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Apocalyptic Islam


Apocalyptic Islam is a vibrant strand of conservative Islam that is helping propel the terrorist effort. It is fair to say that David Cook at University of Chicago has hived off "apocalyptic," from whatever source, as his personal patch of research.

Islam is the quintessential apocalyptic tradition. Cook counts upwards of 5000 messiahs, or mahdis, in Islam. (While the messiah is a Jewish concept, as I understand it, the emergence of Christianity with its insistence on Jesus as the one true messiah, made messianic movements a bit unpopular among Jews.)

While Cook notes in the conclusion of "Islam and Apocalyptic" that, "Although the [apocalyptic] groups are frequently anonymous and unknown until they burst onto the world stage with some action, they cannot be accused of being secretive about their motives or beliefs. Leaflets, pamphlets, and books are available at every bookstand, and are frequently handed out in mosques," it is amazing as to how many Moslems are unaware of the tradition (and the same can be said of Christians and Jews when confronted by their apocalyptic believers).

As another researcher on the apocalyptic and millennial (generally those who "expect a time of supernatural peace and abundance here on earth"), Richard Landes observed:

"When I speak with Jews, Christians and Moslems about the apocalyptic traditions in their own religion, they very often cannot believe what they hear. It’s so foreign to them. They never learnt it as children, and they certainly do not feel it is part of their religion. Apocalyptics however, are recessive. For instance, I was interviewed on American radio and I mentioned Islam and some of the Islamic traditions that are apocalyptic. I then received an E-mail from a Moslem who was incensed that I said this was part of his religion. I spoke with him and forwarded him on to David Cook who gave him further facts. This was strange territory for him: it was not part of what he had learnt about in the normal course of his religion. This is also true of Christians and Jews. We are thus dealing with strange, unfamiliar material for [many]."

It is enlightening to read Landes' "MILLENNIALISM (MILLENARIANISM, CHILIASM)" and Thomas Scheffler's "Apocalypticism, Innerwordly Eschatology, and Islamic Extremism" to gain an insight to this implacable foe.

Apocalyptic groups require a belief in the imminent end of the world (lending them absolute conviction in their sole righteousness), a definite goal, and the impetus to excel beyond one's ordinary abilities. While Muslims at large believe that their successful rise up to 1688 was due to their absolute faith in Allah and the unifying nature of Islam, a third aspect -- the imperative to conquer the world before the expected Hour of Judgment -- was needed to initiate jihad:

"Muslims… did not try to conquer the world for the sake of domination, but because God commanded them to, before the imminent end of the world. In Islam we have the first example of what an apocalyptic group can achieve when given a limited time limit to accomplish an impossible task: world conquest."

Cook notes that it is irrelevant to say "that the apocalyptic nature of Islam has been dormant for hundreds of years," as when those latent tendencies reappear "then they are gradually going to influence everyone, whether consciously or not." The fact that, to paraphrase Bernard Lewis' analysis, Muslims later anguished as they tried to understand why things had changed, how they had been overtaken, overshadowed, and, to an increasing extent, dominated by the West is just grist for the mill.

Most modern Muslim apocalyptic scenarios start with the Arab-Israel conflict or the 1990 Gulf War in which a Muslim Antichrist called Dajal will gain control over most of the world save for a resistant group of anti-western Muslim nations and lead the West and Israel against Muslims. There are four themes:

  • Anti-Western attitudes (where the West and Christianity are identical)
  • Anti-US attitudes (where the US is the Great Babylon or Dajal)
  • Anti-Israel (unlike classical Muslim apocalyptics in which Jews are rarely mentioned)
  • Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim religious establishment (those not joining the believers are corrupt and declared to be infidels and collaborators with the west)

Remember that this material is "available at every bookstand, and are frequently handed out in mosques."

Islam and Apocalyptic
David Cook
Center for Millennial Studies (CMS), Boston University

Richard Landes, 1999
Draft for the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of World Religions, 1999

Apocalypticism, Innerwordly Eschatology, and Islamic Extremism
Thomas Scheffler, 2001

Gordon Housworth

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