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.