MRBlog | ISIS, Poetry, and the Romance of Jihād; or How Reading The New Yorker Can Save Religious Studies From the Rhetoric of Authenticity

Knight In Shining Armor

By Sam Houston

As for poets, the erring follow them.
Hast thou not seen how they stray in every valley,
And how they say that which they do not?
Save those who believe and do good works, and remember God much,
and vindicate themselves after they have been wronged.
—Quran 26:224-227

I’m not sure I would have imagined myself saying this, but scholars of Islamic studies, and of religious studies more generally, should read The New Yorker more often. To be sure, I enjoy its cartoons as much as anyone else, but I typically go elsewhere for religious studies-related commentary and analysis. However, I now find myself reconsidering that position after reading the recent New Yorker article entitled, “Why Jihadists Write Poetry.” The essay, which focuses on the life and work of select poet-laureates of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, was written by Robyn Creswell, assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale and poetry editor of The Paris Review, and Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. Yes, you guessed it … that Haykel. As some might recall, he was quoted in Graeme Wood’s controversial Atlantic essay, “What ISIS Really Wants,” as saying, among other things, that IS members “have just as much legitimacy as anyone else” to claim fidelity to the interpretive traditions of Islam’s sacred texts. (It should be noted that Haykel has offered a more nuanced account of IS elsewhere.)

In the midst of the cottage industry that IS analysis has now become, I found this piece refreshing not only because the intersection of religion, culture, and politics intrigues me, but also because it avoids the pitfalls into which so many IS commentaries fall. Most of these pitfalls stem from practitioners, pundits, and even US presidents (for example, see President Obama’s 2014 speech on IS) explicitly or implicitly endorsing a rhetoric of authenticity which demarcates “real” or “authentic” from “false” or “inauthentic” Islam. As Kecia Ali and Aaron Hughes have compellingly argued, such enterprises often entail either a reliance on static and overly textually-based definitions of religious tradition or blanket dismissals of IS’s beliefs and practices which inhibit attempts to understand them. This essay succeeds in avoiding these errors by treating the “jihadi poetry” of IS and other related movements as cultural discourses and social practices that provide insight into the worldviews of those who so deftly write and perform it. By doing so, it sheds light on the tools employed by these agents to construct a particular religious worldview and ethical self. Ironically enough, it therefore stands as an example of the kind of religious studies scholarship that should be emulated as we attempt to understand IS and related movements which foster what Creswell and Haykel call a “culture of jihād.”

Referring to recent IS commentary and analysis, Creswell and Haykel state, “Analysts have generally ignored these [poetic] texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture.” Of course, poetry has long reigned as one of the highest forms of cultural production not only for movements like IS and al-Qaeda, but for the Arab world as a whole. One can trace its roots back to pre-Islamic Arabia where the poet (shāʿir) served as a soothsayer and spokesperson praising the virtues of their tribes while impugning the honor of opposing ones. For some of the same reasons cited in Plato’s Republic, poets were looked upon with suspicion as possessing potent powers with their rhetorical skills and alleged access to the spirits (jinn). While poetry is ambivalently portrayed in the Qurʾān and the early history of the Muslim community (we find in Q. 37:36 that Muḥammad was once derisively called a “mad poet”), poets were eventually employed by caliphal courts from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries in Damascus, Baghdad, and Córdoba. During this period, poetry moved from an oral to a written form, eventually developing its own scholarly conventions that became associated with its more classical styles. The most prolific form was the ode (qaṣīda) which, in its two-hemistich monorhyming pattern, was used in praising love, elegizing the dead (especially the fallen in battle), and singing of the rapturous enjoyments of God and wine.

Noting that it is this classical and highly stylized poetry which members of IS, al-Qaeda, and other related movements write and perform, Creswell and Haykel then proceed to offer a number of observations about its form and thematic content. In formal terms, we find that by employing the classical ode with its particular conventions of rhyme and meter, these poets lay claim to a cultural authority that provides a certain status within their communities and connects them with an imagined and romanticized past. For instance, Ahlam al-Nasr, known as “the Poetess of the Islamic State,” has exhibited her dexterity with meter and form in a number of poetry collections with themes ranging from descrying the atrocities of the Assad regime to praising Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of IS. One poem written as a paean to IS appears as an acrostic of “Daesh,” a derogatory Arabic name given to the organization which she subversively appropriates. And while one’s adroitness with meter and form might display a certain aesthetic symmetry on the page, the more important measure of virtuosity lies in the poet’s public performance. Noting that “[v]ideos of jihadis reciting poems or tossing back and forth the refrain of a song are as easy to find as videos of them blowing up enemy tanks,” Creswell and Haykel speak of poetry as a “social art” characterized by public displays of technique and bravado. Such performances not only establish a certain “street cred” for these poets, their hip-hop resonances also serve as effective tools for recruiting younger audiences.

These poets lay claim to a cultural authority that provides a certain status within their communities and connects them with an imagined and romanticized past.

Beyond attention to the stylized forms that characterize IS’s use of poetry, Creswell and Haykel discuss a number of subjects addressed in “jihadi poetry” which include opposition to the nation-state, the nobility of martyrdom, and the duty of jihād itself. For many in the Arab world, perceptions of the nation-state have been mediated through the experience of European colonialism followed by secularist authoritarian regimes in countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, and of course, Syria. Moreover, the nation-state borders which define much of the Middle East were secretly and arbitrarily established by Britain and France in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. Gestures of defiance to this political order have been made, not only with the burning of passports seen in so many online videos, but in the works of poets like al-Nasr who declare, “My homeland is the land of truth/the sons of Islam are my brothers…” For members of IS and al-Qaeda, resistance to these despotic regimes and their Western supporters as well as to the “Zionist threat” posed by Israel often requires martyrdom in the form of suicide bombing or death on the battlefield. As a result, the most popular genre of “jihadi poetry” is the elegy. Osama bin Laden, someone who possessed a love of and gift for poetry, wrote just such an elegy for the 9/11 hijackers: “Embracing death, the knights of glory found their rest./They gripped the towers with hands of rage and ripped through them like a torrent.”
But as Crewell and Haykel point out, perhaps the most popular topic of “jihadi poets” is the duty of jihād itself. For these poets, this “just war” tradition within Islam has been either neglected or denuded of its true content, thus leading to the decline of “Islamic civilization.” Muslim scholars in Arab states and elsewhere have long criticized the views of jihād held by IS, al-Qaeda, and likeminded movements in terms of authority, just cause, and noncombatant immunity (for more on this topic, see the work of John Kelsay and Asma Afsaruddin). Opposing such scholars who they view as corrupt and weak, these movements assert that in light of the injustice and oppression which afflicts Muslims worldwide, the performance of jihād “is central to the Muslim identity—an ethical obligation and a political necessity.” Part and parcel of placing this duty at the center of Muslim life is the attempt to construct a romantic, and at times utopian, vision of jihād. One sees this in poems which include such lines as, “Wake us to the song of swords/And when the cavalcade sets off, say farewell” and “The knights’ pride stirs at the sound,/while humiliation lashes our foes.” This is perhaps the most crucial point made by Creswell and Haykel about “jihadi poetry.” Much of the aura and intrigue surrounding IS stems from its elaborate efforts to create and sustain a culture of jihād which, they write, “promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant.” This is accomplished not only through the use of poetry but also in propaganda videos which feature banner and sword-wielding militants on horseback as well as in publicity campaigns from IS celebrities like al-Nasr who write that in Raqqa, Syria, the de-facto capital of the caliphate which IS claims to be, “there are many things we’ve never experienced except in our history books.”

Their hip-hop resonances also serve as effective tools for recruiting younger audiences.

It seems to me that the above observations offer far more insight into IS, al-Qaeda, and other related movements than debates over their “authenticity” as Muslims. Often such debates focus on the legitimacy of the textual interpretations they offer to justify their actions, and while such analysis provides an important glimpse into the conceptions of reason, revelation, and authority undergirding such interpretations, it threatens to reduce religious tradition to that which is done with texts. Beyond such analysis, a focus on the poetry of IS enables us to see that their project involves the creation of an ethos and character, or to use a more Islamic term, an ādab (way of comporting oneself). This is evident in the focus not only on the themes of justice, courage, solidarity, and martyrdom, but in the performative aspects of their poetry as well. As mentioned above, poetry in the Arab world is a social phenomenon, and as such, it fosters a sense of comradery and community amongst those observing and participating in its performance. Considered in this manner, poetry can be viewed as a shared speech act that cultivates a certain character and set of virtues which are valued by these movements and essential to their success.

The conviction that one belongs to a community set apart by its virtues manifests itself in the way groups like IS and al-Qaeda view themselves as the vanguard of “authentic” Islam, or as Creswell and Haykel note, “the strangers” (al-ghurabaʾ).  The origins of this trope lie in the prophetic Sunna (records of the sayings and doings of Muḥammad) which says, “Islam began as a stranger, and it shall return as it began, as a stranger. Blessed are the strangers.” For those who feel that they are pilgrims in their own societies which are filled with corrupt Muslim beliefs and practices, embracing the status of “stranger” that accompanies membership in the vanguard both empowers and comforts; however, it also creates conditions more conducive to the adoption of intolerant and exclusionist theological positions.

In joining this elite, one assumes the responsibility of taking part in the rituals and social practices required to cultivate the kind of character deemed virtuous by groups like IS and al-Qaeda. The processes and theories of ethical formation undergirding the practices of these groups as well as wider Islamic revival movements have been documented and discussed by scholars such as Saba Mahmood, Charles Hirschkind, and Flagg Miller. These scholars, whose work focuses on poetry, cassette tape sermons, and daʿwa (calling others (back) to Islam), adopt a methodological posture informed by ethnography, linguistics, and the critical theory found in religious studies more generally. They do so because they recognize that understanding “jihadi” and Islamist movements requires attention not only to the patterns of reasoning that characterize their interpretations of the Qurʾān, Sunna, and Islamic law, but also to the processes of habituation and social practices that contribute to the ethical formation of movement members as religious subjects. In Creswell and Haykel’s article on “jihadi poetry,” we are given a number of insights into how these processes function in groups like IS and al-Qaeda, and as a result we gain a much clearer understanding of what drives of them. It seems that with the methodological tools they have at their disposal, Islamic studies and religious studies scholars are just as suited to produce such work which provides a more capacious conception of religious tradition and avoids getting stuck in the rhetoric of authenticity.


Photo by Kate Gardiner via Flickr

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