Resurgence of Apocalyptic in Modern Islam
by Abbas Amanatpublished in The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, vol. III: Apocalypticism in the Modern Period and the Contemporary Age, pages 237-246
New York: Continuum, 2000
Shi`i Mahdism and the End of Time
Even in modern times expectations for the Mahdi were more prevalent in Shi`i Islam, particularly in Iranian Shi'ism, than in the Sunni world. Deeply ingrained in its belief systems and, in turn, into the Shi`i psyche, the doctrine of Imamate ensured continuity of divine inspiration. As designated descendants of the Prophet who inherited in a direct line the leadership of the community, the Imams' continued existence was considered "proof" (hujja) of the continuity of divine grace toward the "guided" Shi`i community. In Twelver Shi`ism the Mahdi is the Twelfth (and the last) Imam in the line, who is believed to have entered in the year 260 AH/873-874 into a state of Occultation and hence is invisible to believers through normal means. Essential to the Shi`i apocalyptic beliefs is that the advent of the Hidden Imam (al-Imam al-Gha'ib) will set in motion a course of events ultimately leading to the destruction of the world and the end of time. Though no specific time was ever set for his advent, it was generally believed that his revolt (khuruj) would occur at the turn of the millennium after his Occultation. As the Lord of Time (al-Sahib al-Zaman) and the Riser (Qá'im) of the House of the Prophet, he will restore justice and equity to the world when it is filled with evil and oppression. This sense of restoring justice was tied in Shi`i prophecies with reinstalling the right to political leadership of the House of the Prophet, vengeance against the usurpers of that authority, and consequently expansion through jihad and the Imam's world domination. This millennial scenario, elaborated and embellished over centuries in a vast body of apocalyptic literature, presented the advent of the Imam and his acomplishments against forces of the Dajjal, the false Messiah, as the prelude to the resurrection and the final judgement. Contrary to the Sunni Mahdi, whose advent was aimed to enhance the foundations of Islam on a periodic (centennial) basis, the Shi`i Islam essen-
tially strived to invoke the Imamate paradigm so as to bring about the resurrection and an end to the prevailing dispensation. The Imam's advent will differentiate the forces of good from evil in two confronting armies and establish the sovereignty of the House of the Prophet, but his kingdom was predicted to be ephemeral and only a preparatory stage before the cataclysmic end of the material world, the commencement of the day of judgement, and thereafter the final departure of the saved to paradise and the damned to hell. 
Despite this rich and dynamic apocalyptic tradition, however, during the period of expectation (intizar) for the Lord of Time to bring relief from oppression, no course of action was prescribed for the believers except vigilance and, if need be, dissimulation of true beliefs in the face of danger. Although Shi`ism began to develop, almost immediately after the Occultation, an elaborate body of formal religious sciences crowned by the study of jurisprudence, the question of political leadership of the community during the interregnum of the Imam's absence remained essentially unaddressed. A long tradition of madrasa education, reenforced under the patronage of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1732), led to the emergence of a community of jurists (mujtahids) who claimed a collective vicegerency (niyaba) on behalf of the Hidden Imam while condoning the shah's vague notion of political vicegerency. Partially independent from the state, these `ulama, who assumed for themselves the task of preserving the "essence of Islam" as experts in the holy law and its sole implementors, became increasingly self-conscious of their status after the fall of the Safavid state in the early eighteenth century. By the time the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925) consolidated, the `ulama of the predominant Usuli legal school presented a socioreligious force to be reckoned with in the domain of the judiciary and of education. They seldom, however, in theory or practice, laid any claim to political authority in the state beyond occasional challenges to its conduct. The clergy-state equilibrium, a legacy of the Safavid period, had the natural tendency to relegate the advent of the Hidden Imam to a distant future and in turn dismiss as unorthodox, if not heretical, all such speculations. The actual messianic aspirations were tolerated even less, having routinely been labeled as fraudulent and heretical. 
Yet Shi`ism never fully dissociated itself from messianic aspirations, even though preoccupation with jurisprudence and supplementary sciences steered mainstream learning in a nonmessianic direction. No less important a scholar than Mulla Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (1628-1699), the celebrated theologian most responsible for popularizing Shi`ism, dedicated a substantial portion of his famous Al-Bihar al-Anwar and a number of Persian works to the subject of the Hidden Imam, the circumstances of his manifestation, the
struggle against the Dajjal, and the consequent eschatological occurrences leading to the return (raj`a) of the past prophets and Imams, the raising of the dead on the Plane of Gathering, the Final Judgement, the Heaven's bliss, and the torments of Hell. The apocalyptic literature produced by Majlisi, and later writers up to the twentieth century, was influential not only in keeping alive debates about the advent of the Imam in the madrasa circles, but more significantly, in the popular imagination. Beyond the calm and stern surface of formal Shi`ism there continued to surge a mass of millennial yearning often with revolutionary potentials against the prevailing religion of the `ulama and the institutions of the state (Amanat 1989, 1-47, 70-105).
Speculative Shi`ism also elaborated on Shi`i eschatology and, more specifically, on the circumstances of resurrection. The immortality of the soul, modes of existence in the hereafter, and, most troubling of all, the doctrine of the corporal resurrection (al-ma`ad al-jismani) came to occupy such philosophers as Sadr al-Din Shirazi, better known as Mulla Sadra (d. 1640), perhaps the greatest of Muslim philosophers of recent centuries. In contrast to Sunni Islam's relinquishing serious philosophical discourse, learned Shi`ism preserved a thriving and highly diverse philosophical tradition and articulated within the framework of mystical philosophy notions of time and modalities of being essential for innovative conceptualizations of the end. Unlike the historically static worldview of the Shari'a-minded `ulama. Mulla Sadra and his students, known as Muta'allahin (theosophists), envisioned a dynamic view of time that in final analysis was at odds with the conventional notion of the eschaton as the permanent point of termination. Sadra'ians essentially remained loyal to a blend of Peripatetic and Neoplatonic philosophy expounded by classical Muslim philosophers, but their notion of beings' everlasting motion in time was a breakthrough. In what Mulla Sadra defined as the "essential motion" (al-haraka al-jawhariyya) of all things, the universe "is ceaselessly being renewed and passing away, originating and enduring." Unlike the theory of the fixed cycles or the ahistorical approach of mainstream theology, the Sadra'ian concept of "essential motion" (or transubstantiation) pointed to an unending spiral, if not linear, course of humankind's spiritual and material progression. Even in its dormant philosophical rendition, this concept challenged conventional interpretation of the End and cast doubt on its occurrence as a providential cataclysm destined to bring the world to a permanent end. Yet Shi`i philosophical speculations remained essentially loyal to the doctrine of Islam's perfection and finality (Morris 1981, 119-29).
With the emergence of the Shaykhi school and the visionary theology of its founder, Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa'i (1756-1826), Shi`ism generated a new
mystical-philosophical synthesis that was highly influential in shaping later millennial trends. A peripatetic and widely read scholar from al-Ahsa' (north of Arabian peninsula), Ahsa'i was familiar not only with the theosophist school of Isfahan (though he violently denounced Mulla Sadra) but also with the speculative Sufism of Ibn `Arabi and the illuminist philosophy of Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi, both known for their apocalyptic propensity. Ahsa'i's contribution to the Shi`i eschatological thinking was in three areas, which corresponded to the problematic that was long troubling Shi`i theology. Dealing with the Hidden Imam's physical endurance in the state of Occultation, Ahsa'i proposed a celestial visionary space, which he called Hurqalya, where the Hidden Imam resides until his return to the physical world. Speculating on the metaphysical means of communicating with the Imam, Ahsa'i emphasized personal and intuitive experiences. Furthermore, he redefined corporal resurrection through a complex process that aimed at humankind's spiritual recreation once the Imam returns to the physical world.
The luminous Hurqalya, a purgatory through which all beings must pass before being finally judged on the day of resurrection, was perceived as a world whose "state was neither the absolutely subtle state of separate substances nor the opaque density of the material things of our world." In this liminal space the Imam, who endured in a refined frame, could be encountered by the believers through intuitive visions, holy dreams, and occult sciences. The placement of the Imam in this visionary space in effect rescued him from the timeless, confused, and inaccessible tangle to which he was relegated by the Shi`i prophecies and instead subjected his existence to the dictates of time and space. Ahsa'i further maintained that so long as the Imam was in Occultation and while the world was still undergoing pre-resurrection preparation, only one person could acquire perfect awareness of the Imam at any moment of time. The belief in the Perfect Shi`a (al-Shi'a al-Kamil), the one who can visualize the Imam in an all-embracing state of intuitive experience, became the Fourth Principle (al-Rukn al-Rabi') of the Shaykhi school and the central point for its messianic speculations. Ahsa'i's chief disciple and successor, Sayyid Kazim Rashti (d. 1844), who further elaborated on his teacher's philosophy and created an organizational rudiment for Shaykhism, was viewed by his followers as the Perfect Shi'a and the gate (bab) through which the Imam's presence could be grasped though such identification was never made explicit beyond the circle of the adepts. Employing the same idea of celestial conservatory, Ahsa'i conceived of a fourfold human existence which goes through a complex process of quintessential overhaul before being refashioned in its orig-
inal form at the final judgment (Amanat 1989, 48-58; Corbin 1960, 281-338; 1977, 180-221).
Under Rashti, a small but active group of Shaykhi seminarians, trained in the madrasas of the Shi`i holy city of Karbala in Iraq, preached Shaykhism in mostly Iranian urban and rural communities. As Shaykhism gradually evolved from a theological school into a proto-messianic movement with followers among the lower- and middle-rank clergy, members of the urban guilds, merchant families, local government officials, and some peasant communities, it was increasingly received as a threat by the higher ranks of the clerical establishment. By the end of Rashti's time, the Shaykhis fully nurtured a sense of expectation for some form of messianic advent, which they hoped could save them from the harassment and denunciation of their opponents. With this sense of expectation there also emerged among the Shaykhis a more human-like picture of the Lord of the Age and of his mission. He no longer was perceived as a superhuman with fantastic powers which allowed him, according to Shi`i prophecies, to survive a thousand years; he was seen as a human being born to mortal parents. Nor was his divine mission for universal conquest to be accomplished through a set of bizarre and confused apocalyptic events that would ultimately lead to the destruction of the world. His main task, to restore justice and equity, was seen no longer as mere vengeance for the long-standing feud with the historical enemies of his holy family but as a gradual process whose success against his enemies depended on the support and sacrifice of his followers (Amanat 1989, 58-69).
The Babi Movement and the Bahá'í Faith
The rise of what came to be known as the Babi movement in Iran in the 1840s and 1850s was an outgrowth of a wide range of messianic speculations of which Shaykhism was the most prevalent. In May 1844 the founder of the new movement, Sayyid `Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850), a self-educated young merchant with Shaykhi leanings from Shiraz (the capital of the Fars province), declared that he is the bab (gate) to the Hidden Imam and the sole source of legitimate authority. Though the Bab, as he came to be known to the general public, employed the early Shi`i notion of "gateship" now revived by the Shaykhis, even in his earliest declarations he was equivocal about his exact status. To Mulla Husain Bushru'i, an ardent student of Rashti who became the Bab's first convert, as well as a group of mostly Shaykhi clerics who consti-
tuted his circle of early believers, the Bab gradually confided that he was not merely a gate to the Hidden Imam but the manifestation of the expected Imam, the Qá'im himself, whose appearance the Shi`is expected for a thousand years. Preoccupied with numerology and occult sciences, the Bab drew on the fact that his "manifestation of the [divine] cause" occurred in the year 1260 AH, a thousand years after the presumed Greater Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan al-`Askari, in the year 260 AH/873-874. He also drew on the fact that he was a sayyid, a descendant of the house of the Prophet, from which the Mahdi will appear, while stressing his own intuitive experiences and visions, his purity of character, and his ability to utter holy verses similar to the Qur'án. Implicitly denying the doctrine of Occultation, he further stated that his manifestation was a symbolic return of the Lord of the Age and not the flesh-and-blood reappearance of Muhammad ibn Hasan al-`Askari, who had died a millennium earlier (Amanat 1989, 109-211).
What was also remarkable about the Bab's claim, as it evolved in the course of the next five years, was that he considered his call not as a reassertion of Islamic Shari'ah, as was the case with the Sunni Mahdis, but as the beginning of an apocalyptic process that was destined to bring the Islamic dispensation to its cyclical end and to inaugurate instead a new dispensation, which he called the era of Bayan. Relying on a hermeneutical interpretation of the Shi`i prophecies, for the first time in the history of modern Islam, he claimed that with his advent the age of resurrection has started and the End of Time is to be understood as the end of the past prophetic cycle. Employing the ancient Iranian tree metaphor and its seasonal renewal, he explained in his major work, the Persian Bayan (literally, explication [of the past scriptures]) that religious dispensations come in cycles so as to renew for humankind the "pure religion," a concept with a long history in "esoteric" Islam. In his theory of progressive revelation he compared the successive dispensations to the life cycle of a tree with a spring of inception and early growth, a summer of strength and maturation, an autumn of gradual decline and decrepitude, and a winter of barrenness and death. This key notion of continuity in revelation not only legitimized the Bayan religion but recognized and anticipated future prophetic occurrences after the Bab. Contrary to the prevailing Islamic notion of a cataclysmic end, the Bab believed that the "time cycle is in progress." 
Beyond the theme of progressive revelation, Babi theology, deeply rooted in Perso-Islamic antinomian thought, brought to the surface new anthropocentric potentials. His manifestation, the Bab asserted in the Bayan, was not only the fulfillment of the Shi`i expectations for the Qá'im and the beginning of a new prophetic dispensation but also a new stage in humankind's continuous spiritual elevation in the process of reunification with the Creator.
Though wrapped in a complex and convoluted language with much neology, the Bab's emphasis on humanity as a corporal mirror reflecting the essence of the sun of divine truth offered a new outlook, in which the believers collectively, rather than the sheer will of Providence, were responsible for the success or failure of the new dispensation. This sense of collective enterprise was apparent from the start in the nascent organization of the movement and in the beliefs and conduct of early Babis. The Letters of the Living, as the Bab named the inceptive Babi Unit of nineteen consisting of himself and eighteen early believers, was at the heart of the renewed dispensation. In his conception of the new religion, the Bab was influenced also by the story of Jesus and his disciples as narrated in newly accessible printed translations of the New Testament. In his religious scheme, the Bab constituted the Primal Point (Nuqta-yi Ula) of a scriptural universe in which each convert was considered a building block, a symbolic point, in the Bayan's book, which was uttered not only in letters and words but in their human equivalents of the sacred text of the physical world. At the same time the Bab's assumed epithet to be the Sublime Lord (Rabb-i A'la) was close to the Christian characterization of Jesus, Son of God and the Savior, whose account of life and sufferings was appreciated by the Bab.
In the Bab's scripture-oriented worldview, the Europeans, whose increasing presence was felt in Iran around the middle of the nineteenth century, were recognized as the "letters of the Gospel." They were praised for their material advances and their savvy but were frowned upon for their unsavory intrusion into the land of the believers - a reflection, one may surmise, of the growing European commercial and diplomatic dominance. Indeed, the Bab, himself from the ancient province of Fars, expressed in his writings a nascent national awareness exemplified not only by his ban on Christian intrusion in the land of Bayan but also by the use of Persian (along with Arabic) as a scriptural language. His fierce criticism of conventional Islamic madrasa scholarship of his time, which was exclusively in Arabic, brought him to the point of banning the study of jurisprudence and scholastic philosophy and calling for burning all books that were contrary to the essence of the Bayan. He also adopted a new solar calendar (in part based on ancient Iranian time reckoning) in place of the Islamic lunar calendar and marked the date of his own manifestation as a beginning of a novel (badi') era. 
Yet the new Babi identity still carried a powerful Shi`i component that was best discernible in the reenactment of the Shi`ite apocalyptic paradigm. Based on the sufferings of the Shi`ite saints of the early Islamic period and aimed at redressing them, the apocalyptic myth was invoked as the Babis faced harassment and persecution. Following the arrest and incarceration of
the founder of the movement and experiencing a number of humiliating episodes, the initial Jesus-like program for peaceful propagation was surpassed by the ever-present Husain paradigm of martyrdom in the battlefield. In this shift of paradigms the Bab saw his own fate as identical to the fate of the Lord of the Age as foretold by prophecies. He was to be killed at the hand of the Dajjal of his time in the same way that the Third Imam, Husain ibn `Ali, was martyred at the hand of his Umayyad adversaries in the battle of Karbala.
The Babis, too, reflected this convergence of the Persian and Shi`i identities. The sociogeographic composition of the Babi movement revealed national characteristics consonant with the Babi beliefs but in contrast to the compartmentalized structure of the society in which it appeared. Babism was the first movement in the modern Middle East that brought together a wider spectrum of converts from different walks of life and throughout a vast geographical span. Confrontations with the forces of opposition, first the Shi`i clerical establishment and later the Qajar state, further reenforced this national fusion. In the siege of Tabarsi in Mazandaran province in northern Iran, when in 1848-1849 the Babis put up a stiff and bloody resistance against the government forces and their clerical allies, there came together converts from all over Iran, as well as Afghanistan and Iraq, of different social classes with diverse occupational backgrounds, education, and religious leanings. The Tabarsi resistance, like a number of other Babi armed struggles around the same time in Zanjan and Nayriz, embodied the anticlerical and antistate sentiments that were combined at times with indigenous communistic proclivities, giving expression to urban and rural grievances and ethnic strife (Amanat 1989, 260-94, 332-71).
In addition to lower ranks of the clergy and members of the bazaar guilds, a number of women also joined the movement. Most notable among them was Zarrin Taj Baraghani (1814-1852), better known by her titles Qurrat al-`Ayn (the Solace of the Eye) and later, Tahira (the Pure). An ardent Shaykhi scholar and orator from a well-known clerical family, she probably was the first Muslim woman in modern times to remove her facial veil in public, reportedly while preaching to a male audience. A mystic and a poet, she highlighted the independent nature of the Babi dispensation in the gathering of Badasht in 1848. She held that the ongoing age of resurrection has put an end to the Islamic Shari'a and that during the interregnum between the old religion and the birth of the new one, such obligations as prayers and fasting and even institutions of marriage and divorce are abolished. Her very act of removing her facial veil was as much an expression of protest against women's inferior position as it was a symbolic declaration of the age of apocalypse and
the occurrence of the sedition (fitna). She declared that the age of "delivering the word" has only brought abuse and persecution and that the only option open to the Babis was resort to the sword (Amanat 1989, 295-332, and sources cited there).
By 1848, as the Babi armed resistance culminated, the government's attitude hardened toward the Babis. The new premier, Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir, who viewed the movement as a revolutionary threat to the very survival of the state, with much trouble managed to suppress the revolts, and subsequently, in 1850, he executed the Bab in Tabriz. The leadership of the movement suffered badly, and large numbers of Babis were killed in action and massacred and their families enslaved. Two years later the remnant of the movement's elite was executed or lynched in the aftermath of a Babi assassination plot against the new shah, Nasir al-Din Qajar (1848-1896). Only a few of the leaders, most significantly Mirza Husain `Ali Nuri, better known as Bahá'ullah (1817-1892), were sent to exile to the Ottoman Iraq. Suppression of the Babi millennialism at the hands of the reform-minded premier, with the full blessing of the `ulama, was symptomatic of the triumph of one vision of change over another, namely, that of the state-sponsored secular modernism over an indigenous messianic revolution. The Babi movement, perhaps the most intensive example of apocalyptic aspirations in the modern Middle East, was thus militarily defeated and driven underground.
Disillusioned and persecuted, Babism nevertheless survived and even thrived in the following decades as a force of religious and political dissent. Despite horrifying mistreatment at the hand of the government officials, the fierce animosity of the `ulama, and frequent mob attacks and scenes of gruesome lynching, known as Babi-kush, and despite internecine conflicts and ideological divisions within the exiled leadership, the Babis continued to attract converts from discontented elements of all ranks. Bahá'ullah, who led the Babi-Bahá'í majority faction from exile in Baghdad, then Ederna, and later Akka in Palestine, was supported by converts from among the petty merchants and other sectors of the middle classes. A member of the bureaucratic elite, Bahá'ullah renounced the Babi militant stance against the state in favor of a pacifist approach based on a moral reassessment of the Babi principles. The minority Babi-Azali faction, on the other hand, remained theoretically loyal to the Babi revolt against the state and the `ulama and refused redefinition of the Babi scripture (Amanat 1989, 372-416).
The emerging Babi-Bahá'í faith represented a religious outlook based on Bayani religion but in many respects, particularly its socio-moral message, distinct from it. Bahá'ullah, who first claimed in 1864 to be "He whom God
shall manifest," the awaited savior of the Bayani dispensation, combined in his teachings aspects of mysticism with utopian discourse of possible European origin while preserving the Babi messianic outlook and communal vigor. In the spirit of the Babi theophany, he claimed to be the manifestation of the divine word uttered in the day of the encounter with God. His ecumenical call drew upon Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity as he claimed to be the messianic fulfillment of all monotheistic religions, a manifestation aimed at elevating humankind to the status of cognition while Bahá'ullah himself was to be the ultimate pinnacle of this divine manifestation. Bahá'ullah viewed the arrival of this apocalyptic moment, God's Day, as a sign of maturation of human moral and civil potentials. The call for the "unity of humankind," the ultimate goal of the anticipated "universal peace," reflected the Bahá'í wish to break with the ethnic, racial, and gender norms and loyalties prevalent at the time. Bahá'ullah's later writing emphasized racial and gender equality, economic harmony, constitutional monarchy, and religious toleration. His independent investigation of truth as the guiding principle for personal enlightenment and for the community's intellectual life also dismissed religious conviction on the basis of ancestral, communal, or scriptural identities and instead underscored a shade of modern individuality. "Universal maturation" was thus viewed as the prelude to a new age of cognition, rather than abiding dogma, and individual responsibility, rather than collective ritualism. The Babi teachings were further modified so as to remove the relics of the Islamic past in the areas of devotional acts, legalistic provenance of the `ulama, women's segregation, strictures in dealing with nonbelievers, and dietary rules. More importantly, as a post-apocalyptic faith, Bahá'ísm sought to disengage from Islam's preoccupation with the hereafter, at least in its heaven-hell dichotomy, and to highlight instead the gradual elevation of human soul in the afterlife. 
The unfolding of millenarian potentials of Iranian Shi`ism in the Babi movement, and its later Bahá'í and Azali manifestations, occurred at a critical juncture when Islamic societies had begun to encounter the threatening and yet luring West. The Babi movement thus represented a novel answer to the question of religious modernization by breaking with Islam while preserving the continuity of the Middle East's prophetic tradition.
Works cited in the excerpt
Corbin, H. 1960. Terre celeste et corps de résurrection de l'iran mazdeen à l'iran shi'ite. Paris. Eng. trans. below.
Corbin H. 1977. Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth from Mazdean Iran to Shi'ite Iran Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Other passing mentions of the Bahá'í Faith in the rest of the article [not included]
p. 247f. - "For the Ahmadiyya hereafter was meant to be a continuous journey of the soul toward spiritual perfection, an interpretation distinct from the literal Qur'anic rendition of heaven and hell but close to the Sufi, and the later Bahá'í view."
p. 252 - the first paragraph of the section titled "Modern Shi'ism and the Islamic Revolution" ends with this sentence: "This new tendency may be detected first in polemical responses to Marxists, secularists, and Bahá'í critics who raised questions about doctrines of Occultation, corporal resurrection, and the last judgment."
p. 255 - the "Islamic utopianism" of Murtaza Mutahhari is described as follows: "Though wrapped in an Islamic guise, such utopian Mahdism was a far cry from the customary Shi'i view of Mahdi's return and in some respects close to the Babi-Bahá'í ideals a century earlier as well as to the very Marxist utopianism against which he proposed his "Islamic ideology."
p. 256 - mention of Khomeini's paranoia about "anti-Islamic propaganda by the Bahá'ís and the Chrisitian missionaries"
p. 257 - Shaykh Mahmud Halabi is called "an old preacher and an extreme anti-Bahá'í activist".