The ṣaqr (صقر), the Arabic name used for both the hawk and the falcon, plays since times immemorial an important role in the Arab Bedouin culture of the Arabian Peninsula. The predatory bird was primarily used to hunt down quarry in the scarce vastness of the Arabian desert. This way of hunting developed into a proper art, ruthless and practical in nature, and falconry was regarded as a virtuous occupation for the rich and poor alike. Since falcon or hawk hunting ceased to be utilitarian for the Arab upper-class, this traditional hunting technique evolved into a noble sport and a status symbol. Today, approximately 3000 falcons are employed for falconry on the Arabian Peninsula each year. Most of these birds are captured in the fall migration and about 60% are released each spring on natural migratory flyways as experienced hunters.
The ṣaqr was therefore traditionally associated with the Peninsular Arabs within the Arab world, as opposed to the more sedentary city-dwellers of Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia. The first one to associate the falcon/hawk with the Quraysh tribe, however, was the Abbasid caliph al-Manṣūr (r. 754–775). His rule was characterized by a deep rivalry with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Ibn Mu’āwiya, a famous member of the Umayyad dynasty who fled Damascus after the Abbasid Revolt and proclaimed himself caliph in the Iberian Peninsula. According to the Algerian scholar Aḥmed al-Maqarī (1578–1632) in his Nafḥ al-Ṭīb min Ghuṣn al-Andalus al-Raṭīb, al-Manṣūr hated and yet respected ‘Abd al-Raḥmān to such a degree that he called him the Hawk of Quraysh (Ṣaqr Quraysh). Just like the Banū Hāshim, the clan of the Prophet Muḥammad, the Banū Umayya (Umayyads) were also a clan of the Quraysh tribe, with members like ʿUthmān bin ʿAffān and Muʿāwiya bin Abī Ṣufyān.
Speaking of the Banū Hāshim, the modern day symbolism of the falcon/hawk was introduced with the advent of royalist Arab nationalism in the wake of the Great Arab Revolt (1916 – 1918) against the Ottoman state. The Revolt was led primarily by al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī al-Hāshimī (1853-1931), who acted as the Sharif of Mecca and the Ḥijāz region under the Ottomans since 1908 and who allegedly was a 37th-generation direct descendant of the prophet Muḥammad. He was a member of the Banū Qatāda, an Arab tribe that descended from Qatāda bin Idrīs, a 13th century Sharif of Mecca whose lineage could be traced back to al-Ḥasan ibn Alī, grandson of the prophet Muḥammad and thus member of the Banū Hāshim. The Sharif al-Ḥusayn and his sons were therefore generally known as the Hashemite royal family.
After the Revolt, several Hashemite kingdoms were established throughout the Middle East in the period after World War I, albeit as British mandates after the execution of the Sykes-Picot agreement. The Sharif’s sons were to lead these subordinate Arab monarchies. Fayṣal I became king of Iraq and Syria and Abdullāh I became king of Jordan. Only their brother, ‘Alī became an independent ruler over the Ḥijāz as heir of his father’s lands, but was deposed in 1925 by the invading Abd al-‘Azīz ibn Sa’ūd. With the fall of the Ottoman caliphate, several symbols of Arab independence rose to significance. For the Hashemite families, the obvious choice was the falcon/hawk, referred to as the Hawk of Quraysh in reference to their Hashemite bloodline. This has also an important function of both religious and ethnic legitimacy.
With the decline of Hashemite rule, now confined only to modern-day Jordan, the hawk’s symbolism is more generally used as a sign of royalty, nobility, ruthlessness and precision. Interestingly enough, a recent development in Syria confirmed the Hashemite legacy of this symbol. None of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army groups in northern Syria feature a hawk in their emblem, even when named after the bird, like the Mountain Hawks Brigade. The flag of the Turkish-backed Free Police operating in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas features an Eagle of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, while their predecessor and now dissolved Free Syrian Police of the Syrian National Council used a Hawk of Quraysh in its logo, until today associated with anti-Turkish sentiments. An example of the importance and sensitivity of symbols in the Middle East and North Africa.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.