If we hew closely to what Muhammad meant by “Rome,” we couldn’t easily construe the word to mean the modern, geopolitically trivial Italian capital. Indeed, Rum probably referred not to the city of Rome at all, but to the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, centered in Constantinople. According to this interpretation, the Rome of La Dolce Vita and spaghetti carbonara has nothing to do with Rum, and the bluster from Trump and ISIS propagandists rests on a simple misreading.
But that leaves believers with a quandary of a whole other sort, since the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 and is therefore no longer around to fight. It’s as if Muhammad predicted that the Brooklyn Dodgers would play the New York Yankees in the 2020 World Series. At some point, Muslims concerned with these prophecies have to figure out how a defunct franchise (the Brooklyn Dodgers ceased to exist when they moved to Los Angeles in 1958) will field a team.
And here’s where things get metaphysical. If Muhammad was not wrong, how might he be right? One method of reckoning with this obstacle—the non-existence of “Rome” in the seventh-century sense—is to ask which latter-day entity most resembles Rome. Apocalyptic theorists today have suggested that Rome might be NATO, “the West,” America, Russia, or something else.
One of the Islamic State-linked ideologues I interviewed for my March 2015 story about the group has taken unusual interest in this question. Last year, Musa Cerantonio, a young Australian convert, published a pamphlet in which he purported to answer the question “Who is Rum?” definitively. He considers whether Rome can be identified simply by finding the entities that inhabit the same geography as the Byzantines, or that use their language, or come from their tribe, or use their same form of government. But he rejects all these possibilities, on the grounds that even during the early decades of Islam, the territory, language, and forms of government of the Byzantines varied a great deal, and the name Rum never changed. The essence of Rum must be deeper.
Cerantonio notes that the Ottomans, who defeated the Byzantines, accepted the mantle of “Rome” explicitly: The sultan called himself the “Caesar of Rome” and believed he was establishing a third Roman Empire. And when the Ottoman line ended in 1924—leaving the world without a caliph—their successors were the secular republicans of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Those successors still reign in Istanbul and Ankara, and the Islamic State considers them apostates, even though the most recent of them, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is generally counted as an Islamist by those who aren’t members of ISIS.
For Cerantonio, that settles it: The Rum of the end-times hadith is not the Rome of Pope Francis but the Rome of the Republic of Turkey. Almost two weeks ago, when press reports suggested that the Turkish military had crossed the border near the Syrian city of Aleppo, into the town of Azaz, a social-media account supportive of Cerantonio’s Rum thesis tweeted the news out excitedly: Azaz is smack in the middle of Dabiq/A’maq territory, exactly where the armies of Rome and Islam are meant to meet—right on schedule.