So: how does it feel at World’s End?

[ Reposted from Zenpundit ICYMI there — on conveying the experience of the eschatological — on the way to better understanding the allure of IS ]

Beatus de Facunda. And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit" -- Revelation 9.1-11
And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit



I think we’re entering Phase Two of our conversations about Islamist eschatology.

In Phase One, the task was to point out that apocalyptic scriptures and scriptural interpretations were a feature of Al-Qaida discourse, and specifically used in recruitment, and this phase was necessary because apocalyptic movements, in general, are all too easily dismissed by the secular mind until “too late” — think Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe.

With GEN Dempsey declaring that IS holds an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”, with Graeme Wood describing that vision in a breakthrough article in The Atlantic, with Jessica Stern and JM Berger making the same point forcefully in their ISIS: The State of Terror, and with Will McCants promising us a book specifically about the eschatological dimension of IS, that need may now have passed.

In my view, the salient points to be made in Phase Two are:

  • that the apocalyptic ideology of IS has strategic implications
  • that there’s a largely and unwisely ignored area of religious studies dealing specifically with eschatological violence, and
  • that the sense of living in eschatological time is viscerally different — I’ve termed it a “force multiplier”
  • In particular, IS strategy is likely to draw in part on the specifically eschatological last hundred pages in Abu Musab al-Suri‘s 1600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance. As I noted in my review of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam, Filiu himself states there is “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action”. While Filiu devotes several pages to it, Jim Lacey ignores it completely in his A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto, commenting only, “Where appropriate, we have also removed most of the repetitive theological justifications undergirding these beliefs” — see my review of Lacey for the Air force Research Institute.

    I’ll deal with the religious studies literature on violent apocalyptic movements in a future post.

    This post is my first attempt at addressing the feeling engendered by being swept up in an “end times’ movement. I foresee this as my major upcoming area of interest and future contributions.



    There’s an extraordinary paragraph in Seduction of the Spirit by Harvey Cox, the prominent Harvard theologian, in which he tells us what the world’s next great encyclopedic work on religion might be like — using the analogy of Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica in a decidedly post-psychedelic age:

    Thus the next Summa might consist not of a thousand chapters but of a thousand alternative states of being, held together not by a glued binding but by the fact that all thousand are equally real.
    Imagine what kind of world it would be if instead of merely tolerating or studying them, one could actually be, temporarily at least, a Sioux brave seeing an ordeal vision, a neolithic hunter prostrate before the sacred fire, a Krishna lovingly ravishing a woodsful of goat girls, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun caught up in ecstatic prayer, a prophet touched by flame to go release a captive people…

    Religious experience is as wide, and in fact as wild as that, and the lives and world views of a Black Elk, a Teresa of Avila, an incarnation of Vishnu and an Isaiah are as different as cultures can be, united only in the degree of their focus. Cox can list them, he can invite us to consider their experiences in turn, but he cannot entirely bring us into each of their lives. Between them and his readers is a distance not only of cultural imagination, but of conviction, of tremendous passion.


    In Fiction as the Essence of War, George Vlachonikolis wrote on War on the Rocks recently:

    Coker reveals the struggle of many a veteran by asking: “how can someone who was there tell others what it was like? Especially if they can’t find a moral?” This is a thought that will resonate with anybody with a wartime experience. As for me, my 6 years in the Army has now all but been reduced to a handful of dinnerpartyfriendly anecdotes as a consequence of this plight.

    Stern & Berger, on page 2 of their book, ISIS: The State of Terrorism, write:

    It is difficult to properly convey the magnitude of the sadistic violence shown in these videos. Some featured multiple beheadings, men and women toether, with the later victims force to watch the irst die. In one video, the insurgents drove out into the streets of Iraq cities, pile out of the vehicle, and beheaded a prisoner in full view of pedestrians, capturing the whole thing on video and then driving ogg scot-free.

    Some things are just hard to explain in a way that viscerally grips the reader, engendering rich and deep understanding.

    The power of religion is one of them, and that’s true a fortiori of the power of its extreme form, that of those who are “semiotically aroused” — in Richard Landes‘ very useful term — by the power of an “end times” vision.


    I have quoted the first paragraph of Tim Furnish‘s book, Holiest Wars, often enough already, and I’ll quote it again for shock value — I don’t think it’s the sort of analogy that can be “proven” or “refuted”, but it gives a visceral sense of the importance of identifying an Islamist jihadist apocalyptic movement as such, and understanding what that implies:

    Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.

    And Richard Landes in Fatal Attraction: The Shared Antichrist of the Global Progressive Left and Jihad gives us a sense of how an apocalyptic undercurrent works:

    It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and halfeducated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.



    Let me take a first stab at indicating — by analogy — the level of passion involved:

    Cox writes of prophecy, Sylvia Plath of electroshock treatment. In her poem, The Hanging Man:

    By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
    I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

    And her description of the same experience in her novel The Bell Jar is no less, perhaps even more powerful — note also the “end times” reference:

    I shut my eyes.
    There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.
    Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

    Let me suggest to you:

    Many IS members feel they have been shaken “like the end of the world” and live and breathe in “an air crackling with blue light”.


    The illustration at the head of this post is one of many from The Beatus of Facundus, itself one of many brilliantly illustrated versions of Beatus of Liebana‘s commentary on Revelation. I was first exposed to Beatus by an article Umberto Eco wrote for FMR magazine. Eco also mentions the Beatus in Name of the Rose, and indeed wrote a most desirable book on the topic.

    11 thoughts on “So: how does it feel at World’s End?”

    1. The Landes link needs to go to the actual essay.

      He says “the Palestinian David vs. the Israeli Goliath.”

      This, I believe, is the point at which world journalism turned against Israel. Israel in 1948 was the gutsy little guy in the Bill Malden cartoon with a soft hat and a star of David. It’s interesting I can’t find an example now. After 1967, Israel became the bully.

    2. From your summary, I’d say Cox has a very shallow vision of religion experience. A culture isn’t a suit of clothes one change hour-by-hour. Is How long does it take to become shaman that one can have authentic shamanistic visions appropriate for the chosen culture? How long does it take to be a Christian who can have authentic ecstatic visions of Christ?

      If having an culturally-authentic religious vision requires birth in that culture, then Cox is wrong. If man can change his culture, how quickly can he do so? A hour? Two hours? Five hours? Twenty years? It isn’t enough to say “I know someone who became a shaman… (and I do),” that’s replacing one culture with another.

      I can imagine Cox’s world right now. I lived among New Agers who thought they’d acquired all the cultural wisdom of Yaqui shamans by reading Carlos Castaneda; who invented their own pseudo-medieval European rituals (complete with malicious fairy spirits); who…, I could go on, but why bother. They’re delusional.

    3. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and halfeducated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious

      That world is called “the studies department:” one-in-five; women don’t lie about rape; black Athena;….

    4. “I could go on, but why bother. They’re delusional.”

      You’re probably right. I’ve never met any practioners, but I read the ‘Fire From Within’. It’s way out there. On the other hand, aside from the new age gobbedlygook fantasies, there was a pretty incisive bit about the difference between victims and warriors, which is how I got interested in the book and found to be impactful.

      Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow” offered this Italian proverb about Casteneda’s work:

      se non e vero e ben trovato

      roughly translated – it may not be true, but it makes for a good story

    5. In medicine we run into New Agers from time to time. A few become famous such as Steve Jobs who thought he could cure his cancer that way. I’ve met others. They tend to die off so they are not that common.

      The jihadists seem to have found the magic to attract angry adolescents. There are countries with excess angry young men and the Arabs lands are part of this. China might have been, and they certainly have an excess of young men with no hope of family life, but they seem occupied with useful occupations like science and math. Hopefully, that will be enough.

    6. I run into anti-vaxxer parents who seem to have adopted New Age practices without knowing it, but that’s provably about as far as we get in the Midwest.

      The maths and sciences might offer a good alternative to the easily swayed and corrupted, but I’ve worked with many UFOers in the STEM fields, so I don’t know if that’s a panacea either. And then there’s also the whole Arab engineer adumbration.

    7. ErisGuy:

      As I indicated, I think Cox was writing after acquainting himself with “entheogens”, but I don’t read him as literally expecting people to have an in depth experience of, eg, shamanism on the basis of an “hour-by-hour change of clothes” as you nicely put it. I spent the better part of ten years as the student of a Lakota shaman, though, and it certainly broadened my view of worldviews. What I think Cox was getting at is the rich diversity of lived religious experiences — somewhat in line with Wm James’ _Varieties_ — rather than a flip-through set of lifestyle changes.

      As to how deep he is, I dunno. I have come across some ideas in his work that have piqued my interest, but I’m pretty eclectic, and happy if i stumble across a single paragraph I want to keep and quote.

    8. Combine a perceived justification, sanctified, fanaticism, the madness of crowds, mix in great numbers of ignorant losers (no undue prejudice intended), instruct and mix thoroughly; Repeat day after day; Reenforce. The piratical life. We can’t forget the piratical aspect…the rewards to be justifiably gathered in this life are clearly necessary in such a movement.

    9. Sylvia Plath?

      She was a waco burger. Sadly, the shock therapy, which is the last line of defense in treating refractory cases of depression, such as hers, did not work and she stuck her head in the oven and turned on the gas.

      This of course made her a hero to generations of depressed 18 yro girls who look up to Plath as a feminist role model.

      We can hope that the increasing understanding of the biological basis of mental illness has dampered that sort of romanticism.

      Depression is a terrible disease, but it is not sacred, it is not a religious experience, and it does not make sufferers artists. What it does do is kill a lot of talented young people well before their time. The best thing we can do for them is to push them into treatment.

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