After the Muslim emigration in 622 AD from Mecca to the more northern city of Yathrib, dubbed al-Madīna after the arrival of the emigrants and the conversion of the local Aws and Khazraj tribes, Muḥammad increasingly took on a leading political role in combination with his position as prophet of Islam. As was the custom in his era, leaders owned personal signet rings engraved with a royal seal to be used on letters and decrees in order to identify and confirm their authenticity. Being the leader of the early Islamic state, the prophet Muḥammad owned such a signet ring, bearing what is now known as the Seal of Muḥammad. He famously sent several letters to foreign kings, like the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, the Persian emperor Khosrow II and al-Muqawqis, the local ruler of Egypt, on which he used his seal as was customary among official dignitaries.
There exists some debate among Islamic scholars and historians about the exact look of the seal and the words it featured. The most common and popular reading of the engraving today is “Allāh Rasūl Muḥammad”, meaning “Allāh Messenger Muḥammad”, an Arabic linguistic construction which places the subject after the object, similar to the famous verse in the Qur’anic Fāṭir: 28: “Innamā yakhshā Allāha (accusative object) min ʿibādihi al-ʿulamāʾu (nominative subject),” which means: “Only those from among His servants who have knowledge (subject) fear Allah (object)”.
Others, however, argue that “Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh” is historically most correct. The oldest sources do indicate that the opposite of popular belief could be indeed authentic. In a ḥadīth reported by Muslim and al-Bukhārī and narrated from the Companion Anas ibn Mālik, the Prophet Muḥammad said: “I have acquired a ring of silver and engraved on it Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh, and no one should have an engraving like this.” In another ḥadīth reported by al-Bukhārī, the same Anas ibn Mālik says: “The engraved signet ring of the Prophet is three lines: Muḥammad on one line, Rasūl on one line and Allāh on one line.” Old Umayyad and Abbasid coins do effectively feature these words in that particular order. It’s not entirely clear why the words could’ve changed position over time.
It’s interesting to see when this could have changed. Like I mentioned above, Umayyad and Abbasid coins featured the Seal in the Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh order, struck from at least the 8th century AD well into the 11th century, which’s reason enough to assume that this was the prefered word order at the time. It is important to notice that some Abbasid coins feature the Seal but only after mentioning the word “Allāh”, following the Islamic tradition to start everything with God’s name mentioned first. The Seal itself however, remains untouched. So far, the primary sources like coins or Prophetic narrations confirm the word order Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh. This trend is continued by secondary sources. The word order of the Seal has been commented on by Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (1372-1449 AD). As mentioned in Fatḥ al-Munʿim by Dr. Mūsā Shāhīn Lāshīn (2002), Ibn Ḥajar said: “With regard to the scholars that say that the writing of the Seal starts with the lowest line and ends with the highest, i.e the Expression of Majesty (Allāh) as the highest of the three lines, and Muḥammad as the lowest, I did not see any statement about this in anything related to the aḥādīth.”
Another secondary source commenting on the word order of the Seal is Taqī ad-Dīn ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD). In his Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, he confirms the Seal as reading “Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh.” However, Ibn Ḥajar already stated that some scholars in his time already prefered starting with the word Allāh, as to elevate His name above all (remember the Abbasid coins I mentioned earlier). This opinion might have played a role in the 19th century “rediscovery” of the Prophet’s Seal on his letters. Indeed, the earliest discovery of the Prophet’s letters, like the one to Al-Muqawqis of Egypt, date to the mid-19th century. On the letter, the Seal reads “Allāh Rasūl Muḥammad”. This “tangible” and visual evidence of his Seal then spread among the Muslim public during the 20th century. So we could conclude that the visual/popular change of the word order happened somewhere between the 15th and 19th century, although such opinion existed before. If one would assume that the found letters were forged (a claim for which substantiated evidence exists), it’s sufficient that the maker of the forged letters prefered this order to convince the public of its religious authenticity and spread it in the collective consciousness.
The use of the Seal on banners and group insignia can be traced back to as early as the late 1990s and the early 21st century. This could be either a white Seal of Muḥammad on a black background or a black Seal on a white background. As it effectively contains the second part of the Islamic shahāda (Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allāh), it appears usually in combination with the first part (There is no god but Allāh). This use of the Seal is fairly new, popularized by activist and militant Muslim movements and organisations all over the world. Because of their common use in a jihād context, this banner is sometimes called “the flag of jihād“, a name I feel doesn’t really do it justice because both the black banner and the Seal have historical roots in Islam far beyond just jihād, albeit not in this modern combination.
The use of a black banner can be traced back to the Prophet himself, using it as his personal standard. This first Muslim banner was reportedly a single colored black square nicknamed “The Banner of the Eagle” (Rāyat al-ʿUqāb). Several aḥādīth report this. Al-Tirmidhī and Ibn Mājah reported that Ibn ʿAbbās narrated: “The banner (rāya) of the Prophet Muḥammad was black, and his flag (liwā’) was white.” This was also attested by other Companions.
Such same black banner was also famously used by the Abbasids during their 8th century revolution and throughout their caliphate. Several, albeit not necessarily authentic, aḥādīth of the Prophet Muḥammad inform the believers to look out for black banners appearing in Central-Asia, a reference to the coming of the Mahdī and the End Times. The black banner and the Seal of the Prophet consequently appeal strongly to many contemporary Islamist activists, be they peaceful or violent.
Contrary to popular belief, this signet seal of the Prophet should in no way be classified as an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) symbol. As said before, it has historical roots in Islam and with regard to banners and emblems, it has been used by several groups long before the rise of ISIS in 2013. I can’t stress enough that this symbol doesn’t pertain to one group in particular. It could admittedly be associated with a modern-day hard line ideology, but it’s dangerous to attach it to a single entity within that ideology. Such wrong assumptions already led to the arrest and detention of several people who were found to carry the Seal with them, creating a perilous precedent in the already unpredictable and tense post-9/11 world.
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.