Why is al-Sahab Called al-Sahab?

Posted: 15th June 2009 by Thomas Hegghammer in Bin Laden, Jihadi media, propaganda

This excellent question was raised in a comment to an earlier Jihadica piece. Since it probably interests a wider audience, I figured I should devote a separate post to it.

Most readers probably know that the word sahab means “clouds” and that it emerged as the name of al-Qaida’s media production company around 2002. But why would al-Qaida name the mouthpiece of global jihad after something as wishy-washy as a cloud?

The answer is that the word figures in a common epithet of God, namely مجري السحاب (mujri al-sahab) meaning “Mover of the Clouds”. The name usually features in the expression منزل الكتاب ومجري السحاب وهازم الأحزاب (munzil al-kitab wa mujri al-sahab wa hazim al-ahzab), “Revealer of the Holy Book, Mover of the clouds and Defeater of the clans”. This expression in turn occurs in a famous night prayer uttered by the Prophet Muhammad during one of his military expeditions.

As it happens, this is also the opening phrase of the 1998 Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders . Bin Ladin must have been personally quite fond of this prayer, for it also appears in the 1996 Declaration of jihad against the Americans (see here, p. 140,), and at the very end of Bin Ladin’s December 1998 interview with al-Jazeera (see here, p. 176). It also appears in the letter left behind by the 9/11 hijackers (see here, p. 221).

With this in mind, the choice of al-Sahab as the name of al-Qaida’s media bureau makes perfect sense. The word goes back to the earliest days of Islam, evokes a difficult stage in the Prophet’s war against the infidels, echoes the opening of al-Qaida’s most important declaration, and suggests that the Almighty is behind the propaganda effort, since He is the “Mover of al-Sahab.” In my view it is a brilliant name.

I should mention that I haven’t seen this particular explanation in al-Qaida’s own publications (or anywhere else), but I am convinced I am on the right track. I welcome any alternative readings or additional insights from our readers. I would be particularly interested in hearing from the Islamologists among you about the connotations and classical use of the abovementioned prayer. Out of all the prayers uttered by the Prophet, why did Bin Ladin like this particular one?

Another issue for discussion concerns the precise circumstances of the foundation of al-Sahab. When and by whom exactly was it founded, and what was its first declaration? The accounts that I have seen and heard all provide different answers. I might post on this later if time allows.

  1. Steve Corman says:

    Very interesting, thanks. Also, do you know why it is often listed as as-Sahab rather than al-Sahab?

  2. This has to do with the way Arabic is pronounced.

    In pronunciation, the L in the definite article “al-” assimilates to certain consonants (the “sun letters”) but not to others (the moon letters).

    So you would always say “assahab” although it is written a-l-s-(a)-h-a-b in Arabic. When transliterating to English, some people choose to write it the way it is pronounced, hence as-Sahab.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_and_moon_letters

  3. Ben says:

    Thank you for feeding us with brillant article…

    I’m quite convince about your explanation especially because the idea of “Mover of Cloud” was expressed by Abdallah Azzam in his book “The Signs of Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan”. Reading the summary again this evening, I found this interesting quotation (p56) titled “A Cloud Protects the Mujaahideen”:

    “Muhammad Yaasir narrated to me: I was observing an encounter in which the enemy jets were attacking a group of Mujaahideen in an open area i.e. they had no place to hide. We [who were observing] made Du’a unto Allaah Ta’ala for the Mujaahideen. Suddenly a black cloud of dust covered the battlefield, and the
    Mujaahideen were saved”.

    I believe that this quote is a direct reference to a battle taking place on 01 June 1987 (mentioned in Abdallah Azzam other book “The Lofty Mountain”). The idea here is that Allah is moving the cloud to protect Mujaahideen and allow them to fight back the enemy when they will have a better battlefield.

    We might draw a parallel with the Afghan sanctuary ending in 2001 for al-Qaïda and As-Sahab starting in 2002 as a cloud, a new sancturay protecting al-Qaïda while waiting to have a better battlefield (or be in a better situation to fight back)….

    Maybe it’s too much interpretation…???

  4. That’s the genius of the name – it is so rich in connotations that it leaves plenty of room for interpretation. There is no “right” answer here, I think.

    The Arab Afghans were not the first to benefit militarily from God’s moving of clouds. You find similar stories in the hadith. Many of the miracles reported in Azzam’s book are modern versions of things that happened during the Prophet’s time.

  5. alle says:

    That sounds likely enough to me, but just for the sake of completeness, I saw this in Washington Post:

    (As-Sahab means “the clouds” in Arabic, a reference to the skyscraping mountain peaks of Afghanistan.)

  6. Ibn Qawqaz says:

    I’ve heard this description of God in Friday sermons, quoting the Qur’an and hadith.

  7. andy says:

    Very interesting article, thank you. Just another interpretation, that seems very “poetic” to me. In the documentary producted by Discovery Channel “Media Jihad”, a voice recorded on a tape says: “As Sahab means clouds in arabic, the world will be covered with messages sent out like clouds”. So AQ’s messages, just like clouds, can reach every part of the world and cannot be stopped.

  8. Gblue says:

    Good article, but it does not say why the group in Somalia is using the name….

    This explanation is pretty obvious (and well known) at some points.

    The reason why the Islamic rebels in Somalia use it has nothing to do with these facts.

  9. Gblue, are talking about the Somalia-based militant group, “Al-Shabaab”? If that’s the group you’re referencing, that’s different from “Al-Sahab”.

    Al-Shabaab means, “the youth”, whereas al-Sahab (as Dr. Hegghammer points out) means “the clouds”.

  10. Garbi says:

    In the Muslim countries of the Mediterranean, especially in northern Africa is related to Sahab Abu Zama Belaoui, also called Sidi Sahab “The companion traveling with the Prophet in their campaigns” … His tomb is in Kairouan, ( Al-qayrawn) is a city in Tunisia, was founded in the year 670 CE, during the great Arab conquests, is a holy city for many Muslims, and many sumi muslims consider it the fourth holiest city of Islám , and the holiest city of the Maghreb.
    The tradition says that 7 trips to Kairuán are like one to Mecca.
    For this area (where I am) Sahab is “the words of the prophet and confidences … traveling through the roof.”
    What is more correct when talking about the Internet?… “travel videos … through space, the clouds

  11. Unfortunately the Sahab in Sidi Sahab is not the same word. It means “friend” or “companion”, and should ideally be transliterated “sahib”. It’s pronounced SAA-hib, whereas the media company is pronounced sa-HAAB.

  12. Ben says:

    Right, there maybe hundred interpretations (by the way, I love the poetic one) …… or maybe not a particular reason as the former al-Qaïda and as-Sahab member Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al-Bahlul has expressed during his FBI interview. According to him, the name of Al-Qaida’s media office: As-Sahaab Media Foundation, was chosen for unspecified reasons by Bin Laden himself”.

    Source: FBI 302 Summary of Interview with Ali Hamza Ahmed Suliman al-Bahlul (a.k.a. Muhammad Anis
    Abdullah Khalidi, Ismail, Abu Malek, Anas) ISN# US9YM-00039DP by FBI Special Agent AS. July 30-31, 2002.

  13. Aha – that’s very interesting. It supports the hypothesis that UBL had a personal soft spot for this prayer. Thanks so much for the reference.

  14. Eric says:

    I always got the image of water condensing above Afghanistan, which then rains all over the world, possibly to inspire all kinds of lifeforms to grow, much like Andy said. The Quran is full with references to clouds that water barren lands and make them green and fresh again, the positive connotation (i.e. it is given by God) is obvious.

    I remember the expression you refer to from many videos of al-shahab, but that’s something you probably already know.

  15. Bernard Haykel says:

    While your exegesis is impressive, I think the reason that UBL chose this name is more prosaic and rooted in Arabian culture. The cloud (sahab, pl. suhub) is the bearer of rain and therefore bounty (khayr, which is also a synonym for rain) and is a sign of good things to come (a good date harvest, fresh grazing lands and fat animals). As such, the choice of al-Sahab for AQ’s media production outfit is perfect because it is a metaphor for the rain-bearing cloud and therefore a source of good tidings. What this name underscores, too, is the Arabian/Arab dominance of the movement. I doubt the Muslims of Mindanao or Dhaka feel the same way about clouds. Keep posting and thanks for the excellent work.

  16. henry says:

    I once picked up a bushman who was thumbing a ride on the road from Rundu on the Angola border – on his way down to Grootfontein, a few hundred kilometers south in the heart of northern Namibia.
    As we neared Grootfontein – which sits on a low rise above the surrounding savannah – we noted a nice little cloud sitting directly above the town. As I slowed down and he gathered his bags to leave, I asked him if it might rain. “Ah no..” he said sadly, “that’s a political cloud.” I looked stumped, and as he got out and stretched himself he said with a cheerful grin “that one make many promises but nothing will happen.”

  17. Chris Heffelfinger says:

    There is also the story of when the Prophet was a youth and visited the monk Buhayra. Muhammad was struggling in the heat and a cloud covered him during his journey. Im not sure this was the thinking behind the name choice, but the concept of a cloud in Arabian culture is almost the opposite of that in Western, i.e., protection, succor, etc vs. gray, dismal, downcast, as we see it.

  18. said says:

    I think, all suggestions are possible, but I want to add one, that makes also sense:

    “al-Sahab” is according to EI the name of the prophets turban.

    What do you think about this suggestion?

  19. Dave says:

    It doesn’t hurt that “Cloud” is often used now to refer to the nebulous place in cyberspace, where data is stored and transactions occur. “Cloud computing” is becoming quite a buzzword.

  20. 49ers Jersey says:

    What this name underscores, too, is the Arabian/Arab dominance of the movement. I doubt the Muslims of Mindanao or Dhaka feel the same way about clouds. Keep posting and thanks for the excellent work.

  21. A good article, I like it!

  22. M Khayat says:

    Thanks Thomas for the info. I recently got to know another meaning for Al-Sahab. Apparently Al-Sahab was the name of Prophet Muhammad’s turban. According to various hadiths, Muhammad wore black turbans for the most part, and those were named Al-Sahab.
    So what is the connection between a turban and a cloud you may ask, well, Al-Sahab comes from the Arabic root of Sa-Ha-Ba, which means, to drag something in order to lengthen it. Muhammad’s turban is said to have acted just like that when the wind blew on it – it flew in the air, lightly fluttering and extending over Muhammad’s back and shoulders (romantic I know!). Same movement is seen in clouds when the atmospheric air blows on them, causing them to get different shapes and moving them effortlessly in the skies.
    The Source for the above info: January 2012 publication by the Kurdish Ansar Al-Islam group explaining their banner, flag and official seal.

  23. abu safia says:

    agar app me se koe b alqaida se taloq rekte ho to please mera b is qafila haq me shamil hone ka arman hai please contact me on this email

  24. abu safia says:

    agar app me se koe b alqaida se taloq rekte ho to please mera b is qafila haq me shamil hone ka arman hai please contact me on this email
    abu_safia2011@yahoo.com