Eight hundred and thirty years ago to the day, on 2 October 1187, Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi liberated Jerusalem from Crusader forces after an 88 year occupation of the city. Muslims everywhere rejoice, dreaming of such a hero for today. The world is awaiting another Salah al-Din, chant the masses: a great warrior; an honest leader; a brave Muslim!
And so, once more, the sheikhs and their followers are invoking apocalyptic traditions; the events of the day, they tell us, are the certain fulfillment of prophesy.
And so it seems, unless we put our cultural amnesia aside to recall the history of these sacred precincts.
So it seems if we forget that a group of militants who believed the Mahdi to be amongst them seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks in 1979 during Hajj, leading to the deaths of 250 people.
So it seems if we forget that the Kingdom of Hejaz in alliance with the British Empire laid siege to Medina, then held by the Ottoman Empire between 1916 and 1919, causing heavy loss to life.
So it seems if we forget that Medina was occupied and laid waste by the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abdal Wahhab in 1806.
Indeed, so it seems if we overlook a millennia of history all the way back to Yazid’s siege of Medina and destruction of Mecca not even seventy years after Hijra.
But we are not supposed to familiarise ourselves with the past, to ask questions or seek context.
We are not meant to ponder on the long list of supposed saviours who came and went over a thousand years, each one the prophesized Mahdi to their followers.
We have been here before, over and over, but the sheikhs in their circles know better than last time. This is the time, they tell us. This is the time.
And the madness enfolds as prophesized.
Why do Tradtionalist Sheikhs insist on publicising the dreams of unknown individuals on Facebook as if it is certain proof of something? This evening it is the grandson of the Prophet, peace be upon him, telling an unnamed student that the coming of the Dajjal is near at hand. Perhaps it is so, but have some wisdom: stop causing despair and hysteria with these foolish Status Updates. Unchallenged apocalyptic eschatology has already laid waste to most of Syria and beyond. These teachers just need to stop and read some history: every generation has seen itself living amongst signs that herald the end of days. It has been thus for over a thousand years, since the earliest days. And every generation has been exploited by the tale bearers too. Won’t the Traditionalist scholars just desist?
Many religious folk, it seems, thrive on visions of the last days. The Church of England might be setting out a blueprint for a more compassionate nation here on earth 1, but Christian prophecy is a massive movement in the United States and across Africa. Many Muslims, meanwhile, are consumed by the impending arrival of the promised Mahdi, the return of Jesus and the onslaught of the Dajjal or Anti-Christ. One only needs to sit in the company of students of knowledge for a little while, before conversation turns to the imminent signs of the Hour. It is a cause of excitement for some — jubilation at the prospect of world-changing events.
For me, however, all of this talk causes paralysis. It sends me into a spiral of depression and prevents me from functioning both on the spiritual and productive level. We have all heard the saying that if the Hour comes while you are planting a seed you should go on and plant it, but conversations about the coming of cataclysmic change causes me extreme numbness. Instead of celebrating the era of peace and justice which the Mahdi is said to usher in, I imagine the vast all-consuming battles which are supposed to precede him. However glorious the days presumed to await us on the other side of genocidal anarchy, I cannot share the excitement of the students in their circles of knowledge. I seek refuge in God from seeing days like those.
I recently posed a question to friends: ‘Why strive for apocalypse, when you can strive for utopia?’ I meant, ‘why strive for war when you can strive for peace?’ But an erudite acquaintance responded, ‘Apocalypse is the harbinger of utopia.’ Of course he is right. How many visions of a bright new future have been predicated on the extermination of undesirables? The striving for the Communist ideal left 100 million dead in the twentieth century. Hitler’s Aryan utopia necessitated the death of millions of Jews, Roma Gypsies and those of African-German descent. And as anyone who has had the misfortune to read shoddily compiled collections of hadith in English concerning the signs of the hour know, a similar fate apparently awaits us.
George Bush junior and Tony Blair both spoke of how their intense Christian faith drove their belief in the rightness of their invasion of Iraq, but they were certainly not alone in their mission to hasten the Hour. Zionist Christians seek all-out confrontation on the plain of Meggido, sixty miles north of Jerusalem. Messianic Jews agitate for the reconstruction of the third temple in Jerusalem and await the dawn of their millennial messianic kingdom. The radicals of ISIS invoke apocalyptic hadith concerning the conquest of Constantinople from the staging post of Dabiq in northern Syria.2 Characterizing ISIS as followers of the despotic Sufyani, Shi’a activists envision the present days as our last; soon the Mahdi will arrive, to rule with peace and justice.
It may be that all of these visions of impending doom and redemption are true — though I, for one, hope not — but it seems to me that history is simply repeating itself. For each crisis which befalls us, the spectre of wars to end all wars are invoked, from the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of European forces. The End is Nigh, come those pessimistic voices, and once more we slip into this morass of unending gloom.
So ISIS has taken Dabiq and awaits the arrival of the Roman forces. Soon they will march on Constantinople and claim the city for the Muslims. Who will break the news to these men and women that Constantinople fell to the Muslims 562 years ago in 1453 under the leadership of Sultan Mehmed II? While transiting through Istanbul on their way to the Syrian border, did none of these young muhajirun pause to listen to the call to prayer? Did they not look down on hundreds of minarets and domes as their planes came in to land?
I don’t know if the generals of these rabble armies believe these prophecies — some say that these are really proxy wars for the control of water and oil, and that their leaders are getting rich on vast oil revenues — but the foot soldiers on either side are convinced that the best of times lie just over the hill. Shia militia have been mobilized to fight the Sufyani army. Sunni militants have been mobilized to take on the evil Rafidis. Each side is engaged in a battle of epic proportions. No wonder we have come to process events through the lens of an all-consuming conspiracy.
It comes as no surprise that many of us came to see the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which has just been made law, not as a knee-jerk response to unforeseen events unfolding in Syria, but as part of seditious machinations of a state making preparations for Armageddon. Everywhere we look nowadays, events in the world are framed as part of a conspiracy. It does not help that we as a community pay so much attention to people who speak out of both corners of their mouths. We do not pay attention to the source of our news on social media and the agenda that is being promulgated. We do not challenge the activist website which publishes decade-old news, passing it off as current affairs. All too willingly, we allow ourselves to be led by groups with political motives different from our own.
I am partial to conspiracy theories myself. Europe has a massive problem with refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Libya, I noted rather cynically the other day, so claims that ISIS plan to use the country as a staging post for its invasion of Europe will help policy-makers immensely, for a humanitarian crisis can now be treated as a security matter. Believing that newspapers tell lies to forward the political and commercial agendas of their owners does not make you a wacko: Peter Oborne’s recent revelations about The Telegraph’s dealings with HSBC ought to make that clear. But a lot of our ingrained behaviour does.
If you set up a school and then deprive your female students of the educational opportunities you afford your male students, you deserve to be called out by Ofsted; it is not a witch hunt, but the consequence of poor decisions. If you invite racist or sectarian scholars to speak to your Islamic Society, you should expect people who do not share those views to object. Acknowledging these realities does not absolve those with prejudices of their wrongs: clearly an anti-Muslim narrative permeates much of popular culture, but Muslims are not alone in suffering disadvantage, nor are all of us afflicted. Surely it is possible to take a step backwards and look again at events with a fresh pair of eyes.
Look again at Syria: sure, we can argue about the source of weapons and the underhand actions of foreign intelligence agencies, but Muslims are shedding the blood of Muslims without pause. Look again at Nigeria: Boko Haram is massacring both Muslim and Christian populations in huge numbers, in what the United Nations would call the Lake Chad water conflict.3
But where is the scholarly input on these issues? Can anyone point me to a convincing, scholarly response to the issues of the day surrounding Syria which are plaguing so many of our young? Can anyone point me to the contextual framing of apocalyptic eschatology, which is now so common amongst Sunni and Shia activists? Far from addressing these concerns, many so-called Traditional scholars are fanning the flames, advising their followers that the Mahdi is already amongst us: they have lit a fire which they cannot put out. The same scholars who rallied for an uprising in Syria three years ago, now issue futile declarations about ISIS, but will do nothing to address the gambling with hadith in their circles.
Without a doubt, the Hour is near at hand. Fornication is widespread. The bare-footed Bedouin have constructed their vast towers of steel and glass. The mountains have been moved from their places. The Kaaba stands in the shadow of a vast clock face. The Arabs live in fear of the ravaging drones. These signs are clear and true.
But what is nearness to the lifespan of time? The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘The time of my advent and the Hour are like these two fingers.’ If the universe is 14 billion years old, we could well say that any event which occurred over the past 2000 years was ‘just before the Hour’. If the earth is 4.5 billion years old, we could easily say that Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople immediately preceded the coming of the Mahdi. The Hour will come — about that there is no doubt — but when: these are matters unknown.
I wish our scholars and leaders would seriously address these issues, for they are like a plague, consuming us. I wish the learned would put these oft-cited hadith in context, now that the books of hadith have been broken open for all to survey as they please. Where is the guidance we so desperately need in these times? Personally, I am yet to come across anything which seriously counteracts the polemical propaganda which young people are being exposed to today. And yet our leaders constantly express surprise at the actions of these same youngsters. But why? The propaganda they have absorbed is convincing. The arguments they have read are persuasive. In the end, they are trying do to what’s right, however misguided that may seem to those left behind. Our scholars and leaders have failed them absolutely.
And the rest of us? Apocalyptic eschatology continues to send me into a downward spiral. Claims of great battles prevent me from planting seeds. Stories of turncoats who will never be forgiven drive a wedge between me and my Lord. Pessimistically I resign to never being good enough and to never being accepted: to living a life which is ultimately of no value, which will be rejected on the Day of Judgement. It promotes hopelessness and despair. It is, in short, a complete contradiction of everything I hold dear about my faith: that God is All Forgiving, Most Merciful. That God loves beauty. That God loves those who establish prayer, spend of their wealth on the poor, look after widows and orphans, who walk gently on the earth and who, when the ignorant address them, respond, ‘Peace.’
The paralysis wrought by visions of an impending apocalypse help no one. It’s time that our scholars and leaders set out a vision to counter the madness unfolding around us. If Church of England Bishops can ask, ‘who is my neighbour,’ surely our leaders can do it too. When will they plant this seed?