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)

22 Responses

  1. Hi Barth:

    I’m in some agreement with you on the idea that a “yes” answer to a “soon coming” question doesn’t necessarily amount to what Richard Landes calls “semiotic arousal” — have you read his recent book on apocalyptic? As I wrote on Zenpundit, discussing the Pew findings and Tim Furnish’s initial blog post:

    QUOTE: Simply put, we have been blind to a very real phenomenon, and now we have a statistical alarm call to wake us up.

    More subtly: there’s a difference between answering yes to the question “do you expect the Coming of X in your lifetime” and being on the edge of your seat, viewing every week as threshhold. Damian Thompson is very good on this in his book, _Waiting for the Antichrist_, and Stephen O’Leary in _Arguing the Apocalypse_ suggests there’s an optimal “arousal” period — if you believe the Coming is too far away, you won’t be motivated to prepare for it quite yet, and if it’s too close it may be too late for you to do much to spread the word…

    So, Pew — next time, ask a question with the opinions “in the next five to ten years” and “in my lifetime” — okay? The distinction is important, and a shift towards the shorter time-span would be highly significant. :UNQUOTE

    One thing I think you’re missing, though, is the extensive Mahdist expectation in Afghanistan — coupled with the use of the Khorasan strand of Mahdist ahadith in Afghanistan (itself part of ancient Khorasan) by AQ in its recruitment.

    Ali Soufan in his book _The Black Banners_, and Syed Saleem Shahzad in _Inside Al-Aqeda and the Taliban_, are both pretty clear on this. And AQ’s prominent theoretician, Abu Musab al-Suri, spends the last 100 pages of his 1,600 page treatise on Jihad expounding Mahdist ahadith, in a section that J-P Filiu describes thus:

    QUOTE: There is nothing in the least theoretical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action. :UNQUOTE

    You might also want to take a look at Furnish’s longer piece:


    • I can see why a Mahdi figure might be more likely to emerge in Afghanistan than in some other part of the Muslim world, but all that means is that conflict is the condition for the emergence of such a figure, rather than that such a figure is the underlying reason for a conflict.

      • But again (to reiterate what I said below), Islamic history is rife with examples of Mahdist figures who CAUSED violent jihads, rather than being the result thereof. Look at my book or some of my articles for examples thereof. I am puzzled as to why you seem so sure that a rather regular theme in Islamic history has somehow extinguished here in the 21st century.

  2. Having had my head in Islamic apocalyptic for far too long, I would also highlight the fluidity of Sunni ahadith in general. As a rule, the ahadith are play-dough playground of traditions that can be moulded to the interpreter’s wishes. When one boils down the “gist” of Sunni Mahdist belief, the narrative is quite simple: The Mahdi will bring about a revived measure of Muslim unity, cause Islam to prosper, and invade Israel. He is not supposed to openly claim to be the Mahdi.

    When I ponder these things, and consider the obvious high level of Mahdist expectations, I see the perfect storm scenario for a leader to emerge who could gain a grassroots following, with many merely wondering or suggesting him to be the Mahdi. It could simply be the extra push that the next Hitler figure would need.

    Of course, this is all crazy talk. We all know, as you have so frequently pointed out Richard, that the real danger to the world is Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. 670,000,000 Muslims with messianic expectations on the other hand… irrelevant.

  3. If this kind of millenarian thinking was as rife as Timmy and Joely claims, we’d see very substantial evidence of it outside of survey interviews. And we simply don’t. There are more websites about jinn than there are expousing Muslim millenarianism. Of course, this isn’t the first time survey evidence has been extrapolated to manufacture an imaginary Muslim threat. And it won’t be the last. Hatemongers require desperate measures to create the fiction that vast numbers of Muslims as a threat to “civilization”. Whereas a single perusal of Pam Geller’s website is all the proof you need for her intent to perpetuate irrational fear and prejudice.

  4. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same poll was conducted 50 or 100 years ago the results would probably be very similar. Just because many Muslims believe the Mahdi is likely to appear in their lifetimes doesn’t make it more likely.

  5. Mr. Bartholomew,
    Despite your attempts to discredit my reasoning by terms like “dodgy,” the fact is that as a historian of Islamic history who studies Mahdism in particular, I know that revolutionary and jihadist movements centered around Mahdi claimants are regular features of that history, running into the hundreds (if not thousands). And your comparisons to Jewish messianism are really a red herring, because the number of adherents to a messianic pretender (Jewish or Muslim) is not the point–the potential for violence is, and violent Mahdist jihads, not peaceful ones, are the norm in Islamic history. I was admittedly speculative in the 20-30% remark, so if you’d prefer make it smaller (based on….what, however?). The fact is that Mahdism as a political and militant movement is far more potent in Islam, based on historical examples, than either Jewish or Christian messianism. And the Pew data indicates, if it doesn’t entirely prove, that Mahdism is a very widespread belief. From my perspective, claiming that such data merely indicates an “orthodox answer” by most Sunnis to the question is moving the goal posts–because, heretofore, we were constantly told by commentators and analysts that Mahdism was really only a (Twelver) Shi`i phenomenon. Yakoub, for all his inane belittling (“Timmy?”), can’t refute the Pew data.

    • the number of adherents to a messianic pretender (Jewish or Muslim) is not the point”

      Sorry, I was misled by your reference (complete with exclamation mark) to “100-200 million supporters!”

      • Yes, and I qualified that with “if,” did I not? I can tell you that, historically, previous Mahdi-claimants (like Muhammad Ahmad or Ibn Tumart) almost certainly had at least that level of support for their movements. If you’d like, reduce the number by a factor of ten–and the issue is still problematic.
        I’m not saying that you do this, but from my experience analysts and commentators who deride Mahdism as a force in Islamic civilization often do so because they don’t like the views or politics of folks who write and speak about this (i.e., evangelical Christians and/or conservatives). I am unabashedly the latter, but while Christian I am NOT an evangelical. I am simply trying to apply my historical study and research to current relevant issues.

  6. And I might add that I wrote a much more in-depth (and perhaps less “dodgy”) article on the Pew study here:

    • Ms. AB,
      I addressed that issue in my article: history is NOT replete with Christian crusades led by someone claiming to be the returned Jesus, but it IS full of examples of militant, jihadist Mahdis.

      • I just thought it was interesting – I wasn’t particularly having a go at you – in fact I raised the issue myself here:

      • Ms. AB,
        Thanks for that elucidation. I supposed I am just gun shy from the inveterate barrage of “religious equivalency” that gets thrown out on this issue.

      • There’s a bit of sleight of hand there – the return of Jesus is supposed to be a celestial event, and so anyone claiming to be Jesus (or his brother, in the case of the Taiping Rebellion) is immediately bracketed outside of “proper” Christianity. However, there are plenty of instances of violence connected to millenarian Christian beliefs, or to leaders claiming to have a special supernatural status. But as with Mahdi movements, most members of the religion never get mixed up with that kind of thing, and those who do are usually localized to a particular area and/or sectarian group.

      • Richard,
        I’m not bracketing anything out, nor am I indulging in “sleight-of-hand.” I’ll call a messianic Christian movement a spade, when it fits. Hong Xiuquan, however, never claimed to be Jesus, but rather Jesus’ “younger brother.” The Kingdom of Muenster’s “John of Leiden” never claimed to be Jesus, to the best of my knowledge, but simply a successor of King David. Granted, both these are quasi-messianic, but no one actually claimed to be the eschatological Jesus. On the other hand, MANY Islamic leaders have claimed to be the eschatological Mahdi. If you wish to extend the definition of “messianic” in both registers (Islamic and Chrisitan) to include leaders claiming to be eschatological actors who are NOT Jesus or the Mahdi, then you have to do it for Islamic history and not just for Christian–in which case the number takes a quantum leap upward, as Islamic history is replete with such folks who, while not claiming the Mahdiyah, have claimed to be the “forerunner” to the Mahdi and/or “mujaddids,” or renewers of Islam that are said in hadiths to come every century.

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