Apocalyptic Vision: Guest Post by Charles Cameron

I am pleased to have as a guest-blogger, Charles Cameron, who is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Institute and Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.


by Charles Cameron


What’s this about the Mahdi and a call for Islamic mobilization?

Al-Arabiya carried what seems to me to be a significant article about the Mahdi, Islam’s end-times savior on August 17th. The report stated that the personal representative of the Supreme Leader was calling on Iran’s neighboring states “to mobilize their forces in preparation for the coming of the savior of Islam”.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s spokesman, Ali Saeedi, said countries like Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan should gather together all their forces in order to make drastic changes to prepare for the coming of al-Mahdi al-Montazar, Arabic for “the awaited guided one.”

“We still have a long way to go in order to achieve this. We have to train honest forces that can stop the obstacles that may hinder the coming of the Mahdi like the United States and Israel,” Saeedi said in statement posted by the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA).

Muslims must unite for Islam’s Savior: Iran, Al-Arabiya, Monday, 17 August 2009

That’s a call to arms, put out by a Shi’ite nation state, and addressed to Sunni and Shi’ite alike — and it drew almost no attention in the western press.We can safely disregard it, right? After all, Mahdism is a Shi’ite phenomenon, and whereas Iran has a conservative rearguard that expects the Mahdi’s soon-coming along with President Ahmadinejad, the Sunni world has no time for that kind of thing.

Except that bin Laden seems to share the apocalyptic expectation, if not the exclusively Shi’ite details — the view that the Mahdi has already been born once, into a Shi’ite family, and is presently in occultation prior to his soon return.

So I am not arguing that we should worry too much about Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan all deciding to join forces with the Iranian Republican Guard any time soon. But I am arguing that we should be alert to Mahdism — and more generally, Messianism — as a contemporary driver.


It so happens that Steve Coll was on the radio again this week, in a rebroadcast of a talk he gave in April, and here’s some of what he had to say on the subject of Osama bin Laden:

It’s a mistake to see him entirely as a political, or even to some extent mostly, as a political leader. He has a purchase on these grievances and he understands them and I’m sure he feels them — but he’s also a millenarian: he believes that he’s been called by God to wage a war that will only conclude at the end of time. He hasn’t built a political movement, he doesn’t offer any social services, he doesn’t build a hospital — he thinks he’s fighting until the end of time, that he’s carrying out a narrative that’s pre-ordained, and that his role is to awaken God’s followers to their righteous role so that they can pass to the next phase. And so there is this interaction of millenarian, apocalyptic thinking on the one hand — which justifies all violence — and this sort of terrestrial political critique on the other. And what happens when you read his statements in the west is that, well, everyone can understand the political critique, so that gets all the attention — and people’s eyes glaze over at the rest because it’s a little bit hard to digest. But when you read it in full it’s a very, very important aspect of why he’s doing what he’s doing and who he thinks he is.

Steve Coll, talking about his book The Bin Ladens for the World Affairs Council.

Should that surprise us?

Not if we noted Bin Laden’s quotation of the “Gharqad tree hadith” — which specifies the nature of the end times conflict:

Doomsday shall not come until Muslims fight Jews. A Jew would be hiding behind a tree or a stone. The tree or the stone would say, O Muslim, O subject of God, there is a Jew behind me come and kill him. The only exception is [Gharqad] tree is a tree that belongs to Jews.

and his comment:

Page 1 of 3 | Next page