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Osama bin Laden, poet


This post has been updated and corrected in several places with information from UC Davis.

Next week the academic journal Language & Communication will publish an article by UC Davis Professor Flagg Miller on the evolution of the term "al qaida" based, in part, on the oratory of Osama bin Laden. "Bin Laden is a skilled poet with clever rhymes and meters," Miller told the Times of London, "which was one reason why many people taped him and passed recordings around, like pop songs." [Update: This post originally reported that the article published in “Language & Communication” would include samples of Osama bin Laden's poetry. UC Davis says that is not the case.]

Osama bin Laden's poems were among more than 1,500 audiocassettes found in al-Quaeda's Afghanistan headquarters in 2001. Miller, a scholar who specializes in political discourse, Islam, and media -- his first book is "The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen" (Harvard University Press / Middle Eastern Monographs) -- has been studying bin Laden's poetry recordings for five years. He described the poems to The Times of London:

They reveal Osama Bin Laden as the performer, the entertainer with an agenda. He told gory tales of dead mujaheddin from the villages where he was speaking, which was often the first time their families had learned of their fates. He mixed this news up with radical theology and his own verse based on the traditions of hamasa -- a warlike poetic tradition from Oman calculated to capture the interest of young men.

Earlier this month, Miller told the L.A. Times that the poems are didactic. Osama bin Laden, Miller explains, "coaches his audiences through their fears about dying in a violent way. He coaches them to consider such an end as noble and potentially beneficial to a larger purpose." The professor told the Times of London that "He crafts his words to excite the urban dissatisfied youth, offering them escape from their elders and villages. Instead, many just die in terrible ways."

All of which fits politically. "He's a very good recruiter," Miller says. But that doesn't answer the aesthetic question: is Osama bin Laden's poetry any good? A sample after the jump.


A poem by Osama bin Laden; UC Davis has a copy of the audio recording available. [Update: This post previously linked to the Sunday Times of London; it now links to UC Davis.]

Tomorrow, William, you will discover which young man [will] confront your brethren, who have been deceived by [their own] leaders.

A youth, who plunges into the smoke of war, smiling
     He hunches forth, staining the blades of lances red
May God not let my eye stray from the most eminent
     Humans, should they fall, Djinn, should they ride
[And] lions of the jungle, whose only fangs
     [Are their] lances and short Indian swords
As the stallion bears my witness that I hold them back
     [My] stabbing is like the cinders of fire that explode into flame
On the day of the stallions’ expulsion, how the war-cries attest to me
     As do stabbing, striking, pens, and books.

If we could look at this purely as a text, I think the connection between war and writing could be explored; and, while I'm new to Arab poetry, I think the language is beautiful.

But this isn't just a text -- the author is not dead (at least, not that we know of) and his poetry has to be read in context of his actions. Which makes this poem, calling for death and flame, quite awful.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

[This post previously quoted Professor Miller describing bin Laden’s poetry, attributing the description to an interview in The Times of London. After this item was originally posted on September 25, 2008, UC Davis contacted us to say the quotation did appear in the Sunday Times, but it is "not what Miller told the Sunday Times writer." The quotation attributed to Miller on this post was, “[the poems]  reveal Osama Bin Laden as the performer, the entertainer with an agenda. He told gory tales of dead mujaheddin from the villages where he was speaking, which was often the first time their families had learned of their fates. He mixed this news up with radical theology and his own verse based on the traditions of hamasa -- a warlike poetic tradition from Oman calculated to capture the interest of young men.” Wrote UC Davis in an e-mail to us, “Miller did not say that families first learned of relatives’ deaths while listening to bin Laden’s poems, and would have no way of knowing whether this is true. He also did not refer to ‘hamasa’ poetry. He did talk with the Sunday Times writer about war poetry composed in the Ibadi tradition, which is neither Shi’ite nor Sunni, and currently represented by communities in Oman.  We have requested a correction from the Sunday Times, but say they haven’t heard back from anyone at that paper yet.”]

Photo: A picture dated 1998 shows Saudi-born Osama bin Laden smiling as he sits in a cave in the Jalalabad region of Afghanistan. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

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Studying bin Laden's poetry for 5 years? As a formed UC student and scientist, and as someone who believes in free will, Professor Miller is certainly entitled to waste his life studying the writings of a terrorist. Of course one must question his moral grounding. Where is the benefit on any level here?

The UC system should be ashamed and is displaying a blatant lack of integrity by allowing one of its professors to throw away resources on such excrement.

This is pathetic. Why are we pandering and marketing ANY ideas by this madman? Reporting this drivel is irresponsible, despicable, and wholesale stupidity.

Wow. As a scientist, you should know this is of value.

By reading your post I get the impression you have a huge chip on your shoulder and you probably think you are underpaid and that your chosen profession underappreciated.

But then again, while you were busy studying the obvious, intricate, and complicated beauties of science, perhaps some of the other less concrete studies were overlooked.

I forget who said it, but I believe it to be true: One's writings are like a window into the soul.

This is great!

Osama the poet, Bush the villain!

How far will the liberals go in glorifying our enemies?

What's liberal about understanding the forms of manipulation bin Laden uses in order to combat it?

(i.e. is that if you don't understand it, it must be liberal?)

If I jump off the Golden Gate Bridge it is fair to infer (scientifically and otherwise) that my body will break and I will die. Similarly, I do not need to look into the window of bin Laden's soul to understand what processes are at work; he has his stripes; he is a Zebra. I know crap when I smell it. For me it is simple: bin Laden's existence is not compatible with life. What more does one need to know?

Any insight into the minds of people who wish America as a whole would just erupt into a big ball of fire is a good thing. For us as human beings, and for us as American citizens.

Bin Laden's poetry is also much more news worthy and interesting than somebody jumping off a bridge.

Also, need I point out nobody forced you to read any of it?

To "gabe, San Diego", and to reaffirm what NotAlex said:

During the Cold War, classes on communism and life in the Soviet Union were taught at the US military colleges. Not for any multicultural reasons, but to "know the enemy".

Well put Wes.

I feel a sudden urge to quote Sun Tzu, but I will refrain.


And you say oh my god, this is an atrocity!

No, you are the atrocity!

Most all americans live in horrible sin, and don't know it, and the leaders make it this way, all for PAIN for GAINS of WEALTH!

What happened on 911 was ALLL Bush's Fathers fault and his!

It was meant to happen, If they flew those plains into a Ghetto or a Resevation nobody WOULD GIVE CARE!

But all those RICH people that died, is the only reason theirs a war, and to make more and more and more MONEY!

In all religions, this has been foretold, and in all religions america is the land that is going to be home to the DAJJAL the anti christ!

"There is a treasure to be desired and oil in the dwelling of the wise, but to the foolish man that spendith it up, you gotta learn now. It won't be no more, no more in your lonely world."

Hey Alex, I don't need to study physics to know that nuclear bombs built by physicists can kill millions of people in a very short horrible time.

So let's ban the study of physics, right? Who needs knowledge, when knowledge can be so dangerous?

Being a scientist, you've made your own Faustian bargain not to judge yourself morally while you probe the world with cold-hearted scientific objectivity.

Don't judge other scholars for their cold-hearted objectivity, or you'll be undermining the ideas that support your own intellectual freedom and the freedom of everyone in your field.

Does he sing too?

as an arab man , and as a poem lover , i c that bin ladden's poems r not that good , i mean the language he used were old and classic , no creativity , if u listen to Nizzar qabani an arab poet that died in the 90's , i realy recommend u to read for him and compare it with bin ladens poems , also in each arab country there r hundred of poets , and we r language ppl , if u studied arab language u will find a hundred meaning for one thing , for example , love , we have more than 20 words for love , lion , we have more than 10 names for the lion , but what bin ladens wrote write there was very normal and classic , i didnt like it .


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