Last week the American armed forces attacked a Syrian branch of al Qaeda which went by the name Khorasan. If you read around the web you’ll be informed that the term, a geographic one referring to the lands of Islam’s east, along the fringes of Persia, Central Asia, and western South Asia, is freighted with historical resonance for jihadis whose ideology is strongly inflected by a romantic vision of Islam’s past. By coincidence over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Lost Enlightenment, a book which chronicles Central Asia’s contribution to early Islamic civilization, and therefore a story in which Khorasan looms very large. Of course you don’t need a book length treatment on an obscure historical topic (though I would argue Central Asian shouldn’t be obscure, it is) to understand why Khorasan is important in the imaginations of jihadis. To keep it succinct, though Salafis and their fellow travelers idealize the period of the Rashidun caliphs which ended ~660 A.D., the real historical basis of their movement in terms of an idealized period which is not mythological is that of the early Abbasids, after 750 A.D., and especially 800 A.D. And it is under the Abbasids that the motor engine of Islamic civilization shifted to the east, to Khorasan, the source of the armies which fueled their initial victories, and later of the soldiers and intellectuals who solidified their regime. Though Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, the tendrils of influence and power always led back to the east so long as the polity was vigorous.
These extremist Islamic sects and movements always seem to deal in mythology and the legends of their own past. Though much of the fabric of their reality is fiction, there is often a thin scaffold of historical basis which serves as a skeleton around the narrative. I am not sure how critical it is to understand this scaffold, but it probably wouldn’t hurt. To some extent these radicals seem to speak in an inadvertent code, in that Western audiences as totally lacking in the historical consciousness that is necessary to properly interpret and comprehend considered and conscious semantic choices.