GUEST POST: Hitting the Blind-Spot- A Review of Jean-Pierre Filiu's "Apocalypse in Islam"

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Apocalypse in Islam
Jean-Pierre Filiu, tr. MB DeBevoise
University of California Press (2011)
reviewed by Charles Cameron
Jean-Pierre Filiu’s book, Apocalypse in Islam (University of California Press, 2011) makes a crucially important contribution to our understanding of current events – it illuminates not just one but a cluster of closely-related blind-spots in our current thinking, and it does so with scholarship and verve.
Al-Qaida’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons — and Iran’s – and the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear materiel – and the situation in Jerusalem – depending how you count ’em, there are a half dozen or so glaring world problems where one spark in the Mahdist underbrush might transform a critical situation. And yet as Ali Allawi put it in his talk to the Jamestown Foundation on Mahdism in Iraq a few years back, Mahdists ferments still tend to be “below our radar”.
People are always talking about unintended consequences: might I suggest that blind-spots are where unintended consequences come from – and offer some background on apocalyptic, before proceeding to discuss Filiu’s contribution?
We already have a tendency to dismiss religious drivers in considering current events, having concluded in many cases that religion is passé for the serious-minded types who populate diplomatic, military and governmental bureaucracies world-wide – and we are even more reluctant to focus on anyone who talks about the Last Days and Final Judgment, despite the presence of both in the faith statements and scriptures of both Islam and Christianity. We think vaguely of cartoons of bearded and bedraggled men with sandwich boards declaring The End is Nigh, and move along to something more easily understood, something conveniently quantitative like the number of centrifuges unaffected by Stuxnet in Iran, or purely hypothetical, like the association of Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan.
And yet, as I’ve argued before, apocalyptic belief can be a potent force-multiplier – because as Timothy Furnish puts it bluntly in the opening paragraph of his book, Holiest Wars (Praeger, 2005):

Islamic messianic insurrections are qualitatively different from mere fundamentalist ones such as bedevil the world today, despite their surface similarities. In fact, Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.

Even if that’s somewhat overstated, it should give us pause.
Stephen O’Leary, in Arguing the Apocalypse (OUP, 1994), noted that apocalyptic studies have generally been considered disreputable, and went on to say,

Apocalyptic arguments made by people of good and sincere faith have apparently succeeded in persuading millions; it is unfair and dangerous to dismiss these arguments as irrational and the audiences persuaded by them as ignorant fools. In a world where bright utopic visions compete with increasingly plausible scenarios of global catastrophe, it seems imperative to understand how our anticipations of the future may be both inspired and limited by the ancient logic of apocalypticism.

Indeed, Jessica Stern, was taken aback at first by the apocalyptic intensity of the terrorists she studied, writing in Terrorism in the Name of God (Harper/Collins, 2003):

I have come to see that apocalyptic violence intended to “cleanse” the world of “impurities” can create a transcendent state. All the terrorist groups examined in this book believe — or at least started out believing — that they are creating a more perfect world. From their perspective, they are purifying the world of injustice, cruelty, and all that is antihuman. When I began this project, I could not understand why the killers I met seemed spiritually intoxicated. Now, I think I understand. They seem that way because they are.

So the bottom line is that we have a very real perceptual problem: an inability to take religious drivers seriously in terms of the special passions they evoke, and an even greater blindness to the most intense form those passions can take – a form which even now powers some significant undercurrents in both Sunni and Shi’ite affairs.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Filiu’s book makes such an important contribution: he’s turning a spot-light on a major blind-spot.
An early warning
Filiu is nothing if not urbane – a European diplomat-scholar with a lively curiosity – so his eye is caught by the garish covers of apocalyptic tracts sprouting across the countries he travels in, much as Drezner’s eye is caught by the current crop of zombie movies, and he begins to collect them, even though – or perhaps because – they’re at the very antipodes of cosmopolitan urbanity.

They mushroom, they explode. And they are indeed eye-catching, grotesque.
Yet just as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (Zondervan, 1970) was the number one best-selling non-fiction book in the US in the 1970s, but somehow escaped mention in the Publisher’s Weekly listings, a plethora of pop Islamic apocalyptic titles only too easily escapes our notice.
And like an early jazz critic – or comic book, superhero, or video-game critic – catching on to the sense that something important is brewing, not just “beneath the radar” but frankly “outside the pale”, and intercepting it, interrogating it within the context of a wider literacy, Filiu intercepts Islamic millennialism, interrogating it, bringing it politely to our attention and interpreting it for us.
Angles and learnings
What can we learn from Filiu? What angles does he see that we might otherwise miss?
It may seem pretty basic, but the unit of thought in the Qur’an, equivalent to a Biblical verse, is an aya, a sign: Islam is a religion of reading the ayat, the signs – and prominent among them are the signs of the times, the apocalyptic signs of the end times, the coming of the Mahdi and Judgment day. Christianity has its “signs of the times” too – but Christianity isn’t a religion of “reading the signs” in the way that Islam is, and in Christianity signs don’t have the same force.
Filiu doesn’t emphasize this, but he does make it a departure point for his exploration of Islamic apocalyptic (p. 4), and follows it up by noting that in the first chapter of the Qur’an, God most merciful is spoken of as Master of the Day of Judgment.
But then that’s Islam -– and huge and diverse though Islam may be, it’s still a focus, and must be seen in context. So how’s this for context? Speaking of Iran’s Ahmadinejad and “the most farsighted of American neoconservatives” he notes their common conviction “that an implacable conflict is foretold in prophecy” and observes:

It is … less a clash of civilizations that is now beginning to take shape than a confrontation of millenarianisms.

— which doubles the poignancy of his comment in concluding his Prologue (pp. xix-xxi), just two paragraphs later:

The end of the world is a serious matter — especially for those who are busy preparing for it

And although Filiu’s topic is Apocalypse in Islam, this sense that Islamic apocalyptic finds its mirror image in its Christian analogue will run like a quiet thread through his book, appearing at odd moments, as when he points to Sheikh al-Hawali’s use of Christian apocalyptic materials in his polemic against Christian apocalyptic writers themselves (p. 109), and in the discussion of the parallelisms between Christian and Islamic apocalyptic and their divergences with which Filiu brings his book to a close (Epilogue, pp. 195-99).
The history
In the first half of his book, Filiu presents the history of Islamic apocalyptic…
David Cook has given us his scholarly account of the Sunni traditions in Studies in Islamic Apocalyptic (Darwin Press, 2002), and dealt with more recent developments in his Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature (Syracuse UP, 2005), though we have yet to see his corresponding work on the Shi’ite side, and Timothy Furnish has given us a treatment of a number of Mahdist movements, similarly weighted towards the Sunni. Filiu’s work covers both the historical and contemporary aspects, in both Sunni and Shi’a schools – and like Furnish, he writes with one eye on his scholarly audience and the other on the interested non-specialist reader.
For the history of Sunni apocalyptic thought, Filiu begins with beginnings – the clear presence of expectation of the Day of Judgment and absence of references to the Mahdi as such in the Qur’an, the paucity of strong Mahdist ahadith in the great hadith collections, and the gradual formation of a corpus of “signs” of impending apocalypse. His chapter “Grand Masters of the Medieval Apocalypse” then calls on Ibn Arabi, al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir, Ibn Khaldun and al-Suyuti.
The case of Ibn Arabi is instructive. In Filiu’s view, the great mystic’s own difficulties with orthodox clerics is mirrored in his comment, “When the Mahdi appears, his worst enemies will be the jurists…”
Ibn Arabi’s further explanation, “for they will lose their powers and privileges in relation to the ordinary believers” is intriguing, since it encapsulates one of the key points needed for an understanding of Mahdist dynamics in the contemporary world — the widespread wish of established religious authorities that an infinitely superior and quite possibly infinitely demanding superior authority should not suddenly appear to countermand their every interpretation, their every observance, their every order. We have seen this wish played out in the Saudi regime’s response to the 1979 Mahdist takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in Khomeini’s downplaying of an immediate Mahdist return in revolutionary Iran, in the 2007 Iraqi response to the Mahdist “Soldiers of Heaven” at Zarga, uncomfortably close to Najaf, and even in al-Qaeda’s 2003 statement apparently designed to reduce Mahdist fervor among the rank and file, “God does not entrust knowledge of the Mahdi to anyone before his Appearance”.
Ibn Arabi then takes his analysis one step further, writing “If he [the Mahdi] did not possess the sword, the jurists would have sentenced him to death, but Allah will cause him to appear with the sword and nobility.” There are echoes and resonances of this comment down the centuries, in both Christian and Muslim apocalyptic literatures.
In passing, let me note here that a more detailed investigation of Ibn Arabi’s writings on the “seal of the saints” and his own role as described by William Chittick (Heir to the Prophets, Oneworld, 2005) might have been of interest here – Filiu makes a few brief references to Henry Corbin’s work, but seems to miss the way mystical, eschatological and personal issues fuse in Ibn Arabi.
Ibn Khaldun deserves a brief mention here too – like Augustine in Christianity, his writings on the end times are characterized by sobriety and restraint, and lack what Richard Landes has called the “semiotic arousal” that characterizes most apocalyptic writing. I am reminded of the hadith in which the Prophet himself says, “If the Hour arrives and one of you is holding a date palm sapling, then he should go ahead and plant it before getting up from his place if he is able to” – a saying with a fascinating parallel in the saying of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, “if you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.”
Filiu closes the historical section of his book with a chapter on Mahdist movements, most notable here being his reference to the parallel that can be seen between the Mahdi in the Sudan in 1883 and French Revolution almost a hundred years earlier: “the same instinct, the same aspiration” he writes, quoting a French scholar of the day, in an eerie anticipation of Norman Cohn’s thesis of the parallelism between religious and secular apocalypses in his Pursuit of the Millennium (Secker & Warburg, 1957).
The contemporary situation
The second part of Filiu’s book applies what the first, historical section has shown to the modern world, where apocalyptic fervor is an undercurrent in both Sunni and Shi’ite contexts.
Anti-Semitism enters the picture with Said Ayyub’s 1986 book, The False Messiah, and recent Islamist messianic literature is replete with references to the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs as well as to the Protocols, Holocaust denial and various other conspiracy theories. But it was 1979 that saw the trifecta that rocked Islam in what we might term the beginning of The End in its modern Islamic interpretation, in both Sunni and Shi’ite circles.
February 1979 saw the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini from exile, a pale echo perhaps of the Mahdi’s return from occultation (ghayba) but an echo nonetheless, and Khomeini speedily established his “rule of the jurisprudent” (vilayat-e faqih) under which Iran was to be ruled by the Mahdi’s scholarly representative in the Mahdi’s absence – a concept that both invoked and tempered Mahdist expectation. Having said that, I’ll pass quickly over Filiu’s comments on the Shi’ite side of things, which can be variously found in Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon, since that is not the focus of this blog — noting only that Filiu’s comments about the Hojjatieh society in Iran should be read alongside those of Abbas Amanat, Timothy Furnish and Ali Allawi.
Although Mahdism is commonly associated with the Shi’a, the Sunni have not been without their own Mahdist currents – no doubt to some degree influenced by the success of Khomeini’s revolution. In November 1979 — on the first day of the 15th century by Islamic reckoning from the Hegira – the Sunni world awoke to the news that the Grand Mosque in Mecca had been captured by Juhayman al-Utaybi and 300 heavily-armed followers who claimed al-Utaybi’s brother-in-law Muhammad al-Qahtani was the Mahdi. The project was to remove the holy lands of Islam from corrupt rule of the House of Saud; the appeal was Mahdist; retaking the Grand Mosque and Ka’aba took two weeks and cost hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, and the presence of hastily converted French commandos in the Holy Places.
Then, on December 27, 1979, Russia invaded Afghanistan – provoking a jihadist resistance that took some of its resonance from that version of Mahdist geography which expected the Mahdi’s army to come, with black banners, from the region in the East known as Khorasan.
Roland Jaquard tells us that Osama bin Laden’s father had established a charitable fund of about $12 million to assist the Mahdi at his coming – Filiu doesn’t mention this – and it is possible that bin Laden himself was raised in a Mahdi-expecting family. Certainly, the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan had some Mahdist resonance, and indeed “gave Arab Islamists additional grounds for attacking nationalist regimes traditionally allied with the Soviet Union” – here one strand of Mahdism and jihad blends in with another…
If Khorasan lies at one end of a Mahdist geography, Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque are found at the other, and the charter of Hamas includes the anti-Semitic and overtly apocalyptic hadith of the Gharqad Tree – the Saudi “awakening” Sheikh al-Hawali postulates the liberation of the al-Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in 2012 (!), while bin Laden hopes to free the three great sanctuaries of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem from foreign occupation…
Given all this, it’s not surprising that there should be some apocalyptic expectation in jihadist circles supportive of al-Qaida, and Filiu mentions (of particular interest to me) Abu Walid al-Masri’s “sudden lapse into the apocalyptic register” in one of his letters found in the West Point CTC’s Harmony documents (see pp 55-56 at link).
More intriguing — and in some ways very disappointing – is Filiu’s treatment of Abu Musab al-Suri’s massive, influential 2004 Call to Global Islamic Resistance, the final hundred pages of which present and comment on references in the hadith literature to apocalyptic jihad. Filiu comments that there is “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action”. While he spends several pages on al-Suri’s apocalyptic geography — written at a point when the Taliban had suffered a major setback from which they had not yet recovered, and therefore focusing expectation away from Khorasan / Afghanistan and towards Syria – he leaves us still lacking the detailed account of the material which would be of help to comparative scholars of apocalyptic movements.
Which brings me to my closing point, my one regret.
There exists a literature of new religions and apocalyptic movements, represented by such titles as Catherine Wessinger’s Millennialism, Persecution & Violence (Syracuse, 2000), Gershom Gorenberg’s The End of Days (Free Press, 2000), Robert Jay Lifton’s Destroying the World to Save It (Henry Holt, 1999) and Jeffrey Kaplan’s Millennial Violence (Frank Cass, 2002), which offer a rich comparative context to Filiu’s study. Ideally, Filiu would have situated the various strands of apocalyptic jihadist militancy within the context offered by those studies.
Filiu’s book offers a powerful, accessible, and scholarly introduction to a set of critical issues that have largely escaped our notice until recently. Glenn Beck is about to thrust the topic of Mahdism before his core audience with an hour-long documentary this week, and the popular Christian fiction writer Joel Rosenberg’s most recent novel is titled The Twelfth Imam – so Mahdism is seeping into popular awareness, particularly (and perhaps not surprisingly) in its Shi’ite form.
Filiu’s book is well placed to serve as an antidote, both to the popular misrepresentations and overstatements of Rosenberg and Beck, and to the casual dismissal that has characterized much scholarly consideration of these topics. It is an important book – and though the year is less than a month old, will very likely wind up being my choice for book of the year.
Charles Cameron is a regular guest-blogger at Zenpundit, a regular poster at ChicagoBoyz, and has also posted at Small Wars Journal and All Things Counterterrorism. Charles read Theology at Christ Church, Oxford under AE Harvey, and was at one time a Principal Researcher with Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies and a Senior Analyst with the Arlington Institute.