Ghoulish black flags, psychopathic bloodlust and the reestablishment of a caliphate grab headlines, but the bedrock of the Islamic State’s jihadist brand is an apocalyptic fervor that may have cataclysmic implications.
What historical precedents lurk behind the spectacular rise of ISIS? What ideology inspires this fanatical death cult?
How does its dark vision of the future—spread through terror and Twitter—compare with the prophecies of the Bible?
The state of the Islamic State
Marketing carnage and savagery, ISIS has advanced to the center of geopolitical nightmares with alarming speed. Scarcely a week goes by without a direct or inspired attack from ISIS—variously known as Daesh, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIL (the L standing for Levant, an area including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel).
Despite a string of recent reverses paved by U.S.–led airstrikes and a coalition of 65 nations, ISIS has retained the bulk of its territory—equal in size to Great Britain—while spawning new affiliates around the world.
Flush with cash, reportedly in the billions of dollars, ISIS is a growing threat. British Prime Minister David Cameron has described the fight against ISIS as “the struggle of our generation,” while Pope Francis called it a “piecemeal Third World War.”
ISIS went global in 2015, lashing out against soft targets in areas from Turkey to Indonesia. France has been forced into a near permanent state of emergency, but it is not alone. More than 1,150 people in 20 countries beyond Iraq and Syria are thought to have been killed in ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks, and that toll has sharply accelerated in recent months.
In addition to launching attacks against Europe and the United States, like the “lone-wolf” rampage in San Bernardino, California, and the slaughters in Paris, the group has boldly threatened to topple American allies in the Middle East, destabilize world energy markets and foment revolution abroad.
Emerging from the shadow of al-Qaeda
Islam has historically been betrothed to power and conquest. Even within Islam—whether between the Sunni and Shiite branches or the various sects, brotherhoods, movements and jihadist groups—there is contention for supremacy. Brutal violence and a growing apocalyptic focus among Arabs forced al-Qaeda to evolve after its heyday of 1998-2003.
ISIS emerged from al-Qaeda as an especially barbaric strain that then supplanted its former master. Ramping up its talk of the end times, ISIS decided it is better to be feared than loved, hoping to force Muslims everywhere into cowering submission.
Messianic speculation and an obsession with the coming of the mahdi—the end-of-the-age Muslim messiah—swelled among Shiite Muslims after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. This came later in the Sunni branch of Islam, which represents 85 to 90 percent of Muslims. Sunnis who grew up in elite families like Bin Laden’s disdained the obsession with the mahdi. But after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, apocalyptic teachings expanded beyond a conspiracy fringe element into the Arab mainstream.
In 2012, according to the Pew Research Center, half of all Muslims in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia expected the mahdi to appear any day. Given the tumultuous revolutions, sectarian wars, chaos in Iraq and presence of “infidels” in the region, conditions were ripe for ISIS to go on the offensive.
An enticing appeal to impressionable men
While some recruits are drawn by social media promises of spoils, marriages, slaves and violence, it’s the apocalyptic pitch that is most effectively drawing impressionable young men, often from more secular backgrounds.
“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths,” according to Middle East scholar and expert on ISIS ideology Graeme Wood in a March 2015 article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” in The Atlantic. “It is a religious group,” explains Wood, that has “carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”
The apocalypse is a valuable marketing tool, but not its only one. “The narrative of victory most appeals to those who feel they have lost something,” according to Professor Jessica Stern, coauthor of ISIS: The State of Terror. “ISIS deliberately appeals to disenfranchised Muslims,” explains Stern, “as well as to potential converts, around the world; to those—as ISIS puts it—‘drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people’” (“What Does ISIS Really Want Now?” Lawfare Institute, Nov. 28, 2015).
Restoring Islam to past glories and erasing humiliation at the hands of the West is irresistible to adventure seekers from disaffected populations.
Restoring Islam to past glories and erasing humiliation at the hands of the West is irresistible to adventure seekers from disaffected populations. A historical instruction from Muhammad to “go to Sham” (understood as Syria by jihadists) in the end times multiplies the effect. Young men, convinced they are tasked by Allah, flock from around the world. As a result, an unprecedented number of recruits have been assembling for what many outsiders see as simply a Syrian civil war.
“It’s a very powerful and emotional narrative,” according to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French professor of Middle East studies and author of Apocalypse in Islam. “It gives the potential recruit and the actual fighters the feeling that not only are they part of the elite, they are also part of the final battle” (quoted in “U.S. Seeks to Avoid Ground War Welcomed by Islamic State,” The New York Times, Dec. 7, 2015).
Under the black banner
Every aspect of ISIS carefully draws upon the legends and parallels to Muhammad’s army, thus echoing the seventh-century expansion of Islam. The color black was associated with both mourning for martyrs and revenge for wrongful death. When Muhammad’s army, following an early loss to Arab pagans, donned clothes dyed black and flew black flags, it set the precedent for the Islamic State today.
ISIS’s black flag was designed to be a stark reminder of the black-and-white worldview that permits no gray areas. Meant to gather and unify all Muslims under a single banner, it has a white scrawl across the top, “No god but Allah.” This is deliberately ragged, meant to evoke an era before the precision of Photoshop.
That black banner, again according to Professor Stern, serves as a tool in ISIS’s twofold purpose: “The first is to spread a totalitarian caliphate throughout the region and, ultimately, the world. The second is to polarize Muslims against one another, to incite internal divisions within the West, and to turn the West against Islam, with the ultimate goal of ‘goad[ing] the West into launching an all-out ground attack, thereby setting the scene for the final battle between Muslims and the crusaders [the Christianized Western world] prophesized [sic] to be held at Dabiq in Syria.’”
On the plains outside of Dabiq
Though Damascus, Jerusalem and Rome are highlighted in Islamic end-time narratives, none plays a bigger role than the remote Syrian village of Dabiq. It is so central to ISIS beliefs that the Islamic State’s online English-language recruitment magazine goes by the same name. Located in northwest Syria, just miles from the Turkish border, the town of Dabiq is strategically worthless, but it is drenched with history and symbolic mythology. In 1517 the Ottoman Empire and the Mameluke Sultanate clashed near Dabiq, and the crushing defeat of the Sultanate left the Arabs subservient in Syria for the next four centuries.
More importantly, according to one reading of Islamic tradition, Dabiq is the place where the final malahim (Armageddon) is to occur between Muslim and Christian armies. Muhammad is believed to have said that “the last hour will not come” until Muslims vanquish the Romans at “Dabiq or Al-A’maq”—both in the Syria-Turkey border region.
This is the dark mythology that inspired the founder of ISIS, Musab al-Zarqawi. Prior to being killed in a 2006 drone strike, al-Zarqawi implored ISIS fighters to continue their brutal fight because “the spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”
An Islamic apocalypse
The ideology of ISIS not only stresses the coming apocalypse, but seeks to fit itself into prophecy and to set in motion the events. Graeme Wood says that ISIS “rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.”
An ISIS digital publication, Black Flags From Rome, builds upon traditional Islamic views of the end times by detailing plans to overwhelm and conquer the Italian capital. It depicts a bloodbath of “infidels” in St. Peter’s Square live-streamed to a shocked worldwide audience. Intended to both instill fear and goad a military response, the “armies of Rome”—described as “nations gathering under 80 flags”—will then mobilize to confront the Muslim armies outside of Dabiq, culminating in Rome’s defeat during the most consequential clash in history.
These Islamic prophecies are a warped version of the end-time events described in the Bible several centuries before. This epic battle at Dabiq is said to trigger a final showdown in Jerusalem between enemies of Islam and Jesus Christ—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—who will return in saffron robes to a white minaret near Damascus before leading Muslims to victory, undertaking a hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and then enforcing sharia law around the world.
The prophetic light of the Bible
Ultimately, ISIS may prove to be a temporary phenomenon, but there are apparently yet unfulfilled biblical prophecies, such as Psalm 83, that foretell a time when the Arab world will achieve a level of unity with the goal of military conquest.
The Bible also describes a climactic Mideast war in Daniel 11:40. An end-time “king of the South” will “attack” a “king of the North,” a revived Roman Empire in Europe that the Bible also calls “the beast” (Revelation 17:12). This attack will prompt a massive retaliation from this European power—a spiritual successor to the medieval crusaders.
These brawls set the stage for an even greater battle. Armies of all nations will be gathered “to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16) before Christ returns to earth to defend Jerusalem and make it His world capital (Jeremiah 3:17; Zechariah 8:3).
Then an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity will be ushered in (Isaiah 11:9), as all of mankind is given the opportunity to know the godly blessings.
Until that time of peace, we need to be watching (as we’re instructed to do in Luke 21:36) the titanic upheavals that are convulsing the volatile Middle East. These will continue to build, and it’s just a matter of time until long-prophesied biblical events become a shocking reality.
We can find hope in the words of Isaiah 55:6-7: “Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
Learn more about the prophetic context of end-time events in our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.