Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

The Sayyid Tweeted

Abdulla Majeed

May 19, 2021

On February 11th 2020, the controversial Iraqi religious cleric and spiritual leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, ordered and announced the disbandment of the “Blue Hats” militant unit by tweeting on his official Twitter account. This disbandment came after the “Blue Hats” were involved in attacks on Iraqi protestors in Baghdad, Nasiriyah and Najaf who had been organizing sit-ins and demonstrations against the post-occupation ruling elite and the current political system since October 2019—the attacks in Najaf alone left more than 20 civilian protestors dead and 200 injured. Donning the infamous blue caps as a marker of loyalty and membership to al-Sadr and his armed-militia Sarāyā as-Salām (Peace Brigades), the “Blue Hats” were first established with the dawn of the October Protests in 2019 under the guise of protecting civilian protestors from possible attacks by state and parastate armed forces. However, soon later, it became obvious that the “Blue Hats” were themselves infiltrating the protests and were involved in several sabotaging practices, including the burning of protestors’ tents, and other violent attacks on the protestors. Following the tweet by al-Sadr, loyalists on Twitter and Telegram channels associated with the “Blue Hats” began retweeting and circulating screenshots of the tweet, threatening protestors whom they often termed as Jokeriya[1]See Kerem Ussakli’s (2020) “Revolution for Everyone, Even the Joker” for a broader discussion on the relevance of Jokeriya and its genealogy in the Iraqi protests., or Jokers in reference to the 2019 Hollywood film, that they will return for them when the sayyid allows in due time.

In a recent podcast on Reading Muslims, Nada Moumtaz questioned that category of the “Islamic text,” asking us to consider its different manifestations and the “unobvious” ways the “Islamic” might manifest in a text and a “text” might be considered as Islamic. In this piece, I want to extend this interrogation to disrupt both the “Islamic” and the “text” in what is often termed an “Islamic text.” What characterizes a text as “Islamic”? Is it the themes of the text, its author, its audience, its universality, the historical period it was produced in, and/or its intertextuality? What makes a text like Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah more Islamic than Abdul Rahman Munif’s trilogy Cities of Salt, both of which deal with social and political issues within larger Muslim societies? Is it the advent of the modern nation-state that renders Munif’s texts less Islamic than Ibn Khaldun’s? Who draws the contours of a textual tradition characterized as Islamic, or otherwise, and what purposes do these categorizations serve? I contend that it is in trying to answer these questions that one might be able to better understand the social lives “Islamic,” or otherwise, texts come to perform and occupy in the everyday.

Thinking through some of these questions, I wish to consider the tweets of Muqtada al-Sadr as a form of “Islamic text” that comes to organize particular sentimentalities, practices, and relations as they come to be cited in the everyday lives of Iraqis in their homeland and in the diaspora. Here, the authority of a text and its characterization as Islamic are co-constituted by both the author and its audience, as they come to cite it in different settings and for different purposes. In the case of Muqtada al-Sadr, that authority stems from both a wide popular base in Iraq, particularly in the working-class neighbourhood of al-Sadr City in Baghdad, and as importantly his ancestral/familial history of religious scholarship. Indeed, Muqtada al-Sadr is nor a marjiʿ himself, neither has he completed his religious education to the degree that allows him to issue fatwās, or legal opinions. However, hailing from a widely-known family of established religious scholars and clerics known for their opposition to the Baʿathist regime in Iraq (1968-2003), his father Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr was a Shiʿi marjiʿ assassinated in 1999. It is this social capital that has allowed him to appear as a spiritual leader for millions of Iraqis, including those of the so-called “Blue Hats” and others. This is along with aligning himself with a dangerous and nativist “Arab Shiʿism”[2]A term Muqtada al-Sadr has often used in public debates and speeches. as a more inclusive, sovereign, and authentic set of alternative religious and political beliefs; one that appeals to Iraqis disenchanted with foreign meddling in Iraq.

In an already saturated Iraqi mediascape, social media platforms become a site to settle political scores, in which critiques of Muqtada al-Sadr and the “Blue Hats” on Twitter and other platforms come to be read by Sadrists as an attack on religious authority and Islam. More importantly, it is read, as an attack on the future of the nation itself. A future that is characterized by al-Sadr’s self-branded reformative and progressive political agenda; one that employs and represents itself as emerging from an “Islamic” ethics and way of political life for Iraqis. Herein, it becomes a frequent practice to brandish civilian protestors across Iraq as “impious” enemies of “God, Islam, Prophet Muhammad, and the awliyāʾ [saints],” to quote one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s tweets. Rather than forging a space for political aspiration, Islam becomes mobilized, albeit futilely, as a tool to foreclose critique, a point I shall return to later.

Indeed, these tweets were not only successful in mobilizing those loyal to al-Sadr to carry out violent attacks against protestors and political opponents, but they also came to be cited in official state documents, invoked in televised political debates among Iraqi politicians, and proposed in parliamentary sessions as a guide to be followed by state representatives and institutions. They become an authoritative text within themselves. For example, on November 7th 2020, Muqtada al-Sadr posted several tweets outlining an agenda for political and economic reform, that promoted among many other recommendations, the privatization of certain industries and supporting foreign investment. All of these recommendations were framed not only as a benefit to the nation, but also as a benefit to Islam within the nation—binding the future of one to the other. Indeed, Muqtada al-Sadr often signs many of these tweets with self-declared pious and patriotic titles such as “God’s Servant,” “People’s Servant,” “Martyrdom Seeker,” and “Reform’s Servant” among others that position him as both a guardian of Islam and the nation. In the following month, Muqtada’s tweets were circulated and proposed by representatives from Ṣāʾirūn Alliance[3]In the parliamentary elections of 2018, Sā’irūn, also known as the Alliance Towards Reform, won the most number seats in the Iraqi parliament., a coalition between the Islamic Sadrist Movement and the Iraqi Communist Party, in the Iraqi parliament to be officially adopted by the Iraqi government. In addition to this, the Ministry of Electricity circulated an internal memo to all its offices in the south of Iraq, referencing and attaching screenshots of al-Sadr’s tweets with the memo and requiring them to be adopted as a roadmap for political and economic reform within the ministry.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s twitter account not only became a matter of citation and celebration in “Blue Hats” propaganda content or official state discourse, but also in popular content, such as The Sayyid Dropped a Tweet, a popular song that celebrates al-Sadr as a “revolutionary” figure of present political reform and anti-imperial resistance in Iraq[4]Ironically, this song and others by Sadrists are even performed and played in what for what can be seen as the most “impious” setting for the Muqtada al-Sadr’s Islamic project; Iraqi … Continue reading. As importantly, these tweets have the social power to not only mobilize Iraqis loyal to al-Sadr to carry out targeted attacks on civilian protestors, organize military parades in the streets of Baghdad, and hold counter-protests of their own, but they also become a vehicle for Iraqis with different political projects to articulate their aspirations for the future. For example, following the “Blue Hats’” attack on protestors in Baghdad and Najaf, the hashtags #Muqtada_Kills_Iraqis, #Report_Muqtada, and #Muqtada_Hijacks_Revolution in Arabic were trending in Iraq[5]These hashtags were circulated by Iraqi activists in Iraq, as well as Iraqis in the diaspora, who decried al-Sadr’s instigation against protestors in the squares of Baghdad, Najaf, and … Continue reading. Moreover, mockery and ridicule of Muqtada’s tweets became a strategy to delegitimize his religious and political authority. For example, the Pope’s snub to meet with Muqtada al-Sadr and choosing instead to meet with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani became an event of ridicule to delegitimize the former’s authority by many Iraqis—the lack of an event became the event itself. For many of those Iraqis, the inscription of an Islamic quality and sanctity to those tweets worked as a strategy to not only foreclose critique, but also foreclose their aspirations for the future. Thus, it was in undermining that shroud of sanctity with which al-Sadr surrounded himself and his texts that one was able to open-up critique. By relegating Muqtada’s texts to the not-so-Islamic, Iraqis’ critique of them could be read not as a critique of Islam or its core beliefs, but rather of Muqtada al-Sadr’s political aspirations. Approaching the lives and afterlives of tweets can shed light on how the “Islamic” in an “Islamic text” comes to be ascribed/denied by multiple agents in the service of certain social and political projects.  

Notes / References

1 See Kerem Ussakli’s (2020) “Revolution for Everyone, Even the Joker” for a broader discussion on the relevance of Jokeriya and its genealogy in the Iraqi protests.
2 A term Muqtada al-Sadr has often used in public debates and speeches.
3 In the parliamentary elections of 2018, Sā’irūn, also known as the Alliance Towards Reform, won the most number seats in the Iraqi parliament.
4 Ironically, this song and others by Sadrists are even performed and played in what for what can be seen as the most “impious” setting for the Muqtada al-Sadr’s Islamic project; Iraqi nightclubs.
5 These hashtags were circulated by Iraqi activists in Iraq, as well as Iraqis in the diaspora, who decried al-Sadr’s instigation against protestors in the squares of Baghdad, Najaf, and Nassiryah.

Abdulla Majeed

Abdulla Majeed is a PhD Candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Abdulla’s work lays at the intersection of anthropologies of the state and citizenship, displacement, and Middle East history with a focus on Iraq and Jordan. His current ethnographic project looks at how Iraqi exiles in Jordan come to be entangled with multiple statecrafts in negotiating the location of the future in their everyday lives.

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