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Islamic Millenarianism


Millenarianism in Islam is a major theme that runs through the entire gamut of classical Islamic civilization. Although the Koran itself does not propose a millenarianism, as its major theme is eschatological and otherworldly, starting from the end of the seventh century C.E., the tradition literature (hadith) contains visions of a messiah and of a messianic age. The earliest messianic figure in Islam was probably Jesus, who was taken up to heaven by God—rather than crucified (Koran 3:55) as in Christianity—with the understanding that he would return at the end of the world; the more prevalent figure, however, was that of the Mahdi, the rightly guided one. This title began to appear attached to prominent political and religious figures by the middle of the seventh century, but the predictions concerning him received their present form during the period of the Abbasid revolution (740–749): the Mahdi will arise in the east, in the region of Khorasan (today eastern Iran and Afghanistan), raise an army, march through the Iranian plateau to Iraq and establish his messianic kingdom there after purifying the Muslim world of evil. This scenario mirrored the Abbasid rise to power closely and served to legitimize their revolution. By contrast, the figure of Jesus remained in Muslim apocalyptic beliefs primarily to fight and slay the Dajjal (the Antichrist), who will appear prior to the messianic kingdom and test the Muslims. Jesus will return from heaven at the advent of the messianic age, slay the Dajjal near Jerusalem, and then pray behind the Mahdi.

By contrast, the Shiite messianic vision was based upon the return of the Twelfth Imam (descended from the Prophet Muhammad), who went into occultation in 874. The Twelfth Imam will arise either in the east, as in the Sunni version, or in Mecca in some other versions and will similarly purify the Muslim world and take vengeance upon those who have oppressed the Shiites. However, in both the Sunni and the Shiite versions, the messianic age is not an extensive one; Sunnis believe that it will last between five and nine years, while Shiites allow for the possibility of twenty to forty years and, in some versions, up to three hundred years. For the most part, this period is characterized by the messianic tradition, "He will fill the earth with righteousness and justice just as it has been filled with unrighteousness and injustice" (Cook, 2003, p. 137). The specifics of this tradition are not fleshed out, however, and its powerful message remains available for any movement to use.

Starting with the Abbasids (747–1258), a wide range of both Sunni and Shiite Muslim dynasties and rulers have used messianic or millenarian slogans or visions to justify their rule. The first seven Abbasid rulers all took messianic titles for their regnal names and spread the idea that their rule was the promised messianic kingdom. As the Abbasid dynasty lost power through the ninth century, other rulers appropriated or manipulated these beliefs. Many rulers gained legitimacy through the tradition that "at the turn of every one hundred years God sends a renewer to renew His religion." This renewer, the mujaddid, was for the most part a religious figure, but the renewal movements spawned by his activities often had political ramifications as well.

In 899 the sevener Shiites (those who accepted seven imams descended from the Prophet Muhammad), also known as the Ismailis, proclaimed their messianic kingdom in North Africa. The dynasty they produced, the Fatimids, eventually moved to Egypt, where they founded Cairo in 969 and for a time provided serious competition with the Abbasids for primacy in the Muslim world. Like most Muslim dynasties founded on messianic claims, there was a transition after the first couple of rulers to a nonmessianic form of legitimacy. After the fall of the Abbasids in 1258 at the hand of the Mongols, Muslim dynasties all over the Middle East used messianic legitimacy to found their rule. This took several forms, the first of which was the traditional messianic religious form, conforming closely (or at least as closely as possible) to the traditions. A good example of this is the Safavid dynasty of Persia (1499–1736), which converted the Persian people (for the most part) to Shiism. This dynasty reached its peak in a wave of expectation keyed to the Muslim year 1000 (1591–1592 C.E.). Immediately after the passing of this date, the Safavids brutally suppressed their extremist followers, the Kizilbash, and thereafter ruled without recourse to messianic themes.

Another paradigm employed more secular messianic themes, such as universal justice (also present in Islam) and stability. The best example of this trend was the Ottoman dynasty (c. 1300–1918), especially under Sulayman the Magnificent (1520–1566), who was known as Sulayman the Law-Giver (Fleischer, 1992). Yet other rulers more marginally Muslim, such as Timur (Tamerlane; c. 1336–1405), employed millenarian themes taken from the world of astrological calculations and called themselves Sahib-i Qiran (the Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction). This term and its cognates implied that the world of the stars (governed, of course, by God) had conferred special favor upon Tamerlane and other Turkish and Persian rulers who used it and thereby had the "mandate of heaven" for their rule.

Not all millenarians were successful, and some of the more prominent failures left very conspicuous marks on Muslim history. The messianic revolt of Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, in Medina in 762, for example had a profound influence upon the shaping of the tradition of the appearance of the Mahdi despite the fact that the revolt itself was a failure. Many other movements were characterized by outlandish or exaggerated predictions or, while occasionally serving to vent popular frustrations, fizzled politically. A good example of this type of movement was the Syrian belief in the Sufyani, a descendent of the early caliph Mu'awiya bin Abi Sufyan (602–680), who was supposed to appear and liberate the Syrians. No less than fourteen different appearances of people claiming to be the Sufyani can be documented from history, all of them ending tragically.

Millenarianism in Islam is far from dead. The messianic ideals surrounding the Mahdi, the religious renewal of the mujaddid and the fear engendered by the Dajjal are quite common in contemporary Muslim apocalyptic literature. A great deal of apocalyptic speculation was attached to the year 1400 (1978–1979 C.E.), when major upheavals occurred around the Muslim world, including the messianic revolt of Muhammad al-Qahtani and Juhayman al-'Utaybi at the Holy Mosque in Mecca and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. According to the authoritative treatise of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505), al-Kashf 'an mujawizat hadhihi al-umma al-alf (Revelation of this Community's Passing of the Thousand-Year Mark), the end of the world should be expected around the year 1500 (2076 C.E.). Most early twenty-first-century apocalyptic tracts feature scenarios and dates that are built around his prediction. Mahdi figures continue to appear with regularity, and contemporary radical Islam includes messianic expectations for a proposed revival of the caliphate and a united Muslim state.

Scholarship on the subject of Islamic millenarianism has been primarily confined to Shiite movements. One important work is Abdelaziz Sachedina's Islamic Messianism, which examines early Shiite ideals and beliefs. Wilferd Madelung has published a number of studies on the subject of Sunni and Shiite apocalyptic and messianic traditions, primarily building upon the early work of Nu'aym bin Hammad al-Marwazi (d. 844). Messianic themes among dynasties are usually to be found in historical works and have yet to be studied as a whole. David Cook's Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic covers many of the basic themes of Muslim apocalyptic and messianic belief; his 2003 work, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature, presents the literature current at the turn of the twenty-first century.

David Cook

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to Kabbalah