Apocalypse Then: a short review of Filiu's 'Apocalypse in Islam' (2011)


An enjoyable account of the idea of apocalypse in Islamic discourse, from the Qur'an all the way up until 2011. Filiu gathered together a huge melange of written sources on the apocalypse and he presents an overview of how differing conceptions have been cultivated by Sunnis / Shi'is over time. There is a slight bias in that most of the sources are in Arabic, and his focus is, broadly, the Middle East so South Asia is not particularly part of this story at all, not to mention East Asia proper which gets nary a mention.

I was almost completely ignorant of much of the developments detailed in the book, perhaps because I've focused more on South Asia in my own research/work. Indeed, I finished the book with a question on my mind as to why Afghanistan seems not to have the same obsession with ideas of the apocalypse as Filiu is suggesting is present in the Middle East. Perhaps it has something to do with Deobandism, though I'm not really sure of that... something to look into.

One other detraction: this is a historiography of transmitted ideas, but mostly of those written down. Filiu has lived for a long time in the Middle East (mostly in Syria, if I'm not mistaken) but you don't really get much sense of this in the book, nor of how all the books and ideas he discusses were received by actual people. Instead, there's a dialogue among authors and publishers -- a fascinating one, at that -- but I was left with the sense that something was missing.

Filiu tells of the construction of the idea of apocalypse, how circumstance and context contributed to the development of the ideas. There's nothing particularly ground-breaking in that: the events of a particular age shape the way ideas are framed. But the details of how publishers saw a market in apocalyptic literature were fascinating to read. Similarly, it was interesting to see how Shi'i interpretations seem to have followed a fairly different (though parallel) track of development.

The book has the really helpful feature of one-or-two-page summaries at the end of each chapter to help remind you of the overall argument that was covered. All-in-all a really clear presentation from Filiu of his ideas/argument.

Some other things I learnt while reading: (helped out by quotes from the book)

  • "The Qur'an has rather little to say about the end of the world, and still less about the omens of the Last Hour, whose prediction and description later came to be based on prophetic reports." (28)
  • "The apocalyptic narrative was decisively influenced by the conflicts that filled Islam's early years, campaigns of jihad against the Byzantine Empire and recurrent civil wars among Muslims" (28)

After page 70, the book gets into the post-1979 world, looking at three events that really spurred the development of apocalyptic ideas: the Siege of Mecca, the Iranian Revolution and the arrival of Soviet troops into Afghanistan. I hadn't realised, for example, that the war in Afghanistan was one factor that spurred the 1982 Hama uprising as their spiritual leader saw in it "certain signs of the Hour" (81). The book is filled with many such fascinating asides.

Covering the 1990s, Filiu shows how ideas from Christian messianism start to creep into the books being written about apocalypse in the Middle East, also including things like UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. This is when he also starts detailing how certain publishers and authors become factories for apocalypse literature, churning out books to satiate an eager audience.

All this is further accelerated by 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with more intermingling of sources and ideas. Filiu also chronicles how certain Islamic orthodox establishment figures (and their state sponsors) sought to play down apocalypse narratives. Interestingly, he shows how it wasn't really a significant theme for al-Qaeda either, at least not for its senior ideologues or leadership.

You can see how prescient Filiu was in reading the apocalyptic tea leaves when you get to the end of the book. Remember, he was writing this in 2007/2008 (when it was published in French), but he concludes by speculating that a merger of jihadism with messianism was probably due and that the mutation would be particularly difficult to manage:

"No inevitability pushes humanity in the direction of catastrophe, even if the popular fascination with disaster may seem somehow to favor a sudden leap into mass horror. And yet, coming after the gold of the Euphrates, widely interpreted in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq as a sign of the Hour, a fire in Hijaz may be all that is needed to set in motion a new cycle of eschatological tension, inaugurating an age of widespread fear and expectation that the end of the world is at hand. If an inflammatory and incandescent event of this sort were to occur, the chance that global jihad might undergo an apocalyptic mutation would give grounds for genuine apprehension." (193)

Anyway, for all the detractions mentioned above, this was a quick and fun read that gets you up to speed on thoughts about the apocalypse in the Islamicate world. Recommended, if this sort of thing gets you excited...