The New York Times recently published an opinion article called “The Problem with the Islamic Apocalypse.” While the headline smells faintly of clickbait, the article offers more than a whiff of interesting analysis. The author, Mustafa Akyol, strings together the links between modern warfare in Syria and elsewhere, clashes between Islam and Christianity throughout history, and the theology underpinning the Islamic State’s eschatology:
The cover of the most recent issue of Dabiq, the slick magazine that the Islamic State distributes online, shows an image of a jihadist fighter with the group’s notorious black flag behind him. He appears to be on the roof of a church, knocking over a cross. Below him, a headline reads, “Break the Cross.”
It might seem at first that the Islamic State was just celebrating its brutal campaign to uproot the Christians of Iraq and Syria. But “break the cross” is not an arbitrary phrase. It refers to a prophecy that will supposedly be realized in the final era before the apocalypse [. . .]
Islamic literature seems to suggest that Jesus will return to abolish Christianity and confirm the truth of Islam. A much-quoted hadith, to which the Dabiq headline was alluding, says, “The Son of Mary will soon descend among you as a just ruler; he will break the cross and kill the swine.” The usual interpretation of this prophecy is that when Jesus comes back, he will put an end to his own worship, symbolized by the cross, and re-establish the dietary laws that Christianity abandoned but Jews and Muslims still observe.
I have far too little background in this branch of theology to make definitive statements about the nuances of the Islamic State’s eschatology. I would, however, like to point out a few themes that are shared among many other systems of apocalyptic belief.
Text of the Oppressed
Many apocalyptic ideas originate in communities who suffer hardship or who feel oppression. The narrative of the end times does has a certain allure: wipe the slate clean and start over, with my people and my values surviving and shaping the perfect world. One of the most famous apocalyptic texts in the Western world, the Old Testament’s Book of Revelation, was mostly written in the early days when everyone under the sun persecuted Christians. Look also at the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which articulate the struggles of the Civil Rights movement terms both secular and apocalyptic. Despite its capacity to foster fear in every corner of the Earth, the Islamic State holds the belief that, through struggle it will be delivered from the terroristic, untrue forces of Christianity.
Belief in an Antichrist
Many apocalyptic belief systems, especially those that have a spiritual basis, include a figure that obscures the truth—or twists, destroys, and rewrites it. Akyol partly explains the origins of this particular Antichrist.
When recent history and current events are seen as best explained by prophecies, it becomes difficult to analyze them. Take, for example, the main quandary of the Muslim world for the past two centuries: Why have we moved so far backward compared with the West? The apocalyptic narrative, revived since the 1980s by popular Islamic writers such as the Egyptian Said Ayyub and many of his followers, states that this happened because of the forces of “Dajjal” — Islam’s version of the Antichrist.
As long as there is an acceptable Antichrist narrative, there is an acceptable enemy. In the Islamic State’s eschatology, the Antichrist’s identity is clear.
It’s common for apocalyptic communities to believe they live in an exceptional time. As Akyol writes in the Times piece, “to assert that we are at the end of times means that we are quite special. We are not merely one of the countless generations that God has created. We are the chosen few, at the apex of history.” The apex inspires urgency in the believers. Often, kind of urgency leads one to drop out of society—or try to turn it completely upside-down. The latter is a tactic to fulfill the Islamic State’s eschatology. Belief in the immanent end has a flip side. “It is really not piety that underlies this conviction,” warns Akyol, “it is vanity.”
There is plenty more to investigate, but I might need to conduct some research. I suppose it’s time to dust off my old Q’uran. Please let me know if you have any recommended secondary sources.