Since humans waged their first wars, warriors named their favorite weapons as a sign of trust and proficiency. Who doesn’t know Arthur’s Excalibur, El Cid’s Tizona or the devastating Fat Man? Names like Davy Crockett’s rifle Betsy, Daniel Boone’s Tick-Licker and Charlemagne’s sword Joyeuse all survived the shifting sands of time and tell us something about their owner’s personality. Dhū al-Faqār fits nicely in that list, as it was one of the swords owned by the prophet Muḥammad.
This legendary sword had a fine and beautiful engraving on it. Engraving may be called fiqra in Arabic, hence it’s name, that literally means “the engraved one”. The prophet Muḥammad had acquired it as part of the war booty after the Battle of Badr (624 AD), and it’s the only sword for which there is extensive proof in the early Islamic authentic narrations. The famous Companion and early Qur’an scholar Ibn ‘Abbās confirmed in one of his narrations that Muḥammad indeed took the sword on the Day of Badr in addition to his share of the booty, and that it played a role in a dream he had on the Day of Uḥud (625). According to the historian al-Ṭabarī, it had previously belonged to Munabbih Ibn al-Ḥajjāj. The exact form of the sword was not specified, other than that it was decorated with some silver. However, if one takes the report of al-Ṭabarī into consideration with the fact that a 4th millennium BC anthropomorphic stele, found near al-Ḥā’il, wears a double-bladed sword sheathed from a belt around its waist, one might conclude that such sword was actually more than a legendary rarity in pre-Islamic Arabia.
In later Islamic imagery, the sword became heavily associated with ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, a famous and revered figure in Islam and the fourth caliph of the earliest Islamic state. In a longer ḥadīth about Dhū al-Faqār, it is claimed that the prophet Muḥammad gave his sword to his cousin ‘Alī, proclaiming that “there is no god but Allāh, Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allāh. There is no hero but ‘Alī; there is no sword but Dhū al-Faqār.” Although Sunni scholars of ḥadīth are agreed that it’s a false/unreliable narration, mostly because some people in its isnād were called liars, like ʿĪsā ibn Mahrān, this expression and the association with ‘Alī remain very popular. A weapon owned by a prophet and ascribed to one of his most famous Companions ought to grow into an important symbol among later generations.
In modern era Muslim depictions of the sword, it was frequently represented as a double-bladed scimitar or a scissor-like dagger. The sword became a hugely popular symbol under the Ottomans, who used it extensively on their military banners, maritime flags and regimental emblems. The image of the double-bladed sword was consequently adopted by friendly nations in the Ottoman sphere of influence, appearing on Barbary corsair flags and the banners of North-African and Balkan Beys. The sword’s association with ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib was upheld by Ottoman artists, who made it a familiar attribute when depicting the prophet’s cousin. Indeed, the double-bladed sword appears in several beautifully illustrated manuscripts, like Luṭfī ‘Abdullāh’s Siyar-i Nebī or the Ottoman prayer book Inʿām-i Sharīf.
Today, the Ottoman legacy of depicting the Dhū al-Faqār sword is fading away. The sword’s popularity lives on especially among Shia Muslims, who belief that ‘Alī and their imams after him inherited the sword as a token of their being the rightful successors of the prophet. According to Shiite sources, the sword will be inherited by al-Mahdī, the long-awaited redeemer in Islamic eschatology who will appear in the period before the Day of Judgement. From pendants to banners, from Iranian rockets and main battle tanks to jewelry and props in plays, Dhū al-Faqār is ubiquitous in contemporary Shia imagery.
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.