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Hymnal Propaganda: A Closer Look at ‘Clanging of the Swords’
Nashīds are a prime example of the Islamic State’s efforts to combine old and new rhetorical features to promote and legitimize its violent ends
By Alexander Schinis
Part of the Islamic State’s (IS) claim to fame is its high-value media productions. Some of its most popular productions are its hymns, or anashīd, which have spread around the world in the past years. The hymns serve as a rallying cry to their listeners, a call-to-arms on behalf of the terror group’s military goals. More than just overt calls for war, though, anashīd serve the group as foundational and legitimizing texts. Coded within the works of IS-produced anashīd are clues about its efforts to cast itself as the leader of global jihad.
This article will examine some of the structural features of one of IS’s most popular anashīd. In addition to these features, an assessment of the martial lyrical content of the nashīd will follow. Analyzing these features together will reveal some of IS’s many strategies in legitimizing itself as heir to leadership over the Islamic ummah.
What is a nashīd?
A nashīd (plural: anashīd) is a vocalized chant, frequently polyphonic and often without any instrumentation. There is significant variation across genres of anashīd. The work of Behnam Said includes some of the most comprehensive research into the history and cultural relevance of these types of works (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2012).
The focus here is on the public-facing anashīd produced by IS. The qualities of these anashīd place the works somewhere between an exultant battle hymn and self-righteous national anthem.
One of IS’s most well-known anashīd, called “Clanging of the Swords,” offers a compelling example of what such a nashīd looks and sounds like. This nashīd was retrieved from www.archive.org. Aymenn al-Tamimi offers one version of the English translation, linked here. Featuring the vocals of the munshid Abu Yaser, the nashīd made its debut in the video propaganda production of the same name in the summer of 2014.
Repetition in the nashīd
It will not take long for the listener to recognize how repetitive “Clanging of the Swords” is. Repetition is an integral part of many of IS’s anashīd. However, this should not be read as a lack of creativity on the part of their creators. Instead, the nashīd presents itself as a medium that enjoys a strong relationship with memory. Charles Hirschkind, in a study of sermons and the practice of “ethical listening” in Egypt, found that sermons could be easily memorizable because of their use of repetition (Columbia University Press, 2006). He points to Marcel Jousse’s theory of gesture and memory, which states that gestures, such as aural patterns, are predisposed to easy memorization. The nashīd’s use of repetition is likely a strategy used by IS to facilitate their memorization by its intended audience.
Repetition in “Clanging of the Swords” appears on a few levels. The first is its repetition of the chorus, made up of four lines. The hymn repeats this chorus of four lines seven times – sometimes back-to-back – in the period of the hymn’s approximately three minute run time.
The second level of repetition in the anthem appears in an echo-like effect for certain lines, immediately after their utterance. The hymn has three discrete stanzas, all of which demonstrate this pattern, and the last line of each stanza is repeated. Taking into account the repetition of its chorus, in this scheme, 34 lines of verse are repeated at least once. Of the hymn’s total of 40 lines, only six lines do not find repetition in the hymn. This makes the non-repeated verses outliers in the verse repetition scheme of the nashīd.
The third level of repetition in “Clanging of the Swords” is the reiteration of a number of themes and words. This is partly a function of the two tiers of repetition noted above. Across the chorus and stanzas there are specific words that appear several times. If the subject of the hymn is the listener, the object is “the enemy.” The anthem invokes the word “enemy” or “enemies” (in Arabic, عدو \ أعداء) “oppressors” (in Arabic, الطغاة) or “aggressors” more than any other object in the work. Other recurring words and phrases that appear across lines and stanzas are ideas of a righteous “path,” the notion of “sacrifice,” and references to “God.”
The extensive and multi-layered use of repetition, when taking into account the theories of Hirshkind and Jousse, serves the political aims of IS’s cultural productions by lending the works to quick memorization by the listener.
Monorhyme in the nashīd
Structural repetition makes this and other anashīd catchy and quick to commit to memory, but other features lend the nashīd deeper significance to certain audiences. One such feature in “Clanging of the Swords” is the use of monorhyme, i.e., the rhyming of each line of verse with all other lines.
Each line of the hymn is made up of two hemistichs, and in the original Arabic of the hymn, the last vocalization of each line’s second hemistich rhymes with an “a” sound. This is achieved with a few different schemes. One includes rhyming different letters with similar sounds. This is seen in the chorus, where the use of the taa’ marbuta (ة) in the words life (الحياة) and tyranny (الطغاة) are made to rhyme with the alif maqsura (ى) of the word echo (الصدى).
Elsewhere, a different strategy is to emphasize the vocalization of the “a” sound where it is found close to the end of a word, even if it is not the last letter. The word foreheads (جباه) terminates in a soft “h” sound; however, as a strategy to uphold the rhyming scheme, the vocalists omit the sound of the “h” altogether to ensure it is in keeping with the monorhyme.
“Clanging of the Swords” is significant in its inclusion of monorhyme because it is an appeal to the poetic form of the qasīda. An educated Arabic-speaking audience might recognize the rhyming scheme; this is the creators’ intention. Bernard Haykel and Robyn Creswell, writing for The New Yorker, note that the use of classical Arabic forms, patterns, and meters in poetry is one way the IS jihadists attempt to co-opt the “special authority” that comes with the figure of the poet in Arabic literature. (The New Yorker, 2015).
This effort evidently extends past the genre of traditional Arabic poetry into the group’s corpus of anashīd. The inclusion of monorhyme in “Clanging of the Swords” demonstrates that the authors of the nashīd understand the weight that these prosodic forms carry for educated Arabic speakers — and strive for the mantle of authority that comes with such knowledge.
Video Game Symbology
Some anashīd come paired with video productions and “Clanging of the Swords” is one such nashīd. The associated video, released in the summer of 2014, runs for over an hour and features this nashīd as background audio several times.
Two scenes stand out on account of their editing and framing. In both, a filmographer captures footage of a man sitting guard duty. The video then overlays a media effect similar to those seen in the popular video game franchise “Call of Duty,” superimposing the crosshairs of a sniper rifle over the guard. Gun fire from the direction of the camera subsequently kills the man in both cases, and “Clanging of the Swords” plays in the background all the while.
The footage is an example of the group’s efforts to incorporate new media forms like video games into its propaganda productions. Marcus Schulzke demonstrated how other Islamist groups used video games as a means to frame the narrative of the conflicts in which they were engaged. He notes that on a practical level, video game imagery “serves in [the war of ideas] both to intimidate opponents and to mobilize supporters” (Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 2014).
The conceptual framework of a videogame also stands as a familiar medium for a younger audience. It invites this audience to imagine themselves as a participant in the conflict, using the parallel between the active role of playing as a video game’s protagonist. The value of ISIS using this video game effect is likely an effort to match the outcomes that Schulzke highlights, possibly for the benefit of recruiting younger viewers.
Violence and the nashīd
Amid these rhetorical strategies sits the lyrical content of the nashīd. The lyrics of the nashīd reify the violence that made the Caliphate’s foundation possible. The primary function of IS’s invocation of violence is political – that is, its aims are not simply to make a statement, but rather to enforce and expand the area control bounded by the Caliphate.
The nashīd speaks to its audience, calling to the listener as a “brother” and speaking of “us” in the collective throughout. This call to community glorifies the battles that IS carries out serves to invite the listener to picture themselves in that same role, undertaking those same deeds, and earning for themselves that same glory. Its presumed listeners, speakers of Arabic, can join what the text portrays as a historic event, if only they make the sacrifices noted therein and join the Islamic State.
In spite of the images seen and described in mainstream media sources, such as immolating its captives alive or throwing its victims off of rooftops, the nashīd reflects a consensus within the terror group about what can be categorized as defensive violence. One need not look far back into IS’s history to find works explaining acts of brutal violence as necessary.
We can trace IS’s intellectual history and its relationship with violence to the the Al Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji. Naji, in his treatise “The Management of Savagery,” links the need for twisted acts of violence to the time of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, in which the ummah was only just being conceived. “They knew the effect of rough violence in times of need,” writes Abu Bakr Naji, citing the value of brutalizing one’s enemies as a deterrent and a demoralizing strategy (Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, May 2006). At the time of his writing in 2004, he saw a grim period for the jihadist movement: “We are now in circumstances […] like that of which the believers faced in the beginning of jihad [in the time of the Prophet].”
It goes without saying that this interpretation of history is aberrant in modern society, and finds its home only in terror groups as fringe as IS. Resisting the aggressors, laying tyranny low, and walking the path of jihad in defiance are the highlighted examples of righteousness in violence in this nashīd. More than a heavy-hearted defensive response, though, “Clanging of the Swords” paints violence as a glorious means for necessary change.
The nashīd “Clanging of the Swords” exemplifies a number of strategies that make it a complex text, serving not only as motivational work, but also as a legitimizing one. By capitalizing on the strategies discussed herein, this and other IS anashīd seek to bolster the marital aspirations of the terror group. Anashīd that use repetition are quick to memorize. They can call on tropes that invoke a sense of community for the listener. They can employ the “ennobling mantle” of Arabic poetry. These and other strategies, when paired with lyrics aggrandizing violence, help to legitimize the acts of violence for which IS is so infamous.
IS’s other anashīd further exemplify features that qualify them as noteworthy cultural artifacts. These anashīd, as well as other texts, merit our attention and deconstruction. By digging deeper into the texts produced by the group, we can determine other modes by which it attempts to create legitimacy for itself and its methods.
Alexander Schinis is a freelance writer and analyst. He holds a Master’s degree from New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.