Dr Oliver Scharbrodt to SHAFAQNA: A window into Islamic Messianism – The cornerstone of Shia Islam

SHAFAQNA- Shafaqna has the pleasure to interview Dr Olicer Scharbrodt, a Professor of Islamic Studies at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester in the United Kingdom.

Dr Scharbrodt has also worked and published on Muhammad `Abduh, investigating in particular his association with Sufism. From 2008 to 2011, Dr Scharbrodt was the principal investigator of a research project on the history and currrent place of Islam in Ireland.

SHAFAQNA- If I’m not mistaken your field of research includes Islamic Messianism. Now, although both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims believe in the Mahdi, both have very different positions vis a vis his arrival. For example , in Shia Islam, belief in the Mahdi is the foundation on which the entire spiritual and temporal edifice rests.

Would you care to elaborate on the matter?

Yes, it is true that within Sunni Islam the belief in the Mahdi is not that central. It is certainly there but not part of the Sunni ‘aqa’id. Some prominent Muslim authors such as Ibn Khaldun have actually doubted the veracity of the belief in the Mahdi. From a critical hadith scholarship point of view likewise, one can add that the two most important Sunni hadith collections, that are considered to be most authentic – those by Bukhari and Muslim -, do not contain any references to the Mahdi, although other hadith collections do contain traditions referring to him that are considered authentic (sahih).

The situation is different in Shia Islam where the belief of the Mahdi is a fundamental cornerstone of Shia doctrine and his identity is also clearly known. The 12th Imam, who is for Shiis the 12th spiritual and political leader of the Muslim community from the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, went shortly after the death of his father and predecessor into occultation and will show himself shortly before the Day of Judgment to restore true Islam and the avenge the persecution of the family of the Prophet by their opponents throughout early Islamic history.

The strong messianic component of Shia doctrine results of the Shia experience of marginalization. Shias hold the minority view within Islam and – with the exception of Iran – have experienced persecution and marginalization vis-à-vis the Sunni majority in many contexts. Hence, the notion of an end-of-time savior who will do right the things that have gone wrong in Islam – from the Shia point of view – does have a particular appeal.

What Sunnis and Shias share in terms of their beliefs around the Mahdi is that he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and that he will come shortly before the Day of Judgment to restore true Islam.

Question 2 – Could you please explain how the doctrinal evolution of the idea of the Mahdi has influenced Shia Islam? How has it translated within its social and political structure?

The belief in the Mahdi has postponed the establishment of true Islam, a true Islamic order in a social, economic and political sense to the end of time. Historically, this had led to a sense among Shiis that existing political orders in the Muslim world are necessarily imperfect and illegitimate. However, as restoring the true order is the task of the Mahdi and will only occur at the end of time, Shiis and their religious leaders have traditionally adopted an attitude of political quietism. There is no need to strive for a truly Islamic government, because this will only come with the Mahdi anyway. It was only with [Ayatollah] Khomeini and other Shia intellectuals contemporaneous to him in the latter half of the 20th century who would argue that Shias should not passively await the arrival of the Mahdi for a true, just and legitimate order to be established, but that they should actively strive to build an Islamic state by opposing and struggling against illegitimate governments, as it then happened in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But this is a rather recent phenomenon in Shia political thought that is quite controversial and has been highly contested.

Question 3 – Radicalism has plagued the Middle East and to a great extent the Islamic world in general. From a strictly philosophical standpoint – How do you understand such a religious devolution?

I don’t think that it is possible to understand the rise of “radicalism” in the Middle East and in the Muslim world more generally “from a strictly philosophical standpoint”.

First, it is necessary to problematize the term “radicalism”. In an academic context, I am rather reluctant to use this term, as it is primarily used in public and political discourse to denounce certain movements as backward, bigot, intolerant, violent and threatening. So the term “radical Islam” is very often a tool of political rhetoric to discredit and ideologically battle movements and thinkers seen to stand against modern societies and their values. As an academic, I am interested in the dynamics that led to the rise of such movements and their trajectories in response to developments in the Muslim world. Hence, terms from the various ideological battlefields of the contemporary world are seldom useful for such purposes.

Second, one cannot understand the rise of movements that are usually termed “radical” without considering the political, socio-economic, cultural and historical contexts in which they emerged and have been embedded in since the early 20th century. The impact of European imperialism on the Middle East, the continuous injustices of a globalized market economy, the foundation of the state of Israel, Western political hegemony over the world, the failure of political experiments, whether liberal democratic or socialist, in Middle Eastern countries in the 20th century and the continuous presence of autocratic regimes in the region are crucial factors explaining the rise of Islamist opposition movements that use Islam as a powerful cultural resource and tool for social mobilization. From a philosophical standpoint, one could say that Islamist movements reject the secularity of Western modernity and argue for a political and socio-economic order that is based on Islamic principles, whatever that might actually mean. However, this would not suffice as an explanation for the rise of these movements in the first half of the 20th century and their continuous popularity.

Question 4 – How do you understand ongoing frictions in Europe toward Muslims? Many experts have spoken of a clash of civilizations but don’t you think it is rather a clash of spiritualities?

I don’t think what is happening is “a clash of civilization” or “a clash of spiritualities”. It is as its best “a clash of historical and communal identities”. The frictions in Europe towards Muslims have a long history dating back to the Middle Ages. The Arab-Muslim conquest and rule of the Iberian peninsula over several centuries and Ottoman rule over south eastern Europe have created a longstanding European historical narrative of the “Islamic threat” stemming from a time when Muslim rulers, whether the Umayyads in Spain or the Ottomans on the Balkans, constituted a real political and military threat to European powers. So there are historical reasons for these frictions.

Resorting to narrowly-defined and exclusionary communal identities has been identified as one of the coping mechanisms in response to the uncertainties created through globalization. After the end of the Cold War, there has been a cultural identity crisis in Europe – further exacerbated following the economic uncertainties of the present. One response to these new uncertainties is to resort to a vague Christian-secular identity of Europe that somehow stands in opposition to Islam. Similar dynamics are also at play among Muslim minorities, the younger generations in particular. As a result of their experiences of socio-economic marginalization, racism and multiple identities that are not recognized, some young Muslims resort to interpretations to Islam that are oppositional to the secular, pluralistic and democratic nature of European societies and states. So, Islam as a “civilization”, a “spiritual path” or an “identity” are used to cope with the various uncertainties of a globalized world.


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