By Abu Amina Elias
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
The signs and portents of the Hour are part of the eschatological knowledge of revelation concerned with the events leading up to the Day of Judgment. It is one of the more difficult bodies of revealed knowledge to understand, and Muslims might fall into extremism if they do not understand the purposes and principles of interpreting such revelations.
Every Muslim needs to understand that we know very, very little about the events leading up to the end of time. Not even the Prophet himself, or any prophet, knows when the Hour will occur.
يَسْأَلُكَ النَّاسُ عَنِ السَّاعَةِ ۖ قُلْ إِنَّمَا عِلْمُهَا عِندَ اللَّهِ
People ask you concerning the Hour. Say: Knowledge of it is only with Allah.
Surat Al-Ahzab 33:63
And Allah said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ عِندَهُ عِلْمُ السَّاعَةِ
Verily, Allah alone has knowledge of the Hour.
Surat Luqman 31:34
In a famous tradition, the Angel Gabriel asked when the Hour will begin and the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, replied:
مَا الْمَسْئُولُ عَنْهَا بِأَعْلَمَ مِنْ السَّائِلِ
The one being asked does not know more than the one who is asking.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 50, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Hence, to claim any such specific knowledge about when the Hour will occur is clear misguidance and injustice, tantamount to inventing lies about Allah. We believe in general that the events the Prophet told us about will occur, although we cannot know exactly when they will happen since their dates are not mentioned in any authentic tradition.
والذي ينبغي أن يُقال به في هذا الباب أنما أخبر به النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم من الفتن والكوائن أن ذلك يكون وتعيين الزمان في ذلك من سنة كذا يحتاج إلى طريق صحيح يقطع العذر
What is befitting to say about this issue is that what is reported from the Prophet of tribulations and events will come to pass, but specifying a time or a year for them would require a decisively authentic text with no room for doubt.
Source: al-Tadhkirah bi-Aḥwāl 1/711
The verses and traditions that speak about the signs preceding the Day of Judgment are a specialized field of study in Islamic creed. Scholars who study these issues need to be grounded in knowledge, wisdom, and a sound understanding of Islamic principles. Lay people who venture into this field without its requisite learning will come up with strange and outrageous theories that misguide the Muslim public.
Ibn Hajar writes:
وَإِذَا تَكَلَّمَ الْمَرْءُ فِي غَيْرِ فَنِّهِ أَتَى بِهَذِهِ الْعَجَائِبِ
If someone speaks about matters besides their specialty, then they will come up with many strange things.
Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 1676
The reason the Prophet informed us about the portents, events, and tribulations of the Hour was not for us to attempt to predict their occurrence or devise comprehensive theories, but rather to encourage us to perform good deeds before such disasters strike. We ought to be grateful for times of peace and prosperity, making the most of them as we know for certain that these times will not last forever.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
بَادِرُوا بِالْأَعْمَالِ سِتًّا الدَّجَّالَ وَالدُّخَانَ وَدَابَّةَ الْأَرْضِ وَطُلُوعَ الشَّمْسِ مِنْ مَغْرِبِهَا وَأَمْرَ الْعَامَّةِ وَخُوَيْصَّةَ أَحَدِكُمْ
Hasten to perform good deeds before six events: the False Messiah, the smoke, the beast from the earth, the rising of the sun from the west, and the general turmoil of the masses and individuals.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2947, Grade: Sahih
In another narration, the Prophet said:
بَادِرُوا بِالْأَعْمَالِ فِتَنًا كَقِطَعِ اللَّيْلِ الْمُظْلِمِ يُصْبِحُ الرَّجُلُ مُؤْمِنًا وَيُمْسِي كَافِرًا أَوْ يُمْسِي مُؤْمِنًا وَيُصْبِحُ كَافِرًا يَبِيعُ دِينَهُ بِعَرَضٍ مِنْ الدُّنْيَا
Hasten to perform good deeds before a tribulation comes like the dark part of the night, in which a man will be a believer in the morning and an unbeliever in the evening, or he will be a believer in the evening and an unbeliever in the morning. He would sell his faith for some goods in the world.
Source: Sahih Muslim 118, Grade: Sahih
And in another narration, the Prophet said:
بَادِرُوا بِالْأَعْمَالِ سَبْعًا هَلْ تَنْتَظِرُونَ إِلَّا فَقْرًا مُنْسِيًا أَوْ غِنًى مُطْغِيًا أَوْ مَرَضًا مُفْسِدًا أَوْ هَرَمًا مُفَنِّدًا أَوْ مَوْتًا مُجْهِزًا أَوْ الدَّجَّالَ فَشَرُّ غَائِبٍ يُنْتَظَرُ أَوْ السَّاعَةَ فَالسَّاعَةُ أَدْهَى وَأَمَرُّ
Hasten to perform good deeds before seven events: Are you waiting for poverty which makes you forget? Or wealth which burdens you? Or a debilitating disease or senility? Or an unexpected death or the False Messiah? Or is it evil in the unseen you are waiting for, or the Hour itself? The Hour will be bitter and terrible.
Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2306, Grade: Hasan
Al-Qādi Iyād comments on these traditions, saying:
أَمَرَهُمْ أَنْ يُبَادِرُوا بِالْأَعْمَالِ قَبْلَ نُزُولِ هَذِهِ الْآيَاتِ فَإِنَّهَا إِذَا نَزَلَتْ دَهَشَتْهُمْ وَشَغَلَتْهُمْ عَنِ الْأَعْمَالِ أَوْ سُدَّ عَلَيْهِمْ بَابُ التَّوْبَةِ وَقَبُولِ الْأَعْمَالِ
The Prophet commanded them to hasten to perform good deeds before the appearance of these signs, for when they appear they will be stunned and distracted from performing good deeds, or they might lose the opportunity to repent and have their deeds accepted.
Source: Mirqāt al-Mafātīḥ 5465
If people are starving or fearful for their survival, it becomes incredibly difficult for them to worship in tranquility and to seek higher intellectual and spiritual pursuits. We have to take advantage of our well-being to strengthen our faith such that when the tribulations come, our faith will be able to carry us through. And if we see the signs happening around us, this is only a reminder that the end is eventually coming and we must repent before it is too late.
والحكمة في تقديم الأشراط ودلالة الناس عليها تنبيهُ الناس عن رقدتهم وحثُّهم على الاحتياط لأنفسهم بالتوبة والإنابة كي لا يُباَغَتُوا بالْحَوْلِ بينهم وبين تدارك العوارض منهم
The wisdom in the signs preceding the Hour is to inform people about them, to awaken them from their negligence, and to encourage them to take precaution with repentance and renewed devotion, such that they will not be caught off guard and be unable to make up for their shortcomings.
Source: al-Tadhkirah bi-Aḥwāl 3/1217
And Ibn Hajar writes:
وَالْحِكْمَةُ فِي تَقَدُّمِ الْأَشْرَاطِ إِيقَاظُ الْغَافِلِينَ وَحَثُّهُمْ عَلَى التَّوْبَةِ وَالِاسْتِعْدَادِ
The wisdom in the signs preceding the Hour is that it will alert the heedless and encourage them to repent and prepare.
Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 11/350
And Al-A’lāi writes:
مقصود هذه الأخبار الحث على البداءة بالأعمال قبل حلول الآجال واغتنام الأوقات قبل هجوم الآفات
The purpose of these reports is to encourage initiative in performing good deeds before our end and to make the most of our time before disaster strikes.
Source: Fayḍ al-Qadīr 3/195
The Prophet would not answer people who asked him specific details about the Hour. Instead, he would encourage them to perform good deeds. In one incident, a man asked him when the Hour would occur and the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, replied:
مَا أَعْدَدْتَ لَهَا
What have you prepared for it?
Source: Sahih Bukhari 3435, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
We have to keep this ultimate purpose in mind as we read eschatological revelations, lest we fall into error and sin.
In our times, one of the most abused and misunderstood of these revelations is the inevitable advent of the False Messiah or Anti-Christ (ad-dajjal). The False Messiah will be a dictator who causes a major tribulation and period of persecution on earth, misleading people with false miracles and wonders and claiming to be Allah Himself.
The Prophet narrated much about the False Messiah, some of it vague and in metaphorical language, and even more has been narrated that cannot be authenticated. These traditions, like many others regarding the signs of the Hour, are open to a variety of possible interpretations. Muslims who claim to know the “true” interpretations of these signs are merely speculating. The true details of these matters will only be known with certainty at the time they come to pass.
For this reason, the Prophet worried that Muslims would be confused by the long and sometimes unclear traditions discussing the False Messiah. In order to simplify these details for us, the Prophet told us that all we need to really know is that Allah does not have one eye.
Ubadah ibn As-Samit reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنِّي قَدْ حَدَّثْتُكُمْ عَنْ الدَّجَّالِ حَتَّى خَشِيتُ أَنْ لَا تَعْقِلُوا إِنَّ مَسِيحَ الدَّجَّالِ رَجُلٌ قَصِيرٌ أَفْحَجُ جَعْدٌ أَعْوَرُ مَطْمُوسُ الْعَيْنِ لَيْسَ بِنَاتِئَةٍ وَلَا حَجْرَاءَ فَإِنْ أُلْبِسَ عَلَيْكُمْ فَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ رَبَّكُمْ لَيْسَ بِأَعْوَرَ
Verily, I have told you so much about the False Messiah that I am afraid you will not understand. Verily, the False Messiah is a short man, pigeon toed, curly haired, with one eye that is sightless, neither protruding nor sunken. If you are confused about him, then know that your Lord does not have one eye.
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4320, Grade: Sahih
By knowing this one fact and having a sound understanding of our faith in general, we will be able to recognize the False Messiah when he arrives without needing to know everything that has been related about him. Every sincere and knowledgeable Muslim will be able to recognize that he will be the leader of unbelief and idolatry.
Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَا مِنْ نَبِيٍّ إِلَّا وَقَدْ أَنْذَرَ أُمَّتَهُ الْأَعْوَرَ الْكَذَّابَ أَلَا إِنَّهُ أَعْوَرُ وَإِنَّ رَبَّكُمْ لَيْسَ بِأَعْوَرَ وَمَكْتُوبٌ بَيْنَ عَيْنَيْهِ ك ف ر
There was no prophet except that he warned his people of the one-eyed liar. Verily, he is blind in one eye and your Lord is not blind in one eye. He will have written across his forehead the word of unbelief.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2933, Grade: Sahih
In another narration, the Prophet said:
مَكْتُوبٌ بَيْنَ عَيْنَيْهِ كَافِرٌ يَقْرَؤُهُ كُلُّ مُؤْمِنٍ كَاتِبٍ وَغَيْرِ كَاتِبٍ
Written across his forehead is the word of unbelief that every believer will read, whether he can read or not.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2934, Grade: Sahih
Some scholars believe the False Messiah will literally have unbelief (kufr) written on his forehead, while others believe it will be a miraculous vision bestowed upon true believers, and yet others believe knowledge of Islam will grant the believers insight into the identity of the False Messiah. The truth is that we do not know exactly how this sign will manifest, but we do know for sure that the believers will recognize it when they see it.
As this example demonstrates, the signs preceding the Hour by their nature are characterized by the ambiguity of their details. In the same way we interpret the attributes of Allah, we must apply the principle of not interpreting how (bi la takyeef) these signs will really be. We believe in the signs, but are uncertain of their details. The specific details themselves are not as important as the purpose of hastening to do good deeds and strengthening our faith in preparation for hard times. It simply is not possible and was never meant for the believers to extract from these traditions anything more than this.
We have no control over the signs of the Hour, neither to bring them about nor repel them. It is a waste of time preoccupy ourselves with anything other than preparing ourselves, our faith, our knowledge, and our character for the tribulations ahead. Delving too much into their details and pursuing innumerable baseless conspiracy theories on the internet that attempt to incorporate them only distracts us from the more important matters we must attend to here and now.
Ja’far As-Sadiq, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
إن الله تعالى أراد بنا شيئا وأراد منا شيئا فما أراده بنا طواه عنا وما أراده منا أظهره لنا فما بالنا نشتغل بما أراده بنا عما أراده منا
Allah the Exalted has decreed for us some things and demands from us some things. What he has decreed for us has been kept hidden from us, and what he wants from us has been made plain to us. What is the matter with us that we busy ourselves with what is decreed for us at the expense of what is demanded from us?
Source: al-Milal wal-Niḥal 1/165
To conclude, true knowledge of the Hour belongs to Allah alone and not anyone else. The Prophet informed us of some of its signs to encourage us to perform good deeds, repent, and be grateful for periods of prosperity. The details of the signs are often vague and open to interpretation, making it impossible for anyone to claim he or she knows with certainty how these things will happen. We need to fulfill the purpose of these traditions by carrying on as Allah has commanded us, rather than getting bogged down in useless speculation and, at worst, fictitious claims and conspiracies about the Unseen.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.