ISIS Is Peddling a Badly Mythologized Version of HijraNews Abroad
Rebecca Gould teaches Islamic literatures at the University of Bristol in the UK. 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, 2015), and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus (Central European University Press, 2015).
Along with jihad, hijra is one of the most powerful buzzwords in the vocabulary of the Islamic State. Signifying the obligation to migrate to lands under Muslim rule, hijra has become a recruiting tool during 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 from their homes to this new state. As the Islamic State expands, hijra becomes increasingly militarized. The term once was used to connote the defensive movement of Muslims to lands where they would be free from persecution. Today, hijra has become a tool of violence and aggression.
Theologians of the Islamic State say there will be hijra after hijra. Similarly, there was hijra long before the violent reinterpretation of its meaning by the Islamic State.
Hijra marks the beginning of Islam as a religion, when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 to preserve their community. As long as they continued to reside in Mecca, the migrants knew they would hated by local non-Muslims, and have cause to fear for their lives. Muhammad and his followers resettled in Medina at just the right moment.
The Prophet’s migration to Medina marks 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 their community of faith.
The Prophet’s hijra is a case in point. Against his will, Muhammad migrated to provide a stable base for Islam and for Muslims to have freedom of worship. With his migration, hijra became relevant to all believers.
After the migration to Medina, Islam acquired a political foundation. While it 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 year that Columbus discovered America — and later from colonial empires that wanted Muslim lands without Muslims.
Expulsions from Spain and Russia, especially, changed the meaning of hijra in Muslim cultural memory. Migration became an ultimatum from the state: leave or you will be slaughtered.
The Prophet’s hijra is not directly narrated in the Quran, but the book is structured around this event. The Quran consists of the revelations Muhammad received, first in Mecca and then in Medina. Hijra casts its shadow over stories in Islamic history of despair and sacrifice, as well as of courage and victory.
For nearly fifteen hundred years, Hijra has been seen as an answer to a universal predicament faced by all believers: how to be pious in an impious world, how 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 conduct. At its most meaningful, hijra resolves the contradiction between the lives Muslims wish to live and the lives they are compelled to live.
Today, meanwhile, hijra is used in a very different sense: to signify migration for the purpose of jihad. The Islamic State’s crude and contrived medievalism shows how mythical refashioning of the past can justify forms of oppression in the present.
As understood by the Prophet and his companions, and 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, they have been dispossessed. Hijra is the creation of a home 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. For most of its history, however, hijra has been about much more than the forced rejection of the past than its uncritical revival.
As a form of storytelling, and an ethical mode of remembering, hijra holds the past accountable to the present. In this regard, hijra confounds the Islamic State’s effort to redefine it. Hijra’s appeal to memory and its grounding in the origins of Islam are nuances the ideologues of Islamic State, in their heavy reliance on violence, would very much like us to forget.
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