By Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel
June 8, 2015
On October 11, 2014, according to Islamic State-affiliated Twitter accounts a woman going by the name Ahlam al-Nasr was married in the courthouse of Raqqa, Syria, to Abu Usama al-Gharib, a Vienna-born Jihadi close to the movement’s leadership. ISIS social media rarely make marriage announcements, but al-Nasr and al-Gharib are a Jihadi power couple. Al-Gharib is a veteran propagandist, initially for Al Qaeda and now for ISIS. His bride is a burgeoning literary celebrity, better known as “the Poetess of the Islamic State.” Her first book of verse, “The Blaze of Truth,” was published online last summer and quickly circulated among militant networks. Sung recitations of her work, performed a cappella, in accordance with ISIS’s prohibition on instrumental music, are easy to find on YouTube. “The Blaze of Truth” consists of a hundred and seven poems in Arabic—elegies to Mujahideen, laments for prisoners, victory odes, and short poems that were originally tweets. Almost all the poems are written in mono-rhyme—one rhyme for what is sometimes many dozens of lines of verse—and classical Arabic metres.
Little is known about Ahlam al-Nasr, but it seems that she comes from Damascus and is now in her early twenties. Her mother, a former law professor, has written that al-Nasr “was born with a dictionary in her mouth.” She began writing poems in her teens, often in support of Palestine. When, in the spring of 2011, protests in Syria broke out against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, al-Nasr took the side of the demonstrators. Several poems suggest that she witnessed the regime’s crackdown at first hand and may have been radicalized by what she saw:
Their bullets shattered our brains like an
even strong bones cracked then broke.
They drilled our throats and scattered
it was like an anatomy lesson!
They hosed the streets as blood still
like streams crashing down from the
Al-Nasr fled to one of the Gulf states but returned to Syria last year, arriving in Raqqa, the de-facto capital of ISIS, in early fall. She soon became a kind of court poet, and an official propagandist for the Islamic State. She has written poems in praise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of ISIS, and, in February, she wrote a thirty-page essay defending the leadership’s decision to burn the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh alive. In a written account of her emigration, al-Nasr describes the caliphate as an Islamist paradise, a state whose rulers are uncorrupted and whose subjects behave according to pious norms. “In the caliphate, I saw women wearing the veil, everyone treating each other with virtue, and people closing up their shops at prayer times,” she writes. The movement’s victories in Mosul and western Iraq were fresh in the militants’ memory. In the city streets, “children played with sticks, pretending these were weapons they would use to fight heretics and unbelievers.” Al-Nasr celebrated ISIS’s military triumphs as a new dawn for Iraq:
Ask Mosul, city of Islam, about the
how their fierce struggle brought
The land of glory has shed its humiliation
and put on the raiment of splendour.
ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist movements produce a huge amount of verse. The vast majority of it circulates online, in a clandestine network of social-media accounts, mirror sites, and proxies, which appear and disappear with bewildering speed, thanks to surveillance and hacking. On militant Web sites, poetry-discussion forums feature couplets on current events, competitions among duelling poets, who try to outdo one another in virtuosic feats, and downloadable collections with scholarly accoutrements. (“The Blaze of Truth” includes footnotes that explain tricky syntax and unusual rhyme schemes.)
A look at the poems written and performed by Jihadi militants fighting for ISIS.VIDEO: A look at the poems written and performed by Jihadi militants fighting for ISIS.
Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colourful 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. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.
“Al-Shi‘R Diwan Al-‘Arab,” runs an ancient maxim: “Poetry is the record of the Arabs”—an archive of historical experience and the epitome of their literature. The authority of verse has no rival in Arabic culture. The earliest poems were composed by desert nomads in the centuries before the revelation of the Koran. The poems are in mono-rhyme and one of sixteen canonical metres, making them easy to memorize. The poets were tribal spokesmen, celebrating the virtues of their kin, cursing their enemies, recalling lost loves, and lamenting the dead, especially those killed in battle. The Koran has harsh words for these pre-Islamic troubadours. “Only those who have strayed follow the poets,” the Surah of the Poets reads. “Do you not see that they wander lost in every valley, and say what they do not do?” But the poets could not be written off so easily, and Muhammad often found it useful to co-opt them. A number of tribal poets converted and became his companions, praising him in life and elegizing him after his death.
Arabic culture of the classical period—roughly, the eighth to the thirteenth century—was centred in the caliphal courts of Damascus, Baghdad, and Córdoba. Although most poets now lived far from the pasture grounds of the tribal bards, and written texts had replaced oral compositions, the basic features of the art lived on. Poetic metres were essentially unchanged. The key genres—poems of praise and blame and elegies for the dead—were maintained, and new modes grew out of the old material. In the urbane atmospheres of the courts, the wine song, which had been a minor element in the old poetry, became a full-fledged genre.
Contemporary poets writing in Arabic both read and translate a wide range of verse from abroad, and for many of them free verse and prose poetry are the norm. But, though the old models have lost some of their force, there is still a remarkable continuity of poetic expression. For educated Arabic speakers, the language of the classical period is relatively easy to enjoy. The humblest bookseller in Cairo or Damascus will stock editions of medieval verse, and pre-Islamic poems are assigned to high-school students.
Furthermore, the old poetry is alive and well in the popular sphere. Among the most successful television programs in the Middle East is “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon” (“Millionaire Poet,” but also “Poet of the People”), which is modelled on “American Idol.” Every season, amateurs from across the Arab world recite their own verse in front of a large and appreciative studio audience in Abu Dhabi. Winners of the competition receive up to 1.3 million dollars—more than the Nobel Prize in Literature, as the show’s boosters are fond of pointing out. Last year, the program had seventy million viewers worldwide. The poems recited on “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon” are highly conventional in form and content. They evoke the beauties of the beloved and of the homeland, praise the generosity of local leaders, or lament social ills. According to the rules of the show, they must be metered and rhymed, and the judges’ comments often zero in on contestants’ technique. The show has produced a number of literary celebrities. In 2010, a Saudi woman named Hissa Hilal became an audience favourite after reciting a poem criticizing hard-line Saudi clerics. During the Arab Spring, an Egyptian man, Hisham Algakh, appeared on a spinoff show reciting several poems in support of the demonstrators at Tahrir. He became a media star, and soon his poems were being recited in the square itself.
The views expressed in Jihadi poetry are, of course, more bloodthirsty than anything on “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon”: Shiites, Jews, Western powers, and rival factions are relentlessly vilified and threatened with destruction. Yet it is recognizably a subset of this popular art form. It is sentimental—even, at times, a little kitsch—and it is communal rather than solitary. Videos of groups 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. Poetry is understood as a social art rather than as a specialized profession, and practitioners take pleasure in showing off their technique.
It may seem curious that some of the most wanted men in the world should take the time to fashion poems in classical metres and mono-rhyme—far easier to do in Arabic than in English, but something that still requires practice. And these are only the most obvious signs of the Jihadis’ dedication to form. The poems are full of allusions, recherché terms, and baroque devices. Acrostics, in which the first letters of successive lines spell out names or phrases, are especially popular. One of al-Nasr’s poems, a declaration of her commitment to ISIS, is based on the group’s acronym, Daesh. (“Daesh” is generally a derogatory label, and al-Nasr’s embrace of it is a gesture of defiance.) The militants’ evident delight in their virtuosity turns their poems into performances. The poets are making sure that we know they are poets—laying claim to the special authority that comes with poetry’s status in Arabic culture. Yet behind the swagger there are powerful anxieties: all jihadis have elected to set themselves apart from the wider society, including their families and their religious communities. This is often a difficult choice, with lasting consequences. By casting themselves as poets, as cultural actors with deep roots in the Arab Islamic tradition, the militants are attempting to assuage their fears of not really belonging.
The raid, in May, 2011, on the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan in which Osama bin Laden was killed also uncovered a trove of correspondence. In one letter, written on August 6, 2010, bin Laden asks a key lieutenant to recommend someone to lead “a big operation inside America.” In the very next sentence, he requests that “if there are any brothers with you who know about poetic metres, please inform me, and if you have any books on the science of classical prosody, please send them to me.”
Of all Jihadi poets, bin Laden was the most celebrated, and he prided himself on his knowledge of the art. The name of his first camp in Afghanistan, al-Ma’sada (“The Lion’s Lair”), was inspired by a line of Ka‘b bin Malik, one of the pagan tribal poets who converted and became a companion of the Prophet. A large part of bin Laden’s charisma as a leader was his mastery of classical eloquence.
One of bin Laden’s most emblematic poems was written in the late nineties, sometime after his return to Afghanistan, in 1996. It is a two-part poem, forty-four lines long: the first half is in the voice of bin Laden’s young son Hamza; the second half is the father’s reply. Many Jihadi poems use the conceit of a child speaker; it provides them with a figure of innocence and truthfulness. Hamza begins by asking his father why their life is full of hardship and why they can never stay in one place. The rhetoric and the mood of this opening section are borrowed from a pre-Islamic genre called the Rahil, in which the poet evokes the difficulty of his journey, complains of solitude and danger, and compares his lot to that of a series of desert animals:
Father, I have travelled a long time among
deserts and cities.
It has been a long journey, Father,
among valleys and mountains,
So long that I have forgotten my tribe, my
cousins, even humankind.
Hamza goes on to recall the odyssey of bin Laden and his family: their exile from Saudi Arabia, their stay in Sudan and their subsequent expulsion, and, finally, their arrival in Afghanistan, “where men are the bravest of the brave.” Even here, though, the militants find no peace, for America “sends a storm of missiles like rain” (a reference to the cruise-missile strikes of Operation Infinite Reach, in 1998). Hamza ends with a request for fatherly wisdom.
Bin Laden’s response uses the same metre and rhyme as the lines given to his son, lending the poem not only an air of formality but also one of intimacy. Bin Laden tells Hamza not to expect their life to get any easier: “I’m sorry, my son, I see nothing ahead but a hard, steep path, / Years of migration and travel.” He reminds Hamza that they live in a world where the suffering of innocents, particularly Muslim innocents, is ignored and “children are slaughtered like cattle.” Yet Muslims themselves seem inured to their humiliation, “a people struck by stupor.” The harshest lines are directed at the impotence of Arab regimes. “Zionists kill our brothers and the Arabs hold a conference,” bin Laden jeers. “Why do they send no troops to protect the little ones from harm?”
Bin Laden is acknowledging Hamza’s complaint, but also explaining to him that hardship and exile are necessary. This is not only because injustice is everywhere but, more significant, because adversity is the sign of election. A core belief of most Jihadi movements is that they form the last nucleus of authentic Muslims, a vanguard referred to in the tradition as al-Ghuraba’—“the strangers.” This is also the name of an ISIS media outlet and the title of a popular Jihadi anthem. The trope has its source in a Hadith that is especially important for militants: “Islam began as a stranger, and it shall return as it began, as a stranger. Blessed are the strangers.” Islam began as a stranger in the sense that Muhammad’s first followers in Mecca were persecuted by the town’s unbelievers, a period of hardship that led, eventually, to the flight to Medina. For Jihadis, their exile in foreign lands is evidence that they are the strangers of prophecy. In fact, Jihadis consider themselves to be in exile even when living in nominally Muslim states, and their exclusion from mainstream believers serves only to vindicate their sense of righteousness.
The structure of bin Laden’s poem makes the work into a drama of inheritance. Bin Laden is bequeathing a political duty and an ethical disposition. The handing down of cultural precepts across the generations is a constant anxiety for Jihadis. The militants are surrounded by enemies—Arab states, rival Islamists, remote Western powers—and are on the run. Hamza asks, “Where can we escape to, Father, and when will we stay in one place?” The fact that so much of Jihadi culture is online, rather than embodied in material things, adds to the difficulty of maintaining the continuity of tradition. As a result, Jihadis, like many other diasporic communities, are obsessed with recording their achievements for posterity. The infrastructure of their online archives—such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s “Minbar al-Tawheed wal-Jihad,” a repository of religious opinions, manifestos, and poetry—is remarkably sophisticated. It is no accident that the elegy is the most common genre in the poetry of jihad: poems for fallen warriors (including suicide bombers) are a way of both memorializing significant events and giving the militants a common calendar. For the Jihadis, acts of martyrdom are the building blocks of communal history. Bin Laden himself recited an elegy for the nineteen hijackers of 9/11: “Embracing death, the knights of glory found their rest. / They gripped the towers with hands of rage and ripped through them like a torrent.”
At the center of jihadist politics is a rejection of the nation-state. The map of much of the modern Middle East, established by Britain and France at the end of the First World War, is an enduring source of bitterness. One of ISIS’s most striking videos shows Jihadis destroying the border crossing between Iraq and Syria, a line established by the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, in 1916. Other videos feature the burning of passports and national I.D.s. The “holy warriors” find a home only in failed states such as Afghanistan—or, now, eastern Syria—so the poetry of jihad promulgates a new political geography. This geography rejects the boundaries set by foreign powers and is, instead, organized around sites of militancy and Muslim suffering. A poem of Ahlam al-Nasr draws this map in a way that combines the politics of jihad with a visionary cosmopolitanism:
My homeland is the land of truth,
the sons of Islam are my brothers. . . .
I do not love the Arab of the South
any more than the Arab of the North.
My brother in India, you are my brother,
as are you, my brothers in the Balkans,
In Ahwaz and Aqsa,
in Arabia and Chechnya.
If Palestine cries out,
or if Afghanistan calls out,
If Kosovo is wronged,
or Assam or Pattani is wronged,
My heart stretches out to them,
longing to help those in need.
There is no difference among them,
this is the teaching of Islam.
We are all one body,
this is our happy creed. . . .
We differ by language and color,
but we share the very same vein.
Ahwaz is the Arabic name for a province in southern Iran where Sunni Arabs have long complained of persecution. Pattani is a Muslim-majority province in Thailand, where a Malay insurgency dating back to the nineteen-sixties has become increasingly Islamist. Al-Nasr’s empathy for Muslims in far-flung places is a central feature of her literary persona. Among the dozens of elegies in “The Blaze of Truth,” one is for a prominent Chechen jihadist and another for a Kuwaiti philanthropist. These moments of internationalist ecstasy are common in Jihadi verse. The poets delight in crossing in their imaginations borders that are impassable in reality.
The Caliphate of ISIS, as yet recognized by no other country, is a fantasy world of fluctuating borders where anything can happen, including the recapture of past glories. In March, 2014, the kingdom of Bahrain declared that all subjects fighting in Syria had two weeks to return home or be stripped of their citizenship. Turki al-Bin‘ali, a prominent ISIS ideologue and a former Bahraini subject, responded with “A Denunciation of Nationality,” a short poem that thumbs its nose at the royals and ridicules the very idea of the nation-state. “Tell them we put their nationality under our heel, just like their royal decrees,” he writes. For the jihadis, new frontiers beckon: “Do you really think we would return, when we are here in Syria, land of epic battles and the outposts of war?”
The “outposts” of al-Bin‘ali’s verse (ribat, in Arabic) were garrisons on the frontier between medieval Islamic states and their neighbours—Catholic Spain or Orthodox Byzantium. There are no actual ribat anymore, however. The term is an archaic flourish—like using mono-rhyme and classical metres. Jihadi culture is premised on such anachronisms. Propaganda videos show the militants on horseback with their swords in the air, flying banners, inscribed with calligraphy, modelled on those of the earliest Muslim conquerors. Jihadi poetry indulges in similar fantasies. Muhammad al-Zuhayri, a Jordanian engineer whose Web alias is “the Poet of Al Qaeda,” captures this martial mood in a poem dedicated to Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, the first head of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The lines are addressed to an unnamed woman:
Wake us to the song of swords,
and when the cavalcade sets off, say
The horses’ neighing fills the desert,
arousing our souls and spurring them
The knights’ pride stirs at the sound,
while humiliation lashes our foes.
The culture of jihad is a culture of romance. It promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant. Having renounced their nationalities, the militants must invent an identity of their own. They are eager to convince themselves that this identity is not really new but extremely old. The knights of jihad style themselves as the only true Muslims, and, while they may be tilting at windmills, the romance seems to be working. ISIS recruits do not imagine they are emigrating to a dusty borderland between two disintegrating states but to a caliphate with more than a millennium of history.
Anyone who reads much Jihadi poetry soon sees that it contains a great deal of theology. Religious doctrine is the essential glue of the culture, and many Jihadi theologians have written poems. Just as the poets think of themselves as resurrecting an authentic poetic heritage, so the theologians believe that they are uncovering and resuscitating the true tenets of their faith. As theologians, Jihadis are largely self-taught. They read the canonical texts (all of which are easy to find online) and are reluctant to accept the interpretations of mainstream clerics, whom they accuse of hiding the truth out of deference to political despots. The Jihadis are literalists, and they promise to sweep away centuries of scholasticism and put believers in touch with the actual teachings of their religion. The elements of this scenario closely resemble those of the Protestant Reformation: mass literacy, the democratization of clerical authority, and methodological literalism. Under these circumstances, anyone might nail his theses to a mosque door.
Among the principles that militants are trying to reclaim from the clerics is the principle of jihad itself. Armed struggle has long been recognized by the Islamic tradition, but it was rarely put at the core of what it means to be a Muslim: by the twentieth century, many jurists considered it little more than a relic. For the Jihadis, this attitude is treasonous and has led to the Islamic world’s decline. They believe that waging jihad is central to Muslim identity—an ethical obligation and a political necessity. Some of the most compelling expressions of this view are poems.
One of these is ‘Isa Sa‘d Al ‘Awshan’s “Epistle to the Scolders.” The poem was published in 2004, in “The Anthology of Glory,” a collection of poems by Saudi militants who were attempting to bring international jihad to the Kingdom, attacking local Western targets and oil compounds. The regime eventually snuffed out this offensive. (Surviving members of the group fled to Yemen, where they resurfaced as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.) ‘Awshan, a jihadi propagandist and magazine editor, appeared on a list of the Kingdom’s most wanted men and was killed during a shoot-out in Riyadh.
“I see myself rising through the ranks of the organization until midlife, when I will most likely hit a wall and go screaming through the door.”
‘Awshan prefaces his “Epistle” with a note claiming that, after the publication of the most-wanted list, “some of my brothers and friends scolded me, wishing that I had not gone down this road—the road of jihad and struggle against unbelievers—since it is full of difficulties.” The scolder is another figure from the old poetry. In pre-Islamic lyrics, while the speaker typically styles himself as a lover, a fighter, and a host of reckless generosity, the scolder is a voice of the communal superego, reminding the poet of his tribal duties. As the scholar András Hámori has written, “His job was to try to prevent the protagonist from making the heroic gesture.” In ‘Awshan’s poem, the scolders are pious Muslims who are not convinced of the legitimacy of jihad and worry that the militants are putting their communities in danger. ‘Awshan explains that he wrote his epistle “to clarify the path I have chosen and the reason for pursuing it.” The poem that follows is an apologia for jihad. It begins:
Let me make clear every obscure truth,
and remove the confusion of him who
Let me say to the world and what is
beyond it, “Listen:
I speak the truth and do not stutter.
The age of submission to the unbeliever is
he who gives us bitter cups to drink.
In this time of untruthfulness, let me say:
I do not desire money, nor a life of
But rather the forgiveness of God and His
For it is God I fear, not a gang of
You ask me about the course
I have pursued with zeal and
You ask, afraid for my sake, ‘Is this
the rightly-guided path, the good
Is this the way of the Prophet?’ ”
Jihadi poetry often features scolders, who counsel caution and implicitly give their blessing to the status quo. They speak the language of quiescent clerics and of parental authority. In another poem, a martyr addresses his mother from beyond the grave, telling her not to cry for him and not to question his judgment. “I’ve left my blood behind me, Mother,” he writes, “a trail that leads to paradise.” The scolders serve several purposes. They allow the poet to display his knowledge of literary tradition and to create the desired archaic mood. They also function as a choric background against which the poet can strike his lonely, heroic poses. And, by questioning the advisability of jihad, the scolders permit the speaker to make its virtues clear.
Publicly stating one’s creed like this is central to Jihadi ethics. When the rest of the world is against you, and your co-religionists are too timid to speak the truth, coming out as a jihadi—swearing allegiance to the Emir of Al Qaeda, say, or to the Caliph of ISIS—is a test of courage. The “Epistle” is full of verbs of exposure and declaration. After condemning the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, ‘Awshan writes:
I announced there would be no more rest
until our arrows smote the enemy.
I strapped on my machine gun with a
and pursued my course with a
I want one of two good things:
or deliverance from despotic power.
For the jihadist, poetry is a mode of manifesto, or of bearing witness. There are no prizes for subtlety. The poet’s task is to make an open and lucid defence of his faith against all doubters, at home and abroad. He must dare to name the truths that his parents and his elders try to hide. Another poem in “The Anthology of Glory” begins with a classical-sounding admonition: “Silence! Words are for heroes / and the words of heroes are deeds.” Surrounded by sceptics, the Jihadi poet fashions himself as a knight of the word, which is to say, a martyr in the making.
“Since I’m your surgeon, I’ll be right there if anything should go wrong.”
After Ahlam al-Nasr arrived in Raqqa last year, she was given a celebrity tour by ISIS. She wrote a long prose account of what she saw, addressed to her “sisters” and disseminated through ISIS media outlets. Walking through the streets of Raqqa, al-Nasr notes that the stalls are full of fresh vegetables and that men encourage one another to follow the example of the Prophet and to stop smoking. She is allowed to cook for the militants, which gives her great joy: “Everything had to be clean and wonderful. I kept repeating to myself: ‘This food will be eaten by Mujahideen, these plates will be used by Mujahideen.’ ” She is also brought to a gun shop, where she learns how to assemble and disassemble Russian- and American-made rifles. “All this happened in Syria, sisters, and in front of my eyes!” she writes.
Al-Nasr sees the caliphate as an Islamist utopia, not only because it is a place where Muslims behave as Muslims should but because it is a place of new beginnings. To most observers, Raqqa, under ISIS, is a rigidly totalitarian society, but for al-Nasr and other recruits it is a frontier where everything is in flux and negotiable—not only political boundaries but personal identities as well. Al-Nasr’s role is an unusually public one for a woman to play in jihadist movements, but ISIS has made a point of putting women on the front lines of the propaganda war. It has also created a female morality police, a shadowy group called the al-Khansa’ Brigades, who insure proper deportment in ISIS-held towns. Although media accounts of ISIS’s female recruits typically cast them as naïfs signing up for sexual slavery, it is a fact that no other Islamist militant group has been as successful in attracting women. In the most recent issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language magazine, a female writer encourages women to emigrate to “the lands of the Islamic State” even if it means travelling without a male companion, a shocking breach of traditional Islamic law. This may be a cynical ploy—a lure for runaways. But it is in keeping with the jihadists’ attack on parental authority and its emphasis on individual empowerment, including the power of female believers to renounce families they do not view as authentically Muslim.
The radical newness of ISIS society forms a strange counterpoint to the self-conscious archaism of the culture—the obsession with purity, with the buried truths of religion, and with classical literary forms. The al-Khansa’ Brigades are a notable example. Al-Khansa’ was a female poet of the pre-Islamic era who converted to Islam and became a companion of the Prophet, and her elegies for her male relations are keystones of the genre. The name therefore suggests an institution with deep roots in the past, and yet there has never been anything like the Brigades in Islamic history, nor do they have an equivalent anywhere else in the Arab world. The militants, of course, see no contradiction. They view their caliphate as a pure resurrection of the past. In her Raqqa diary, Ahlam al-Nasr describes the ISIS capital as a place of everyday miracles, a city where believers can go to be born again into the old, authentic faith. In the caliphate, she writes, “there are many things we’ve never experienced except in our history books.”