To tackle Islamic State, we need to understand the dream of the caliphate and its real roots in historyby Jason Burke / August 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
In March, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a former stonemason who is the chief spokesman for Islamic State (IS), issued an audio clip to acknowledge a pledge of allegiance from the Nigerian group Boko Haram. This expansion into a part of the world in which it had previously had no presence was something of a coup for his organisation. However, al-Adnani addressed only a few brief sentences to welcoming the west African “brother mujahideen,” devoting most of the 30-minute statement to a lengthy tirade against the Jews, the Crusaders and the “filthy” Shia.
Among the threats he addressed to IS’s various enemies was the following: “We will surely bring back Badr and Uhud… Mutah and Hunayn… Qadisiyyah and Yarmuk. We will surely bring back Yamamah, Hattin and Ayn Jalut. We will bring back Jalawla, Zallaqah and Balat ash-Shahada… I swear, I swear, Nahawand will return.”
To most western observers, this sounds like nonsense, or at the least the sort of invocation of esoteric religious figures, events or concepts by Muslim extremists that has become wearily familiar over recent decades. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss these lines. Though they refer to events which mostly took place hundreds of years ago, they allow a crucial insight into the thinking and world view of IS, as well as many other Islamic militants active today.
The names cited by al-Adnani are all battles. The earliest—Badr, Uhud, Muta and Hunayn—took place during the last decade of the life of the Prophet Mohammed. The Battle of Yamama was fought in the Arabian Peninsula during the “Apostate Wars” which followed the death of the Prophet in 632. Yarmuk, a major battle between the Byzantine Empire and Muslim Arab forces, took place in 636.
The battles of Jalula, Nahawand and Qadisiya were all roughly contemporaneous victories over the forces of the Sassanid Persian empire; Balat al-Shuhada refers to the Battle of Poitiers in 732 where the Frankish forces repulsed a strong Muslim raiding force. The battle of Sagrajas, known too as Zallaqa, was fought between a local Muslim dynasty’s army against Christian forces in present-day Andalusia in 1086. Hattin took place just over a century later and saw forces under Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known in the west as Saladin, destroy a Crusader army.
“If yesterday our forefathers fought the Romans, the Persians and the apostates altogether, on various separate fronts, then we take pride in fighting them today on one front and gathered under one leadership,” al-Adnani told listeners.