Featured

Welcome!

“Battle of Karbala” (‘Abbas al-Musavi); Oil on canvas, Qajar period (late 19th-early 20th century) at the Brooklyn Museum

Professional website and academic blog of Christopher Anzalone, Ph.D.

I am a postdoctoral research fellow with the International Security Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. My research interests include political Islam, political violence and terrorism, Shi’i Islam, and Islamic visual cultures and narratives of martyrdom and self-sacrifice. I earned a Ph.D. in Islamic, Middle Eastern, and African studies at McGill University, M.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from Indiana University, Bloomington, and B.A. in history and religious studies from George Mason University.

My first book project, Islamizing Rebel Governance: Jihadi Insurgencies and Symbolic Power, examines the symbolic, framing, and narrative dimensions of territorial proto-state governing projects of Islamist rebel groups including Al-Shabab in Somalia, Islamic State and its branches, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Afghan Taliban. This interdisciplinary project examines the strategies and experiences of Islamist insurgent organizations that have actively attempted to set up civil governing systems through which to interact with local civilian populations. It situates the study of Islamist insurgent groups with governance ambitions within the growing literature on rebel governance.

On this site I will post about my research on Islamic social movements and organizations, Shi’i Islam, political Islam, jihadism/militant Islamism, and Islamic visual cultures.

Disclaimer: This should be clear but needs to be explicitly said: This is an academic website and blog for analysis and scholarly discussion. I do not endorse or in any way support violence or terrorism. In order to understand political violence and its use by a variety of states and non-state organizations, academics, government and other professional career practitioners, and the public must be able to analyze and publicly discuss it and related topics and issues.

Equestrianism in Jihadi Cultures

Afghan Taliban horseman

The image of the horse (faras) and the horseman (faris) is a central and frequent symbol used in a variety of jihadi culture(s) across different ethno-nationalist groups including Arab, Pashtun, Central Asian, and African organizations. Portraying modern day insurgents and other militants as the contemporary “knight” (faris) and chivalric warrior, the individual defending Islam and the Umma from occupation and persecution by non-Muslim forces and their “apostate” allies, these groups draw upon longstanding sociocultural and historical symbols and motifs, reshaping them into new narrative frames that seek to link today’s militants with idealized figures from the past, in particular the earliest Muslims led by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors, the four “Rightly Guided” (Rashidun) caliphs and the first three generations of Muslims, the Sahaba (Companions), the Tabi’un (successors), and the Tabi al-Tabi’in (successors of the successors). These early generations of Muslims are heralded as the paramount examples of piety, faith, and religious action, the model for all subsequent generations of believers to emulate.

In historico-military terms, these three generations expanded the earliest Arab Muslim states outward from the birthplace of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula, into the Levant, Egypt and North Africa, Anatolia, Iran and Central Asia, Sindh and the Indian Subcontinent, and further afield into Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and southern Europe. For today’s jihadis this “golden age” has been idealized in a way to focus centrally on military struggle (jihad al-‘askari) in what most see as the “defense” of the Umma and Islam from external aggression and internal betrayal and perfidy. This purity of intention (niyya) to “strive in the path of God” (jihad fi sabil Allah) is exemplified in the chivalric horseman, the knights of faith (or, as the former Islamic State of Iraq dubbed them, the “knights of martyrdom,” fursan al-shahahda) who are the closest embodiment in the modern age of the Prophet’s generation.

The horse as a symbol plays a central role in pre-Islamic and classical Arabic literature with the term “faras” (referring, in general, to thoroughbred horse; plural: frāsāt) appearing in classical poetry (such as the qasidas of the famous sixth century poet Imru’ al-Qays) as an image of beauty, chivalry, and a symbol and celebration of the skilled horseman and the symbolic nobility of the animals themselves.

Horses are mentioned in the relation to their beauty (3:14) and creation by God for humankind (16:8) as well as throughout the hadith literature. In one hadith the Prophet is said to have said, “There is always goodness in horses” and in others horses are referred to as mounts, in warfare, as food, in racing competitions, and as exempt from zakat.

The horse, central as it was to the early Arab Muslim territorial expansion, was mythologized in early Islamic literature and training manuals (furusiyya) were also developed concerning the animals’ usefulness as cavalry mounts. As the early Muslim states expanded they came into contact with other military equestrian traditions, chiefly that of the Iranians, Central Asian Turks, and the Byzantines and led to interbreeding between the different stocks of horses. In the modern day, mechanized jihadi forces are compared to the fursan of old, often by referencing Qur’an 8:60: “”And prepare against them whatever you can of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of God…”

Skilled horseman on the battlefield, often with banners flying and weapons raised high, the sword and saber of old replaced in jihadi motifs often with rifles and other firearms, appear throughout the media and visual cultures of today’s different jihadi (or, to use their term, mujahidin) groups including the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans, Al-Qaeda Central, Al-Shabab, and Islamic State. Images of the horse cross sectarian boundaries and often appear in Twelver Shi’i religious artwork and the visual culture of modern day Shi’i armed groups in reference both to the Prophet and to the horse, Zuljanah, of the third Imam, Husayn bin ‘Ali. Zuljanah, the martyred Imam’s faithful mount, is linked to the Prophet, who was bought and raised by Muhammad and was later given to Husayn. A white horse, standing as Zuljanah, is central in many contemporary Muharram mourning rituals and processions, particularly in South Asian Shi’i communities as well as in their diasporas.

Below are a number of photographs and visual motifs of horses in contemporary jihadi culture(s) as well as selected segments from audiovisual releases with brief annotation. Due to space and time constraints, the below is, of course, not exhaustive; there are numerous groups using or that have used equestrian (and dromedary) imagery:

An Urdu Subcontinent jihadi poster showing mounted mujahidin and citing Qur’an 4:100, a verse exhorting Muslims to “emigrate for the cause of God” (hijra) and promising divine reward for those who become muhajirun and are killed striving in God’s path.

Today’s jihadis emphasize military jihad in this verse but some exegetes of the Qur’an (mufassirun) interpreted the verse as referring to any of those who emigrate for a wide range of religious purposes including pilgrimage (Hajj), asceticism, and seeking knowledge.

The conquering early Arab Muslim fursan of old re-purposed as the predecessors of today’s Islamic State jihadis.
Bucolic Jihad: An Islamic State photograph quoting several hadith in which the Prophet is reported to have said, “Goodness is tied to the forelocks of horses until the Day of Resurrection: reward and spoils of war.” (Sunan al-Nasa’i).
Wilayat Khurasan-IS militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan, some mounted on horses, proceed to a meeting where they and their leaders, including the late Hafiz Sa’id Khan and Shahidullah Shahid, pledged allegiance (bay’a) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Al-Shabab horsemen after a communal ‘Eid prayer event in Mogadishu in 2009.
Perhaps the best example of modern day jihadi use of chivalric equestrian motifs, an Al-Shabab segment juxtaposing the conquering Arab horsemen of the Prophet and his successors with today’s mechanized Somali “mujahidin.” The accompanying nashid includes references to the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut (Spring of Goliath) where, in September 1260, the Mamluk armies of Baybars and Sultan Sayf al-Din Qutuz defeated the Ilkhanid Mongol general Kitbuqa.

Further Reading:

(1) The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd Edition, in particular the articles on “Faras” and “Furusiyya.”

(2) Description in Classical Arabic Poetry: Wasf, Ekphrasis, and Interarts Theory (Akiko Motoyoshi Sumi; Brill, 2003).

(3) “The Horse in Arabia and the Arabian Horse: Origins, Myths and Realities” (Jérémie Schiettecatte and Abbès Zouache; Arabian Humanities 8, 2017): https://journals.openedition.org/cy/3280?lang=en

(4) “Horse, Hawk and Cheetah: Three Arabic Hunting Poems of Abū Nuwās” (J. E. Montgomery, Cordite Poetry Review, 1 February 2015: http://cordite.org.au/translations/montgomery-nuwas/)

(5) Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature (Robert Irwin; Anchor, 2002)

(6) Early Islamic Poetry and Poetics (Edited by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych; Routledge, 2017)

(7) The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual (Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych; Cornell University Press, 2010)

(8) The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode (Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych; Indiana University Press, 2002).

(9) “Refighting the Past in the Present: Modern Conflicts and the Mobilizing and Contesting of Sacred History” (my own short piece at Maydan; 17 November 2016): https://www.themaydan.com/2016/11/refighting-past-present-modern-conflicts-mobilizing-contesting-sacred-history/

UPDATED 25 October 2019, 5:13 p.m.:

Refighting the Past in the Present: A poster shows matyred Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas Brigades’ militiamen alongside the figure of Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas, Imam Husayn’s standard-bearer here bearing a banner reading, “We heed your call, O’ Zaynab,” against the backdrop of her shrine in southern Damascus, Syria. The “martyrs” through their blood, the poster states, have demonstrated their love for al-‘Abbas and Zaynab.

There is sometimes significant cross-pollination between the militaristic and messianic symbolic repertoires of Sunni and Shi’i armed groups, as seen here in a Sunni jihadi graphic design that takes, almost whole cloth, a figure or figures taken from Shi’i artwork of Imam al-Mahdi and Abu Fadl al-‘Abbas, complete with the “Hand of ‘Abbas,” a symbol representing the loss of both of his hands at Karbala and popular in standards (alamdar) and religious commodities including jewelry and clothing.

UPDATE: 28 October, 12:54 p.m.:

A somewhat apocalyptic example of equestrian (tied to notions of idealized “Islamic” historical chivalry and courage) is this Urdu tarana (nashid) featuring the late Usama bin Laden mounted and galloping on his horse along with scenes of other mounted warriors against the backdrop of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

Islam & the Nation: Visual Culture of the Palestinian HAMAS: Part 1

A selection of posters produced by the Palestinian Islamist movement HAMAS including by its political branch, military wing (the Brigades of the Martyr ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam), and media departments and including posters to commemorate “martyrs” and mark major events in HAMAS’ history. The group’s visual culture combines both religious and nationalist symbols and motifs.

HAMAS-affiliated university student Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahim Raddad, killed by Fatah-affiliated students at Al-Najah University in Nablus in 2007 during the height of HAMAS-Fatah armed conflict.
Reem al-Riyashi, one of HAMAS’ handful of female “martyrdom-seekers” (istishhadiyyat) who carried out a suicide attack on January 14, 2004 targeting Israeli soldiers.
Sa’id Siyam, Palestinian interior minister in 2006 and a senior HAMAS official killed in an Israeli targeted assassination during the 2008-2009 Gaza War. His brother and son were also killed. The poster references the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, from which HAMAS was an offshoot of its Gazan branch, and HAMAS’ military wing, the Brigades of the Martyr ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam.
Martyrdom anniversary poster for Shaykh Ahmad Yasin (k. March 2004) showing the HAMAS movement’s emblem and the land of Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Photography & Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, 1990s-mid 2000s

The foreign and local mujahideen insurgents active in Chechnya and the North Caucasus in the 1990s into the mid-2000s regularly produced photography which was disseminated by a number of different media networks. In this photo essay are a selection of these photographs including ones showing Arab and regional commanders including the legendary “Amir Khattab” (Samir Saleh ‘Abdullah), killed by poison in March 2002; Supyan Abdullayev, deputy leader of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus killed in March 2011; Shaykh Sa’id Buryatsky, a clerical figure in the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus killed in March 2010; Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president killed in March 2005; Abu al-Walid al-Ghamdi, the Saudi commander of the Arab foreign fighters until he was killed in April 2004; & Abu Hafs al-Urduni, al-Ghamdi’s successor who was killed in November 2006.

South Asian Sunni Jihadis Mark the 12th Anniversary of the Lal Masjid Siege

South Asian Sunni jihadis are marking the 12th anniversary of the July 3-11, 2007 siege of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad by Pakistani government forces, which were responding to increasing violent activism by male and female students at the mosque’s two schools including its now famous women’s madrasa, Jami’a Hafsa. These groups include pro-Al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants as well as Pakistan and Kashmir-centered groups including the sectarian Lashkar-e Jhangvi.

The mosque’s deputy imam, ‘Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed during the siege, became a central “martyr” figure in Sunni jihadi visual and literary cultures, particularly but not only to South Asian groups. Different factions of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Islamic Jihad Union have named military attacks or campaigns and special units after him or in memory of the scores of students and others killed during the siege by government forces. Ghazi and the other martyrs were eulogized by Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) and other major jihadi groups and figures, with Ayman al-Zawahiri and the late AQC leader Abu Yahya al-Libi placing him in the pantheon of the “mujahid ‘ulama” who, they said, are exemplary figures for the Umma.

After the August 2009 battle between HAMAS security forces and Jund Ansar Allah, a small independent Gazan AQ-aligned jihadi group at the time, Sunni jihadis compared the battle around the Ibn Taymiyya mosque in Rafah and the death of its imam, Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi (‘Abd al-Latif Musa), with ‘Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Musharraf’s siege of the Lal Masjid. Abu’l Nur was reportedly the clerical and ‘spiritual leader’ of Jund Ansar Allah though there were reports that he did not wish to die in the day-long battle with HAMAS forces. Musharraf is compared to then-HAMAS government chief Isma’il Haniyeh.
Segment from Al-Qaeda Central’s eulogy film for the Lal Masjid and ‘Abdul Rashid Ghazi arguing that he and the others were killed by the Pakistani state because of their work to bring about a “true” Islamic state.
Segment from Al-Qaeda Central’s eulogy film for the Lal Masjid and ‘Abdul Rashid Ghazi. It includes an audio clip of Ghazi comparing the willingness of the Prophet Muhammad to undergo severe hardships with the unwillingness of many self-declared Muslims today from enduring any difficulties for their faith. The film’s narrator also links the Lal Masjid’s “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong” work to setting the stage for a new “caliphate.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri lists ‘Abdul Rashid Ghazi with the “exemplary mujahid ‘ulama” that also includes the late Shaykh ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, Mullah Dadullah (Afghan Taliban), Abu ‘Umar al-Sayf (Chechnya), ‘Abdullah al-Rushud (AQAP), and the Saudi cleric Shaykh Hamud al-‘Uqla al-Shu’aybi.
Jihadi e-poster comparing the Lal Masjd siege and killing of scores of its students with the April 2018 Afghan government bombing of a madrasa in Kunduz that killed and wounded at least 107 civilians including dozens of children.

UPDATED JULY 11, 2019:

UPDATED JULY 13, 2019:

Jihadi Martyrologies: A ‘Martyr’ Biography Profiles Islamic State’s Late ‘Wali’ of Khurasan

The 189th issue of Islamic State’s weekly Al-Naba newsletter included an interesting and detailed profile highlighting the importance of individuals with formal religious studies expertise. They are particularly important for the militant organization and its regional affiliates and branches due to their often lack of many credentialed, highly educated religious scholars.

The article highlights one of Wilayat Khurasan’s “shining” religious scholars (‘ulama) & late wali (governor), Abu ‘Umayr ‘Abd al-Hasib al-Logari, who ascended to the top of Wilayat Khurasan after the July 2016 drone killing of Hafiz Sa’id Khan, heralding the former’s leadership during “one of the most difficult periods” for the “Province.” Wilayat Khurasan is the Afghanistan branch/affiliate of IS’ core organization. It maintains connections with the core while also having its own set of local and regional dynamics and interests. ‘Abd al-Hasib is referred to as a hadith scholar (muhaddith).

Born in Kurram agency in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, ‘Abd al-Hasib studied extensively Arabic, Persian, & English in addition to his native fluency in Pashto and Urdu. He formally studied Islamic law & fiqh with a hadith specialization for 8 years at the Jami’a Imam Bukhari & then studied the Six Books (canonical Sunni collections: Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawud, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Nasa’i) at the Ganj Madrasa in Peshawar for 4 years.

After completing his studies, he decided to travel to Afghanistan to join the battle against “polytheism” (shirk) & “Sufism” (tasawwuf), spreading the “true” message of absolute monotheism (Tawhid).

He taught shari’a & fiqh for two years as member of the Afghan Taliban before leaving with defectors & TTP commanders who accused their rivals of being linked to the “apostate” Pakistani government, serving as a deputy to founding wali, Hafiz Sa’id Khan.

As Khurasan wali, ‘Abd al-Hasib he participated in fighting the “Crusaders” on the frontlines of Nangarhar in ribat & established the proto-state governing offices (dawawin, diwans) of the Wilayat.

Despite his leadership duties, he also continued his role of religious teaching & preaching, spreading “Tawhid” & the “loyalty & disavowal” (al-wala min al-mu’minin wa-l-bara ‘an al-kafirin) among locals. He died in battle against U.S. forces on April 27, 2017.

American Themes in Sunni Jihadi Visual Culture

A selection of visual materials produced independently by Sunni jihadis and their supporters drawing upon American military and pop culture themes including the U.S. Marines’ slogan, the iconic posed Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph from the Second World War, and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (which is when those two posters were produced).

The images in these posters include the late Shaykh ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, the late Saudi foreign fighter commander in Chechnya and the North Caucasus Abu al-Walid al-Ghamdi, Al-Shabab spokesman and official ‘Ali Mohamud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), and the then-Al-Shabaab officials Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow and Hasan Dahir Aweys.