‘We have been disappointed. The Syrian army is as fanatical as the hordes of the Mahdi. The Senussi have taken a hand in the game. The Persian Moslems are threatening trouble. There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark…Whence comes that wind, think you?’
John Buchan, Greenmantle (1916)
In the 1970s, I lectured on medieval European history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
The shadowy and superficially unpromising history of European countries (in an age before either ‘Europe’ or ‘countries’ really existed) was implicitly a story which would inevitably foreshadow the triumph of the West. Indeed, The Triumph of the West had been the title of a book my former Oxford tutor, John Roberts, published in 1985 to accompany a thirteen-part documentary television series and it celebrated the triumph of Western imperialism, technology, and commerce. For why, as one viewer asked, did no Arab dhows or Chinese junks ever dock at Southampton?
The prosopographical historian of Hanoverian MPs, Sir Lewis Namier, argued that ‘one would expect people to remember the past and to imagine the future. But in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience, and when trying to gauge the future, they cite supposed analogies from the past.’ He paradoxically concluded that ‘historians imagine the past and remember the future’. (In quite another context a superficially similar paradox was put forward by the crime novelist Ellery Queen: ‘the detective is a prophet looking backwards’.) Namier’s version of the historical vision is one that has been widely shared by modern historians and we shall come back to it.
But first we should mention the proposition set out by both early Muslim and Christian eschatologists that the historical past and future coexisted in, as it were, a single pre-existing, divinely ordained document or nunc stans and that therefore the development of the future could be known in some detail. Thus, the fourteenth-century Damascan historian Ibn Kathir produced a chronicle entitled al-Bidaya wa’l-nihaya (The Beginning and the End) which as its title suggested, began with the Creation and ceased with the End of Time. Ibn Kathir had managed to preconstruct the final sequence of events, in which the Mahdi, Dajjal (the Deceitful Messiah), and Jesus will be the protagonists. Prior to the appearance of these millennial figures there would be a widespread corruption of morals, linked perhaps to the fact that women will come to outnumber men by fifty to one. Ibn Kathir’s version of the Last Days was created by conflating a comprehensive range of prophecies attributed to Muhammad. Similar, though more pared down versions of the Muslim Apocalypse appeared in the writings of such historians and thinkers as Abu Yusuf al-Kindi (801–873), Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), and al-Suyuti (1445–1505). It was widely accepted that the Antichrist would be born in Damascus. My late friend the art critic Peter Fuller took pride in the fact that he had been born in Damascus and that therefore it might be possible that a great, though sinister, Destiny had been reserved for him. (This was not to be.) Christian astrologers and soothsayers of course made their own prophecies about the doom of Islam. When, in 1273, Pope Gregory X requested advice for preparing a new crusade, the Dominican William of Tripoli reported that a prophecy circulated widely among the Muslims that the doom of Islam was imminent and consequently the Christians should not bother themselves with preparing a crusade, but instead should send missionaries to the East.