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 culture has a set of meanings connected to each color, often completely unique in its proper way.
For Shiite Muslims, the combination of the colors black and red forms a prominent and recurring symbol in the visualization of the Shiite martyrdom cult. The emphasis on the reverence of martyrs grew out of the historical death of al-Ḥusayn bin ‘Alī during the Battle of Karbalāʾ (680 AD). His unfortunate demise and the events of the battle play a central role in Shiite history, tradition and theology, whenceforth shaping their religious and cultural identity. For Shiite Muslims, the killing of al-Ḥusayn and his suffering were the ultimate sacrifice in the face of Umayyad oppression, embodied by Yazīd bin Mu’āwiya, contemporary caliph and opponent of ‘Alī’s son. Al-Ḥusayn refused to recognize Yazīd’s legitimacy over the Muslim throne, and traveled in preparation of a confrontation to the south Mesopotamian town of al-Kūfa, where he enjoyed a considerable amount of support for is cause. However, the inability and indifference of his supporters to effectively come to his aid during the disastrous clash at Karbalāʾ caused a tradition of remorse, penance and self-harm among later Shiite believers.
Black is the color of death, mourning and humility. Red refers to the spilled blood of al-Ḥusayn and the martyrs in general, and the anger caused by the desire to avenge them. These two colors symbolize one of the most important pillars of Shiite Islam, the guilt felt over the inability to come to their aid, often resulting in self-flagellation. Al-Ḥusayn’s martyrdom defines the Shiite martyr’s character, and it provides members of the faith with a guiding ideal of exemplary heroic values. Al-Majlisī (1627–1699) narrates in his Biḥār al-Anwār Vol.45 the story of a group of mourning women weeping at the sight of al-Ḥusayn’s death, among them Eve, Mary and Sarah. They were holding his black garment, which was covered in red blood.
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’. That day, al-Ḥusayn’s death is remembered through a tradition of sorrow, regret and a total disregard of worldly matters.
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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.