In the late 12th century, sometime between 1190 and 1195, a Calabrian abbot and hermit named Joachim of Fiore received what he believed to be a divine revelation, which would not only change his life dramatically, but change the world as well. This Cistercian monk believed that God had revealed to him that the Old and New Testaments of the Bible were important not simply for “moral or domestic purposes,” to quote the historian Norman Cohn, “but as a means of understanding and forecasting the development of human history.”
Essentially, Joachim concluded that the world could be divided into three ages, the first two of which corresponded to the existing testaments of the Bible. The Old Testament represented the Age of the Father (or of the Law). The New Testament represented the Age of the Son (or of the Gospel). And there was a third age (and presumably a third testament) the Age of the Spirit, that was yet to come. According to Cohn, this third age “would be to its predecessors as broad daylight compared with starlight and the dawn, as high summer compared with winter and spring,” – which is to say that Joachim believed that he had discovered the means for understanding the progression of history away from moral darkness and into light; away from evil and into grace; away from suffering and sin, and into the long-awaited and long-anticipated New Millennium.
This “Third Age” would be “one of love, joy and freedom, where the knowledge of God would be revealed directly in the hearts of all men,” – heaven on earth, in other words. Joachim, it should be noted, was hardly the first or the last prophet to claim special knowledge of the appointed time at which this “heaven on earth” New Millennium would become reality. Indeed, as Cohn describes in his 400-plus page classic The Pursuit of the Millennium, the entire history of Western Civilization – from the Jews to the Greeks, from the early Christians to the Middle Ages, and well beyond – is the history of a culture searching for and yearning to find a utopian “end of history.”
The Christian notion of the utopian Millennium – explicitly rejected by Augustine of Hippo yet nevertheless persistent in fringe Christian theology – had its origins in the biblical Book of Revelation (ch 20, v. 4-6). As Cohn notes, in the scripture, the author, the Apostle John, describes Jesus’s second coming and the idyllic “messianic kingdom on earth” that He “would reign over . . . for a thousand years before the last judgment.” Obviously, this specific story and specific notion of heaven on earth gave its name to the broader phenomenon of Western eschatological yearning. But as Cohn’s book demonstrates, and as countless others have argued since, one should not mistake this story for the entirety of Hellenic-Judeo-Christian thought on the subject. Indeed, it is but a small fraction of the rich tradition of Western utopian fantasizing.
In any case, even against this backdrop of literally centuries of eschatological romanticism, Joachim of Fiore fashioned a new millenarian-prophetic system that would best them all; one that would, as Cohn puts it, “be the most influential one known to Europe until the appearance of Marxism,” nearly 700 years later. And even this doesn’t give Joachim his proper due, since one could argue quite convincingly (as, again, Cohn does) that even Marx and those who influenced him – from Lessing to Schelling to Fichte and even Hegel – derived their interpretations of history directly or indirectly from Joachim’s “three ages.”
Medieval millenarianism was not, by any means, anti-Christian. As noted above, Joachim himself was a Cistercian monk. Rather, millenarianism was a fundamental, if erroneous, part of the religious development of Western civilization. And it is critical to note that these developmental errors were defeated only by the reassertion of Christian orthodoxy, by the affirmation of doctrine and the insistence that fringe utopianism constituted a perversion of Christian theology and a heretical interpretation of the will of God.
None of the Christian millenarian movements was dispelled exclusively, or even primarily, through the power of the state. War did not stop these millenarians; battle did not defeat their cause. From the Cult of Frederick II to the Brethren of the Free Spirit to the Anabaptists, only the expression of true faith was, in the long-term, able to defeat the utopian mis-expression of it.
We would all do well to remember this today, as the second American president in a row embarks on a war to destroy an enemy that embraces fundamentalist, utopian Islam, an enemy whose motives, Western leaders insist, are distinctive from this avowed religion. President Obama recently declared that “ISIL is not Islamic.” This conclusion is a misinterpretation of the forces at work in Islamism. If a fundamental tenet of war is to “know one’s enemy” such an error may leave the West incapable of defeating this ideology on its own, no matter how many bombs it drops on the Levant.
You see, the Islamism that America is fighting today has its roots in a philosophy that is, in some ways, strikingly similar to those that prompted the millenarian fits of the Middle Ages. Islam, too, has had its prophets of utopia. And it, too, has seen the rise of reactionary movements envisioned as the means by which an idyllic state might be achieved on earth. The differences between Christian eschatology and the Muslim version are, of course, both manifold and manifest. Among other things, millenarian Islam seeks to establish – or re-establish – a paradigmatic global “caliphate” based on the order established by Mohammed and forged through violence and the conversion of non-believers. Additionally, and more to the point, while Christianity’s spasm of overt utopianism was, by and large, a medieval phenomenon, Islam’s battle with millenarian reactionary ideologies is both contemporary and ongoing.
Perhaps the best-known Islamic millenarian prophet is the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Iranian Shiite revolution, unleashed contemporary state-sponsored terrorism, and established the world’s first so-called “Islamic Republic.” The lesser-known, but perhaps more important, Sunni counterpart to Khomeini was Sayyid Qutb, the second great philosopher of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the principal advocate of the modern-day caliphate, and the founding father of the global jihad.
Over the course of his public life, Qutb became a rather virulent and aggressive opponent of the colonial order. He became a promoter of violence in the pursuit of righteousness. And like most Millenarian prophets before him, he became a severe critic of the contemporary world, advocating a return to a better, holier time. In short, Qutb championed what Cohn called the “Golden Age irrecoverably lost in the distant past,” but soon to be replaced by a Golden Age “preordained for the immediate future.” Back in 2003, the author Paul Berman noted the following of the Islamist millenarian’s “Golden Age:”
Qutb’s vanguard was going to reinstate shariah, the Muslim code, as the legal code for all of society. Shariah implied some fairly severe rules. Qutb cited the Koran on the punishments for killing or wounding: ‘‘a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear.’’ Fornication, too, was a serious crime because, in his words, ‘‘it involves an attack on honor and a contempt for sanctity and an encouragement of profligacy in society.’’ Shariah specified the punishments here as well. ‘‘The penalty for this must be severe; for married men and women it is stoning to death; for unmarried men and women it is flogging, a hundred lashes, which in cases is fatal.’’ False accusations were likewise serious. ‘‘A punishment of 80 lashes is fixed for those who falsely accuse chaste women.’’ As for those who threaten the general security of society, their punishment is to be put to death, to be crucified, to have their hands and feet cut off, or to be banished from the country.
Qutb had a profound impact on a great many Muslims both of his generation and the succeeding one, including, of course, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s philosophical titan and the successor to bin Laden. In many ways, the Islamist movement and especially the jihadist movement are derived directly from the philosophy and teachings of Qutb as filtered through the likes of Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
What this tells us, then, is that the Islamic State is most definitely Islamic. About that there should be no question. Whether it represents an authentic and scripturally-accurate interpretation of Islam we cannot say. That is a job for Islamic orthodoxy. What we can say, though, is that any purely-political or ideological war against the Islamists is all but certainly doomed to failure in the long run. Only through the successful assertion of a different, perhaps more orthodox interpretation of Islam can this presumed heresy be overcome.
The American president, of course, cannot make this assertion, which is to say that he cannot win this war on his own. What he – and his successor – can do, though, is to call the enemy by its name and thus to serve notice to those who can challenge the terrorists on religious grounds that this is primarily their fight.