Hasnet Lais is an educator and journalist who writes on contemporary Muslim affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @haznet1.
The much anticipated Messiah recently premiered on Netflix and the eschatological blogosphere has gone into overdrive ever since. Centred on an Iranian redeemer-like figure emerging from war torn Syria, the man known as ‘Al-Masih’ aka Payam Golshiri (Mehdi Dehbi) amasses a cult following by performing Christ-like miracles and promising to restore peace in a chaotic world.
From the moment Netflix released the trailer, the title ‘Al-Masih’ was a major plot spoiler for Muslims. While ‘Al-Masih’ is the Quranic term referring to Prophet Jesus (as) who is the true messiah, it also describes ‘Dajjal’, an impostor Antichrist who will impersonate Jesus before his second coming, and will eventually suffer his demise at his hands.
While it’s too early to discern the motivations of the main characters, from a theological standpoint, the above sequence of events rules out the possibility of Al-Masih being the second coming of Jesus in Netflix’s latest offering.
Given the ominous implications of accepting a charlatan masquerading as God, the show was bound to arouse fervent curiosity amongst Muslims. According to the Prophetic traditions, the Dajjal is the ultimate embodiment of deception who will eventually claim divinity. His time on earth has been described as the greatest tribulation to befall humanity from the dawn of Adam (as) until the Day of Judgement. Many will be hoodwinked by his initial protestation of faith, beguiling persona and supernatural powers, much like Al-Masih who saves a teenage girl from a tornado and walks on water at the Lincoln Memorial Pool.
As one of the largest US media corporations, it’s no surprise that Netflix functions as a propaganda arm for radical leftists and the military industrial complex. Resultantly, the show churns out tired War on Terror tropes as exemplified by CIA Agent Eva Gellar’s (Michelle Monaghan) obsession with Al-Masih’s radical affiliations and her conviction in Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations. Its contemptible treatment of Palestinian sovereignty by conflating a liberation struggle with teenage suicide bombers is also characteristic of the crude clichés and stereotyping popular in the streaming network’s library.
There’s also the trademark Russophobia. We’re told Al-Masih could be an agent of chaos tasked by Oscar Wallace-a former academic who defected to Russia-to foment instability in the American homeland.
Despite his backstory which confirms Al-Masih to be a victim of US wars with a lifelong Messiah Complex, the suggestion that he could be a geopolitical hoax or impetus for a renewed terrorist insurgency should not detract us from a deeper probe into his character. He is more than simply a political lightning rod caught up in the contemporary culture wars.
I noted with intrigue as Al-Masih was granted amnesty in USA, from where he was provided a safe encampment by faithful followers led by a small-town Baptist minister. The scenes showing Christians flocking to rural Texas to enlist themselves among his followers, a Latter-day Saint US President being floated the prospect of a thousand year peace, and Al-Masih’s invitation to a televangelist church are no trivial details. They’re of profound eschatological significance and drew my attention to a peculiar interfaith union in the American political landscape to which some of the show’s characters are presumably subscribed: Christian Zionism.
What may sound paradoxical and conspiratorial has functioned as a powerful force directing the course of US foreign policy for decades: an expedient alliance between Evangelical Christians and Jewish Zionists.
Adhering to a Biblically derived apocalyptic ideology known as dispensationalism, Christian Zionists believe that the restoration of Greater Israel to the Jewish people will culminate in the Second Coming of Christ and a millennium of earthly rule centred on Jerusalem. Thus, the state of Israel is a fundamental part of God’s plan and the Christian Zionists who number in the millions have a vested interest in facilitating its growth and preservation. This is the metanarrative underpinning Trump’s recent declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and explains why he’s feted as a modern-day King Cyrus.
I appreciate that trying to pinpoint the religious connotations of a theologically hazy plot is notoriously complex as the producers don’t throw their lot in with any specific creed. Nonetheless, I could not ignore this political dynamic or the symbolic resonance which the concept of messiah holds for a large swathe of Evangelical Christians when watching the series. Viewed against this backdrop, Messiah provides foreboding insight into the Israel First policy of successive US administrations.
Despite professing his Jewish descent early on, something I found incredibly bizarre was how the show made no reference to the messianic tradition in Judaism. This was a glaring omission by producers and can’t be explained away by simply critiquing the show’s disjointed plot which does get lost in narrative purgatory.
In an interesting exposé by Chris White titled False Christ, the author draws on rabbinical sources to substantiate how Jews are encouraged to accept as Messiah a future Davidic King whose description bears ominous resemblance to the Antichrist. He will proclaim divinity from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and lead the people like lambs to the slaughter. It is also a contention amongst many Christians that this will be the site of sacrilege, ushering an age of Pax-Judaica and precipitating the destruction of those who refuse subservience to the anointed one.
There is also a narration informing Muslims that Dajjal will be followed by 70,000 Jews from Isfahan wearing Persian Shawls. So why is there no special attention to the end-time beliefs espoused by Jewish theologians?
It’s no secret that for centuries, it has been the dream of the dispersed Jewish people to return to their homeland and build the Third Temple – their ancient centre of worship and the site of their Messiah’s coronation-on the site of Islam’s third holiest sanctuary, Masjid Al-Aqsa.
The subliminal messaging sparsely distributed throughout the episodes brings new life to these old murmurings. The Antichrist motif can be inferred from subtle cues such as the jubilant churchgoers worshipping at the ‘New Jerusalem Temple of God’, with one hinting that a prophecy has come to pass.
At face value, the dramatic shooting scene on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount which includes the Dome of the Rock resonates spiritually with the followers of all three Abrahamic faiths.
But with the aforementioned eschatology in mind and considering how plans to build a Third Temple by erasing Jerusalem’s Muslim heritage is gaining momentum, there’s a disturbing pattern unfolding.
The cryptic allusions to what was once described by Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg as “the most contested piece of real estate on earth” may foreshadow Al-Masih’s usurpation of the sacred spaces.
The season finale offers a predictable insight into Al-Masih’s God-given powers but its revelatory potential leaves a lot to be desired. For all its portentous hysteria of a world hurtling towards impending Armageddon, Messiah accomplishes little by way of unpacking the machinations I have outlined.
My intuition tells me that Jerusalem is where the second season is heading, and I anticipate a plot which hinges on credulous worshippers embarking on a mass exodus to the holy of holies, where Al-Masih lets his interests lead their conscience on a leash.
Unlike the true messiah, Payam Golshiri has got everyone guessing. We’re left to the third eye to unpack the mosaic of opinions and satiate our eschatological curiosity.