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The religious roads leading inexorably to a Syrian apocalypse

ISIS views the war in Syria not as a struggle against Assad, but as the apocalypse which will usher in the return of the Madhi and the defeat of the anti-Christ by a Muslim Jesus, writes Jules Gomes

Syria is a holy war, stupid! So why are we, Western morons, getting sucked into a bloody jihad that is not ours to fight? Why? Because East is East and West is West and wide-eyed Westerners refuse to concede how central religion is to the Eastern worldview.

Because we labour under the grand delusion that we can usher in the silver age of democracy to a world that longs for the golden age of a Caliphate. Because we are infected with the virus of wishful thinking and earnestly believe our secular interventions will solve the centuries-old religious problems of the Middle East.

Because the jihadists know we are suckers who can be drawn in with a few video clips and an amateur production of Lawrence of Arabia. Because naïve infidels like us who sanitise religion from the public square are supremely unaware of the Islamic theology of the end times and hardly know the score that the crisis in Syria is fuelled by the expectation of an apocalyptic countdown to Allah’s Armageddon.

The sources for Islamic eschatology, or theology of the last days, are mainly found in the Hadith (collections of Muhammad’s sayings). These traditions are voluminous, often contradictory and open to a number of interpretations, but are unanimous in pointing to Syria as the scene of the final apocalyptic battle. In fact Syria is the theatre of operations for much of apocalyptic activity.

‘Muslim apocalyptic has its centre in Syria,’ writes David Cook in his monograph Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic. During the first two centuries of Islam, the Muslim armies faced the most protracted fighting on the Syrian front, since it was here that Islam faced its most formidable enemy, the Byzantine Empire. Syria, hence, became the key area for apocalyptic speculation.

Muhammad himself insisted that the final wars with the Byzantines would be the one major occurrence preceding ‘the hour’ (Ibn Masud). Although Byzantium is Islam’s main enemy, ‘our apocalyptic material leaves us in no doubt that the struggle over Syria would be an all-out one with the whole Christian world,’ writes Suliman Bashear in an academic journal. ‘All in all, the picture drawn by this material for Syria is gloomy and one of major disarray,’ he adds.

The prophecies converge on the town of Dabiq in northern Syria, where the great battle between the forces of good and evil will be fought. The flagship English magazine of Islamic State is named Dabiq and a quote from jihadist al-Zarqawi on the second page of every issue of Dabiq highlights the centrality of the town in its end-time narrative: ‘The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.’ The first issue of the magazine announces that ‘One of the greatest battles between the Muslims and the crusaders will take place near Dabiq’.

In his book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, William McCants quotes a jihadist fighter in Aleppo as saying: ‘If you think all these mujahedeen came from across the world to fight Assad, you’re mistaken. They are all here as promised by the Prophet. This is the war he promised – it is the Grand Battle.’ One even admits ‘Dabiq is the most important village in all of Syria for them . . . especially the foreign fighters.’

In the words of Muhammad, ‘the Last Hour will not come until the Romans land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best soldiers of the people of the earth at that time will come from the city [to counteract them],’ and a third of this army will be Muslim martyrs, according to Sahih Muslim’s hadith. Hizb-ut-Tahrir cite this prophecy in their web magazine to encourage the Pakistani army to ‘mobilise to Syria under the leadership of a rightly guided Khaleefah (Caliph), not under the Crusader leadership’.

No wonder the full name of Islamic State is Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In classical Arabic, al-Sham is Syria. Two well-known hadith record the importance of al-Sham: ‘Behold, indeed the heart of the abode of the believers is al-Sham’  (Ahmad) and ‘The heart of the abode of Islam is al-Sham’ (Tabarani). In Abu Dawud’s hadith, Muhammad says: ‘Go to Syria, for it is Allah’s chosen land, to which his best servants will be gathered . . . for Allah has on my account taken special charge of Syria and its people.’

Islamic eschatology focuses on three figures: the Dajjal (Antichrist), Jesus (Messiah) and the Mahdi (the rightly guided one). Jesus, not the Mahdi, is mentioned in the Koran, even though the Mahdi is more prominent in Islamic eschatology. The Mahdi will appear at the end of time amidst great turmoil and assist in the establishment of a new world order dominated by a purified Islam.

President Ahmadinejad’s speech before the UN General Assembly demonstrates the influence of Islamic eschatology: ‘Oh, God, hasten the arrival of Imam al-Mahdi . . . Let us, hand in hand, expand the thought of resistance against evil . . . The Promised One [Mahdi] will come accompanied by Jesus Christ and accordingly design and implement the just and humanistic mechanisms for regulating the constructive relationships between nations and governments.’

The Muslim Jesus will fight, defeat and slay the Dajjal, who will emerge in his true colours only after reaching Syria. Jesus will return and ‘descend at the white minaret in the eastern side of Damascus’, according to Sahih Muslim’s hadith. Muslims will flee to northern Syria, where the Dajjal and his followers will besiege them. The Muslims will fight the Dajjal in Syria with Jesus. When the Dajjal comes with the intention of attacking Medina, the angels will turn his face towards Syria and there he will perish, says Sahih Muslim’s hadith. All three end-time figures will besimultaneously present in Damascus.

So what can Western leaders learn from the rather complex tangle of apocalyptic texts and their multiple interpretations by radical Muslim groups in Syria and elsewhere?

First, even if jihadists ignore eschatology, they are still committed to toppling Assad for reasons that are entirely sectarian. ‘Bashar al-Asad is a murtadd taghut (apostate idolater) belonging to the apostate Nusayri and apostate Baath party; it is an obligation to kill him even if he were never to have killed a single Muslim. How much more so is it obligatory after all the massacres he’s committed!’ an article in Dabiq explains.

Second, ISIS wants to instigate a war between Sunnis and Shi’as, in the belief that a sectarian war would be a sign that the final times have arrived. The rebels fighting Assad are largely Sunni.

Third, Islamic State awaits the army of ‘Rome’ (a term that jihadis have expanded to include Americans and their allies), whose defeat at Dabiq will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. They intend to achieve this by goading the West into launching an all-out ground attack, thus setting the scene for the final battle between Muslims and the crusaders at Dabiq.

‘Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,’ said a masked executioner in a 2014 jihadi video, showing the severed head of Peter Kassig, the aid worker and ranger who was held captive for more than a year.

And here we are, Western jerks, bearing the Muslim man’s burden and merrily marching half a league, half a league, half a league onwards, into the valley of death and into the plains of Dabiq and into the quagmire of apocalyptic doom. Rudyard Kipling, who straddled the yawning chasm between East and West, etched this warning on the epitaph of the West:

Now it is not good for the Christian’s health

to hustle the Aryan brown,

For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles

and he weareth the Christian down;

And the end of the fight is a tombstone white

with the name of the late deceased,

And the epitaph drear: ‘A Fool lies here

who tried to hustle the East.’

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