ISIS, Islam and the Apocalypse
According to a 2012 Pew poll, in most countries of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, half or more of Muslims believe they will personally witness in their lifetimes the appearance of the Mahdi, the figure who heralds the coming judgment. Countries where the figures are particularly high include Afghanistan (83%), Iraq (72%), Tunisia (67%), and Malaysia (62%).
Chapter 81 of the Qur’an paints a horrific picture of this immanent drama, with the sun folding up, stars falling, mountains vanishing, pregnant female camels being left untended, the oceans boiling over, the blazing fire of hell being kindled to fierce heat, and other unimaginable horrors. Another curious sign of the coming Apocalypse is that women will come to outnumber men 50:1.
Nine chapters later, the Qur’an describes the culmination of it all: “Companions of the Right Hand”—those who accept Allah as the “final prophet” and earn his favour through performance of good works, “deeds of kindness and compassion”—will be separated from “Companions of the Left Hand”—those who will experience unending, dire punishments with “fire vaulted over” them. (Small wonder that Islam is the religion people are least likely to leave, given the fear of the dire consequences instilled by the apocalyptic language of its sacred texts.)
With visions of impending judgment in mind, Muslims are keen to know how they will fare personally when the ultimate sorting comes. In the end, it comes down to moral addition and subtraction. As stated succinctly by the Indonesian scholar Hamka: “Although a person acknowledges faith [in Allah], nevertheless the calculation of the sins and errors which he committed during his life will be taken into account. Exception and relief will only be applied after that calculation, measuring the relative weight of his good and bad deeds.”
Not surprisingly, a follower of Muhammad would welcome escape from such an unforgiving, cold-eyed computation of his merits and demerits, and Islam does not disappoint. For the process of measurement on the Day of Judgment can be circumvented by dying in jihad as a holy warrior, as indicated in verses 9-12 of Sura 61 (Hilali & Khan translation):
O You who believe! Shall I guide you to a commerce that will save you from a painful torment. That you believe in Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad SAW), and that you strive hard and fight in the Cause of Allah with your wealth and your lives. . . (If you do so) He will forgive you your sins, and admit you into Gardens under which rivers flow, and pleasant dwelling in Gardens of 'Adn [Paradise]. . . And also . . . help from Allah (against your enemies) and a near victory.
This helps explain the flow of young men flocking to fight and die in Syria and Iraq for the Islamic State. This assurance undergirds a July 4, 2014, sermon by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the newly declared “Islamic State.” Broadcasting from the newly captured Iraqi city of Mosul, he called Muslims to wage jihad across the world.
Of course, the Bible also speaks of the irremediable separation of “sheep” from “goats,” the former enjoying eternal life, the latter, eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31-46). Similarly, Revelation 6:12-17 speaks of a “Day of Wrath,” accompanied by an earthquake and the stars of heaven falling to earth, and 2 Peter 3 warns believers to be ready for the “Day of the Lord,” which will come like “a thief in the night.” So yes, there is an apocalyptic echo in the Qur’an, written over five centuries after the Bible’s text was complete. But there are huge differences.
First, believers in Christ advance His Kingdom by persuasion, not violence (2 Corinthians 5:11). Indeed, those who think themselves praiseworthy for murdering “infidels” will find themselves in the company of the condemned (Revelation 21:8), not the ranks of the blessed. Second, as Ephesians 2:8 tells the believer in Christ, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
As we have seen, those who fail to grasp these truths are likely to be feared, but also certainly to be pitied. For they have chosen a deadly mix of anxiety, aggression, and personal ruin—all the more reason to reach them with the gospel while making sure to stop them in their jihadist tracks.