Pew Forum Notes Belief in the Mahdi, Prompts Fears of Violence

Timothy Furnish of MahdiWatch casts an eye over a recent Pew Forum study on “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity“, based on “38,000 face-to-face interviews in over 80 languages”:

Of the 23 countries whose Muslim citizens were polled, nine have majorities which expect the Mahdi in their lifetimes, with the overall average percentage at 41.8%–and considering the huge samples and wide geographic latitude which Pew used, it is safe to extrapolate this percentage to Islam as a whole; ergo, 42% of 1.6 billion = 672 million Muslims who believe in the Mahdi’s imminent return!

That “ergo” is dodgy: the Pew Report discusses percentages within particular countries, but does not reference the total population figures for those countries. Further, although Furnish notes that Iran is missing from the study, and that this would have perhaps allowed him to “extrapolate” an even larger percentage, the report also ignores Muslim minorities in the West and in countries such as India, China or the Philippines (US Muslims are considered in an Appendix, although they were apparently not asked about the Mahdi).

Furnish’s worry is that increasing belief in the Mahdi means an increased likelihood of messianic violence:

(An)other violent Mahdist movement(s) in the 21st century seems very likely: if even 1% of 672 million is so inclined, that makes 6.72 million potential jihadist believers in the Mahdi …Even more likely is a political consolidation movement among several Islamic countries or regions centered around a charismatic leader claiming the Mahdiyah; if just 20 or 30% of the legions who believe in the Mahdi can be convinced to put a claimant in charge, he would have between 100-200 million supporters!

That “just 20 or 30%” is also dodgy: just because someone believes in the coming of the Mahdi, it hardly follows that he or she will therefore be convinced by anyone claiming to be the Mahdi. Movements around past claimants have always either remained localized or resulted in the creation of smaller breakaway religious groups. How is this “just 20 or 30%” figure to be achieved? I suppose one could opine very generally about the potential of the mass media or the development of larger Islamic blocs in the future, but this is all highly speculative. The most obvious comparator is also unencouraging: most strands of Judaism affirm the coming of the Messiah, but Messianic claimants have  also only ever succeeded in attracting a minority of Jewish adherents.

There is also reason to be sceptical about how the Pew study has been used. First, the study tells us nothing about the extent to which belief in the Mahdi has increased, although in the case of Turkey, Furnish suggests that particular ideologues have promoted the idea:

Turkey’s population, overwhemingly Sunni, is being swayed by the “soft (and peaceful) Mahdism” of two major public intellectuals and Turkish Mahdists–Adnan Oktar (“Harun Yahya”) and Fethullah Gülen…

(I’ve blogged on both Yahya and Gülen)

Second, the nature of “belief” requires qualitative understanding. Many Christians, if asked, will affirm the imminent return of Christ, but the concept doesn’t really form a operative part of their religious identity or thinking. It’s true that some Christians are more actively interested in the subject, consuming the works of apocalyptic evangelists, just as a wider segment of the general public expresses enthusiasm for pop interpretations of Nostradamus or claims about the Mayan Calender – but this hardly ever translates into patterns of personal behaviour that make sense only in relation to an imminent divine intervention, let alone at a macro level. The same is probably true for Muslims; indeed, many Pew respondents may well have never given the subject of the Mahdi any thought before now, but decided nevertheless to give an “orthodox” affirmative answer when asked.

Certainly, there have been Mahdist movements in the past, and the possibility of new “jihadist believers in the Mahdi” cannot be discounted. However, the general principle behind this observation, that extremists are sometimes motivated by charismatic leaders, is so obvious as to be hardly worth stating. The whole approach seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse: a charismatic figure might be able to persuade a large number of Muslims that he is the Mahdi, but that would be more likely to be a confirmation of his charisma rather than a source of charismatic power.

Perhaps we should keep a special look-out for blacked-up English thespians attempting to out-ham Vincent Price:

(H/T Joel Richardson, who sees this as further evidence that the Muslim world will come under the sway of a Muslim Antichrist)