Qādisiyyah in modern Middle Eastern discourse

continued from the previous page pages 1 | 2 | 3

Overview

Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh.
Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh. [1]
The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (Ar. Maʿrakat al-Qādisiyyah or معركة القادسية; also spelled Qadisiyya, Qadesiyyah, Kadisiya, Ghadesia, etc.) was a decisive engagement during the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran in the mid-630s. Since the days in which the Arab warriors engaged and defeated the imperial army of Sāsānian Iran near al-Qādisiyyah, countless generations have preserved and retold the history of that event which took place on the plains between the Arabian Desert and a branch of the Euphrates River, between the arid home of the nomadic Arab tribes united recently by Islam and the lush, rich alluvium of Mesopotamia, where Iranian kings had established themselves not far from Biblical Babylon, and between—as some would later suggest—barbarism and civilisation. Inevitably, the passage of time has encompassed the original narrative, leading to its embellishment and even distortion at the hands of story-tellers (Ar. qāṣṣ, pl. quṣṣāṣ), traditionists (Ar. akhbāriyyūn), historians, and political leaders. Around the historic kernel of the battle, a legend has developed over the centuries, comprising a large body of literature full of topoi. Juxtaposing details such as the size of the forces and mention of the clash in non-Muslim annals suggests that the current perception of al-Qādisiyyah is but a pale shadow of the original event. In this manner, the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah highlights the significant function of history and memory in the modern Middle East. The evocation of this battle by Ṣaddām Ḥusayn (Saddam Hussein) during the Iran-Iraq War and currently by radical Islamists exemplify well the continuing emotive power of this ancient engagement.

Table of contents

2. Modern manipulation of al-Qādisiyyah

The Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, commissioned by Ṣaddām to commemorate Iraq’s ‘victory’ in the Iran-Iraq War and opened August 1989.
The Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, commissioned by Ṣaddām to commemorate Iraq’s ‘victory’ in the Iran-Iraq War and opened August 1989. [2]
Academic studies of the Battle have revealed numerous topoi that make up a common schema of the Arab-Muslim conquests (see Noth; Donner, Narratives). These literary layers began accumulating in the period immediately following the Battle, when story-tellers (Ar. qāṣṣ, pl. quṣṣāṣ) embellished their narrative, often in an attempt to glorify past ancestors. This process continued in the hands of the later tradents and collectors of traditions (Ar. akhbār), who compiled the early surviving works of Islamic historiography. Thus, contemporary allusions to al-Qādisiyyah, an incident during the foundational period of Islam, carry broad implications and suggest more than a simple historical reference.

2.1 Qādisiyyat-Ṣaddām: The Iran-Iraq War

The Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, during a dust storm in 2009.
The Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, during a dust storm in 2009. [3]
The most notable use of Qādisiyyah’s emotive power was the dubbing by Ṣaddām Ḥusayn of his eight-year war against Iran as Ṣaddām’s Qādisiyyah (Ar. Qādisiyyat-Ṣaddām). The first instance of this naming occurred on 02 April 1980, a half-year before the outbreak of hostilities, on the occasion of a visit by Ṣaddām Ḥusayn to al-Mustanṣiriyyah University in Baghdād, where a bomb attack on the previous day had injured his vice-president, Tarīq ʿAzīz. Ṣaddām blamed the newly-founded Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and, drawing the parallel to the Seventh-Century battle, he announced:

In your name, brothers, and on behalf of the Iraqis and Arabs everywhere we tell those [Persian] cowards and dwarfs who try to avenge Al-Qadisiyah that the spirit of Al-Qadisiyah as well as the blood and honor of the people of Al-Qadisiyah who carried the message on their spearheads are greater than their attempts (see Ṣaddām, E3).

American soldiers posing in front of the Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, after the 2003 invasion that toppled Ṣaddām.
American soldiers posing in front of the Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, after the 2003 invasion that toppled Ṣaddām. [4]
Ṣaddām’s references to the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah found expression in a variety of means, inundating society with constant allusions to the historical event in an attempt to secure legitimation. One noted visual example of the régime’s rhetoric can be found in the monument he erected to commemorate the war, known as the Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), or sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’. Commissioned in 1985 and opened in August 1989, the forty-metre high structure (one of the largest art pieces in the world) exemplifies well the régime’s conscious attempt to shape (physically) collective consciousness by manipulating history and through understandable symbols. According to Makiya:

The maquette was worked from plaster casts of the [Ṣaddām]’s arms, taken from just above the elbow, with a sword inserted into each fist. The monument serves as a Baʾthi equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe in the Champs Elysées. The Baʾthi arch, however, is bigger. The President’s forearms and fists, sixteen metres in length (the same height as the Arc de Triomphe), burst out of the ground like gargantuan bronze tree-trunks and rise with their firmly grasped swords to an apex forty metres above the ground. War debris in the shape of five thousand Iranian helmets taken fresh from the battelfield [sic] are gathered up in two nets (2,500 each) which are torn asunder at the base, scattering the helmets around the points at which the arms rise from the earth. … [T]he raw steel used [for the swords] was obtained by melting down the weapons of Iraqi ‘martyrs’ who died in the fighting (see Makiya, 3-4).

Close-up of the fists in the Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, modelled after Ṣaddām’s own.
Close-up of the fists in the Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, modelled after Ṣaddām’s own. [5]
The totalitarian Baʿthī régime mustered all of its resources in order to exploit and reshape the collective memory of its subject population and even attempted (unsuccessfully) to subvert the Iranian government through rhetoric aimed at securing the support of the Arab minority in south-western Iran. In the ensuing battle of symbolisms, both states sought to co-opt the other’s legitimating techniques and to use a particular idiom in order to mobilise their populations. Throughout the course of the Iran-Iraq War, Ṣaddām continued to play upon the emotic value of al-Qādisiyyah, using it repeatedly to draw a contrast between the Arab nation, which he claimed to represent, and the ‘Zoroastrian’ Persians against whom he was fighting in a political war now endowed with religio-historical meaning. In this way, he sought to cast his offensive war as a second Battle of al-Qādisiyyah and to hijack the ostensibly mutual Islamic heritage shared by both Muslim Iraqis and Iranians. Interestingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which viewed itself in wholly religious terms (at first), responded to Ṣaddām’s attacks by turning the tables on him. The leaders of Iran portrayed themselves as the true heirs to the Seventh-Century Arab-Muslim warriors, juxtaposed against the ‘pagan’ irreligious Baʿthists, the ideological descendants of the Sāsānian Persians.

2.2 Radical Islamists and al-Qādisiyyah

Internet banner for a Sunnī militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Internet banner for a Sunnī militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran. [6]
Towards the end of the 1980s, Ṣaddām Ḥusayn adopted increasingly the religious rhetoric of Islam. On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, he added his own handwritten inscription of God is most great (Ar. Allāhu akbar) to the country’s flag and arranged for a fringe group to declare him the caliph of Islam. This trend towards religio-political manipulation of al-Qādisiyyah has continued most prominently among the proponents of radical Islam, who have cited the battle as an inspirational example of a small, but righteous and zealous group overcoming a wicked and immoral reigning super-power. Thus, for example, a group of insurgents operating against the American-led coalition forces in Iraq called itself Luwāʾ Qādisiyyat Saʿd (Saʿd’s Qādisiyyah Brigade). In particular, Sunnī radicals, such as those active in al-Qāʿidah (al-Qaeda), have cited al-Qādisiyyah in their messages to the faithful. In January 2011, the Global Islamic Media front, a European propaganda organisation that supports al-Qāʿidah and other radical groups, announced the creation of al-Qadisiyyah Media Productions, which would translate Arabic-language materials into South Asian languages, including Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Pashto, and Persian. Likewise, a branch of a Sunnī militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran calls itself the Qadesiyoon Media Brigade on the Internet, seeking apparently to follow in the footsteps of the Seventh-Century invaders and to overturn to the government of Iran.
The logo of AlQadisiyya3.com, an anti-Shīʿī website run by a Sunnī cleric in Iraq.
The logo of AlQadisiyya3.com, an anti-Shīʿī website run by a Sunnī cleric in Iraq. [7]
In Iraq, Ṭaha Ḥāmid Dulaymī, a Sunnī cleric opposed to Shīʿism and to the Islamic Republic of Iran, established the website, AlQadisiyya3.com, with the slogan, ‘Every day … every land … is Qādisiyyah (kul yawm … kul arḍ … Qādisiyyah)’, calling for a ‘third’ Qādisiyyah, following both the historical engagement and Ṣaddām’s ‘second’ re-enactment. Radical Islamists elsewhere in the world make use of Qādisiyyah nomenclature even when it does not appear immediately relevant to their cause; for example, in Pakistan, the mosque and centre affiliated with the radical group Jamaʿat-ud-Daʿwah Pakistan bear also the name al-Qādisiyyah. Yet another example can be found in Gaza, where the ʿIzz ad-Dīn al-Qasām Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian radical Ḥamās militant group, named its training camp on the ground of a former Israeli settlement after the battle.

2.2.1 The Example of al-Khansāʾ

Front cover of the first issue of the radical Islamist al-Khansāʾ magazine.
Front cover of the first issue of the radical Islamist al-Khansāʾ magazine. [8]
Even when not citing specifically the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, radical Islamists have drawn upon the numerous legends that have developed around the battle narrative. One common theme concerns the example of al-Khansāʾ, a female poet whose sons participated in the fight. According to the traditional accounts, she—already a widow—urged them on to fight to the death for the cause of Islam, losing all four of her sons in the course of the engagement. In the battle’s aftermath, she refused to be consoled, taking pride in their martyrdom. For obvious reasons, radicals have latched onto al-Khansāʾ as a virtuous example for their female followers. In 2004, an online radical magazine targetting a female audience—the first of its kind—named itself after this legendary figure (see Usher). The al-Qāʿidah activist in charge of running its internet activities, Shaykh Yūsuf al-ʿAyyīrī (d. 2003), reportedly wrote:

Oh the mother of men, how many sons do you have? … Are you not taking the female predecessors as an example and role model? Give what they gave, so you may attain a reward like theirs. [Al-Khansāʾ] is a famous woman, who, if our women were like her, no one would remain behind. If the women were like her, the men would leave for jihad in groups. … [When] news of [her sons’] deaths reached their mother, … she said: Praise be to God who honored me with their deaths, and I hope my God will gather me with them in His everlasting mercy (see ʿAyyīrī).

Such invocations demonstrate the appeal of the Qādisiyyah narrative to radical Islamists, much as it attracted the attention of Ṣaddām Ḥusayn and the Baʿthist régime in Iraq. Although Ṣaddām and al-Qāʿidah may have highlighted different aspects or interpretations of Qādisiyyah, the memory of the Seventh-Century engagement continues to possess emotive significance in the modern Middle East.

continued on the next page pages 1 | 2 | 3

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Bengio, Ofra. Saddam’s word: Political discourse in Iraq. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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Related links

Image credits

  1. Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a copy of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh. Source: Wikipedia.
  2. The Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, commissioned by Ṣaddām to commemorate Iraq’s ‘victory’ in the Iran-Iraq War and opened August 1989. Source: Wikipedia.
  3. The Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, during a dust storm in 2009. Source: New York Times.
  4. American soldiers posing in front of the Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, after the 2003 invasion that toppled Ṣaddām. Source: Wikipedia.
  5. Close-up of the fists in the Qaws an-Naṣr (‘Victory Arch’), sometimes called the ‘Swords of Qādisiyyah’, modelled after Ṣaddām’s own. Source: jamesdale10 (Everystockphoto.com).
  6. Internet banner for a Sunnī militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Source: Qadesiyoon Media Brigade (website 1) Qadesiyoon Media Brigade (website 2).
  7. The logo of AlQadisiyya3.com, an anti-Shīʿī website run by a Sunnī cleric in Iraq. Source: AlQadisiyya3.com.
  8. Front cover of the first issue of the radical Islamist al-Khansāʾ magazine. Source: al-Ghoul.com.

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