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.
Last year I bought Ozzy Osbourne’s newest album Ordinary Man, listened to the title track sung by him and Elton John–then promptly left the CD in my truck and forgot about it. Last week I found it, played the whole album–and decided it would make a good topic for a Halloween week blogpost.
I never listened to Black Sabbath or any of that ilk in high school (I graduated in 1978). My tastes ran more to Wings, Boston, George Harrison, Elton and–to the mystification of my friends–Gordon Lightfoot. (I did later like 90s Ozzy, but never bought any of his albums.) Like many of my peers, I simply assumed that metal bands were mediocre musicians who substituted volume for musical ability. And that they were pushing Satan.
A few years ago I did a very long and deeply-researched post on eschatological music, “Six Rock Songs about the End of the World.” Therein I examined songs by the usual suspects–Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica–but also Wishbone Ash and U2. Reading up on those metal songs (and the albums whence they came), as well as of course actually hearing them for a change, was enlightening. (Ditto for Wishbone Ash, which–as I point out rather humorously in that aforementioned post–I had long since dismissed as a mere hippie band. As for U2: I am a huge fan, and have listened to their music repeatedly, for decades.) It turns out that Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Metallica lyrics reference cosmic matters, particularly God v. Satan, death, the Last Judgement and of course the end of the world, quite often. Far more than any other genre of music, it’s clear. (I know something of country music, too, as my wife listens to it constantly. Further affiant sayeth not.) And, if you actually listen to their lyrics, they usually come down on the side of Heaven, not Hell.
The band’s former lead singer does much the same on Ordinary Man. The opening track, “Straight to Hell,” seems to be an anti-drug anthem, and not a travel recommendation. “All My Life” is about regrets for having wasted years, marked by a particularly poignant retrospective look at himself as a child. “Goodbye” finds the former “Prince of Darkness” also lamenting past sins and thinking about death. On this third track Ozzy claims that he’s “not afraid to burn in Hell,” but shortly thereafter sings “Mother Mary, Jesus Christ/I wish you heard me crying out for help.” The title track with Elton is the best on the album, musically, but also lacks any references to God; rather, it’s a lament that he not be judged as merely ordinary. “Under the Graveyard” is the most appropriate for Halloween, and in fact rather bleak in lines like “today I woke up and hate myself” and “under the graveyard/we’re all rotting bones/everything you are/can’t take it when you go.” “Eat Me” is Ozzy’s sardonic, and actually hilarious, take on the decidedly un-humorous early-21st century German cannibal. He waxes overtly eschatological, and Biblical, in “Today is the End:” “the road to hell isn’t paved/not every soul can be saved/you reap what you sow.” “Scary Little Green Men” seems very relevant in light of the recent admissions by the US government that UFOs/UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) are very real. But it also evokes the Simpsonsand The Twilight Zone takes on topic: “they want us/they need us/they might just try and eat us.” And Ozzy warns that we should be careful what we wish for: “everybody wants them/until they meet them.” “Holy for Tonight” sounds like it’s about a guy (or gal) on death row, but it could just as well be about anyone struggling with sin and facing death: “pray for me Father/for I know now that I do/I am the monster/yea you must have read the news,” as well as “when I speak my final words/what will it feel like/and I wonder if it hurts.” All of us, not just criminals sentenced to execution, face that fate. As the Orthodox Morning Prayers say, “suddenly the Judge will come, and the deeds of each will be laid bare.” Ozzy’s finishes his latest album with two collaborations: “It’s a Raid,” and “Take What You Want.” Both feature eclectic rapper Post Malone, but the final cut also includes rapper/singer Travis Scott. The former seems to be about a drug dealer waiting for the police to come for him, while the last song on the album–also released as a single–is about either a woman or drugs (perhaps both). The ultimate and penultimate tracks are more about marketing Ozzy to the younger generation than about the traditional Black Sabbath-esqe obsession with death, judgement and the afterlife, however.
According to an early 1990s interview, Ozzy, far from being a devotee of the devil, is a practicing Anglican. Whether that remains so decades later is unknown. But based on his latest album, the former “Prince of Darkness” is more of a poor, penitent, Christian sinner than a recruiter for Satan. And he probably always has been.
This semester I am teaching college geography for the first time. After looking at a number of different textbooks, I finally settled on one that uses the (in)famous world-systems approach of neo-Marxist scholar Immanuel Wallerstein as a template to examine political geography. For those unfamiliar with world-systems theory, here’s a brief primer.
Wallerstein was a sociologist specializing in Africa. While teaching at SUNY-Binghamton he published, between 1974 and 1989, the three volumes of The Modern World-System. A fourth volume came out in 2011, and before he died in 2019 Wallerstein had published several dozen more works, almost all on the same broad topic: that the planet is dominated, at least economically, by a capitalist “world-system” created by the Europeans–specifically the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English/British–starting in the 15th century AD. These countries formed the first “core” which economically exploited the rest of the world, which was divided into “periphery” and “semi-periphery.” The biggest difference between the latter two is that nation-states in the semi-periphery are striving enter the core. whereas those in the periphery will not, or cannot, do so–at least without great effort and time.
Wallerstein’s world-system is different from a “world-empire,” which would control the whole world politically–and which has never existed in human history. At least not yet. It posits a world-economy, instead.
The core of todays world-system consists of the Anglosphere, most of of western Europe, and Japan–the only non-Western or former Western colony to make it into that club so far. The semi-periphery is led by the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Argentina and Iran are also in this grouping. The periphery is most of the rest of the planet, mostly what we used to call the “Third World.” Some of these are debatable, of course. We have talked much in my classes this term about whether China should be included in the core now. Ditto for Israel and South Korea. And where do you fit Turkey?
At this point let me add that I am about as far from a Marxist, neo or not, as one can get. I agree with Wallerstein that his world-system theory does accurately lay out how the global capitalist system was created. Yet I strongly disagree that global capitalism is always and forever a zero-sum, exploitative regime benefitting only the core powers. If that were so, then how to explain the massive reduction in global poverty over the past few centuries? Capitalism may be a poor system–but, as Churchill observed about democracy in a political sense, it’s the best economic system humans have yet devised. Global socialism would not be able to feed a population of 8 billion people.
But what has Wallerstein to do with Sauron? Well, as some readers of this blog may know, I published a book a few years ago on the political history of Middle-earth. So teaching political geography using world-systems theory led me to start thinking whether the template would work for Tolkien’s world–specifically, the Third Age thereof. After all, for decades scholars have fine-tuned Wallerstein’s theorizing to include world-systems even in the ancient world. So why not extend it back to Middle-earth? Tolkien himself stated that “this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet” (Humphrey Carter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220).
I attempted to apply the core/semi-periphery/periphery paradigm to Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring, assuming that the Free Peoples had a form of agrarian or oligarchic capitalism.
I put Gondor, as the most populous and powerful kingdom, in the core–along with its close (both geographically and politically) ally Rohan. Core powers have the strongest central governments and militaries, sufficient tax base, a complementary bourgeoise and working class, and are free from outside control.
In the semi-periphery I placed the Elven and Dwarven polities, the Shire, and the lands of the Beornings and Woodmen. Why? They have relatively weak governments, are not very industrialized (in fact, the Elves avoid it!), and by-and-large depend upon the core states for military protection. (Yes, this is a bit unfair because virtually everyone in late-Third Age Middle-earth depends on Gondor in this regard–which is why Boromir was correct to point out that out [starting at 2:16 in this clip from The Fellowship of the Ring].)
The periphery consists of the the areas controlled by Sauron, and those allied with him: Mordor, Harad, the lands of the Easterlings; but also Dol Guldur and the Orc fortress of Mount Gundabad in the far north of the Misty Mountains. Peripheries are poor, little industrialized, tend to depend on only one type of economic activity (slaving and slavery?), contain large numbers of poorly educated, and possess weak or nonexistent government institutions.
I was tempted to place these in another category entirely, one which Wallerstein created, but which is rarely used anymore: “external area,” a region totally cut off from the world-system. Antarctica was originally typologized as such by him. But it’s hard to believe that the Men of Harad and those in the lands to the east of Dorwinion engaged in absolutely no trade with their fellow humans in the northwest of Middle-earth–as much as their god-king might have tried to prevent their doing so. His Orcs, on the other hand, were a different matter. He could, and did, control them to an extent far beyond that of the Haradrim and Easterlings. In that regard, it might make sense to posit Mordor, Dol Guldur and Mount Gundabad as either external to the rest of Middle-earth–OR as aspiring, Sauronic alternative core areas. I wasn’t sure what to do with Moria, but eventually I lumped it into the semi-periphery.
There you have it. My first pass at a Wallersteinian, world-systems analysis of Middle-earth. What say you? Let me know in comments!
Special thanks to my old friend Tony Arrasmith, artist and photographer extraordinaire, who turned my crude scrawls on a map of Middle-earth into those professional shaded areas.
Last week Global Risk Insights ran an article by Will Marshall entitled “Myanmar: Southeast Asia’s Next Frontline of Jihadism.” Marshall was part of the “New Democrat” movement, and as such has a more realistic view of foreign policy, particularly in the Islamic world, than many of today’s “progressive” Democrats. His article is actually quite illuminating and insightful in many ways. He surveys the oppression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s far northwestern province, which is now known as Rakhine but in past centuries was an independent Muslim kingdom called “Arakan.” ISIS and al-Qaeda have been trying to make inroads there, to little avail. But a new group has formed in Rakhine state: “Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan,” which I will translate for you (since Marshall never bothers to do so–probably because he cannot). It means “Battalions of the Mahdi in the Country of Arakan.”
The article discusses that Rohingya jihadists have been fighting government rule in Burma/Myanmar on-and-off since 1948, hoping to unite with their cousins across the border in Bangladesh. (Myanmar has the fifth-largest Muslim population in Southeast Asia, although far less than Indonesia or Malaysia.) Myanmar, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist and saw a military take-over in early 2021, has ramped up oppression of Rakhine state Muslims in recent years. This has prompted Salafi-jihadist groups to find ways to get involved in jihad there. A non-state group like ISIS or AQ, or a predominantly-Muslim state (Pakistan, perhaps), might have helped stand up KMBA. And Hizb al-Tahrir, transnational group dedicated to resurrecting the caliphate, is said to be recruiting Rohingya Muslims.
So a group invoking the main eschatological figure of Islam exists now in Southeast Asia, although it “has yet to claim any successful attacks and…its propaganda output remains limited.” Still, why does Marshall fail to point out anywhere in his article that KMBA is indeed named after Allah’s “rightly-guided one” who, according to hadiths, will lead the world’s Muslims to global victory? That is rather important. Either the founders of KMBA believe that they constitute the vanguard of the Mahdi’s army, or they realize the potency of the belief in his coming–and are quite ready to exploit it for political, military, and terrorist reasons. Once again, here’s an example of a Western analyst failing to see what’s right in front of him.
As of 31 August 2021 AD/22 Muharram 1443, America’s long war in Afghanistan is over. I wrote about this yesterday. And I wrote, back in March 2020, in favor of us leaving. Most Americans thought it was time for us to get out, as well. Just not in the humiliating way that the Biden Administration did it–leaving massive amounts of functional military equipment for the Taliban to use or sell and, even worse, abandoning hundreds of Americans as well as military service dogs to the tender mercies of militant fundamentalist Muslims.
But as I said in yesterday’s article, “the US never had much hope of winning in Afghanistan.” Just a fool’s hope. Why?
Because we keep viewing Islamic fundamentalism, and its oft-attendant violence, as some sort of aberration that most people in majority-Muslim countries abhor–when in fact groups like the Taliban are insurgents against the Western-dominated world order and strict Islam is, for them, not only a way of life but a vehicle for throwing off infidel shackles.
In order for insurgents to come out on top, they must
Delegitimize the target government and erode its domestic support
Hang onto safe havens
Obtain some measure of external support
Degrade external support for the government.
The government, or occupying power, needs to
Address the insurgency’s root causes
Box insurgents into limited geographical areas
Emphasize insurgents’ brutality
Eliminate or expose insurgents’ reliance on any charismatic leader(s)
Cut off foreign support for the insurgency
Keep its own foreign support coming
Incorporate some aspects of the insurgency’s agenda into governing.
The Taliban had no problem doing the first three of the insurgent priorities, and eventually pulled off the fourth one–at least in terms of help from the USA, the Kabul government’s foreign sugar daddy.
The US/ANG did have limited success, mainly with numbers 2 and 3. But even there, the Taliban always controlled large parts of rural Afghanistan. In fact, it could be argued that by the end it was American and/or Afghan government forces, holed up in Kabul and a few other major cities, that had been boxed in. Regarding the third point, the Taliban learned the value of good PR and cut down on their viciousness–at least in the last year, in order to facilitate American withdrawal (“see, we have abandoned rooftop parties for gays!”). But the most charismatic leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar–who, indeed, was considered the founder of the Taliban–died in his bed (of tuberculosis) in 2013, not at the receiving end of a US drone strike. Pakistan and Iran never ceased their financial and material support for the Taliban. During 2020 Kabul, at US instigation, even had meetings with the Taliban in efforts to throw them a few governing bones. But the insurgents didn’t want bones–they wanted the whole skeleton. And, most importantly, the arrogant American occupiers–blinded by their post-Enlightenment secularism, and the assumption that the people of Afghanistan wanted a government empowered by that ideology–never had a prayer of addressing the root cause(s) of the Taliban insurgency: Afghanistan’s people are more enamored of shariah law than any other on Earth.
There are a number of Twelver Shia traditions which relate to the theme that when the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi returns, “the earth will uncover all its treasures and bring out its blessings.” The Mahdi’s followers are getting a head start on this gold rush, however. Javad Faroughi, a pious Twelver Shii Muslim, took first place in the Tokyo Olympics air pistol competition over the weekend. Faroughi is described as “a nurse at the IRGC-owned Baghiyyatollah hospital in Tehran” who “practiced shooting in the hospital basement.” After winning, he gushed “I dedicate my medal to Imam Mahdi and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.” Faroughi also revealed that he had served with Iranian forces for several years in Syria.
Since Faroughi belongs to the most fanatical and well-trained military organization in the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, one might question whether his small arms expertise was acquired solely in a hospital basement. Or if it was, whether his targets were inanimate ones. And whether “nurse” is his primary military occupation.
In any event, the still-occulted Muhammad al-Mahdi, as well his mini-me, Khamenei, must be happy with their current gold member. Especially since he seems to be a man with a golden gun. Perhaps even a gold finger.
One of my recurring social media posts–especially on Twitter–is to chide (OK, mock) hyperbolic headlines about some issue or other being “apocalyptic.” Here are three examples, just from today:
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Not only do we live in an age when everything is the worst (or, much more rarely, best) EVER; but the media long ago abandoned any pretense of objectivity–or even rationality.
Earlier today The Stream published my latest article: “History: Will It Go ‘Round In Circles?” Other children of the 1970s will recognize that as the title of Billy Preston’s #1 hit from the summer of 1973. Therein I look at four prominent historians’ concepts of cyclical history–only one of whom is Ibn Khaldun–and how those comport with the Christian linear one. As the Fifth Beatle sang, history does “let the bad guy win every once in a while.” But does that mean that it’s “a story [that] ain’t got no moral?” And will it just go round and round in circles?
On this same topic, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published the controversial, but highly influential, book The End of History and the Last Man. In it he argued that with the collapse of the USSR the preceding year, Western-style “liberal democracy” had proved itself the ultimate form of human government–and thus that political history was effectively over.