Many Americans, particularly evangelical Christians, are watching events in the Middle East and wondering if the Iraq war is part of an end-times scenario predicted in the Bible.

Some Muslims also hold apocalyptic views. For them, the Iraq war looks like the unfolding of events leading to their own doomsday scenario--which includes a Rapture-like appearance by Jesus and an antichrist who may or may not be President Bush.

Beliefnet talked with David Cook, a Rice University scholar of Islamic apocalypticism.

How did Islamic apocalypticism get its start?

It has been around from the time of the revelation of the Qur'ran. There is an apocalyptic tradition within the Prophet Muhammad's history and in the Hadith literature [a narrative record of the sayings and customs of Muhammad and his companions]. Within the larger Islamic tradition, there is constant speculation of appearances of messianic figures and pseudo-prophets.

The Qur'an is heavily apocalyptic in the sense that it expects the end of the world to happen imminently. Surah 54:1 talks about the hour approaching and the splitting of the moon. There are a lot of cosmic signs in the Qur'an, such as stars falling and heavens being rolled up. At the same time, the Qur'an is cautious about making predictions about the end of the world. For example, in Surah 31:34, the Prophet is asked about when the end of the world is going to happen. He says that knowledge is just with God, which avoids the question.

How are apocalyptic Muslims interpreting the period from September 11 to this moment, with the United States at war with Iraq? What are they seeing?

The standard interpretation is that it's a replay of the Muslim fight against the Byzantine Empire in the 7th and 8th centuries, after a period of alliance between the two groups. The interpretation is that the Byzantines equal the United States, and the Muslims equal those who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. [The Muslims in Afghanistan are cited because, like the early Muslims, they allied with the "Byzantine," i.e. American, forces--but only for a few years, until the rise of the Taliban, when the United States stopped supporting Muslims in Afghanistan.] The tradition goes on to say there will be fallout between the two, and then the Byzantines will massively attack the Muslims, and the Muslims will be totally disorganized and defeated. The Byzantines are technologically superior and dangerous.

Many radical Muslims then go on to say that's been fulfilled because the United States has attacked. So they're waiting for the moment when God will reveal himself and personally step into history and judge the United States.

Does that make this a good moment or a bad moment for them? If God is about to step in, reveal himself, and judge the United States, wouldn't that be good?

It can only be a good moment.

But it's also a bad moment, since they're being invaded.

The apocalyptic framework goes back and forth. God's power is revealed through apparent defeat because the apparent defeat then purifies the community. The radicals' indictment of the Muslim community is that there are large numbers of apostate Muslims. So from their point of view, the true Muslims will be purified right now. God won't allow true Muslims to be hurt by this, and if they are, they'll be martyrs.

How common is this belief among Muslims?

You find this material all over the Arab world. Many Muslims are influenced by it or are at least aware of it. Radical Muslims are much more open to it. Others might hear about it more when there's a time of crisis, and maybe even believe it for a moment.

Do American Muslims believe this?

It's hard to say. I talk to my students and some of them have heard stuff like this from their mosques, but most of my students are second-generation and some of them are not very committed. The more committed you are, the more you're reading Arabic, the more you're involved with this. The more you're an American, the more the Qur'an is second-hand knowledge, the less committed you are.

Is there any Islamic apocalyptic literature written in English?

Yes, but most of it is published in Britain. I would mention Doomsday: Portents and Prophecies, by Sidheeque M.A. Veliankode, which was published in Toronto. It lists all the portents that are supposed to happen before the end of the world.

Can you summarize Muslim apocalyptic beliefs?

The beliefs can be divided into two groups of signs. There are the "lesser signs of the hour"-about 60-70 of them--which are moral, political, ethical and natural signs that are supposed to happen before the end of the world. According to most present-day authors, they are said to be fulfilled.