He Who Weeps A Lot: Poetry and Islamic Extremism

He Who Weeps A Lot: Poetry and Islamic Extremism

. 7 min read

In 2004, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, posted a horrific video of him beheading an American journalist, and earned himself the nickname ‘The Slaughterer.’ Curiously, before Al-Zarqawi posted this video, he was known as ‘He Who Weeps A Lot,’ an epithet he picked up after shedding tears during prayer and poetry recitations. These seemingly contradictory nicknames–‘The Slaughterer’ and ‘He Who Weeps A Lot’–reflect the extremist's confusing underlying motives. Jihadi poetry is the key to understanding the complex motivations and ideology behind Al-Zarqawi’s atrocities.

History of Islam and Poetry

The ties between Islam and poetry can be traced back to the days of the Prophet Muhammad, who said “Truly, in some poetry, there is wisdom.” There are many other references to the Prophet Muhammad and his followers reciting and writing poetry. Additionally, poetry existed as a strong form of tradition, communication, and entertainment throughout South Asia and the Middle East before Islam came into existence. For example, anashid is a form of sung poetry still very common in Islamic extremist groups that originated long before Islam. Anashid is also, of course, used in many traditional Muslim holidays, such as Eid and Ramadan, but it has also been utilized by some extremist groups. Although instruments are banned throughout Islamic extremist practices, a capella poetry recitations are prevalent and range from elaborate performances to impromptu battle songs. They act, in large part, as the backbone of the spirit of the Islamic State.

Prevalence of Jihadi Poetry

While militant Islamic groups employ various strategies to recruit members and spread their ideology, poetry is one of the more curious, but effective, methods. Considering its historical prevalence, this should come as no surprise. Osama bin Laden, previous leader of al-Qaeda, was a well known poet and composed, or even plagiarized, many victorious poems. Judith Shulevitz, a journalist for the New York Times, writes that bin Laden’s poetry was “wrought in a style that would be familiar to anyone versed in the golden age of Arabic literature.” Imitation of familiar Islamic poetry helps extremist groups connect with new recruits because they are viewed as authentic, displaying a message wrought in a voice and style that is almost universally familiar throughout the Middle East. Although some view bin Laden’s use of poetry as a purely political strategy, others see his actions as a source of valuable insight into the beliefs of extremist leaders. Poetry acts as a space where people can express their emotions and their ideologies, their struggles, and the enticing reasons they choose to join extremist groups.

The Islamic State praises extremist poets for their passionate writing, especially Ahlam al-Nasr, who is known as ‘the poetess of the Islamic State.’ She has written a book, titled The Blaze of Truth, that includes 107 poems in Arabic that include “elegies to mujahideen, laments for prisoners, victory odes, and short poems that were originally tweets.” Her poetry is well-read and celebrated throughout ISIS. It is one of many examples of the prestige and importance placed on poetry throughout extremist groups in the Middle East.

Popular magazines produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are full of jihadi poetry. These magazines are read by many and are a key mode of spreading information and beliefs. Among the pictures and articles present throughout the magazine, nearly one fifth of the pages are filled with poetry. Elisabeth Kendall, a Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University and a jihadi poetry critic, noted that over 50 percent of the poetry in al-Qaeda’s magazines are plagiarized renditions of historical and traditional poetry. The fact that many modern poets are plagiarizing old, traditional poetry demonstrates the importance of this tradition to the authenticity of the message. By re-using historical techniques and rewriting older poetry, these writers allude to history and traditions familiar to their readers, allowing them to connect more deeply with potential recruits and encourage acceptance of their ideologies. Renditions and oral recitations of traditional poetry is common throughout the Middle East and South Asia; this is not limited to Islamic extremist groups. According to studies in Yemen, 84 percent of men and 69 percent of women think poetry is an important part of their everyday lives.

Poetry as a form of Resistance

Poetry is not only a key part of understanding Islamic extremism, but also of combating it. One of the best examples of this is ‘We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry’, a collection of poetry by various Pakistani poets challenging regimes that encroached on women’s rights. In one of the poems, Fahmida Riaz writes, “This law is a rag / Worthy of the dust / Off the rebels’ feet / Dictatorship a curse / This government of / Ordinances / We shall shred / In a public square.” This is a clear expression of resistance in one of the most traditional and popular fashions of the region. Poetry has existed as a powerful form of expression for hundreds of years and continues to be used as methods of resistance.

Resistance can also be undertaken through more subtle means involving poetry, such as Haidari Wujodi’s desk job in a Kabul library. Despite the conflict happening outside the library, his office became, according to Mujib Mashal, a journalist for the New York Times, “an address for all kinds of visitors–musicians who need lyrics for a new composition, young poets who bring their latest publication for encouragement and feedback, university students who need references for a paper or a dissertation, and street vendors who just want some wise words to get them through troubled times.” In other words, over the years Wujodi’s desk became a refuge. In his office, Wujodi holds weekly readings of 13th century Persian poets and discussions about faith and spirituality. Even as explosions occur outside the windows of his office, he continues to teach ancient prose and maintain his own peaceful practices. His office is a place for peaceful resistance against the oppressive and violent regimes prevailing outside his walls.

In South Asia, poetry is nearly always performed in song. Modern expressions of Islamic poetry are seen in rising music throughout South Asia and the Middle East. Coke Studios, an international music production company, takes traditional and contemporary forms of music and works with popular and emerging artists to produce songs. In Pakistani and Arab productions, many of the songs produced were originally traditional Islamic poetry. Other music groups, such as Junoon, have also begun to arise amidst more restrictive regimes in Pakistan. Salman Ahmad, lead singer of the popular rock band Junoon, talks about the importance of his music throughout the region. He expresses spirituality in the form of pop songs, which are especially rebellious because musical instruments are banned in much of the region that he performs in. He has had several run-ins with Pakistani authorities and fundamentalists over the band’s attempts to combat misgovernance and foster religious pluralism and coexistence in South Asia. Despite these dangers, music produced by artists like Junoon and production companies like Coke Studios continues to grow in popularity and present differing viewpoints about Islam throughout the region.

Poetry to Understand Extremism

More than just using poetry to stand together and express anti-extremist sentiments, poetry is a key way of understanding radical Islam and the beliefs behind it. Kendall writes that more important than understanding what radicalizes people is understanding “what enables these groups to be tolerated among well-armed populations.” She says that “the way they do that is just getting into the rhythm of the local culture with things like poems.” Extremist organizations, such as ISIS or al-Qaeda, are more than just political ideologies. Kendall writes, “analyzing the poems gives us an insight into jihadist hearts and minds and can reveal clues about jihadists’ motivation, group dynamics, and cultural concerns, which helps to illuminate the contemporary political landscape in which the poetry is deployed.” Poetry provides a more holistic view of extremist groups and some of their motivations.

Poetry is an expression of passion and a method of communication that incites action in people. It is more powerful than political ideologies or doctrines that appear most prevalent to outside researchers. It is the method of reaching the hearts of people. When combating jihadism, New York Times author Thomas Hegghammer writes, “we are not only confronting organizations and doctrines, but also a highly seductive subculture.” The term jihad traditionally means 'struggle' in Arabic. However, many extremist groups have appropriated the term, making "jihadism" a violent offshoot of Islam. Studying jihadi poetry demonstrates how these movements are rooted in deeper beliefs than political or governmental policies. Oftentimes, analysis of extremist groups fails to contextualize the deep religious and societal beliefs that fuel such movements, instead of the surface level political ideologies.

Using Poetry to Combat Extremism

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, the United States became increasingly interested in methods to combat violent radical Islam. They were especially concerned with the commonly held view that ‘the West’ is the enemy of Islam. In 2003, The Nixon Center held a conference to discuss the role of Sufism, “the spiritual tradition within Islam,” and its connection to US foreign policy goals. Salman, Sufi rock’s most prominent artist and poet, became a topic of discussion. The United Nations and the United States promoted Salman on several occasions, appointing him to UN goodwill ambassador positions and putting on concerts. The aim was to place him in a role to bridge the gap between the ‘East and the West.’ In the end, these tactics were unsuccessful in changing the views of Muslim youth. People were skeptical of Western uses of Islamic poetry, art, and music.

It appears that the most effective use of poetry in resistance must come from within the culture, and must be built upon genuine passion against oppressive regimes. It has not yet been successfully fabricated by outside sources. Effective poetry, both as a method of promoting Islamic extremism and as a method of resistance, is linked tightly with the culture it comes from and the integrity of the message it presents.

Professor Ali Asani of Harvard University concludes that “the problem of radicalization is not rooted simply in doctrine and practice. The contexts in which people live, their political, economic and social realities and experiences, play a crucial role shaping their understandings and interpretations of religion.” Poetry, especially when it is written from within communities and aligning with the tradition and style of the community it comes from, feeds into the social realities and experiences that build religion. This unique form of art, then, allows outsiders to have insight into the passionate expressions and beliefs of both extremist regimes and those who oppose them.

Correction: (Updated February 23, 2021)

A previous version of this article had unclear wording regarding the usage of anashid, which has been clarified.

The article also unclearly used the words jihad, jihadist, and/or jihadism instead of extremism, which has been corrected.

Lastly, the article previously did not explain the origins of the term jihadism, which has been added for clarity purposes.