On 13 November 2015, a unit of mujahideen (“those who struggle”) from the Islamic State launched a combination of gun and suicide bomb attacks across Paris. They killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.1 Most of the mujahideen were European citizens of immigrant descent, who had communicated via the Internet and used firearms; their operation was only possible because of the tools of the modern world. But when the Islamic State released its claim for the attack, it chose to describe it as a ghazwa — or raid.2 This term has archaic echoes, harking back to the early days of Islam — and to the ghazi warriors who did so much to conquer and defend the Islamic empires of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.3 In choosing to use that term, the Islamic State was deliberately associating itself with that history. This article argues that the historical emulation of early Islam by the Islamic State means that the Islamic State has been influenced culturally, ideologically, and militarily by the example of the ghazis, among others.
The Islamic State is a Salafi-Jihadi organisation and therefore looks to early Islamic history as an example. Salafism is a theological strain in Islam which, much like the Puritans in Christianity, seeks to strip away any religious innovations (bid’ah) which have developed over time and return to the supposed theological purity of the early days of their religion. Salafists are, therefore, named after the al-salaf al-salih (pious forefathers) who comprised the first few generations of Muslims and the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Although there are other Salafi-Jihadi groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is unique in the extent to which it has attempted to recreate elements of early Islamic history or theology: these include the reintroduction of slavery,4 the destruction of shirk (idolatrous or pagan) archaeological relics,5 and the imposition of the jizya tax on non-Muslims living under their rule.6 All of these policies were announced, explained, and religiously justified in the Islamic State’s official English-language magazine Dabiq. In other words, the Islamic State is explicit in seeking to emulate what it considers to be its historical predecessors.
The ghazis are, therefore, important to the Islamic State as a model of what historical Islamic holy warriors and an Islamic polity built on warfare (a ghazi state) were like, which can be emulated as part of their stated goal to live and fight in the manner of the early Muslims.
Ghazwa has its roots in pre-Islamic Arabia where the nomadic Bedouin tribes fought wars of raid and counter-raid. This sort of low-level warfare was well suited to their tribal structure, nomadic way of life, and a culture which celebrated heroism in battles; the practice even continued into the modern world in some places.7 To be a ghazi was simply to be a raider. As an Arab, albeit originally a merchant, the Prophet Muhammad was fully acquainted with this style of warfare, and when wars broke out following his proselytisation of Islam, it was often in this manner which he fought; his very first success in his war against the Meccans was a raid by ten men on a caravan guarded by four.8 One of the earliest genres of biography recounting the events of the Prophet Muhammad’s life was even called al-maghazi (the stories of raids).9 Islam gave these raids a higher purpose and direction but did not fundamentally change the way in which these were conducted. Although most discussion of Islamic warfare deals with jihad (struggle; either an internal spiritual one or an external military one), the difference between this and ghazwa is imprecise.10 Some Islamic scholarship does make a distinction though between jihad, which is incumbent upon the whole Muslim population, and ghazwa, which is a duty which can be done by a select minority of Muslims.11 However, in practice, the two are often confused.12 Therefore, the difference between the mujahid (one who struggles) and the ghazi (one who raids) is also difficult to discern; often both terms can be applied to the same individual.
The first Islamic ghazis were, therefore, the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, who fought with him in his wars against Christians, Jews, and pagans. Following his death, they went on to fight the ridda (apostasy) wars over the leadership and beliefs of the nascent Islamic community. Before his death, the Prophet Muhammad had begun preparations for large raids against the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and Persian empires which dominated the Middle East in Late Antiquity.13 With internal threats quelled, the Muslims embarked on the futuh (opening), better known in the West as the Arab Conquests, which began with probing raids and ended with full-scale battles that culminated in the conquest of large areas of territory and the establishment of the first in a series of Islamic empires. Throughout this period, Islamic warriors moved near seamlessly from raiding to battles and sieges.
Over time, the pace of the Arab Conquests slowed, and the Muslims found themselves ruling over complex urban or settled rural civilisations with majority non-Muslim populations and which had powerful empires on their borders that wished to regain their lost territory. These long border areas shared with hostile non-Muslim powers were called the thugur.14 These borders remained in a constant state of low-level warfare, with skirmishes and raids on both sides for the ghazis to fight in. As some Muslims adapted to the cities, others moved to these borders.15 It was here that the ghazis began to emerge as a distinctive and separate group in Islamic society. They lived in small posts on the borders, which were a combination of “frontier fortress, hostel and religious retreat,”16 where they performed ribat (guard duty)17 and launched raids in search of ghanima (war booty).18 They were heavily inspired by religious ascetics, especially the Sufis,19 and sought to continue or emulate the lifestyle of the first Arabs who had followed the Prophet Muhammad and participated in the Arab Conquests. In this, they were informed by a “desire to imitate the Prophet and his companions, by re-enacting the early conquests of Islam.”20 They operated in small bands made up from warriors across the Muslim world,21 launching raids into non-Muslim territory and attempting to prevent raids by non-Muslims into Muslim territories using tactics drawn from nomadic warfare.22 Their heroism and the “ghazi spirit”23 were popularly celebrated across the contemporaneous Muslim world through stories like that of Ali bin Bakkar who was said to have killed 13 enemies after his stomach had been cut open and his entrails poured out.24 Contemporary accounts related how this battlefield heroism was combined with religious piety, so that ghazis were often referred to in terms such as, “monks by night, lions by day.”25 Stories like this helped to make the ghazis a potent cultural-religious symbol; even Harun al-Rashid, famous in the West for reigning during the period described in the Arabian Nights, would claim the title of “ghazi-caliph” in order to gain praise from the religious authorities.26 The poet Qa’dan bin ‘Amr, from the Tulunid court, expressed the rough philosophy of the ghazis of this era in his poetry: “When you pray, your prayer is not valid/Nor is your fasting acceptable when you fast/Until the blessed chief sees you defending the imam/With the points of your bloody lances.”27 This was the classic Islamic ghazi: religious warriors who waged war constantly on the borders of Islam.
As the borders changed with the arrival of newly converted tribes and the conquest of new territory, these ghazis began to gain real political power and even to establish ghazi states: powerful border polities based on holy violence. The Osmanli or Ottoman Turks are the most famous example of such a ghazi state28 although there is a great deal of controversy about the use of this description.29 As with the Arab Conquests though, their success ended up changing the structure and focus of the polity. As the Ottomans conquered more territory and expanded away from their Anatolian heartland, they began to adopt aspects of the urban civilisations they now ruled and the nomad-inspired warfare began to recede in importance compared to their centralised military. Their capture of Constantinople in 1453 A.D. essentially ended the Eastern Roman Empire which had been the primary foe of the ghazis since the early days of Islam. With that, the great age of the ghazis was over, and they were subsumed into new states. Nonetheless, the cultural influence of the ghazis remained strong.
The historical epithet sahib ghazw can be understood to mean one who is a master of the literary genre of maghazi or one who fights as a ghazi.30 This combination of culture and combat ensured the survival of the ghazi influence within Islam even though the original ghazi warriors and states had gone. This culture has its roots in the pre-Islamic ayyam al-Arab (battle days) poetry, in which the Bedouin nomads celebrated the martial heroics of their tribal raids.31 With the conversion of these tribes to Islam, a new spiritual dimension was added to these stories, which made them part of an overarching religious narrative. The events of the Arab Conquests were, therefore, retold in these stories to become part of “a series of monumental episodes that located contemporary Islam and its adherents within an overarching narrative of prophesy, revelation and salvation.”32 The Muslim historians collected these heroic stories as akhbar (short narrative segments), which were then incorporated into larger historical narratives.33 In these stories, certain topos appear regularly, like prebattle meetings in which poor but devout Muslim warriors symbolically reject highly desirable offers of material goods or friendship made by non-Muslim enemies before going on to defeat them in battle.34 These topos served both a heroic and a religious purpose: celebrating the military heroism of the ghazi and demonstrating the superiority of Islam. The stories also subverted Eastern Roman and Persian power by showing them being defeated by impoverished but pious Muslims.35
These ghazi stories were then retold, offering an example and exhortation to new generations who tried to model themselves on the combination of ascetic piety and military achievement of ghazi warriors like Mu’adh bin Jamal and the Caliph Umar.36 Perhaps because of its original roots in heroic stories of tribal raiding, a lifestyle shared with many other groups in the Middle East, the ghazi stories were able to transfer easily from Arabic into the Persian and Turkish literature whilst retaining a “high level of continuity in attitudes and practices”37 as pre-Islamic traditions mixed with new Islamic themes. An example of this is “The Book of Dede Korkut,” a collection of tribal Turkish heroic stories, which freely mixes religiously unorthodox elements like female warriors38 or the drinking of wine39 with the usual depiction of heroic Islamic border raiding.40 The longevity of this ghazi culture allowed the ghazis to be reinterpreted in different circumstances, so that Islamic warriors of the Muslim conquests in the Indian subcontinent41 and the Caucasian resistance to the imperial designs of Tsarist Russia42 could both describe themselves as ghazis even though their own wars bore little resemblance to the classic ghazis or to each other.43 This ghazi culture still continues to culturally inspire; the biggest Arabic television success of 2012 was “Omar,” a 31-episode series covering the life of the companion of the Prophet Muhammad and later Caliph Omar, with a heavy focus on his battles.44
It is not surprising, therefore, that this ghazi culture has also had a profound influence on the Islamic State in its self-identity, its tactics and also in its media releases:
And 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.45
These words were spoken in 2015 by Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the former spokesman of the Islamic State, over 500 years after the conquest of Constantinople and the end of the last remnants of the Roman Empire. Although the Ottoman Sultans adopted the title of Caesar after that conquest,46 their dynasty ended in 1924 when the Caliphate was dissolved by Ataturk. Yet, this was how the Islamic State dubbed their enemies: as Romans and Persians. Elsewhere in the same speech, he also called Western forces “Crusaders” and referred to the Iranians as “Safavids” after the medieval Persian dynasty.47 In yet another speech, directly addressing a Western audience, he says,
You will be defeated just like in Badr, al-Ahzab, and Khaybar. You will be defeated just like in al-Yamamah and al-Yarmuk. You will be defeated just like in al-Qadisiyyah and Nahawand. You will be defeated just like in Hittin and ‘Ayn Jalut. O kuffar, you will be defeated altogether. Do not forget that ar-Raqqah, al-Fallujah, and Mosul were not long ago. Nor were Tadmur and ar-Ramadi long ago.48
This long list consists of battles, ranging from those fought in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad and during the Arab Conquests to medieval battles by the great Islamic empires against the Eastern Romans and Crusaders and Mongols, to recent battles by modern day jihadists against the US-led Coalition and the Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq. It, therefore, harks back to the era of the ghazis, and like the original ghazi stories, this description of their own history reflects ideological messages.49 Per Thomas Sizgorich’s summation of Margaret Somer’s work on the role of narrative in the constitution of identities:
[I]t is frequently the case that individuals develop an understanding of their own place in the cosmos by imagining themselves as actors in an ongoing narrative, one which by its nature links the present to an earlier series of events, in relationship to one another.50
In placing the Islamic State’s current battles as part of a larger Islamic historical narrative, the Islamic State’s propagandists are laying claim to a historical-religious tradition that includes the ghazis. In doing so, they seek to legitimise and inspire themselves. As with other aspects of their Salafist theology, they seek to emulate the early Muslims to the extent that they depict their foes as also emulating or representing their historical enemies. As the official Islamic State al-Furqan media outlet stated:
Not only that, but we must move through the same adversities that he [a martyr] did in the (fight for) truth and justice, and the rest of the Ummah must bear what the first Muslims endured at the time of the conquests […] Islam has kept turning, yet it must resemble the past of our salaf ancestors. Similar incidents have emerged Subhan Allah; in its size, shape and symbols and only the colors have changed with the passage of time.51
In this telling, the battles fought today are the same as those fought hundreds of years ago; only the details have changed. This is a remarkable act of historical compression and identification.
The quote comes from a long running series of articles entitled “Biographies of the Prominent Martyrs,” which, as the title suggests, profiles killed Islamic State mujahideen. This series appears to have been superseded by another series entitled “Among the Believers Are Men,” which is published in the Islamic State’s official English-language magazine Dabiq and their new magazine Rumiyah.52 Such articles hark back to the Islamic genres of the fada’il and manaqib (virtue) literature which praised the deeds of the Caliphs and companions of the Prophet and held them up as an example to be followed. The criteria for praise then and now are essentially the same: piety and bravery.
Thus, we read of the likes of Anwar Najib al-Sha’ri (aka Abu Hassan al-San’ani), a mujahid who came to Iraq from Yemen. Originally, he had trained as an assistant dentist, but he travelled to Iraq and fought during the Second Battle of Fallujah, where he was captured. After two years in the Badush prison in Mosul, he was freed during a raid and returned to jihad, becoming a specialist with the mortar in many “battles and raids.” His good nature and desire to marry are attested to. After the death of a friend, he sought martyrdom and achieved it, alongside yet another friend, during a raid on a checkpoint.53 Throughout, the emphasis is on both his military and his religious virtues, with his involvement in several raids noted. The intent of the author is clearly to attest to the virtues of the martyr and to use him to inspire others; this is why he is a prominent martyr of the title.
That the Islamic State deliberately seeks to emphasise these heroic elements is obvious from journalistic exposes of its media operations. An interview with an imprisoned Islamic State defector in the Washington Post revealed that Islamic State media teams arranged battlefield death scenes, washing away dried blood, lifting the corner of the mouths of dead mujahideen so that they were smiling (often seen as a sign they are in Jannah or Paradise) and raising their index fingers (a gesture which testifies to tawheed or the oneness of God).54 The video “The Hollywood Reality of al-Baghdadi’s Group,” produced by an al-Qaeda-linked group, featured another Islamic State defector revealing how a propaganda video he starred in was faked; careful editing enabled them to falsify combat footage, whilst a raid on a Houthi outpost was staged with Islamic State mujahideen pretending to be dead with the help of Vimto for blood.55
That this celebration of religious-military heroism is rooted in the past can be seen from the language used in media releases. Thus, a popular, and deliberately archaic, description of Islamic State soldiers within its media is fursan (knights), leading to descriptions like, “They were ten from the best of knights, led by our knight, the Wali Hudhayfah al-Battawi” in one Islamic State article.56 Another article extols the virtues of ribat for religious and military reasons, using historical and theological examples to make its case.57 Over and over again, the Islamic State is compared to the early Muslim state and its mujahideen to the early Islamic warriors like the ghazis.58 Terrorist attacks, like the 7/7 bombings, are described as ghazwa raids.59 The video releases of the Islamic State overflow with antiquated imagery, such as “Arrows of the Night”60 and the popular six-part “Knights of Victory”61 series. Ghazwa raids are also a common theme of these videos, with four such Islamic State videos released in February 2016 alone.62
The use of Islamic historical terms is not unique to the Islamic State; the Battle for Basra between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Mahdi Army in 2008 was code-named Operation Saulat al-Fursan (Knight’s Charge) by the Iraqi Army. Saddam Hussein himself was reported to have been a member of an Iraqi youth organisation called Futuwa, which took its name from the medieval futuwwa, who were bands of quasi-chivalric warriors.63 Nonetheless, these are different because they are historical references, not part of an attempt to recreate an earlier part of Islamic history. The Islamic State’s use of historical names, its frequent reference to Islamic history and its self-justification through examples drawn from Islamic history have no comparison outside of other Salafi-Jihadi groups.
Although the Islamic State continues to use traditional Islamic cultural literary forms like poetry,64 it has been their use of videos which has had the greatest impact and which bears the closest resemblance to the ghazi stories. Like them, they are often heroic narratives dealing with a single event which combines religious and military themes. They usually follow an almost-poetic rhythm: a tease to excite the viewer, then the preparations of the mujahideen, the firing of long-distance weapons at the enemy, the combat itself, heroic actions of individual mujahideen (such as suicide bombings, martyrdoms, or getting close to the enemy), and then the conquest of the enemy, often with looting or execution of prisoners.65 Their execution videos are also as subversive as the topos of the ghazi stories were: like the topos which showed poor Muslims triumphing over powerful Romans and Persians, the execution videos show humbled Westerners at the hands of Muslims.66 In both cases, the individuals are transformed via the story into the living embodiments of their different polities; the murder of an American hostage at the hands of his Islamic State captor demonstrates the powerlessness of the United States to save him and also serves as an act of qisas (retributive justice).
These videos also show an aspect of the Islamic State which mirrors that of the ghazis. Like them, the mujahideen of the Islamic State are drawn from numerous different groups, many of whom have made hijrah (migration) to join it.67 The Islamic State offers a unity of coreligionists and a revolutionary universalising mission to conquer the world drawn from early Islam to counteract any possible friction.68
The greatest similarity between the ghazis and the Islamic State though lies in the way in which they wage war. The classic ghazis were usually light cavalry formed of a mix of warriors from across the Muslim world, who were organised around their border ribat and led by charismatic leaders; their tactics emphasised raid and counter-raid, the use of deception, and manoeuvre.69 Compare this with a recent description of the Islamic State’s tactical organisation, “[they] use light, decentralized detachments to fashion a creative, bold and mobile force,”70 and the similarity is clear. They have swapped the war horse for the Toyota Hilux and the sword for the gun without changing the tactical mindset.
The Islamic State is above all else tactically aggressive to the extent that it has been described as suffering from a “cult of the offensive.”71 Individual units are, therefore, often afflicted with a “tactical restlessness,”72 which leads them to take aggressive action at all times; rather than defend the front line in ribat, they constantly patrol the contested territory between the two sides and often make small raids on opposing forces, seeking to overwhelm isolated units or camps.73 Similarly, when they suffer reverses, their response is often to launch immediate counter attacks in an effort to overwhelm victorious but tired enemy forces before they can secure their newly won territory. This aggression also has the side effect of providing good footage for the Islamic State’s propaganda videos that fit its “winner’s messaging”74 and its frequent boast to be “remaining and expanding.” This has become particularly clear over the last 12 months, during which the Islamic State has lost large areas of territory and been on the strategic defence75 but continued to largely release videos that focus on its offensive operations.
Islamic State units are able to do this because of the manoeuvrability of their forces and the tactical freedom given to junior commanders. Islamic State units typically operate in small “war bands” of between fifteen and fifty mujahideen with several light vehicles.76 Operating out of the desert rather than the cities, they can attack in individual war bands or come together in larger confederations with the assistance of more specialised mujahideen for larger operations such as the seizure of Ramadi.77 As the war bands are usually able to transport all their mujahideen in their own or in captured vehicles, they have great manoeuvrability; they can feint at their enemies, surround them and attack from multiple directions.78 In addition, night attacks and the use of weather conditions like fog and sandstorms enable them to out-manoeuvre and surprise their enemies.79 Individual commanders are given a relatively high degree of freedom, which enables them to improvise and act on their own without instructions from their strategic commanders.80
In contrast, the Islamic State has fared poorly on the defensive. Its main defensive battle was the city of Kobane (Ayn al-Islam), in which it suffered heavy casualties and the loss of several important tactical commanders.81 Trapped in restrictive urban combat which fixed them under the bomb sights of Coalition aircraft, they were unable to make use of the manoeuvre tactics which had succeeded so well for them before. This was unlike the fall of Ramadi where the Islamic State’s use of inghimasi (commandos equipped with suicide vests) and ishtihadi (suicide fighters driving vehicles that have been turned into bombs) units to break the enemy quickly has enabled it to achieve a rapid victory.82 Without that, the Islamic State in Kobane found itself drawn into an attritional battle it lacked the numbers for. Instead, the Islamic State generally prefers to withdraw its mujahideen into the desert, leaving behind only a small remnant to harass its enemies through sniper fire, improvised minefields, and ambushes.83 This sort of strategic withdrawal was regularly practiced by the ghazis.84
Another effect of these defensive battles is to destroy the urban areas involved and render them into ghost towns. This has been the fate of Kobane,85 Tikrit,86 and Ramadi.87 In doing so, the Islamic State has created something like the “decapitated landscape”88 created by the ghazis, depopulated and despoiled, which allowed them to build their ghazi states on the ruins.89 This is a deliberate strategy on the part of the Islamic State going back to its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who sought to create tawwahush (chaos) in order to disorder the state and prevent it from gaining the stability which would give it the strength to destroy his group.90 By creating a zone of wilderness — like the thugur borders of the ghazis — the Islamic State is able to create the space for the group to exist and fight.91
Although the influence of the ghazis on the Islamic State’s tactics cannot be directly proven, there are enough similarities to suggest the influence of the former on the latter. The Islamic State sees itself as attempting to return to an earlier, purer Islam based on its understanding of early Islamic history. As the ghazis were a major part of that era, this means referencing and even imitating the ghazis to at least some degree; certainly, the Islamic State celebrates ghazi heroes, whilst the culture and theology of the Islamic State is replete with overt and nonovert emulation of the ghazis. Although the Islamic State is not identical to the classical ghazis or any of their successors, the historical influence of the ghazis on them is clear.