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.
It was narrated by one of the prophet’s Companions and an early scholar, Ibn ‘Abbās, that the prophet Muḥammad acquired Dhū al-Faqār after the Battle of Badr (624 AD) as his share of the war booty. According to the historian al-Ṭabarī as stated in the second volume of his Tārīkh, it had previously belonged to one Munabbih Ibn al-Ḥajjāj. There are little details available on the exact form of the sword. The Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyya stated in his Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā Vol. 25 that “there was some silver on the sword of the Prophet”, based on a authentic narration by the Companion Abū Umāma bin Sahl that “the pommel of the Messenger of God’s sword was made of silver.” Ibn al-Qayyim, a student of Ibn Taymiyya, added to this in his work Zād al-Maʿād Vol. 1 that the prophet Muḥammad “entered Mecca the day of its conquest (630 AD) with hints of gold and silver on his sword.” Because of these gold and silver engravings, the sword was called Dhū al-Faqār, faqār being the plural of the Arabic word fiqra, or engraving. The suffix dhū expresses possession. Hence it’s name literally means “that which possesses engravings”.
There isn’t much more known about the look of this sword except what was mentioned above. There is no report or narration in the earliest texts to indicate that the sword would’ve had a forked blade, its most famous feature in later depictions. However, it is plausible that Dhū al-Faqār was in fact a double-bladed sword. A 4th millennium BC anthropomorphic stele was found near al-Ḥā’il in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula. This sandstone warrior, currently at the National Museum of al-Riyāḍ, wears a double-bladed sword sheathed from a belt around its waist, which could actually indicate that the double-bladed sword was more than a legendary rarity in pre-Islamic Arabia.
In later Islamic imagery, however, the sword became increasingly associated with ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the cousin of the prophet Muḥammad and the fourth caliph of the earliest Islamic state. In a longer ḥadīth about Dhū al-Faqār mentioned by medieval Muslim historian Ibn al-Athīr in his al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh, it is claimed that the prophet Muḥammad gave his sword to his cousin ‘Alī during the Battle of Uḥud (625 AD), 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.” Many Sunni scholars of ḥadīth, however, are agreed that it’s an unreliable narration, mostly because some people in its isnād (chain of narration) were called liars. Ibn Ḥajar (1372-1449) mentions in his Līsān al-Mīzān how one ʿĪsā ibn Mahrān, a narrator within the isnād, is considered a liar and one who spreads false narrations. Nonetheless, this expression and the association with ‘Alī remain very popular.
Like I mentioned earlier, the sword was frequently represented as a double-bladed scimitar or a scissor-like dagger since at least the High Medieval Period, when Dhū al-Faqār became a hugely popular symbol on Ottoman banners and in Ottoman illustrated books and manuscripts. The vast amount of Dhū al-Faqār imagery on the Turkish military, maritime and regimental banners is astounding, on such a scale that this symbol soon got 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. It was only after the 19th century Tanẓīmāt reforms that the Dhū al-Faqār banners lost their prominence, since the reforms abolished all the various flags within the empire and introduced a single national flag.
I couldn’t find any Sunni depiction of Dhū al-Faqār before the late 13th-early 14th century. Some of the earliest illustrated historiographical works do depict Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib with a two-pronged sword as attribute, like the 10th century Persian translation of al-Ṭabarī’s Tārīkh, the Tārīkhnāma by Muḥammad Balʿamī. Likewise, another image of ʿAlī Ibn Abī Ṭālib with a two-bladed Dhū al-Faqār appears in another historiographical work, al-Bīrūnī’s 10th century Kitāb al-Āthār. However, the illustrations date from early 14th century manuscripts, much later versions than the original texts, depicting the contemporary version of the sword as we know it today.
‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib is one of the most revered and important figures within Shiite Islam, which caused royal Shiite dynasties to soon adopt the sword as part of their imagery. Shia Muslims believe 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 like the famous Biḥār al-Anwār by Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī (1627–1699), the sword will be inherited by each and every imam up until al-Mahdī, the long-awaited redeemer in Islamic eschatology who will appear in the period before the Day of Judgement. The earliest Shiite depiction of Dhū al-Faqār dates from the 10th century Bāb al-Naṣr (Gate of Victory) in Fatimid Cairo. Interestingly enough, this isn’t a double-bladed sword, but rather one with a hollow blade an a rounded point. Later Shiite depictions represent the sword with a forked-blade as well, a familiar sight that grew to be ubiquitous in contemporary Shiite imagery.
The theory that Dhū al-Faqār’s two-pronged blade image would’ve been a representation propagated by the early Shiite movement isn’t very likely, as demonstrated by the Fatimid relief mentioned above. When looking through Biḥār al-Anwār Vol. 42, in which al-Majlisī describes the sword through a couple of narrations and reports, no reference is made to the forked nature of its blade. The Fatimid sword of the Bāb al-Naṣr actually resembles a description given by Persian Shiite scholar Muḥammad al-Kulaynī (864-941 AD), who stated that it was called Dhū al-Faqār because “in its centre was a lengthways pattern resembling the spinal column (faqār al-ẓahr)”, as quoted by al-Majlisī. I believe that the two-pronged blade image developed not earlier than the 13th century, but it remains hard to pinpoint the true context and instigator of this evolution.
An interesting development took place in Southeastern Asia and the Indian subcontinent, where the image of Dhū al-Faqār started to gain a foothold from the late 17th century-early 18th century. Several local Southeastern kingdoms and sultanates adopted the double-bladed sword in stylized versions on their banners. In several cases, Dhū al-Faqār variants of the local talwar sabers were found among South Indian weaponry. The influence of this legendary sword was actually so extensive, that interesting mixture between Hindu and Islamic imagery came about. An 18th century painting of Kalki, the tenth avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, depicts the deity brandishing a Dhū al-Faqār double-bladed sword, the latter clearly leaving a mark on Hindu iconography and anthropomorphism.
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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.