CRUCIBLE: Prophecy and Global Trends

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/31 October)—Today, we are in the month of Muharram in the year 1436 in Hijriyyah Calendar. As you know, the most significant period in this month is the day of Ashura (equivalent to 03 November 2014). It is a tradition of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) whenever the day of Ashura comes, he and the sahabah (companions) would engage in three-day fasting. It was narrated that when they arrived in Madinah, the Prophet saw some Jews engaging in fasting in commemoration of the deliverance of the children of Israel from Pharoah’s oppression where they were led to cross the Red Sea by Moses.

Framing Ashura

The Prophet (SAW) made it an important, albeit voluntary fasting on the day of Ashura not only in commemoration of that wonder during the time of Nabi Allah Musa (AS). It was in consonance with equally important meta-historical events dating back to the time of various prophets like, for instance, the Divine forgiveness extended to Nabi Allah Adam (AS) and his wife (Eve) after realizing their pitfalls when they were vanished from Paradise; the forgiveness on the people of Nabi Allah Yunus (AS) or Jonah; the birth of Nabi Ibrahim (AS), and the birth of Nabi Isa (AS).

Obviously, the Ashura commemoration happens every year in the month of Muharram.  This occasion will be the frame of our discourse as we broaden its significance (not only the events we mentioned), but we would like to expand to a claim by certain schools about the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (RA) in Karbala, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to also have happened in the day of Ashuraand that the coming of the Mahdi (AS) is also believed to happen in the day of Ashura.  The latter takes a perspective that exists in the realm of alamu l-ghayb or world unseen.

As we had noted previously, there are contrasting perspectives of traditional Social Sciences vis-à-vis areas of knowledge that border on prophesy, end time history, and eschatology. The former is empirically based that pursues rational line of understanding or what in Weberian sociology refers to as verstehen; whereas Islamic thought in particular gives equally important weight to areas of knowledge, which is in the realm of alamu l-ghayb as it in the dimension of belief or aqeedah. There is that dimension therefore in Islamic thought that talks about prophesy or events that have yet to happen in the future. The story about the advent of the Mahdi (AS) is an area or topic discussed quite extensively in Hadith literature, although it is not mentioned in the Holy Qur’an.

Another equally important subject, which is related to discussion on Mahdism, is the view of the Qur’an regarding the Second Coming of Jesus (AS) that says:

And (Jesus) shall be a Sign  (for the coming of) the Hour (of Judgment). Therefore have no doubt about the (Hour) but follow ye Me: this a straight way (Zukhruf: 61).

Various Ahadith usually connect the advent of the Mahdi (AS) with the Second Coming of Nabi Allah Isa (AS). For obvious reason, traditional Social Sciences do not give much credence to the subject of prophecy given that the former pursues empirically based perspective or ideology with the dominant one known as scientific positivism. This is not to mention that Social Sciences simply developed, as we mentioned previously, close to around two hundred years ago. Whereas the subject of prophesy in Islamic thought is older and richer both in the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith.


A case in point is that during the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), at least 16 years before he passed away, Suratu l-rum was revealed particularly the earlier verses reminding the early Muslim community about the defeat of the Roman Empire particularly the Byzantine suzerains in Palestine and Syria including the victory of the early Muslims in the Battle of Badr. The Qur’an says:

ALM. The Roman Empire has been defeated in a land close by; but they (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious – within a few years. With God is the Decision, in the Past and in the Future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice – with the help of God. He helps whom He will, and He is Exalted in Might, Most Merciful (Rum: 1-5).

The Qur’an refers to the conquest of Jerusalem in particular under the hands of the Persians as she was previously under the Roman Empire. It can be said thus that the Qur’an is both a book of history and a book of prophesy. This is to not to mention that there are many eschatologies or views about the Day of Judgment and the Hereafter therein. Hadith literature provides or supplements certain parts of prophecy, which are not highlighted in the Qur’an like the advent of the Mahdi (AS). In this connection, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) has also a number of prophesies, wherein famous of which is his prophesy on the conquest of Constantinople. A Hadith reads:

“Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be; and what a wonderful army will that army be.”

Some ulama (religious scholars) of Hadith view the above-mentioned prophetic saying to refer to the conquest of Istanbul by Muhammad Fateh in 1453. But other ulama speak of the conquest of Istanbul in end time history. It means it is part of series of events that will yet to unfold together with prophesy about the Second Coming of Jesus (AS), the advent of the Mahdi (AS) including the rise of so-called Black Flag Bearers from Khurasan that will enter Kufa now part of Iraq and will, in turn, declare allegiance to the Mahdi (AS) who will appear in Makkah.

Narratives of this sort that are yet to unfold are generally accepted in various works of Hadith among Sunni scholars like Ibn Maja, Ahmad, Mustadrak Al-Hakim, Ibn Kathir, Ibn Hibban, Nuayn, Abu Dawud, Al-Dhahabi, Muslim, and few others. What is significant in this view is that, all the events mentioned therein will happen on the day of Ashura particularly with the advent of the Mahdi (AS).

One source, many stories

As practitioners of Social Sciences, we previously mentioned that we are actually caught in a dilemma how far we advance our discourse on this dimension since it is yet to happen as it is in the domain ofalamu l-ghayb (world unseen). This is not to mention the fact that current events mostly in the Middle East seem to provide signs of their realization. As we talk now, Jerusalem particularly the Masjidi l-aqsa is currently under siege. Muslim worshippers are restricted to enter the Mosque. Since 1948, fundamentalist Jews would like to take control of the Dome of the Rock which is where the Masjidi l-aqsa is located. It is part accordingly of their plan to build the Third Temple. In the book of Grant Jeffrey, “The New Temple and the Second Coming,” it reads:

“Preparations to rebuild the Temple have progressed in several fronts, with plans already in place that go into far detail than most people are aware of. The Temple project is yet another major prophetic sign post on the time line leading to the final conflict of the battle of Armageddon and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. No less a prophet than Jesus Christ made it clear that the generation that witnessed the return of the Jews to the Promised Land would live to see him return to earth. The modern State of Israel was born in 1948, which means that you and I are part of the last days generation (see Matthew 24: 32-34). However, the Temple must once again occupy its place on the Temple Mount before the major prophesied events of the last day can take place (p. 4).

Meantime, with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) particularly with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring the establishment of a Caliphate, his name must have been added into the list of general understanding in the West particularly what the Bible refers to as the “Anti-Christ” or the “Beast.” The concept “Beast” and “Anti-Christ” is among the terms in the Book of Revelation of the Bible together with such end time Biblical terminologies like Apocalypse, Armageddon, and Second Coming of Jesus, and many others.

In the book of Jonathan Hearst, “A History of the End of the World,” it reveals that of around 17 personalities considered to be Anti-Christ, seven of them are identified with Islam, namely: Prophet Muhammad (SAW); Salahuddin al-Ayyubi; The Ottoman Sultan that knocked the gate of Vienna; Anwar Sadat; Imam Khomenei; Saddam Hussein; and Osama Bin Laden. With al-Baghdadi declaring himself as a Caliph, then he must have been included by today mostly fundamentalist Christians as one of those considered as “Anti-Christ;” whereas Western leaders considered as Anti-Christ start with Napoleon Bonaparte; Martin Luther; Lenin; Stalin; Hitler; Mussolini; Roosevelt; Kennedy; Moshe Dayan; and, Henry Kissinger. Quite recently, social media raised the name of Barack Obama as another “Anti-Christ.”

What are we trying to imply? Even if the subject of prophesy and end time perspective of history have been generally frowned upon in Social Sciences, yet their perspectives are so enduring such that major events including major personalities are made to fit by their proponents into the discourse of end time history and various perspectives about the Armageddon, the Apocalypse, and so on and so forth. This shows that the three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – despite the fact that their teachings are deeply rooted in the same source like the teachings of prophets and their revelations, it is undeniable that in the course of time, there develops in their narratives varying versions of prophesy, including end time claims and eschatology.

This carries a far-reaching implication: how do we develop optimism as prophesy of this sort grips us in fear? What is the trend of Social Sciences on this view? How do we handle the seeming replaying of prophesy in real-time events in the Middle East today?

Inglorious end

It should not surprise us that there is a trend in Social Sciences that complements views in prophecy and end time history. Perhaps we can allot some time in appraising the recent work of Noam Chomsky, a renowned linguist and critic of US foreign policy. He has followed the development in the Middle East and other parts of the world for the past fifty years. In his recent piece entitled, “The End of History?” Chomsky writes:

“It is not pleasant to contemplate that thoughts that must be passing through the Owl of Minerva as the dusk falls and she undertakes the task of interpreting the era of human civilization, which may now be approaching its inglorious end.”

It is vintage Chomsky speaking. He is a scientific person with highly scientific mind. He is the only living linguist who courageously and consistently ventures in various fields of sciences and philosophy including complex issues of US foreign policy in the Middle East and many parts of the world. His reading is that modern civilization is now approaching with what he refers to as “inglorious end.” It is due according to him with the fact that –

“the era opened almost 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent stretching from the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates through Phoenicia on the eastern coast of Mediterranean to the Nile Valley, and from there to Greece and beyond. What is happening in this region provides painful lessons on the depths to which species can descend.”      

Chomsky specifies the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 including the current quagmire in Syria and the rise of the ISIS. In separate work, he refers to the rise of ISIS as the result of US sledgehammer in Iraq during the reign of George Bush I and II.  These major events are happening in the place where civilization started and it is being fueled with the involvement of big powers like the United States whose interest is to entrench global hegemony in the region and other parts of the world. While this is going on according to Chomsky, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came up with a finding recently of “increasing greenhouse emission risks “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystem.” In Chomsky’s earlier work, “Hegemony and Survival,” it points out:

“The species has surely developed the capacity to do just that, and a hypothetical extraterrestrial observer might well conclude that humans have demonstrated that capacity throughout their history, dramatically in the past few hundred years, with an assault on the environment that sustains life, on the diversity of more complex organizations, and with cold and calculated savagery, on each other as well (p. 2).”

What Chomsky is saying is that the world’s “inglorious end” would be defined by the fact that the current source of global malaise has gone back to the place where civilization has started with climate change and global warming remaining unaddressed amid its increasing and worsening impact. In “Hegemony and Survival,” Chomsky stressed his point with the militarization of space and the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in many parts of the world. It is in pursuit accordingly of US National Security Strategy in 2002, a strategic blueprint generally known in strategic intelligence lingo as “full spectrum dominance” – a global vision where US power is unilaterally projected with no other powers allowed to emerge let alone challenge.

Chomsky, as a scientist, identifies different causes of end time history distinct obviously with those in Semitic religious prophesies. This means that while both fields of knowledge operate in varying paradigms – one in empiricism and scientific positivism while the other in the domain of alamu l-ghayb– they both reveal similar apocalyptic ends. This, we said, is the burden of modern man: how to keep ourselves afloat amid overwhelming pressure of world events that are far remove from our vision of beautiful life in the future that we all hope to attain. The Owl of Minerva is, indeed, not alone in his pensive contemplation.

The difference is that, at least in the Muslim world, the views on prophesy including such tradition likeAshura is welcomed with enthusiasm like engaging in fasting. Yet, if all events in end time history are inevitable to happen, then man could do nothing to stop them. We are not in the position to state how fasting can avert a global Armageddon. What is true is that, fasting is a common practice of Prophets and waliyullah (saints) when faced with momentous events.

Global consciousness and Qur’an’s guarantee

In Social Sciences, there is an idea that human intervention must be made inevitable, too, so that those events like global warming, militarization of space and the spread of nuclear weapons could be averted. This means intensifying pressures on big powers to reduce their propensity to power, to domination, and to violence. Chomsky identifies a glaring dilemma of the United States whose survival is dependent on its hegemony. And if it pushes hard and becomes stronger, no less than the survival of civilization (not only small continents, regions, or countries) but the whole world is put in serious danger. Hence, human intervention across the world could come with the formation of global consciousness with people from different walks of life calling for the reduction of WMD and nuclear armaments, and seriousness in addressing global warming and climate change, and so on.

Another difference is, whereas as we said Muslims welcome the Ashura through fasting; but a country like Israel/Palestine is embroiled in controlling a piece of land whose effect tears up the Middle East even realizing many of the prophesies. In this regard, Kirsch suggested that there is a need to stop what he refers to as “secret things” (e.g., “to do God’s work of revenge and to hasten end times). Rather, there is a need to “call on us to answer the urgent needs of the hungry and homeless, the prisoner and the patient, all in the here and now.” What Kirsch is saying is mankind must intensify their solidarity and brotherhood and to help one another than become party in realizing end time prophesies.

Incidentally, when we read Suratu l-zukhruf regarding the coming of Jesus (AS), we’ll find in subsequent verses certain behavior or certain ways into which believers are being encouraged to do. The Qur’an reads:

“Do they only wait for the Hour – that it should come on them all of a sudden, while they perceive not? (66)”

The Qur’an continues:

“Friends on that Day will be foes, one to another – except the Righteous (67).”

Then it reads further:

“My devotees! No fear shall be on that Day nor shall ye grieve, – Being those who have believed in Our Signs and bowed (their wills to Ours) in Islam (68-69).”        

This is the guarantee the Qur’an so provides that soothes our hearts where we can base our optimism upon as we are faced with events that seem to reflect end time history. The Ashura would give us that opportunity to be able to hold on to that guarantee so that we won’t waver and be gripped wantonly with fear. We mention this to allow us to shape a broader perspective of Ashura and its ritual. We have to reflect and to have more insight so that we broaden our understanding of our society and the world. Through this, we enliven our optimism with Qur’an’s guarantee of hope.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A slightly edited khutbah delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 31 October 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].