SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
In this column, Farhang Jahanpour – former professor and Dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, who has taught for 28 years in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford – looks at the symbolism of the name adopted by Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and argues that the views and actions of al-Baghdadi and his followers are almost an exact copy of the Wahhabi revivalist movement instigated by 18th century theologian Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
OXFORD (IPS): When Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai adopted the name of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Quraishi and revealed himself to the world as the Amir al-Mu’minin (the Commander of the Faithful) Caliph Ibrahim of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the whole world had to sit up and take notice of him
The choice of the long title that he has chosen for himself is most interesting and symbolic. The title Abu-Bakr clearly refers to the first caliph after Prophet Muhammad’s death, the first of the four “Orthodox Caliphs”.
The term Husseini presumably refers to Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson and Imam Ali’s son, who was martyred in Karbala on 13 October 680. His martyrdom is seen as a turning point in the history of Islam and is mourned in elaborate ceremonies by the Shi’ites.
Both Sunnis and Shi’ites regard Imam Hussein as a great martyr, and as someone who gave up his life in order to defend Islam and to stand up against tyranny.
Finally, al-Quraishi refers to Quraish, the tribe to which the Prophet of Islam belonged.
Therefore, his chosen title is full of Islamic symbolism.
According to an alleged biography posted on jihadi Internet forums, al-Baghdadi is a direct descendant of the Prophet, but curiously enough his ancestors come from the Shi’a line of the Imams who descended from the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah.
Despite his great hostility towards the Shi’ites, is this genealogy a way of portraying himself as the true son of the descendants of the Prophet, thus appealing to both Shi’ites and Sunnis?
According to the same biography, al-Baghdadi was born near Samarra, in Iraq, in 1971. It is alleged that he received BA, MA and PhD degrees in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. It is also suggested that he was a cleric at the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal Mosque in Samarra at around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
According to a senior Afghan security official, al-Baghdadi went to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where he received his early jihadi training. He lived with the Jordanian militant fighter Au Musab al-Zarqawi in Kabul from 1996-2000.
It is likely that al-Baghdadi fled Afghanistan with leading Taliban fighters after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zarqawi and other militants, perhaps including al-Baghdadi, formed al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In September 2005, Zarqawi declared an all-out war on the Shi’ites in Iraq, after the Iraqi and U.S. offensive on insurgents in the Sunni town of Tal Afar. Zarqawi was killed in a targeted killing by U.S. forces on Jun. 7, 2006.
According to U.S. Department of Defense records, al-Baghdadi was held at Camp Bucca from February until December 2004, but some sources claim that he was interned from 2005 to 2009
In any case, his history of militancy in both Afghanistan and Iraq and fighting against U.S. forces goes back a long way. He was battle-hardened in the jihad against U.S. forces, and being detained by U.S. forces further strengthened his ambitions and credentials as a militant jihadi fighter.
In the wake of the Arab Spring and anti-government protests in Syria, some Western governments, Saudi Arabia and Turkey decided to topple the regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by training and funding Syrian insurgents.
The upheaval in Syria provided al-Baghdadi with an opportunity to engage in jihad and to widen the circle of his followers, until he suddenly emerged at the head of thousands of jihadi fighters, again attacking Iraq from Syria.
His forces conquered vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, and he set up his so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (or greater Syria), ISIS.
On the first Friday in the Muslim month of fasting or Ramadan on Jul, 4, 2014 (American Independence Day), al-Baghdadi suddenly emerged out of the shadows and delivered the sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul, which had been recently conquered by ISIS.
His sermon showed not only his command of Koranic verses, but also his ability to speak clearly and eloquently. He is certainly more steeped in radical Sunni theology than any of the al-Qaeda leaders, past and present, ever were.
His biographer says that Al-Baghdadi “purged vast areas in Iraq and Syria from the filth of the Safavids [a term referring to the 16th century Iranian Shi’ite dynasty of the Safavids], the Nusayris [a derogatory term referring to the Syrian Alawite Shi’ites], and the apostate [Sunni] Awakening Councils. He established the rule of Islam.”
In his short sermon, al-Baghdadi denounced those who did not follow his strict interpretation of Islam as being guilty of bid’a or heresy. He quoted many verses from the Koran about the need to mobilise and to fight against non-believers, and to remain steadfast in God’s path.
He also stressed some key concepts, such as piety and performing religious rituals, obeying God’s commandments, and God’s promise to bring victory to the downtrodden and the oppressed. Finally, he talked about the need for establishing a caliphate.
In the Koranic context, these terms have broad meanings. However, in the hands of al-Baghdadi and other militant jihadis, these terms are given completely different and menacing meanings, calling for jihad and the subjugation of the non-believers.
The views and actions of al-Baghdadi and his followers are almost an exact copy of the Wahhabi revivalist movement instigated by an 18th century theologian from Najd in the Arabian Peninsula, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792).
Indeed, what we are seeing in Iraq now is almost the exact repetition of the violent Sunni uprising in Arabian deserts that led to the establishment of the Wahhabi state founded by the Al Saud clan almost exactly 200 years ago.
In 1802, after having seized control of most of Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi warlord Abdulaziz attacked Karbala in Iraq, killed the majority of its inhabitants, destroyed the shrine of Imam Hussein, where Prophet Muhammad’s grandson is buried, and his followers plundered everything that they could lay their hands on.
The establishment of that dynasty has resulted in the propagation of the most fundamentalist form of Islam in its long history, which eventually gave rise to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and now to ISIS and al-Baghdadi.
The jihadis reduce the entire rich and varied scope of Islamic civilisation, Islamic philosophy, Islamic literature, Islamic mysticism, jurisprudence, Kalam and tafsir (hermeneutics) to the Shari’a, and even at that, they present a very narrow and dogmatic view of the Shari’a that is rejected by the greatest minds in Islam, putting it above everything else, including their rationality.
Indeed, it is a travesty that such barbaric terrorist acts are attributed to Islam.