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What Does the Islamic State Actually Believe?

06/28/2016 06:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016
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By now, many people are aware that the Islamic State is an apocalyptic death cult that wants to provoke an Armageddon-like battle in Syria. Many articles have been written about this aspect of the Islamic State's mission since it rose to prominence in the summer of 2014. In fact, the most read article ever published in The Atlantic, by Graeme Wood, dedicates considerable space to the apocalyptic motivations behind the largest and best-funded terrorist organization in human history. The Islamic State actively wants the world to end, because this is what it believes the prophet Muhammad said is supposed to happen.

But what sense can one make of references to Dabiq (the small town in northern Syria where Armageddon is set to take place), the caliphate (the Islamic government led by the caliph), and the return of Jesus (and even that the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine often mentions)? How do all these events fit together? What exactly is the eschatological narrative that so many Islamic State fighters believe is worth dying for? To understand the Islamic State, one needs to understand its eschatology — not in fragments, as popular articles often present it, but as a coherent whole with a specific narrative chronology. Without an understanding of how exactly the apocalypse is prophesied to unfold, an intelligent and effective strategy for combating the Islamic State will continue to elude us.

So, let’s peak under the hood of the Islamic State’s apocalyptic beliefs. The first thing to notice is that the Islamic State’s belief system has changed over time. As the Brookings Institute’s Will McCants notes in The ISIS Apocalypse, the founding members of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), such as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, were expecting the imminent appearance of a messianic figure called the Mahdi. The Mahdi is prophesied to unite the Muslim world and usher in a series of critical end-times events. In fact, al-Masri was so sure that the Mahdi was about to appear that he made several strategic decisions based on this conviction — decisions that ended up hurting the ISI organization, as, alas, the Mahdi never came.
 
As a result, the Islamic State's leadership deemphasized the Mahdi's imminent appearance after al-Masri was killed by the US in 2010. The apocalyptic spotlight then shifted from the Mahdi to a series of prophetic hadith about the caliphate. For example, one states that there will be exactly twelve “rightly guided” caliphs, or legitimate leaders of the Muslim community, throughout all of history. Another states that the caliphate itself will be re-established shortly before the Last Hour. So the Islamic State set out to establish a caliphate, with their current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, being the eighth caliph in this line of rulers. As Graeme Wood observes in an interview with Vice, the arithmetic here is quite simple: only four caliphs remain after al-Baghdadi passes away, at which point the world comes to a glorious end.

The Islamic State’s literature is also overflowing with references to the grand battle — essentially Armageddon — in the town of Dabiq, located just south of the Syrian-Turkey border, near Aleppo. It's home to slightly more than 3,000 people. In 2014, the Islamic State “fought ferociously” to capture this town, even though it has virtually no military significance. According to a hadith frequently cited by the Islamic State, the Muslims and “Roman” forces — i.e., the Coalition — will soon confront each other in this town. The Roman forces will ask to fight their own prisoners who've converted to Islam, but the Muslims will refuse. A battle of epic proportions will then ensue, with one-third of the Muslim army fleeing (they will never be forgiven), one-third dying (they will be considered “excellent martyrs”), and one-third being victorious. The Roman forces will be utterly decimated.

At this point in the narrative, prophesies state that the triumphant Muslims will then go to Constantinople, now Istanbul, and proceed to conquer it. But a problem arises because Constantinople was already conquered by the Ottoman Turks back in 1453. One solution is to say that the Ottoman Turks weren’t “real” Muslims, so this prophecy was never actually fulfilled. In fact, the Islamic State sees most nominal Muslims around the world as apostates, and other Muslims have suffered far more at the hands of Islamic State radicals than anyone else. Upon reaching Constantinople, the Muslim army will breach its walls not through conventional fighting, but through supernatural means: they’ll chant “There is no god but Allah and Allah is the greatest!” and the city's walls will crumble.

The next important event in this chronology — indeed, the first of the ten Major Signs before the Last Hour — is the appearance of the Antichrist (or the Dajjal). According to prophecy, the Antichrist will spread a terrible epidemic of evil. His diabolical actions will proliferate injustice, corruption, and human suffering. But his campaign will soon be interrupted by the second Major Sign, namely the return of Jesus over the white minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus, Syria. Jesus is an important figure in the Sunni narrative because it’s him, rather than the Mahdi, who will ultimately kill the Antichrist. (In contrast, Twelver Shi’ites believe that the Mahdi, or Twelfth Imam, will kill the Antichrist instead of Jesus. Twelvers put far more eschatological emphasis on the Mahdi than on Jesus.)

Jesus will return during the Fajr (or morning) prayers. After praying behind the Mahdi, he will chase the Antichrist until they reach the “gate of Ludd,” or Lod, a city in modern-day Israel. At this point, Jesus will murder the Antichrist and show his fellow Muslims the Antichrist’s blood on his sword. Jesus will then “break the cross,” an important symbolic act that’s intended to prove that Christians have distorted the Truth over time. For example, the Bible incorrectly states that Jesus died on the cross and rose again after three days in the tomb. According to Islam, Jesus ascended into heaven while God made it appear as if Jesus had been crucified. Jesus never actually died. The claim that he did is a corruption of the real story.

Once the Antichrist is killed, a series of bizarre events occur, such as the sun rising from the west, the appearance of Gog and Magog, and smoke blanketing the Earth. But these are too far along in the narrative to be of much use for understanding the motives behind the Islamic State. Once one understands these details, one can begin to see why certain strategies for battling the Islamic State could seriously backfire. For example, assassinating al-Baghdadi would likely increase apocalyptic fervor among certain Muslims around the world, since it would mean that there are only four caliphs remaining, i.e., the end is nearer.
 
There are two general approaches to defeating terrorism: fight the terrorists, or fight the ideology. Only the second offers hope of winning not merely the battles, but the war as a whole. To fight the ideology, though, one must understand what it is. The above summary of the Islamic State's eschatological beliefs is a first step in this direction.
 
This article was adapted from an earlier article posted here.
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