Poetry as a Weapon: The Poetics of Jihad in ISIS’s Textbooks

By Muhammad Masud
Submitted to Session P5021 (Analyzing the Islamic State: Strategies and Counter-strategies, 2017 Annual Meeting
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In areas under its control, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has abolished existing school textbooks and replaced them with a new curriculum. To prepare children to be fighters by the age of 16, this new curriculum eliminates two years of school education, cutting down the total number of grades from twelve to ten. As part of its plan, ISIS has employed extensive use of poetry in its textbook curriculum. Starting at middle school, ISIS introduces an Arabic Literature textbook and allocates a chapter to discuss its vision of poetry’s impact. The chapter specifically states that ISIS considers poetry “a weapon of jihad.” This paper seeks to explore how this goal is translated into practice in the organization’s textbook curriculum.

Consequently, this paper seeks to examine how ISIS uses Arabic poetry to indoctrinate children as obedient followers of its extremist ideology. Through textual and visual selections, as well as analyses of the organization’s instructions for teachers, the paper examines how ISIS exploits poetry in schools to influence youth and reinforce its power starting as early as first grade. The vast selections of poetry used by ISIS include both classical and modern texts, and encompass a variety of themes and subject matters.

This presents an interesting strategy whereby ISIS employs two distinct categories of poetic texts. The first category includes jihadist poetry that is written specifically to incite ruthless militant jihad and encourage loyalty to the organization’s extremist ideology. The second category consists of poetic texts spanning classical, medieval, and modern times. This includes the works of both classical and medieval Arab poets who are not known for religious poetry, in part because many are pre-Islamic poets. The expansive selections include works by such poets as Zuhayr bin Abi Sulma (520 – ?609), Antarah ibn Shaddad (525–608), Hassan ibn Thabit (563-674), Abu Tammam (788–845), Ibn Sahl of Seville (1212–1251), and many others.

In other words, many of these poets belong to an age termed as Jahiliyyah, or “ignorance of divine guidance.” How can a Takfiri group like ISIS extensively draw upon historical figures it considers as infidels? The answer to this reveals one of reasons for the organization’s powerful propaganda apparatus: its adaptability and manipulative tactics. ISIS is able to include this poetry in its curriculum by twisting critical analysis and sociohistorical context in favor of a fundamentalist interpretation that fits its ideological goals.