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Tsarnaev and the Tamerlan of history and literature

In a press conference following the capture of the final suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama pondered: “We still do not know how young men who grew up here and studied here can turn to such senseless violence.” Refusing to acknowledge that the horrific violence these young men are alleged to have perpetrated in Boston made perfect sense to them, the President misses the possibility that they may have been tacitly encouraged to do something like this since they were children.

While their mother claims that her sons were “set up” by the FBI, the fact that her eldest son’s name was Tamerlan—the name of the vicious Islamic conqueror of the 14th century who destroyed ancient cities and slaughtered millions—reveals that she may have admired the conquests of the great Muslim victor.      

Describing himself as the “Sword of Islam” and a descendant of Genghis Khan, the ancient warrior Tamerlan defeated the Christian Knights at Smyrna, captured Turkey and Egypt, and viciously razed the cities of Damascus, Khiva, and Baghdad in an attempt to make his capital at Samarkand the first city of the Islamic world.   The History of the Mongol Conquests claims that Tamerlan’s campaigns ended with the slaughter of over 17 million people.  It is said that he built pyramids with the skulls of the infidels he slaughtered.

Most of us have forgotten that history—if we ever learned it.  But, there was a time when people understood such ruthlessness.  In 1587, Elizabethan era playwright Christopher Marlowe, presented Tamburlaine the Great to London audiences.  The play introduced theatre-goers to the story of Tamerlan, the humble shepherd boy raised in poverty yet destined to be the Emperor of Asia. Audiences witnessed “three kings killed in battle, three more enslaved, one princess kidnapped and seduced, three suicides, a bevy of virgins speared by horsemen, and an entire city massacred.” According to Christopher Marlowe: Life and Work, the play was so popular that Marlowe produced a sequel that contained “three executions, two deaths in battle, one son stabbed by his mother, another stabbed by his father, a gaggle of concubines abducted and enslaved and several cities pillaged and destroyed.” 

Having seen the play as a teenager in the mid-1800s, Edgar Allan Poe was so taken with the narrative surrounding the ruthless conqueror that he wrote Tamerlan, a romantic yet melancholy poem that contrasts Tamerlan’s ruthless bids for power with his inability to find true love.  Taking poetic license, Poe framed his poem as a confessional poem, and Tamerlan on his deathbed confessing his sins to a Roman Catholic priest.  Such a thing would likely not have happened, but the commercially savvy Poe understood his audience and probably believed that he needed to include a Christian influence to counteract the Muslim theme of the poem. 

Boston’s Tamerlan Tsarnaev presented himself as yet another Sword of Islam.  The Washington Post reports that a YouTube account under his name includes two laudatory videos under the category “terrorists”.  It also lists seven videos on Islam. One of these is dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, which is embraced by Islamic extremists—particularly Al Qaeda.  According to Black Banner prophecy, early Muslim leaders took the flag into battle and were martyred, but then “the flag was taken by a Sword amongst the Swords of Allah and and Allah made them victorious.” Followers believe that Mohammed himself had designated the flag for his people, claiming that: “The black flags will come from the East, led by mighty men…their first names are from a Kunya.” 

Boston’s Tamerlan may have believed it was his destiny to carry the Black Banner of his namesake.  His supporters will also.
 
About the Author
Anne Hendershott
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (forthcoming, Encounter Books).
 
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