The Foreign Policy Essay: The Sectarian Apocalypse

Editor’s Note: The savage fighting in Syria and now Iraq seems to grow worse every month. As the U.S. role in the conflict grows, so too does the need to understand the motivations of the fighters, including Westerners who go off to join the fray. Unlike many past conflicts in the Muslim world, the eschatological elements of the Syrian conflict run deep. William McCants, who runs the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings, explains the apocalyptic enthusiasm of the fighters and the history that few of them understand.

Despite fighting bitterly against each other in Iraq and Syria, many of the Sunni and Shi‘a militants who have been drawn to the battlefield are motivated by a common apocalyptic belief. They fight in the vanguard of the Mahdi, the Muslim savior whom the Prophet Muhammad prophesied would appear in the Levant (the coastal Mediterranean region that includes Syria and Lebanon) at the End of Days to wage a final great battle against the infidels’ armies. “I was waiting for the day when I will fight in Syria. Thank God he chose me to be one of the Imam’s soldiers,” confides 24-year-old Abbas, a Shi‘i from Iraq who, like other Shi‘a, believes the Mahdi will be the twelfth “imam” or leader descended from Muhammad. “With every passing day we know that we are living the days that the Prophet talked about,” asserts Mussab, a Sunni fighting for al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.

Readers might puzzle at the incongruity of Muslims killing one another somehow fulfilling a prophecy of Muslims defeating infidels. But the early Islamic apocalyptic prophecies are intrinsically sectarian because they arose from similar sectarian conflicts in early Islam waged in Iraq and the Levant. As such, they resonate powerfully in today’s sectarian civil wars.

Soon after the death of Muhammad, civil wars or fitan (“tribulations”) consumed the nascent Islamic empire as Muhammad’s companions battled one another for political supremacy. The contest was framed in religious terms, which was unavoidable given that Muhammad and his immediate successors, the caliphs, wielded both spiritual and temporal authority. Before and after each tribulation, partisans on both sides circulated prophecies in the name of the Prophet to support their champion. With time, the context was forgotten but the prophecies remained.

To understand the sectarian dimension of Islamic apocalyptic prophecies, take the example of the enigmatic figure known as “the Sufyani.” According to the prophecies, the Sufyani descends from Abu Sufyan, the leader of Muhammad’s tribe in Mecca who persecuted the Prophet and his early followers. Although Abu Sufyan and his family later converted to Islam, Abu Sufyan’s son fought Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, for control of the Islamic empire and eventually became caliph, establishing the Umayyad dynasty that ruled for nearly a century.

As one might expect, the partisans of the losing side, called the “Shi‘at Ali” (“partisans of Ali” and later just “the Shi‘a”), began circulating words of the Prophet prophesying the new dynasty’s downfall at the hands of the Mahdi, a member of the Prophet’s family who would defeat the dynasty’s champion, the Sufyani, in the Levant. “When the Sufyani reaches Kufa [a city in Iraq] and kills the supporters of the family of Muhammad, the Mahdi will come,” goes one early prophecy.

Many Shi‘a today believe the Sufyani’s appearance is imminent, but they do not welcome it because of his negative role in the apocalyptic drama. “All of us believe the Sufyani will fight the Imam, and the Prophet will kill him in the land of al-Sham,” asserts the secretary general of Iraqi Hizballah, using the traditional Arabic name for Greater Syria. “We want to stress that what is happening in al-Sham is the beginning of the tribulation and is the beginning of the appearance of the army of the Sufyani, which is now called the Free Army.”

In contrast, Sunnis are more ambivalent about the Sufyani. Though many Sunni prophecies about the Sufyani are negative, some are positive because Sunnis do not believe the Sufyani’s kin, the Umayyads, were wrong to seize the caliphate from the Prophet’s family. For example, supporters of the Umayyads circulated prophecies of the Sufyani fighting on the side of the Mahdi against his enemies: “The Sufyani and the Mahdi will come forth like two race horses. The Sufyani will subdue (the region) that is next to him, and the Mahdi will subdue (the region) next to him.” A descendent of Abu Sufyan even claimed the title of Sufyani for himself when he unwisely rebelled in Damascus against scions of the Prophet’s family to restore the Umayyad dynasty in 811 A.D., citing a prophesy attributed to Muhammad that proclaimed “A man will emerge from the depths of Damascus. He will be called al-Sufyani.” Several other prophecies also circulated predicting the Sufyani’s enduring victory. His rule lasted a few months.

As in the ninth century, the Sufyani is a national hero for some Sunnis today, especially those in Syria—the historic homeland and seat of government for the Sufyani’s ancestors. “God willing, all of us will be in the army of the Sufyani, who will appear in (Syria) by the permission of God,” prayed Adnan al-Arur, a popular Syrian Salafi cleric and supporter of the rebellion who currently lives in Saudi Arabia.

Syria itself is important in the Sunni apocalyptic imagination. Unlike the Shi‘a prophecies, which typically portray Syria negatively as the birthplace of the hated Sufyani, Sunni prophecies laud the region of al-Sham (Greater Syria) as the gathering place for the Final Battle against the infidels. “Go to Sham…and those who are not able to go to Sham should go to Yemen,” says one Sunni prophecy attributed to Muhammad. “The Muslims’ place of assembly on the day of the Great Battle will be in al-Ghutah near a city called Damascus, one of the best cities in Syria” says another.

The fact that these prophecies mention the same place names that are the scenes of today’s battles only heightens the prophecies’ relevance to the current conflict—and makes them attractive material for jihadi recruitment pitches. Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, named its propaganda arm the “White Minaret” after a prophecy foretelling of Jesus’s descent from the white minaret on the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus to fight against the Anti-Christ. The Islamic State’s English-language magazine is called Dabiq, after the tiny village north of Aleppo that a prophecy describes as the location of the great battle with the infidels. With the entry of the United States into the field, jihadis anticipate that the ultimate showdown in Dabiq is drawing ever closer.

One might expect that the recent entry of infidel armies into Iraq and Syria would lessen the internecine tone of the prophesying and focus attention on the Mahdi’s battle with the infidels. But it has only heightened the sectarian apocalyptic fervor as each sect vies to destroy the other for the privilege of destroying the infidels. Little wonder such a heady reenactment of the End Times drama on the original stage where it was performed is drawing an unprecedented number of Sunni and Shi‘a foreign fighters to the theater. In the sectarian apocalypse, everyone has a role to play in a script written over a thousand years ago. No one wants to miss the show.

This piece was originally published by Lawfare.