Annual Lecture Report: Hugh Kennedy on “ISIS and the use and Abuse of Early Islamic History”

Wednesday 27th January 2016 

Dabiq, the IS magazine, which circulates in both English and Arabic.


This year, for our annual paper, we were extremely lucky to have Hugh Kennedy speak to us about ISIS and early Islamic history. This fascinating topic had the lecture room completely packed, with many listeners bringing in chairs from other rooms – quite a testament to the relevance and usefulness of medieval studies!

Hugh’s lecture interrogated the rise of ISIS, breaking down the often-quoted notion that Western intervention in the Middle East was the sole cause of the rise and popularity of IS. Instead, he linked this as one contributing factor with the failure of Middle Eastern nationalism and socialism. IS seeks to break both of these down; national borders won’t matter in the Caliphate, and neither will the will of the people – only the will of Allah.

Hugh’s lecture was especially focussed on Dabiq, the glossy magazine produced by IS as a recruitment and propaganda tool, and how it continually places IS on the ‘intellectual high ground’, representing them as the ‘true’ Muslims based on their (supposedly) superior understanding of the Hadith, and early Muslim History.

Even the name of the magazine itself is a reference to a small village in Syria, and a village which is the site of apocalyptic speculation – the place where the final battle will take place between the forces of Islam, and its enemies. The magazine is only dated by the lunar month and the Muslim calendar, and within it’s densely packed with coded language, constructed out of references to the Hadith. For example, those Muslims who reject the ‘true’ Islam preached by Islamic State, are referred to as murtadds – an early Muslim word for apostates that referred to those who rejected the early caliphs.

dabiq-5-front-back-pgsThe pictures in the magazine also recall early Islamic imagery and culture. The fighters are often pictured on horses, holding thin, curved swords, represented like early Muslim knights – with all of the same connations that a western knight might have. Pictures of beautiful young boys holding weapons also fill the pages (see right), recalling the topos of the beautiful but deadly young boy in Medieval Arabic and Persian poetry. These pictures are carefully composed shots, not candid snaps of people on the streets of Raqqa.

IS have carefully constructed an image for their ideology as one based in medieval history, and founded on a greater knowledge of the Hadith. Though they use modern technology, they use medieval imagery, and even plan to introduce their own currency with coins of real gold (despite using predominantly USD for their own transactions). Their platform is one of intellectual superiority and better knowledge of the medieval past, and this is how they position themselves as the ‘true’ Muslims, and argue for their Caliphate.

Many thanks to Hugh for a fascinating and illuminating lecture!




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