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A Question for Hegghammer & Lacroix

[ by Charles Cameron — a single word in a very small book, and the world that hangs in the balance ]

I’ve just read Hegghammer & Lacroix on The Meccan Rebellion. At 78 pages and 5.3 x 8.3 inches, it’s a tiny book in hardback and quite a delight to hold — the electricity in my city block went out for a while the other day, and I took pleasure in reading it out under the sun — and it contains, in essence, the two authors’ paper, Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia (Int. J. Middle East Stud. 39 (2007), 103–122) and a companion piece by Lacroix titled Between Revolution and Apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albanai and his Impact on the Shaping of Contemporary Salafism.

Blog posts tend to present a point of view – whether to preach to the choir, promote it to unbelievers, stir up trouble, or simply add detail or a fresh angle to an existing narrative. Seldom do they ask questions.

My own instincts — in line with Madhyamaka as I briefly encountered it in the teachings of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel — lead me to leave some kinds of questions open: I use my DoubleQuotes format to set the juices flowing, by providing nudges to thought rather than outright statements – but on this occasion I have a question to ask, and as it’s too long for Twitter I’ll post it here.


Here’s my question. Juhayman al-Utaybi believed one of his companions, Muhammad al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the awaited Coming One of Islam — and that, in our authors’ words, “consecrating him [al-Qahtani] in Mecca on the turn of the hijra century” would ”precipitate the end of the world”.

In my view, a great deal rests on that simple word, “precipitate”. Would “usher in” do as well? Or “mark the beginning of” perhaps? Or is the idea of forcing the hand of God present, as it is in Reuven Paz’ phrase, “hot-wiring the apocalypse”?

There’s a lot riding on that issue: whether or not it is possible to force the hand of God, to accelerate destiny, to hasten apocalypse.


Okay, let’s go light-footed into this issue. In The Question in the DC Comics universe, we have a character described thus:

During service in Vietnam Jeremiah Hatch got insane, he began to hear the voice that urged him to do the will of the Lord by serving the Devil. He thought that his mission was “to hasten the corruption, to nurture the foulness until the almighty has no choice but to rain down fire and brimstone and overthrow the cities and the plain and all the inhabitants of cities and all that grows on the ground…”


Hastening the apocalypse — it’s an idea you can find in the world of DC Comics, but it was Israeli analyst Dr Reuven Paz who presented it to us in canonical “national security” form in his paper, Hot-wiring the Apocalypse, where his actual words are:

The Jihadi and nationalist insurgency in Iraq, which feeds the motivations and enthusiasm of growing number of Islamist youth to search for Jihad, look for the “culture of death and sacrifice,” and self-radicalize themselves, is another factor in the growing sense of Jihadi pride, which also hotwires the sense of the apocalypse.

That’s a faily imprecise form of words (‘The sense of apocalypse”) from a careful scholar, and Paz applies the concept in a specifically Sunni context. This, however, doesn’t prevent a popular Christian writer such as Joel Rosenberg from applying the same idea to the Shi’ite rulers of Iran:

Only when we understand the eschatology currently driving Iranian foreign policy, can we truly begin to understand how dangerous the regime in Tehran is. Only then can we fully appreciate how events like the revolution underway in Egypt only encourages Twelvers like Khamenei to take still further provocative and perilous actions to hasten the coming of the Twelfth Imam.

So the idea is afloat that both Sunni jihadists in Iraq and the Shi’ite state of Iran ay be about the “hastening” business.


Blog-friend Dr. Timothy Furnish, as I’ve noted here before, rebuts the application of Paz’ concept by Rosenberg, Glenn Beck and others to the situation in Iran, saying of it:

It posits that there is a strain of Islamic eschatological thought which hopes to force Allah’s hand in sending the Mahdi, as it were, via sparking a major conflagration (nuclear, or otherwise) with the West (either the U.S. or Israel). This may be true of some of the Sunni jihadits with an apocalyptic bent, but there is very little evidence that such an idea is operative in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ayatollahs may be cut-throat, anti-Israeli and anti-American-but they are not stupid. They know full well that any nuclear attack on Israel of the U.S. would be met with a crushing retaliation. (Besides, what good would it do for the Mahdi to come and establish his global caliphate over smoking radioactive ruins?)”


And if I might ask a follow-up question — is the first of the Juhayman Letters, which is devoted to the theme of the coming of the Mahdi, available in English?

7 Responses to “A Question for Hegghammer & Lacroix”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    “The ayatollahs may be cut-throat, anti-Israeli and anti-American-but they are not stupid.” This sounds right.  Some guerillas in a cave somewhere may, in their imagination, be willing to bring the world to an explosive end, or cause that to happen.  But real politicians, with a real country under their control, where their real existing family network benefits from that control, will behave in a way that preserves their control and the benefits that accrue to them and their network — and apocalyptic pronouncements are buckets of slop to placate idiots or scare foreigners.  So it has always seemed to me.  I have never seen anything that makes me think otherwise.  Yet, anyway.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Let us indeed pray so.

  3. Tim Furnish Says:

    Why do otherwise intelligent writers persist in this canard that the Mahdi’s coming marks “the end of the world?” It does not.  It marks, rather, the onset of global Islamic rule–which is a major difference.
    By the way: I reviewed Trofimov’s book on this topic, when it came out a few years ago: http://staging.weeklystandard.com/Content/Protected/Articles/000/000/014/745aznwc.asp#

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Tim:
    You deserve a better answer than this, but my short form response would be that there’s a concept of “end times” in the west which effectively collapses everything between the Second Coming and Judgment Day, even though Christ reigns for the millennium between them according to “premillenialist” Christianity, and that I suspect something of the same kind of elision occurs with regard to the Mahdi’s reign (5, 7, or 9 “years” per Tirmizi — or is that 50, 70, 90?) and whatever more besides…
    But I have some hasty reading to do, and I also want to respond to your recent post Jihad: An Enemy Now Both Foreign and Domestic.
    And I have some unfinished paid writing to do for one old and good friend, and two proposals to complete at a publisher’s request…

  5. Thomas Says:

    Hi Charles,

    I am not sure exactly how much agency Juhayman believed he had. It was probably at the lower end of the spectrum, in the sense that he saw himself as steering an ongoing process rather than initiating it. In that sense, “precipitate” may indeed be too strong a word. It may be more precise to say they were “trying to make sure things happen the way they should”, that is, as foretold by tradition.

    The question of agency in apocalypticism is probably best left to a religious studies specialist. My rudimentary understanding is that most apocalyptic sects tend to be complete fatalists (and thus harmless), but a few outliers believe there is some room for human agency. However, even in these cases the conception of agency is somewhere on a spectrum between full choice and fatalism. I don’t think there has ever been a group that believed they could trigger the apocalypse when and how they wanted. 

    As far as Juhayman’s letters are concerned, I have never seen an English translation. unfortunately. I always thought a PhD student in Arabic or Islamic studies would soon come along and take up this project, but for some reason nobody has. 

    Tim, your remark about “the end of the world” is technically correct, but we decided to use literary license and employ this established expression. As Charles points out, the “end of the world” need not mean “the destruction all life”, it can also mean something the “end of our era”. So we decided it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we used the phrase. 

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Thomas, much appreciated.

    The question of agency in apocalypticism is probably best left to a religious studies specialist. My rudimentary understanding is that most apocalyptic sects tend to be complete fatalists (and thus harmless), but a few outliers believe there is some room for human agency. However, even in these cases the conception of agency is somewhere on a spectrum between full choice and fatalism. I don’t think there has ever been a group that believed they could trigger the apocalypse when and how they wanted.

    This brings David Koresh and the tragedy of Waco to mind.
    The situation in Waco is particularly interesting, because two religious studies specialists — Phil Arnold and James Tabor — were in fact in communication with David Koresh with FBI cooperation, and Tabor’s write up of the event with another religious studies scholar, Eugene Gallagher, in Why Waco? (Berkeley, UC Press, 1995) suggests that while the Davidians indeed gave a fatalistic impression to the unfamiliar, the specialists themselves perceived the situation as fluid.  
    I’ll post a few excerpts from their first chapter here, to give you a taste…

    What is operating here is a series of interpretive dynamics, well known to scholars of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism, which have played themselves out countless times in the past twenty-five hundred years. Biblical apocalypticism involves the interplay of three basic elements: (1) the sacred Text, which is fixed and inviolate; (2) the inspired Interpreter, who is involved in both transmitting and effecting the meaning of the Text; and (3) the fluid Context in which the Interpreter finds himself or herself. The Text functions as a “map” of things to come, setting forth an “apocalyptic scenario” of End Time events

    Although the Text itself is fixed and unchanging, setting forth in advance what “must happen,” there are two variables in this scheme of things, allowing for a high degree of flexibility. First, the Interpreter is interpreting the Text and the Context, or outside events. And further, outside events are always changing. In our view this was an important key to effective negotiations during the entire fifty-one-day standoff at Mount Carmel.

    Koresh did not see the February 28 confrontation as an inevitable fulfillment of the final prophetic scenario that he had proclaimed to his followers in such detail. Some events did not match; the outcome was open ended and still to be determined

    Koresh was convinced that the attack on February 28 was related to the final sequence of events foretold in the Bible, but, given these ambiguities, he was uncertain of what he was to do. Although the apocalyptic Text was fixed, like a script written in advance, the Interpretation and the precise Context were variable. Koresh was waiting because he believed that God had told him to do so and because he understood a waiting period to be required by the “fifth seal.” In the meantime he was seeking his “word from God,” which would clarify the ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in the changing outside situation.

    These elements of his thinking indicate that the situation was much more flexible than one might have supposed and that Koresh’s insistence upon waiting for a word from God suggested fluidity and open options rather than intransigence.

    Even better, the entire first chapter is available online [“Read an Excerpt”] at the UC Press site — and the details I’ve omitted here are pretty interesting.


  7. JM Berger Says:

    I would suggest there are degrees of agency. Without having done a comprehensive review, I haven’t seen many examples where someone started completely from scratch to fulfill the conditions for a prophesied apocalypse. Rather, you have people who believe they have “discovered” an initial condition — in Juhayman’s case, discovering the mahdi — through the agency of God which then imposes on them a requirement to take certain prescribed or improvised acts through their own agency that will fulfill the rest of the conditions. But I’d be interested in seeing (or eventually doing) more research on this. 


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