And a third book review. This set formed a kind of trilogy. This final volume combined my interest in learning more about Islam with my existing interest in millennialism. I wrote this review in 2009. If anything, I think it has only gotten more topical.
I was lent this book by the same person who lent me Islam and the Jews: The Unfinished Battle and Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics. Since I have an interest in millennialism generally, I dived straight in. Richardson's work is a prime example of what John Reilly called the 'Standard Model' of Christian millennialism. This is the common-sense, popular, literal model based on direct identification of particular events with the prophecies contained with the Apocalypse of St. John. This model has taken different forms at different times, but in twenty first century America it takes the form of premillennial dispensationalism. This is the frame of reference of the author, who then sets out a detailed comparison between al-Mahdi and Isa bin Maryam and the Antichrist and the False Prophet depicted in the book of Revelations.
The author wrote this book under a pseudonym, out of a rightful fear of retribution. At least in the United States, such things are not yet commonplace, but in Europe, violence or threats of violence against those critical of Islam is commonplace. For example, the makers of the game Little Big Planet recalled the game after it came to light that one of the songs in the game featured verses from the Koran. Given the location of the developer in London, actual violence was a possibility. However, the author is at pains to emphasize that he means no ill will, but simply wishes to tell the truth as best he understands it.
Richardson's account is based largely on the hadith and the commentaries thereon that have been translated into English. This is not a complaint, since this is an admirable amateur effort. Acquiring sufficient linguistic expertise to read Islamic commentaries on the hadith in Arabic is the province of the ivory tower, and such a work would likely have been stillborn within the academic world. That being said, there are strange gaps in Richardson's knowledge that are the likely result of autodidactism. When self-taught, one does not know what one does not know. For example, Richardson seems wholly innocent of Islamic tradition with regards to the people of the book, as opposed to other faiths.
"Interestingly enough, Islamic tradition speaks much of the Mahdi's special calling to convert Christians and Jews to Islam, yet speaks very little specifically of conversions from other faiths. It seems as though converting Christians and Jews to Islam will be the primary evangelistic thrust of the Mahdi." -pg 61
Indeed. Given that the Mahdi's job is to conquer the entire world, there will not be believers of any other faiths except Christians and Jews. Christians and Jews, being people of the Book, get special treatment. One may convert, or one may remain a Christian or Jew and pay the Jizyah. Neglected people of the Book include the Sabians*, who lived in Baghdad and were eventually massacred en toto in the twelfth century. Other faiths only have the option of conversion or death. Thus, by the time the Mahdi has done his work, there will be no Hindus or Buddhists or what-have-you left. Ask the Zoroastrians how that works out.
This book is really good for a ground-eye view of a living millennial belief, worked out in light of objections and the shifting situations in the world. If you want to learn about the terms used in premillennial circles, this book is quite good. This work also has generally good basic info about Islamic millennialism, including the fact that al-Mahdi is not exclusively a Shia figure. However, it would be wise to cross-check the meanings of Arabic words and the preeminence of interpretations with more scholarly works.
I admire the author for including a chapter of likely rebuttals to his work. Chief among these is the popular model has been identifying Antichrists without notable success for two millennia. He is bound and determined to move forward however, because he believes that he sees real parallels. This is actually what is most interesting about the book. Richardson is on the very edges of the premillennial model, and has included material in his book that actually points away from his thesis considered literally. Simply stated, millennial expectations are a completely normal aspect of all human cultures, so we cannot be all that surprised by similarities between different accounts. But there is more to it than that. As St. Augustine put it in Book XX of the City of God, each age is equally close to the Millennium, because each age instantiates the elements of the Last Days. Thus the parallels that Richardson sees are real, but that does not necessarily mean that the events he foresees will therefore be the unique, final end that St. Augustine also believed in. Biblical prophecy exhibits properties analogous to quantum indeterminacy. The more one knows about what is going to happen specifically, the less one knows about when exactly this will take place. (Mark 13) Whereas, the less one tries to apply prophecy to particular events, the more certain you can become that will occur eventually.
A worthy book, and an act of personal bravery on the part of the author. Worth a read if you are interested in millennialism of either Christian or Muslim varieties. Most flaws are probably due to to a lack of editing in volumes of this type.