TAKING THE APOCALYPTIC PULSE

OF MUSLIMS IN ISRAEL AND EGYPT


By David Cook,

the University of Chicago

 

Searching for Muslim apocalyptic literature in Israel, the territories of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Egypt is a likely recipe for adventure, and I wasn’t disappointed this summer (1999) in my search. Many colleagues are surprised when I talk about Muslim apocalyptic literature, and ask me what it is that they would write about (hopefully this will be answered in the text of this article and in other publications on the subject). Others who know Muslims a little better are perplexed by the likelihood of finding Muslim apocalyptic expectations about the year 2000, since the Islamic calendar does not correspond to the Christian one. To answer these questions briefly, Muslims are expecting the imminent end of the world, and the return of Jesus to fight the Anti-christ (in Arabic, the Dajjal) is one of the lynch-pins of their eschatology. It is true that Muslims use the hijri calendar (dating from the Christian year 622), and thus the year 2000 has no apparent meaning. But, in fact during the past 15 years many expectations have come to be tied to foreign Christian calculations, and a great deal of Christian evangelical Biblical interpretation has been assimilated into Muslim apocalyptic works. Many are essentially Muslim commentaries on the Bible, with an occasional quotation from the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad’s tradition thrown in.

It was for this purpose that I went to Jerusalem, the cities of the West Bank, and to Egypt-- to search out these new Muslim interpretations, and to equip the Center for Millennial Studies with a respectable Muslim apocalyptic library. I started out in Jerusalem, where I know the Islamist bookstores well (most of them being close to the Haram al-Sharif/ the Temple Mount), and found to my initial disappointment that there was not very much apocalyptic literature in stock! Upon asking my old bookstore friends what had happened, one of them answered me by saying that they had been cleaned out in recent weeks, and did I happen to know of any place where they could find more! I told them that I was looking around and would keep them posted. Before I left Jerusalem a month and a half later I visited them again, and found them to be well stocked with new Egyptian material, which I had purchased by then. The most interesting find made in the PNA areas was a pamphlet by a local writer Fa’iq Muhammad Da’ud (probably a pseudonym, since no information could be tracked down about him) called The Great events preparatory to the revelation of the Imam al-Mahdi (appeared first in spring 1999, and already in its second printing). This book, which was seen in every Islamist bookstore from Hebron to Ramallah, Nablus, and in Nazareth and Akko, is uniquely attuned to the Israeli-Palestinian scene. The author is well aware of the tension leading up to the year 2000 and is convinced that the Anti-christ (the Dajjal) is going to order the Israelis to blow up the Dome of the Rock and to build the Temple during that year ! (he says that both Jews and Christians feel that it would be a great humiliation for Jesus to return and not find the Temple already rebuilt) Further, he supplies his readers with pictures of the Anti-christ, who he says was spawned by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and is being raised in Kfar Habad, where he is something of a young Satan-incarnate.

Moving on to the cities of the West Bank, I found the apocalyptic atmosphere to be tense. In Hebron, which is always the flash-point for any conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, classical apocalyptic books were available in piles. Newer stuff was harder to come by; there were some whispers that PNA authorities did not entirely approve of their incendiary nature. But whenever I asked for it, as in Ramallah and Nablus, the shopkeepers either had stuff under the counters, or told me which "temporary" stands I could buy it at, since they were often ready to move their merchandise at a moment’s notice if the security forces searched them. It was easier to obtain orthodox Muslim refutations of expectations about the year 2000, but I already had seen those in Jerusalem. Likewise in Nablus, the orthodox bookstores connected to the mosques refused to sell me anything, or denied that they had any or knew anything about apocalyptic literature. But the street booksellers in the market place (the casba) knew right where to send me, and I managed to pick up a number of pamphlets there as well.

Egypt is a far cry from the repressiveness in the PNA territories. There, both the street booksellers and the orthodox ones were only too happy to sell materials, and the only difficulties which arise are the tendency to cheat a foreigner. Mixed in with the eclectic fair sold on the streets, which range from exposes on Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky, to books on astrology, and to translations of Benjamin Netanyahu and Henry Kissinger, there is an abundance of apocalyptic literature. Several central works deserve notice. One is a trilogy by a certain Amin Muhammad Jamal al-Din, who bills himself as a graduate of al-Azhar University, the foremost citadel of Sunni orthodoxy (one can only speculate about how intensely embarrassing it must be for them to have this fact splashed across his books!). His initial offering is called The Length of the time of the Community of Islam: the proximity of the appearance of the Mahdi (1996). In this pamphlet he tries to show gematrically that the end is near, and astonishingly enough comes up with a date close to the year 2000. His second pamphlet is a spin-off of the first, called The Authoritative word about the ‘lesser signs’ of the Day of Judgment (1998), in which he tries to prove that all of the so-called "Lesser signs of the Hour" (those signs which are preparatory to the tribulations of the end, usually of a moral or a political bent, although some are ecological) have been fulfilled. He takes some 79 of them and proves to his own satisfaction that they have come to pass; another half dozen or so are sufficiently general that he cannot prove or disprove them either way.

His third work is small, but of crucial importance. It is a defense of his calculations about the end. Throughout Israel, the PNA areas and Egypt, all the orthodox bookstores stocked attacks on the idea that the end is to come in the year 2000. Although not one of them mentions Jamal al-Din’s name, it is clear that they are attacking him, and he blasts back in this pamphlet which just appeared in spring 1999. In it, far from accepting their reproof, he gives a further 6 different ways, all based on classical religious sources, to calculate that the end is either in the year 2000 or close to it. We will have to see how the orthodox answer him, but it is more likely that disconfirmation will beat them to it.

Other prominent figures in the Egyptian scene are Muhammad `Isa Da’ud, who has always been a favorite of mine, since he has pioneered the synthesis of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory with the Jewish Dajjal together with the rich use of Bermuda Triangle and UFO lore. Many of his books are in the market, and his volume on the Mahdi recently took a first prize of the best book in Arabic during the past five years by the American Muslim Publishing Association. However, even he has been upstaged by one Hisham Kamal `Abd al-Hamid, who wants to prove that Jews as a race are entirely aliens (that is, non-human). The cover of his first book, The Appearance of the Anti-christ is nearing: the Zionists and other Satan-worshippers are preparing the way for the Anti-christ with flying saucers from the Bermuda Triangle, shows a Jew being beamed down Star Trek style to give instructions to his Masonic followers. For the past couple of years predictions of the destruction of the United States have been the best sellers in the Arabic market. This has proven to be the case once again. Hisham Kamal penned a volume on this subject called The expected destruction and ruin of America in the holy books. Much of this is a Muslim interpretation of the Daniel and Revelation apocalypses, and relates the by now expected litany of Zionist world government which God will judge shortly. Unfortunately some of his material was disconfirmed several years ago, when one of his sources, Bashir Muhammad `Abdallah’s The Great Earthquake, predicted the end of the U.S. on April 19, 1997. But disconfirmation has only increased the necessity to prove that it will happen.

Muhammad `Isa Da’ud, who I first noticed in Egypt in 1995 when his book Warning: the Anti-christ is invading the world from the Bermuda Triangle caught my eye, is one of the more popular writers in the market, although he does not pen easy-to-read pamphlets. As previously noted, his books have won awards for being well-written, but they are also quite involved and a cut above the usual street fare. Although he would probably be offended to hear it, one can learn much more about Western philosophy and paranoias from his works than one can about Muslim classical apocalyptic, which is only cited when it proves what he wants it to say. He has expanded greatly on the Bermuda Triangle theme, but his massive offering from this year (572 pages, which is about 3 times as large as any of the other serious books in the field), What is previous to the ruin.. again, warning and take heed: the Anti-christ is at the gates, is mostly a study of the tactics and personality of the Dajjal, as he is revealed in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and world Zionist strategy. Not wishing to forget this last jewel of anti-Semitism, I asked around to ascertain what was in the market. In the end I was presented with no less than four different editions available, including the so-called "blood-libel" edition (which I bought-- the one edited by Mahmud `Aqqad) and a handsome two-volume study edition with notes to show to explain each part of the world-wide Zionist conspiracy (I didn’t buy it, though, because the shop-keeper clearly wanted to rip me off). There is also no lack of other blood-libel material in the market including the notorious Unleavened bread of Zion and The Disgrace of the Talmud (which both show blood rites on their covers), and lurid semi-pornographic exposes of Jewish practices. However, in contradistinction to other Egyptian writers, Da’ud’s books, while loaded with anti-Semitism, do not feature offensive Der Stürmer-style covers.

Back in Israel, I took a trip to Nazareth and the area of Galilee, where there have been recent conflicts between the Muslim majority population and the Christian minority, I found additional signs of apocalyptic awareness. The center of the conflict is a plaza to the south-east of the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, which the Muslims of the city claim for the site of a mosque and the Christians wish to open as a full plaza preparatory to the Pope’s planned visit in the year 2000. At this point, the Muslims are physically in control of the location. When I visited them, I asked them what their plans were, and whether they wanted the Pope to visit (since even for Muslims, the financial benefits of this visit are enormous). The Muslims said they hoped that the Pope would visit, but that he should know that Nazareth is a Muslim city (which is not entirely true, but much truer than it was 20 years ago). It is clear that the Galilee Muslims feel threatened by the year 2000 celebrations, and the prestige that these events have given to the local Christians, who have been in decline for a long time. This conflict is a way of taking control of the initiative once again. Apocalyptic literature flowed in Nazareth; and I had no trouble noting down the appearance of a wide range of the books previously noted in Egypt and in the PNA areas.

One should understand that these apocalyptic expectations are only the tip of the iceberg as far as what Islam is going through right at this moment. The speculation about the appearance of the Dajjal and later of the Mahdi (and Jesus) is intense. On the Internet there are hundreds of sites about these subjects (any one who doubts this, can use a reasonable search engine with the two words "Dajjal" and "Mahdi"). Just within the past weeks, the London based Sufi Naqshbandi shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani has proclaimed the end of the world. He, according to the European Arabic daily al-Quds al-`Arabi (for Oct. 1), has ordered his followers to go to the mountains of Lebanon, where according to the classical sources there will be a refuge from the Dajjal, or to the Jordan River, where the Dajjal will be fought. While al-Haqqani is clearly at least marginally influenced by western fears and expectations of the year 2000, thanks to the huge output of literature about the subject during the past 10 years by the authors described above many in the larger Muslim world have come to feel the same way.

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