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On “occultation” (ghayba) and bin Laden

[ by Charles Cameron ]


Dr. Timothy Furnish, the author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden and a keen student of both Shi’ite and Sunni Mahdism, proposed on Twitter yesterday:

Without UBL’s body (or at least pix) claims will come soon that UBL merely “occulted” (like 12th Imam), not dead, and will return.


It might be thought that occultation (ghayba) was a Shi’ite concept, extremely unlikely to be espoused by the Sunni (and indeed Salafist) followers of bin Laden.

What exactly is meant by the term “occultation”?

Gershom Scholem in his definitive study of the Jewish heretical messiah-claimant (and eventual Muslim convert) Sabbatai Sevi quotes Elias Bickerman‘s “study of the ideas of occultation in early Christianity and in the cult of the apotheosis of the Roman emperors”, in which the hero “by the grace of God, is liberated from death at the very moment of death, and is removed to Paradise, Heaven, or a distant land where he continues to live in the body.” (Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676, p. 923)

Scholem uses the term “occultation” to describe the belief of Sevi’s followers after his death in a way which illustrates comparable beliefs among both Christians and Shi’ite Muslims (p. 314):

In itself the doctrine of occultation could also point to Shi’ite Muslim influence. In the theology of the more radical Shi’ite groups the doctrine of the the occultation of the imam was widely accepted. But in the historical context of Sabbatai’s biography before his apostasy, such Shi’ite influence would seem highly improbable. The messiah — according to Sabbatai’s and Nathan’s teaching — will, then, not die, but will be translated to higher worlds. The idea would agree well with what we know of Sabbatai’s illuminations and the concomitant psychological experiences of exaltation and ascensions to the celestial lights. It is not impossible that conversations with Christians suggested to Sabbatai the very congenial idea of the messiah’s transfiguration.

And notes of this Jewish variant (p. 923):

The Sabbatian doctrine of occultation was not borrowed from other systems but — as happens more often in the history of religions — is the result of similar structures of faith.

More recently, some followers of the late Lubavitcher rebbe have proposed that he is “hidden” and will return… See, for instance:

Since the Third of Tammuz, we are no longer able to physically see the Rebbe King Moshiach. The Rebbe remains physically alive just as before, it is only to our eyes that he is concealed. Therefore, we call this a day of concealment, and many refer to this as the “last test.”
— from the brochure “Chasidim Proclaim to the Lubavitcher Rebbe: Long Live our Master, our Teacher, our Rebbe King Moshiach Forever and Ever” as quoted by Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller


That’s the sort of background I’d want to have, before dismissing Tim Furnish’s suggestion out of hand. The Qur’an, after all, states at 3.169:

Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord…

Having said that, it is also true that the Prophet himself treats the notion of his own return as a metaphysical “wish” rather than a realistic possibility, in the hadith attested in both Bukhari and Muslim:

I wish that I could be killed in the Path of Allah, then be brought back to life, then be killed, then be brought back to life, then be killed.

It will be instructive to watch how the narratives of bin Laden’s death and/or continuing life develop.

5 Responses to “On “occultation” (ghayba) and bin Laden”

  1. J. Scott Says:

    Hi Charles, Your concluding sentence is ironic given the ham-fistedness of the administration’s recent press briefings—requiring a "revise and extend" on the circumstances of UBL’s demise. This messiness creates uncertainty that could perhaps come back to haunt us.

  2. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Charles, is this Furnish’s feed, https://twitter.com/#!/Occidentaljihad ?

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Tim Furnish now has a longish blog post up on History News Network where he elaborates on the tweeted suggestion which triggered my post above.  Most notably, he provides us with a case in which a Sunni Mahdi-claimant was considered by his followers after his death to have gone into occultation:

    This concept of mystical Mahdist hiding has, at times, crossed over from Shi`ism into Sunnism, as with the Sunni Mahdist claimant Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi who declared, in 1821 India, a jihad against the British and their Sikh allies and was killed by the latter—but since his body was never recovered, “his supporters transformed the seeming tragedy into a victory by claiming it was merely an occultation and that Sayyid Ahmad would eventually return as the Mahdi” (Furnish, Holiest Wars, p. 42).

    Furnish goes further, and posits a likelihood:

    Bin Ladin will very likely become another Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi, whose mystical, mythical power and stature will grow yearly and whose return will be come to be expected at any time.

    I don’t know that I’d call the possibility a "likelihood" — perhaps a few individuals will try the idea out, but whether it would be likely "catch" with enough jihadists to make a movement — to make a difference — seems less clear to me.
    Still, those are just snippets.  The whole article is worth pondering — note also the reference to recent Mahdi-claimants in Saudi, which blog-friend John Burgess pointed to in a post titled “A Rash of Mahdis in Saudi Arabia” on his well-regarded Crossroads Arabia blog yesterday.

  4. J. Scott Says:

    To your speculation about "likelihood…of a few individuals" trying the idea out, my guess is the approach used will be the one that sells (or makes sense to the potential jihadi). What I know of Islamic eschatology I’ve learned from these pages, but in our world of ubiquitous information, there seems to be a market for almost every idea—dress it up with potential "glory" or righteous cause–so much the better.
    Through the years many have made a living (or better) off scaring Christians; writing books/pamphlets with date-certain or who the anti-Christ is/will be…as you know the list is long and the market seems steady. There are people who will believe anything if it written down, or passed along by someone in whom they have confidence (Beck comes to mind).
    A healthy dose of skepticism is always a good thing. Will read the Furnish post in the next day or two and may return with another comment.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Yes, @Occidentaljihad is Tim’s twitter account — but our software seems to balk at giving the full link, so here’s a link that works: http://goo.gl/1ZCMm

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