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Saddam: Former Leader of the Global Jihad? By: Robert Spencer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, December 23, 2003


It's official: Saddam Hussein is no longer a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. The committee of Ashrafs, a group in Baghdad that guards the Muslim Prophet's genealogy, has admitted that Saddam forced them to add him to Muhammad's family tree. Three days after he was captured by American forces, the committee corrected the record. When it has received any attention at all, this story has been played in the Western press as a sign of Saddam's outsize ego. In fact, however, his attempt to claim status as a descendant of the Prophet may have been much more significant than that: it is likely to have been part of an attempt to position himself, despite his tenuous attachment to Islam, not only as a brother-in-jihad of Osama bin Laden but as the great unifier of the distinct ideologies of Arab nationalism and Islamic jihad, and as the true leader of the global jihad movement.

Saddam, of course, for years attempted to co-opt Islamic opposition to his relatively secular rule by portraying his conflicts with the United States as a jihad. As the American advance into Iraq began in March 2003, Saddam appeared on Iraqi television quoting the Qur'an. "In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate. Those who are oppressed are permitted to fight and Allah is capable of making them victorious. Allah is Greatest" (Sura 22:39). He also declared that Iraq was fighting for "the sake of the banners of jihad and its (national) religion," and cried, "Long live jihad!" He seems to have figured that if the Iraqi people weren't inspired by proclamations of "Saddam Hussein is Iraq," they might still be moved to fight for him by the single common denominator shared by Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kurds, and almost everyone else in Iraq: Islam, and its theology of jihad.

As cynical as this was, given Saddam's shaky Islamic piety and open hostility to Islamic leaders, it was revealing of the tyrant's assessment of realities in modern Iraq. If he had calculated that such religious appeals might have received a cold reception from secular-minded Iraqis, it's doubtful that he would have made them. But his use of Muhammad's genealogy indicates that even more may have been involved.

Since the earliest centuries of Islam, the descendants of Muhammad have been accorded special respect: even the Qur'an states that Allah wishes to "remove all abomination" from the members of the Prophet's family, and to make them "pure and spotless" (Sura 33:33). Descendants of the Prophet, bearing the titles sharif or sayyid, became the nobility of the Islamic world. (A sharif is a descendant of Muhammad's grandson Hasan, and a sayyid a descendant of another grandson, Hussein, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.) They were exempt from zakat, the charitable tax incumbent upon all other Muslims, and were even considered by some scholars to be exempt from hellfire. Others held that they could be denied nothing that they asked for. The great 19th and early 20th-century scholar of Islam Snouck Hurgronje observed that in practice, some Muslims "fear the sayyid more than the Creator." None, he said, "will readily so much as lift a finger against a sayyid; one who would dare to take a sayyid's life would not hesitate to cut his father's throat."

It's easy to see why Saddam Hussein would want to join a club like that. Just in case the secret police and the morgue prisons weren't enough, he could cement the loyalty of his people with his new spiritual status. But by joining the Prophet's family did he attempt to do much more as well?

He could, for one thing, as a sayyid have begun to position himself as the most compelling and obvious answer to the radical Muslim longing for the restoration of the caliphate. Of course, not every sayyid lays claim to leadership of the Islamic community and its war against unbelievers - but not everyone suddenly becomes a sayyid while already being the dictator of an Islamic nation. Although it has been vacant for almost eighty years, the caliphate has extraordinary symbolic power for Muslims today. Until the father of Turkish secularism, Kemal Ataturk, abolished the caliphate in 1924, the caliph was considered to be the successor of Muhammad as the military, political, and religious ruler of the Muslim community.

Osama bin Laden and other radicals feel this loss keenly, and universally list restoration of the caliphate as one of their primary goals - so that the Muslim world will again be unified and can wage offensive jihad against the non-Muslim West. Osama himself has shown no signs of coveting this position for himself, but in the mid-1990s his friend, the Taliban's Mullah Omar, wrapped himself in the cloak of Muhammad (which lies in a shrine in Afghanistan) and had himself proclaimed Emir al Mu'menin - leader of the believers, an old title of the caliph.

But by bullying the committee of Ashrafs, Saddam went Omar one better: he didn't lay claim just to the Prophet's cloak, but to his very blood. Saddam's putative sayyid status thus may also have been intended to co-opt the sizable Shi'ite community in Iraq, with its ancient insistence that only a descendant of Muhammad could rule over the Muslims. In any case, Saddam's claim to be a sayyid would do nothing but bolster not only his Islamic bona fides, but also his credentials as the man Osama bin Laden was searching for: a significant leader - if not the leader - of the global jihad.

Those who consider Saddam to have had more in common with Stalin than with Saladin, and to have used Islamic rhetoric as window dressing, should take note. His finagling with the Prophet's genealogy may have been just one element of a larger strategy to affect a grand alliance between secular Arab nationalists and Muslim jihadists - an alliance centered on his person.

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and the author of Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery Publishing), and Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter Books).


Robert Spencer is a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of eight books, eleven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times Bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book, Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs, is available now from Regnery Publishing.



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