I have been reading a long and interesting article about Islamic State (IS, ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) by Graeme Wood. It appeared in the March issue of The Atlantic but is still available online:
Graeme Wood is a journalist (Canadian) and not a scholar of Islam, but he seems to have delved quite deeply into Islamic theology and history. One thing that struck me in his article is the importance of apocalyptic thinking in the beliefs IS espouses.
Most of the major religions have millenarian or apocalyptic strains. The coming of the Messiah and the End of Days is a central tenet in Jewish belief. When, in my younger days, I attempted to read the New Testament, I was struck by how much Jesus believed that the End of Days was nigh and preached that the Children of Israel better get their act together, because Judgement Day was coming. This part of Jesus's teaching seems to has been conveniently forgotten, probably because it was obviously incorrect, the world having persisted.
And then after Jesus's death when the label of Messiah (or Christ) was pinned upon him, some Christians adopted a form of apocalyptic thinking, exemplified in particular in the Revelation of St. John. For him Armageddon was on its way. Interestingly the word Armageddon derives from an actual place, Megiddo, now in Israel. It was an important location in a narrow pass through which the trade route from Egypt to Assyria passed. There were a number of major battles there in ancient times.
In Christian eschatology (end of times beliefs) of the Book of Revelation, written by John the Divine, in exile on the island of Patmos, Jesus will return to earth and defeat the Antichrist (the "beast"), the False Prophet and Satan the Devil all together in the Battle of Armageddon. After various other wild events, dreamed up in the lurid imagination of John, and involving a lot of fire and brimstone, Jesus will reign and the righteous will be saved.
Mohammed, the Prophet, was well aware of Christian and Jewish beliefs, so it is not surprising that in Islam, there is a hadith (writings claiming to be direct quotes of The Prophet) dealing with the End of Days. It claims that Mohammed said that
The Last Hour would 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 Medina (to counteract them).
Dabiq is a city, now in northern Syria, close to Aleppo. "Romans" was thought to refer to the Byzantines (the Second Rome) but others now think it refers to Christians in general. According to the Prophet's prophecy, after the defeat of these Romans, the forces of Islam will go on to conquer Constantinople. A messianic figure The Mahdi (remember General "Chinese" Gordon's expedition to Khartoum in Victorian days) will be instrumental in these victories and will reign for some years (variously 7, 9 or 19) before the final Day of Judgement and the return of Jesus Christ.
The name Dabiq has been adopted by IS for its propaganda magazine. Apparently in 2014 when its troops captured the city and its surrounding plains there was wide rejoicing among its members, in belief that the decisive battle would soon come to pass. Also in IS's propaganda messages there have been many references to Dabiq, whose significance has been missed by Western journalists.
I gather from Graeme Wood's article that in the Muslim world belief in this End of Days is considered to be a somewhat vulgar indulgence by the masses. In some ways this is not so different from the Christian world where believers in 'The Rapture' and their close cousins Armageddon survivalists ('Preppers'), are viewed with disdain by educated Christians and establishment churches.
Apocalyptic considerations played no part in Al Qaeda's thinking. Both bin Laden and his number two Ayman Zawahiri were from elite Sunni families and looked down on lowbrow apocalyptic speculation. Apparently in Iraq in 2008 there was a lot of talk of the Mahdi and jihadi groups there were making tactical decisions based on their estimates of when the Mahdi was to be expected. When Osama bin Laden was appraised of this he had to write to them and order them to desist. It was from the jihadi groups (especially Al-Qaeda in Iraq) fighting in Western Iraq that IS emerged when it split from Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda is in many ways like an underground political organization with very clear earthly goals, albeit ones to do with the political revival of Islam. This is not true of IS which sees itself as fulfilling prophecy. And part of that prophecy has to do with the End of Days. This has lead some strategists to suggest that a way to defeat IS is to amass a huge modern western army in the vicinity of Dabiq, more or less inviting IS to do battle there. It is claimed that it is a bait that they would not be able to resist. And when the western forces decisively defeat the IS forces, its credibility would be irreparably destroyed.
This could be true. But I think Western leaders are very wary of sending more ground troops to Muslim countries. Past experience suggests that when one dragon is slain, its blood only goes to fertilize the ground for the emergence of another more fearful and monstrous dragon.
Graeme Wood suggests that in the long run IS might be defeated on a spiritual level by a quietist form of Salafi Islam. These Salafis are just as unbending as IS in their literal belief in the Koran and in the divine word of the Prophet. But their main emphasis is personal purification and compliance with the Koran. In some respects they are like the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who reject the legitimacy of the Israeli state, but go to extreme lengths to make sure their daily behaviour complies with 'The Law', even to the extent of having non-observant neighbours enter their homes on the Sabbath to turn on light switches. Mohammed preached against chaos, especially generated by discord between believers. IS generates exactly this sort of chaos and discord and the quietist Salafis reject this behaviour.
Whether or not IS loses the spiritual battle only time will tell. Personally I can't see it happening. The allure of fighting and dying in a righteous cause is much more appealing to the young than the non-ending rigours of an extreme ascetic life. But at the same time I can't see how IS can continue if it stays rigidly attached to the very literal interpretation of 1400 year old scripture. It is as if extreme Christian fundamentalists succeeded in obtaining absolute power in the USA - something that so far has only happened in the fiction of authors like Margaret Atwood. An unbending attachment to scripture could not be sustained for long. Compromises with the real world would have to be reached. But this would lead to some weakening of the internal belief of the leadership and members. Not only would it weaken the drive of the organization, in the case of IS it would lead the leadership open to the charge of takfir or apostasy, which would then make it the duty of other believers to overthrow the takfiri leadership.
I imagine that, like in every other organization, there is a spectrum of beliefs within the IS leadership. The Caliph, Al-Baghdadi appears to be at one end of the spectrum - a true believer. But I wonder about its military leaders. They are said to be former officers of Saddam's Baathist army. I don't know, but I can't picture these military men, who served Saddam, as extreme Salafis. I suspect they are more driven by motives of power and revenge. But at present they see their best strategy as going along with the extreme religious leadership. Who knows what might happen if the tide turns against IS, militarily. Will the religious leadership still put up with the Baathist soldiers? Or will the soldiers try to take over the organization? To me it seems that in the long run IS could be a victim of its own ideology. But in the meantime it could cause an awful lot of chaos and killing.
Since Wood wrote his article IS seems to have adapted its tactics somewhat. It seems to have followed Al-Qaeda's tactics of terror attacks on western targets, at least sponsoring, if not organizing, attacks in Beirut, Paris and the bombing of the Russian airliner. So maybe it is not so constrained by prophecy and the Islamic texts as Wood suggests. If true this is bad news for the rest of us.