To senior military officers, intelligence analysts and policy-makers, blood and guts are more real than fire and brimstone.
To the followers of ISIS – which now calls itself the Islamic State – however, not only do the concepts of hell fire and the gardens of paradise seem real, the hope of heaven and fear of hell are powerful recruiting tools, morale boosters and motivating forces.
While the battlefield is real to them, to lose one’s life on that battlefield is viewed as victory, and as martyrdom rewarded with a painless death, avoidance of Judgment Day and a direct passage to paradise.
And that vivid expectation of paradise is accompanied by a sense that in any case, ‘the end is nigh’.
That is why the ‘caliphate’ established by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has named its English-language magazine after the town of Dabiq.
Indeed, Dabiq’s first issue opens with a quote from Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi, the brutal founder of the group that became the Islamic State:
‘The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.’
The town of Dabiq is obscure enough that you won’t find it indexed in David Cook’s Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature, nor in French diplomat-scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam.
Will McCants, in his book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State due out later this month, quotes a leader of the Syrian opposition as saying, ‘Dabiq is not important militarily.’
And yet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, like Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi before him, makes it a centrepiece of his strategy and propaganda.
The fighters of the Islamic State, like many Christians, are living in expectation of the End of Days.
For many Muslims, this features a great coming one, known as the Mahdi; his opponent, known as the Dajjal and commonly translated ‘antichrist’; and the return of Jesus, viewed as a major Muslim prophet.
In the Shi’ite ‘Twelver’ Islam which is the official state religion of Iran and also widely followed in Iraq, the Mahdi or Rightly Guided One has already been born on earth as the twelfth in the line of the infallible Imams.
He is often referred to as the Hidden Imam, and is viewed as having been in ghayba or ‘occultation’ – concealed by God from the eyes of all but the best of humankind – since 874AD.
It was the expectation of this Hidden Imam’s imminent reappearance that Iran’s previous President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, referenced in his speeches at the United Nations.
Even before he was President, while Mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad is reported to have issued a map of the city showing the triumphal route the Mahdi would follow on his return.
It is widely believed that the same expectation explains in religious terms Iran’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons – that this will hasten the coming of the Mahdi.
Timothy Furnish, a keen student of Islamic apocalyptic, conservative Christian and author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden, has argued persuasively against that theory.
In his 2011 paper 'A Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearizing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?’ Furnish argues that ‘mainstream Shi`i theology does not support violence (nuclear or conventional) in order to precipitate the return of the Twelfth Imam.
‘Seen in this light, the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of nuclear weapons falls from the overly-alarmist apocalyptic register into a more mundane, and manageable, geopolitical one.’
Many Westerners are dismissive of Christian apocalyptic beliefs: think cartoons of a bearded man in sandals carrying a sign declaring ‘The End Is Nigh’.
And if these beliefs seem eccentric to many, they tend to know even less about the end times beliefs in other religious traditions.
Both Sunnis and Shi’ites have expectations of the Mahdi’s coming, but while the Shia believe this will be the return of their Twelfth Imam, the Sunnis view the Mahdi as an entirely new figure.
In Sunni apocalyptic literature, one of the strands of tradition suggests that a jihadist army will sweep down from Khurasan – an area covering much of present day Afghanistan and eastern Iran – to capture Jerusalem.
One such hadith declares, ‘If you see the Black Banners coming from Khurasan go to them immediately, even if you must crawl over ice, because indeed amongst them is the Caliph, Al Mahdi.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, as Ali Soufan, the FBI’s lead investigator of the USS Cole bombing, reports in his book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, Al Qaeda used this very hadith in their propaganda.
Al Qaeda, however, was somewhat muted in their apocalyptic references, and when their followers seemed too excitable on the topic of the Mahdi’s arrival, issued a pamphlet in 2003 titled God Does Not Entrust Knowledge of the Mahdi to Anyone before His Appearance.
The Islamic State, as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff noted in August 2014, ‘is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.’
Indeed, as the Jamestown Foundation’s Michael Ryan puts it, the Islamic State is ‘following a strategy as laid out in broad strokes by Abu Bakr Naji and informed by the teachings of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.’
Naji and al-Suri
Abu Bakr Naji’s contribution includes the overt brutality we see in IS videos, following the teachings he offered in his book The Management of Savagery.
Lawrence Wright comments: ‘Violent attacks would create a network of “regions of savagery”, which would multiply as the forces of the state wither away, and cause people to submit to the will of the invading Islamist force. Naji believed that a broad civil war within Islam would lead to a fundamentalist Sunni caliphate.’
It was Abu Mus’ab al-Suri however whose apocalyptic emphasis was to have an ‘end times’ impact on IS strategy.
Al-Suri’s 1,600-page masterwork, the Global Islamic Resistance Call, ends with a hundred pages of apocalyptic quotations from scriptural sources, and Jean-Pierre Filiu in his book notes that there is ‘nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action.’
William McCants, in a recent lecture at Boston University and in his forthcoming book The ISIS Apocalypse, argues that ‘the kind of rhetoric they use and the sort of apocalyptic texts that they emphasize have shifted over time’, and that al-Baghdadi has backed off the immediacy of his predecessor al-Zarqawi’s vision, taking a longer view in which a succession of caliphs, starting with himself, will lead eventually to the arrival of the Mahdi.
This shift in thinking concerns not only time, but also space. As the figure of the Mahdi and the imminence of his return becomes less prominent, the establishment of Islamic rule – the caliphate – takes on additional significance.
It is this spatial aspect of the Islamic State’s apocalyptic programme which offers the alliance against them a means of discrediting their ideology.
To the extent that they lose control over territories they have previously conquered, their argument that God intends to extend their rule from Iraq and Syria to Rome, the White House, and across the world, looks less and less plausible.
McCants’s book lays out their programme of conquest in detail, and his Appendices offer a rich trove of relevant Islamic apocalyptic prophecies.
McCants himself is ‘confident the Islamic State’s government in Syria and Iraq will crumble’ – but believes the pattern that IS has pioneered will not soon die out.
‘The Islamic State has demonstrated that a modern caliphate is possible, that doomsday pronouncements and extreme violence attracts bloodthirsty recruits, and that cutting out the hearts and minds of a population can subdue them faster than trying to win them over.’
This may come as an unhappy surprise to many in the West.
Dr Furnish quotes ex-CIA analyst and author Reuel Marc Gerecht, describing ‘Americans, particularly those who work in Washington’ as ‘mostly good secular sorts whose grasp of the causes of holy war is mundane.’
Islam’s end times believers, however, strive for victory both in this world and the next.
It may not be easy, but it may be crucial, for those ‘mostly good secular sorts’ to begin to grasp the fervour and passion that drive our apocalyptic jihadist adversaries – not to mention the very real strategic implications of those beliefs.
Christians believe Jesus is God. Muslims believe he was a divinely inspired Prophet.
Christians believe in an Antichrist or antichrists. Muslims believe in the Dajjal, the Islamic equivalent, meaning ‘imposter’ from the Arabic root djal meaning ‘lie’.
Christians believe Jesus was crucified, died, resurrected, and ascended to heaven. Muslims believe he was not crucified, but was raised to heaven.
Christians believe Jesus will return at the end of time to inaugurate his perfect reign. Muslims also believe Jesus will return – but as a Muslim.
Christians and Muslims alike say the exact dating of the End Times is known only to God.