This weekend I spent a morning with Steven Strogatz, who was in New York to receive the richly deserved Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science from Rockefeller University, shared with Ian Stewart. I’ve been grateful for his tweets in support of my book and it was a pleasure to meet him for the first time. We swapped notes and talked about all kinds of things, the strangest of which was that, among the many admirers of his books, there is a blogger and tweeter who goes by the name of bintchaos and who claims to be both a mathematician and a supporter of the Islamic State.
The word bint means daughter in Arabic, so I will refer to the otherwise unidentified blogger as “she” — though it’s perfectly possible that the persona is just a pretext for some undercover sting operation. Anyway, bintchaos, who has also used variants like bintchaotic or bintchaotik (after her successive Twitter accounts were suspended), claims that ISIS wants chaos as a prelude to “Emergent Order,” and she cites Strogatz’s book Sync as justification.
That ISIS seeks chaos seems to be clear from a reading of the first issue of their glossy magazine Dabiq, as analyzed by Pieter van Ostaeyen. I checked Dabiq myself — no doubt attracting the unwelcome attention of international intelligence agencies — and am relieved to report that I found no allusions to Sync or any other book on chaos theory. This mathematical twist on ISIS chaos strategy seems to be bintchaos’s invention. She does quote a hadith that was mentioned in Ostaeyen’s article and seems to have been posted online by an ISIS fighter:
The Prophet of God (Praise be upon him) said: the [last] hour will not come untill the chaos (Harj) increases. They said: and what is Harj O Prophet of God; he said: the killing, the killing.
This looks like a confirmation of the worst prejudices about Islam, but bintchaos omits the rest of the hadith, which clearly belongs to the long tradition of prophecies of end times:
Some of the Muslims said, “O Messenger of Allah, indeed we fight in one year such-and-such many idolaters.” He said, “It is not that you will fight the idolaters, but rather you will fight each other until a man kills his neighbor and the son of his mother and his close relatives.” Some of the people said, “O Messenger of Allah, will we be reasonable on that day?” He said, “No, for reason will be removed from most of the people in that era, and the remaining people will not have their ability to reason.”
Unfortunately I have not been able to find an independent source for the original Arabic text. I did suspect, however, that this talk of chaos theory was not limited to Muslims. After a few clicks I found literally thousands of online texts that connect chaos theory or butterfly effects or to Gog and Magog. For example this, this, and this.
None of this would be worth mentioning except that bintchaos (or bintchaotic) really does seem to have a thing about authors of books about mathematics for the general public. Edward Frenkel gave yet another demonstration of his profound idealism by engaging her in several twitter debates; for example, this one (which now appears one-sided, since bintchaotic’s Twitter account no longer exists).
To end on a pedantic note, it may be a mistake to translate the Arabic harj as chaos. In Hans Wehr’s dictionary one finds the translations “excitement, agitation, commotion, disorder, muddle confusion.” To get chaos, you have to write harj wa marj, which should be compared to tohu wa bohu of Genesis 1.2, rendered without forme, and voyd in the King James version.