ISIS armyIn the vast literature of hadîth (hundreds of thousands of sayings attributed to the Prophet of Islam), some always enjoyed particular popularity because of their content, their particularly poignant formula or their wide diffusion, understood as a guarantee of their authenticity. This is the case for example of the collection of 40 hadîths compiled by an-Nawawî, the famous thirteenth-century Syrian traditionist, and still widespread across the whole Islamic world.1
Other times some otherwise forgotten hadîth comes back into ‘fashion’ because they are endorsed by a militant movement. Today this is the case of the tradition which puts the final battle between the forces of good and evil in the Syrian city of Dâbiq, not far from Aleppo. Since Isis appropriated it by titling its newspaper after this hadîth, it has come out from the anonymity of dusty volumes of traditions to live a new life under the lights of the global stage.
The genre of this hadîth is apocalyptic, concerning prophecies about the events that will precede the Day of Judgement. As illustrated by David Cook, author of several studies on the topic,2 the oldest Islamic production is distinguished, compared to Jewish or Christian ones, for the fact of not presenting “the Signs of the Hour” according to a continuous narrative sequence, but in the state of fragments, isolated traditions that the ulema will later try to merge into a single story.
Among these fragments, sort of still images of a film yet to be made, one also finds the hadîth relative to Dâbiq. Preceded by the usual chain of transmitters (via Zuhayr ibn Harb; Mu‘allâ ibn Mansûr; Sulaymân ibn Bilâl; Suhayl his father, Abû Hurayra), it reads:
The messenger of God said: ‘The Hour [of Judgement] will not rise until the Romans did not encamp in the lower reaches of the Orontes (al-A‘mâq) or at Dâbiq. Then against them an army from Medina will move, composed of the best inhabitants of the earth. And when the two are about to collide, the Romans will say: ‘Let us fight free handed those who took prisoners among us: we’re going to fight them alone’. But Muslims respond: ‘No, for God. We will not leave you free hand with our brothers’. And the battle will burst out.
A third [of Muslims] will turn fleeing defeated: God will never accept their repentance. A third will be killed: they will be the best martyrs. And a third will achieve victory and will no longer have to fear dissent: they will conquer Constantinople. And while they divide the spoils, and have hung their swords to the olive trees, Satan will shout among them falsely: ‘The Antichrist3 took your place in your families!’ Then they will go out of Constantinople. When they arrive in Syria, Satan will come against them. As they prepare to fight him and tighten the ranks, there will come the time of prayer. Then Jesus son of Mary will come down [from heaven] to lead the prayer. When the enemy of God will see him, it will dissolve like salt in water. And if he lets him go, he would melt and eventually disappear. But God will kill him by his hand and show them his blood on the tip of the spear of Jesus’.
(Muslim, Sahîh, Kitâb al-fitan wa-ashrât al-Sâ‘a, Bâb fî fath al-Qustantîniyya wa-khurûj al-Dajjâl wa nuzûl ‘Îsâ b. Maryam, hadîth number 7312, page 1073, Dâr Sâdir, Bayrût s.d).
A brief partial explanation to illustrate the content of the text.
First, the tradition is preserved in the collection of Muslim (d. 875), regarded by Sunnis as the most authoritative hadîth book along with that of al-Bukhârî (d. 854). This collection is divided into several books, one of which is titled The Book of the tribulations and the Signs of the Hour. In it is a chapter (bâb 9) dedicated to the ‘conquest of Constantinople, the appearance of the Antichrist and the descent of Jesus son of Mary’. This chapter actually only contains this hadîth.
The formula which opens the tradition (‘The Hour will not rise until ...’) recurs in the oldest apocalyptic material. For example in the same book it is found again in chapter 14, where it is written: ‘The Hour will not rise until it comes out from the land of Hijaz [= the region of Mecca and Medina] a fire that will illuminate the necks of camels in Bosra [in Syria]’. Just previous to this, in chapter 12 we already read that “The Hour will not rise until” the conquests are accomplished, listed in this order: the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Empire, and the Byzantine Empire. They will be followed by – just like our hadîth tells us – the coming of the Antichrist, a monstrous figure that takes possession of the land for some time before being defeated by Christ, the Messiah, son of Mary, who for Islam ascended to heaven upon his crucifixion.
Unlike other apocalyptic texts, it is not difficult to reconstruct the context of the hadîth of Dabiq, and its area of origin: in fact it clearly dates from the Arab-Byzantine wars. In the thrust of the early military campaigns, Muslims took possession of the entire Near East, but failed to conquer Constantinople. For several centuries from then the city remained a symbolic target, whilst the border settled on the slopes of the Anatolian plateau. To speak of a border is actually incorrect if one thinks of a modern clearly demarcated border. Rather it was a no man's land for several kilometres wide, ending in a first line of strongholds and border marches (thughûr in Arabic) which was followed by a second line of city-fortresses (‘awâsim). Each summer, the two armies led offensive campaigns into enemy territory, taking prisoners and booty. It is understandable, therefore, that for the people of Syria (and for those in Byzantine Anatolia across the border), the state of almost endemic war stimulated the formation of apocalyptic material that situated the tremendous events relating to the advent of the Hour in this context of secular hostility.
The Syrian setting thus provides a useful element to the dating of the hadîth, that must come after the first wave of conquests (a first siege of Constantinople took place from 674 to 678 and a second in the 717 to 718) and probably is to be set between the late Umayyad and the early Abbasid age, not long before the compilation of the collection by Muslim. The Byzantine-Arab border then remained essentially unchanged until the campaigns of Nicephorus Phocas in the tenth century, which culminated in the temporary reconquest of Cilicia and Antioch by the Byzantines. In 1071, however, the decisive Turkish victory at Manzikert signalled the collapse of the Roman Empire of the East and opened the way for the conquest of Anatolia and finally of Constantinople in 1453. Northern Syria, after one last decisive battle between the Ottomans and Mamluks, was out of the scene.
As one can guess even from this cursory presentation, the hadîth concerning Dâbiq did not enjoy particular prominence in the Islamic apocalyptic material. Other traditions in fact place the decisive events of the Day of Judgment in other regions or cities, such as Damascus or Jerusalem.
It was probably the fact that large sections of northern Syria had been taken that pushed Isis to emphasising this particular tradition. The recovery of the text is due to its actualization: the Romans the text is talking about, that is, the Byzantines, are in fact re-read as Westerners in general. And given that the conquest of the New Rome (Constantinople) has already been accomplished, Isis moves its attention, for now fortunately only in the media, to the other Rome.
As Hamit Bozarslan discusses in an interview to be released in the next issue of Oasis, the Islamic state acts on two levels: instrumental rationality, aimed at the creation of a state, and sheer irrationality, tending to the symbolic and sometimes frankly apocalyptic dimension. Due to this dual logic, the phenomenon requires, to be understood, to be treated on different levels, from the geopolitical considerations to the eschatological aspirations that are – at least to part of the leadership – no less real than the immediate strategic calculations.
1 See. In English, in French and in Italian.
2See. e.g. Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, Darwin Press, Princeton 2003.
3In the edition Dâr Sâdir it is actually al-Masîh (Christ), but the correct lesson is al-Masîh Al-Dajjâl (The Antichrist), as it is proved by other parallel hadîths (see. Lisân al-‘Arab voice khalafa-hu).