(RNS) This week, the assault on Mosul — the last stronghold of ISIS — began. As a student of religious history, it reminded me of the battles and horrors of first-century Judea.
In 66 A.D. began a series of wars between the Jewish tribes of Judea and the superpower of the day: the Roman empire. Today, in the first century of the second millennium, world events strike a remarkable parallel. Only this time, they involve Muslims. Just as the Zealots in the time of Jesus killed Romans — as well as Jews who disagreed with them, in their bid to re-establish the Israelite kingdom, now we have al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State group, or ISIS, slaughtering anyone in their attempt to re-establish the Islamic caliphate. But what really underpins such extremism?
Research into the motivating beliefs behind ISIS confirms that its theology is apocalyptic. Its members believe that fighting Western powers will precipitate the appearance of an individual called “The Guided One” (Mahdi) — and the second coming of Jesus. Jesus will then lead ISIS to victory against all the nations of the Earth, apparently. Indeed, its mouthpiece, “Dabiq,” is named after the city in Syria that its members believe will precipitate this apocalypse — the city that, incidentally, they just lost to Kurdish fighters.
In 19th-century India, similar beliefs were evoked by clerics to stir up hatred against British rule. In 1899, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, linked the violence and extremism among Muslims of the Wahhabi sect in particular to their belief in the return of Jesus from heaven, as a warrior-messiah who would wage wars for them and establish their political and economic supremacy.
A study by the Pew Center in 2012 showed that more than 50 percent of Muslims in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia collectively believe that the appearance of the Mahdi and the subsequent return of Jesus is “imminent.” That suggests ISIS has a powerful recruiting tool at its disposal. Its members are playing on the hopes of religious and spiritual rejuvenation, believed in by millions of Muslims worldwide, while giving it a nationalistic and barbaric twist.
The prophecies ISIS draw on do not originate from the Quran, but from various hadith, or traditions, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad but varying in their reliability. They state that when the second coming of Jesus appears, he would fight against the “Dajjal,” also known as the Antichrist. The Dajjal would be easy to spot, according to the narrations, since he would be known by the donkey he would ride. Various traditions say the donkey would eat fire and breathe smoke, and ride over land, sea and air so fast that “a month’s journey would become a day’s.” The donkey would also have one foot in the East and the other in the West, and would jump from nation to nation. Other traditions describe the donkey as possessing compartments in its belly, into which passengers could climb, and journey with it.
According to ISIS, all this is literal. Jesus himself will return and slay the Dajjal and his donkey, after which Jesus would establish the caliphate. Confused yet? Hasn’t ISIS already established the caliphate? So where is Jesus? Indeed, ISIS grew tired of waiting for its warrior-messiah and the Antichrist’s remarkable donkey, and established the caliphate itself, in a bid to hasten Jesus’ return.
Most ordinary Muslims know of such traditions as a matter of academic knowledge. For others however, these prophecies are deeply significant. Ahmad, who himself claimed to be the second coming of Jesus, explained the prophesies metaphorically. The donkey represented future modes of transportation as a sign of the times; the “deceiver” represented those holding the doctrine that Jesus was the son of God — a belief held by Christians but rejected by the Quran. Ahmad understood such a battle as theological, and denounced the idea of physically fighting non-Muslims as un-Islamic.
Whatever interpretation one takes of Jesus’ life and death, such prophecies must be interpreted by Muslims in accordance with the Quran; particularly the verses that safeguard freedom of conscience. The belief in a future warrior-Messiah who will wage wars for Muslims against non-Muslims is not in line with such Quranic verses.
We may defeat ISIS today, or tomorrow, but unless the beliefs that produce such extremism are eliminated, we will only be pulling out weeds by their stems and not by their roots. Yesterday’s al-Qaida became the ISIS of today and today’s ISIS may refashion itself into yet another monster tomorrow.