The letter nun

nunA peculiar characteristic of the human race is the need to classify and simplify complex matters as much as possible. This is especially true when an in-group tries to define the members of an out-group. This of course involves the dangerous risk of losing all kinds of nuances and effectively exchanging the broader view for an increasingly hateful and xenophobic tunnel vision. When a majority of people reduce a minority to a single symbol or trait, dehumanization could easily be the next step. During the Shoah, Jews were required to wear a yellow hexagram as a visible sign of their ethnoreligious affiliation. Muslim men were forced to show their (un-)circumcised genital with the risk of being shot by their enemies throughout the civil wars of the Balkan and Lebanon. More recently, this same human obsession with classifying and marking minority groups has emerged across the Islamic State’s territory in Iraq.

After a surprising and devastating offensive by the Islamic State in of Iraq and the Levant across Northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, the group seized vast swats of land and several cities from the Iraqi government. Several Christian minorities living in the region were caught in the crossfire and while some families left, others decided to stay and to try seeing out the rest of the war. Being part of the so-called Ahl al-Kitāb, or People of the Scripture, they were asked to pay the required jizya, a special tax to be payed by certain non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state in exchange for citizenship and the right to practice their religion. The other options being death or expulsion, local Christians didn’t have a lot of choice. The city of Mosul contained a lot of Christian families in the early days of the Islamic State’s government, so members of IS started to visibly and publicly mark their property to separate Muslims from Ahl al-Dhimma, the jizya tax payers.

The Christian properties were marked with the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet, the nūn. Why this letter? Because the nūn is the first letter of the Classical Arabic word Naṣārā, a term exclusively used for Christians in the Quran.  The word Naṣārā is probably drived from the Greek word Nazaraios (Ναζαραῖος), the Hebrew word Nāṣrī (נוֹצְרִי) and the adjective narayā (ܢܨܪܝܐ) in the Syrian Aramaic language. All these words refer to Nazareth, described as the childhood home of Jesus. It should be noted that modern Arabic-speaking Christians call themselves Masīḥīyūn, considering the word Naṣārā pejorative. The term Masīḥīyūn can indeed be literally translated as Christians, while Naṣārā would be translated as Nazarenes, or Followers of Jesus the Nazarene.

The nūn subsequently grew into a sign of solidarity with the Mosul Christians, and in general other Christian minorities in the Middle-East. Wherever the oppression of Christians in the Middle-East is denounced, the nūn is likely to appear as the symbol of condemnation and support.

For examples and pictures, please visit this thread on my Twitter.

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.

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