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Islam's Apocalypse

By David Cook

Presence magazine -

David Cook is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University and known as a U.S. expert on apocalyptic literature within Islam. Presence magazine spoke to him in Chicago, five days after the suicide hijack attack on New York and Washington, D.C.

1. How did you get involved in studying Islamic End-Time beliefs?

After high school I set out for Jerusalem to study archaeology. After a year of studying at Hebrew University and learning Arabic, I switched over to the department of Arabic Language and Literature. In 1996 I wrote my M.A. thesis on classical Muslim apocalyptic literature and I've just finished my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on the beginnings of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries.

2. How did the terrorist attack on America affect you?

Professionally, I was swamped by media interviews. Personally I was totally devastated, just horrified and depressed. The most serious situation I've had to deal with since is my students. I am teaching two classes right now, "Introduction to Islam" and "Koran and Commentary." Many of my students are Muslim and some of them have faced serious social repercussions. So we've been using class time to speak to issues, like what is Islam, what is Jihad, and whether there is a basis for suicide attacks in the Koran. The attack did cause me to cancel a course. Next semester I had planned to teach "Jihad and the End of World." But going forward with that now would just be impossible. It would just turn into a carnival of political recriminations.

3. Was Islam born as an End-Time movement?

Many theories seek to explain the phenomenal conquest of the ancient world by Muslims, from France to the borders of China, within the span of a century. Muslims attribute their success to their absolute faith in Allah and the unifying nature of Islam. But there was a third component to the equation—the imperative to conquer the world before the expected Hour of Judgment. The Koran is filled with predictions about the end of the world. The prophet Mohammed envisioned the End as being very close, within a few years after receiving his revelation. My own personal belief is that Islam was started as an apocalyptic movement, not necessarily a millennial movement. An apocalyptic movement is one that feels the end of the world is imminent, whereas a millenarian movement seeks to bring about a messianic otherworldly kingdom.

4. What do Muslims today believe about the End?

Modern Muslim apocalyptic literature is highly popular and derives its sources from three different influences. The first source is the framework provided by the Koran and classical Muslim literature. The second source is anti-Semitic conspiracy theories based on The Protocols of Elders of Zion, [a spurious Russia document]. The third source is Evangelical Protestant expectations of the return of Christ and the End of World. The "Hal Lindsey" of modern Muslim apocalyptic is an Egyptian named Said Ayyub. In 1987 he wrote The Anti-Christ. This was an extremely powerful political and social apologetic for Muslims, identifying the United States as the Great Satan. He claimed to interpret all of the events of the modern world as if they were predicted in either the Muslim traditions or the Bible. He was quite successful; he literally created modern manifestation of the End-Times genre in Islam. Numerous Muslim intellectuals have tried to flesh out the details of his framework or update it after the Gulf War. This material can be highly revolutionary and is often banned in moderate Arab countries. Nevertheless, I've been able to obtain over 120 popular titles in Egypt and Jordan, sometimes in back rooms, not counting hundreds of articles that appear in more scholarly Islamic journals debating these matters.

5. How has Islam been shaped by Christian millenarianism?

The contemporary Muslim sees the present world turned up side down by Christian millennialism. Everywhere his faith has lost ground as a result of medieval crusades, colonial conquests, Christian missionaries and cultural imperialism, such as western media (they are frequently all grouped together). In defense, Muslims make heavy use of the Bible, or one might say the Bible as seen through the eyes of Hal Lindsey. There are Muslim apocalyptic readings of the book of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation. The only difference is the "good guys" are Muslims, not Christians. Given that Christian Bible prophecy is so focused on establishing Israel, Muslims use that idea and turn it into a negative, to show the impending destruction of Israel. For example, in 1997, the intense speculation of the Red Heifer by End-Time Christians and Jews prompted a whole series of expectations on the Muslim side. They showed how this was the sign of the appearance of the Dajjal or the Islamic anti-Christ figure.

6. Is End-Times belief more intense among "Islamic Jihad" sub-culture?

Yes. Without a doubt it influences terrorist sub-culture. Holy War and End of the World themes run together throughout this literature. Sometimes the Anti-Christ is identified as a U.S. president, other times it is western civilization in general. This literature freely uses predictions about End of World or Israel's demise to recruit followers and prove they need to be working for God, instead of their own purposes.

7. Does the "Day of Judgment" figure prominently in Osama Bin-Laden's worldview?

We don't have much on Bin-Laden in this regard. The Koran says that man can't know the time of the end. Perhaps he has taken that to heart. His "Declaration of War on America" appears to be more political than apocalyptic. In a 1998 ABC news interview he did repeat one classical tradition, "The Hour [of Judgment] will not arrive until the Muslims fight the Jews, and the Muslims will kill them until the Jew will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rock and the tree will say: O Muslim, O servant of God, there is a Jew behind me—come and kill him!" Overall, however, from what I've seen, the End of the World doesn't loom very large in his mind. The End of the West, not the End of the World, appears to be his primary motivation. No doubt he is aware that harping on this secondary theme can ignite apocalyptic fervor among the masses.

This interview was done by Jay Gary mailto:jgary@livingpresence.org, senior editor of Presence magazine and correspondent for Middle East affairs.


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