Since time immemorial, colors form some of the most powerful symbols among humans, each color conveying a certain meaning, a socially agreed upon emotion or a context-dependent message. A white flag during battle means surrender, yet white is also socially accepted as the color of innocence and virginity in many Western countries. Who doesn’t know the Roman imperial purple, the mourner’s and widow’s black dress and red being the color of love? Colors, however, tend to be very geographically bound, and every people have a set of meanings connected to each color, often different than others around the world.
For Shia Muslims, the combination of the colors black and red forms a prominent and recurring symbol. Black is the color of death, mourning and humility. Red refers to the spilled blood of the martyrs and the anger caused by the desire to avenge them. These two colors symbolize one of the most important pillars of Shia Islam, the cult of martyrs and the guilt felt over the inability to come to their aid, often resulting in self-flagellation. It’s important to note that this pillar of Shiism originates directly from two major deaths in the history of early Islam, namely the passing of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and his son al-Ḥusayn. Both pivotal and revered figures among Shia Muslims, their death plays a huge role in Shia iconography and symbolism up until this day.
Both father and son were martyred. ‘Alī was assassinated by a Kharijite veteran of the Battle of Nahrawān, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn Muljam, in 661 AD. Al-Ḥusayn was killed by an Umayyad army serving under the command of Yazīd bin Mu’āwiya during the Battle of Karbalāʾ (680 AD). Especially the latter’s death and the events of the battle have a central place in Shia history, tradition and theology, playing an important role in shaping their identity. For Shia Muslims, the killing of al-Ḥusayn and his suffering were the ultimate sacrifice in the face of evil. It defines the Shia martyr character, and it provides members of the faith with a guiding ideal of exemplary heroic values. The inability and indifference of his contemporary supporters in the town of al-Kūfa to come to his aid caused a tradition of remorse, penance and self-harm.
The black and red colored banners appear therefore almost exclusively with the exclamation: “Yā Ḥusayn!” (Oh Ḥusayn!), who’s nickname among the Shia is Sayyid al-Shuhadā’, or Master of Martyrs. The flags can usually be seen during an annual ten-day commemorative period held every year in the month of Muḥarram, culminating on its tenth day, known as the Day of ʻĀshūrā’.
Some examples featuring the colors black and red:
For more examples, 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.