Literature writes of Khorasan (p. 173.):
The ‘Abbasids sought to present their movement as the fulfillment of messianic expectations, and so they produced a great quantity of materials given in the form of hadith traditions to indicate that the Mahdi would come from this region.
— not that scholarship of this kind is liable to influence popular apocalyptic sentiment…
Okay, so with a little creative forgiveness, we can read that first passage of Kahlili’s as saying that within the hadith can be found signs such mentions of Afghanistan / Khorasan, bloodshed in Iraq, and economic woes. But then we read this (p. 337.):
With the eyes of the world on them, the mullahs and the thugs who took orders from them fought mercilessly to hold on to the power that had never been their right, using extreme force to deny that their time was over. In their minds, Mahdi was coming and the blood they shed now was yet another hadith.
C’mon, now, has Kahlili even read his own book? Blood shed equals hadith?
The most charitable thing I can find to say is that Reza Kahlili may or may not have been some level of CIA source, but his credibility in matters involving any aspect of Iranian theology is utterly unconvincing.
Jeff Stern, in a WaPo piece from 2010, doesn’t sound any too convinced that Kahlili is worth our trust in other matters either, writing:
Reza Kahlili, a self-proclaimed former CIA “double agent” inside Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, appeared in disguise at a Washington think tank Friday claiming that Iran has developed weapons-grade uranium and missiles ready to carry nuclear warheads.
The pseudonymous Kahlili, whose previous accounts have been greeted with widespread skepticism, also said Iran was planning nuclear suicide bombings with “a thousand suitcase bombs spread around Europe and the U.S..
Several current and former U.S. intelligence officials in the audience “rolled their eyes” at Kahlili’s claims, said one observer who was present.
Some in attendance compared Kahlili with Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile who helped convince the George W. Bush administration that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the claims were proved false.
My personal knowledge-map features huge areas of ignorance where many others have strong opinions. On matters religious, Kahlili is not to be believed. On the siting of nuclear labs, or weapons development and deployment, we’re in areas that bear the legend “Here there be Smoke and Mirrors” on my map.
Thus endeth my blog-epistle to Pundita, whose knowledge of many of the other moving parts in the wider geopolitical situation far exceeds my own.
I’ll follow up with part II of this essay, in which I’ll talk a bit about Glenn Beck and Joel Rosenberg, and some other significant ways in which Shi’ite eschatology is being misrepresented via popular media in the west.
For those following the development of my book / media project, I am hoping the project will include a section of longer essays such as this one, in which I pull apart some of the myths currently surrounding western understanding of Islam, while pulling together major strands of a more nuanced view.