MENU

Strangers in the Darkness of Black Crows

A Critical Review of Gharābīb Sūd

Abu ʿUmar (Al Shamrani), prays to God to have mercy upon a group of Yazidi villagers who have been buried alive. Abu Musʿab (offscreen, Al Safadi) tells the men present that this is part of their initiation into ISIS.

Nathan S. French


The musalsal (miniseries) Gharābīb Sūd completed its twenty-episode run during Ramadan 2017. Please be advised that the following commentary includes spoilers for the season. The entire series is available through the “Shahid Plus” portal of MBC.net. The first episode of the series can be viewed here.

As fighters of the soon-to-be self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) swept across eastern Syria and northern Iraq in 2014, the success of their assault echoed from their mobile phones across WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube in a series of melodic, poetic recitations (nashīds) that encouraged the faithful to hasten to join the struggle in God’s cause (jihād fī sabīl Allāh). Among the most infamous of these poems was “The Clashing of the Swords” (Ṣalīl al-ṣawārim), which opened:

The clashing of the swords, the nashīd of the disdainful!

Training for fighting is the path of life

Amid the assault, tyrants are destroyed

A concealment of the beautiful voice is its echo1

The “clashing swords” rang out again at the beginning of Ramadan 1438/2017 thanks to the broadcast reach of the Saudi-owned network MBC Group. Gharābīb Sūd, a Ramadan drama that bills itself as an “intensely refined message embodying the emotional currents behind the pseudo-religious slogans” of ISIS, opens with a female voice reciting what at first sounds like “The Clashing of the Swords.”2 An astute listener, though, might notice that something is amiss. Though the rhythm and meter of the ISIS nashīd are the same (if not deliberately appropriated), the words have changed. The new lyrics open with a difficult-to-translate qurʾānic phrase, a play on the theme of darkness, though its meaning has been a source of controversy:

Gharābīb sūd! The utter darkness of the visages

Adversaries of the Lord Most High!

Enemies of progress, art, and dignity

By the might of God, we condemn them!3

The message is provocative. At the height of its territorial claims, ISIS regularly published literature on women who either fought in battles or lost husbands and children as part of the fighting, but, as the series suggests, women were instructed to conceal their bodies from the male gaze when in public and to keep their voices subdued.4 Opening a television series with the voice of a woman, appropriating the rhythm and meter of an ISIS nashīd and proclaiming the utter ruination of the movement’s creed (ʿaqīdah) and methodology (minhāj), taunts ISIS before an audience whose television screens are filled daily with scenes of instrumentalized brutality. For swords to clash, two must collide. MBC signaled it had unsheathed its blade and was ready for the battle ahead.

Across its twenty-episode run, however, the series lands a mere glancing blow.5 Gharābīb Sūd is among the first series, in any language, to attempt a depiction of Jihadi-Salafism that provides its protagonists and antagonists with substantive backgrounds that reflect the full variety of motivations bringing people to ISIS’ dawlah—both its territorial state and state of mind.6 The series allows viewers to explore a dramatization of how ISIS uses its creed to construct a narrative of the “ideal believer” and the methods by which that believer should act to transform the world in alignment with what ISIS considers the “prophetic method” (minhaj nubūwwah).7 If ISIS, as I argue here, possesses a theodicy—a narrative meant to explain the existence of the evil and persistent suffering facing the global Muslim ummah—then through its methodology, it presents to those accepting this theodicy the possibility of a transformative self-renunciation, an ascetic practice that allows its adherents to discipline both the self and the world.8

Gharābīb teases with this narrative, especially in the figure of Abu ʿUmar, a Saudi scholar of Islamic law portrayed by Rashid Shamrani, who routinely breaks the “fourth wall” of the series and explains to the audience this connection between suffering and self-renunciation. However, what dampens Abu ʿUmar’s voice, and the force of Gharābīb’s blow, is the failure of the producers, directors, and writers to resolve the tension between the demand to produce an authentic presentation of ISIS, on its own terms, and the demand to produce a work of art that counters the violent extremism ripping apart Iraqi and Syrian society.

What’s in a Name? Strange Crows in musalsal Form

Gharābīb is not the first Ramadan musalsal to tackle questions of Jihadi-Salafism and Islamism within the contemporary sociopolitical affairs of the Middle East. During Ramadan 2016, the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADM) broadcast Khiyānat Waṭan (Betrayal of the Homeland), which examined the possible rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE. 9 The Ramadan musalsal format lends itself to such charged topics. Each evening, viewers sit to watch stories unfold as they break the day’s fast with family and friends, and, given the nature of Khiyānat and Gharābīb, explore the very human issues hidden behind the day’s headlines. Yet, even before the Ramadan fast began this year, controversy emerged. “Why name the show Gharābīb,” social media voices asked, “and why translate it into English as ‘Black Crows’?”

English-language media outlets, including the New York Times and NPR, in their interviews with Ali Jaber (one of the show’s directors) published the name of the series as “Black Crows.” However, while sūd is translated as “black,” the word gharābīb is distinct from gharābiyyāt (“crows”), though they share the same Arabic three-letter root. The phrase gharābīb sūd appears in the Qurʾān, where it describes mountains as “pitch-black.”10 Ibn Manẓūr (d. 711/1311), author of an Arabic equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, suggests gharābīb refers to the darkest shades of black. To make matters more complicated, the passage of the Qurʾān in which the phrase appears uses it as part of an argument that the colors of nature exist as a manifest proof of the existence of God. Even if the title were to be translated as “Darkest Black,” a rendering that is closer to the meaning of the phrase, neither Jaber nor the media outlets interviewing him explained the association of ISIS with a qurʾānic passage intended as a proof for God’s existence.

Yet, equally lost in translation, at least in the English translation as Black Crows, is the play on the self-understanding of ISIS partisans that they are “strangers” (ghurabāʾ) in this world, a title they appropriate from two ḥadīth, one from the collection of al-Bukhārī and the other from that of Muslim. The first of these, narrated by ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar on the authority of Muḥammad, reads, “Be in the world (dunyāʾ) as though you were a stranger or one traversing a path,” while the second, narrated from Abū Hurayrah on the authority of Muḥammad, reads, “Islam began as something strange and will return to being strange. There is a blessing for those who are strangers (ghurabāʾ).”11 Although not explicitly mentioned by the characters in the series, this idea of being strangers in the world—of renouncing the material pleasures and comforts of family and friends so common to life—is a recurring motif throughout the series.

In one such moment early in the series, we meet Nawwaf, portrayed by Ahmad Shoaib, a man with an eighth-grade education who trained for ISIS by playing the popular video game “Call of Duty.” Nawwaf is ordered to be executed by the leader (amīr) of the ISIS cell featured in the series, Abu Talhah, portrayed by Mohammad Al Ahmad, when he refuses to “hasten to jihad” and carry out a martyrdom operation. Earlier, Abu Talhah executes another fighter who, when wounded, begs to be saved: “Who clings to the world rather than hastening to jihad?” Abu Talhah sneers at his corpse. An ISIS fighter, Abu Talhah suggests, is one who clings not to the corruption of this world, but instead understands his pain and suffering as divinely ordained and required.

Abu Talha (left, portrayed by Mohammed Al Ahmad), the amīr (commander) of the ISIS fighters, executes a wounded man for crying out for medical treatment. “Who came here longing for life more than death,” Abu Talha observes to Abu Musʿab (right, portrayed by Shadi Al Safadi).

Abu Talha (left, portrayed by Mohammed Al Ahmad), the amīr (commander) of the ISIS fighters, executes a wounded man for crying out for medical treatment. “Who came here longing for life more than death?” Abu Talha observes to Abu Musʿab (right, portrayed by Shadi Al Safadi).

Children are also used repeatedly by the series to reinforce the ideal of worldly renunciation. Early in the series, Hayla, a Saudi house-mother portrayed by Marwa Mohamed, joins ISIS after murdering her adulterous husband. She panics as her two young boys, Hamad and Majed, are stripped from her care and placed, under the guidance of al-Miqdad (whom we later learn is a pedophile), into a platoon of child soldiers, the “Heaven Boys.”

As Hamad and Majed are taken away, al-Khansaʾ, portrayed by Dima Aljundi, the female head of the ḥisbah, a police force tasked with upholding the moral standards of ISIS, explains to her that they will be raised “as the caliph ʿUmar instructed”—to lead rough lives, ready to fight in God’s cause.12 The boys lose their videogames and pick up Kalashnikovs, which they are later trained to shoot by aiming at live Yazidi targets. Men are fighters, to be prepared to renounce the world and its vices, while women are those who produce such men.

While the boys are raised in this militant environment, the division of sexual labor is made clear when a school bus of young girls arrives to the ISIS camp. As the bus arrives, al-Khansaʾ explains to the women assembled with her:

My sisters in God, as we taught you, the Islamic State will remain and expand by the will of God. It will bring the entire world into submission. We will see our black flags flapping over the oppressive and unjust capitals that obey the Jews and Christians. We will only reap what we sow today in the hearts of our little princesses.13

The project of world submission, we soon learn, begins with having each schoolgirl efface the Disney characters adorning their bags. Elsa from “Frozen” and the other princesses are left wearing burqahs and abayahs executed in black Sharpie to the approval of al-Khansaʾ.

Khansa (portrayed by Dima Aljundi), one of the main female officers of the ḥisba (moral accountability police forces), confronts a small girl about the depiction of Disney characters on her bag.

Al-Khansaʾ (portrayed by Dima Aljundi), one of the main female officers of the ḥisbah (moral accountability police forces), confronts a small girl about the depiction of Disney characters on her bag.

The black ink of the Sharpie, the black outfits of al-Khansaʾ and her policewomen, and the black uniform of al-Miqdad and his fellow ISIS fighters are visualizations that portray how ISIS creates “strangers” through acts of personal self-effacement. As the camp is destroyed in a series of Jordanian airstrikes in later episodes, the members of the organization explain these attacks and the deaths of those closest to them as part of a divine purpose.

We are told why this divine connection matters much earlier in the series. In one of his asides to the audience, the Saudi Islamic legal scholar Abu ʿUmar—whose daughter, Amal, portrayed by Aseel Omran, is depicted as having renounced even her responsibilities as a mother in favor of ISIS’ jihad—addresses how ISIS connects narratives of suffering to this strange self-renunciation. All political organizations, Abu ʿUmar suggests, hide their violence with rational explanations. ISIS, however, he says, does not do this: it promises its recruits nothing but death masked by ‘martyrdom.’

This is one of the strongest reasons that push people to join ISIS. The organization smartly relies on the theory that all that happens to the believer is for their own good. Defeat is a trial (ibtilāʾ) and victory is manifest victory, and for each military situation, there’s a lesson with a religious rationale. By accepting ISIS’ narrative of suffering in the world, shrouding oneself in its “darkest black,” one places oneself into a series of divine trials divinely ordained to separate true belief from hypocrisy.

Countering Crows: A Miniseries as CVE

Unfortunately, the series does not dwell on addressing the sociopolitical circumstances and factors that allow recruits to accept this pre-packaged rationale for suffering in the world. Certainly, there are glimpses. In one poignant moment, as he lays wounded underneath rubble, Khalid, an Egyptian programmer portrayed by Ramez Amir, who helped edited photos for ISIS’ Dabiq magazine, realizes that the very suffering he has sensationalized as the certain proof of ISIS’ just cause is now driving him to doubt his very commitment to the movement. However, these glimpses are ultimately lost due to the theodicy the series itself presents at the beginning of each episode—one that seeks an explanation located fully within an Islamic narrative tradition for why ISIS exists.

Every episode of the show begins with an unattributed narration, recited by a male voice, printed on the screen in a faux-Kufic script on a dark, smoke-filled background:

When you see the black banners, remain where you are in the land, move neither your hands nor your feet. Thereafter will appear a feeble people, to whom no one pays heed. Their hearts will be like fragments of iron. They are the companions of the state (aṣḥāb al-dawlah). They will fulfill neither covenant nor agreement. They will invite to the truth (ḥaqq), though they will not be among its people. Their names will reflect their offspring, their descriptions will be by villages, and their hair will flow as loosely as the hair of women. They will remain so until the quarrel among themselves. Thereafter, God will bring forth the truth from whomever he wills.14

Taken together, the voice, background, and text—which we should presume is meant to lend an aura of authenticity and authority to the series—creates an ominous atmosphere for the viewer, but also seems intended to explain that the suffering and violence of ISIS was foretold long ago.

hadith

The narration, in fact, does have a history. It is a ḥādīth from the Kitāb al-Fitan, the only surviving work by Nuʿaym b. Ḥammād (d. ca. 228/843). While he was known as one of the many teachers of the famous traditionist al-Bukhārī, within the ṭabaqāt literature, particularly in the works of al-Nasāʿī and al-Dāraquṭnī, Nuʿaym b. Ḥāmmād is known for his problematic narrations, with some suggesting that he fabricated many of his transmissions.15 The chain of transmission of the ḥadīth quoted here is “halted” (mawqūf), meaning that its chain of transmission (isnād) ends with one of the Companions, and is not a direct report from Muḥammad. In this case, the isnād terminates at the cousin and son-in-law of Muḥammad, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/660).16 However, though halted narrations are not often considered valid for legal adjudication, several Sunnī scholars of the science of ḥadīth, including Ibn al-Ṣalāh (d. 643/1245), al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277), and Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449), consider such ḥadīth to be useful for the edification of personal morals, for religious practice, for historical evidence, and for eschatological understanding.

For many viewers of the show, and perhaps readers here, this ḥadīth was made famous by the “Open Letter to Baghdādī” addressed to the self-proclaimed “caliph” by internationally renowned Muslim scholars such as ʿAbd Allāh bin Bayyah, Shawqi Allam, Ali Gomaa, and Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri, as well as American scholars and Islamic religious figures such as Hamza Yusuf and Yasir Qadhi.17 The letter, which explicitly condemns ISIS and therefore the actions of various characters portrayed in the show—including the issuance of fatwās without the necessary academic education, the destruction of graves and shrines, the killing of the innocent, the denial of rights to women and children, the denial of the rights of religious minorities like Yazidis, and the use of compulsion for forced conversion—concludes with this same ḥadīth, and raises the question, “Is it possible to understand the ḥadīth as follows?” It then attempts to align, by way of exegesis, various passages of the narration with historical events. The “black flags,” therefore, are “the flags of the ‘Islamic State’,” the “feeble people” are those “‘insignificant’ in terms of understanding of religion,” and as for their claim of a state (dawlah), “for almost a century, no one has claimed to be an Islamic Caliphate other than the current ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and the Levant.”18 The authors and signatories conclude that the letter itself is a sign of God bringing forth “truth” from the error of those quarreling.

Many of the signatories of the letter to Baghdadi, including Bin Bayyah and Hamza Yusuf, featured quite frequently in public conversations condemning ISIS that occurred in concert with the Obama administration’s “Combating Violent Extremism” initiative.19 Gharābīb fits within this conversation as well. As Jamil Khader noted for Al-Jazeera, Ali Jaber, the aforementioned director of Gharābīb, gave a lecture on “how to achieve victory” to assembled members of the anti-ISIS coalition, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in March 2017. For Khader, Jaber’s participation in such activities classifies Gharābīb as a product meant for “counter-extremism” and places it firmly within the impasse of a post-ideological politics wherein “everyone is allegedly united in the fight against this terrorist pandemic, regardless of religious creed, political persuasion, or ideological conviction.” However, Khader adds, “ideology and politics happen to be at the heart of the problem.” Is he right?20

In March 2015, Graeme Wood published an article in The Atlantic entitled, “What ISIS Really Wants.” 21 Like Gharābīb Sūd, the article was a provocation. In this instance, however, the article claimed that ISIS is not simply “Islamic”; it is, Wood wrote, “very Islamic,” and that emphatic, italicized assertion produced substantial critiques by Muslims and non-Muslims alike rejecting and refuting any comparison between the practices and beliefs of ISIS and the diversity of beliefs and practices of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.22 Like Wood, Gharābīb attempts to answer the question of whether ISIS is “really” Islamic and, as the narration opening each episode suggests, the answer is “no.” Islamic traditions, the series asserts, long ago foresaw the danger and threat posed by ISIS; those same traditions, the series suggests, also present a solution.

As young men and women come to the camps, women are encouraged to promote modesty and virtuous living (largely by erasing their public identities) and young men are raised to fight, kill, and die using Yazidi targets in the service of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

As young men and women come to the camps, women are encouraged to promote modesty and virtuous living (largely by erasing their public identities) and young men are raised to fight, kill, and die using Yazidi targets in the service of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

This is not to say that the series does not acknowledge that ISIS certainly creates a narrative that feels “Islamic” to its partisans. Following the violent shooting of an elderly woman in the marketplace who refused to remove patterned plates from her stall, two characters, Sara and Ghadir, portrayed by Mona Shaddad and Maram al-Balushi, rationalize her death because her murderer, “reads the Qurʾān all the time,” and, therefore, they assume, must know more than they do. The series makes similar moves as it tackles the sensational headlines of the movement: their targeting of innocent Muslim communities, the manufacture and distribution of amphetamines, the usage of child soldiers, the enslavement of Yazidis and the harvest of their organs, the destruction of antiquities, their forgery of passports, and the idea of the “sexual jihad” (jihād al-nikāḥ). The series presents each of these issues in turn as objective realities of life under ISIS in order to continually contrast, and hopefully undermine, the claims of ISIS to any Islamic legitimacy. Often, the commentary of Abu ʿUmar is used to argue against these practices, such as his discussion with another fighter that while slavery was regulated by Muḥammad, both the Prophet and the Qurʾān actually encouraged its gradual abolition.

Unfortunately, the series fails to create a convincing counter-narrative. While there is substantial evidence of ISIS’ slave trafficking and sexual trafficking, the usage of forged passports, and the brutal and systematic eradication of both majority-Muslim and minority communities, there is scant evidence for the drug trade.23 Equally, the organ trade depicted by the show, in which the organs of Yazidi slaves are harvested, has not yet been fully proven.24 Such false claims may add to the perceived hypocrisy of the movement, but will do little to dissuade future fighters. Perhaps the greatest failure of the series, however, is its promotion of the idea of the “sexual jihad.”

Up to the present, little to no textual evidence has been uncovered suggesting that ISIS ever encouraged women to migrate to Raqqa with the intent of satisfying the sexual needs of soldiers. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that the entire concept was manufactured as a form of “counter-propaganda” meant to discredit the movement.25 Yet, it was precisely the depiction of this issue that drove substantial condemnation of the series—not by members of ISIS, who had long before signaled their displeasure with the series by issuing death threats against the female actresses of the show—but rather by a variety of commentators and social media posts that decried the shallow depiction of Sunni women as rampant, lustful sexual beings.26 The negative impact on the series may be irreparable. Rather than dissuading a small segment of disaffected people, the pushback against the series may have discredited the entire project.

If the writers and producers met with Islamic legal scholars, journalists, and researchers, as they claimed, to verify the authenticity of the series, it is unfortunate that they did not draw out Abu ʿUmar’s character further, because his character offers an opportunity to show how older generations may have once lost, but may yet recover, their own children who head off to fight. Imagine how powerful it would have been to see Abu ʿUmar explore the political decisions and religious interpretations of his generation in conversation with his daughter, Amal, a committed ISIS fighter originally kidnapped by her ISIS-affiliated husband. How might Amal have responded as Abu ʿUmar transformed the nature and origins of her seething anger at his faith and lifestyle into a mutual recognition of the multitude of social, political, and perhaps even religious challenges of his generation?27 The question of justifications for the use of force is present within the show, but it does little to show how Jihadi-Salafi narratives take shape within specific sociopolitical climates.

Abu ʿUmar (left, portrayed by Rashid Al Shamrani), who acts as an informal narrator, confronts his daughter Amal (right, portrayed by Aseel Omran), who was kidnapped by her husband, an ISIS fighter, and taken to Syria.

Abu ʿUmar (left, portrayed by Rashid Al Shamrani), who acts as an informal narrator, confronts his daughter Amal (right, portrayed by Aseel Omran), who was kidnapped by her husband, an ISIS fighter, and taken to Syria.

Oddly, throughout the show, there is little mention made of the genealogy of these movements. This is unfortunate. Abū Bakr al-Nājī, whose text the Management of Savagery exerted a substantial influence on the anti-Shi’i campaign of Abū Musʿab al-Zarqawī and continues to influence ISIS strategy to this day, was written during the complete destabilization of Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003.28 Al-Nājī did not seek to end western invasions and sectarian warfare in his path toward an “Islamic State.” Instead, he called for brutal and systemic violence against traumatized populations in order to force their total acceptance of an imposed political reality.

By making the connection between al-Nājī’s Management of Savagery and Gharābīb clear to the audience, the production team could have provided one of their strongest critiques of ISIS: that ISIS and like-minded Jihadi-Salafi movements do not actually seek to end violence, but rather exacerbate it so that they may exploit the current sociopolitical climate. The suffering, pain, bloodshed, and brutality that Syrians and Iraqis—not to mention Yemenis, Somalis, and Afghanis, among others—face on a daily basis are, for ISIS, that which gives it life. That is the great paradox of ISIS: even as it uses the violence faced by Muslims to recruit, it also instigates violence against the populations within which it arises to continue to destabilize societies and thus ensure its continued existence. It is a parasitic relationship.

Almost tragically, the series gives viewers a brief glimpse of this very insight. At one moment, Abu ʿUmar turns to the audience and says, “These movements pass away, but the idea never passes away.” As I watched that scene, I moved to the edge of my seat. “Finally,” I thought, “here is the moment. The moment when the show reaches through that ‘darkest black’ and offers a hand to viewers who may be watching this show on a mobile phone in a camp, faced with unimaginable suffering. Here is the moment where the show acknowledges that suffering, and shows them another path.” With a multi-national cast, depicting Arabs and Muslims from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, here was the chance for each of those characters to speak to their national communities, to bring about the hard conversations on politics, economics, and religion in a way that only art can. Yet, even Abu ʿUmar ultimately loses hope; at the conclusion of the series, he flees with his grandchild and abandons his daughter Amal to ISIS, calling her a “failure.” The series ends on a feeling of helplessness. The swords will continue to clash in the utter darkness, while we are all left struggling to explain why.

 

NATHAN S. FRENCH is an assistant professor of Comparative Religion and an affiliate in International Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2013. At present, he is completing his first monograph, And God Knows the Martyrs: Theodicy, Violence, and Asceticism in Jihadi-Salafism.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all digital content cited in this article was accessed and still live on July 13, 2017.

  1. In Arabic, “Ṣalīl al-ṣawārim nashīd al-ʿubāh / darab al-qitāl ṭarīq al-ḥayāʾ / fa-bayn iqtiḥām yabīd al-ṭughāh / wa-kātim ṣawt jamīl ṣadāhu.” For the full nashīd see “Ajnād Foundation For Media Production Presents a New Nashīd from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām: ‘Clanging of the Swords, Nashīd Of The Defiant’,” Jihadology.net, June 16, 2014. Author’s translation.
  2. ʿAn musalsal, MBC.net, n.d.
  3. For the theme of the opening credits, see Tatir al-nihāyah bi’l-kāmilāt / Musalsal ‘gharābīb sūd’ tanẓīm dāʾish / Gharabeeb Soud,” YouTube.com, May 30, 2017. [As of July 11, 2017, the clip has been removed. The opening credits with the nashīd can be viewed at the beginning of the first episode, available for streaming via YouTube here.]
  4. For the role of women in martyrologies, see Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Stories of the Mujahideen: Women of the Islamic State,” Aymennjawad.org, October 17, 2016.
  5. Of course, Jihadi-Salafism is not an easy subject matter for researchers, analysts, journalists, and filmmakers. For some time, Hollywood has struggled with adding dimensionality to its jihadi characters, often reducing them to attackers with AK-47s, crudely made explosive belts, and a face concealed beneath a shemagh, all set to an endlessly looping soundtrack of the call to prayer and relentless proclamations of the takbīr, “Allahu Akbar!”
  6. Another popular series that attempted a similar project was Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell,” which enjoyed a two-season run from 2005-2006.
  7. Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), has a systematic analysis of this relationship. For a version of an ISIS creed, see Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, no. 19 (March 2015): 38-42.
  8. I am not alone in this suggestion. See Ziya Meral, “The Question of Theodicy and Jihad,” War on the Rocks, February 26, 2015.
  9. Andrew Hammond, “Ramadan TV,” Pop Culture in the North Africa and the Middle East: Entertainment and Society (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017), 149-150.
  10. Q Fāṭir 35:27. This is the translation given in Sayyed Hossein Nasr et al. (eds.), The Study Quran (New York: HarperCollins, 2015). In the M. A. S. Abdel Haleem translation (New York: Oxford, 2004), the phrase is rendered as “jet-black.”
  11. Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, no. 6416; Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj, Ṣaḥīḥ, no. 144. Author’s translation.
  12. It seems likely the character of al-Khansaʾ is mean to be a dramatic embodiment of the Al-Khansāʾ Brigades, an all-female regiment of fighters for ISIS. An analysis and translation of their manifesto was produced by Charlie Winter, “Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-Khansaa Brigade,” Quilliam Foundation, January 2015.
  13. The phrase “remaining and expanding (bāqiyya wa-tatamaddud)” is a constant within ISIS propaganda describing the caliphate. For more on its use, see Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Clairvoyant: Colonial Caliphate: The Ambitions of the ‘Islamic State’,” Jihadology, 8 July 2014.
  14. Author’s translation varies from the subtitles of the opening credits.
  15. Charles Pellat, “Nuʿaym b. Ḥammād,” in Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd ed.; Brill, 1954–2005), s.v.
  16. Nuʿaym b. Ḥammād al-Marwazī, Kitāb al-Fitan, ed. Samīr Amīn al-Zuhayrī (Cairo: Maktabat al-Tawḥīd, 1412 [1991-1992), 1.210, no. 573.
  17. “Open Letter to al-Baghdadi,” September 19, 2014.
  18. Ibid., 17.
  19. See, for example, Garrett Nada and Melissa Nozell, “Muslims Condemning Violent Extremism? Count the Ways,” USIP.org, March 17, 2015.
  20. There is some small caution warranted in citing Khader’s Al-Jazeera piece. The MBC Group also owns the media outlet Al-ʿArabiyyah and, with the declaration of the economic boycott by Saudi Arabia and UAE, among other countries, against Qatar, the pieces on Gharābīb on Al-ʿArabiyyah and the Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera turned polemical. Compare ʿAbd Allāh bin Bajād al-ʿUtaybī, Al-Drāmā wa-l-irhāb,” Al-ʿArabiyyah, June 4, 2017; Muḥammad al-Rashīdī, Gharābīb sūd,” Al-ʿArabiyyah, June 5, 2017; Fādil al-ʿUmānī, Gharābīb sūd: al-ḥaqīqah al-marrah,” Al-ʿArabiyyah, June 11, 2017; and Mamdūḥ al-Muhaynī, Li-madhā aghdab ‘gharābīb sūd’ al-mutaṭarrifīn?” Al-ʿArabiyyah, June 1, 2017 with pieces by Fady ʿAlwān, Gharābīb sūd … wa-shayātīn al-ins wa-l-iʿlām,” Al-Jazeera, June 8, 2017; Nawras Abū Ṣāliḥ, Gharābīb sūd … li-nufajjir Al-Jazeera, June 4, 2017; and Musalsalāt tathīr ghaḍab al-mushāhidīn bi-shahr ramaḍān,” Al-Jazeera, June 2, 2017. In general, the Al Jazeera pieces maintain that the series is a corruption of Islam and good Arab morality, while the Al-ʿArabiyyah pieces defend the series as challenging the very essence of ISIS’ success.
  21. See Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015.
  22. For a catalogue and critical review of responses to Wood see Simon Cottee, “‘What ISIS Really Wants’ Revisited: Religion Matters in Jihadist Violence, but How?” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 40 (2017): 439-454.
  23. Although there are reports of drug trafficking in ISIS territory (see Rukmini Callimachi and Lorenzo Tondo, “Scaling Up a Drug Trade, Straight Through ISIS Turf,” New York Times, September 13, 2016), the documentary evidence from ISIS itself suggests that its commanders were discouraged from drug usage altogether. See Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Military Commanders Manual: Qualities and Manners of the Mujahid Commander,” Aymennjawad.org, April 11, 2016.
  24. The original evidence of an ISIS illegal organ-harvesting program and black market emerged from a ruling seized by U.S. Special Operations raids in January 2015; see “Islamic State Sanctioned Organ Harvesting from Captives in Document Taken in US Raid,” Vice News, December 25, 2015. The original English translation of the document, provided by the U.S. government, has since been taken down. In other ISIS fatwās on jihad and slavery, permission is denied to take an organ from a living person that leads to serious harm to the living; see “The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Fatwas on Jihad and Sabaya,” Aymennjawad.org, September 25, 2015.
  25. The genealogy of this claim of “sexual jihad” deserves a longer treatment. As a general definition, media sources use “sexual jihad” to describe a temporary contractual relationship between a man and a woman to have sexual relations. The claim made against ISIS is that women are told that their relationships with these multiple contractual partners are a form of female jihad. The earliest stories of the “sexual jihad” come from a set of claims made by a Tunisian interior minister; see Daniel DeFraia, “Tunisian Women on ‘Sexual Jihad’ Return from Syria Pregnant: Minister (video),” PRI, September 20, 2013. This does not mean, however, that women were not encouraged to join ISIS seeking a spouse: see Nadim Roberts, “The Life of a Jihadi Wife: Why One Canadian Woman Joined ISIS’s Islamic State,” CBC News, July 7, 2014. Further, we have documentary evidence of ISIS marriage contracts: see Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Stories of the Mujahideen: Women of the Islamic State,” Aymennjawad.org, October 17, 2016.
  26. Several Syrian religious scholars condemned this “un-Islamic” depiction of women; see “‘ʿUlamāʾ al-muslimīn’ al-sūriyya taḥarrama mushāhidat ‘gharābīb sūd‘,” El Mesryoon, June 6, 2017. See also Muḥammad Jamāl, “‘Jihād al-nikāḥ’ ʿanwān al-ḥarb ʿalā dāʿish…li-mādhā yathīr musalsal ‘gharābīb sūd’ ghaḍab ʿulamāʾ al-azhar?” Huffington Post (Arabic edition), June 8, 2017. For stories about the death threats, see Ismael Naar, “Ramadan Series ‘Black Crows’ Actresses tell Al Arabiya of ISIS Death Threats,” Al Arabiya English, 30 May 2017.
  27. Consider, for example, if the scene had followed the self-confessional model of Omar Saif Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim (New York: Picador, 2016).
  28. For a biography and history of Abū Bakr al-Najī’s contribution to ISIS, see Brian Fishman, The Masterplan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 37-39, 42, 45, 217. For the text itself see Abū Bakr al-Najī, Idārat al-Tawaḥḥush, trans. Will McCants (Cambridge, MA: John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, May 23, 2006).

Add comment

You entered an incorrect username or password

Sorry, you must be logged in to post a comment.

Strangers in the Darkness of Black Crows

A Critical Review of Gharābīb Sūd


Nathan S. French


The musalsal (miniseries) Gharābīb Sūd completed its twenty-episode run during Ramadan 2017. Please be advised that the following commentary includes spoilers for the season. The entire series is available through the “Shahid Plus” portal of MBC.net. The first episode of the series can be viewed here.

As fighters of the soon-to-be self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) swept across eastern Syria and northern Iraq in 2014, the success of their assault echoed from their mobile phones across WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube in a series of melodic, poetic recitations (nashīds) that encouraged the faithful to hasten to join the struggle in God’s cause (jihād fī sabīl Allāh). Among the most infamous of these poems was “The Clashing of the Swords” (Ṣalīl al-ṣawārim), which opened:

The clashing of the swords, the nashīd of the disdainful!

Training for fighting is the path of life

Amid the assault, tyrants are destroyed

A concealment of the beautiful voice is its echo1

The “clashing swords” rang out again at the beginning of Ramadan 1438/2017 thanks to the broadcast reach of the Saudi-owned network MBC Group. Gharābīb Sūd, a Ramadan drama that bills itself as an “intensely refined message embodying the emotional currents behind the pseudo-religious slogans” of ISIS, opens with a female voice reciting what at first sounds like “The Clashing of the Swords.”2 An astute listener, though, might notice that something is amiss. Though the rhythm and meter of the ISIS nashīd are the same (if not deliberately appropriated), the words have changed. The new lyrics open with a difficult-to-translate qurʾānic phrase, a play on the theme of darkness, though its meaning has been a source of controversy:

Gharābīb sūd! The utter darkness of the visages

Adversaries of the Lord Most High!

Enemies of progress, art, and dignity

By the might of God, we condemn them!3

The message is provocative. At the height of its territorial claims, ISIS regularly published literature on women who either fought in battles or lost husbands and children as part of the fighting, but, as the series suggests, women were instructed to conceal their bodies from the male gaze when in public and to keep their voices subdued.4 Opening a television series with the voice of a woman, appropriating the rhythm and meter of an ISIS nashīd and proclaiming the utter ruination of the movement’s creed (ʿaqīdah) and methodology (minhāj), taunts ISIS before an audience whose television screens are filled daily with scenes of instrumentalized brutality. For swords to clash, two must collide. MBC signaled it had unsheathed its blade and was ready for the battle ahead.

Across its twenty-episode run, however, the series lands a mere glancing blow.5 Gharābīb Sūd is among the first series, in any language, to attempt a depiction of Jihadi-Salafism that provides its protagonists and antagonists with substantive backgrounds that reflect the full variety of motivations bringing people to ISIS’ dawlah—both its territorial state and state of mind.6 The series allows viewers to explore a dramatization of how ISIS uses its creed to construct a narrative of the “ideal believer” and the methods by which that believer should act to transform the world in alignment with what ISIS considers the “prophetic method” (minhaj nubūwwah).7 If ISIS, as I argue here, possesses a theodicy—a narrative meant to explain the existence of the evil and persistent suffering facing the global Muslim ummah—then through its methodology, it presents to those accepting this theodicy the possibility of a transformative self-renunciation, an ascetic practice that allows its adherents to discipline both the self and the world.8

Gharābīb teases with this narrative, especially in the figure of Abu ʿUmar, a Saudi scholar of Islamic law portrayed by Rashid Shamrani, who routinely breaks the “fourth wall” of the series and explains to the audience this connection between suffering and self-renunciation. However, what dampens Abu ʿUmar’s voice, and the force of Gharābīb’s blow, is the failure of the producers, directors, and writers to resolve the tension between the demand to produce an authentic presentation of ISIS, on its own terms, and the demand to produce a work of art that counters the violent extremism ripping apart Iraqi and Syrian society.

What’s in a Name? Strange Crows in musalsal Form

Gharābīb is not the first Ramadan musalsal to tackle questions of Jihadi-Salafism and Islamism within the contemporary sociopolitical affairs of the Middle East. During Ramadan 2016, the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADM) broadcast Khiyānat Waṭan (Betrayal of the Homeland), which examined the possible rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE. 9 The Ramadan musalsal format lends itself to such charged topics. Each evening, viewers sit to watch stories unfold as they break the day’s fast with family and friends, and, given the nature of Khiyānat and Gharābīb, explore the very human issues hidden behind the day’s headlines. Yet, even before the Ramadan fast began this year, controversy emerged. “Why name the show Gharābīb,” social media voices asked, “and why translate it into English as ‘Black Crows’?”

English-language media outlets, including the New York Times and NPR, in their interviews with Ali Jaber (one of the show’s directors) published the name of the series as “Black Crows.” However, while sūd is translated as “black,” the word gharābīb is distinct from gharābiyyāt (“crows”), though they share the same Arabic three-letter root. The phrase gharābīb sūd appears in the Qurʾān, where it describes mountains as “pitch-black.”10 Ibn Manẓūr (d. 711/1311), author of an Arabic equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, suggests gharābīb refers to the darkest shades of black. To make matters more complicated, the passage of the Qurʾān in which the phrase appears uses it as part of an argument that the colors of nature exist as a manifest proof of the existence of God. Even if the title were to be translated as “Darkest Black,” a rendering that is closer to the meaning of the phrase, neither Jaber nor the media outlets interviewing him explained the association of ISIS with a qurʾānic passage intended as a proof for God’s existence.

Yet, equally lost in translation, at least in the English translation as Black Crows, is the play on the self-understanding of ISIS partisans that they are “strangers” (ghurabāʾ) in this world, a title they appropriate from two ḥadīth, one from the collection of al-Bukhārī and the other from that of Muslim. The first of these, narrated by ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar on the authority of Muḥammad, reads, “Be in the world (dunyāʾ) as though you were a stranger or one traversing a path,” while the second, narrated from Abū Hurayrah on the authority of Muḥammad, reads, “Islam began as something strange and will return to being strange. There is a blessing for those who are strangers (ghurabāʾ).”11 Although not explicitly mentioned by the characters in the series, this idea of being strangers in the world—of renouncing the material pleasures and comforts of family and friends so common to life—is a recurring motif throughout the series.

In one such moment early in the series, we meet Nawwaf, portrayed by Ahmad Shoaib, a man with an eighth-grade education who trained for ISIS by playing the popular video game “Call of Duty.” Nawwaf is ordered to be executed by the leader (amīr) of the ISIS cell featured in the series, Abu Talhah, portrayed by Mohammad Al Ahmad, when he refuses to “hasten to jihad” and carry out a martyrdom operation. Earlier, Abu Talhah executes another fighter who, when wounded, begs to be saved: “Who clings to the world rather than hastening to jihad?” Abu Talhah sneers at his corpse. An ISIS fighter, Abu Talhah suggests, is one who clings not to the corruption of this world, but instead understands his pain and suffering as divinely ordained and required.

Abu Talha (left, portrayed by Mohammed Al Ahmad), the amīr (commander) of the ISIS fighters, executes a wounded man for crying out for medical treatment. “Who came here longing for life more than death,” Abu Talha observes to Abu Musʿab (right, portrayed by Shadi Al Safadi).

Abu Talha (left, portrayed by Mohammed Al Ahmad), the amīr (commander) of the ISIS fighters, executes a wounded man for crying out for medical treatment. “Who came here longing for life more than death?” Abu Talha observes to Abu Musʿab (right, portrayed by Shadi Al Safadi).

Children are also used repeatedly by the series to reinforce the ideal of worldly renunciation. Early in the series, Hayla, a Saudi house-mother portrayed by Marwa Mohamed, joins ISIS after murdering her adulterous husband. She panics as her two young boys, Hamad and Majed, are stripped from her care and placed, under the guidance of al-Miqdad (whom we later learn is a pedophile), into a platoon of child soldiers, the “Heaven Boys.”

As Hamad and Majed are taken away, al-Khansaʾ, portrayed by Dima Aljundi, the female head of the ḥisbah, a police force tasked with upholding the moral standards of ISIS, explains to her that they will be raised “as the caliph ʿUmar instructed”—to lead rough lives, ready to fight in God’s cause.12 The boys lose their videogames and pick up Kalashnikovs, which they are later trained to shoot by aiming at live Yazidi targets. Men are fighters, to be prepared to renounce the world and its vices, while women are those who produce such men.

While the boys are raised in this militant environment, the division of sexual labor is made clear when a school bus of young girls arrives to the ISIS camp. As the bus arrives, al-Khansaʾ explains to the women assembled with her:

My sisters in God, as we taught you, the Islamic State will remain and expand by the will of God. It will bring the entire world into submission. We will see our black flags flapping over the oppressive and unjust capitals that obey the Jews and Christians. We will only reap what we sow today in the hearts of our little princesses.13

The project of world submission, we soon learn, begins with having each schoolgirl efface the Disney characters adorning their bags. Elsa from “Frozen” and the other princesses are left wearing burqahs and abayahs executed in black Sharpie to the approval of al-Khansaʾ.

Khansa (portrayed by Dima Aljundi), one of the main female officers of the ḥisba (moral accountability police forces), confronts a small girl about the depiction of Disney characters on her bag.

Al-Khansaʾ (portrayed by Dima Aljundi), one of the main female officers of the ḥisbah (moral accountability police forces), confronts a small girl about the depiction of Disney characters on her bag.

The black ink of the Sharpie, the black outfits of al-Khansaʾ and her policewomen, and the black uniform of al-Miqdad and his fellow ISIS fighters are visualizations that portray how ISIS creates “strangers” through acts of personal self-effacement. As the camp is destroyed in a series of Jordanian airstrikes in later episodes, the members of the organization explain these attacks and the deaths of those closest to them as part of a divine purpose.

We are told why this divine connection matters much earlier in the series. In one of his asides to the audience, the Saudi Islamic legal scholar Abu ʿUmar—whose daughter, Amal, portrayed by Aseel Omran, is depicted as having renounced even her responsibilities as a mother in favor of ISIS’ jihad—addresses how ISIS connects narratives of suffering to this strange self-renunciation. All political organizations, Abu ʿUmar suggests, hide their violence with rational explanations. ISIS, however, he says, does not do this: it promises its recruits nothing but death masked by ‘martyrdom.’

This is one of the strongest reasons that push people to join ISIS. The organization smartly relies on the theory that all that happens to the believer is for their own good. Defeat is a trial (ibtilāʾ) and victory is manifest victory, and for each military situation, there’s a lesson with a religious rationale. By accepting ISIS’ narrative of suffering in the world, shrouding oneself in its “darkest black,” one places oneself into a series of divine trials divinely ordained to separate true belief from hypocrisy.

Countering Crows: A Miniseries as CVE

Unfortunately, the series does not dwell on addressing the sociopolitical circumstances and factors that allow recruits to accept this pre-packaged rationale for suffering in the world. Certainly, there are glimpses. In one poignant moment, as he lays wounded underneath rubble, Khalid, an Egyptian programmer portrayed by Ramez Amir, who helped edited photos for ISIS’ Dabiq magazine, realizes that the very suffering he has sensationalized as the certain proof of ISIS’ just cause is now driving him to doubt his very commitment to the movement. However, these glimpses are ultimately lost due to the theodicy the series itself presents at the beginning of each episode—one that seeks an explanation located fully within an Islamic narrative tradition for why ISIS exists.

Every episode of the show begins with an unattributed narration, recited by a male voice, printed on the screen in a faux-Kufic script on a dark, smoke-filled background:

When you see the black banners, remain where you are in the land, move neither your hands nor your feet. Thereafter will appear a feeble people, to whom no one pays heed. Their hearts will be like fragments of iron. They are the companions of the state (aṣḥāb al-dawlah). They will fulfill neither covenant nor agreement. They will invite to the truth (ḥaqq), though they will not be among its people. Their names will reflect their offspring, their descriptions will be by villages, and their hair will flow as loosely as the hair of women. They will remain so until the quarrel among themselves. Thereafter, God will bring forth the truth from whomever he wills.14

Taken together, the voice, background, and text—which we should presume is meant to lend an aura of authenticity and authority to the series—creates an ominous atmosphere for the viewer, but also seems intended to explain that the suffering and violence of ISIS was foretold long ago.

hadith

The narration, in fact, does have a history. It is a ḥādīth from the Kitāb al-Fitan, the only surviving work by Nuʿaym b. Ḥammād (d. ca. 228/843). While he was known as one of the many teachers of the famous traditionist al-Bukhārī, within the ṭabaqāt literature, particularly in the works of al-Nasāʿī and al-Dāraquṭnī, Nuʿaym b. Ḥāmmād is known for his problematic narrations, with some suggesting that he fabricated many of his transmissions.15 The chain of transmission of the ḥadīth quoted here is “halted” (mawqūf), meaning that its chain of transmission (isnād) ends with one of the Companions, and is not a direct report from Muḥammad. In this case, the isnād terminates at the cousin and son-in-law of Muḥammad, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/660).16 However, though halted narrations are not often considered valid for legal adjudication, several Sunnī scholars of the science of ḥadīth, including Ibn al-Ṣalāh (d. 643/1245), al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277), and Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449), consider such ḥadīth to be useful for the edification of personal morals, for religious practice, for historical evidence, and for eschatological understanding.

For many viewers of the show, and perhaps readers here, this ḥadīth was made famous by the “Open Letter to Baghdādī” addressed to the self-proclaimed “caliph” by internationally renowned Muslim scholars such as ʿAbd Allāh bin Bayyah, Shawqi Allam, Ali Gomaa, and Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri, as well as American scholars and Islamic religious figures such as Hamza Yusuf and Yasir Qadhi.17 The letter, which explicitly condemns ISIS and therefore the actions of various characters portrayed in the show—including the issuance of fatwās without the necessary academic education, the destruction of graves and shrines, the killing of the innocent, the denial of rights to women and children, the denial of the rights of religious minorities like Yazidis, and the use of compulsion for forced conversion—concludes with this same ḥadīth, and raises the question, “Is it possible to understand the ḥadīth as follows?” It then attempts to align, by way of exegesis, various passages of the narration with historical events. The “black flags,” therefore, are “the flags of the ‘Islamic State’,” the “feeble people” are those “‘insignificant’ in terms of understanding of religion,” and as for their claim of a state (dawlah), “for almost a century, no one has claimed to be an Islamic Caliphate other than the current ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and the Levant.”18 The authors and signatories conclude that the letter itself is a sign of God bringing forth “truth” from the error of those quarreling.

Many of the signatories of the letter to Baghdadi, including Bin Bayyah and Hamza Yusuf, featured quite frequently in public conversations condemning ISIS that occurred in concert with the Obama administration’s “Combating Violent Extremism” initiative.19 Gharābīb fits within this conversation as well. As Jamil Khader noted for Al-Jazeera, Ali Jaber, the aforementioned director of Gharābīb, gave a lecture on “how to achieve victory” to assembled members of the anti-ISIS coalition, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in March 2017. For Khader, Jaber’s participation in such activities classifies Gharābīb as a product meant for “counter-extremism” and places it firmly within the impasse of a post-ideological politics wherein “everyone is allegedly united in the fight against this terrorist pandemic, regardless of religious creed, political persuasion, or ideological conviction.” However, Khader adds, “ideology and politics happen to be at the heart of the problem.” Is he right?20

In March 2015, Graeme Wood published an article in The Atlantic entitled, “What ISIS Really Wants.” 21 Like Gharābīb Sūd, the article was a provocation. In this instance, however, the article claimed that ISIS is not simply “Islamic”; it is, Wood wrote, “very Islamic,” and that emphatic, italicized assertion produced substantial critiques by Muslims and non-Muslims alike rejecting and refuting any comparison between the practices and beliefs of ISIS and the diversity of beliefs and practices of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.22 Like Wood, Gharābīb attempts to answer the question of whether ISIS is “really” Islamic and, as the narration opening each episode suggests, the answer is “no.” Islamic traditions, the series asserts, long ago foresaw the danger and threat posed by ISIS; those same traditions, the series suggests, also present a solution.

As young men and women come to the camps, women are encouraged to promote modesty and virtuous living (largely by erasing their public identities) and young men are raised to fight, kill, and die using Yazidi targets in the service of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

As young men and women come to the camps, women are encouraged to promote modesty and virtuous living (largely by erasing their public identities) and young men are raised to fight, kill, and die using Yazidi targets in the service of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

This is not to say that the series does not acknowledge that ISIS certainly creates a narrative that feels “Islamic” to its partisans. Following the violent shooting of an elderly woman in the marketplace who refused to remove patterned plates from her stall, two characters, Sara and Ghadir, portrayed by Mona Shaddad and Maram al-Balushi, rationalize her death because her murderer, “reads the Qurʾān all the time,” and, therefore, they assume, must know more than they do. The series makes similar moves as it tackles the sensational headlines of the movement: their targeting of innocent Muslim communities, the manufacture and distribution of amphetamines, the usage of child soldiers, the enslavement of Yazidis and the harvest of their organs, the destruction of antiquities, their forgery of passports, and the idea of the “sexual jihad” (jihād al-nikāḥ). The series presents each of these issues in turn as objective realities of life under ISIS in order to continually contrast, and hopefully undermine, the claims of ISIS to any Islamic legitimacy. Often, the commentary of Abu ʿUmar is used to argue against these practices, such as his discussion with another fighter that while slavery was regulated by Muḥammad, both the Prophet and the Qurʾān actually encouraged its gradual abolition.

Unfortunately, the series fails to create a convincing counter-narrative. While there is substantial evidence of ISIS’ slave trafficking and sexual trafficking, the usage of forged passports, and the brutal and systematic eradication of both majority-Muslim and minority communities, there is scant evidence for the drug trade.23 Equally, the organ trade depicted by the show, in which the organs of Yazidi slaves are harvested, has not yet been fully proven.24 Such false claims may add to the perceived hypocrisy of the movement, but will do little to dissuade future fighters. Perhaps the greatest failure of the series, however, is its promotion of the idea of the “sexual jihad.”

Up to the present, little to no textual evidence has been uncovered suggesting that ISIS ever encouraged women to migrate to Raqqa with the intent of satisfying the sexual needs of soldiers. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that the entire concept was manufactured as a form of “counter-propaganda” meant to discredit the movement.25 Yet, it was precisely the depiction of this issue that drove substantial condemnation of the series—not by members of ISIS, who had long before signaled their displeasure with the series by issuing death threats against the female actresses of the show—but rather by a variety of commentators and social media posts that decried the shallow depiction of Sunni women as rampant, lustful sexual beings.26 The negative impact on the series may be irreparable. Rather than dissuading a small segment of disaffected people, the pushback against the series may have discredited the entire project.

If the writers and producers met with Islamic legal scholars, journalists, and researchers, as they claimed, to verify the authenticity of the series, it is unfortunate that they did not draw out Abu ʿUmar’s character further, because his character offers an opportunity to show how older generations may have once lost, but may yet recover, their own children who head off to fight. Imagine how powerful it would have been to see Abu ʿUmar explore the political decisions and religious interpretations of his generation in conversation with his daughter, Amal, a committed ISIS fighter originally kidnapped by her ISIS-affiliated husband. How might Amal have responded as Abu ʿUmar transformed the nature and origins of her seething anger at his faith and lifestyle into a mutual recognition of the multitude of social, political, and perhaps even religious challenges of his generation?27 The question of justifications for the use of force is present within the show, but it does little to show how Jihadi-Salafi narratives take shape within specific sociopolitical climates.

Abu ʿUmar (left, portrayed by Rashid Al Shamrani), who acts as an informal narrator, confronts his daughter Amal (right, portrayed by Aseel Omran), who was kidnapped by her husband, an ISIS fighter, and taken to Syria.

Abu ʿUmar (left, portrayed by Rashid Al Shamrani), who acts as an informal narrator, confronts his daughter Amal (right, portrayed by Aseel Omran), who was kidnapped by her husband, an ISIS fighter, and taken to Syria.

Oddly, throughout the show, there is little mention made of the genealogy of these movements. This is unfortunate. Abū Bakr al-Nājī, whose text the Management of Savagery exerted a substantial influence on the anti-Shi’i campaign of Abū Musʿab al-Zarqawī and continues to influence ISIS strategy to this day, was written during the complete destabilization of Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003.28 Al-Nājī did not seek to end western invasions and sectarian warfare in his path toward an “Islamic State.” Instead, he called for brutal and systemic violence against traumatized populations in order to force their total acceptance of an imposed political reality.

By making the connection between al-Nājī’s Management of Savagery and Gharābīb clear to the audience, the production team could have provided one of their strongest critiques of ISIS: that ISIS and like-minded Jihadi-Salafi movements do not actually seek to end violence, but rather exacerbate it so that they may exploit the current sociopolitical climate. The suffering, pain, bloodshed, and brutality that Syrians and Iraqis—not to mention Yemenis, Somalis, and Afghanis, among others—face on a daily basis are, for ISIS, that which gives it life. That is the great paradox of ISIS: even as it uses the violence faced by Muslims to recruit, it also instigates violence against the populations within which it arises to continue to destabilize societies and thus ensure its continued existence. It is a parasitic relationship.

Almost tragically, the series gives viewers a brief glimpse of this very insight. At one moment, Abu ʿUmar turns to the audience and says, “These movements pass away, but the idea never passes away.” As I watched that scene, I moved to the edge of my seat. “Finally,” I thought, “here is the moment. The moment when the show reaches through that ‘darkest black’ and offers a hand to viewers who may be watching this show on a mobile phone in a camp, faced with unimaginable suffering. Here is the moment where the show acknowledges that suffering, and shows them another path.” With a multi-national cast, depicting Arabs and Muslims from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, here was the chance for each of those characters to speak to their national communities, to bring about the hard conversations on politics, economics, and religion in a way that only art can. Yet, even Abu ʿUmar ultimately loses hope; at the conclusion of the series, he flees with his grandchild and abandons his daughter Amal to ISIS, calling her a “failure.” The series ends on a feeling of helplessness. The swords will continue to clash in the utter darkness, while we are all left struggling to explain why.

 

NATHAN S. FRENCH is an assistant professor of Comparative Religion and an affiliate in International Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2013. At present, he is completing his first monograph, And God Knows the Martyrs: Theodicy, Violence, and Asceticism in Jihadi-Salafism.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all digital content cited in this article was accessed and still live on July 13, 2017.

  1. In Arabic, “Ṣalīl al-ṣawārim nashīd al-ʿubāh / darab al-qitāl ṭarīq al-ḥayāʾ / fa-bayn iqtiḥām yabīd al-ṭughāh / wa-kātim ṣawt jamīl ṣadāhu.” For the full nashīd see “Ajnād Foundation For Media Production Presents a New Nashīd from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām: ‘Clanging of the Swords, Nashīd Of The Defiant’,” Jihadology.net, June 16, 2014. Author’s translation.
  2. ʿAn musalsal, MBC.net, n.d.
  3. For the theme of the opening credits, see Tatir al-nihāyah bi’l-kāmilāt / Musalsal ‘gharābīb sūd’ tanẓīm dāʾish / Gharabeeb Soud,” YouTube.com, May 30, 2017. [As of July 11, 2017, the clip has been removed. The opening credits with the nashīd can be viewed at the beginning of the first episode, available for streaming via YouTube here.]
  4. For the role of women in martyrologies, see Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Stories of the Mujahideen: Women of the Islamic State,” Aymennjawad.org, October 17, 2016.
  5. Of course, Jihadi-Salafism is not an easy subject matter for researchers, analysts, journalists, and filmmakers. For some time, Hollywood has struggled with adding dimensionality to its jihadi characters, often reducing them to attackers with AK-47s, crudely made explosive belts, and a face concealed beneath a shemagh, all set to an endlessly looping soundtrack of the call to prayer and relentless proclamations of the takbīr, “Allahu Akbar!”
  6. Another popular series that attempted a similar project was Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell,” which enjoyed a two-season run from 2005-2006.
  7. Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), has a systematic analysis of this relationship. For a version of an ISIS creed, see Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, no. 19 (March 2015): 38-42.
  8. I am not alone in this suggestion. See Ziya Meral, “The Question of Theodicy and Jihad,” War on the Rocks, February 26, 2015.
  9. Andrew Hammond, “Ramadan TV,” Pop Culture in the North Africa and the Middle East: Entertainment and Society (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017), 149-150.
  10. Q Fāṭir 35:27. This is the translation given in Sayyed Hossein Nasr et al. (eds.), The Study Quran (New York: HarperCollins, 2015). In the M. A. S. Abdel Haleem translation (New York: Oxford, 2004), the phrase is rendered as “jet-black.”
  11. Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, no. 6416; Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj, Ṣaḥīḥ, no. 144. Author’s translation.
  12. It seems likely the character of al-Khansaʾ is mean to be a dramatic embodiment of the Al-Khansāʾ Brigades, an all-female regiment of fighters for ISIS. An analysis and translation of their manifesto was produced by Charlie Winter, “Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-Khansaa Brigade,” Quilliam Foundation, January 2015.
  13. The phrase “remaining and expanding (bāqiyya wa-tatamaddud)” is a constant within ISIS propaganda describing the caliphate. For more on its use, see Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Clairvoyant: Colonial Caliphate: The Ambitions of the ‘Islamic State’,” Jihadology, 8 July 2014.
  14. Author’s translation varies from the subtitles of the opening credits.
  15. Charles Pellat, “Nuʿaym b. Ḥammād,” in Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd ed.; Brill, 1954–2005), s.v.
  16. Nuʿaym b. Ḥammād al-Marwazī, Kitāb al-Fitan, ed. Samīr Amīn al-Zuhayrī (Cairo: Maktabat al-Tawḥīd, 1412 [1991-1992), 1.210, no. 573.
  17. “Open Letter to al-Baghdadi,” September 19, 2014.
  18. Ibid., 17.
  19. See, for example, Garrett Nada and Melissa Nozell, “Muslims Condemning Violent Extremism? Count the Ways,” USIP.org, March 17, 2015.
  20. There is some small caution warranted in citing Khader’s Al-Jazeera piece. The MBC Group also owns the media outlet Al-ʿArabiyyah and, with the declaration of the economic boycott by Saudi Arabia and UAE, among other countries, against Qatar, the pieces on Gharābīb on Al-ʿArabiyyah and the Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera turned polemical. Compare ʿAbd Allāh bin Bajād al-ʿUtaybī, Al-Drāmā wa-l-irhāb,” Al-ʿArabiyyah, June 4, 2017; Muḥammad al-Rashīdī, Gharābīb sūd,” Al-ʿArabiyyah, June 5, 2017; Fādil al-ʿUmānī, Gharābīb sūd: al-ḥaqīqah al-marrah,” Al-ʿArabiyyah, June 11, 2017; and Mamdūḥ al-Muhaynī, Li-madhā aghdab ‘gharābīb sūd’ al-mutaṭarrifīn?” Al-ʿArabiyyah, June 1, 2017 with pieces by Fady ʿAlwān, Gharābīb sūd … wa-shayātīn al-ins wa-l-iʿlām,” Al-Jazeera, June 8, 2017; Nawras Abū Ṣāliḥ, Gharābīb sūd … li-nufajjir Al-Jazeera, June 4, 2017; and Musalsalāt tathīr ghaḍab al-mushāhidīn bi-shahr ramaḍān,” Al-Jazeera, June 2, 2017. In general, the Al Jazeera pieces maintain that the series is a corruption of Islam and good Arab morality, while the Al-ʿArabiyyah pieces defend the series as challenging the very essence of ISIS’ success.
  21. See Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015.
  22. For a catalogue and critical review of responses to Wood see Simon Cottee, “‘What ISIS Really Wants’ Revisited: Religion Matters in Jihadist Violence, but How?” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 40 (2017): 439-454.
  23. Although there are reports of drug trafficking in ISIS territory (see Rukmini Callimachi and Lorenzo Tondo, “Scaling Up a Drug Trade, Straight Through ISIS Turf,” New York Times, September 13, 2016), the documentary evidence from ISIS itself suggests that its commanders were discouraged from drug usage altogether. See Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Military Commanders Manual: Qualities and Manners of the Mujahid Commander,” Aymennjawad.org, April 11, 2016.
  24. The original evidence of an ISIS illegal organ-harvesting program and black market emerged from a ruling seized by U.S. Special Operations raids in January 2015; see “Islamic State Sanctioned Organ Harvesting from Captives in Document Taken in US Raid,” Vice News, December 25, 2015. The original English translation of the document, provided by the U.S. government, has since been taken down. In other ISIS fatwās on jihad and slavery, permission is denied to take an organ from a living person that leads to serious harm to the living; see “The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Fatwas on Jihad and Sabaya,” Aymennjawad.org, September 25, 2015.
  25. The genealogy of this claim of “sexual jihad” deserves a longer treatment. As a general definition, media sources use “sexual jihad” to describe a temporary contractual relationship between a man and a woman to have sexual relations. The claim made against ISIS is that women are told that their relationships with these multiple contractual partners are a form of female jihad. The earliest stories of the “sexual jihad” come from a set of claims made by a Tunisian interior minister; see Daniel DeFraia, “Tunisian Women on ‘Sexual Jihad’ Return from Syria Pregnant: Minister (video),” PRI, September 20, 2013. This does not mean, however, that women were not encouraged to join ISIS seeking a spouse: see Nadim Roberts, “The Life of a Jihadi Wife: Why One Canadian Woman Joined ISIS’s Islamic State,” CBC News, July 7, 2014. Further, we have documentary evidence of ISIS marriage contracts: see Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “The Archivist: Stories of the Mujahideen: Women of the Islamic State,” Aymennjawad.org, October 17, 2016.
  26. Several Syrian religious scholars condemned this “un-Islamic” depiction of women; see “‘ʿUlamāʾ al-muslimīn’ al-sūriyya taḥarrama mushāhidat ‘gharābīb sūd‘,” El Mesryoon, June 6, 2017. See also Muḥammad Jamāl, “‘Jihād al-nikāḥ’ ʿanwān al-ḥarb ʿalā dāʿish…li-mādhā yathīr musalsal ‘gharābīb sūd’ ghaḍab ʿulamāʾ al-azhar?” Huffington Post (Arabic edition), June 8, 2017. For stories about the death threats, see Ismael Naar, “Ramadan Series ‘Black Crows’ Actresses tell Al Arabiya of ISIS Death Threats,” Al Arabiya English, 30 May 2017.
  27. Consider, for example, if the scene had followed the self-confessional model of Omar Saif Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim (New York: Picador, 2016).
  28. For a biography and history of Abū Bakr al-Najī’s contribution to ISIS, see Brian Fishman, The Masterplan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 37-39, 42, 45, 217. For the text itself see Abū Bakr al-Najī, Idārat al-Tawaḥḥush, trans. Will McCants (Cambridge, MA: John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, May 23, 2006).

Strangers in the Darkness of Black Crows

A Critical Review of Gharābīb Sūd

Strangers in the Darkness of Black Crows

A Critical Review of Gharābīb Sūd