A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Apocalypse Now? Part II: Rafidi, Safavi, Sufyani

In Part I of this post, we discussed the growing use of end-times imagery by both sides in the conclict between ISIS and its adversaries, particularly Shi‘ites, and looked in some detail at the term Dabiq, chsen as the name of ISIS' English propaganda magazine. In Part II I want to discuss other terms on both sides of the debate.

And I should note that I'm only discussing historical and eschatological terms here, not conspiracy theories, though there are plenty of those. (ISIS was created by the US according to some, or by (inevitably) Israel ("Caliph Ibrahim" is secretly Jewish, naturally). That's an entirely different sort of fixation.

ISIS, like many jihadi movements before it and some Sunni Islamists, routinely uses Rafidi, a Sunni disparaging term for Shi‘ites. It means "Refuser," as in those who refuse to acknowledge Abu Bakr as the successor to the Prophet, and by extension, the dynasties of Caliphs recognized by Sunnis. In Part I I said they refused to acknowledge the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (Rashidun). A commenter took me to task, noting that ‘Ali is one of the four Rashidun. This is true of course, but in Sunnism he is the fourth Caliph, elected after three successors; in Shi‘ism he is the First Imam,  and the other three Rashidun are seen as usurpers.

Another common slur used by Sunnis (Arabs in particular) is Safawi (Persian Safavi.), after the Iranian dynasty usually known in English as the Safavids. Iran was only partially and sporadically Shi‘ite until the Safavids in the 16th Century AD made it Iran's official religion. The Sunni Ottomans fought a series of wars with the Shi‘ite Safavids, and so when used against Shi‘ites, particularly against Arab Shi‘ites, the term also has the connotation of "Persian," and hence foreign, alien, non-Arab.

Though many Sunni Arabs forget or don't know it, Shi‘ism was Arab long before it put down roots in Iran. Of the 12 Imams, only one is buried in Iran, ‘Ali al-Rida (‘Ali Reza) in Mashhad. Four Imams are buried in Saudi Arabia all in Medina), and six in Iraq (‘Ali in Najaf, Hussein in Karbala, two in Kazimiyya in Baghdad, and two in Samarra.) The 12th, of course, is in occlusion, but he disappeared in Samarra.

Other, stronger disparaging terms may be used against Shi‘ites, or more commonly against more heterodox or esoteric movements like the ‘Alawites, Yazidis and others whose Islamic identities are denied, such as Murtadd (apostate).

But if all the terms used so far have been used by Sunni Islamists, some Shi‘ites with an eschatological bent (and Shi‘ism with its expectation of the return of the Twelfth Imam has a strong eschatological predilection), have applied to ISIS or explicitly to its "Caliph Ibrahim," another term, discussing whether he might be the expected Sufyani,

The Umayyad Caliph who presided over the martyrdom of the Third Imam Hussein ibn ‘Ali was Yazid ibn Mu‘awiya ibn Abi Sufyan. Yazid is the greatest villain in the Shi‘ite narrative, and the entire Umayyad dynasty, and particularly the descendants of Abu Sufyan (who until his conversion was the Prophet's greatest adversary) are excoriated in the Shi‘ite tradition. Shi‘ites never use the name Yazid or Sufyan, except as curses.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that Shi‘ite eschatology evolved the idea of a descendent of Yazid
id who would appear (in Syria!) in the end times to fight against Imam Mahdi, the Sufyani. He is distinct from the Dajjal, and is generally believed to be a direct literal descendant of Yazid.

"Caliph Ibrahim" has declared his descent from the tribe of Quraysh, and many Shi‘ites are wondering
if he is the Sufyani. Shiachat has a forum topic on whether ISIS or al-Baghdadi is the Sufyani; this strange Nostradamus/Prophecy site picks upon the theme; and other s appear to be vetting Baghdadi's Qurayshi line.

Obviously, if people on both sides think they're living in the end times, it can mean trouble. I'm not trying to be alarmist, but I thought the growing evidence of these themes deserved attention.

1 comment:

Brian Ulrich said...

Fun fact: In my current book project, I have a bit on a dude named Sufyan b. Mu'awiya b. Yazid, a Shi'ite rebel from about CE 750.