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

The Black Flag (al-raya) traces its roots to the very beginning of Islam.  It was the battle (jihad) flag of the Prophet Muhammad, carried into battle by many of his companions, including his nephew ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib.  The flag regained prominence in the 8th century with its use by the leader of the Abbasid revolution, Abu Muslim, who led a revolt against the Umayyad clan and its Caliphate.  The Umayyads, the ruling establishment of the Islamic world at the time, were seen as greedy, gluttonous, and religiously wayward leaders.  The Abbasid revolution, then, was aimed at installing a new, more properly Islamic ruling house that would keep orthodox Islam at the center of its regime. Since then, the image of the black flag has been used as a symbol of religious revolt and battle (i.e. jihad).  In Shiite belief, the black flag also evokes expectations about the afterlife.  In the contemporary Islamist movement, the black flag is used to symbolize both offensive jihad and the proponents of reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate.

The flag is frequently identified with specific jihadist groups — thus Bill Roggio, writing in Long War Journal, refers to “the al rayah, the black flag of al Qaeda” in his 2007 article, “Musa Qala and the NATO offensive”.

Likewise, the Somalian president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed in 2006 is reported to have spoken in 2006 of “the ‘black flag’ of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban” — and as recently as this month, Al-Shabaab “vowed to replace the Somali flag with its (al-Shabaab’s) black flag”.

So the Black Flags or banners represent the Prophet as warrior at one end of Islamic history and the Mahdi’s army from Khorasan at the other — and have been adopted as symbols of jihad by different groups from the Abbasids to al-Shabaab. They are indeed indicative of jihad, but it is their association with Khorasan that gives them a specifically Mahdist reference.

The defeat of the Umayyads and establishment of the Abbasid caliphate, and hence also the golden age of Islamic culture, was strongly supported by forces raised in Khorasan, and David Cook in his Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature suggests that “the Abbasids sought to present their movement as the fulfillment of messianic expectations, and so they produced a great quantity of materials given in the form of hadith traditions to indicate that the Mahdi would come from this region.”

The tale lives on. As I’ve mentioned before, Cook notes that bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam, made fresh use of this line of messianic tradition and “popularized the position of Afghanistan as the messianic precursor to the future liberation of Palestine” in his book, From Kabul to Jerusalem, while bin Laden refers to finding “a safe base in Khurasan, high in the peaks of the Hindu Kush” in his 1996 Declaration of Jihad.

The spiritual geography, then, is clear: Khorasan is that place in the east, somewhere in the general region including eastern Iran and northern Afghanistan, from which the Mahdi’s army will come — and it is very plausibly also a place the jihadist might need to “crawl over ice” to reach.

I think Rosenfeld is right in suggesting that al-Balawi’s geographic cognomen is a significant one, as is “Abu Dujana” — the name of a particularly valiant companion of the Prophet, as I discussed in a previous post.

But which of the various jihadist forces currently deployed in Afghanistan and nearby might be the nucleus of the Mahdi’s forces? The army with black flags from Khorasan has been identified with the Abbasids, with the Iranian revolutionaries, and with the Taliban. Bin Laden would presumably wish for it to be with al-Qaida, and Cook also says, this time in Understanding Jihad:

Since Afghanistan, as Khurasan, has powerful resonance with many Muslims because of the messianic expectations focused on that region, this gave the globalist radical Muslims associated with al-Qa’ida under the leadership of Bin Ladin additional moral authority to proclaim jihad and call for the purification of the present Muslim governments and elites.

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