Religious Beliefs

Does anything like millennialism have a place in Islamic thinking?

Yes, so long as one understands “millennialism” broadly rather than as a precise reference to measures of a thousand years. Numerous Hadith, called Traditions of Discord, talk of various general features that mark a decidedly downward trend in human life. Honesty will be hard to find, fewer and fewer people will observe the religious law, and violence will rise. According to other ancient traditions, various explicit signs will herald the end of time itself. A resurgence of chaos symbolized by Gog and Magog will mark a radical turn for the worse, the beginning of the final chapter in the unraveling of history. A figure resembling the Prophet, called the Mahdi (Guided One), will usher in a temporary age of justice. Numerous individuals throughout the history of Islam have sought to gain political power by claiming to be the Mahdi, most recently in 1979, when armed bandits seized control of the sanctuary of the Ka’ba in Mecca. A one-eyed Antichrist figure (called the Dajjal, pronounced dajJAAL) will supplant the Mahdi, luring people away through magic masquerading as miracle. Jesus will eventually return to battle the Antichrist, overthrowing that false prophet and paving the way for the Day of Judgment.

Shi’a tradition features its own distinctive type of millenialism. According to the Shi’a interpretation of history, Muhammad’s spiritual authority was passed along through a series of descendants called Imams. In the view of the “Twelvers”—by far the majority of Shi’ites—the twelfth and last of these Imams (also called the Mahdi) went into “greater concealment” in 940. This Hidden Imam did not die but has remained in a mysterious state from which he will return to establish full justice. In the meantime, the Imam hears prayers and intercedes for believers. Although both the Qur’an and Hadith warn against attempting to calculate precisely the arrival of the “Hour” at which the world will come to an end, small groups of Muslims have tried to do just that through history.


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