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 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 genitalia 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 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, most notably Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plains. The ancient Christian communities living in the region were caught in the crossfire and while some families fled the area, others decided to stay and to see out the rest of the war. Most Christians in that part of the world are ethnic Assyrians and Chaldeans who follow the Syriac Rite of Eastern Christianity. 

Being part of the so-called Ahl al-Kitāb, or People of the Scripture, they were required by the new governing structure to pay the required jizya, a special tax to be payed by non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state in exchange for legal citizenship, protection, exemption from military service and the right to practice the own religion. The other options being death or expulsion, local Christians weren’t left with much of a choice. To separate Muslims from Ahl al-Dhimma, the jizya tax payers, members of IS started to visibly and publicly mark Christian property. Several of these markings were attested on inhabited or abandoned houses throughout the city of Mosul, the municipality  traditionally containing lots of Christian families. 

The marking of Ahl al-Dhimma with a distinct color code or dresscode has been historically attested at different points in Islamic history. According to  Norman Stillman, emeritus Chair of Judaic History at the University of Oklahoma and specialized in the intersection of Jewish and Islamic culture and history, a significant trend in the Islamic vestimentary system took place during the late eleventh through thirteenth centuries under the Turkic dynasties of the Seljuks, Ayyubids and Mamluks, and under the Mongol Ilkhanids. He writes in his contribution to Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopedia Vol. 1 (2006) that “there was an ever-stricter interpretation and enforcement of the dress code for dhimmis.” The Mamluks, for example, imposed a color code on dhimmi women’s outdoor clothing. Yellow for Jews, blue for Christians and red for Samaritans. These vestimentary distinctions were called giyār, distinguishing marks. This has been attested in other periods, like Zaydi Yemen, Sharifian Morocco and Safavid Iran, but remained often unequally and varyingly observed.

With regard to IS, they marked Christian properties with the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet, the nūn. The nūn is the first letter of the Classical Arabic word Naṣārā, a term used in the Qur’an in reference to Christians.  The word Naṣārā (sing. Naṣrānī) is likely derived 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 in the Bible as the childhood home of Jesus Christ. 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 (al-Masīḥ meaning Christ/the Messiah), while Naṣārā would translate as Nazarenes, or Followers of Jesus the Nazarene.

After the summer of 2014, the nūn subsequently grew into a sign of solidarity with the Mosul Christians, and in general other Christian minorities in the Middle-East. Wherever cases of oppression against 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 or this board on my Pinterest.

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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