The Performative Proto-State: "Enjoining the Good & Forbidding the Wrong," as interpreted by Al-Shabab in Somalia

A core duty of all Muslims collectively is to “enjoin (command) the good and forbid the wrong” (amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa-l-nahy ‘an al-munkar), meaning that they should encourage fellow believers to live ethical and pious lives while warding the latter away from practices and actions or behavior that contradict the core tenets of Islam. This concept, which has been exhaustively covered by Professor Michael Cook in a monumental book, is mentioned explicitly or thematically in both the Qur’an (e.g. 3:104, 3:110, 31:17, 22:40-41, ] and collections of hadith, including an often-cited one narrated by the Medinan sahabi Sa’ad bin Malik bin Sinan al-Khazraji al-Khudri (Abu Sa’id al-Khudri).

The concept of amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa-l-nahy ‘an al-munkar is a favorite of modern day militant Islamists (jihadis) who cite it as a blanket justification, in their eyes though not that of the vast majority of the world’s Muslims regardless of school of thought or sect, for their actions against other people who are themselves Muslims. For example, crackdowns on the selling and consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and other tobacco products, and movies and music deemed to be “un-Islamic” are justified by these groups with this interpretation of the Qur’anic and Prophetic injunction.

Here the Somali jihadi-insurgent organization Al-Shabab gathers local civilians to watch the proto-state group destroy seized cigarettes and other tobacco products as well as qat/khat (“jaad”), a plant with leaves that is popular in Somalia, Yemen, Oman, and other countries in the Horn of Africa but is banned in places including the U.S. and Great Britain. In the U.S. it is banned for having both a Schedule I and Schedule IV stimulants; also classified in Schedule I are heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, and marijuana. Al-Shabab has long banned the use of qat in areas under its control though the enforcement of such bans have varied from time to time and place to place.

The public enforcement of such edicts is a performative, ritualized display of the jihadi proto-state’s claims to both governing authority, that is being able to enact and enforce the ban, and to religio-historical legitimacy through the demonstration of its theological “purity.”

"Ribat for one day is better": Al-Shabab and Hadith

A favorite hadith of Sunni militant Islamist (jihadi) organizations: “Military garrisoning (ribat) [and jihad to protect the frontiers] in the path of God is better than one thousand days in one of life’s other stations [in prayer and fulfilling other religious obligations],” included in in the 13th century jurist and hadith scholar (muhaddith) al-Nawawi’s Riyad al-Salihin collection, here cited by the late Al-Shabab amir, Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane against the backdrop of insurgents following their mid-October 2018 capture of a Somali government military base in Daynunai, Bay region.

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: