Jean Pierre Filiu, a former French diplomat who is now a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, has researched and written a fascinating book, Apocalypse in Islam, about Islamic thinking on the apocalypse. (It is translated by M.D. DeBevoise.) Like most religions, Islam has developed a narrative about how the world as we know it will end—the so-called end of days—and how the next world (a better one) will emerge. Students of comparative religion have studied this ground for decades.
Filiu has taken the issue one step further and looked at popular literature in the contemporary Islamic world. He examines how the apocalypse has been foretold in mass paperbacks and other forums designed to appeal to the average Muslim reader, and in so doing he tries to interpret the events of our time. What he has found is both amusing and disturbing.
First a bit of background. The Quran says very little on the apocalypse but subsequent Islamic oral traditions, including the hadith, say a lot. They generally tell a story that history’s end days will be prefigured by several signs. These can include wars, floods, and devastation. The end game will come when the prophet Jesus, who is revered in Islam, comes down from heaven and fights the anti-Christ. They will both appear first in Damascus, but their final battle will take place near Lod, in today’s Israel, where Ben Gurion Airport now sits.
There are many variations on this theme, of course, and Sunni and Shia Islam each has its own take. Sunnis stick with a relatively simple version while Shia include in the tale the 12 imams who descended from the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. For Shia the end of time will also see the return of the last imam, who has been in occultation since 873 CE. His return will inaugurate a better world, and many Shia hold it is the duty of believers to be prepared for his return.
The modern apocalyptic Islamic writers have stolen themes from Western writers of science fiction and other genres to add more color to their work. Thus Filiu shows how the Bermuda triangle and space ships from other worlds have made appearances in modern Islamic paperbacks. This is the amusing part.
More disturbingly, a lot of Western anti-Semitism has also found its way into these works. In them, Jews are often portrayed as agents of the anti-Christ and Israel as his instrument for fighting Islam. The destruction of Israel is a staple in much of these apocalyptic modern potboilers. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a regular source. Books with titles like The Disappearance of Israel and Israeli Empire Collapses in 2022 are typical.
But the most alarming aspect is that, as Filiu writes, for “those who are busy preparing for it, the end of the world is a serious matter,” and there are serious political forces doing just that. For example, one of al-Qaida’s most important writers, Abu Musab al Suri, devoted a hundred pages to the study of the apocalypse in his seminal work The Call for Global Islamic Resistance. While Osama Bin Laden has not used apocalyptic references in his commentaries, certainly the events of Sept. 11 have had a huge impact on those who are looking for signs that the end is near. Filiu documents this in his analysis.
Iranian Shia revolutionaries and their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon have been far more willing to use the apocalypse and the return of the Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, in contemporary politics. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks of it openly and is the hero of an apocalyptic best-seller titled Ahmadinejad and the Forthcoming World Revolution, published in 2006 and widely distributed by the Iranian government. This book cites numerous real-world signs that the end is near, including the 2006 war in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s missile strikes on Haifa. Fictional but miraculous-seeming events also appear, like Hezbollah fighters borne on angels’ wings swooping down to kill Israeli soldiers. According to the narrative, U.S. Navy and Air Force bases in the gulf states are part of an evil Crusader plot to prevent the Mahdi from appearing in Mecca—but they are doomed to fail.
Hezbollah’s second-in-command, Sheikh Naim Qassim, wrote his own preview of the final days, which he published shortly after the 2006 Lebanon war, titled Mahdi the Savior. In the Shia jihadist narrative, Mahdi is an increasingly powerful metaphor and message used to suggest the Iranian revolution and Hezbollah’s existence are signs of the coming end of time.
Filiu’s book therefore is of more than just casual interest to students of religion. It is an insight into how popular literature is shaping modern thinking in some parts of the Muslim world and how extremists can use these apocalyptic stories for their own political purposes. Filiu has included in the book a selection of the covers of some of the books he has studied, which feature lurid pictures of Osama Bin Laden, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in flames, Ahmadinejad as the Mahdi’s messenger, and Israel being destroyed by conflagration.
It is impossible to know how much impact this literature has on the average man or woman in the streets of the Islamic world, but the large number of books published suggests people are buying and reading them. Now that the Arab world is consumed with revolutions against its dictators, it is reasonable to assume the amazing and unexpected events of early 2011, like the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and the NATO war in Libya, will add more grist for those seeking signs that the apocalypse is near.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, is the author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.