January 8, 2008
UTOPIANISM IS THE OPPOSITE OF MILLENARIANISM:
Hamas and Islamic Millenarianism: What the West Doesn't Recognize (Paul Landau, 08 Jan 2008, World Politics Review)
One of the most essential -- and most little-known -- aspects of contemporary Islamism is the role of eschatological or millenarian beliefs within it. This millenarian dimension of Islam has often been minimized by commentators, sometimes for polemical reasons: Christianity is presented as the only religion that is oriented toward the beyond, whereas Islam is supposed to be characterized by strictly this-worldly preoccupations.
This forgotten dimension of the Islamist phenomenon is key to understanding the current resurgence of a triumphalist Islam, since it cuts across all the divisions within the Muslim world: between Sunnism and Shiism, between traditional Islam and contemporary Islamism. As the French historian Pierre Lory explained in a recent lecture at the Sorbonne, "Eschatology represents one of the fundamental traits of the Muslim religion. The imminence of the end of time and of the final judgment is one of the oldest and most constant Quranic themes and is found throughout the sacred text of Islam." Inasmuch as Muhammad is the last prophet (bearing the "seal of prophecy"), his advent inaugurates the last period of universal history: i.e. the eschatological period.
In his collection of Hadith titled "The Major Signs of the End of the World from the Prophet to the Return of Jesus," Abdallah al-Hajjaj cites a saying of the prophet, who, raising his hand, is supposed to have affirmed that his mission and the final hour were as close as his middle and index fingers. This belief in the imminence of the end of time is a fundamental aspect of the contemporary Islamic reawakening, in both its peaceful and belligerent forms.
It is sometimes suggested that only the Shia version of Islam assigns importance to eschatological considerations, and it is true that the motif of the return of the hidden Imam, the central element of Shia belief, lends itself especially easily to millenarian interpretations. Since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, millenarian aspirations have been at the center of developments in the Shia Muslim world. The belief in the imminence of the Final Judgment helps to explain both the suicidal forms of behavior that proliferated during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the current attitude of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But eschatology is equally a part of Sunni Islam and it has played a central role in the development of Islamist movements of Sunni inspiration. All the various components of contemporary Islamism -- from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to the nebulous al-Qaida network -- share the hope of seeing the Islamic caliphate reestablished and consider the "renewal of Islam" to be the manifest sign of the truth of the prophecies concerning the final victory of Islam and its propagation throughout the world.
Mr. Landau would appear to have suffered a threshold failure of comprehension. The Sunni concept he describes is similar to the utopianism of all the isms--communism, nazism, libertarianism, socialism, etc.--with its belief that men can perfect the world themselves. It is only Shi'a millenarianism, which requires the return of a messianic figure, that is similar to Judeo-Christianity. Given that such millenarianism is central to the Founding this is a pretty significant error.
Posted by Orrin Judd at January 8, 2008 2:44 PM