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, the prophet Muḥammad increasingly took on a leading political role in combination with his position as messenger of God. 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 nascent 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.
It is mentioned by al-Bukhārī in an authentic narration reported from Anas ibn Mālik that the ring was inherited after Muḥammad’s death by the next caliphs up until ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, who dropped it by accident in the Well of Arīs in Medīna, subsequently dubbed the Well of the Ring (Biʾr al-Khātim). They searched for three consecutive days, but to no avail. The ring was lost.
The exact look of the seal and the words it featured remain an object of discussion among Islamic scholars and historians . The most common and popular reading of the engraving today is “Allāh Rasūl Muḥammad“, meaning “God 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)”. Supporters of this theory argue that one should always position God’s divine name(s) in a superior position when writing a text, as did the prophet do when writing his letters. They state that only the top position befits the Divine Being, therefore starting with Allāh.
Others, however, argue that “Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh” is historically the most correct order. The oldest sources do indicate that the opposite of popular belief could be indeed authentic. In a narration (ḥadīth) reported by Muslim 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 also reported by al-Tirmidhī, 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.” These narrations are considered authentic and describe the prophet’s signet ring in detail, the ring’s seal being dipped in ink or wax to create an official seal.
It’s interesting to see when this could have changed. Old Umayyad and Abbasid coins do effectively feature 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 preferred 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 I mentioned earlier to start everything with God’s name first. The Seal itself however, remains untouched. So far, the oldest sources like coins or prophetic narrations confirm the word order Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh. This trend is continued by later, written sources. The word order of the Seal has been commented on by Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (1372-1449 AD). As quoted in Fatḥ al-Munʿim (2002) by Mūsā Shāhīn Lāshīn, 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 scholarly source commenting on the word order of the Seal is Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD). In his Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā Vol. 6, he confirms the Seal as reading “Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh.” However, Ibn Ḥajar already stated that some scholars in his time already preferred 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. The earliest discovery of the prophet’s letters, like the one to Al-Muqawqis of Egypt, date to the mid-19th century. The supposed original of the letter was discovered in 1858 by Etienne Barthelemy, member of a French expedition to Egypt, in a monastery and is now carefully preserved in Istanbul. Several photographs and drawings of the letter have since been published. The first one was published in the well-known Egyptian newspaper Al-Hilāl in November 1904.
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 through newspapers like the above-mentioned Al-Hilāl and books like Mohammed and the Rise of Islam (1905) by British orientalist David Samuel Margoliouth. 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 preferred this order to convince the public of its religious authenticity and spread it in the collective consciousness.
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 demonstrated here, it has historical roots in Islam and has been commented on since the 7th century. I can’t stress enough that this symbol doesn’t pertain to one group in particular, nor does it represent any ideology or political position. 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.
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.