The Apocalypse of Empire

Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam

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Stephen J. Shoemaker
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , August
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The modern academic study of Islamic origins tends to be predicated on two foundations. The first maintains that the earliest community started out as an apocalyptic movement in Mecca, before relocating to Medina whereupon the main interest shifted to state-building. On this reading, apocalypticism gradually receded into the distance in response to political need. The second foundation portrays Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, as a liberal reformer whose message was predicated on social justice, and who subsequently preached a message that advocated for the poor and downtrodden. Stephen J. Shoemaker’sThe Apocalypse of Empire convincingly undermines both of these foundations.

Much like his previous The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), Shoemaker makes a compelling case that 1) situates the emergence of Islam within the broader religious context of the late ancient Near East; and 2) investigates this emergence using the same historical-critical methods used to study early Judaism and early Christianity. While one would think this would simply be a natural way to proceed, it is, in many circles, surprisingly controversial. Later sources, which are not infrequently taken at face value in this literature, become for Shoemaker a set of ideological treatises that, when read “against the grain,” offer insights onto an earlier period by providing a set of concerns that are often at odds with what would become normative.

Shoemaker unfolds his argument by placing Muhammad and his movement squarely within the well-attested and late antique tradition that joined ideas of “imperial expansion and triumph, which expected the culmination of history to arrive through the universal dominion of a word empire” (3). This idea of imperial apocalypticism meant that worldly empires were believed to play a positive role in the end of times. To place Islam within this context, Shoemaker marshals a set of texts that often exist outside of the purview of Islamic studies: Syriac Alexander legends, Jewish and Zoroastrian apocalypses, in addition to oft-ignored Muslim eschatological treatises. Such an approach, Shoemaker argues, explains why Muhammad and his followers would “spill blood to establish their dominion over a world that they believed was soon to pass away” (132).

Using such sources as his guide, Shoemaker argues that Muhammad’s movement was driven by an eschatological urgency to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from infidel occupation. The center of the early Muslim vision was not Mecca, as the later tradition would have it, but the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the locus of much late antique eschatological speculation. To show this, Shoemaker argues that the early Muslim armies shared the same imperial apocalyptic vision as previous empires in the Ancient Near East. Despite this, he argues that “the later Islamic tradition chose not to remember Muhammad as an apocalyptic prophet but instead as a great teacher of ethical monotheism and social justice, and as a ruthlessly successful military leader” (124). To get at these earlier traditions, Shoemaker argues that it is necessary to, among other things, “read the Qur’an against, rather than with, the traditional narratives of Islamic origins” (125). 

Shoemaker devotes his last chapter to the Temple, and argues that it was much more important for the earliest Muslims—or, following Fred McGraw Donner, “Believers”—than the later tradition acknowledged. The Dome of the Rock, he argues, did not so much represent an alternative pilgrimage site, as it did the final locus in Islamic imperial eschatology, replete with its own set of rituals.

It is a fascinating and, for the most part, convincing argument. Questions do arise, however. For example, how exactly does one read sources “against the grain”? Why did the later tradition seek to erase this early imperial eschatology? Has Shoemaker, in other words, actually gotten at the earlier tradition that he seeks? Ultimately, then, Shoemaker must live and work at the crossroads, as all of us do who work on this material, of the problems of sources. While he takes a critical and cynical view when it comes to later sources, he is nevertheless willing to locate the Qur’an and hadith—not to mention Muhammad’s very existence—exactly where the later tradition, of which he is so critical, puts them. Even a radically skeptical approach that denies the historicity of Muhammad and the dating and locale of the recension of the Quranic narrative is ultimately forced to fall back on a position that resembles the narrative as laid out by the Islamic tradition.

In the final analysis, however, this is an impressive volume that adds tremendous insights to our understanding of the earliest period of Islam. Also helpful is Shoemaker’s conclusion—that we not whitewash the violence advocated by Muhammad and enacted in early Islam. Premodern peoples, in other words, ought not to be judged using our modern set of virtues. Islam was certainly no different from other late antique imperial traditions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Indeed, as this volume show clearly, Islam only makes sense when understood in light of these other traditions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen J. Shoemaker is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon and author of The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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