2016-06-30

Fa'iq Da'ud was expecting trouble at Jerusalem's Temple Mount in 2000--or as he'd say, at al-Haram al-Sharif.

In fact, the violence that exploded at the world's most contested holy site this fall, and which ignited ongoing battles between Israelis and Palestinians, is only a pale glimmer next to Da'ud's apocalyptic visions--visions that shed light on a dangerous, often-ignored side of the Mount's place in the religious imagination of three faiths.

For Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the 36-acre hilltop plaza is not only at the center of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, it is also center stage for the Last Days.

Da'ud's book, "The Great Events Preceding the Appearance of the Mahdi," was on sale at Islamic bookstores around the West Bank last year. The cover of the Arabic tract shows an aerial photo of the Haram--Dome of the Rock mosque at the center, Al-Aqsa mosque to one side.

Next to it is a picture of a model of the Jewish Temple, superimposed on the same site, replacing both mosques. Inside, Da'ud portrays a vast conspiracy of Jews and Christians that, he says, intends to build the Third Temple to prepare the way for the arrival of their shared messiah, who he says is the Antichrist. Yet he finds hope in the threat to Islam's shrines: It heralds history's final battles and the coming of the Mahdi, the true redeemer.

It's a dark fantasy but hardly unique. Moreover, Da'ud is just one of the writers who, in recent years, have produced a new, popular genre of Islamic works on impending apocalypse.

The books look forward to Islam's victory over the West. Ironically, though, they draw directly on the end-times literature of conservative Christians--including dispensationalists' expectation that the Third Temple will soon be built on its ancient site, ushering in the Last Days and Jesus' return to earth.

Underlying this strange symbiosis is a shared view of history: As a grand drama, scripted in advance by the Divine Playwright, and due to reach its denouement any day--in beleaguered Jerusalem.

This view of the future has a long past. The monotheistic religions' idea of the End of Days dates back to the prophets of ancient Israel, for whom Jerusalem was the center not only of their world but of God's. When the Romans razed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Judaism assigned rebuilding it to the unknown time of the messiah, thereby making the Temple a symbol of the End of Days.

Meanwhile, Christianity wove its vision of the end out of Jewish materials and the New Testament's promise that Jesus would return to the city of his crucifixion.

Most strikingly, Islam reworked the traditions of its older sisters to also promise that Jerusalem would be the capital of the messianic age.

The idea of the End need not--and, I'd argue, should not--be read with blind literalism. It is better seen as providing an image of the perfected world to which we must aspire without expecting to get there. But the temptation to treat end-time prophecies literally is particularly seductive when a great drama is played out on the stage of the Holy Land.

For a century, the return of Jews to their homeland and the Arab-Israeli conflict has presented just such a drama. And so, one segment of Orthodox Jewry regards the Jewish state as the "first flowering" of redemption. For those Jews, Israel's stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War--symbolized by a colonel's battlefield announcement that "the Temple Mount is in our hands"--turned expectations into ecstasy. At the extreme edge of this camp are the impatient activists who want to build the Temple.

Christians of the dispensationalist school have likewise seen Israel's establishment and the 1967 victory as fulfilling biblical promises--but look forward to a very different denouement:

The Antichrist helps the Jews build the Temple, then desecrates it. Catastrophes shake the world; Jews either accept Christianity or die; Jesus returns. In books, videos, and internet pages, dispensationalists often magnify the importance of Jewish Temple activists a thousandfold--as "proof" that the next act of the prophetic pageant is about to begin.

Out of fear rather than hope, Muslims have also overestimated Jewish interest in the Temple. Israel's conquest of Jerusalem's Old City (where the Mount is located) turned up the anxiety--even though the Jewish state left the Islamic shrines untouched and under Muslim administration. Events such as the 1984 arrest of a Jewish underground that had plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock fueled the fears.

Thus, the Haram has become an icon of Palestinian nationalism, and the trauma of the conflict with Israel has helped produce a new Islamic apocalyptic vision, first portrayed in Egyptian writer Sa'id Ayyub's 1987 book, "Al-Masih Al-Dajjal--The Antichrist."

Ayyub, says David Cook, who has researched this literature deeply, uses "the Christian messianic fantasy...that Israel's existence is a sign of the End" for his own purposes. Ayyub portrays a Jewish Antichrist at the center of a conspiracy seeking world domination. And as the apocalyptic scenario unfolds, he says, "The dwelling place of the Jewish prophet"--the Antichrist--will be in the Temple in Jerusalem."

Ayyub's book, says Cook, was a "runaway hit," and other writers followed his lead, producing hundreds of tracts. One of those disciples is Fa'iq Da'ud, whose puts Christians and Jews together in the plot against Al-Aqsa.

Estimating the impact of Muslim apocalyptic writers isn't easy, since their followers haven't established separate movements. But the popularity of Ayyub's original work, followed by the other tracts in the same genre, suggests a degree of grass-roots influence. One book, "The End of Israel 2022" by Sheikh Bassam Jirrar, has sold 30,000 copies in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and among Israeli Arabs--equivalent to 2 million copies in the U.S.

That hardly means there's a copy on every Muslim's shelf. Jamil Hamami, an east Jerusalem graduate of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, foremost center of religious study for Sunni Muslims, has never heard of Ayyub and rejects Jirrar's theories. Yet he doesn't deny that apocalypse is in the air. Interest among Palestinians in signs of the Hour can't be measured, he says, but "people are talking about it, in universities, in schools."

To make sense of all this, picture apocalyptic believers seated in a triangular theater around the stage of Jerusalem. All agree that history's last act is being played out, but they hold different programs. Jewish Temple activists--bit players in real life--have starring roles in the Christian play; Jews and Christians alike unknowingly play in the Muslim script. Hope and fear are the sound system, wildly amplifying every word, every footstep. Small actions at the Temple Mount take on significance that nonbelievers--such as secular politicians and analysts--neither expect nor understand.

Now consider how Israeli hardliner Ariel Sharon's late-September visit to the Mount would have looked to anyone who'd read Ayyub or Da'ud. Consider as well how it might appear now that polls show Sharon way ahead of Ehud Barak in the race to become Israel's prime minister.

What's more, the ideas of those expecting the End have impact beyond their own ranks. Last year, Sheikh Ekrima Sa'id Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, appointed by Yasser Arafat, told me he rejected setting a date for the Hour, as Muslims call the End.

But he said Da'ud's book had value because "it makes clear the dangers to Al-Aqsa mosque."

Viewing Jerusalem as the stage of the End warps perception of political events, creates expectations of absolute victories, makes battles glorious instead of tragic. But it is certainly not the only religious view of Jerusalem's sorrows.

Those who regard life as more sacred than soil, who believe that God commands us "to seek peace and pursue it," must reject the apocalyptic vision and insist that the faiths can live together in the Holy City.

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