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.