In addition to the obvious vehicles of verbal propaganda, a message can be transmitted through literature, in particular, through two literary forms—poetry and historiography.
In pre-modern times, poetry was in many ways the most interesting and the most elusive of the means of propaganda. In the days before journalists, propagandists and public relations men, poets fulfilled these functions. They were the public relations men of chiefs and of rulers and had been engaged in these tasks for a long time. The Emperor Augustus, for example, had his court poets in Rome, doing public relations work for the empire in general and the emperor in particular. One might even argue that Virgil's great epic, the Aeneid, is a public relations job for the Roman imperial idea.
The propagandist function of poetry in pre-Islamic Arabia is familiar to all students of Arabic literature. The traditional classification of the different types of poetry includes at least three that have an important element of propaganda: the fakhr or boast, in which the poet makes propaganda on behalf of himself and his tribe; the madīh or panegyric, in which he promotes his ruler or patron; and the hijā' or satire, consisting of negative propaganda against hostile or rival groups or persons. In its earliest and simplest form, as described by the Arab literary historians, the fakhr is a technique of battlefield propaganda designed to strengthen the morale of one's own fighters while undermining that of the enemy. A more peaceful form of propaganda was the mufākhara, a kind of friendly contest in which poets and orators from different tribes competed against each other, boasting of their own merits and achievements while holding their rivals up to derision. Poets seem at times to have played an active and even important part in some of the wars and conflicts of early Islamic history as propagandists on behalf of one or another individual or faction. There are several episodes in the biography of the Prophet in which different poets appear among both his supporters and his opponents. From the narrative it is clear that their propaganda efforts, on both sides, were considered important.
The Umayyad caliphs, and thereafter virtually all Muslim rulers, had court poets. And not only rulers. There were also lesser figures who employed poets for advertising and public relations. In this way poetry became, for some, a kind of business, and we have quite detailed information about such matters as the rates of remuneration. These obviously depended on the standing of the patron and the skill of the poet and, as in other fields of propaganda, the same material could be re-used. A poem in praise of one ruler could with slight necessary adjustments be resold to another. There are many stories in the literary histories of poets moving from the service of one prince to that of another and sometimes recycling the same poems. The tenth-century ruler of Aleppo Sayf al-Dawla had a considerable staff of poets who, in a sense, are still working for him at the present day, having misled some insufficiently wary historians into accepting the propaganda line. His most famous poet-propagandist was al-Mutanabbī (915–965), a native of Kufa in Iraq, who was regarded as one of the great classic poets of Arabic literature. After having worked for some time as a panegyrist for Sayf al-Dawla, he quarreled with his employer and in the year 957 fled from Syria to Egypt, where he entered the service of Kafur, a Nubian slave who, as guardian of the youthful successor to the rulership, had himself become in effect the supreme ruler of Egypt. For a while the poet wrote great and famous poems lauding the achievements of his new employer. But there too his relations with his master became troubled, and in 960 he left Egypt and went first to Baghdad and then into Iran, where he found new patrons and employers. In the meantime he began to compose ferocious poems denouncing his former employer in Egypt. Kafur was black, a eunuch, and a slave, and al-Mutanabbi made full use of all three in denouncing him.
The Isma'ili Fāṭimid caliphs, as one would expect, had ideological poets. Ibn Hāni', the court poet of the conqueror of Egypt al-Mu'izz, ably presents the Fāṭimid case against the 'Abbasids.
Just as coins and inscriptions could be seen by everyone, so poems could be memorized, recited and often sung, thus reaching a very wide audience.
Some of the chroniclers of the period give us lists of the official poets. Qalqashandī, the great Egyptian encyclopedist of the later Middle Ages, tells us that the Fāṭimids kept a staff of poets attached to the chancery, divided into two groups—Sunni poets who wrote more respectable Sunni praise, and Isma'ili poets who went in for the much more extreme Isma'ili adulation of the ruler as Imam.
Rulers were not the only ones who employed poets for public relations. Poets were also used by rebels and sectarian leaders to disseminate seditious propaganda and sometimes even for purely personal ends. Poetry was also used for what we would nowadays call the social column, as a way of announcing births, deaths, marriages and other events of this kind.
Even at the present day, the poet has by no means lost his importance as a propagandist—to teach, to persuade, to convince, to arouse, to mobilize. Poetry is indeed rather better than prose for the purpose of the propagandist, since of necessity it proceeds not by argument but by emotion and is therefore more difficult to counter or disprove.
The modern poet has several advantages as compared with his predecessors in earlier eras. To spread his message he no longer has to rely on reciters and calligraphers but can mobilize the immense resources of the printing press, radio and television. As in the past, his poems may be set to music and sung—but vocal music, too, in the modern age, is vastly amplified.
What about historiography? That again is an important source of information about propaganda and also, at times, an instrument of propaganda. Sunni historical writing is on the whole very sober. In the Sunni view, what happens is important because it represents the working out of God's purpose for mankind and is therefore a source of information on theology and law, a tangible expression and realization of the Sunna. The Shi'a, by contrast, took the view that after the murder of 'Alī, history had, so to speak, taken a wrong turning; all non-'Alid regimes were illegitimate and all existing societies were, in a sense, living in sin. The defense of the existing order is therefore an important theme of Sunni historiography. Early writing was much affected by this; it was also much affected by the factional struggles of the early Islamic centuries, between family and family, between tribe and tribe, between faction and faction, between region and region. All of these are reflected in the different, sometimes contrasting, narratives that have been meticulously preserved for us by the classical Arab historians.
The historians of medieval Islam, unlike some of their modern colleagues, seem to have been remarkably free from pressure and express themselves with astonishing frankness. They were often ready and able to criticize the rulers under whom they lived, but sometimes they were willing, like historians in other times and places, to interpret events in such ways as to support certain ideas, their own or the predominant ideas of the society. Sometimes, more specifically, they slant what they tell to serve a ruler or patron or, more loosely, a faction, a section or a tribe. There were many such groups, each with its own propagandist historiography.
A major vehicle of propaganda in all societies is the writing and teaching of history. In the past this was done mainly by books. At the present time, pictures of the past may be projected and slanted in many different ways.
Historiography directly sponsored by the ruler, to serve the ruler's purpose, is much less common in the Islamic world than in Christendom. It appears, however, in the time of the Fāṭimids and then more frequently under the Iranian and Turkish dynasties. In the Ottoman Empire it was formalized in the office of the Vakanüvis, the imperial historiographer, holder of an office under the sultan whose function was to record the events of the time.
Sometimes historiography acquires an almost epical quality, and here clearly its purpose is to drum up support, usually for a holy war. Two outstanding examples are the Arabic biographies of Saladin and some of the Ottoman narratives of the advance into Europe at the time of Suleyman the Magnificent.
As well as poets and historians, government secretaries could also be employed in the preparation and distribution of propaganda. A form of propaganda much used was the so-called "victory letter," which it was customary for a ruler to send to his colleagues, both friends and enemies, to inform them of some great victory which he had just won. This again has very early origins and probably goes back to the littera laureata of imperial Rome and to the Arab maghāzī, heroic narratives relating the adventures of the ancient Arabs and then of the Prophet and his companions. Such letters were usually drawn up by some skillful writer and then sent around to other rulers announcing a great and glorious victory to impress them and, of course, also to warn them not to take liberties. A rather splendid example of an Ottoman victory letter records the capture of Kanisza by the Ottomans from the Hapsburgs in October 1600. This was no doubt sent to a number of rulers. A copy of the letter sent by the grand vizier to Queen Elizabeth of England is preserved in the Public Record Office in London. The letter begins by congratulating the Queen on the victory of the English forces against their enemies in Western Europe and then continues to describe, in great detail, the Ottoman campaign in Hungary. The letter ends thus: "Praise be to Almighty God, in this blessed year, both on your side and on ours, such glorious deeds have come to pass. May all our foes be conquered and broken in this way, and may our friends triumph and win victories. In view of your amity to the Splendid Threshold, the Emblem of Felicity from ancient days until this time, and your old affection and friendship to your well-wisher on this side, we have communicated in detail the events of these parts to your noble person. It is hoped that you will keep the door of correspondence and exchange open, inform us of what occurs, and never omit to chastise your enemies in this wise. Written at the end of the month of Rajab 1009 (January 1601) in the city of Belgrade."
The themes and methods of war propaganda have not changed greatly through the centuries—to proclaim and where possible to exaggerate one's victories, to minimize and where possible conceal one's defeats and retreats, and of course to demonstrate the virtue of one's cause and the wickedness of those opposed to it. Modern technology—first printing, then telegraphy, then broadcasting and television and now the communications revolution—has vastly increased the scale and scope of this kind of propaganda. It was war—in the Crimea—that brought the telegraph from Europe to the Middle East, where the first lines were laid by the British and the French in Turkey. The first message, sent in September 1855 from Istanbul to Europe, read, "Allied forces have entered Sebastopol." This telegram was an excellent example of war propaganda—truthful, yet somewhat misleading. The British and French troops had indeed entered the Russian fortress of Sebastopol, after a long and hard-fought siege; but it took a little longer, and more hard fighting, before they captured it.
A uniquely Muslim opportunity for the dissemination of information and ideas was provided by the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This brought together Muslims from all parts of the world—east and west, north and south—to share in a common ceremony and a common experience. It provided a level of communication and shared awareness without parallel in any other society until modern times. It was also a magnificent opportunity to promote an idea or a cause—an opportunity that was often exploited. In the pilgrimage, as at home, the mosque providea meeting place where the powers of control of even the most authoritarian governments were limited.
The coming of the telegraph in the Middle East, incidentally, also illustrates another aspect of the impact of the communications revolution. Since antiquity, Middle Eastern rulers have relied heavily on the Barīd, or courier service, for the transmission of messages and news and the maintenance of control from the center over the provinces. The Ottoman sultan 'Abd al-Ḥamīd II saw the value of the telegraph to a modernizing and centralizing state and took care to extend it to all the provinces of his empire. What he overlooked was that for every telegraph office there had to be at least one telegraphist with at least enough knowledge of a European language to read the manual of instructions. The telegraphists, most of them young in age and modern in outlook, often found that they had more in common with the Young Turks and other opposition movements than with the government by which they were employed, and the telegraph was an important tool in the hands of those who planned and accomplished the Revolution of 1908.