THE PERIL OF SHIITE MAHDISM
Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett recommended an article in Commentary by Dr. Edward Luttwak, noted historian and Defense intellectual, for his careful and nuanced assessment of the strategic situation in regard to Iran.
I like Luttwak as well; he’s a provocative and thoughtful scholar at all with an impressive grasp of large historical issues as well as policy details. One of those details caught my eye in Luttwak’s essay regarding Iran’s government:
“Although the world now knows him [ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ] for his persistent denial of the Holocaust and his rants against Israel and Zionism, at home Ahmadinejad’s hostility is directed not against Iran’s dwindling Jewish community but against the Sunnis. Lately, moreover, his ultra-extremism has antagonized even many of his fellow Shiites: he is an enthusiastic follower of both Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, for whom all current prohibitions are insufficient and who would impose an even stricter Islamic puritanism, and of a messianic, end-of-days cult centered on the Jamkaran mosque outside the theological capital of Qum. More traditional believers are alarmed by the hysterical supplications of the Jamkaran pilgrims for the return of Abul-Qassem Muhammad, the twelfth imam who occulted himself in the year 941 and is to return as the mahdi, or Shiite messiah. More urgently they fear that in trying to “force” the return of the mahdi, Ahmadinejad may deliberately try to provoke a catastrophic external attack on Iran that the mahdi himself would have to avert.”
This comment is not unimportant. It represents the wild card in the strategic deck being dealt out over Iran’s nuclear program. Why ? Because Mahdism is to Islamism what Islamism is to traditional Islam.
As Dr. Tim Furnish, a scholar of Islamic history, wrote regarding Mahdist movements:
“Mahdism shares many characteristics with mere jihadism, the most important of which are: a yearning (indeed demand) for Islamic law and a burning desire to restore Islamic rule to its former environs and, in fact, to engineer the creation of a global caliphate. But Mahdist movements “are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents3 but far more powerful in scope and effect.”4 Once a charismatic Muslim leader becomes convinced he is the Mahdi, all bets are off. The Mahdi (and each one is of course convinced he is THE, not simply a, Mahdi) will, according to the Islamic traditions, be directed by Allah to restore the Prophetic caliphate and, as such, is not bound by the letter of the Islamic law. For example, both Ibn Tumart and Muhammad Ahmad declared that they alone were capable of interpreting the Qur’an, so any previous opinions and commentaries were relegated to irrelevance. And of course the opposition to them by establishment religious figures—for both of these men, as do most Mahdist, led revolutions against existing Islamic governments5—only served to reinforce their Mahdist claims, since true Muslims could recognize the Mahdi. Anyone claiming to be the Mahdi, then, is largely unfettered by any norms, Islamic or otherwise. Ibn Tumart and his leadership, for example, killed tens of thousands of their own followers deemed lukewarm in their support. And Muhammad Ahmad, who had Charles Gordon decapitated and his head displayed, may have proved just as bloodthirsty had he not died of malaria some six months after taking Khartoum. “
Such considerations affect the timetable for a possible ” soft kill” or illustrate the possibility of formenting or exploiting strife between Mahdist radicals and the larger Khomeinist establishment among the clergy. This is a point of possibilities. The existence of Mahdism also impacts assumptions about containment of a nuclear-armed Iran until it can mellow or crumble under its own internal contradictions. While Rafsanjani or Khameini might follow Khomeini’s teachings to preserve the jurisprudent state at all costs, a convinced Mahdist leader might welcome the risk of nuclear annihilation. He might even seek to provoke that kind of apocalyptic scenario. This ideology is simply millenarianism on steroids.
All avenues need to be considered when dealing with Iran. Different values tend to imply different premises than our own.
Strongly recommend checking out Austin Bay’s review of Luttwak. Colonel Bay also has a second article for your perusal as well.