February 28, 2003
Understanding Islamic End-Times Beliefs
By Rod Dreher
Many Evangelical Christians in America are watching events unfold in the Middle East with great interest, seeing in the preparations for war the possible unfolding of the End-Times scenario predicted in the Bible. A small segment of ultraorthodox Judaism shares an apocalyptic vision, centering around rebuilding the Temple on Mount Zion (where the Islamic Dome of the Rock Shrine and al-Aqsa mosque, now sit). What many Americans don't realize, though, is that Islam also has an eschatological endgame, and that like any Left Behind-reading American, many Muslims see current events as a run-up to their own version of Armageddon.
Islam derives its Last-Days scenario from the Koran, which appeared centuries after the Christian Bible — a fact that for non-Muslims could account for elements of Christian and Jewish prophecy appearing in the Koranic text. Particularly since the mid-1980s, modern interpreters within Islam cast the Arab-Israeli conflict, and more broadly, the conflict between Islam and the West, as part of the cosmic conflict that will mean the end of history and the ultimate triumph of Islam. David Cook, a Rice University scholar of Muslim apocalypticism, sketches below the main themes of Islamic End-Times prophecy, and its ramifications:
Rod Dreher: What are the main beliefs of Islamic eschatology?
David Cook: Referring to Sunni Islam, the principal beliefs are:
1)There are a series of signs or portents previous to the end: moral and social decay, natural and cosmic disasters, and political events that will demonstrate in an incontrovertible manner that the end is about to happen.
2) A tempter, or Antichrist, called the Dajjal will appear and lead the world (with the exception of true Muslims) astray. Almost everyone will be subject to his tribulations, but just before he succeeds in annihilating the Muslims, Jesus will come down from the heavens and kill him.
3) There will be a messianic age, led by either Jesus or another messianic figure called the Mahdi. This latter figure will conquer the entire world and convert everyone to Islam.
4) After the time of the Mahdi, then Gog and Magog [cf. Ezekiel 38, 39; the Islamic version goes by the name Yajuj and Majuj] will invade the world and destroy it.
5) God will bring the world to an end.
Dreher: What sort of Muslim tends to make Islamic End-Times prophecy central to his piety?
Cook: Usually one without much hope in the likelihood that there will be positive changes that will benefit Islam in the immediate future. Such people can oftentimes be attracted by an apocalyptic, destroy-it-all framework or long for the messianic age.
Dreher: How popular is apocalypticism at the present moment among Middle Eastern Muslims?
Cook: In certain areas, quite popular. Radical Muslims (followers of or sympathizers with al Qaeda) have responded to their setbacks during the recent past by publishing large numbers of apocalypses, and mahdi scenarios. Among Palestinians, apocalyptic speculations are also quite prominent. I think that apocalypse as a genre has become less popular in Egypt than it was 3-4 years ago, however, and Algerian radicals no longer use apocalyptic motifs either.
Dreher: If one is reading current events through the lens of contemporary Islamic prophecy, what will one see?
Cook: Many of the apocalyptic wars before the appearance of the Dajjal speak of Christian powers invading Muslim lands. This is the interpretation of the [seemingly imminent] Iraq war. The Dajjal is said to be a Jew, and will blaspheme the area of Jerusalem. Ariel Sharon is usually made to fit that bill. Among radical Muslims, the Mahdi is oftentimes said to be either Mullah Omar or in some cases Osama bin Laden. One of the traditions says: "The Prophet of Allah promised us a raid on India" which is widely cited by Pakistani radicals.
Dreher: Given the central role the Temple Mount plays in the End-Times beliefs of certain fervent Jews, Christians, and Muslims, what kind of trouble might we see there in the event of Middle Eastern war?
Cook: Right now the Temple Mount is effectively closed. It will probably always be the center of scary predictions and fears for Muslims as long as Israel has any power or influence in the region, but I don't foresee any necessary reason why the Temple Mount should be a focus. Most of the material published now speaks of wars and apocalypses on a grand scale; the materials on the Temple Mount were all because of the fear that Israel would rebuild the Temple in the year 2000 (perhaps contributing to the explosion of the second Intifada during Sept. 2000).
Dreher: In the secular West, we tend to discount the role religious visions play in driving or at least shaping world affairs. If you were advising the president on what he could do to avoid provoking unnecessarily Muslims who believe strongly in Islamic prophecy, what would you tell him?
Cook: I would tell him to convert to Islam if I were trying to get him to avoid provoking Muslims who believe strongly in Islamic prophecy. There is probably no other way to avoid provoking them. For them, Bush is easily cast into the role of Pharaoh, the Dajjal (for those who aren't satisfied with Sharon as the one). He is usually referred to as the Hubal (the name of a pre-Islamic idol) of this age, which signifies that there is no chance to mollify this type of people.
Dreher: It doesn't matter whether or not a particular prophetic vision is true; what matters is how it affects the actions of those who do believe it's true. With that in mind, what kind of problems could Islamic apocalypticism pose for the United States as it attempts to foment governmental and society change on Middle Eastern populations through force?
Cook: The basic problem is that our actions could, in the perception of large numbers of the population, coincide with apocalyptic interpretations. If this is the case then it will serve to radicalize people, and raise the stakes that much higher for the apocalyptic groups. If they view the situation (or perhaps I should say if enough of them, or enough of those placed in the right place) as an apocalyptic one, then they will respond accordingly.
Dreher: I guess what I'm getting at with this last question is this: How cooperative will Islamic populations be with the forces of a man, George W. Bush, whom they may see as their version of the Antichrist?
Cook: It depends upon the issue of perceived victory, I think. No one challenges the victory of the U.S. in Afghanistan because it was complete (more or less) and legitimate (or perhaps legitimized by the new Afghan government). If that is perceived to be the case in Iraq, then the result could be exactly the opposite. What should not happen is for something to drag out; in hindsight that was the problem with both the Oslo negotiations and the blockade of Iraq. They were lengthy and people forgot the original reasons why they were the way they were, and then allowed themselves to be swayed by radical and apocalyptic interpretations of events.