A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Apocalypse Now? Dabiq, Rafidi, Safavi, Sufyani: The First Century AH Returns With a Vengeance, Part I: Dabiq

At times the growing chaos in the Middle East must seem almost apocalyptic, and it's hardly surprising that some fundamentalist evangelical Christians are seeing signs of Armageddon, though hardly for the first time. Outside the Islamic world, many may have overlooked the growing apocalyptic discourse among radical Sunni and radical Shi‘ite theorists who are also playing the apocalypse game.

Hardline Shi‘ites since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 have been talking about the imminent return of Imam Mahdi, and Ayatollah Khamene'i  has sometimes endorsed the idea that the return of the Twelfth Imam was imminent. Sunnism has been less end-times oriented, at least since 1979, which corresponded to 1400 AH, and led to a self-proclaimed Sunni Mahdi seizing the Haram in Mecca.

But hey, the end times are back with a vengeance. Now that "the Caliphate" claims to have been "restored" by people the Caliphs would probably have executed quickly, the apocalypse has also made a comeback. Others have noted this already (see for example here and here). There's some danger in putting too much emphasis on this, and it's hard to be certain how seriously those using this language genuinely believe it and to what extent they're using it to rally the base. I thought it worth some comment, however.

There are moments when an education in early Islamic history and a modern career in defense and policy issues suddenly converge. Back during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s I was working full-time on Middle Eastern defense issues and simultaneously teaching a course in the Theology Department at Georgetown on the Development of Islamic Religious Thought. When someone would suggest that the combination of military matters and theology didn't mesh well, I would note that you wouldn't understand the war communiques without understanding the first century of Islam. Iraq called its campaign "Saddam's Qadisiyya" after the Arab defeat of Sassanian Persia, while Iran named many of its campaigns "Karbala'' after the martyrdom (in Iraq) of the Third Imam. In short, Saddam used First Century AH imagery to portray it as an Arab-Persian War, while Iran was seeking to portray it as a Shi‘ite-Sunni War. Neither, however, at the time, except from some extreme Shi‘ites eventually disavowed by Khomeini, explicitly saw it as an end-times war. I suspect ISIS, too, is using the jargon like an Evangelical preacher warning the End is Nigh, or as a recruiting tactic than a doctrine. But what the recruits believe may be another matter.

There is also a longstanding practice among jihadis of this sort of anachronistic terminology, such as the frequent use of "Crusaders" (Salibiyyin) to describe the Western presence in the Middle East.

Today, we find ISIS calling its English-language magazine Dabiq, after a battle expected in the last days between "the Romans" and the believers. and thus a sort of Sunni version of Armageddon; they and other jihadis routinely refer to Shi‘ites as either Rafidi, (those who reject, as in rejecting the authority of Abu Bakr and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs), or (especially for the Iraqi government and army), Safawi, after the Safavid dynasty that made Iran officially Shi‘ite in the 16th century and thus equivalent to calling Iraqi Shi‘ites "Persians").

Not to be outdone or out-apocalypsed,  there has been some debate in Shi‘ite religious forums about whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ("Caliph Ibrahim") might be the Sufyani, sort of Sunni antichrist figure in Shi‘ite end-times tradition who will appear before the coming of Imam Mahdi.

Except for Safawi, all these terms derive their meanings or implications from events in the first century of the Hijra. Let's talk a bit about each. Today's Part I will deal with Dabiq.


Dabiq, ISIS' magazine, is a professional-looking, well-edited magazine, well laid out with color photos, like a glossy travel magazine (except for beheadings).

It has been compared (usually favorably) to Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula's similarly slick Inspire. You can even find issue 1 at Internet Archive. Issue two, with the suitably apocalyptic Noah's Flood on the cover, doesn't seem to be at internet Archive but can be found on many sites, such as here, though jihadi website browsing may attract questions.

But why Dabiq? Students of Islamic history may assume it has something to do with the locality known as Marj Dabiq (the Meadow of Dabiq), which took its name from the nearby Syrian town of Dabiq,  near the Turkish border 44 km northwest of Aleppo, and played a major role twice in Islamic history. First, in AD 717, it was the site where the Umayyad Army under Maslama b, ‘Abd al-Malik, brother of the Caliph Sulayman, prior to invading the Byzantine Empire by land and sea and threatening Constantinople. Secondly, it was the site of the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516, when the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and brought Egypt and the Levant under Ottoman control.

While the usage refers to the Syrian town of Dabiq, it does not directly relate to the events of 717 or 1516, though both reflect the towns role as a border region, just as today it is near the Turkish-Syrian border.  Rather it refers to a tradition of the Prophet concerning the last days, of which this version from the Sahih Muslim hadith collection offers a fairly full account:
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).  Sahih Muslim 6924
So there you have it: the original hadith (there are multiple versions) seems to assume the Romans (that is, the Byzantines) will still control Constantinople down to the end times, at which point Dabiq or perhaps  al-A‘maq (which the geographer Yaqut in his Mu‘jam al-Buldan says is nearby), there will be a great battle between the Romans and the Muslims, complete with the Dajjal (the Antichrist figure in Muslim eschatology) and the return of the Prophet Jesus. In some versions, the (Sunni) Mahdi also plays a role.

It is, in short, the equivalent of the biblical Battle of Armageddon in he Book of Revelation.


Brian Ulrich said...

Have you ever read David Cook's book on contemporary Sunni Muslim apocalyptic theories?

T. Streit said...

Brilliant post!

One small quibble Imam Ali (KAAW) is one of the rashidun.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Brian: I've seen it but haven't read it carefully.

T. Streit: of course he is,but the Shi`a wouldn't apply the term to him.