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By Rebecca Gould


The Montréal Review, May 2015



Along with jihad, hijra is one of the most powerful buzzwords in the vocabulary of the Islamic State. Signifying the obligation to migrate lands under Muslim rule, hijra has become a recruiting tool par excellence and accompanied the Islamic State’s rapid expansion across Syria and Iraq. The lure of migration accounts for the yearly exodus of thousands of young European and American men and women away from their homes to this new state. As the Islamic State expands, hijra is increasingly militarized. Whereas the term used to connote the defensive movement of Muslims to lands where they would be free from persecution, much like jihad today, hijra has become a tool of violence and aggression.

In order to disseminate their views to a wider constituency the Islamic State began in 2014 publishing an English-language magazine called Dabiq. The magazine is produced in glossy format with a colorful layout and careful design. Judging from the flawless English of every article, the authors (all of whom are anonymous) are native English speakers. Dabiq’s third issue, dedicated to hijra, calls on Muslims to migrate to Syria and participate in the creation of the Islamic State. Issue three includes pictures of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, American journalists who were executed by ISIS in 2014. A final statement from Foley is included, in which he criticizes the American government for not coming to his aid. Conveniently for the Islamic State, Foley declares in these pages: “I wish I were from some other country whose government actually cares about its citizens.”

Notably, this ISIS mouthpiece does not portray Foley as an enemy. Instead, the journal humanizes him in order to instill sympathy among readers. From the vantage point of Dabiq, Foley is a victim who did wholly deserve his harsh fate. “Who bears the ultimate responsibility for [Foley’s] death?” the editors ask rhetorically, implying that it is the US. Whereas the US government sends soldiers on missions to kill and expropriate and refuses to slow the pace of attacks in order to protect its journalists, the Islamic State, so this magazine argues, simply administers justice. From this perspective, Foley was simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although the third issue of Dabiq opens and closes with attacks on US foreign policies, the core of this issue is its seven-part case for why Muslim believers must perform hijra. Mindful of its English readership, the magazine contrasts hijra, a practice that prioritizes piety over pleasure, to the consumerist orientation of American society. One chapter, entitled “Modern Day Slavery” notes that the “modern day slavery of employment, work hours, wages…leaves the Muslim in a constant feeling of subjugation to a kāfir [infidel] master.” In order to overcome the servitude that is part and parcel of everyday life in industrialized societies, Muslims must migrate to the new Caliphate, the authors argue, where they can live and work under Muslim masters. In this new Caliphate, “there is no life without jihad. And there is no jihad without hijrah.” As if to reinforce that hijra never ends, the third issue concludes with a citation from the hadith, the storehouse of sacred sayings that is a major source of authority in Islamic law: “there will be hijrah after hijrah.”

Just as, according to the theologians of ISIS, there will be hijra after hijra, so too was there hijra long before its violent reconfiguration by ISIS. Hijra marks the beginning of Islam as a religion, when Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 in order to preserve their community. The migrants knew that, so long as they continued to reside in Mecca, they would hated by local non-Muslims, and have reason to fear for their lives. Muhammad and his followers were invited to resettle in Medina at just the right moment.

In addition to signifying the general obligation to migrate, hijra refers to the Prophet’s departure for Medina. Accordingly, it stands for the beginning of the Islamic calendar. In keeping with this beginning, Muslims are encouraged to migrate to lands under Muslim rule when migration will strengthen the community of faith. The Prophet’s hijra is a case in point. Against his will, Muhammad migrated in order for Islam to have a stable base and for Muslims to have freedom of worship. With his migration, hijra became relevant in perpetuity to all believers.

After the migration to Medina, Islam acquired a political foundation. While Islam became a religion of the community as well as of the individual believer, hijra became a story through which Muslims remembered their beginnings. Hijra acquired new life in early modernity, with the systematic expulsions of Muslims, first from Islamic Spain in 1492 (the same year that Columbus discovered America), and later from colonial empires that wanted Muslim lands without Muslims living there. These later expulsions—from Spain and Russia especially—changed the meaning of hijra in Muslim cultural memory. The concept became inflected not just by the pressure to migrate, as during Muhammad’s lifetime, but by an ultimatum from the state: leave or you will be slaughtered.  

Although the Prophet’s hijra is not narrated in the Quran, this sacred book is structured around this event in that it is divided into revelations Muhammad received in Medina and those he received while residing in Mecca. Wherever and whenever in Islamic history there are stories of despair and sacrifice, as well as of courage and of victory, hijra casts its shadow. Hijra is at once the penultimate origin story and a climactic denouement to any traumatic experience.

Hijra is an answer to a universal predicament faced by all believers—how to be pious in an impious world—and an attempt to move beyond the constraints of everyday life. Hijra reconciles the dictates of faith with the dictates of the state, and the impulses of the heart with external constraints. More than a physical action, hijra responds to the inability of our dreams to approximate our realities with the injunction to create a better world in lands under Muslim rule. At its most meaningful, hijra resolves the contradiction between the worlds we desire and the lives we live.

Pace the claims of recent commentators, the promoters of the Islamic State recognize the manifold contradictions between the current Islamic State and the Islamic political organizations of times past. Early on in Dabiq’s third issue, the Islamic State in Syria is contrasted to the societal structure in early Islam. In spite of the fact that the Muslims of the current “caliphate” did not have in common any “‘nationality,’ ethnicity, language, or worldly interests, nor did they have any prior acquaintance,” they all willingly came together to form a polity grounded in faith, the authors affirms. This distinctive form of political community, they say, proves the Islamic State’s superiority to all other ways of organizing social life, including those ways into which Muslims organized themselves before modernity. On this reading, the Islamic State is superior not only to the West, but to every other Islamic political organization, including that which reigned at the time of the Prophet.

In Medina after the Prophet’s hijra according to Dabiq’s anonymous authors, “most of the muhajirun [migrants] were from Quraysh,” and hence shared common ethnic and regional origins. By contrast, the contemporary Caliphate exhibits forms of cosmopolitan belonging unknown to human history, and explicitly challenges nation-based forms of identity. “If you were to go to the frontlines of al-Raqqah, al-Barakah, al-Khayr, Halab,” Dabiq’s authors explain with reference to the current strongholds of the Islamic State, “you would find the soldiers and commanders to be of different colors, languages, and lands: the Najdi, the Jordanian, the Tunisian, the Egyptian, the Somali, the Turk, the Albanian, the Chechen, the Indonesian, the Russian, the European, the American.” In a world of politics governed and wars waged by nation states, the Islamic State transcends such seemingly petty forms of solidarity in favor of a faith-based ecumene. “This state,” the author declares to prospective migrants, “is a marvel of history.”

Although they lay claim to historical precedent, ISIS propagandists argue that the Islamic State has succeeded in creating new forms of communal belonging. A footnote clarifies: “The contrast between the Islamic State today and the state of Madinah in the time of the Prophet is not to suggest that the khalaf (later Muslims) are better than the Salaf (early Muslims) for these are historically related differences, not indicators of religious preferences.” The authors’ analysis exposes a major inconsistency in ISIS ideology, which is premised on the erasure of historical difference.

History and religion are not severed as easily as the propagandists would like its readers to believe. While the contemporary Islamic State is more radically cosmopolitan than its Muslim predecessors, it is also more radically violent. It borrows both its weapons and its ideology gleaned from US military incursions in Iraq and throughout the Islamic world to inculcate militancy among Muslims. Guns and beheadings are as internal to this ethos as are prayers and acts of piety. Although this peculiar marriage of a violent ideology with media savvy borrows its techniques from contemporary politics, it is new to Islamic history.

The Islamic State’s merger of violence with post-national consciousness is unique, and hijra is one of the most basic strategies underlying its vision. Hijra as understood by the Islamic state marks a break in the fabric of time. It has the blessings of antiquity, but pursues a more cosmopolitan vision of human belonging than premodern precedents. It opposes the crass materialism of American culture, as well as the cowardly subservience of US client states in the Middle East. Hijra is compelling, persuasive, and uniquely able to solicit a profound sense of emotional belonging.

While its critique of American materialism goes some distance towards explaining the appeal of the Islamic State’s rhetoric to prospective migrants, the conception of hijra that animates publications like Dabiq relies on a selective reordering the historical record. The Islamic State’s rhetoric, for example, suppresses the fact that, for most of Islamic history, Muslims have peacefully co-habited with Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Zoroastrians, and followers of many other non-Muslim religious creeds. Such co-habitation was enshrined into Islamic law, not always on equitable terms, but as a guiding assumption for over a thousand years. It has always been a presumption of normative Islamic law that Muslims must live alongside their non-Muslim counterparts. Only in modernity was the dream of an Islamic State populated exclusively by Muslims, and with all non-Muslims living under the threat of extermination, envisioned.

Meanwhile, hijra today is used in a very different sense: to signify migration for the purpose of jihad. This was not the normative meaning of hijra before modernity. ISIS’ crude and contrived medievalism shows how mythical refashionings of the past can justify many forms of oppression in the present. The contemporary usages of hijra demonstrate how the past is mediated to the present. These usages reveal a rift between the past understood as an object of knowledge and a past which exists for the sake of the present.

In the sense evoked by millions of Muslims over the long course of Islamic history, hijra is the perpetual movement between memory and forgetting. Hijra is the turn to narrative to keep the past—and ourselves—alive in the present. Hijra is what we do when, like Palestinians and Chechens today, and like the Muslims and Jews of Islamic Spain, we have been dispossessed. Hijra is how we create homes for ourselves amidst the perpetual homelessness of exile and displacement that is part of the modern condition.

Hijra is useful to the Islamic State insofar as it encourages believers to cut their ties with the past. However, hijra has for most of its history meant much more than the rejection of the past. As a form of storytelling, and an ethical mode of remembering, hijra holds the past accountable to the present. Hijra indexes distances between past and present, not their convergence. For all these reasons, hijra far exceeds and ultimately confounds ISIS’ remit. Hijra’s appeal to memory, and its grounding in prior forms of life, are nuances that the ideologues of ISIS, in their uncritical appeals to the force of the new, would very much like us to forget.


Rebecca Gould is a writer, scholar, and translator. Her books include Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016), and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus (Central European University Press, 2015). She is a Reader in Translation Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Bristol.


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