Symbolism is central to proto-state jihadi visual culture and media operations campaigns. From flags to uniforms, insignia, posters and billboards, and street and building names and signage, groups like Al-Shabab in Somalia, like nation-states, understand the power of images, language, and the (idealized) framing of history.
Here in photographs taken by Al-Shabab after its temporary capture of the Somali government’s El-Salin (El-Salini) military base in the Lower Shabelle region, the insurgent group juxtaposes victorious militants with defeated (and fallen) Somali National Army soldiers, represented by a fallen or discarded army flag.
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.”
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).