Wars of religion invariably involve eschatological debates: how the world will end, why and what signs will herald its ending. Nowhere is this clearer than in Iraq and Syria, where the Sunni-Shia conflict is framed, by both sides, as foretelling end of days writ large. Issues of ISIS' own eschatologically themed publication, Dabiq, frame Shia militias as 'the antichrist' that will ally with Israel and speak Hebrew in a Zionist-Shia alliance. While we often hear of the 'apocalyptic' motives of Sunni jihadi groups, Shia militias and figures within the Islamic Republic of Iran frame the crises in Iraq and Syria in their own eschatological terms; the chaos before the return of the Hidden Imam. Yet what is the theological framework under which this eschatological battle is being fought; what is the framework in which Shia eschatology exists?
The Mahdi, or 'well-guided' imam, is a central figure within Twelver Shiism and its various branches, followed by the overwhelming majority of Shia. The sect's name is a reference to the dynasty of twelve imams initiated by Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, which ended with the disappearance of the then four-year-old 12th Imam in 874. There is no mention of the Mahdi in the Quran itself; it is from Shia Hadith literature and history that Shia 'Mahdism' (the belief in the imminent return of the Mahdi) takes its lead, drawing legitimacy from the line of the 12 Imams. The 11th Imam, Hassan al-Askari, was kept under house arrest by the Sunni Abbassid Caliphate (again, the current resonance is relevant here, as ISIS sees itself as a recreation of the Abbassids through, among other things, their wearing of black robes), and when he died in 873, his son, Imam Abu al-Qasem Mohammad bin Hassan al-Askari, thought to have been a direct descendant of Mohammad and Fatima, was smuggled out to safety. Mohammad al-Askari became the 12th Imam.
This first period, after the death of the 11th Imam, 874-941, is referred to as the minor occultation (disappearance) during which the 12th Imam is believed to have kept in contact with his followers via deputies. This communication in 941, and the 'greater occultation' continues to this day. It is from this period of occultation that Shia millenarianism expects to be delivered with the return of the Hidden Imam to earth. As per a hadith, "The Messenger of God said, 'The Mahdi will be from me, with a bald forehead and an aquiline nose. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with injustice and oppression and will rule seven years.'"
"Some see Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah as the Mahdi's herald."
Shia scholars agreed that the conflagration leading to the return of the Mahdi and his apparition from concealment would be marked by a sequence of events or signs. These signs include: an uprising led by the 'Yemenite,' the Mahdi's advance scout or herald, whom some have seen as Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah; a battle with the Sufyani, a hypocritical tyrant associated with the Sunni oppression, thought amongst millenarian Shia to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; the murder of the Mahdi's envoy; and the engulfing and destruction of an evil army in the Arabian desert. At which point, the Mahdi will reappear as the 'Lord of the Age', or the 'Lord of the Sword', to lead his army of wrath in its re-conquest of the world. The Mahdi will rule for either seven or 19 years (hadith scripture is divided on this issue), after which will come the Day of Judgment. The Mahdi's triumphant return to the stage of human history is eagerly anticipated as part of God's plan to rectify global injustices and bring about the victory of Shia Islam over its Sunni rivals. The Mahdi's role in fighting injustice and oppression, a legacy of the real persecution experienced by Shia in the early centuries of Islam, is a central tenet of Mahdism, and thus makes it an extremely attractive, and often very applicable, rallying tool. The notion that the Mahdi will first avenge the death of Imam Hussein, killed at Karbala in 680 AD by the Umayyad Caliphate, is central to Shia eschatology, and is a clear indication of the historical reach of the Sunni-Shia conflict as it exists in an eschatological framework.
Mahdism projects the ultimate showdown between justice and injustice into a supra-human, otherworldly dimension, which diminishes the relative importance of political action in this world, making its incorporation into existing political realities a problematic philosophical issue. It is thought to be for God alone to bring about the return of the Hidden Imam, and appearing to 'hasten' his return, or even involve oneself in debates about it, goes against a traditionally quietest strain in Shia theology. Mahdism, therefore, has historically been a controversial issue amongst the realities of political power and authority. Even assuming political power before the return of the Hidden Imam is considered by Shia theologians to be forbidden, as is collaborating with those in political power; this makes the overt politicisation of Mahdism and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq a thorny theological problem. It is in this light that we should also see the controversy both of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary concept of Velayat-e Faqih, (or 'rule of the jurist') and also of Mahmud Ahmadinejad's meddling in affairs pertaining to the Mahdi and being seen to 'hasten' his return, an act that would render clerical authority obsolete in the face of the returned Hidden Imam.
"A place at Iranian cabinet meetings was kept vacant for the Mahdi's return."
Ahmadinejad's political ally Raheem Mashae was suggested to be the Bab, the gate through which the Hidden Imam would return. Such theories echoed the 19th century Babi movement which was seen as heretical as well as deeply politically revolutionary, as it set out to discredit clerical authority in the face of the return of the Hidden Imam, the Bab. Ahmadinejad would always have extra briefing notes posted down a well in Jamkaran, near Qom, the site of a supposed appearance of the 12th Imam in the 11th century and a place at cabinet meetings was kept vacant in the case of the Mahdi's return. This is a theology of geography as well, in which place names have theological resonance within the Shia eschatological story. Samarra, for example, which sits on the banks of the Tigris in Iraq, was where the Hidden Imam was said to have gone into hiding.
The apocalyptic nature of the conflicts plaguing Iraq and Syria give natural rise to Mahdism, chaos lending credence to scriptural references regarding the return of the Hidden Imam. But the theological controversies for political involvement and engaging with notions of the return of the Hidden Imam will leave a huge mark on Shia Islam after the fighting has ended, for these are rhetorical standpoints form which it is difficult to return to the centre ground. Mahdist militant groups, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi's Army, and Ahmad al-Hassan's apocalyptic group the Supporters of the Imam Mahdi, are clear challenges to the traditional quietest authority of those who lead the Shia community today in Najaf, Kerbala and Qom.
Belief in the imminence of the Mahdi's arrival, however, goes beyond those Shia factions fighting to usher in the apocalypse. A 2012 Pew poll found that over half of Muslim adults in nine countries, including over two-thirds in Iraq, believe that the return of the Mahdi will occur in their lifetime. As focus on ISIS' apocalyptic project increases, we need to better understand the religious context that many militant groups on all sides believe themselves to be fighting for in Iraq and Syria, in order to comprehend the ideological basis of this latest wave of violence.