A Global Caliphate for Islam's messiah
Whether ISIL fighters are "brain-washed" or self-inculcated via the internet, the ISIL brand of radical Islam is turning men into remorseless killers. Western, African or Arab, these men are being deluded by End Times visions of reviving the Islamic Caliphate from which they believe that the Islamic messiah, the Mahdi, or "Guided One", will one day rule and eventually conquer the world.
To that end, as a sophisticated, modern jihadist enterprise, ISIL has released its 3rd issue of Dabiq digital magazine. Its title, "A Call to Hijrah", likens Muhammad's "emigration" from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD, which first established Islam as a militant state. As described in the Qur'an, it was in Mecca that Muhammad's message was shared as one of peace. However, in Medina, his message called for the violent overthrow of all non-Muslims. It is clear that ISIL is adhering to the call for the latter.
ISIL is further cognizant of Islamic prophecies found predominantly in the hadiths, which state that the Mahdi will return after a time of great turmoil and suffering upon the earth, and will establish justice and righteousness throughout the world by eradicating tyranny and oppression. The hadiths add that the Mahdi will lead a world revolution and establish a 'new world order' through military action against all those who oppose him. The fact that the hadiths also say that the Mahdi will rule the world from Jerusalem helps elucidate the perpetual fixation on conquering Israel which is espoused by nearly all global jihadist movements.
Comparatively, the prophetic emergence of the Mahdi would be to the majority of Muslims what the return of Jesus would be to Christians. These prophecies also state the Mahdi is the awaited final Caliph of the religion of Islam as a whole, and thus, of the "Islamic State". To date, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has not referred to himself as the Mahdi, perhaps understanding that many Islamic prophecies have yet to be fulfilled and moreover that discerning Islamists are carefully watching ISIL's actions before potentially joining the movement.
Nonetheless, it is the very prospect of an emergent future leader with the theological and prophetic capacity to unite Sunni and Shi'a forces which may serve to most prominently "fulfill" Islamic prophecies concerning the End Times.
Can the "Islamic State" unite Sunni and Shi'a Islam?
Much like Biblical scholarship on the prophesied end of humanity, interpretative views on Islamic "End Times" differ sharply between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.
As a Sunni Islamic movement, ISIL is committed to the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate with Jerusalem as the capital of the new global "Islamic Empire". Author Daniel Pipes, a recognized scholar on Islam and Islamic radicalism, has stated that while he does not expect ISIL to survive, it will "leave a legacy", adding:
No matter how calamitous the fate of Caliph Ibrahim [Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi] and his grim crew, they have successfully resurrected a central institution of Islam, making the caliphate again a vibrant reality. Islamists around the world will treasure its moment of brutal glory and be inspired by it.
It appears that Sunni Islamist militants are more than inspired; the total acceptance of these Islamic End Times views is geographically diverse and pervasive within radical Islamist groups. Islam's broader end of days themes have also been adopted by Israel's arch foes Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah (albeit a Shi'a Islamic interpretation of the End Times), along with Boko Haram in Nigeria (which has also declared an "Islamic State"), al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the terrorist stalwart al-Qaeda.
While opposed to ISIL and joining the fight against the group, the Ayatollah of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Shi'a Muslim theocracy has also publicly stated that the return of Shi'a Islam's 'Hidden' Imam, or Mahdi, is imminent, and that the Mahdi will kill all infidels. Such proclamations add contrast to ISIL's apocalyptic narrative, and also frame the Sunni-Shi'a prophetic divide as one which contains common and intriguing threads.
Beyond prophecy, on a tactical military level, ISIL's success is also attracting potential alliances from other terrorist organizations, such as with the Taliban's ally Hezb-e-Islami. Under unified leadership, whether from the current Caliph, or perhaps one day from another leader from Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Turkey, ISIL could theoretically bridge internal Sunni divides while co-opting disparate jihadist and resistance factions under a common banner.
Unified leadership could also quiet the vocal opposition to ISIL which has percolated up from within numerous Islamist factions who believe that Al-Baghdadi is an illegitimate 'Caliph'. But as Caliph Ibrahim's ISIL army continues to march in the face of air strikes, such speculation is within the realm of possibility down the road.
The bigger picture of Islamic eschatology and prophecy includes the return of Isa (Jesus), the rise of the Dajjal (Islam's anti-Christ), and the reign of the Mahdi (Messiah), all of which will usher in Allah's 'Day of Judgment'. Thus, if ISIL maintains even partial military success and territorial control for the foreseeable future, the allure of ISIL's End Times ideology will only become more intoxicating for foreign fighters and ISIL adherents around the world. Moreover, despite a UN Security Council Resolution, it is improbable to think that Western legislative measures will definitively halt the growing number of foreign ISIL recruits in the immediate term. This poses a serious threat to regional and global stability.
Add into this mix the possibility that the US and its "core coalition" could fail to conclusively stop ISIL in Syria and Iraq through military action. What exactly is the West's plan if ISIL manages to maintain its territorial grip, first for a year, and then a second year? Why have President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry been quick to assess that this battle will not require "boots on the ground"? (Pay no attention to the boots of military "advisors" already on the ground.)
If ISIL manages to maintain the semblance of a mini Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the complete picture of the Islamic End Times (set out above) would come into view for ISIL fighters and would-be ISIL members across the world. These fighters might perceive the continued expansion and existence of ISIL as the actual fulfillment of The Promise of Allah.
Policy planners must imagine and plan for the current or future ISIL Caliph calling for a Second Arab Spring of uprisings to overthrow the remaining dictators across the Middle East. Alternatively, the Caliph could call for these sitting leaders to form a military alliance with ISIL to wage war against Israel, or else face civil unrest stoked by ISIL provocateurs.
These possibilities may sound like a distant Islamist fantasy, but as the Western world struggles to agree on how to confront ISIL, let alone "defeat" it, the ISIL movement continues to grow more legitimate and capable of recruiting more supporters. Does comfortable Western civilization have the stomach to confront such a barbaric enemy?
Read Part 3 here.