Earlier this month, Vocativ reported on rumors circulating on Twitter and some Islamic websites that a baby born with a rare birth defect known as cyclopism is actually the Muslim anti-Christ. According to this speculation, the baby is the Masih ad-Dajjal, a one-eyed false prophet described in certain hadith (sayings attributed to the prophet) whose arrival signals a final battle that leads to Judgment Day.
Some analysts believe the rumor is a recruitment tactic by ISIS, intended to persuade young Muslims to participate in an end-times scenario now unfolding in Iraq and Syria. While the “apocalyptic cyclops baby” could be a calculated propaganda campaign it also demonstrate the inventive nature of fundamentalist religious movements.
In her study of Jerry Falwell, cultural anthropologist Susan Harding pointed out that the seemingly rigid position of Biblical inerrancy paradoxically entails a great deal of creativity and imagination as the inerrantist is constantly “rediscovering” the meaning of the Bible and “creating new truth.” Similarly, in attempting to eradicate a thousand years of Muslim culture and return Islam to an imagined pristine state, movements like ISIS open the door to strange and unprecedented forms of Muslim practice.
As it turns out, photos of the alleged infant Dajjal actually show a child born in 2008 in Bolivia and another child that died in 2006 in Chennai, India. As for the Dajjal, hadith describe him as being blind in his right eye—not a cyclops. Of course this rumor is no more absurd than the American obsession with the antichrist, which has equated Proctor & Gamble, Ronald Reagan, and even Monster energy drinks with the Beast described in Revelation.
Prior to reports of the birth of the false prophet, there were unconfirmed rumors that ISIS had threatened to blow up the Kaaba because it represented a form of shirk (idolatry). Most recently, there are reports of ISIS fighters drinking the blood of their enemies like vampires. Some of these stories may be rumors resulting from the fog of war, the rapid spread of misinformation online, or even propaganda intended to inspire further Muslim opposition to ISIS. However, the apparent rise of bizarre beliefs and practices seems to reflect the type of recruits that ISIS attracts.
Last month, it was widely reported that would-be jihadists purchased Islam for Dummies before heading out to join terrorists in Syria. Here on RD Mark Juergensmeyer suggested that most young men who are drawn to ISIS are motivated by, “the desire to be involved in a great war, a cosmic struggle that allows them to play out all of their computer game fantasies of warcraft, valor and gore.”
This suggests that as ISIS empties the traditional Muslim cosmos in the name of returning Islam to its roots, its young recruits are filling it just as rapidly with a mélange of supernatural tropes drawn from popular media and the Internet. For every saint’s tomb that’s blown up in the name of combatting shirk, a cyclops baby or vampire is born. For ISIS, the belief that false prophets will arrive in the later days to corrupt Islam, appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.