If Prof. Bernard Lewis were not a dedicated proponent of any and all wars in the Near East, a general alarmist when it comes to modern political questions and, in fairness, a super-partisan of Israel and close associate of Likud, I might take it more seriously when he warns again in alarmist fashion that Ahmadinejad, who as President directly controls literally none of Iran’s actual military assets, has fixated on the date August 22, which happens this year to correspond with the day commemorating Muhammad’s Night Journey. Are you scared yet? Let me try that again, Dave Barry-style: this is the Day When They Commemorate Muhammad’s NIGHT JOURNEY! Now it’s sinking in, right? The thought is that this date will carry some special significance for Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic expectations of the Mahdi and Twelfth Imam’s return from occultation (one can only guess how shocked Mr. Bush would be to learn that there are multiple sects of Shi’ism–”I thought they were all Shi’ites!”).
Since the excerpts from the WSJ op-ed where Prof. Lewis’ warning appeared do not include any explanation of why the date has any necessary connection with the other, I am, to put it mildly, not exactly anxious about what is going to happen on August 22.
This is not to rule out the significance of sacred dates or anniversaries of important historical events as signs of what a people particularly attentive to such past events might do in the present (it came to my attention recently that the Tanzania and Kenya bombings in 1998 came eight years to the day of the arrival of American forces in Saudi Arabia), but I have to confess that the connection of the Night Journey to the appearance of the Twelfth Imam is a bit obscure.
First, there is the problem of the Mahdi himself. The Mahdi is supposed to return at the command of Allah, which is something Ahmadinejad presumably does not believe he can control or hasten by doing provocative or violent things. Now, is Prof. Lewis claiming that Ahmadinejad (whose first name is Mahmoud, which is one of the technical requirements of any claimant to Mahdi status) believes himself to be the Mahdi? That would be quite a thing to suppose, especially since the Mahdi is supposed to come out of Arabia. It is also worth considering that if he were claiming such a thing, his life would very likely be forfeit in Iran in no time at all. Aside from threatening the power of the clerics, the claim itself would be viewed as impious. All other claimants of being the Mahdi have come to a sticky end, and each time they have been met with the disapprobation of all Muslims who knew anything about Islamic doctrine. Muhammad Bayram V of Tunisia was just such a one who looked down on the rising of the Mahdi in Sudan and called for Anglo-Egyptian forces to crush his rebellion. An anti-colonial intellectual, he was no fan of empire, but for various reasons, including religious contempt for the claims of this false Mahdi, he felt obliged to support the British cause.
Now I see the obvious connection between the Night Journey and Jerusalem, where Muslims believe Muhammad went on his winged horse (and whence the special claim on the Dome of the Rock, where Muhammad was supposed to have set foot when he landed, according to this apocryphal tale), and so I suppose in the most conspiratorially-minded view you could imagine someone timing an attack on Israel on the day of the Night Journey, but this seems to have one large, overlooked problem.
If August 22 of this year is the day when Muslims specifically remember the association of Muhammad and Jerusalem, wouldn’t that almost guarantee that of all the days of the year that Muslims would not launch a major attack on Israel and, with it, Jerusalem? If the big fear is Iranian nukes, what sort of complete cynic and irreligious fellow would Ahmadinejad have to be to use the particular day when Jerusalem’s importance is in the mind of all Muslims to launch an indiscriminate nuclear attack on Israel–thus devastating Jerusalem and killing numerous Muslims in the process? We might say that Ahmadinejad is a cynic and an irreligious fellow, but that rather ruins the whole, “he is going to attack on August 22 because he is a religious fanatic obsessed with sacred dates” angle. I know hysteria and talk of WWIII and Armageddon are all the rage these days, but might be able to manage a little more sensible analysis?