December 21, 2012
As many of you know, many assertions have been made about the year 2012 in the Gregorian calendar. One of the most well-known beliefs is that today, December 21, 2012, is supposed to be the end of the world. This idea was originally popularized by New Age devotees in the 1960s who re-imagined what they thought was ancient Mayan spirituality. Of course this is not what the ancient Mayan actually believed. This apocalyptic furor draws more from American concepts of dispensational postmillennialism and their fantasies about ancient Greek mystery cults than it does authentic Mayan prophecy and religion. But, there is a long tradition in most of the world’s religions in having a belief in an imminent end to the world. Islam is no exception, and many modern terrorist organizations and Arab insurgent groups use these tropes of Muslim religiousity to further their own ends.
The Muslim tradition of apocalypticism comes out of an age spanning from the seventh century through the ninth century where a strong belief among the Muslims of that era in an imminent end of the world helped fuel their military conquests and empire expansion. The appearance of comets in the sky during this time followed by plagues and war fueled their speculations. Much of the Qur’an is written in an apocalyptic tenor where celestial phenomena (such as comets) and war are given as possible signs for the world’s end (Qur’an 30:1-6; 53:1, 54:1). Other verses speak to the nearness of the last hour (Qur’an 42:17; 54:1).
Hadith literature is also full of apocalyptic predictions where Muslims fighting “holy war” is understood as having an especially strong connection to the imminent end of the world (Riyadh, 2002).
The scholar Patricia Crone has stated that Hadith literature has portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as a doomsday prophet sent just before the end of the world to warn those who would listen and to punish those who would not. In doing so, Crone says that Muhammad performs the first recorded jihad, a process that is supposed to dilute the hold that materialism has over converted believers.
Such jihad-centric Hadiths taught that a soldier’s life was impermanent, and the real world implications of those teachings were that many Muslim soldiers during those centuries broke with and dissolved their family ties and renounced their worldly possessions. The power that came from setting the early teachings on jihad within an apocalyptic atmosphere makes clear why a connection to the end of the world was maintained in later jihadi literature: without an imminent end to the world, it would have been much more of a problematic burden for Muslim soldiers to summon the necessary stamina to achieve their conquests up through the ninth century.
Jihad has continued to play a major role in Islamic apocalyptic literature.
Apocaylptic traditions in Islam focus on Muslim wars with the Byzantines who were the only serious opponents to the early Muslim community. The early Muslims dreamed of conquering the Byzantine capital of Constantinople; thereby, completing their conquest of the entire Mediterranean basin, the territory once controlled by the Roman Empire. When these early Muslims failed to achieve their goal, conquering the basin would became another sign for the world ending in future Islamic apocalyptic writings.
The Islamic messianic figure, known as the Mahdi, is understood to complete the conquests left undone by the early Muslims. He will conquer Constantinople, Europe, India, Asia, and the rest of the undiscovered world. It is understood that the Mahdi will not forcibly convert the populations of these regions, but he will expand the Muslim empire and will rule these populations according to just (sharia) law. Muslims will be required to dedicate their lives to fighting jihad with the Mahdi, recreating the warrior caste from early Islam.
The Mahdi is prophesied to rule for either seven, nine, or nineteen years. Sunnis Muslims view the Mahdi as the successor to Muhammad; however, belief in the Mahdi is more prevalent in Shi’a Islam where he is understood to appear at the end of time.
Tales of Muslim conquests, set in both the past and the future, have created a whole additional genre of Islamic literature available in Hadith collections, and much of it is devoted to jihad and the end of the world. These writings are intended to flesh out material from the Qur’an, but they are used today along with newer interpretations of jihad to inspire (and in some cases indoctrinate) individuals to the causes of militant groups and terrorist organizations.