Apocalypse at Dabiq

Apocalypse at Dabiq January 1, 2016

Over the past year, the word Dabiq has come to be associated with some horrendous deeds. That is the name of the emetic publication of the group ISIS/Daesh, in which it presents its propaganda and advocates acts of terror worldwide. Here, though, in a series of posts, I want to describe where the name comes from, and the surprising thought-world it indicates. More particularly, I will describe the Christian background. Looking at the world of Muslim apocalyptic, Christians will encounter a number of familiar faces.

I will introduce the topic in this post, and then discuss it more in coming days.

For non-specialists, the name of Dabiq first attracted attention in a much-cited article by Graeme Wood in the Atlantic, in which he noted that

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

Wood was exactly correct in stressing  the apocalyptic mindset of the movement. The same point emerges from other recent studies, notably William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse (2015).

When “Jihadi John” murdered a hostage in 2014, he delivered a speech:

To Obama, the dog of Rome, today we’re slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar and tomorrow we’ll be slaughtering your soldiers. We will break this final and last crusade . . . and here we are burying the first of your crusader army in Dabiq.

The “Dabiq” passage in question comes from the Hadith, the collection of sayings attributed to Muhammad, and we really need to know something about the Hadith before proceeding.

Generally, Westerners – policymakers and media – vastly underestimate the Hadith, largely because they can see no real parallel in Christianity. Christians are used to a stark division between the Bible, which is holy Scripture, and everything else. Surely, then, the Qur’an must be accorded the same weight as the Bible, and everything else falls into a much inferior status? Hmm, sayings of the Prophet … do you mean, like a collection of improving tales about Jesus? So would that be like the apocryphal gospels? I am amused to see that the Wikipedia entry on Hadith includes a cross reference to the Table Talk of Martin Luther, as if that might offer another parallel!

In a sense, that fundamental division between Scripture and non-Scripture applies to Islam, but a very great deal of Muslim doctrine stems from the Hadith, which is used to confirm orthodoxy. That matters because the Hadith are a vast resource, and if you search, you can find quotations and stories to match any version of Islam you want to present – the religion of savagery and bigotry, or the faith of love and peace. It is frustrating to see Western critics of Islam focusing on the real or supposed horrors of the Qur’an, when the Hadith are so influential in shaping Islamic thought. It’s like trying to understand Judaism while ignoring the Talmud. It can’t be done.

Egypt presently has a cause célèbre involving a broadcaster sentenced to five years imprisonment for blasphemy against Islam. His main offense was challenging the credibility of the sources of the Hadith.

I won’t enter here into the debate over the historical value of the Hadith, except to say that individual sayings vary enormously in terms of how directly they can plausibly be associated with Muhammad himself. There are several separate collections, the best known of which are the Sahih al-Bukhari and the Sahih Muslim, both from the mid-ninth century. The scholars were thus working some two centuries after Muhammad’s death, and they operated in a world of advanced critical scholarship, that drew on the best of Late Antique and Early Islamic thought. They worked to establish the exact means of transmission by which each and every Hadith was passed on from Muhammad’s own time. In some cases, their approaches differed from those of modern critical scholarship, but they were anything but gullible. Of the collector of Sahih Muslim, it is said that “Out of 300,000 hadith which he evaluated, approximately 4,000 were extracted for inclusion into his collection based on stringent acceptance criteria.”

Even so, the sayings vary greatly in how plausibly they can be connected with Muhammad, or indeed with his earliest associates. Many plausibly do stem from Muhammad’s own time, while others are much shakier. Some reflect political and military realities of the later seventh and eighth centuries, the time of repeated wars between the Caliphate and the Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Sometimes the wars favored the Romans, sometimes the Muslims, and some sayings about those later wars were retroactively placed in the mouth of Muhammad.

And that brings us to the Dabiq quote, which is from Sahih Muslim. Chapter 41 of that work includes a series of mainly apocalyptic texts, “Pertaining To Turmoil And Portents Of The Last Hour” (Kitab Al-Fitan Wa Ashrat As-Sa’Ah). In this context, we find this Hadith:

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them). When they will arrange themselves in ranks, the Romans would say: Do not stand between us and those (Muslims) who took prisoners from amongst us. Let us fight with them; and the Muslims would say: Nay, by Allah, we would never get aside from you and from our brethren that you may fight them. They will then fight and a third (part) of the army would run away, whom Allah will never forgive. A third (part of the army). which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah’s eye, would be killed and the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople.

And as they would be busy in distributing the spoils of war (amongst themselves) after hanging their swords by the olive trees, the Satan would cry: The Dajjal has taken your place among your family. They would then come out, but it would be of no avail. And when they would come to Syria, he would come out while they would be still preparing themselves for battle drawing up the ranks. Certainly, the time of prayer shall come and then Jesus (peace be upon him) son of Mary would descend and would lead them in prayer. When the enemy of Allah would see him, it would (disappear) just as the salt dissolves itself in water and if he (Jesus) were not to confront them at all, even then it would dissolve completely, but Allah would kill them by his hand and he would show them their blood on his lance (the lance of Jesus Christ).

(Translated by Abdul Hamid Siddiqui).

A number of points need stressing.

One concerns terminology, and the identity of the “Romans.” Today, we regularly draw a distinction between “Roman” and “Byzantine,” depending on era. Roughly, we think, the “Roman” Empire lasted until, say, the fifth or sixth centuries AD, and the Byzantine Empire then survived in the East until 1453. That distinction would have made no sense in the Middle Ages, when the term “Byzantine” really did not exist. Right up to the end, the Emperors based in Constantinople invariably thought of themselves as rulers of the Roman Empire, and that is the usage we find in both West European and Islamic sources. Those who followed Greek culture and spoke the Greek language described themselves as Rhomaioi, “Romans.” What early Muslims called Roman, we would call Byzantine, and that is what we find in the Hadith. When the Ottoman Turks eventually captured Constantinople in 1453, their ruler claimed the title of Emperor of Rome (Qayser-i-Rûm).

The Dabiq prophecy, therefore, concerns the Byzantines – and the jihadi was accusing Obama of being a Byzantine, rather than a Roman.

In terms of chronological context, the Dabiq saying reflects a time when the Romans were thought to be on the verge of invading Syria. There are several possible contexts for that scenario, but really not before the 720s at the earliest. (The only real window in that earlier era would be following a Byzantine victory in the late 670s). By far the best candidate would be in the mid eighth century, the time of the Roman/Byzantine Emperors Leo III (717-41) and his son Constantine V (741-75). There was a major Byzantine victory at Akroinon (740), and then further advances under the aggressive Constantine V.

In support of that identification, the ruling Byzantine dynasty of the time had its roots close to the contested frontier. Leo III was termed “the Isaurian,” but his birthplace was actually at Germanikeia in the province of Commagene. In modern terms, that would be in south-eastern Turkey, just over the border from North Syria. Accident of birth apart, Leo and his family had a natural interest in these critical borderlands.

This dating suits especially well given the turbulent conditions in the Islamic Empire in precisely these years. The ruling Umayyad dynasty was under increasing pressure from insurgent rivals, and around 747, this erupted into open rebellion. In 750, the Umayyads were decisively defeated at the Battle of the Zab, in Iraq, to be replaced by the new Abbasid Dynasty. The Abbasids retained their power for five centuries.

Among both Christians and Muslims, these epochal events stirred apocalyptic hopes and fears. Christian writers dreamed of an apocalyptic revolution that would overthrow the “Ishmaelites” (Arabs), and lead to the rule of Christ on Earth. On this occasion, the legendary figure of Enoch was yet again drafted into Christian service, as the alleged author of an Apocalypse that envisioned the last Caliph. Muslims, in turn, feared that the End Times were indeed near. The Dabiq passage fits very well into this setting of the 740s.

Christian readers might be surprised that, here and elsewhere in these apocalyptic sections, we find so much emphasis on the role of Jesus. As so often in Islamic visions of the End Times, Jesus (rather than Muhammad) is the critical figure, whose descent to Earth will bring in the final Judgment.

Also, this is not just Jesus used in a generic sense – just borrowing the name – but Jesus imagined in a way and a context that would have made instant sense to the Christians of Constantinople, or indeed of Rome itself. The Judgment is preceded by the coming of the Dajjal, whom we know better as the Antichrist, and Jesus shows his power through invoking the relic of the Holy Lance.

I’ll discuss that more in my next post.


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