This book is a strong contribution to the sustained surge in publications on “Late Antiquity and Early Islam,” in which the origin of Islam is explained, quite reasonably, by reference to its prior historical context. It is devoted specifically to apocalypticism, that narcissistic belief that the time in which one lives is the very most significant since creation itself, in which the meaning of history will become evident. Building on his earlier book The Death of a Prophet (2012) and an earlier article, and repeating arguments to an extent necessary to make this sequel independent, Shoemaker argues persuasively that late ancient apocalypticism and its formulation as eschatology played a major role in the genesis of Islam in the career of Muḥammad and afterward, both in its early doctrine and in animating the conquests carried out by Muḥammad's followers. In doing so he demonstrates his detailed familiarity with the recent and varied outpouring of challenging research on the Qurʾān in its historical context as well as his sure footing among religious texts of the late ancient period. In a field characterized by subtle, and sometimes unsubtle, apology and polemic, Shoemaker takes a historian's stance, adopts specific positions, and defends them on the basis of primary sources, many of which will be unfamiliar to readers. He is undogmatically open to a Qurʾānic text shaped by the prophet's followers even after his death. The general argument addresses only one piece of the puzzle of Islamic origins, apocalypticism. As Shoemaker indicates, this is a component of ideology that has been neglected by quite a few specialists in early Islam in favor of an implicitly laudatory view of Muḥammad as a reformer initiating a new society rather than warning of the end of all society.
About two-thirds of the book consists of discussions of apocalypticism before Islam, with an appropriate emphasis on the sixth and early seventh centuries. For this reason, scholars of Late Antiquity who have little interest in Islam should consult this book. Chapter 1 shows that Hellenistic and early Roman Jewish apocalyptic literature was not always anti-imperial, contrary to one widespread view. Shoemaker illustrates an apocalyptic tradition in which a succession of past empires is expected to lead to a final, eternal empire presided over by an eschatological king. Chapter 2 carries the survey of apocalyptic literature through Christian texts of Late Antiquity. It discusses especially the Tiburtine Sybil and the very influential Apocalypse of Ps.-Methodius, and their relative dating, in an attempt to pin down the development of the myth that the last empire of the world would be the Roman one and that a Last Emperor should be expected. Chapter 3 summarizes much of the evidence for a rising tide of apocalyptic expectations in the sixth century, which reached a crescendo in the early seventh, in the eastern Roman Empire. Prior studies of the “Syriac Alexander Legend,” a work of pro-Heraclian propaganda, provide solid ground for connecting this apocalyptic sentiment directly to the Qurʾān. Chapter 4 treats apocalypticism among Jews and Zoroastrians in the sixth and seventh century, showing that the expectation of a final empire ruled by a final emperor was not unique to Roman Christians. The treatment of Zoroastrian apocalyptic, however, is not as convincing, based on weaker secondary scholarship and scantier material that is less likely to be representative of late Sasanian Persian thought in the way that Christian apocalypticism seems representative of many Christians’ views. Strictly speaking, there was no Zoroastrian “messianism.”
The last two chapters address the Qurʾān and the conquest. Chapter 5 deals with the Qurʾān's clear message of the imminent end of the world. Accepting reasonable skepticism about the reliability of later Islamic accounts of Islam's founding figure, Shoemaker points out that predictions by Muḥammad and his followers about the end of the world offer a reliable window to the message of the historical Muḥammad, for it is unlikely that traditions about the world's end at a specific time would have been invented after that time had passed and foisted onto founding figures. Early Islamic predictions of the world's end that did not turn out to be true were nevertheless transmitted and collected with other traditions. These must therefore be authentic components of the earliest Islamic message, confirming that it is not merely our imagination that the Qurʾān insists, over and over, that the end is nigh. Chapter 6 addresses another concern of scholars of Islam who doubt that the early community expected the imminent end of time. If they did, why would they have undertaken a century of worldly conquest? Shoemaker's answer is that the conquest itself was apocalyptic, a righteous militancy thought to coincide with and to indicate the very advent of the Hour. The last chapter also addresses the focus of the initial eschatological impulse towards Jerusalem. The earliest followers of Muḥammad held Jerusalem as their sacred destination. Its place as the most sacred site was only later usurped by Mecca and Medina. The Dome of the Rock was the location of special early Muslim rituals involving incense and prayer, an adaptation of earlier Jewish practice at the Rock, veneration held in expectation of the Hour and the divine restoration of the Temple.
A substantial part of these last two chapters turns into an extended argument in favor of Donner's hypotheses articulated in his book Muhammad and the Believers (Harvard University Press, 2010). Donner boldly claims that the earliest followers of Muḥammad were nonsectarian and that the conquest itself was relatively nondestructive. Shoemaker gives ground on the latter claim, which is hard to sustain, but sticks by the idea that the community of Muḥammad included Jews and Christians at the start. On the character of this inclusion, it seems, the jury is still out. The controversial claim needs more research and, I think, precision, but Shoemaker's treatment of apocalypticism will not collapse even if Donner's view turns out to need qualification.
When a historian explains social events to me through the factor of ideology, I still want to follow the money. Ideological organization is one of several effective means of imperialism, but apocalyptic warfare cannot sustain decades of enthusiasm without victories and God-given cash. It is not cynical to acknowledge that the religiously tinged fervor for annual raids and territorial conquest was sustained by sensational material revenues based on plunder (fayʾ) for God. What is missing from this book's profound account of the apocalypticism of this empire of conquest is the worldly elation of men who emigrated from arid lands to subjugate richer nations, when God “opened” the land to them, and found themselves hauling off vast quantities of treasure, livestock, and innumerable human captives enslaved for labor and sex. For several generations, the fighting men continued to demand their customary share of four fifths of all the booty they took, which they understood to have been guaranteed to them by God, who wanted only one fifth for Himself (Q 8:41). That portion was forwarded to the caliph, who was expected to redistribute it to the needy. Caliphs who found ways to extract more than that share were deemed impious by the fighting men whose personal allotments were thereby lessened. The growing mismatch between the financial exigencies of Umayyad government, on the one hand, and Muslim warriors’ demands for customary shares of the righteous spoils of the End Time, on the other, appears also to have been a struggle between the needs and desires of the caliphs to govern as monarchs, as decades passed and the Hour had still not yet come, and the material rewards for militancy that had been prescribed during the earliest years of conquest, when the fight was still vividly apocalyptic for many of the participants. When the Hour still did not arrive, it seems to have become less practical to allow four fifths of the spoils of war to be distributed among fighters who were already paid salaries from the state. “That money will overflow among you” became one of several accepted signs that the end was nigh in the seventh century (171). The label of impiety accruing to the Umayyads was alleged for many reasons, but one of them was that they dared to interfere in the spoils of war that the Muslim community of warriors expected as a right that had stood since a time when the end was anticipated within the present lifetime, when the revenues of a future state were therefore not a substantial concern. For, as Shoemaker argues, there was not supposed to be a future state. I would add: according to the material beneficiaries of this ideology. It is a component of imperial ideology and not its financial underpinnings that is the focus of this book, but I would have liked to see the author address the monetary side of the allegedly otherworldly concern with God's imminent final Mandate (amr allāh, 138–139).
This book is a reminder of the Hour—here, the concept of the Hour, which has been intermittently neglected by historians of the origins of Islam. The book argues persuasively that early Islamic apocalyptic literature contains a rich quantity of early Islamic materials that will add to our understanding of the origins of this movement, and that this Islamic apocalyptic literature did not come out of nowhere, but makes sense only in the context of earlier, pre-Islamic apocalyptic ideas that came to a head during Muḥammad's lifetime. The prophet was a sign of his own time. Because the book makes distinct arguments about late ancient apocalypticism and early Islam, scholars of these two subjects must study it.