Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Apocalyptic Violence: Handel's Messiah and the Jihadist's Mahdi

This is the flag of the Islamic State.  "No god but God" is in white across the top.  "Muhammad is the Messenger of God" is in black inside a white circle.  Spokesmen for the Islamic State explained its flag's design with a prayer: "We ask God, praised be He, to make this flag the sole flag for all Muslims.  We are certain that it will be the flag of the people of Iraq when they go to aid . . . the Mahdi at the holy house of God."  The house of God is the Ka'ba in Mecca.  The Mahdi is the Muslim savior who will lead the Muslims in the Last Battle of the Apocalyptic End of Days (McCants 2015, 22).

In his nationally televised speech of December 6 on the threat from Islamic State terrorism, President Obama said this:
"We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world -- including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology. Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist victims around the world are Muslim. If we're to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate."
"That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity."
So while the Islamic State "does not speak for Islam," it does speak for an "extremist ideology" that is one of the "interpretations of Islam" that supports religious intolerance and violence.  Obama did not explain the content of this interpretation of Islam or why it is wrong.

One good explanation would be that the Islamic State is founded on an Apocalyptic interpretation of Islam.  This is a vision of the world coming to an end through the Great Battle between the forces of Satan and the forces of Allah that will bring the leadership of the Mahdi, the Muslim savior, who will establish the world-wide rule of the Caliphate that will bring justice to all of humanity in the Day of Judgment. 

The Islamic State was first proclaimed in 2006.  Abu Ayyub al-Masri was one of its main leaders.  When he was appointed the Islamic State's minister of war, Masri explained: "The war is in its early stages. . . . and this is the beginning of the battles. . . . We are the army that shall hand over the flag to the servant of God, the Mahdi.  If the first of us is killed, the last of us will deliver it" (McCants 2015, 32).

Apparently, this is what has attracted young men and women from around the world who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the jihadist army of the Islamic State.  It's thrilling to think that one is fighting in the Great Battle in which the world will come to an end, with the triumph of the believers over the infidels.

One of the prophecies attributed to Muhammad is that the Day of Judgment will come after the Muslims defeat Rome at al-A'maq or Dabiq, two places close to the Syrian border with Turkey.  In 2014, Islamic State fighters took the village of Dabiq, and they were jubilant that they were fulfilling prophecy.  When a masked British member of the Islamic State beheaded an American aid worker in Dabiq, he declared: "Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive" (McCants 2015, 105).

In the Republican presidential debate last night, Rick Santorum alluded to this when he warned that if the U.S. were to move troops into Syria, this would be seen as confirming the Apocalyptic prophecies used by the Islamic State.

When we see horrific violence like that carried out by the Islamic State, we are often inclined to think the perpetrators must be sadists or psychopaths who lack any moral sense.  But the Apocalyptic violence of the Islamic State shows how the most brutal violence is often morally motivated.  The ISIS jihadists are convinced that what they are doing serves a higher moral good--the final defeat of Satan and the salvation of humanity.  I will come back to this point in some future posts on the evolutionary psychology of moral violence.

In looking for the coming of the Mahdi at the end of history, Muslims have built on the Apocalyptic thinking of Jews and Christians who have looked for the coming of the Messiah at the end of history (Filiu, 2011).  For Christians, this will be the Second Coming of Jesus as the Messiah.  (Much of this Apocalyptic thinking is probably derived from the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia.)

"Apocalypse" is derived from a Greek word for "uncovering," and it refers to the disclosing or revelation of hidden realities about the movement of history to some final end.  One of the primary sources of such thinking is the last book of the New Testament, which is called The Apocalypse or Revelation.  This biblical text has been interpreted in many different ways (see Kirsch 2006; McGinn, Collins, and Stein, 2000).  But the most influential interpretation sees it as a prophecy of the end of the world.  The satanic Antichrist will become a powerful ruler, who will oppress and persecute Christians for seven years, which is called the period of Tribulation.  Jesus will then descend to earth and lead an army of saints and martyrs to defeat the satanic armies of the Antichrist at the Battle of Armageddon.  Once he is defeated, Satan will be bound in a deep pit under the earth.  Jesus will then rule over an earthly kingdom for a thousand years.

At the end of this millennium, Satan will break out of his confinement; and Jesus will be forced to lead a second battle to finally defeat Satan.  The dead will then be resurrected, and all human beings will be judged by God.  The earthly world will be destroyed and replaced by "a new heaven and a new earth."  The believers will live forever in perfect happiness in Paradise.  The unbelievers will be punished forever in Hell with Satan.

By the end of the nineteenth century, some American fundamentalist Christians were persuaded by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)--an Anglo-Irish preacher--to add two prophecies to this Apocalyptic story: the Rapture and Christian Zionism.  Darby found the prophecy of the Rapture in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians:
"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (I Thess. 4:16-17).
Darby saw this as a prophecy that the true Christians would not have to suffer the seven years of Tribulation under the power of the Antichrist, because just before the arrival of the Antichrist, all Christians living and dead would be transported--raptured--from earth to Heaven.  They would be brought back down to earth once Jesus returned to defeat Satan and the Antichrist.

Darby did not reflect on Paul's suggestion in this passage that this prophecy would be fulfilled in his own lifetime--"we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds."  If this is so, then we would have to say that Paul's prophecy was mistaken.  Similarly, in the book of Revelation, it is repeatedly said that the Apocalyptic prophecies "must shortly come to pass," and "the time is at hand" (1:1-3; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20).  Now, after two thousand years, we still have not seen the fulfillment of these prophecies that were originally presented as what must "shortly come to pass."  That has been a recurrent problem for these prophecies.  In almost every generation, people have believed that the Apocalyptic events were soon to occur, only to be disappointed.  Considering this past record, there is no reason to believe that the Islamic State's Apocalyptic predictions will be fulfilled.

In addition to the Rapture, Darby made a second contribution to the Apocalyptic prophecies.  He reasoned that at the end of history all of the biblical prophecies would have to be fulfilled, including the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible about the restoration of the Jewish community in Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem.  Darby inferred, therefore, that before the end days could come, the Jews would have to reclaim the land of Israel.

Consequently, those fundamentalist Christians who accepted Darby's interpretations of the Bible became Christian Zionists who supported the establishment and expansion of the Jewish state of Israel.  The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the Israeli liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967 were seen by Christian Zionists as dramatic evidence that the end of the world was drawing near.  This explains why American fundamentalist Christians have been such strong supporters of Israel.  This Christian-Jewish alliance is strange, however, in that these Christians foresee that at Judgment Day all of the Jews that have not been converted to Christianity will be condemned to burn eternally in Hell.

The continuing appeal of this Christian Apocalyptic vision is indicated by the astonishing success of recent books predicting that the Rapture, the Antichrist, Armageddon, and the Last Judgment are coming soon.  In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth sold over 20 million copies.  Beginning in 1995, Tim LaHaye's novels in the "Left Behind" series have sold over 50 million copies.  In the beginning of his first apocalyptic thriller--Left Behind--LaHaye portrays a commercial airline pilot called Rayford Steele, who discovers that half of his passengers have suddenly disappeared from the plane.
"I'm not crazy!  See for yourself!" screams a flight attendant.  "All over the plane, people have disappeared."
"It's a joke.  They're hiding, trying to--"
"Ray!  Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind.  These people are gone!"
All around the world, all of the true Christians have been raptured into Heaven, so that they will not suffer through the Tribulation.  LaHaye then tells the story of how the Antichrist takes control of the world.  The Antichrist is a Jewish politician with his headquarters in Iraq.

The Apocalyptic story told by the Islamic jihadists is rather different.  They haven't adopted Darby's ideas about the Rapture and Zionism.  From Muhammad's prophecies, they see the final battles as a fight between Islam and the infidels (including Christians and Jews) led by the Antichrist.  The Mahdi and Jesus will lead the Muslims against the Antichrist and the infidels.  At the Last Judgment, the Muslims will be saved for eternal bliss, and the infidels will be condemned to eternal punishment.  The violence of jihadist fighting, including suicide terrorism, is all morally justified as serving the end of divine judgment and redemption of the believers.

A few years ago, Joel Richardson, in his book The Islamic Antichrist (2009), pointed out the remarkable parallels between the Christian and Muslim prophecies of the Apocalypse, but with the roles of bad guys and good guys reversed.  He argued that the Islamic Mahdi is actually the Antichrist, and thus Satan will be using Islamic jihadists to carry out his great battle against Christianity in the End Days.

A few days ago, I found myself thinking about the problem of Apocalyptic violence while attending a performance of Handel's Messiah with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  Two years ago, I wrote a post about the Messiah as a defense of orthodox Christianity against Deism.  But this time I began to wonder whether Handel and Charles Jennens (who wrote the libretto) had revised the Apocalyptic story of the Bible to make it less violent.

The most familiar and most popular part of the Messiah is the Hallelujah Chorus, movement 44, the last movement of Part Two, which uses lines from the book of Revelation: "Hallelujah!  For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth! Hallelujah! The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.  King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (Revelation 19:6, 11:15, 19:16).

The libretto of the Messiah is remarkable for what it leaves out of the story in Revelation.  Nothing is said about the two battles--Armageddon and the Final Battle.  There is no reference to Satan or the Antichrist.  And nothing is said about the condemnation of the damned to eternal punishment in Hell, which leaves us with the impression that everyone will enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven.  Consequently, almost all of the bloody violence of Revelation is eliminated.

The only violence in Messiah comes in the four movements (40-43) immediately preceding the Hallelujah Chorus.  It is said that the "nations" and the "kings of the earth" have risen up against God and the Messiah.  God will have to defeat them.  "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Psalms 2:1-4, 9).

Many listeners have found this part of Messiah disturbing in its suggestion that God enjoys torturing people.  In his commentary on Messiah, Calvin Stapert observes: "'Thou shalt break them' is . . . out of balance unless it is taken in the context of Messiah as a whole, for in it God's love far overshadows his anger" (132).

Thus, if there were an Islamic version of Handel's Messiah, it would give no support to the Apocalyptic violence of the Islamic State.


Filiu, Jean-Pierre. 2011. Apocalypse in Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kirsch, Jonathan. 2006.  A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization. New York: HarperCollins.

McGinn, Bernard, John J. Collins, and Stephen J. Stein, eds. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum.

McCants, William. 2015. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Stapert, Calvin. 2010. Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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