Shia and Sunni: Different Eschatologies
Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi, is merely hidden from view and will one day return from his “occultation” to rid the world of evil. Legitimate Islamic rule can only be re-established with the Mahdi’s return because, in the Shiite view, the imams possessed secret knowledge, passed by each to his successor, vital to guiding the community.
History is moving toward the inevitable return of the Twelfth Imam, according to Shia. Professor Hamid Enayat has written: “The Shi`is agree with the Sunnis that Muslim history since the era of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs… has been for the most part a tale of woe. But whereas for the Sunnis the course of history since then has been a movement away from the ideal state, for the Shi`is it is a movement towards it.”
It’s worth noting that Shia have historically been politically quiescent, with “[the return of the Mahdi] remaining in practice merely a sanctifying tenet for the submissive acceptance of the status quo.”
In more recent times, however—and in particular in Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala in 680 has been used to catalyze political action. Ayatollah Khomeini embraced a view that Hussein was compelled to resist an unpopular, unjust and impious government and that his martyrdom serves as a call to rebellion for all Muslims in building an Islamic state.
The end-time views of Ayatollah Khomeini have been explained this way: “[Khomeini] vested the myth [of the return of the Twelfth Imam] with an entirely new sense: The Twelfth Imam will only emerge when the believers have vanquished evil. To speed up the Mahdi’s return, Muslims had to shake off their torpor and fight,” according to Matthias Kuntzel writing in the New Republic this past April.
As Mr. Kuntzel points out, Khomeini’s activism is a break with Shia tradition and, in fact, tracks more closely with the militancy of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to reunite religion and politics, implement sharia (the body of Islamic laws derived from the Koran), and views the struggle for an Islamic state as a Muslim duty.
Professor Noah Feldman of New York University points out, “Recently, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, contributed to renewed focus on the mahdi, by saying publicly that the mission of the Islamic revolution in Iran is to pave the way for the mahdi’s return…”
Sunni radicals hold a very different eschatological view. “For all his talk of the war between civilizations,” Professor Feldman has written: “bin Laden has never spoken of the end of days. For him, the battle between the Muslims and the infidels is part of earthly human life, and has indeed been with us since the days of the Prophet himself. The war intensifies and lessens with time, but it is not something that occurs out of time or with the expectation that time itself will stop. Bin Laden and his sympathizers want to re-establish the caliphate and rule the Muslim world, but unlike some earlier revivalist movements within Sunni Islam, they do not declare their leader as the mahdi, or guided one, whose appearance will usher in a golden age of justice and peace to be followed by the Day of Judgment. From this perspective, the utter destruction of civilization would be a mistake, not the fulfillment of a divine plan.”
Many Sunnis, then, look toward the rise of a new caliphate; Shia, on the other hand, are looking for the rule of the returned imam — with the extremist strain within Shia believing they can hasten the return of the twelfth imam by cleansing the world of what they believe to be evil in their midst.
Other prominent Shia, like Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, according to Professor Feldman, “take a more fatalist stance, and prefer to believe that the mahdi’s coming cannot be hastened by human activity…” Indeed, as Anthony Shadid pointed out in the Washington Post in 2004, Ayatollah Sistani was a disciple of Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei in Najaf, who was from the “quietist school” in Shiite Islam and attempted to keep Khomeini from claiming the mantle of Shiite leadership.