A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"When You See the Black Banners Advancing from Khurasan": Apocalyptic Imagery (Unscheduled) Part III

When I first heard that the US was bombing an al-Qa‘ida subgroup called "Khorasan," I wondered if here was some mistake, since Khorasan historically extends from northeastern Iran up into Central Asia, a long way from northwestern Syria. But as you might expect, this resonates with our recent posts on apocalyptic end times imagery in ISIS and similar movements. I had planned only Part I on Dabiq and Part II on Sufyani, etc. But here's another of them, as I gradually remembered where my onetime focus on early ‘Abbasid history overlaps with modern jihadi imagery: the black banners advancing from Khurasan (the Arabic spelling; Khorasan in Persian).

Most immediately, the name Khorasan or Khurasan seems to come from the fact that several of the leaders of the group in Syria were chosen by al-Qa‘ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri from leaders of the movement who had been inside Iran (only sometimes tolerated by the Shi‘ite regime) or in Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderlands. They had links to al-Qa‘ida's council for affairs in the Afghan region, the Shura of al-Qa‘ida in the land of Khurasan or the Khurasan Shura. But the choice of "Khurasan" has a deeper resonance.

There is a hadith or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad which most hadith commentators consider weak and probably fabricated,that with some variations usually is cited as something like this:
If you see the black banners coming from the direction of Khurasan, then go to them, even if you have to crawl, because among them will be Allah’s Caliph the Mahdi.
Indeed, as I said, most commentators do not accept this as a real tradition of the Prophet, and many commentators and historians assume it was created to garner support for the ‘Abbasid Revolution which overthrew the Umayyad dynasty in AH 132/AD 750, and which started in Khurasan with a revolt led by a somewhat mysterious figure named Abu Muslim, and whose emblem was indeed a black banner. Some versions of the hadith even include phrases like "they are the sons of al-‘Abbas."  The third ‘Abbasid Caliph (and the father of Harun al-Rashid) took the name al-Mahdi.

Jabhat al-Nusra Flsg
Even if the hadith was a fabrication of the ‘Abbasid propaganda machine, it is ostensibly a prophecy of the end times, and has become popular in jihadist circles. For al-Qa‘ida, jihad begins in the east, Afghanistan and Pakistan, historically part of a sort of Greater Khurasan with a bit of geographical stretching. And jihadism is now seeking to establish itself in the core Arab lands of Iraq and Syria, advancing westward, and, of course, carrying black flags.

ISIS flag
So for al-Qa‘ida Central, moving leaders from the Shura Khurasan to Syria powerfully evokes the image of the black banners advancing from Khurasan to conquer the heartland from the periphery.

And as an aside, some versions of the hadith suggest that the individual fighters in the armies advancing under those black banners will be known not by their given names but by a kunya (the "Father of" name) followed by the nisba name formed from their home town or country. Hence the standard form of the jihadi nom de guerre: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, Abu Anas al-Libi, and so on.


Brian Ulrich said...

This might be over-interpretation, since the term seems to have originated in western circles to describe the cell.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Possibly, but if the coinage was Western, it seems derived from their origins in the Shura Khurasan, which is an official al-Qa'ida terminology.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Possibly, but if the coinage was Western, it seems derived from their origins in the Shura Khurasan, which is an official al-Qa'ida terminology.

David Mack said...

A Pakistani-American friend cited the hadith to me with some evident sense that his country played a central role in the drama of the Islamic state.