What Does the Islamic State Actually Believe?

By now, many people are aware that the Islamic State is an apocalyptic death cult that wants to provoke an Armageddon-like battle in a small town in northern Syria. A profusion of articles have been written about this aspect of the Islamic State's mission since it rose to prominence in the summer of 2014. In fact, the most read article ever published in The Atlantic, by Graeme Wood, dedicates considerable space to the apocalyptic motivations behind the largest and best-funded terrorist organization in human history. The Islamic State actively wants the world to end, because this is what it believes the prophet Muhammad said is supposed to happen.

But what sense can one make of references to Dabiq (the small town in northern Syria referenced above), the caliphate (the Islamic government led by the caliph), and the return of Jesus (and even that the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine often mentions)? How do all these events fit together? What exactly is the eschatological narrative that so many Islamic State fighters believe is worth dying for? To understand the Islamic State, one needs to understand its eschatology — not in fragments, as popular articles often present it, but as a coherent whole with a specific narrative chronology. Without an understanding of how exactly the apocalypse is prophesied to unfold, an intelligent and effective strategy for combating the Islamic State will continue to elude us.

So, let’s peak under the hood of the Islamic State’s apocalyptic beliefs. The first thing to notice is that the Islamic State’s belief system has changed over time. As the Brookings Institute’s Will McCants notes in The ISIS Apocalypse, the founding members of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), such as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, were expecting the imminent appearance of a messianic figure called the Mahdi. The Mahdi is prophesied to unite the Muslim world and usher in a series of critical end-times events, which we’ll get to in a moment. In fact, al-Masri was so sure that the Mahdi was about to appear that he made several strategic decisions based on this conviction — decisions that ended up hurting the ISI organization, as, alas, the Mahdi never came.

The Mahdi’s story is fairly well-understood. One mainstream interpretation is that he’ll come from the city of Medina, Saudi Arabia, and travel to Mecca to escape “fitna,” or strife. He won’t initially be a pious person, but God will change this in a single night, turning the future Mahdi into a devout Muslim. While in Mecca, some people will recognize him as the Mahdi and force him out of his house. They will then proceed to give him allegiance near the Kaaba, in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, even though the Mahdi, a humble man, won’t want such responsibility placed on his shoulders. At this point, an army will be sent out from Syria to destroy the Mahdi and his small group of followers, but between Mecca and Medina the Earth will open up and swallow this army whole — an amazing supernatural event. At the same time, another army carrying black flags will be sent from the East to support the Mahdi. This will be a clear sign that the Mahdi has indeed arrived. It also explains why the Islamic State carries black flags: they have prophetic significance.

But a lot has to go right for the Mahdi’s story to actually come true. As philosophers say, probability and content are inversely proportional, i.e., the more claims a story makes about the world, the more likely it is to be false. (See also the "conjunction fallacy.") Thus, the Islamic State's leadership deemphasized the Mahdi's imminent appearance after al-Masri was killed by the US in 2010. The apocalyptic spotlight then shifted from the Mahdi to a series of prophetic hadith about the caliphate. For example, one states that there will be exactly twelve “rightly guided” caliphs, or leaders of the Muslim community, throughout all of history. Another states that the caliphate itself will be re-established shortly before the Last Hour. So the Islamic State set out to establish a caliphate, with their current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, being the eighth caliph in this line of rulers. As Graeme Wood observes in an interview with Vice, the arithmetic here is quite simple: only four caliphs remain after al-Baghdadi passes away, at which point the world comes to a glorious end.

The Islamic State’s literature is also overflowing with references to the grand battle — essentially Armageddon — in the town of Dabiq, located just south of the Syrian-Turkey border, near Aleppo. It's home to slightly more than 3,000 people. In 2014, the Islamic State “fought ferociously” to capture this town, even though it has virtually no military significance. According to a hadith frequently cited by the Islamic State, the Muslims and “Roman” forces — i.e., the Coalition — will soon confront each other in this town. The Roman forces will ask to fight their own prisoners who've converted to Islam, but the Muslims will refuse. A battle of epic proportions will then ensue, with one-third of the Muslim army fleeing (they will never be forgiven), one-third dying (they will be considered “excellent martyrs”), and one-third being victorious. The Roman forces will be utterly decimated.

At this point in the strange eschatological narrative, prophesies state that the triumphant Muslims will then go to Constantinople, now Istanbul, and proceed to conquer it. A problem arises, though, because Constantinople has already been conquered by Muslims before, specifically by the Ottoman Turks back in 1453. One way around this is to say that the Ottoman Turks weren’t “real” Muslims, so this prophecy was never actually fulfilled. In fact, the Islamic State sees most nominal Muslims around the world as apostates, and indeed "Muslims" have suffered far more at the hands of Islamic State radicals than anyone else. Upon reaching Constantinople, though, the Muslim army will breach its walls not through conventional fighting, but through purely supernatural means: they’ll chant “There is no god but Allah and Allah is the greatest!” and the city's walls will crumble.

The next important event in this chronology — indeed, the first of the ten Major Signs before the Last Hour — is the appearance of the Antichrist (or the Dajjal). According to prophecy, the Antichrist will spread a terrible epidemic of evil. His diabolical actions will proliferate injustice, corruption, and human suffering. But his campaign will soon be interrupted by the second Major Sign, namely the supernatural return of Jesus over the white minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus, Syria. Jesus is an important figure in the Sunni narrative because it’s him, rather than the Mahdi, who will ultimately kill the Antichrist. (In contrast, Twelver Shi’ites believe that the Mahdi, or Twelfth Imam, will kill the Antichrist instead of Jesus. Twelvers put far more eschatological significance on the Mahdi than on Jesus.)

Jesus will return during the Fajr (or morning) prayers. After praying behind the Mahdi, he will then chase the Antichrist until they reach the “gate of Ludd,” or Lod, a city in modern-day Israel. At this point, Jesus will murder the Antichrist and show his fellow Muslims the Antichrist’s blood on his sword. Jesus will then “break the cross,” an important symbolic act that’s intended to prove that Christians have distorted the Truth over time. For example, the Bible incorrectly states that Jesus died on the cross and rose again after three days in the tomb. The Truth is, according to Islam, that Jesus ascended into heaven while God made it appear as if Jesus had been crucified. Jesus never actually died. The claim that he did is a corruption of the real story.

Once the Antichrist is killed, a series of extremely bizarre events occur, such as the sun rising from the west, the appearance of Gog and Magog, and smoke blanketing the Earth. But these are too far along in the narrative's chronology to be of much use or guidance to the Islamic State fighters sharpening their blades for the battle of Armageddon — or for us hoping to destroy them. What matters is the opening few chapters of this apocalyptic tale. Indeed, once one understands these details, one can begin to see why certain strategies for battling the Islamic State could seriously backfire. For example, assassinating al-Baghdadi would likely increase apocalyptic fervor among certain Muslims around the world. Why? Because it would mean that there are only four caliphs remaining, and therefore that the end is nearer.

Similarly, escalating violence in the region could serve as an effective recruitment tool for attracting foreign fighters to join the Islamic State's army of Allah-driven warriors. Why? Because more violence would confirm the end-times narrative advertised in the Islamic State’s propaganda. Even if the Coalition forces were to meet the Islamic State on the open fields around Dabiq and, as would almost certainly happen, obliterate it, the result would only reinforce a “clash of civilizations” worldview according to which, as Wood puts it, the “Crusaders are out to kill Muslims and will come to crush them whenever they become strong.” Consequently, yet another generation of radicals, perhaps driven by their own apocalyptic interpretations of Islamic scripture, would almost certainly materialize in the ideological mist, and the cycle of violence and radicalization, radicalization and violence, would continue.

If more violence isn’t the answer — and this should be patently obvious to everyone; just look at the Middle East since the Iraq and Syrian wars — then what is? The unfortunate fact is that there’s no good solution to the problem of the Islamic State. (Really, I would suggest to a certain Mr. Hitchens that the best thing to do is not to make a mess in the first place.) One possible strategy would be to undermine the central eschatological doctrine of the Islamic State by working to containing the growth of the caliphate. Since prophecy suggests a global caliphate, if we were to keep the Islamic State from acquiring new territory — or if we managed to take some territory away from it — then seeds of doubt would be planted in the minds of its followers. Stagnation doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when the caliphate's leaders are shouting that the situation is urgent and the end is near.

Another option would be to target the Islamic State’s recruitment tactics themselves by telling the real story of what it’s like to live under its brutal control. Many young people from the West are seriously misinformed about what they’ll have to endure in the scorching hot, dystopic landscapes of Iraq and Syria, and exposing the truth could deter fledgling radicals from sneaking into the region. Yet another option would be to target the Islamic State's sources of money, but I'm going to dive into this possibility here.

The lesson behind understanding the Islamic State’s apocalyptic narrative is less about what to do than about what not to do. Military action from the West that fails to consider the prophesies and core beliefs of Islam — not to mention the long history of Muslim complaints against Western atrocities in the region — will only exacerbate the situation. Sam Harris is right that beliefs influence behavior. We need to take these beliefs seriously before making our next move in the Middle East.