I have a new piece up at The Review, Pakistan’s new paranoia, on Zaid Hamid.
A man named Zaid Hamid, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to promote the new narrative of national victimhood, says that he has a clear answer. We are, he argues, living in the apocalyptic end-times – and Pakistan must emerge as the leader of the last struggle. Clad in his trademark red hat, he is leading rallies on campuses and in auditoriums across the country. His words – and the excited reactions of his audiences – are captured by camera crews, and the footage posted on YouTube and Facebook.
In his ceremonial Urdu, laced with Quranic verses and English idioms, he tells the gathered that they represent a generation hand-picked by God to lead Pakistan. He warns them of the sinister forces arrayed against the blessed nation of Pakistan. He assures them that prophecies predict their victory – all they have to do is mobilise. They have to leave their seats and take back their country. Only then can they conquer India and Israel. Only then can they rebuke the United States. Only then can they fulfill the dreams of Pakistan’s founding fathers. But the first step has already been taken – they came to his rally, they heard his call to action.
We have been discussing him here for a while – and after seeing a few hundred of his appearances on youtube, I can offer a few bits of analysis.
Perhaps analytically most crucial is the point that he is not merely a conspiracy theorist. That aspect of his appeal has received the most attention and it does resonate widely in different spheres (and for varied reasons) but he has significantly more to offer the starry eyed. His primary appeal rests in propagating a prophetic apocalyptic tradition – both specific to the Prophet and symbolically linked to folks like Muhammad Iqbal. This prophetic tradition contains both an explanation of the current disasters but also a promise of restoration, of victory. From Islamic history, he takes ahadi’th proclaiming the triumph over India (and Jersualem); from (what he terms) “spiritual” realm, he takes the quatrains of Naimatullah Shah which make exactly the same amount of sense as Nostradamus; from Iqbal and Jinnah, he takes the nationalist “prophesies”. All this is amended and aided by the usual coterie of dreams, sufi sayings, “feelings” and “emotions”. This last bit is perhaps the most important to keep in mind – he argues for a “rational” argumentation (so “reports”, “findings”, “evidence” are prominent keywords in his speech), but it is the emotional landscape where he actually rests his case. He repeatedly calls upon his listeners to contemplate their feelings – scared, helpless, angry, righteous – and then work out how they can actively engage with them. The corrosive power of nationalist or religious slogans is most readily apparent here. I have a lot more to say about this affective turn in political punditry but, for now, let me stick with the prophetic tradition.
In one of the youtube exchanges, he is part of a panel interview with various military/political folks. One of the mustachio’d ex-military objects to his constant claims to the “spiritual warfare” saying that his emphasis on “sufi prophecies” was rather stunted. Hamid immediately jumps back to the Prophetic had’ith to make the same claim. The mustachio’d one has no choice but to acknowledge that the Prophet must be right. This line of reasoning – “the Prophet said” – is also deployed by his supporters to shut down the debate regarding his insane policies.((The prophesies are listed in his Nimatullah pamphlet linked here and you can listen to him expound here)) The response of the left/progressive/sane folks has been to mock – to great effect. I certainly have the impulse to simply state “Bullshit” to all his stories of 110 year old saints predicting this or that, to some random who or whom and presto! One only needs a modicum of common sense to see through that. Yet here we are.
So, I believe we need to deconstruct his claims on historical basis – while also, I guess, stating “Bullshit”.
The End-Times Narrative:
To historicize his claims to these “prophetic traditions” lets start with the hadi’th he claims predicts a Muslim army in al-Hind. Only scattered references to al-Hind as a geographical entity exist in the Sahih collections. The “prophetic ones” Zaid Hamid cites actually come from the accounts of thughūr al-Hind (frontier of al-Hind) which were compiled in eschatological collections. Just to be clear again, they do not appear in the collectively accredited ahadi’th. They number around five or six (repeated). In these short accounts, al-Hind is one of the stages for the battle between good and evil – between dajjāl (the anti-Christ in Christian eschatology) and the Muslims, at the end of time. An example is this oft-reproduced tradition: “The Prophet proclaimed that two groups from my ‘ummah will be protected from the fires of Hell. One is the group who will fight in the frontier of al-Hind and the other group with will stay with ‘Isa b. Maryam (Jesus Christ).” This is the tradition repeatedly cited by Zaid Hamid.
It appears in Kitab al-Fitan, the compendium of eschatological traditions by Nu‘aym ibn Ḥammād (d. 844). In a very short section entitled Ghāzwāt al-Hind (battles in al-Hind), Nu‘aym recounts traditions which collectively tie the conquest of al-Hind, and the capture and manumission of its Kings to the end of times. Within eschatological timeline, the conquest of al-Hind is portrayed as the penultimate step, after which, both ’Isa b. Maryam (Jesus) and dajjāl will finally emerge. For example, another tradition reported by Nu‘aym presents the prophecy of the Prophet that Jesus will arrive after the conquest of al- Hind and the captivity of the kings of al-Hind: “It is narrated by al-Wālid who received it from Sūfy’an bin ‘Umar who received it from the Prophet: He said, “From my ‘umma, someone will conquer al-Hind in the name of Allah and put the kings of al-Hind in chains. Allah will forgive them, and they will roam and explore Syria and they will find ‘Isa b. Maryam in Syria. The motif here is certainly not “conquest” but rather “humiliation” – i.e. of seeing the King brought in chains. This emphasis on mulūk (Kings) of lands far to the East is a key motif, with Kings of China also equally represented: “There is no army greater in reward than the army going to China, then they will bring the kings of China and the kings of al-Aqaba back in chains, and when they bring them they will find that [Jesus] son of Mary has already descended in Syria”.
To properly contextualize such traditions, we have to first conclude that these traditions reflect current thoughts and realities – as in, localized, contemporary propaganda at the margins of an expanding empire. When one compares them to the canonical traditions – and attempts to date them – this becomes clearer:
Historical apocalyptic traditions should be recognized, in general, to be the result of frustration and pre-conquest propaganda. Therefore, the most reasonable place to locate them would be in these intervals of inaction, especially after the major defeats of the reign of Hishām (r. 724-43). This period and the beginning of the `Abbāsid dynasty were, in all likelihood, the major periods of apocalyptic activity in Syria, which as come down to us in the form of historical apocalypses, and was mostly collected by Nu’aym two generations later.)
Al-Hind in these eschatological traditions, is both an outlier and a rhetorical point. These traditions are focused on Byzantium – and the kings of India or China are there to serve as demonstrations of rising Muslim power, as well as markers on the end-time-line. These are certainly not “prophecies” – as Zaid Hamid is treating them – they are remnants of a messianic debate between expansionist and conservative cadres in the 9th and 10th centuries at the Muslim borderland with the Byzantium.
I will deal with the “Foreign Hand” and the quatrains of the Naimatullah Shah in the near future.