Faces of Fazlullah

Screenshots from an elegiac film about the previous amir of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Mawlana Fazlullah, who was killed by a U.S. drone in June 2018. Fazlullah is shown speaking to TTP members and locals, firing weapons, leading congregational prayers, offering supplicatory prayer (du’a), meeting with other TTP leaders, and preparing for ‘Eid al-Adha.

Fazlullah with Khalid “Sajna” Mehsud, amir of the TTP’s Mehsud faction in South Waziristan until he was killed in a February 2018 U.S. drone strike.
Fazlullah during ‘Eid al-Adha.
Fazlullah with the current amir of the TTP, Noor Wali Mehsud.
Congregational prayer with Fazlullah and the current TTP amir, Noor Wali Mehsud.

Fazlullah pledges allegiance (bay’a) to the leadership of the Afghan Taliban (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan).

Fazlullah with Khalid “Sajna” Mehsud
Fazlullah with the late deputy amir of the TTP (right), Khalid Haqqani.

The Haqqani Network’s Branding

The Haqqani Network, in addition to being one of the most capable armed factions within the “Quetta Shura” Afghan Taliban, is also adept at media/information operations and branding. Here in photographs and images from Haqqani communal da’wa events in 2018 and 2019 the logo of the group’s media outlet, Manba’ al-Jihad (Fountainhead of Jihad), can be seen on print-outs, banners, vests of its media operatives and fighters, and even plastic bags for books, pamphlets, pens, mp3 files, and even medicine (Panadol, a brand of Acetaminophen).

An interesting heart-pierced-by-an-arrow doodle on a Haqqani Network member’s rifle carrying strap.

Suggested Reading:

On the history of the Haqqani Network and the important role of its Afghan-Pakistan founder, the multilingual Jalaluddin Haqqani, see the excellent book Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (Oxford University Press) by Vahid Brown & Don Rassler.

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.