The Muslim world is separated into two main groups of adherents, the Sunni and the Shiite (or Shia). The Sunnis are the dominant group with Shiites being found predominantly in Iraq and Iran. Of the Shia, the largest group is the Twelvers, or Imami Muslims.
The schism dates back to death of Mohammed in AD 632. The Shia believe that the head of the Islamic religion is passed through the bloodline of Mohammed or imams selected by Allah. The Shia believe that leadership of Islam passed to Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The word “Shia” is a shortened form of “Shia-t-Ali,” which means “the party of Ali.” Shia leaders are called “imams.”
Sunnis, on the other hand, believe that the legitimate head of Islam is elected from among the qualified Islamic clerics. Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, a close friend and protégé of Mohammed, as the first Caliph of the greater Islamic nation. The word “Sunni” means “one who follows in the traditions of the prophet.” The Shia have always rejected these elected Sunni leaders.
There were a total of twelve imams beginning with Imam Ali. The last imam was Mahmoud al-Mahdi who lived in Samarra, Iraq and was last seen in AD 874. Twelvers believe that al-Mahdi disappeared into “occultation,” hiding in the spirit world, and is still alive. The Mahdi, as the twelfth imam is known, supposedly communicated from the spirit world through intermediaries called Babs, or “gates.” The last Bab died in AD 941, marking the end of the lesser occultation and the beginning of the greater occultation. In the greater occultation, the Mahdi can no longer communicate with earth until he returns to earth shortly before the Final Judgment and the end of the world.
Twelver theology indicates that the twelfth imam will one day return when the world is in a time of great chaos and upheaval. The Mahdi will return to usher in a period of peace and justice under a worldwide Islamic caliphate. They also believe that Jesus Christ will return to rule alongside the Mahdi as his aide.
It is important to note that Sunnis do not accept these teachings about the Mahdi because they do not appear in the Koran itself. Instead these teachings are found in the hadiths, a collection of the sayings of Mohammed and other traditions that were compiled by his followers. The Sunni and Shia branches of Islam each recognize their own separate hadiths.
There are several signs that Shia believe will precede the Mahdi’s return. First is that it will be in a time of fear, violence, and chaos. Second, there will be a battle in the city of Mina, Saudi Arabia. Mina is near Mecca and accommodates many pilgrims making the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Islam’s holy city. The pilgrims will be robbed and many will be killed. They also believe that gold will be discovered along the Euphrates River. The find will provoke a battle in which people are killed. Shia also expect voices from the sky and an angel who will proclaim, “This is the Mahdi. Follow him.”
A major sign is the emergence of the Sufyani. This leader will be linked to Syria and will be a bloodthirsty ruler who will kill women and children. The Sufyani will send his army to capture the Mahdi, but the army will be swallowed up by the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
The hadiths also provide a description of the returning Mahdi. His name will be Mohammed and his father’s name will be Abdullah. He will be of average build and height. He will have a shiny forehead and a high nose. His complexion will be light, but his hair will be dark. He will also have a slight stutter. The Mahdi will appear from the east with an army marching under black banners.
When he appears, some of the people of Makkah, Saudi Arabia will give him bayat, their allegiance. He will be miraculously protected from harm as a Syrian army comes for him. This will inspire other Syrians and Iraqis to give him their allegiance.
The Mahdi’s first battle will be against the army of a Yemeni tribe, which he will win. The Mahdi will also fight a great war against a large number of Christians. Although many Muslims will be killed, the Mahdi will win the war and capture Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). The Mahdi will then become Caliph, or ruler, for a period of seven years.
Next, the Dajjal will appear. The Dajjal is a Muslim equivalent of the Antichrist. He is a fat, one-eyed man with a broad chest and sharp teeth. On his forehead is the word “infidel.” The Dajjal will be a deceiver who will trick people into following him. He will be able to spread wealth among his followers. He will fail to take the Saudi city of Medina, and will then turn toward Damascus with his army of 70,000 Jews.
As the Mahdi and his army prepare to face the Dajjal, Jesus will descend from heaven. His breath will kill much of the Dajjal’s army before killing the Dajjal himself with a spear. Afterwards, the Muslim army will kill the remainder of the Dajjal’s Jewish army. When they attempt to hide behind a rock, the rock will call the Muslims to kill the hiding Jew. Jesus will then become a Caliph and spread Islam throughout the world.
While many people, especially in Western countries, reject this Shia theology out of hand, it is important to realize that it doesn’t matter whether we believe it; what matters is that thousands of Muslims around the world believe it. Twelvers have already played a major role in a recent armed conflict: the Iraq War.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr led his Mahdi Army against Iraqi government and Coalition forces for several years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In August 2004, he went so far as to call upon his followers to rise up and fight US troops. The Mahdi Army figured prominently in Iraq’s sectarian strife for several years until the “surge” of US troops. In August 2008, al-Sadr announced plans to have the Mahdi Army’s military operations stand down, largely due to a drop in Iranian funding. The Mahdi Army remains a coherent organization, but is now focused on Shiite spirituality.
Devotees of the Mahdi also figure prominently in the Iranian government. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is widely believed to have been a member of the Hojjatieh Society. This society was banned by the Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution because its members opposed the creation of an Islamic Republic, believing instead that the Mahdi should be the one to establish such a theocratic government. Along with Ahmadinejad, several members of his cabinet are believed to be Hojjatieh members.
Ahmadinejad has a long history as a follower of the Mahdi. In his former role as mayor of Tehran, he built a grand avenue for the Mahdi’s return and, as president, built a rail line from Tehran to Jamkaran, where the Mahdi is believed to have appeared at a wishing well. He also allocated $17 million to renovate the Jamkaran mosque. At his first cabinet meeting, Ahmadinejad required his cabinet members to swear an oath to the Mahdi.
More importantly, Ahmadinejad has also spearheaded Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon. In numerous speeches since his election, he has spoke of his devotion to the Mahdi and his belief that the Mahdi will return soon. For example, he publicly stated that the goal of his administration was to establish a government and society that would be “a platform for the reappearance of the Mahdi.”
On his addresses to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad has also invoked the Mahdi. He ended his 2005 speech with a prayer: “O mighty lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the Promised One, that perfect and pure human being, the One that will fill this world with justice and peace.” He was not referring to Barack Obama.
Ahmadinejad later recalled, “One of our group told me that when I started to say ‘In the name of God the almighty and merciful,’ he saw a light around me, and I was placed inside this aura. I felt it myself. I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink... And they were rapt. It seemed as if a hand was holding them there and had opened their eyes to receive the message from the Islamic republic.”
Ahmadinejad has also stated his intention to wipe Israel “off the map,” but he doesn’t stop there. He also says that “the Imam gave him the presidency for a single task: provoking a ‘clash of the civilizations’ in which the Muslim world, led by Iran, takes on the ‘infidel’ West, led by the United States, and defeats it.”
For those who take Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic statements seriously, it is disturbing to think that a man who believes that he is called by Allah to sow chaos and destruction in the world may one day soon have nuclear weapons at his command. As Ayatollah Khamenei said, “It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region.”
Ahmadinejad’s meteoric rise to power from Tehran mayor has fueled his belief that Allah has a special role for him. In reality, it appears that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei helped to pave the way for Ahmadinejad. While Iran does have elections, the outcomes are heavily influenced by the Supreme Leader and his Revolutionary Guards.
It is also striking to note that belief in the Mahdi also has several parallels in Biblical end-time prophecy. The most obvious is that the Mahdi will appear as a militaristic savior during a time of fear, violence, and war. This closely resembles the Biblical Beast who will appear to lead a world government amid a time of God’s judgment on the earth.
In the theology of both religions, the end-time ruler will unify the world under a single religious and economic system. Both rulers will make war on Christians and Jews as well. Finally, both leaders will marshal their forces for apocalyptic end-time battles. As with the Mahdi, the Beast, or Antichrist, will also rule for a seven-year period, referred to by Christian theologians as the Tribulation. Also in both cases, Jesus will return at the end of the seven-year period. In Christian theology, He will return to judge the Antichrist and his minions. In Twelver theology, He will be a deputy to the Mahdi.
If Iran is allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, it is extremely likely that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will use them to stoke the fires of fear and chaos in the world. It is likely that these weapons would be used against either Israel or the United States in an attempt to create a suitable environment for the return of the Mahdi. With the Iranian government convinced that they are doing the work of Allah, diplomacy is unlikely to convince them to shut down their weapons programs. It also likely that any attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities would touch off a holy war as well. At this point, a war with Iran is extremely likely regardless of the West’s course of action.
Rosenberg, Joel C. “Inside the Revolution,” Tyndale House, Carol Stream, IL 2009.
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