When the Dream Police are Muslim

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.

Maybe it wasn’t Muhammad who disturbed her dreams….

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.

But let’s hope he doesn’t.