Apocalypse is Now!
Apocalypse: A Short History
Apocalypse is, in a short definition, the history of the future leading up to the end of the world. While it is difficult to say precisely when apocalypse as a literary-religious genre first evolved, the form in which most encounter it today was developed during the second century B.C.E. Largely in response to Hellenization, Jews who first developed the narrative sought to establish that present troubles are a test mandated by God in order to purify a group/sect/remnant who will, after they pass through the tribulation, enter the promised end-times kingdom.
Apocalypse, then through early Christianity and early Islam, became a means for which the believer could roughly foresee the future. This future was portrayed as fairly bleak: a series of ever-escalating signs or tribulations that the world was due to end. In general, the believer’s options for what to do with these signs was limited; in both Christianity and Islam, usually the best advice given by the holy texts and traditions was to flee civilization and exist on its margins.
However, apocalypse, while containing this message of future destruction, also contains elements of a hopeful finale. These hopeful elements are the possibility of a just or righteous kingdom here on earth, usually to be administered by a messianic figure. In Christianity, this figure is Jesus, while in Islam he can be either Jesus (who as in Christianity is said to return at the end of the world) or a Muslim messianic figure called the Mahdi. Also known as the rightly guided one, this figure is usually among the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and is prominent in both Sunni and Shi`ite Islam.
The prospect of a messianic, righteous kingdom on earth is one that is a permanent attractant to both rulers/prospective rulers, as well as common believers. Hope for such a kingdom stands to some degree in opposition to the bleak message of tribulation previously mentioned. However, one can say that the genre of apocalypse is filled with internal contradictions. These contradictions allow for multiple interpretations of how the future will play out and are never really resolved. Perhaps it is not possible or even desirable that these contradictions should be resolved, as in the end, apocalypse represents a multiplicity of futures conceived by numerous, mostly anonymous figures on behalf of a global audience.
Messianic and righteous kingdoms, however, are very specific — even dangerously so. The hope for justice and righteousness is one for which most Muslims and Christians yearn, and therefore as a political philosophy, the messianic or righteous kingdom is very useful. Many kings, caliphs, sultans, and religious demagogues have either propelled themselves into power by holding out the possibility of establishing such a kingdom, or once they have achieved power, framed their legitimacy in terms of their continued power, leading towards this eventual goal.
Hitherto, we have discussed classical and general themes, now I will approach how these themes play out in contemporary Muslim apocalypse (there are, of course, similar themes in Christian apocalypse). Just as with the classical Muslim world, the contemporary one has several stark divides concerning the genre of apocalypse. A specific doctrine that the world will come to an end is an integral part of Islamic belief as a whole. However, this belief that the world will come to an end is also said, according to the Qur’an, to be an event whose time of fulfillment is known only to God.
The end of the world’s date placement beyond the realm of human knowledge is something with which Muslim religious elites (the Ulama) feel comfortable with. In general, these religious elites do not like the fact that apocalyptic prophecies can be utilized to generate social unrest. These religious elites teach and emphasize two types of signs concerning the end of the world: moral apocalyptic signs — ones that detail moral degradation prior to the end — and cataclysmic apocalyptic events that are so incontrovertible that they are beyond any human ability to fake.
This last category of signs include future events such as the appearance of the Antichrist — a monstrous figure in Islam — the appearance of Gog and Magog, two non-human peoples who will destroy the earth entirely, and the rising of the sun from the west. All of these signs are broadly accepted, and are non-political in nature.
Confining apocalyptic speculation to these events is profoundly unsatisfying to many Muslims, who long for the just and righteous kingdom described in the classical sources. This longing gives an opening to present-day Salafi-jihadi groups, who fight with the goal of establishing an uncompromised Shari`a state based upon Islamic principles, without western non-Islamic influences.
Starting in 1996 with the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, these hard-line Sunni groups began to be more and more attracted by the messianic prophecies. The attraction of these Salafi-jihadi groups to apocalypse is by no means as easy a process as one would imagine. Salafism seeks to base its interpretation of an Islamic state upon verified traditions originating with the Prophet Muhammad, and to recreate the state that he established during the seventh century in the present.
However, most of the apocalyptic traditions, especially the ones describing the messianic future kingdom, are not verified according to the principles established by Sunni scholars. This uncomfortable fact leaves Salafi-jihadi groups in a difficult position. Those, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), who occupied large sections of Syria and Iraq — both locations featured prominently in classical apocalyptic prediction — sought to use the prophecies and argue that their nascent state was actually the fulfillment of a prophecy.
Desire to fulfill the prophecy was exemplified by ISIS’ use of the small town location of Dabiq, in northwestern Syria close to the Turkish border. Dabiq is mentioned in various apocalyptic prophecies from the classical period as being the location where the final cataclysmic battle, equivalent to the Christian notion of the Battle of Armageddon, will be fought. When ISIS took over this location, they immediately resurrected its mostly forgotten apocalyptic significance by claiming that they were the end-times army that would fight unbelievers there.
Excessive specificity, however, is a problem for apocalyptic groups the world round. Close predictions involving specific dates, people or locations generate a huge amount of enthusiasm — such as the enthusiasm among Salafis during ISIS’ apocalyptic high point from 2014 to 2017 — but when something goes wrong (in this case ISIS losing control over Dabiq) then the enthusiasm usually takes a sharp downturn. Sometimes support for a group can collapse quite suddenly upon disconfirmation of an apocalyptic prophecy.
Is it going anywhere?
Apocalypse never really goes away. Throughout history, till the present, believers’ hopes in a messianic kingdom or fears of a dystopian, destructive tribulation are permanent, but usually unfocused. These hopes and/or fears are usually made real by the confluence of (apparent) prophecy fulfillment, a charismatic personality for leadership, and a strong desire for social change (or in certain cases, a need to interpret in religious terms social change that has already manifested itself) on the part of the larger population.
ISIS post-2017 lost its apocalyptic sheen and abandoned the theme of Dabiq, which for several years had been the title of its flagship English-language monthly publication. Does this mean that apocalypse as a belief-set has been rejected? No, it does not. The basic themes that ISIS utilized are still in the air, waiting for the next group to come along and to utilize them.
A good example of the persistence of apocalyptic themes is the case of the black flags that, while predating ISIS, were popularized by them. These black flags, with an archaic Arabic script also in black and a smallish white background, carrying the slogan “Muhammad is the Messenger of God” are probably beyond the use of Dabiq as one of the most popular apocalyptic symbols produced in contemporary times.
The black flags hark back to an apocalyptic prophecy that speaks of “black flags/banners” coming from the east to purify the Muslim world. Archaic Arabic script conveys to the viewer that this is a group that will renew the ancient glory of Islam in an unapologetic manner. And the dichotomy of black/white tells all who see the flags the stark, Manichean world-view of Salafi-jihadi groups. Both the Taliban of 1996-2001 and the present-day Taliban have featured the black flags prophecy in order to legitimize their rule at different points.
Apocalyptic prophecies and symbols convey meaning to whole populations, whether these populations are sympathetic to their cause or terrified of the violence the Salafi-jihadi groups bring in order to fulfill their goals. These apocalyptic prophecies and symbols are able to trigger deep feelings — in some cases of enthusiastic acceptance of a given cause, while in others deep loathing of that same cause — and are polarizing by their very nature.
We should expect for apocalyptic and messianic themes to be a constant in world religions because of their power to capture the human imagination and (sometimes) loyalty to a cause. These themes, while promising a messianic or righteous future, can in the immediate present be harbingers of great destruction and misery as well. ♦
David Cook is professor of religion at Rice University specializing in Islam. His published works include Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, Understanding Jihad, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature , Martyrdom in Islam, The Syrian Muslim Apocalyptic Heritage: An Annotated Translation of Nu`aym b. Hammad al-Marwazi’s Kitab al-fitan, and other historical texts. Cook is continuing to work on classical Muslim apocalyptic literature and recently became the co-editor for Edinburgh University Press’ series on Islamic Apocalyptic and Eschatology.
Cook, David. “Apocalypse is Now!” Canopy Forum, June 14, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/06/14/apocalypse-is-now/.