At around the age of fourteen, I became enamoured with the supposed prophecies of the famous 16th-century astrologer, Nostradamus. Of course, not his purported prophecies precisely, but rather a late 20th-century interpretation of them, penned by an anglophone author invested in the paranormal. To be sure, given my rudimentary knowledge of modern French, there was no way I could access the original quatrains in their 16th-century French myself. Indeed, nor could those who dedicated their lives to pontificating on what his poems truly meant, for none of them had access to the original text either. But no matter.
To my immature teenage mind, it was something to grasp hold of for a month or two, as I pondered how to prepare for the the frightening events set to unfold before I reached adulthood. An underground nuclear bunker would be required, I decided, in which to ride out the impending apocalypse set to fall on us from the sky. Fortunately for me, I never got around to spending my pocket money excavating a gigantic hole in the garden, so when the seventh month of 1999 passed by, eight years later, without very much happening, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Not so much for those who had invested thousands writing books and making films about our imminent doom. But all was not lost; two years later they could say that by 1999 (obviously a mistranslation), the quatrain in fact meant 2001, and by the seventh month Michel de Nostredame actually meant September. And so, everything came to pass exactly as was foretold, as from the sky came the great king of terror, and of course all the rest is history.
I think in the anglophone west, it was the Murabituns that most successfully mainstreamed the prophecies of doom amongst modern Muslims, first Ahmad Thomson with his book, Dajjal: The Anti-Christ, but more famously Hamza Yusuf Hanson through a series of crowd-pulling lectures, sold on in audio and video cassettes to a receptive generation of youngish Muslims, crying out for certainty. Hamza Yusuf, always ready to assure his audience — “I’m not making this up” — that ancient prophecies recorded in the treasury of literature of the Muslims spoke of events unfolding before our eyes. The barefooted bedouin competing in building tall buildings. Women whose hair looked like the humps of dromedary camels — Tina Turner was invoked for this one. The cars, mobile phones and video cameras foretold in hadith attributed to the Prophet, peace be upon him.
As a new Muslim in the late 90s, always ready to believe in the truthfulness of the pious ones, I too embraced the signs of the hour to cement my nascent and sometimes wavering faith. Soon I furnished myself with copies of slim books devoted to the topic, picked up in the bookshops of Park Road and Melcombe Street, filled with interpretations of English translations of unattributed hadith. A close companion at the time warned me that most of the hadith in those books were weak at best, if not outright fabricated, and pointed me in the direction of an esteemed scholar writing on the topic. I, however, had to believe in them, because they were clearly so accurate, so true to life, and so clearly coming to life before us, in our own time.
Bibliographic referencing was never a strong point in these books, but even if the sources were correctly referenced, I had no way of checking them. Perhaps I might find one or two in an English translation of the digitised collections of the major books of hadith that had begun to proliferate online, but what of the obscure collections I had not even heard of before? However would I check that the so exact narration concerning wings out of which wind would flow that would ravage the Arabs — so clearly an explicit allusion to fighter jets — attributed to an unreferenced unknown? An impossible task, but I had to believe, despite the nagging doubts within: how do I know the author or someone he cited didn’t just make this up? Back then the answer: because Muslims are duty-bound to tell the truth at all times. Today: okay, Muslim lie a lot.
It turns out that prophecies concerning events apparently coming to fruition in our own time are the lifeblood of many a religious community. Sufi circles swell with men egging each other on with tales of the imminent arrival of the promised one, now amongst us, known to their own scholars and sheikhs in far off lands; all the foretold events we see evident in our time just a mere prelude to all that is to come. If any of the older folk remained in these circles, surely they would grow impatient, remembering the same promises two decades ago, when their own companions agitated about the very same. But these men are jaded now, and have nothing to do with the youngsters who will not listen to their wisdom borne of experience, just as they ignored their elders in their time.
So here we are. Today, the audio cassettes have been replaced with YouTube videos. Hamza Yusuf’s twenty year-old lecture is still making the rounds, but now it has an irritating looping a cappella soundtrack, stock video footage and ripped off documentaries overlaid, in slow motion for effect, with magnificent animated text, stirring the next generation to life. The technology of the late 90s implicated in the meanings of ancient narrations has been replaced with smartphones, smart cams, smart things. Soon it will be the self-driving car, and the Uber sky taxi, and the barefooted bedouin constructing Elon Musk’s hyperloop, and Japan’s sky elevator and the trip to Mars.
Of course, there is nothing to see here; nothing new. In the olden days the barefooted bedouin were the inhabitants of Shibam Hadramawt in Yemen, who in the 16th-century began building high-rise buildings from mud, some of them thirty metres tall. Before that it would have been the residents of Cairo, who turned their home into the city of a thousand minarets. Or the residents of Timbuktu building the Djinguereber Mosque 700 years ago, or the Berbers of Marrakesh building Koutoubia Mosque in the 12th-century.
Each generation reinterprets the signs they have received anew, each new set of believers convinced that what they have is unique and unknown to others before them, even if those signs were originally uttered by a rabbi from the venerable lore of his own tradition, quoting a sage who in his own times saw things he disliked which could only presage the arrival of a promised one and an evil one. Five years ago, naive young men and women saw the black flags in Syria and convinced themselves that it was the army prophesied in the auspicious but possibly inauthentic hadith they had just happened upon. Twenty years ago, naive young men and women saw the black flags in Afghanistan and convinced themselves that it was the army prophesied in the auspicious but possibly inauthentic hadith they had just read. Ah yes, and 1,310 years ago, men came out with black flags to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty, battling altogether in Sham and Khorasan.
For me, it is quite possible that the Prophet, peace be upon him, uttered words about events yet to come to pass; it is possible that he could have been given some knowledge of the unseen. But it is equally plausible that some of what is attributed to him was simply made up by people with their own agendas, political or personal. It is entirely reasonable to entertain the notion that political forces in precarious positions attributed words to the Prophet to motivate their supporters to defend their imperilled position and repel an enemy closing in. After all, you might have doubts about serving a tyrant, but no believer could turn away from God and His messenger.
Perhaps some what we have received in terms of narrations is true and grounded in reality. But, for me, much of the eschatology that is tossed so carelessly around has to be judged against this measure of the Qur’an:
They ask you, [O Muhammad], about the Hour: when is its arrival? Say, “Its knowledge is only with my Lord. None will reveal its time except Him. It lays heavily upon the heavens and the earth. It will not come upon you except unexpectedly.” They ask you as if you are familiar with it. Say, “Its knowledge is only with Allah, but most of the people do not know.”
The Prophet himself, peace be upon him, was ordered by his Lord to reply when people asked him for signs, that knowledge of the Hour is with Allah alone. Are we to suppose that the Prophet disobeyed his Lord and went on to set everything out in great detail? Is this coherent? Well, to the learned apparently so, the proliferation of material so frequently returned to by believers in every generation proof in itself of their faith. Good for them, I say, but I will suffice with the Qur’an’s version of events: “Most of the people follow only conjecture.” Allahu a’lam. We have something certain to hold fast to. I don’t know why we don’t.