The targeted killing of the head of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (“Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution,” Sipah-e Pasdaran-e Inqilab-e Islami; IRGC) by the U.S. at the Baghdad International Airport has unleashed a debate and commentary storm about a range of issues from the most likely to possible fallout and results of the drone strike, whether or not Soleimani is replaceable, whether the assassinations were “legal” or not, what this means for U.S. interests in the Middle East and its forces there and in Afghanistan, among others.
Soleimani’s long career in the IRGC and the creation of his prominent media image, which was fed both by the Iranian state and external news media coverage and the commentariat including in the West, together with his network of interpersonal relationships with a range of non-state and quasi-state armed groups and political actors in the Middle East and wider Muslim-majority world is indisputable even if the results of his killing and the public acknowledgement of it by the U.S. government is still unclear. Soleimani was intimately involved in maintaining and strengthening the Iranian state’s regional network of allied and client groups including Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the Houthi movement (Ansarullah) in Yemen, a host of Iraqi and Syrian armed groups and political parties, and Afghan and Pakistani paramilitary units attached to the IRGC, the Lashkar-e Fatimiyyun and Lashkar-e Zaynabiyyun respectively. He oversaw Iran’s asymmetrical and covert warfare against the U.S., Israel, and the former’s regional allies including Saudi Arabia beginning in the years following the U.S. and British invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Though most frequently associated with Shi’i groups he also maintained ties with other groups including Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government including in its fight against Islamic State in 2014.
The late general also leaves behind a legacy in the visual culture and production of the Iranian state and its array of allied and client groups in the Middle East and farther abroad, which is, as is much of my academic research, the subject of this post.
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 generationsexpanded 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. Fortoday’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:
(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).