Poetry in the Arab world and its use by Jihadist groups

Elsabeth Kendall speaks about Jihadist Poetry on ANN TV

Poetry, is a deep-rooted element of the life of the Arabs, right back from the pre-Islamic age to nowadays. However Classical poetry has become a secret weapon, and Jihadist groups, such as ISIS or Al Qaida, are using it to spread their ideologies.

Poetry in the pre-Islamic time

The use of Arabic poetry by today’s jihadists comes at the end of a long tradition of poetry employed as a cultural tool to win social and political capital, dating right back to pre-Islamic times. Poetry has always been at the heart of Arab world, and at that time poetry was the equivalent of our social media today. Through poetry, the Arabs expressed their feelings, love, sorrow, they praised or mocked people with poetry.

In fact, one verse of poetry could raise the status of a whole tribe or, by contrast, humiliate it. By way of example, there was a tribe call Banu Anf al Naqa (which literally translates as the sons of the Camel’s nose). A group of Brothers shared a camel, they all took a part of it, and left the nose to the last one. The one who took the nose became known as the Camel’s nose. Later he would have his own tribe and they became known as the Banu Anf al Naqa. If you asked one of them, which tribe are came from? they were reluctant to say Banu Anf al Naqa. Until a poet said:

 ومن يسوي بأنف الناقة الذنبا  قوم هم الأنف والأذناب غيرهم

Literally, this means: They are the nose, and the tails are the others, and could the tail equal the nose? The poet wanted to say that all parts of a body are behind the nose, a metaphor to say that this tribe, Banu Anf al Naqa are the first, up in front. This verse spread through all the Arabic lands, and Banu Anf al Naqa started to take pride in of their tribe, and this just because of a couple of words.

Arabs even used to have a souk dedicated to poetry, where poets came to “broadcast their new lyrics”. The most talented would get a purse, and would see his poem spreading out in all the Arabic lands.

Another example which illustrates the centrality of poetry in pre-Islamic times is the seven mou’alaqat (المعلقات السبع which literally means something that is hung). This is one of the most famous Arabic collections of poetry. It consists of seven poems, written by the seven most famous poets at that time. It is said that we call them mou’alaqat because they were written in gold and hung on the Kaaba itself. Another version said that when you hear it, it will be hung on your heart.

The Age of Islam

During the age of Islam poetry keeps its essential place, probably moreso than before. The prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him), himself used poetry. Even though he did not write poetry, he had his own poets. He knew how poetry could be used as a strategic weapon. A Hadith clearly states that the prophet (peace be upon him) said: “poetry is more effective on the Quraish than showering arrows on them.”

To discredit his message, Mohamed (peace be upon him) was accused of being a poet several times in the Quran. Nonetheless, he never wrote poetry as we said, for the simple reason, that he feared that people could confuse his message, revealed by God, with his poetry.

Indeed, as in poetry, we find in Quran rhythm, rhymes, alliterations, and so on, which is appreciated by Arabic literature. However, a verse in Quran, cut all ambiguities and says: And We have not taught him poetry, nor is it meet for him ; it is nothing but a reminder and plain Quran (chapter 36, verse 69)

In addition to its political functions, poetry was used in many ways. Firstly, it spread the new message of Islam. Secondly by using poetry, Muslim scholars were able to explain the Quran and hadiths, the two sources of Islam, especially to prove the meaning of some words. Then, poetry has been instrumental in the development of the Arabic language, with its formal grammar.

We also record Islamic sciences, such as jurisprudence, hadith, grammar and history, in poetry, to memorize it. Obviously, with its prose, rhythm and rhyme it is more easy to memorize than a simple text.

Today, classical poetry is still relevant in the Arab world and we can see it in everyday life. When you go to the mosque the imams often use poetry to convey their messages, on the TV (we have a TV show, the equivalent of the Britain’s got talent, where the audience votes for the best poet), or in political debates.

Poetry is not merely a hobby for rich, well educated people; in Arab culture poetry is accessible to all, everyone knows poetry in Arab society.

What is classical Arabic poetry?

In the 7th century a man called, al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad al-Farāhīdī, would completely change the Arabic literacy. It is said that when he performed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, he prayed God to give him a knowledge no one else has had before him. He studied all the pre-Islamic poetry, and codified what we called ʻarud (العروض. What we can translate by meter), an established pattern for a verse. Al-Khalīl discovered 15 metres of Arab poetry.

One of them called al rajz, is quite easy, presented under this shape (each verse is made up of units of two lines printed side by side with a space between them as we can see below):

مستفعلن مستفعلن مستفعلن مستفعلن مستفعلن مستفعلن

This is the easiest way to write a poem, we call it the donkey of poets (حمار الشعراء, because for an Arabian it is as easy to write a poem with this bahr as riding a donkey).

Jihadist Poetry

ISIS, and Al Qaida before, seems to take advantages of this tool. The question is why did they use poetry, and how?

By its unique style, poetry has the ability to stay in the collective memories, it does not need computers, or mobile phones. Poetry provides the means to get an easy, inexpensive and powerful propagation of ideas through oral transmission.

Besides this practical function, Jihadist poetry “plays a major role in helping to produce a jihadist identity” says Dr. Elizabeth Kendall Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies, who works on the connections between militant jihadist/political movements and cultural production in Arabic. Poetry helps to create this identity, for example, by referencing heroic figures from Islamic history, employing well-known tropes (such as referring to jihadists as lions and warriors).

Poetry allows some to legitimise acts of terror and strengthens the jihadist identity by constructing a coherent ‘enemy’. Poetry helps you to know who you are fighting, and simplifies a complex political landscape in something easy to understand for a child. America did this too, when George Bush talked about a “War on Terror”.

Poetry can also present an alternative reality. Poetry has this amazing power to paint for you something that we cannot put in a video, employing hyperbole when mentioning contemporary jihadist acts, eulogizing martyrs or mythologizing their virtues.

This provides a powerful emotional means of reassuring current and future recruits by confirming the worth of recent martyrs, praising their virile qualities and celebrating their achievements at the same time as mourning their loss.

The kind of poetry used

Sada el malahim (صدى الملاحم), a Jihadist journals, that we can find online, contain an excessive amount of poetry. Dr Kendall, said that when it comes to Jihadist propoganda “on average one page in five contains poetry”. However, poetry is missed out by Western authorities went it comes to examining translated texts from those journals, whereas it is in poetry, as we saw above, that a lot of messages are being conveyed.

A good part of it comes from the pre-Islamic time, so called el Jahilya, the Age of Ignorance, which is quite surprising. How can an extremist jihadist group use poetry from Arabian polytheist poets? Dr Kendall has two interpretations: either they do not know their poetry well, or it does not matter for them.

I would say that at that time almost all of the poetry was about tribal war, bravery, courage and heroism in battle. The Jihadists are using this part of the pre-Islamic age, and they re-set it in a modern context to justify and beautify their actions.  However, besides its narrations of grand battles, pre-Islamic poetry is well known for its amorous encounters.

The best example is ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad al-‘Absi, he was a pre-Islamic Arabian hero and poet (525-608) famous both for his adventurous life and his romance with Abla, Antara’ a cousin with whom he fell in love, and sought to marry. Antara’ poetry gathers together the two strands, adventure and love. One example which illustrates that, is a verse of a poetry when he said that when he is fighting in a battle and he sees the blood spurting into the air, and that reminds him ‘Abla’s lips. ISIS would probably pass this part.

Jihadist write as well their own poetry, which is as we said above not too difficult for a good Arabic speaker. Oussama Ben Laden, or Ayman al-zawahiri for example wrote their own poetry.

Who is targeted?

This kind of poetry targets local communities in the Middle East, because poetry belongs to their culture, and they might be more easily manipulated than an occidental audience.

Poetry attracts local intention, because it sticks to tradition, and probably, because it is less boring than long ideological treatises that tell of plans and aims, treatises that the authorities are often more focused on.

Through poetry you can go back to traditional values. Especially in the desert, where there is no internet, or smart phones, you can spread your ideology by the word of mouth and poetry is an excellent way to do it.

Poetry is more important for people living in the desert. According to a survey made by Dr Kendall in eastern Yemen, ’74% of the respondent said that poetry is either important or very important in their daily life’.  And this is not new, in fact traditional poetry had emerged from Bedouin life. People living in deserts, (we called them a’rab in arabic اعراب) have always been the most interested in poetry. In parallel, it is in deserts where Al Qaida has a strong hold, as in Yemen. And the desert is not unique to Yemen, we have desert in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Sinai, all places where either ISIS or Al Qaida are present.

Through a blend of techniques: powerful images, historical allusions, linguistic beauty, rhyme or rhythm, classical poetry has the ability to move Arab listeners and readers emotionally. Poetry creates an aura of tradition, authenticity and legitimacy. This ability appears as a perfect weapon for militant jihadist causes.

Therefore, it seems surprising that counter-terrorism efforts have not yet made full use of poetry as a vehicle for counter-propaganda.

I will finish by these few verses, written by myself:

بل  أرواحا  يقاتل جهلا يحسب  أنّه  يحسن  صنعا
فلا حمز بلغت ولا بلالا فما أنت وهؤلاء الفضلاء
فالدين  سلام  لا  قتالا فما  كَلامك   إلّا   كِلام


He thinks that he is accomplishing good deeds, but he is just killing blindly.

Who are you compared to the virtuous, you will never reach Hamza or Bilal.

Your speech is nothing else but wounds, whereas religion is peace, not murder.

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