Dr. Jill Biden’s Husband & the Multiplicity of Mahdis

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.

Sentissi Mosque, Morocco (from Wikimedia Commons).

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.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part–Especially in Iran

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.

From Pew, 2012.

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 Camps for 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.

Iranian men inside Jamkaran Mosque (Qom) weeping for the Mahdi to come. From my 2008 trip.

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?

It’s Good To Be King–Especially If Your Wayward Son Wants to Carry On Partying

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.

Henry IV (Wikipedia, Public Domain)

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 [1399], 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.

By the way: for any of my blog followers in the Atlanta area, Grayson Shakespeare in the Park will be performing this play at the Grayson City Park Ampavilion, July 22-24, 2022. Don’t miss it!

A certain famous venue (personal photo).