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.
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.
Then there are the "greater signs of the hour," which are events that have to happen before the end of the world. The primary events are the appearance of the Mahdi, the messianic figure who brings justice to the world and completes the spread of Islam. Then we've got the appearance of the antichrist who in Arabic is called the Dajjal.
Whom do they believe is the antichrist?
Some people believe it's an actual person. Some believe it's a system like the West, like the United States, or a thought process like secularism. Some think it's centered upon a country, usually Israel. Some people believe it's a process of temptation away from the religion.
How common is the belief that President Bush is the antichrist?
It's pretty easy to go that direction. I've read that on occasion. It's not real, real common. But the last time I was in the Middle East was eight months ago, and there wasn't that much apocalyptic literature dealing with Bush as yet. When I go back this summer, my suspicion is I'll see a lot more.
What happens after the appearance of the antichrist?
Then we have Jesus coming down to kill the antichrist. The Qur'an says God will lift up Jesus and return him back, which is usually interpreted as the Second Coming.
So it's pretty similar to the Christian idea of the Rapture?
It is very similar. The permutation is that according to Muslims, Jesus didn't actually die, so there's no issue of Resurrection. As a result, this is viewed more as a completion of his lifespan. In Muslim apocalyptic literature, he lives out a normal life. Then, after Jesus is lifted up, Gog and Magog appear. These are invading people in the vague north, and of course, apocalyptic Christians once believed it was the Russians. Muslims took that approach for a while, but they've now dropped it, just as evangelical Christians have. The standard Muslim interpretation I've seen since the fall of Communism is that God has concealed Gog and Magog, and he'll reveal them at the end of the world.
Once Gog and Magog invade, what happens?
Basically the world ends. There's no complete narrative, no Book of Revelation to give the narrative unity. But the idea is that God allows the world to end.
What happens to Muslims who have been faithful?
They're rewarded richly. They go to the highest levels of heaven because they've been purified. Only the best of the best make it through all these temptations. So they stand with the martyrs and prophets. Other Muslims will be consigned to hell or have to spend a little time with their toes in the fire and come crawling into heaven charred.
We know the war with Iraq is considered by these Muslims to be a sign of the end-times. But are there other events within Islamic history that coincide with apocalyptic ideas?
Yes, plenty. One is the Mongol Invasion. That is a major apocalyptic event for most people because the Mongols were identified with Gog and Magog. That's a great fit because they're a nomadic people, coming out of nowhere, destroying everything, and killing the Caliph in 1258. At the same time, there are a lot of cataclysmic events in the Muslim world that seem to be fulfilling different signs. For example, one of the signs has to do with a volcanic explosion in south Arabia, which actually happened in 1256. So it's not surprising that about a half-dozen messianic figures, called Mahdis, appeared in that period.
That year is a great example because it's the Muslim year 1400, and hundred-year numbers are the focus for apocalyptic speculation. That was the year that a Mahdi figured named Juhayman al-Utaybi appeared in Mecca at the Hajj and took over the mosque. The Saudis have suppressed a lot of his writing because they were hardly happy with him, but some material has been published in the Arab world. This is part of a confluence of events that happened that year. There was also a Mahdi appearance in Nigeria that year. And of course there's the big event, the Iranian Revolution. You can't deny that the Ayatollah Khomeini's writings are messianic, and many of his speeches are as well.
Apocalyptic Muslims are interested in hundred-year markers because of what is called the Mujaddid tradition, which says that at the beginning of every century, God will send a renewer to the religion. Many Muslims look to some sort of figure who will appear and clean things up.
But it doesn't mean somebody has to appear at that exact time. There are candidates all over the Muslim world, and they range considerably, date-wise. For instance, you could say that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and that created the conditions for Osama Bin Laden to appear. That would be the way they would reason it out.
How big a movement is it to consider Osama bin Laden a Mujaddid?
I see it in radical Muslim circles. There have been a few things Osama bin Laden has said that can be interpreted messianically.