Guest Post: Charles Cameron on Khorasan – A Muslim Once and Future Kingdom

 Charles Cameron, my regular guest blogger, is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Instituteand Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.

Khorasan: A Muslim Once and Future Kingdom

by Charles Cameron

The title of an interview in a Taliban sponsored magazine with Hammam Khalil al-Balawi — the Jordanian jihadist physician and double-agent / informant who signed himself Abu Dujana al-Khorasani on jihadist forums, and carried out the recent CIA bombing in Khost — is intriguing in a self-referential, “Doug Hofstadter might like this” sort of way:

Interview with Brother Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani, a Well-Known Blogger in Jihadi Forums, and a Newcomer to the Land of Khorasan.

In his appearances on the web, al-Balawi / Abu Dujana had given himself the geographic cognomen “al-Khorasani” meaning “from Khorasan” — yet he was a Jordanian by birth, and the interview title calls him a “newcomer” to Khorasan, while the interviewer himself remarks, “Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani (sic) is actually now inside Khorasan, and the decision to travel to the lands of jihad is a divine blessing and a magnificent grace.”

The Khorasan that Abu Dujana “is actually now inside” is presumably Afghanistan on the literal, geographical level — but what of the Khorasan of the mind and heart to which, as his choice of handle indicates, Abu Dujana must have long aspired?

What is the significance of “Khorasan”?

It’s a bit like “Jerusalem” — only yesterday I was reading that Grand Rapids, Michigan is referred to as “Jerusalem” by some folk of Dutch extraction in the Pacific Northwest. I think we’ll get the sense of the idea if we call it of “Khorasan of sacred memory and present hope”.  As the UCLA scholar Jean Rosenfeld puts it (personal communication):

In any event, Khorasan refers to much more than a former region of the Islamic empires.  It has a mythical meaning that is being taken seriously as a “once and future kingdom” in the millennial mindset of al-Qaida.

The territory once called Khorasan — and the borders covered by that name shifted a great deal over the centuries — covered parts of what we now know as Iran (which still has a province named Khorasan), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and NW Pakistan.  I’m finding references that suggest the name originally meant “the place where the sun rises” — the East, the Orient.

Rosenfeld suggests that Khorasan “is code in al-Qaida for the warrior sect itself” — “the army of the (future) caliphate in the mind of the International jihad” and thus, Al-Qaida in Fawaz Gerges’ broad sense.  My own reading ties it in with the ahadith about the “black banners of Khorasan” and the army which will sweep down from Khorasan to Jerusalem…

As I’ve noted before   there are many variant ahadith describing the army of the Mahdi.  Here is one commonly cited version:

If you see the black flags coming from Khurasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice, for this is the army of the Caliph, the Mahdi and no one can stop that army until it reaches Jerusalem.”

Quite how we should align that with actual jihadist entities such as AQ core and or its subsidiaries or the various bodies called Taliban, however, I’m not sure. The clearest implication I can see is to the place of origin of the Mahdi’s army.

It is at least as much an eschatological as a geographic claim.

Since the imagery of Khorasan is closely tied to that of black flags, I would like to take a slight detour here.  We have seen that the black flags signify the army of the Mahdi, but what are its origins, and how widely is it used?

The Islamic Imagery Project at West Point Combating Terrorism Center lists “Black Flag” under the heading “Warfare Motifs“, saying:

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