This week the New York Times published an opinion piece by Muslim journalist Mustafa Akyol. In it, he argues that Islamic State (a.k.a., ISIS) and Iran share a common motive. Both of them are acting on the belief that Islamic prophecies of apocalypse are at hand.
What are the prophecies?
They come from "hadiths, or sayings, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, a literature that is regarded as less definitive than the Quran, but is still influential in shaping Islamic doctrine. According to certain hadiths, the apocalypse will come in stages.
"In the first, the world will be filled with injustice, and Muslims will be oppressed.
"Then two saviors will arise: the awaited one, or Mahdi, a divinely guided caliph who will unite and empower Muslims, followed by a bygone prophet who will come back to earth to support the Mahdi and defeat evil.
"This bygone prophet will not be Muhammad, as one could have expected, but Jesus, praised in the Quran as the Messiah and the Word of God.”
At first blush, this sounds like Christianity. It isn't.
Actually, "Islamic literature seems to suggest that Jesus will return to abolish Christianity and confirm the truth of Islam. A much-quoted hadith, to which the Dabiq headline was alluding, says, The son of Mary will soon descend among you as a just ruler; he will break the cross and kill the swine.
"The usual interpretation of this prophecy is that when Jesus comes back, he will put an end to his own worship, symbolized by the cross, and re-establish the dietary laws that Christianity abandoned but Jews and Muslims still observe."
How widespread is this belief among those who practice Islam in countries where the religion is dominant?
"According to a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center, half of Muslims or more in nine Muslim-majority countries believe that the coming of the Mahdi is 'imminent, and could happen in their lifetime. The Islamic State just goes further by claiming that it is bringing the prophecies to life."
Akyol concludes with an admonition.
"Muslims," he says, "and perhaps other apocalyptic believers as well, should see that obsession with prophecies might cost them not just rationality, but also a very fundamental value of their own faith: humility. Because to assert that we are at the end of times means that we are quite special. We are not merely one of the countless generations that God has created. We are the chosen few, at the apex of history. It is really not piety that underlies this conviction; it is vanity."