Islamic Studies / Apocalypse Quite Soon

We may laugh - or shudder - when we read descriptions of heavy-handed eschatological works, widely distributed in the Muslim world that depict the destruction of Israel and the Jews. But one study of the subject doesn't provide enough analysis to allow us to do much more than that.

Apocalypse in Islam by Jean-Pierre Filiu (translated from the French by M.B. DeBevoise). University of California Press, 288 pages, $29.95

This alarming book, first published in France in 2008 and only now available in an English translation, might more accurately be called "Postmodern Apocalypses in the Muslim World." The book's early chapters survey the wide variety of Islamic ideas about "the Hour," as it is referred to in the Koran, or the "End Time" - akhir al-zaman, in post-Koranic Arabic. Jean-Pierre Filiu's historical chapters are especially helpful for readers interested in the differences between Sunni and Shia ideas on the topic. While Sunni thinkers, like many of their Christian counterparts, have focused on the Koranic depictions of a Final Judgment, Shia thinkers have focused on the appearance of the Mahdi, the messianic figure who will fight the dajjal, the "Antichrist," and triumph.

Filiu helps his readers see how the Mahdi idea thrived in the Shia culture of veneration for the imams, those "saints" who have led the Shia throughout their history and who are expected to lead them in the triumphs of the future. Among Sunni Muslims, the term "imam" refers to a prayer leader. Among the Shia, though, the term refers to the descendants of the first imams, Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali, and Ali's sons, Hasan and Hussein. Some Shi'ite groups believe in a "hidden imam," a leader who never died and who will return to lead the faithful. This belief has influenced recent historical developments, most significantly the veneration of Ayatollah Khomeini in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The later chapters of Filiu's book report on "a new and hugely popular genre, apocalyptic fiction, now rapidly spreading throughout the Muslim world." Some of the genre's representative books are novels; most are tracts or pamphlets. What they all have in common is a vivid sense that the end of the world is approaching and that the Final Judgment is at hand. When that time comes, as the narrative generally goes, the United States and Israel will suffer greatly, before being destroyed altogether. Israeli readers might be interested to know that 2022 will be an especially bad year. According to Bassam Nihad Jarrar's tract "Israeli Empire Collapses in 2022," Israel represents "the zenith of corruption and barbarism," and for that reason is bound for destruction. Jarrar's booklet, first published in Arabic in the 1990s, was picked up by a London publisher, translated into English and widely distributed in Malaysia in the early 2000s.

While 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have made these books immensely popular, such ideas have been percolating since the 1980s and earlier. "The Antichrist," a 1987 book by the Egyptian author Said Ayyub, for example, looks back at history and connects Israel and the United States in a remarkably twisted and creative way. In the 17th century, writes Ayyub, "the Protestants and the Jews fled to America, where they found Indians and gold and proceeded to divide them up." This "fact" is presented as history in Ayyub's nonfiction work.

Much of Filiu's study of these bizarre books is descriptive rather than analytic. Students of Middle Eastern affairs will be thankful for the delineations, but will also come away wanting to know more. In transitioning from his account of classical Islamic ideas on the End Time to his descriptions of these new books, Filiu provides little historical or ideological context. It is as if a historian of Western Christian apocalypticism took us from the New Testament's ideas on the End Time to those of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in the "Left Behind" series without any context, transition or evaluation. The latter, a series of novels published in the years 1995-2007, fictionalizes the events of the Rapture, the New Testament term that refers to the end of time and the Second Coming of Jesus. These books had entertainment value, both for those who accepted the theology of the books, and for those who didn't - those who might find fictionalized theology hilarious, or frightening. The popularity of "Left Behind" told scholars of American religion that there was a newly awakened interest in Biblical prophecy.

Mass-market phenomenon

Filiu, who teaches at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, has been studying this emerging genre of Islamic apocalyptic fiction since the 1990s. Most of these books were published in Arabic in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Kuwait City. Back in the 1990s, few Western scholars were paying attention to the genre. But since September 11, 2001, and even more so since 2003, after the United States had become mired in wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, fiction about the End Time has become a mass-market phenomenon in both the Arabic-speaking world and in the wider Muslim world.

Like "Left Behind," whose titles all told have sold tens of millions of copies and also generated children's books, feature films and video games, the Islamic novels and tracts are not distinguished by fine writing or insightful character studies. And as in the "Left Behind" books, Jews and the State of Israel always play pivotal roles in the plot. Historian of religion Yaakov Ariel has noted that Israel looms large in the "Left Behind" series, which "demonstrates the centrality of the Jewish people and Israel in the evangelical eschatological faith." It must be said that while those Christian novels feature both "good" and "bad" Jewish characters, in the new Islamic apocalypses the Jewish characters are uniformly sinister. Filiu, like many other Western travelers and scholars visiting Middle Eastern cities, has seen these books displayed in a wide range of bookstores, public markets and airports. He cites publishers' contentions that these apocalyptic novels enjoy a very wide readership - and though these figures might be inflated, there is no reason to doubt the popularity of the genre.

What Filiu doesn't tell us, however, is what to make of this popularity. The publishers of the "Left Behind" series claim that over 65 million copies of the books have been sold in the United States alone. But does that mean that so many people (a quarter of the U.S. population ) believe in the inevitability of the Rapture and its related events? Some American historians and sociologists, most notable among them Amy Frykholm, have been wrestling with the question - and through polling, interviewing and analysis, have provided some answers. Scholars estimate that 10 percent of Americans profess unwavering belief in the imminent Rapture. Frykholm notes that, ultimately, the "Left Behind" novels are a form of entertainment. "Although the authors hope to edify readers and perhaps even lead some to make a commitment to Christianity, their main purpose is to entertain. [...] Given that, [...] are we being unfair by analyzing them [...] and over reading?" Is there a similar social science effort going on in the Muslim world concerning these more recent Islamic apocalyptic novels? If there is, Filiu doesn't tell us about it.

Informed by conspiracy theories

For Jewish readers of Filiu's book, the most disturbing element in these post-9/11 novels from the Islamic world is that they are informed by conspiracy theories "that place renewed emphasis on the stock figure of the scheming and cosmopolitan Jew." Filiu points out that this strain of anti-Semitism can be traced back to 19th-century European works, such as the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." Arabic translations of the Protocols were introduced into the Muslim world in the mid-20th century, since which time they have become ubiquitous. Filiu's point that this type of anti-Semitic writing did not originate in the Arab or Muslim worlds offers faint consolation to today's reader, whatever their religious affiliation. For in these recent apocalyptic works of fiction, "the disappearance of the Jewish people, either by conversion or extermination, is celebrated in advance."

The University of California Press is to be praised for adding to the book color plates of 22 lurid covers of these recent novels. These alone are worth the price of admission. This is in sharp contrast to the 2009 decision by Yale University Press to publish the book "The Cartoons That Shook the World," by Jytte Klausen, without including the Danish newspaper cartoons of the title, which mocked the Prophet Mohammed and which were behind the great controversy. Equally valuable in the Filiu book, though less lurid and startling than the reproduced book covers, is an appendix listing "a contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Bibliography." Among the oddities listed is Muhammad Dawud's "Beware: The Antichrist Has Invaded the World From the Bermuda Triangle," published in Cairo in 1991. That's one I can't wait to read!

Shalom Goldman is professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern studies at Emory University, in Atlanta. His book "Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land" was published in 2010 by University of North Carolina Press.