Of quantity and intensity: the case of the Sufiyan

[ by Charles Cameron — catching the apocalyptic mention in a broad sectarian overview ]

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I’d like to discuss the last four paragraphs of a recent NYT piece on the influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria:

Iraqi Shiites did not initially take sides in Syria. Many Shiites here despise Mr. Assad for his affiliation with the Baath Party, the party of Saddam Hussein, and the support he gave foreign Sunni fighters during the Iraq war.

But as the uprising became an armed rebellion that began to attract Sunni extremists, many Shiites came to see the war in existential terms. Devout Shiites in Iraq often describe the Syrian conflict as the beginning of the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time by predicting that an army, headed by a devil-like figure named Sufyani, will rise in Syria and then conquer Iraq’s Shiites.

It was the bombing of an important shrine in Samarra in 2006 that escalated Iraq’s sectarian civil war, and many Iraqis see the events in Syria as replicating their own recent bloody history, but with even greater potential consequences.

Hassan al-Rubaie, a Shiite cleric from Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province, said, “The destruction of the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Syria will mean the start of sectarian civil war in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”

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There’s a lot going on there, and I just want to point you to the little diagram I posted above, which features what I consider one very significant point that jumped out at me on this occasion from the “larger picture”.

It’s my impression that the name Sufiyan will be far less familiar to most readers than the names Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Iraq, Syria and so on are nations — real geopolitical entities with territories, wealth, militaries, populations, factions, fighting and so forth. The Sufyani, by contrast, is a single person, perhaps a figure of legend.

For the contemporary western mind, therefore, it is easy to read those last four paragraphs and be struck by the breadth, the sheer physical extent of the potential conflict described there – and after noting the basic concept of sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, that may in fact be the major “takeaway” from the article: this thing could be huge.

I want to suggest there’s a more significant, and less studied takeaway – that Sufyani is the key word here, because Sufyani is a figure in a specifically end-times narrative, a precursor to and noted adversary of the Mahdi.

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That’s my bottom line here – that this individual the Sufyan may be less known and less impressive-sounding than a swathe of nations between the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf – but he represents the power of end-times belief, and the intensity that inevitably accompanies the final showdown between good and evil, with heaven and hell the only possible outcomes of one’s chance and choice to participate.

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There is not a whole lot of documentation in English regarding the Sufyani, especially as viewed in Shiite eschatology, but this quick excerpt archived from an Iranian state media site will give us a basic overview:

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