Forgive my invoking Earth, Wind & Fire on the very last day of September. But better late than never. At least I’m back to blogging after a summer hiatus.
This past month eschatological themes in the Islamic world (re)surfaced. On September 11th, Egyptian security forces arrested a chap in the Red Sea governate who had taken to calling himself the “Awaited Mahdi” on Facebook. This was in the port city of Safaga. One of his posts read “praise be to God and thanks be to God, Lord of the Great Throne, who chose me and made me one of the messengers to the worlds to raise [the] flag of Muslims, return people to the religion of Islam, eliminate unbelievers and criminals, and liberate al-Aqsa Mosque.” Of course, the Egyptian government stated that this fellow had a “prior criminal record” and “psychological issues.” One could of course say the same thing about any of the dozens (at least) of self-styled Mahdis who led such movements in the Dar al-Islam across the centuries–even the ones who succeeded in taking power. In fact, this man’s political agenda greatly resembles prior ones, especially in his stated desire to return Muslims to their religion, and to “eliminate unbelievers”–non-Muslims, that is. Had the authorities of the time been able to preemptively apprehend, say, Muhammad Ahmad the 1880s Sudanese Mahdi or Muhammad al-Qahtani, the Saudi Mahdi of 1979, those apocalyptic jihads might have been short-circuited. So, see? Facebook is sometimes a force for good. At least outside the USA.
Further to the northeast, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ayatollahs are blaming some rogue followers of the Hidden Imam for stirring up at least some of the anti-government protests going on there. The IRGC (Iranian Republican Guards Corps, the regime’s praetorian guard) “has identified and arrested 12 people belonging to two organized riots teams in the northern Iranian province of Gilan.” According to Tehran’s official press organs, “the groups, which styled themselves the Anonymous Soldiers of the (Twelfth) Imam Mahdi, were aiming to attack sensitive government and law enforcement facilities and reignite violent protests across Gilan province.”[Gilan is northwest of Tehran, bordering the Caspian Sea.]
So far we have heard that the riots center around women protesting wearing of the hijab, and that the proximate cause was the suspicious death of one protestor, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. But perhaps the ayatollahs’ regime is being hoist by its own petard: if the Twelfth Imam, who will someday emerge as the eschatological Mahdi, is egging on opposition to the ayatollahs, how can they possibly hope to survive? Note, too, that like in Egypt the apocalyptic fervor emanates from a coastal area. So while some like it hot the Mahdi, whether Sunni or Shi’i, seems to like it cool.
In late 2020 I self-published The COIN of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies & the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916. Despite it being the ONLY study of its kind–one that looks at the COIN of the world’s most powerful Islamic state across space and time–it’s been largely ignored. Why? Well, I sent a copy to Joint Special Operations University (where I used to lecture on terrorism) and their reviewer deemed it “too political” for even a review. No explanation as to what my particular scarlet letter was–although I suspect it was that I dared to 1) point out that most of the groups on the State Department (and other governments’) terrorist list are Muslim ones; and 2) defend the Trump Administration’s approach to the topic. That’s too bad. One would think that policy-makers and students of COIN would find valuable an examination of how a Muslim polity responded to attacks, both ideological and kinetic, by co-religionists within the Empire. But because I dare speak the truth, and don’t knee-jerk condemn the 45th POTUS, my research is not worth considering.
Remind me who it is that’s “too political?”
In any event, two stalwart and perceptive experts did take time to read my book, and review it. Last year strategy maven Zenpundit did so on his site. His approach is geared toward COIN as a policy. Then a few weeks ago Dr. John Zmirak allowed me to do an overview of the book at The Stream, under the title “How Islamic Regimes Keep Control Over Christians and Muslims Radicals.” John’s questions to me probed more the historical and cultural aspects of the Ottomans in terms of their domestic policies against marginalized groups. Together, these two reviews present an accurate and fair assessment of my book, and I thank both of these men for doing that.
My previous post, just a few days ago, dealt with the recent rash of Mahdist claimants in Iran. Therein I also discussed Joe Biden’s rambling disquisition about the “Hidden Imam” at the White House Eid al-Fitr ceremony on May 2. Mumbly Joe rambled on about his ignorance, until recently, of the central belief of Twelver Shiism–despite his decades as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and serving as Vice-President in the most pro-Iranian administration since 1979. And this, mind you, to a room full of Islamic leaders who were all Sunni. Biden said that he’d been receiving briefings over lunch from a prominent professor of Islamic studies. I guess the White House staffers forgot to pay for the lecture on the differences between the two major branches of Islam.
Well, hold on to your briefing notes, and your dentures, Mr. President. For yet another Muslim Mahdist mockup has surfaced–this time in Morocco. Last Friday (May 20, 2022), according to a story in “The New Arab,” a man proclaimed himself the Mahdi during the Friday khutba at an unspecified mosque in Marrakesh. The worshippers then pulled a citizen’s arrest and handed him over to police. “No further details were given.” The story then veers into a description of a similar chap arrested last summer in Egypt–about whom I blogged at the time.
It’s easy to dismiss these fellows as demented buffoons–and indeed, most of them are. But as I’ve been writing about this entire millennium, that’s not always the case. Sometimes a charismatic messianic figure in the Muslim world garners a following and poses a threat to the extant order. (See, in particular, my first book.) Morocco, in fact, was the scene of perhaps the most successful Mahdi in history: Ibn Tumart, who created the Muwahhidun movement, centered in belief in him as Allah’s divinely-guided one. The “Almohads” took over and ruled much of North Africa in the 12th and 13th centuries AD. (I have an entire chapter, four, on how they did this in my latest book.)
Also, there are hadiths (alleged sayings of Muhammad, Islam’s founder) that a similar figure, a mujaddid or “renewer” of Islam, will come every century. This belief is often conflated with that of the Mahdi. This has happened many times in Muslim history. The hijri calendar will hit 1500 in the Western year 2076. So Mahdis will continue to multiply in the coming decades–and not all of them will be mere nuisances, if history is any guide. Hopefully when that happens we’ll have a President more aware of Islamic doctrines–and just more aware in general.
Mahdism exists in both Sunni and Shi`i Islam—particularly, among the latter, in the Twelver branch. Belief in a man who will be “divinely-guided” by Allah and bend the entire world to Islam (with a little help from the returned “prophet `Isa,” Jesus) persists in Islam as a whole; for although the Qur’an says nothing of the Mahdi, there are a number of ahadith, “sayings” attributed to Islam’s founder Muhammad, that predict his coming.
The Sunnis and Shi`is do differ on just who the Mahdi is, and the manner of his arrival, however. The former expect a Muslim warlord, a holy warrior, who will take up the mantle of “the Prophet,” first in the Middle East then eventually over the whole planet. For Twelvers, the largest group of the Shi`a, the Mahdi will be the Twelfth Imam descended from Ali (Muhammad’s closest male relatives, as his cousin and son-in-law). Hujjat Allah ibn al-Hassan disappeared in the 9th century AD; he is not dead, however, but in a state of ghayba, or “occultation” (thus the “Hidden Imam”). He will thus return to our world as the Mahdi in the future. So for Sunnis, the Mahdi comes out; whereas for the Twelver Shi`is, he comes back. Historically, it has been more common for self-styled Mahdis to appear in a Sunni context, rather than a Shi`i one. (See my books Holiest Wars and Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdi’s Campsfor details on this, and other aspects, of Mahdism.)
Iran’s population has been almost entirely Twelver Shi`i since that nation’s forced conversion by the Safavid rulers in the 16th century AD. And of course the government has been run by Twelver Shi`i religious leaders since 1979’s revolution, explicitly describing itself as one that prepares the way for the unveiling of the Hidden Imam . Now the Islamic Republic might find itself hoist by its own messianic petard. Just two days ago, The Economist reported that “Iranians yearn for a messiah. The ayatollahs are worried.” Police reports from the city of Qom—where most ayatollahs are educated, and live—indicated that in a recent month, 20 men claiming to be the Mahdi have surfaced. Such pretensions can get one executed, on the charge of “spreading corruption [or mischief] on the earth.” (This is condemned in several sections of the Qu’ran, such as here.) Among the 20 are several outright unhidden Imams; a number of babs, “gates,” who are more-or-less John the Baptists to the Muslim messiah; followers looking for Hassan al-Yamani, an Iraqi cleric who had Mahdist aspirations but disappeared in 2003. (I did some research and reporting on this fellow for the government about a decade ago. Ahmad al-Hassan al-Yamani, at last report, had proclaimed himself the “son of the Mahdi” and that the Twelfth Imam had emerged from occultation and was guiding him. He condemned the Baghdad and Teheran governments as illegitimate, and that the US represented al-Masih al-Dajjal, the “deceiving messiah.” His followers were known as Ansar al-Mahdi.)
Of course, since the Islamic Republic deems itself the true custodian of Mahdism, it does not tolerate free-lancers. The government has established a special team, “unknown soldiers of the last imam,” to go after these great pretenders. But the problem emerges from within, according to an unnamed adviser to former President Ahmadinejad. “The feeling of an end of times is strongest among those who had faith in the regime but now feel it has failed.”
On a related note, several weeks ago US President Joe Biden held an Eid al-Fitr reception at the White House to mark the end of Ramadan. Toward the end, Biden suddenly started talking about the Hidden Imam: “I realized how little I know about the details of Islam. I knew, I knew about it—but I didn’t know the differences that existed. I didn’t know what the Hidden Imam was. I mean I….so I went out and hired a full professor….” Who then, presumably, briefed Joe on this rather important aspect of Twelver Shi`ism. Biden was Vice-President for eight years in an administration that conducted intense negotiations with Iran. Before that, for many years Biden was Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In all that time in both those positions, Joe never received a briefing on the religious beliefs of the Iranian people and their leaders?! That’s hard to believe.
What conclusions can we draw from all of this? First, contra assertions by some analysts, belief in the Twelfth Imam/Mahdi is not just some “hardline” belief held by antediluvian ayatollahs; it’s intrinsic to Twelver Shi`ism (which is the majority brand of Islam not just in Iran but in Iraq, Azerbaijan and probably Lebanon). And note: “as Iran’s domestic malaise deepens, the search for a saviour is growing.” Second, where there’s that much Imamic smoke, eventually it’s very likely there will, at some point, be Mahdist fire. A violent one. In Iran, or possibly in Iraq. Third, why trust the Biden Administration to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the “Iran Deal” that aims to slow down, and hopefully prevent, the Islamic Republic from manufacturing nuclear weapons—when the individual in charge (allegedly) just now learned the most important belief held in that country?
I’m a huge Shakespeare fan. I’ve read 23 of the plays, and seen 14 of them performed. I’ve even been in one (so far): Much Ado About Nothing, as Leonato. The Bard’s histories are my favorites–not surprising, considering I teach college history. And within that category, Henry IV Part 1 tops my list. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps because Henry is wracked with guilt, yet soldiers on. Maybe, as a father of teenage boys, I can identify with a father who is often at loggerheads with one (or both) of them at any given time. I certainly respect a man who won’t back down when his (admittedly medieval) rights and possessions are taken away. And I must confess to admiring the bravery of Henry’s Crusading exploits.
Of course, Shakespeare “history” plays are not verbatim historical accounts. John Julius Norwich points this out in his book Shakespeare’s Kings. For example, one might be forgiven for thinking that Henry’s musings about going on Crusade (Act I, Scene I) are just, well, theater. But per Norwich: “Unlike Richard [II]…he had seen the world. Between 1391 and 1393 he had travelled first to Lithuania, on a crusade with the Teutonic Knights, and then to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, visiting Prague and Vienna, Rhodes and Cyprus, and on his return journey, Venice, Milan, Pavia and Paris…. Both journeys were taken in a spirit of genuine piety, for he was naturally devout. He also seems to have been totally faithful to his wife Mary Bohun…who had died in 1394 while bearing him his sixth child. At the time of Henry’s accession , there was no doubt of his popularity throughout the country, the vast majority of his subjects rightly believing that he had seized the throne only because his predecessor had shown himself incapable of government. His position, however, was still dangerously weak….Henry was a usurper….” (pp. 131-32). So little wonder that Henry faced rebellions, which in large measure Shakespeare does describe accurately.
The most amazing interlude of Henry IV’s reign, and one little noted or appreciated (and upon which I hope to write a story, perhaps even a book), has nothing to do with his fighting insurgents in England. For several months (December 1400-February 1401) Henry hosted the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos. The latter was visiting European leaders, seeking help against the encroaching Ottoman Turks. Henry did pony up a substantial sum of money, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help with military forces.
Henry was also certainly a better warrior than Shakespeare gives him credit for in Act 5, Scenes 3 and 4. Norwich notes that “Hotspur and Douglas…with a band of thirty chosen followers, cut their way through to the royal standard and dashed it to the ground; but they failed to kill the King, who had by now dispatched thirty of the rebels on his own account, despite being forced three times to his knees.” A bit later Shakespeare has Henry, fighting with Douglas, “being in danger” [stage directions] and saved by the intervention of Prince Hal–who puts Douglas to flight and then kills Harry Percy. “There can, however, be no doubt that the King…fought with exemplary courage throughout. Did the Prince really save his father’s life? There is some evidence, but not much…. Did Prince Hal kill Harry Percy? Possibly, yes. Most historians are skeptical; it has been pointed out that the true Hotspur–as opposed to the Shakespearean ideal–was twenty-three years older than the Prince, a seasoned general for whom Hal had a deep respect….but Percy was now a dangerous and desperate rebel, and nothing we read of either of them suggests that in such a situation either would have hesitated to kill the other…. Whoever maybe have been responsible for it, the death of Harry Hotspur ends not only the battle of Shrewsbury but, effectively, Shakespeare’s play” (pp. 147-48). Norwich has much more on Henry IV (and the future Henry V) as well as on Sir John Falstaff in terms of historical reality v. what was performed at The Globe: see pp. 111-148.
But we don’t read, much less perform, Shakespeare for his historical accuracy. The play’s the thing! And for analysis purely of at least some of Shakespeare’s characters, the best source I’ve ever read is John Palmer, Political and Comic Characters of Shakespeare. Palmer doesn’t take on Henry IV, but he DOES examine “Henry of Monmouth,” the future Henry V–and in doing so, to some degree, looks at his father (and quite a bit at Falstaff, as well). “Bolingbroke is tormented by the insecurity of power attained by violence. He owes too much to the friends who helped him in order to help themselves. He suffers, too, the remorse of a sinner who, like Claudius of Denmark, is unable to repent because he cannot bring himself to surrender the fruits of his sin. He can only hope that God will consider his crime to have been sufficiently expiated in his own person and that he may be able to pass on to his son an unblemished succession. But even this hope seems denied, for riot and dishonour stain the brow of his young Harry and he sees as part of his punishment the inordinate and low desires affected by his heir….” (p. 211).
Palmer continues: “Shakespeare was clearly fascinated by the spectacle of this unhappy man, enticed by circumstance…to commit a crime [overthrowing Richard II, and probably ordering his murder] which was to stain with blood the pages of English history for over a century….meeting his enemies with a brave face, though he had within himself no peace of mind….” (Ibid.)
And I am, as well. In fact, I don’t see how anyone who reads, or watches a performance of, Henry IV Part 1 could not be.
Yesterday MEMRI published an article that “Female Students of [a] Pakistani Madrassa Beheaded their Female Teacher after their Relative Dreamt that Muhammad, Founder of Islam, Commanded that She be Beheaded for Blasphemy.” This happened in the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan. According to the source, an Urdu-language newspaper, the “girls”–ages 24, 21 and 17–overpowered their 18-year-old teacher and “beheaded her by mercilessly running knives on her throat.” Why? Because one of the “girls'” had a 13-year old female relative who told them that Muhammad had appeared to her in a dream and charged the teacher with blasphemy. A TV station in Pakistan added another element: dislike of the group Tablighi Jama`at, and in particular its preacher Maulana Tariq Jameel, by certain Muslim clerics. (TJ is the world’s largest Muslim proselytization group, and is especially active in south Asia. Its Sufi-Lite theology and approach often puts TJ at loggerheads with strict Islamic fundamentalists of the Deobandi-Wahhabi persuasion. See my article on topic in the World Almanac of Islamism.) Supposedly the decapitators accused their teacher of TJ sympathies. So there may have been more at work than a “Prophetic” dream.
In a less cutting and more expansive article from last month, “The Rise of Muslim Millenarianism in Malaysia,” Muhammad Haziq Bin Jani looks at the growing influence of Islamic eschatology, specifically Mahdism, in southeast Asia. In a brief overview, he cites my 1999 article “Mahdism in the Sunni Arab World Today”–but, curiously, none of my more recent works on the topic. Perhaps he needs to pay his researchers more. Jani goes on to adduce the 2012 Pew data on the Islamic world, which included asking this question of thousands of Muslims in 23 countries: “Do you expect the Mahdi to return [sic] in your lifetime?” Thirty-five percent responded affirmatively; but as Jani points out, in Malaysia that figure was 62%. (By way of comparison, here are percentages of those answering “yes” in some other majority-Muslim nations: Afghanistan, 83%; Iraq, 72%; Turkey, 68%; Tunisia, 67%.) My “sic” on the question above requires some explanation: while belief in the Mahdi holds in both Sunni and Shi`i Islam, it is only the latter branch–and mostly, there, among the Twelvers of Iran and Iraq–that believes the Mahdi has already been on Earth. gone into occultation, and will “return.” For the minority of Sunnis who accept Mahdism (but but still a large number in real terms), the true Mahdi has never been here. There have, rather, been dozens (if not hundreds) of impostors (Ibn Tumart, Muhammad Ahmad, Muhammad al-Qahtani–see my book Holiest Wars on this). Nonetheless, the actual Mahdi will eventually be sent by Allah and emerge onto the stage of history–for the first time, unlike the view of Islam’s smaller branch.
Jani lists a number of Malaysian jihadists and near-jihadist movements that has been influenced by Mahdism. Some, like Imam Samudra who masterminded the 2002 Bali bombings, were involved with the group Darul Arqam (sometimes called just al-Arqam), which harbored apocalyptic ideas. Jani also states that “claims to Mahdi-hood also spurred the 1980 Batu Pahat Police Station attack, the 2012 samurai sword incident at the Prime Minister’s Department complex, the 2013 claims to the Malaysian throne by the ‘Black Banner Group,’ and the 2018 Ar Rayah smoke bomb threat in Melaka.” In addition, a Malaysian woman was arrested in 2021 for saying on social media she would gather armed followers for the Mahdi in the upcoming third world war. And in January 2022 a viral video appeared in that country “claiming the imminent advent of the Mahdi in Sabah and encouraging viewers to purchase weapons in preparation.” Jani also claims that one Muhammad Qasim, a Pakistani who may consider himself the Mahdi, has a following in Malaysia.
Of course, as a reasonable Muslim, Mr. Jani condemns all of these folks as followers of “deviant teachings.” But as I have pointed out again and again, for 20 years, in articles, books, and media interviews–as well as on this site and its predecessor, Mahdiwatch–Mahdist beliefs are historically and theologically mainstream in Islam. While not in the Qur’an, prophecies of Islam’s eschatological “rightly-guided one” are rife in the Sunni Hadiths–the sayings of Muhammad. And of course the Shi`is have legions of traditions of their own on this figure. So Mahdism is anything but “deviant” in the world’s second-largest religion.
Finally, there are two connections between the Pakistani beheading and Malaysian Mahdism. First, as I wrote about in my (in)famous 2005 article “Beheading in the Name of Islam,” decapitation of enemies has been a mainstay of Islamic states and groups across space and time–especially of Mahdist ones. Second, Mahdi claimants throughout Islamic history have often adduced dreams as evidence of their divine appointment. Both Ibn Tumart, the Mahdist founder of the al-Muwahhidun (Almohads) and Muhammad Ahmad, the Sudanese Mahdi (and bane of General Charles Gordon), claimed to have had dreams in which Islam’s prophet sanctioned their jihads. Maybe Muhammad should appear to someone with more heft than a 13-year old girl if he really wants to shake things up.
Since there is some overlap between my social media presence and this site of mine, I thought I should let folks know that I have terminated, with moderate prejudice, both my Twitter and Facebook accounts. The former had devolved into a cesspool of name-calling dominated by Woke blue checks, and positive relationships I had developed there were outweighed by their dark opposites. As for Facebook, or “Meta,” its undeniable utility for high school football pictures and funny memes could not make up for the constant censoring of information its 20-something liberal arts majors didn’t like–which is to say, anything not reflexively Far Leftist.
I will redouble my blogging efforts here, and hope to hear from some of my social media friends through this venue.
In 30 years of studying Mahdism, I have always understood the Twelver Shi`i variety (unlike its Sunni cousin) as primarily passive. That is, since Twelvers believe that the 12th Imam slipped into ghaybah (“occultation”) in the ninth century AD, there are many things that will not happen until he returns. Like legitimate offensive jihad. In particular, I have interpreted the Twelver doctrines and politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran as aspiring to the destruction of the state of Israel–but only after Imam al-Mahdi returns to lead the holy war against the Jewish state. My thinking is summed up in a 2019 piece I wrote entitled “Do Iran’s Leaders Want to Hotwire the Apocalypse?” “Hotwire” here means to undertake violent action intended to induce Allah to send that End Times religious and political leader. My answer to this question has been “no.”
Well, turns out I was at least partially wrong. While I still think that such hotwiring is a minority view among ayatollahs, there are clearly some who support the concept. Just over a week ago, the cleric and Majlis member Ahmad Hossein Falahi advocated it. After trumpeting the alleged global nature of the 1979 Islamic takeover there, Falahi warned that “one of the main goals of the Islamic revolution has always been the annihilation and elimination of the Zionist regime. In fact, no one can talk about Mahdism and the arrival of the Mahdi without thinking about the issue [of the annihilation of Israel], because [as far as the revolution is concerned] the annihilation of the Zionist regime is one of the preconditions for the arrival of the Mahdi.”
My theory is that the Mahdist gloves are now off because the new President, Ebrahim Raisi, is the most callous and fanatical head of government Iran has had in 43 years. In fact, as I wrote last year, he is the front-runner to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as the Islamic Republic’s next Supreme Leader. Raisi is not the sort to wait for the Mahdi to show up and do his dirty work. He’s prefer to do it himself and accept the 12th Imam’s congratulations when the latter finally appears. Now, more than ever, it’s essential that we find a way to prevent the pro-apocalypse-hotwiring leadership of Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
On this date in 1885, British Major General Charles Gordon–who had been hired by the Ottoman Sultan to rescue Khartoum, capital of the Ottoman province of Sudan, from the massed forces of the Muhammad Ahmad, the Sudanese Mahdi–was killed, along with all the Egyptian military assisting him. Sudan would become al-Mahdiyah, the “Mahdist state,” until 1898 and its conquest led by another British General, Horatio Herbert Kitchener.
I finally watched (on home Pay-Per-View) the new Dune movie. For the uninitiated, the original novel of that name by Frank Herbert came out in 1965 and is considered perhaps the greatest science-fiction novel of all time. Herbert published five more books set in that universe before his death in 1986, and 17 prequels and sequels penned by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have also been published. (I have read all the Herbert ones, as well as most of the latter.) There was also David Lynch’s 1984 film version, as well as a miniseries in 2000.
The first book (which is the basis of the movies and TV series) is set over 10,000 years in the future (Herbert did not exactly specify), when humanity has spread throughout the galaxy. Unlike the vast majority of other sci-fi stories, there are no aliens at all. Herbert’s “Duniverse” has only one sentient species: humans. Well, there were sentient machines–but they almost wiped out their creators millennia before the events of the seminal novel. (This is why there are no computers or robots in Dune. And in fact why the Mentats exist: they are Men specially bred and trained to use their brains as calculating machines.) The Imperium is ruled by an Emperor, but there are two major balancing powers: the Lansraad, the Great Houses of the Nobility (who have their own planets and smaller military forces); and the Spacing Guild, whose Navigators are genetically-altered, allowing them to see enough into the future to “fold” space and move ships interstellar distances instantaneously. In order to do so, the Navigators must have “Spice:” the drug melange, which exists on the planet Arrakis, or Dune, thanks to the unique, giant sandworms there. (Humans did have interstellar travel prior to the Guild, but it was merely FTL–faster-than-light–not instantaneous.) There are other major political players, notably the Bene Gesserit. This all-female organization has existed for millennia, and its members have specially-developed powers of mind control–hence their reputations as “witches”–and the ability to call upon genetic memory of every preceding female member of the organization. But the Bene Gesserit have also been overseeing a secretive “breeding program” aimed at producing a “Kwisatz Haderach,” a “shortening of the way” in the fictional language Chakobsa. This would be a male who would be able to tap both female and male genetic memory–as well as see into the future. The goal is to produce a messianic figure who can lead humanity into a Golden Age. In addition, the Bene Gesserit have for centuries been seeding the thousands of planets in the Imperium with “prophecies” about the messiah-like Kwisatz Haderach, in order to prepare the way for his coming.
Arrakis is held as a fief from the Emperor, Shaddam IV, by the evil Harkonnens. He decides to transfer it to House Atreides, an upright and moral noble family. But this is actually a trap. Shaddam IV envies the widespread popularity of the Atreides Duke Leto II, and fears the military force the Duke has trained. So he helps the Harkonnens, with Imperial forces, to retake Arrakis and kill the Duke, as well as many of his men. Leto’s concubine Jessica (a member of the Bene Gesserit), and their son Paul, escape into the desert where they are taken in, after some complications and violence, by the Fremen–the planet’s hardy, mystical warriors who are at odds not just with the Harkonnens but the entire Imperium.
This is where the messianic element really kicks in. The Fremen are “Zensunni”–Herbert was big on religions fusing in the future–and based on their prominent beliefs the “Sunni” part of that would seem to predominate. The Fremen are Herbert’s stand-in for Arab Muslims, mutatis mutandis to account for the passing of millennia. They even look for the Mahdi, Islam’s “divinely-guided one.” Another term for the expected Fremen deliverer is Lisan al-Ghayb, “voice of the hidden.” Both of these terms are Arabic, although this construction is not found in Islamic theology. By whatever name, the oppressed masses of the planet Dune/Arrakis long for a superhuman warlord to deliver them from their enemies and to turn their desert planet into a garden.
And this is exactly what Paul Atreides, or Muad’dib as they call him, does. It turns out that Paul is indeed the Kwisatz Haderach that the Bene Gesserit had been hoping to breed–he just arrived one generation earlier than predicted. And in addition to his abilities to see into the future, Paul had been trained by his mother in Bene Gesserit mind-control; by his father in political intrigue; and by the likes of Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho, two of his father’s closest advisors, in hand-to-hand fighting, tactics and strategy. Once he is accepted as a Fremen, Paul leads them to take over Arrakis and exact revenge on the Harkonnens. The Fremen turn out to be even better warriors than the Emperor’s Sardaukar. Empowered by control of melange, the most important commodity in the galaxy, and motivated by their fanatical devotion to Paul as their Mahdi, they embark on a galactic jihad that makes Paul Emperor by the end of the book. (This latest movie stops well short of that, although there is another one coming out in 2023.)
Although Dune deals with interstellar travel, politics, warfare, ecology and a host of other topics, its central focus is religion–specifically, messianism. According to Herbert, however, while humanity in the far future has many religions, there really is no God. All religions are simply cultural mechanisms that allow people to deal with the vicissitudes of life, and/or rulers to manipulate the masses. If there is to be a messiah, mankind must create one itself. Or, in this case, one group–the Bene Gesserit–must do so. Humanity thus produces its own savior. (For the ultimate denouement of messianism, you need to read God Emperor of Dune.)
Paul Atreides as the Emperor/Kwisatz Haderach/Mahdi is very much in the Islamic theology and historical pattern of the last of those three roles. The Mahdi, predicted in Islamic traditions (but absent from the Qur’an), will be a desert warlord who eventually takes over the entire Earth by conquest. Paul Atreides, despite his best intentions, does the same thing, simply on a vaster scale–the entire galaxy. His jihad is said to cost the lives of billions. Actual Mahdis in Islamic history–Ibn Tumart of medieval North Africa and Muhammad Ahmad of 19th century Sudan the most successful–killed only tens of thousands. But these historical Mahdis had much in common with Dune‘s fictional one: fulfillment of prophecy via self-proclamation and -validation, military might unleashed, fervent devotees, and the seizing of political power as the solution to society’s problems. Muslim messianism does at least acknowledge a deity, unlike that of the far-future Fremen. But his “chosen one” is just another mass butcher, chopping up humanity to fit his dark designs–just as Paul Atreides does via his god-like, but human-created- powers.
Contrast that with the true once and future Messiah, Jesus Christ. He came not to kill, but to be killed. Salvation is thus made possible for every individual man and woman, not just the human collective. That’s because not only was Jesus sent by God. He was, and is, the Second Person of the Trinity. Not a desert warlord claiming to have Allah’s imprimatur. Nor a future political leader with godlike powers of prognostication but without a God. I love the story-telling in Dune and its many prequels and sequels. But that universe is ultimately a horrifyingly depressing one. Thank God we don’t, and won’t, live there.