Last update: 2019-05-27 12:13:22
The apocalyptic tradition, with its heritage of prophecies and symbols, has marked the various phases of Islamic history since its inception until the decisive leap of quality taken by the Islamic State of Al-Baghdadi, which makes systematic and explicit use of prophesies on the Last Day and the final battle. As shown by the title of the magazine Dabiq.
With the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for the first time in almost two centuries we see a relatively successful Muslim movement willing to base itself squarely upon apocalyptic predictions and expectations. Upon the proclamation of the Caliphate at the end of June 2014 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (otherwise known as the caliph Ibrahim), it is clear that one of the major propaganda points of the Islamic State is that it represents a pure revival of Islam – hence the use of Ibrahim for the Caliph’s name – and constitutes the state that will fight the predicted battles described inside the apocalyptic heritage of Sunni Islam. From a purely propagandistic point of view, this emphasis thus far has worked to the benefit of the Islamic State in that it has been able to gain the mass numbers of recruits from all over the world in order to fight its battles. However, it is equally clear that the use of this apocalyptic imagery has not persuaded the vast majority of Muslims, or more significantly the religious leadership (the ulama) of the truth of their claims.
The standard Muslim apocalyptic narrative is closely related to that developed in the classical Roman-Byzantine world first by Jews (cf. the book of Daniel and many other Second Temple era compositions), and then utilized extensively by Christians (cf. Matthew 24, 2 Peter 3 and especially the book of Revelation) and probably by Zoroastrians as well. In function, the apocalypse is designed to move the audience towards the belief that the world is about to come to an end, and to supply a series of (usually) ever increasingly terrifying events that will culminate either in the messianic age, the final judgment or the actual end of the world. The most obvious purpose of an apocalypse is to influence a mass audience toward significant spiritual change that would be driven by terror lest the events described come to pass. Other goals include powerful social critique, energizing an otherwise lethargic body of people towards a specific goal (ideally a messianic state), or providing a defeated and despondent group with a theological interpretation of the reasons why their situation is in accord with God’s plan and how victory will come out of defeat.
Although Muslim apocalypses are closely related to this type of classical apocalypse there are significant deviations from the classical norms. Classical apocalypses frequently included the element of a journey to heaven (and hell), and a revelation of cosmic mysteries through the agency of an angel. This type of apocalypse within Islam is localized to the genre of al-isrâ’ wa-l-mi‘râj (the Night Journey and Ascent to Heaven), and will not be discussed here.
Muslim apocalypses take the literary form of hadîth narratives, usually ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad, but with a significant minority also ascribed to ‘Ali b. Abû Tâlib or other sahâba (Companions of the Prophet Muhammad). In contrast to classical apocalypses, this fact severely limited the growth of the formal literary apocalypse, and ensured that the narratives remained fragments. Only very rarely have these fragments been “stitched” together to form a literary whole. In general, the fragments lack context and are highly contradictory in nature, and/or overlap in content, taking no notice of other fragments or occasionally polemicizing with them.
This contextless form makes it difficult to speak of the trends in the Muslim apocalypse. Although the isnâd (chain of transmitters) supplies us with some indication of the provenance of the apocalyptic fragments, and the contents are occasionally of a highly partisan-sectarian or regional nature, enabling the researcher to localize their origin approximately, the source of much of the material is unknown because of its form that is often resistant to close analysis.
From a literary standpoint, many apocalypses start out with the phrase lâ taqûm al-sâ‘a hattâ (“the Hour will not arise until”), after which the signs or portents are listed. Others consist of question and answer sessions or dramatic warnings of events due to arise in the near or distant future. But the vast majority of the apocalyptic material in the hadîth literature remains simple fragments, usually only a line or two.
The Content of the Prophecies
The content of the Muslim apocalypse, like its classical predecessor, is designed to drive the audience towards group repentance or to at least withdraw from the sinful society preparatory to the imminent end of the world. Since the form of the Muslim apocalypse denies us a coherent time-line of the events of the end of the world, we must rely to some extent upon the reconstruction of Muslim scholars (see below) who have artificially created such a time-line. They divided the apocalyptic materials into two major groups: the Lesser and Greater Signs of the Hour (‘alamât al-sâ‘a al-sughrâ wa-l-kubrâ).
The Lesser Signs are those moral, social, political, environmental and cosmic events that are dramatic enough or catastrophic enough to herald the imminent end of the world in an incontrovertible manner. Most of them are rooted in historically attested events or are at least thinly veiled social commentary. Not all of the Lesser Signs have actually occurred (from a historical point of view), but enough have that an apocalyptic writer or preacher can usually cite them to gain some credibility, because they prove ex post facto that the Prophet Muhammad knew about these events beforehand. There is no agreement upon number of the Lesser Signs: some authorities list up to 150, while others cite smaller numbers.
From the literary apocalyptic point of view, the two most fruitful types of signs were the moral apocalyptic signs, which enabled the apocalyptic writer to critique the society, and the descriptions of the wars with the Byzantines (and sometimes other enemies) that enabled Syrian based apocalyptic writers to create something closely akin to a classical apocalyptic story. This latter type of apocalypse presented the wars of the Muslims, usually based in northern Syria, with the Byzantines as one of the primary events heralding the end, and worked most of the Greater Signs of the Hour into this framework.
The Greater Signs of the Hour are far more important for the apocalyptic writers. These are much more closely defined: the appearance of the Dajjâl (antichrist), the descent of Jesus to kill him, the appearance of Ya’jûj wa-Majûj (Gog and Magog), the rising of the sun from the west and other associated portents. These signs are sufficiently dramatic or catastrophic that it would be impossible for anybody to be ignorant of their occurrence.
Dating Muslim apocalyptic fragments is a major problem closely related to the dating of the hadîth literature. However, apocalypses, unlike hadîth fragments, often have datable historical events or allusions within them, and occasionally list chronological dates. The former, unfortunately, are rarely straightforward, and frequently hide their precise identification behind obfuscations created by the authors. These can include symbolic language, indirect references, nick-names, or words having gematrical value that relate to the true subject of the apocalypse. Occasionally, however, the references are so obscure or so nonsensical that they raise the question of whether there actually is a referent at all.
The datable apocalyptic fragments range from the early 35-37/655-657 prediction of the end of the world all the way till apocalypses concerning the year 1000 hijri (1591-1592). Although these apocalypses are apparently easier to date, they are also much less likely to survive, as the incentive to preserve material that is demonstratably false is low. Most are to be found only in the mawdû‘ât collections of the hadîth literature. Datable apocalypses beyond the year 600 are usually not hadîths, but predictions that are based upon gematrical interpretation of the Qur’an, dreams or astrological calculations.
Early Apocalyptic Writings
There is a sharp divergence in early Muslim apocalyptic literature between that which was deemed to be canonical by the 3rd/9th century that which was not. Apocalyptic materials appear in the canonical collections of al-Bukhârî (d. 256/870), Muslim (d. 261/874), Abû Da’ûd (d. 275/888-889), al-Tirmidhî (d. 279/892) and Ibn Mâja (d. 275/888-889), and it is from these sources that Muslim scholars draw their definitions of Muslim beliefs about the end of the world. Beyond these sources are dozens of other hadîth books, and purely apocalyptic works, such as those of Nu‘aym Ibn Hammâd al-Marwazî (d. 229/844), Kitâb al-Fitan (Book of Tribulations) and of Ibn al-Munâdî (d. 336/947-948), Kitâb al-Malâhim (Book of Apocalyptic Wars). Nu‘aym is the primary source for the early apocalyptic traditions of Syria, especially those associated with the Syrian town of Homs, while Ibn al-Munâdî collected in Iraq, and had some Shi‘i affinities. Local collections for other areas of the Muslim world are sparse: some uniquely Northern African materials have survived in al-Dânî’s (d. 444/1052-3) al-Sunan al-wârida fî-l-fitan wa ghawâ’ilihâ wa-l-sâ‘a wa-ashrâtihâ (The Collected Traditions concerning the Tribulations and their Calamities, and the Hour and its Portents), and the much more popular work of al-Qurtubî (d. 671/1272-1273), al-Tadhkira fî ahwâl al-mawtâ wa-umûr al-Âkhira (A Note concerning the Status of the Dead and End Matters), which focused upon the Spanish Muslim apocalyptic heritage. Other local apocalyptic material from eastern Persia and Central Asia is usually synthesized from the sources listed above, and is later.
With the exception of certain short comments in Nu‘aym and Ibn al-Munâdî, the early Muslim apocalyptic books are all indistinguishable from hadîth (tradition) collections, and offer virtually no commentary on the traditions they narrate.
Later Apocalyptic Writings
The later Muslim apocalyptic heritage begins with the two most popular writers: al-Qurtubî and especially Ibn Kathîr (d. 774/1372-1373). With these two authors one can see the reactive nature of later apocalyptic writing. Al-Qurtubî wrote under the pressure of the Christian reconquista of Spain, and included extensive commentaries on the relevance of the traditions, and their interpretation. Ibn Kathîr appended his popular history al-Bidâya wa-l-Nihâya with an extensive collection of apocalypses, with some commentary. Clearly for him, apocalypse was part of the history writing process. Other major apocalyptic writers, such as Jalâl al-Dîn al-Suyûtî (d. 911/1505), and al-Barzanjî (d. 1113/1701), had to confront specific challenges stemming from the Muslim apocalyptic scenario. Al- Suyûtî, for example, as he lived immediately prior to the hijri year 1000/1591-1592, had to write concerning beliefs that the expected apocalyptic events would happen during the century in which he lived. His Kashf ‘an mujâwazat hadhihi al-umma al-alf (A Revelation concerning this Community’s Passing the Year 1000) is one of the most important apocalyptic tracts ever written in the later period, as it moved the time-line for the events heralding the end of the world up 500 years (from 1000/1591-152 to the hijri year 1500). Al-Barzanjî, who lived some 200 years later, most probably wrote his al-Ishâ‘a li-ashrât al-sâ‘a (Propagation of the Portents of the Hour, completed 11 Dhû al-Qa‘da 1077/Apr. 20, 1666) to counter the Jewish messianic expectations focused upon the figure of Shabbetai Zvi. Like al-Qurtubî above, al-Barzanjî is one of the few classical writers who abandoned the form of the hadîth when writing his book, and composed a narrative.
Apocalypses continue to be important into the present time. Many of the reformers of the 13-14th/18-19th centuries such as Shehu ‘Uthman Dan Fodio (d. 1234/1817) of northern Nigeria wrote apocalyptic tracts reinterpreting the signs in accordance with current events. Other writers such as Muhammad Anwar al-Kashmiri (d. 1352/1933) used the apocalyptic material to combat specific movements such as the Ahmadiyya in British India. Since one of the beliefs of this group was that the founder, Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1326/1908), was in fact the Mahdi, it was important to re-emphasize the doctrine of Jesus’ descent from heaven in his book.
Shi‘ite apocalypses are closely related to the Sunni materials, and indeed for the classical period of Islam are indistinguishable from them. However, there are certain differences, such as lowered profile for the sequences concerning the Dajjâl and Jesus and a raised profile for the Mahdi figure (connected to the Imams). Other elements in the apocalyptic sequence are interchangeable.
Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Expectations
Contemporary Muslim Salafi-jihadi groups, such as the Islamic State (Isis) and others utilize the apocalyptic heritage of Islam. This use is the result of a strategy that places them in opposition to other Salafi groups, such as al-Qaeda or Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas. It is problematic to emphasize the coming apocalypse, even though it is an event accepted by all Muslims, because the specificity of the predictions makes it difficult to gain recruits to a given cause. People who believe that God will fulfill these predictions might adopt a rather passive attitude towards fighting. Many radical groups such as al-Qaeda cite very general apocalyptic predictions, such as the prophecy that “black banners will come from the east” and conquer the regions of Iraq and Syria in order to purify Islam. This tradition was used to justify the rise of the Taliban for example. However, because it was extremely general in nature, and had in fact been used also during the rise of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, it was not considered to be problematic.
With the rise of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi during the period 2004-2006 in Iraq there was a much closer linkage made by Salafi-jihadists between their battles against the US armed forces in Iraq, and the apocalyptic wars described in the texts. Between 2006-2014 this apocalyptic sense was not very strong inside the groups later to comprise the Islamic State, but with the proclamation of the Caliphate in the summer of 2014 those interpretations became explicit. The most prominent of those linkages has been through Isis’s on-line magazine, Dabiq, which harks back to the Armageddon-like battle described in the classical apocalyptic materials predicted to take place close to the city of Aleppo (northern Syria, today contested between the Syrian regime and the Salafi-jihadi rebels) between the Muslims and the non-Muslims.
Re-interpretation of the classical material is necessary, because the texts state that the opposing side will be the Byzantines (the Eastern Romans). However, today it is not unusual to find Isis interpreting “the Byzantines” as representing Christians in general, perhaps the United States, or even rather surprisingly, the Turks, who Salafis often consider to be non-Muslims. Because this Syrian apocalyptic material was composed when the primary enemy of the Islamic empire (in the 8th-10th centuries) was Byzantium, the ultimate goal of the apocalypse is usually to conquer first Constantinople, today Istanbul, and then to go on to conquer Rome. There is extensive detail inside the book of Nu’aym, for example, describing the future conquest of Rome, and even demonstrating some knowledge of its churches at that time, where the remains of the Second Temple (of Jerusalem) are said to be kept.
The Islamic State by its nature is apocalyptic and aggressive, and sees itself on a mission to purify Islam, to conquer and unify the entire Muslim world, and then to fulfill the apocalyptic predictions. Although one can easily point to the weaknesses in their interpretations, and the fantasy-land that allows a mature political group to believe that it is reenacting and fulfilling these prophecies, it is clear that its message does resonate with a significant, albeit small, section of world Islam.
 Gematria is a system of numerology that assigns a numerical value to letters and words (Ed.).
 They are collections of unauthentic hadîths (Ed.).
To cite this article
David Cook, “Armageddon in Islam: the Black Flags of Isis”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 83-89.
David Cook, “Armageddon in Islam: the Black Flags of Isis”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/armageddon-islam-black-flags-isis.