The End is Near

The End is Near: Minor and Major Signs of the Hour in Islamic Texts and Contexts Barbara Freyer Stowasser Georgetown University

Our Vocabulary of ultimate purpose and order Apocalypse (Greek for “revelation of divine mysteries”) means disaster, cosmic catastrophe, the end of the world; in scripture it is a vision of the future shape of eschatological events. The rich Jewish tradition of apocalyptic1 visions was inherited by Christ and his disciples,2 especially the second-generation figure of John of Patmos,author of the book of Revelation (also called Apocalypse) (ca.95 C.E.) The Jewish and Christian traditions, both profoundly influenced by Zoroastrianism,reverberate in the Qur’an’s eschatological accounts 3 and,especially, the apocalyptic Hadith. Apocalypticism is the belief that the end is imminent.When an apocalyptic sense of imminence spreads,eschatological groups typically emerge under charismatic leaders. Every age produces a variety of apocalyptic movements appropriate to its circumstances, and their actions may focus on private salvation, sometimes through a combination of quietism and a withdrawal from the world, or on reform, or radical segregation of the righteous from the sinful majority, or on militant activism bent on restructuring society in order to hasten the final event. Islamic history is filled with apocalyptic movements, of differing nature, which fall within any of these categories. Millennialism, or millenarianism, is the belief in the kingdom of holiness, peace, justice, and plenty that the Messiah will establish on earth before the last judgment. Although the term millennium implies a thousand year kingdom, its duration—which is predicted in the Islamic sources in a variety of time frames—is of secondary importance; what matters is that, initiated by signs portending the cataclysmic end of ordinary time, and after a preliminary period of purging and transformation, human society reaches its final state on earth when all conflicts are resolved and all injustices removed. In the Islamic Hadith, two messianic figures, Jesus and the Mahdi, are portrayed as end-time rulers whose reigns signify that last period of justice and plenty. While apocalypticism is about disruption, upheaval, devastation, and endings, millennialism is about new beginnings, restoration, and regeneration. But the millennium itself is only a transitional, liminal “band of time,” before in a final cataclysm the earth is devastated and the process of creation reversed. Apocalyptic millenarianism is defined as a form of activism that directs groups of believers who see themselves at the threshold of the awaited millennium (in the eschatological sense) toward radical political action, including anti-establishment attempts at restructuring society. It is a reaction to a collective sense of extremity, dislocation, and the feeling of living in truly terrible times. Natural disasters, political persecution, economic deprivation, even change itself—in the form of a negative discrepancy between expectation and reality—have triggered it, while atomic and ecological eschatology have recently added a new dimension. In the Islamic context, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has joined the list of major grievances that, especially as formulated in popular sermons, pulp fiction narratives, on Websites and the like, can set the tone for an apocalyptic millenarian mind-frame in their mass audiences and readers. Apocalyptic themes in the Qur’an There is an apocalyptic edge to some of the Qur’anic, especially the Meccan, revelations when they expound that the end is near: “They see the (day) far off, but We (God) see it quite near,” (70:6–7, Early Meccan). “The hour of judgment is near, and the moon is split,” (54:1, Middle Meccan). “Verily the hour is coming. My (God’s) design is to keep it hidden,so that every soul be rewarded by the measure of its endeavor,” (20:15, Middle Meccan). “Closer and closer to people is their reckoning, while they in neglect turn away,” (21:1, Middle Meccan). But [even] according to the (chronologically) earliest revelation regarding the hour, its appointed time is known only to God, and the Prophet is but a warner for those who fear it (79:42–46,Early Meccan). This theme is reiterated in two late Meccan revelations: “Verily the knowledge of the hour is with God alone. He sends down rain, and He knows what is in the wombs,” (31:34, Late Meccan), and “The knowledge (of the hour) is with my Lord, none but He (can) reveal its time,” (7:187, Late Meccan), and also in a Medinan revelation: “Men ask you about the hour. Say: knowledge of it is with God. What will make you understand? Perhaps the hour is near,” (33:63, Medinan). On the other hand, the Qur’an gives only the sparsest detail on any portents that would indicate the hour’s imminent arrival. Among the signs of the hour is the observable disintegration of established familial, societal, and economic norms.4 Then, “When the word is fulfilled against them (the sinners), We shall produce for them from the earth a beast to speak to them, because people did not believe with assurance in Our signs,” (27:82, Middle Meccan); the nations of Gog and Magog will break through their ancient barrier wall and sweep down to scourge the earth (21:96–97, Middle Meccan); and Jesus is “a sign of the hour”(43:61, Middle Meccan). By contrast, the Qur’anic revelations provide an abundance of eschatological detail that begins with God’s cosmic undoing of the “old world” followed by the last judgment and creation of a “new world” of everlasting paradise and hell. Thus, while the “terrestrial signs of the hour” remain a relatively marginal theme in the Qur’anic message, the actual occurrence of doom (destruction of the cos- mos and cosmic time), resurrection, last judgment, and individual assignment to an eternal abode of beatitude or torment are a fully developed part of Qur’anic doctrine. Apocalyptic themes in the Hadith Unlike the Qur’an,it is the Hadith that furnishes a vast variety of detail on the portents of the hour that signify its imminence. In many cases, these resemble the “signs” of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic literature.Western scholarship both old and new has attributed this fact to the prominence of Jewish and Christian converts to Islam who played important roles as scripturalist experts (Qur’an interpreters and, especially, transmitters of Hadith) during the first century-and-a-half of Islamic history.5 In addition, Western scholars have read the apocalyptic Hadith as a reflection of the cultural,social, and political turmoil that marked Muslim history during the same period.6 Muslim theologians and historians would refer to these times of turmoil in early Islamic history as fitna [“secession, upheaval, seduction,anarchy”]. It was also by the concept of fitna,in its plural fitan,that the compilers of Hadith collections inscribed their chapters on the turmoils that signal the end of the world. Over time, a small portion of the apocalyptic Hadith gained canonical status (in Sunni Islam) by way of its inclusion in the legal foundational texts and, especially, the canonical Hadith collections (The Six Books of “Sound Traditions”) that have held prominence in Sunni doctrine and law since their first appearance during early Abbasid times. The six Hadith compilations in question were the work of al-Bukhari (d. 870), Muslim ibn Hajjaj (d. 875), Abu Da’ud (d. 888), al-Tirmidhi (d.892),al-Nasa’i (d. 915),and Ibn Maja (d.886). From among the founders of the four extant schools of jurisprudence, the “legal textbooks” of Malik ibn Anas (d. 795) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855),likewise written in the form of Hadith collections, form part of this recorded corpus of “sound” traditions as measured by classical Islamic criteria of authentication (regarding source and chain of transmission). These canonical sources’ emphasis lay on careful definition and elaboration of the Islamic legal tradition, while apocalyptic matters (including traditions of a messianic nature) were of secondary or tertiary interest. The books on fitan generally appear at (or towards) the end of these classical Hadith collections.7 At an early age,rationalist Muslim critics professed profound reservations about the validity of (at least parts of) those apocalyptic Hadith materials, even though they had been assembled in the canonical books. A fourteenth-century example of this critical trend is the celebrated historian and legal authority Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) who inter alia, when writing about the figure of the Mahdi, questioned the interplay between apocalyptic tradition, esoteric interpretation of Sura 18 (“The Cave”) and historical political claims,especially of the Twelver-Shi’a,in a manner that betrayed his personal mistrust of the validity of apocalyptic texts.8 Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sunni modernist thought has more systematically questioned the authenticity of this apocalyptic Hadith, referring to it by the older label of isra’iliyyat (“Bible-derived traditions”), that hold at best some symbolic significance. Such language from the likes of the Egyptian modernist theologian Muhammad Abduh (d.1905) or his Syrian disciple Rashid Rida (d.1935) 9 can induce apoplectic rage in the more literalist,traditionalist contemporary compilers of the classical Hadith, for whom every detail of the transmitted texts is true.10 The sheer volume of available, canonical and sectarian, classical and later Hadith on apocalyptic themes has for many centuries enabled Islamic scholars to forge their own collections of these materials. By nature of the subject, such textual activities always had a potential political edge. As is more fully discussed in what follows, the manner in which Islamic scholars have historically handled Hadith end time predictions has been indicative not just of their religious orientation but also their stance toward the political system under which they performed their work. Lately that stance has been affected by ideological concerns regarding world politics in the manner and language of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” While, on the whole, Huntington’s oeuvre so far has a hear-say presence in the contemporary Islamic and Islamist discourses, an echo of his language is discernible in new formulations of pre-existing anti-colonialist patterns of thought and argumentation.11 The apocalyptic Hadith has been classified in several ways. Some sources distinguish the “minor signs” of the hour from its “major signs.” Others distinguish between “signs that have passed,” “signs that can be observed at present,” and “signs that have not yet occurred.” Here the “signs that have passed” are historical events which were, or are, recorded in the nature of historical “markers” on the way of mankind’s linear approach to its final destination. The second category, “signs that can be observed at present,” functions to denounce religious aberrations, including innovative and other objectionable cultural, social, and political practices, in “mirror of the times fashion;”their import,then, is largely moral guidance in that they promote a reversed (upside-down) vision of godly society. The third category, “signs that have not yet occurred,” contains the metahistorical and messianic traditions on the (Qur’anic) “beast from the earth,” a (non-Qur’anic) antichrist figure (Dajjal), the devastation of the earth by Gog and Magog (Qur’anic), the return of Jesus (Qur’anic),and also the return of a second messianic figure called the Mahdi (“the rightly guided one”) (not mentioned in the Qur’an). The lines between these three categories are, however, fluid. This fact essentially derives from the paradigmatic nature of the apocalyptic Hadith. While later Hadith criticism (including of the modern rationalist and reformist schools of Islam) would argue that historical events were often cast as “minor signs” in the form of prophetic Hadith, to their more literalist adherents these traditions were not only literally true, but their prophesizing nature also left room that these events could re-occur, at much later times and under vastly different conditions than when they first appeared to be fulfilled. A contemporary compendium of classical Sunni apocalyptic Hadith Ashrat al-sa’a (“the signs of the hour”) by Yusuf al-Wabil,quoted above,is a tome of classical traditions assembled by a young religious scholar who had studied at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. Some years ago, the book was one of many similar, popular items at bookstores in the Arab world,attesting to a trend that started in the 1980s and gained full force during the 1990s,when the classical apocalyptic Hadith,newly re-assembled and re-edited by religious scholars,came to draw the interest of large numbers of conservative readers. For the purposes of this paper, al-Wabil’s book will serve as example of the mixture of scholarly Hadith expertise,civic caution,and the anti-globalization stance that has characterized much of today’s traditionalist clerical output. In addition, the volume is also animated by a spirit of hostility towards historical and modern Islamic rationalism and reformism, and an anti-Western/anti-Jewish/antiChristian stance, that betray its “fundamentalist” roots. Thus it belongs into a universe that parallels the anti-rationalist,anti-reformist, and anti-Islamic platform of the New Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian Right. As the three monotheistic contemporary fundamentalisms (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) share the use of today’s means of instant communication in propagating the apocalypse in terms of their own vindication, the theme has acquired a globalized and hastened, dialectical power in the validation of exclusionary religious identity and worth. Our source lists the historical and moral “signs”, i.e. those that have occurred and/or are still with us,under the heading of “minor signs,” while the metahistorical and messianic traditions are collected in a chapter entitled “major signs.” The author adds glosses in the form of Hadith interpretation and application to some of his listings. All of the “basic texts” in this compilation,however, are of classical origin and well documented as to their provenance from the medieval collections. Thus they differ considerably from the contemporary Islamic non-clerical apocalyptic literature that is discussed at the end of this paper. Minor signs of the hour In this compendium, the minor signs of the hour are presented in sequential listings where traditions on natural disasters, lunar and solar eclipses,and landmarks of Islamic history intersperse the enumeration of significant societal aberrations. By placing the latter paradigmatically in the context of the prophetic Hadith, their contemporary manifestations are given true apocalyptic weight, while the line between historic events that had seemingly fulfilled prophetic predictions,and their future re-occurence,remains equally open. The following partial synopsis maintains the sequencing and numbering of the source’s data. The compiler’s commentary has been omitted except where a brief gloss is given within parantheses. Among the minor signs of the hour are the following: 1. The Prophet’s mission (since God’s messenger Muhammad is the last prophet sent to mankind, his career initiates the last chapter of human history); 2. The death of the Prophet; 3. The conquest of Jerusalem (achieved by the second caliph Umar, who prayed where the Prophet 12 had prayed facing the true qibla, after which he set to cleaning the place of refuse); 5. Superabundance of wealth that leaves no-one in need of receiving sadaqa [charity]; 6. The appearance of fitan [many varieties of turmoil, anarchy, secession,and seduction], such as when believers turn into unbelievers and sell their religion for nonessential things of this world; when sectarian and other dissenters belie the true message of Islam; when trials and tribulations arrive from the East (Islam’s struggles against invaders from Asia, such as the Mongols, or, later, communism); when sectarian and political divisions erupt within the Islamic community (here the compiler lists the civil wars of early Islamic history); when Muslims (slowly but deeply) appropriate the traditions of others (Persians and Byzantines, Jews and Christians); when religion is affected by (heretical) innovations (“innovations” based on “arbitrary views” and “personal opinion” to where Muslim men come to resemble unbelieving men, and Muslim women resemble unbelieving women); 7. The appearance of false prophets; 10. Islam’s struggle against the Turks, “people of small eyes, broad and reddish faces,flat noses, who wear fur and walk in shoes made of fur” (here the compiler distinguishes between the Mongols whose conquest of Islamic territories wrought devastation,and later Turkish dynasties who served the Islamic cause by spreading the power and might of Islam both East and West); 12. The loss of trustworthiness, loyalty, and integrity (coupled with loss of the true faith); 13. The supression of knowledge and the emergence of ignorance; 14. Abundance of police squads and oppressive officials who wield whips the size of the tails of cattle; 15. The prevalence of illicit sexual relations; 16. The spreading of usury; 17. The condonement of musical instruments (and of male and female singers); 18. Widespread and condoned consumption of wine; 19. The decoration of mosques as a matter of pride and competition (and the ornate embellishment of copies of the Holy Book); 20. The building of very tall *buildings; 22. Wide-spread killing (massacres and senseless fighting within the Muslim community); 23. A (perceptible) acceleration of time (when a year feels like a month,a month like a week,a week like a day, a day like an hour, and an hour like the small amount of time it takes for a palm leaf to burn to ashes); 24. Closeness between markets (when markets affect each other’s trading); 25. The rise of idolatry in the community (when idols are worshiped and graves are made into sanctuaries and shrines); 26. The emergence of indecency (obscenity) and enmity among relatives and neighbors; 27. Imitation of the young by the old; 28. Prevalence of avarice, greed, and covetousness; 29. Pervasiveness of trade (and wealth gained from trade); 30. Abundance of earthquakes; 31. Frequent occurrences of disgrace, distortion, and defamation; 32. Departure of the righteous (so that those who remain are mainly evil); 33. The rise to prominence of the despicable (to where the liar is believed, the traitor trusted, and the fool’s advice heeded); 34. Extending greetings (of peace) to acquaintances only (when the communal spirit is weakened); 35. Seeking knowledge from minors; 36. The emergence of women who are nude even when they are clothed (because their garments do not cover their “private parts”);38. The pervasiveness of writing (when knowledge of how to write is widely spread);39. Neglect by Muslims of the rules of Islam; 40. Distention, or swelling-up, of the new moon (to where it appears bigger than previously observed); 41. Abundance of lies and lack of verification in the transmission of information (the news);42. Prevalence of false testimony (and suppression of true testimony); 43. Abundance of women and paucity of men (to where there is a single man left for every 50 women); 44. Frequent occurrences of sudden and unexpected death; 45. Snubbing and stand-offishness among people; 46. The greening of Arabia: when the land of the Arabs returns to being a land of rivers and fields; 47. When there is much rain but little vegetation; 49. When predatory animals and minerals speak to humans; 50. When people wish to die (lie in a grave that they are passing) because of the severe trials and tribulations (that they are suffering); 51. When the Rum (Byzantines/the pallid people) are in the majority and fight against the Muslims; 52. The conquest of Constantinope (without military struggle,i.e. the event lies in the future); and so forth.13 Other Hadith collections also list additional traditions on the minor signs that signal the end. All depict the future as wrought with difficulties. The Muslim community will break into a chaotic mass of conflicting sects. As faith, morality and honesty, human decency and acceptable generational and gender relations, political accountability, justice and public civility fall by the wayside,the whole fabric of the Muslim community is rent asunder. Sedition follows sedition,until the living envy the dead. Eventually, according to the apocalyptic Hadith, God sends a final seducer in the person of the antichrist (al-Dajjal, the “Imposter,” or al-Masih/al-Masikh al-Dajjal, “the False Messiah”) who is either a beast,a monster, or a human figure. God also sends the world its redeemer in the person of the Mahdi. To some minority voices, Jesus son of Mary is the eschatological savior whom the Hadith calls the Mahdi. To most others,they are two distinct figures, and the Mahdi is of the Prophet’s lineage.14 In the contemporary compendium of classical end time Hadith quoted above and in what follows,the rise of the Dajjal,return of Jesus,and arrival of the Mahdi signify the shift from “minor” to “major signs” of the hour when the world begins to witness the final struggle between good and evil that is the concluding chapter of human history.