A Brief analysis of ‘Saddām’s Qādisiyyah’

A Baghdād mural depicting Ṣaddām Ḥusayn surveying both the Seventh-Century and the ‘modern’ Battles of al-Qādisiyyah.
A Baghdād mural depicting Ṣaddām Ḥusayn surveying both the Seventh-Century and the ‘modern’ Battles of al-Qādisiyyah. [1]
In official terminology, the Baʿthī régime of Iraq called its eight-year war with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the longest conventional war of the Twentieth Century, ‘Ṣaddām’s Qādisiyyah (Ar. Qādisiyyat-Ṣaddām or قادسية صدام)’. The decision to name the hostilities against Iran after a Seventh-Century engagement during the Arab-Muslim conquests was deliberate and dovetailed with Ṣaddām Ḥusayn’s philosophy of history, which stressed its utilitarian rôle in the service of state ideology. This short study examines Ṣaddām’s manipulation of the memory of al-Qādisiyyah and how this discourse reflected an ‘Arab-Islamist’ idiom that allowed him and his régime to fuse religious and nationalist sentiment into one ideological discourse.

This article is a summary of a paper, ‘History for a purpose: An Analysis of “Ṣaddām’s Qādisiyyah”’, presented at the 5th annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, 12 October 2012, Washington, DC. A version of this paper was published as ‘“Saddam’s Qadisiyyah”: Religion and history in the service of state ideology in Baʿthi Iraq’ in Middle Eastern Studies 50.6 (November 2014), 891-910.

Table of contents

1. Redefining al-Qādisiyyah

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. [2]
In the ‘original’ Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (Ar. Maʿrakat al-Qādisiyyah or معركة القادسية; also spelled Qadisiyya, Qadesiyyah, Kadisiya, Ghadesia, etc.; c. 635), Arab-Muslim warriors under the command of Muḥammad’s respected Companion Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ overcame the superior forces of the imperial Sāsānian army led by the commander-in-chief, Rostam b. Farrokh-Hormozd. Over the centuries, the battle came to represent a synecdoche for the conquest of Iran as a whole. However, frequent references to al-Qādisiyyah by the Iraqi dictator Ṣaddām Ḥusayn in the second half of the Twentieth Century revived and redefined its meaning in modern, ethnic, and nationalist terms. Quickly, Qādisiyyah nomenclature sprung up throughout the Arab world, appearing not only as the name of geographic localities, but also of educational institutions, governmental complexes, roads and bridges, recreational organisations, businesses, medical facilities, publishing houses, and even water vessels.1

Poster for the Egyptian film al-Qādisiyyah (1981).
Poster for the Egyptian film al-Qādisiyyah (1981). [3]
One poignant example of al-Qādisiyyah’s re-emergence in the Arab cultural realm is the eponymous 1981 Iraqi-Egyptian film, one of the most expensive Arabic-language films ever made, involving actors and technicians from around the Arab world. A senior Baʿthī official oversaw the film’s production and ensured that it advanced the régime’s ideological goals by recasting history to mobilise the masses. Significantly, work on this film commenced nearly a year before the outbreak of hostilities between Iraq and Iran.

Demonstrating the success of Ṣaddām’s rhetoric is the response it received from both Arab governments and Western observers alike; they accepted his interpretation of al-Qādisiyyah without hesitation, even using his analogy to explain contemporary enmity between Iran on the one hand and the Arab world as a whole. Saʿūdī, Jordanian, and Egyptian officials all echoed Iraq’s claims that the ‘racist Persian régime’ sought to avenge its defeat at al-Qādisiyyah. Western journalists described the war as an age-old ethnic clash dating back at least as far as al-Qādisiyyah, if not thousands of years.

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. [4]
By claiming the ‘new’ Qādisiyyah as his own, Ṣaddām fashioned this idiom as an extension of his cult of personality—‘Ṣaddām’s Qādisiyyah’ established a parallel with the leader of the ‘first’ Qādisiyyah, Muḥammad’s Companion Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ. This connexion found expression in speeches, art, and other symbolism, such as the Arch of Victory, in which giant metal hands cast from Ṣaddām’s own arms grasp Saʿd’s supposed swords, or the pairing of the Seventh-Century general’s alleged weapon with Ṣaddām’s personal machine gun at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

2. ‘Arab-Islamist’ rhetoric

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. [5]
Using and abusing the memory of figures, places, and terms from the Arab-Muslim conquests—a period in which the terms ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ were largely interchangeable, prior to the entry of non-Arab populations into the Muslim community—represented a concerted effort by Ṣaddām to create a discourse that exploited the allures of both Arab nationalism and Islam. This rhetoric, which I have termed ‘Arab-Islamism’, harkened back to a ‘golden age’ that peaked during the major successes of the conquests—notably, al-Qādisiyyah—combining the strength of religious faith with nationalist sentiment. Ironically, these very achievements put an end to the ethnic uniformity of the early Muslim community. Nonetheless, despite this inconvenient truth, Ṣaddām gradually amplified his emphasis on this discursive approve until the fall of his régime. Ṣaddām’s increasing reliance upon this idiom during the remainder of his rule suggests a certain measure of success. Arab-Islamist discourse has continued to survive in the statements, slogans, and messages of radical Sunnī groups operating in Iraq and Iran.

Indeed, references by other radical Islamist groups to al-Qādisiyyah in their rhetoric and symbols—including militant brigades, training camps, mosques, Islamic law courts, and the content of sermons—represent a new chapter in the modern narrative of al-Qādisiyyah.2 Like Ṣaddām, these parties recognise the value of religious history and seek to harness its emotive power in their contemporary political struggles. Thus, the initial battleground for these campaigns is that of collective memory; indeed, the theme of (Arabs) remembering and (Iranians) forgetting the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah appeared frequently in Ṣaddām’s speeches. Nevertheless, one might take comfort in the hope that an inclusive and non-essentialist approach to the engagement, which disperses with useless and injurious dichotomies, might yet emerge.

References and citations

  1. For a detailed study on the historiography of al-Qādisiyyah and its changing perceptions through time, see Lewental, ‘Qādisiyyah, then and now’. For a short examination of al-Qādisiyyah nomenclature in the modern Middle East, including an exhaustive list of examples, see idem, ‘Qādisiyyah in modern Middle Eastern discourse’. []
  2. For a short examination of al-Qādisiyyah in radical Islamist rhetoric, see Lewental, ‘Early Islamic history and memory in radical Islamist discourse’. []

Bibliography and further reading

Baram, Amatzia. Culture, history, and ideology in the formation of Baʿthist Iraq, 1968–69. New York City: St Martin’s Press, 1991.

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

Davis, Eric M. Memories of state: Politics, history, and collective identity in modern Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Dawisha, Adeed I. ‘Arabism and Islam in Iraq’s war with Iran’. Middle East Insight 3 (1984): 32-33.

Lewental, D Gershon. ‘Early Islamic history and memory in radical Islamist discourse’. Online article. DGLnotes.com, 12 June 2013. [online]

Lewental, D Gershon. ‘Qādisiyyah in modern Middle Eastern discourse’. Online article. DGLnotes.com, 21 November 2005. [online]

Lewental, D Gershon. ‘Qādisiyyah, then and now: A Case study of history and memory, religion, and nationalism in Middle Eastern discourse’. PhD dissertation, Department of Near Eastern & Judaic Studies, Brandeis University, 2011. [abstract]

Lewental, D Gershon. ‘“Saddam’s Qadisiyyah”: Religion and history in the service of state ideology in Baʿthi Iraq’. Middle Eastern Studies 50.6 (November 2014), 891-910.

Makiya, Kanan. The Monument: Art, vulgarity, and responsibility in Iraq. Berkeley & Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1991.

Rida, Muhammad. ‘Qadisiyya: A New stage in Arab cinema’. Ur 3 (1981): 40-43.

Ṣaddām Ḥusayn. ‘President visits scene of grenade incident 2 Apr’. Baghdād, Voice of the Masses in Arabic. 02 April 1980, 1200 GMT. FBIS-MEA-80-066. 03 April 1980, E2-3.

Related links

Image credits

  1. A Baghdād mural depicting Ṣaddām Ḥusayn surveying both the Seventh-Century and the ‘modern’ Battles of al-Qādisiyyah. Source: unknown; similar image appears in Baram, plate 15.
  2. Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh. Source: Wikipedia.
  3. Poster for the Egyptian film al-Qādisiyyah (1981). Source: MusicMan.com.
  4. 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).
  5. 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).

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