It might be interesting to introduce the khamsa symbol with a little history on the open hand in human imagery. Cave art featuring hand stencils are as old as cave art itself, the oldest figurative paintings being made over 40.000 years ago. Given the fact that such images exist around the world, and cover a great time span, it clearly indicates some sort of a shared attribution of similar meanings to the concept of the open palm. A research project from the Department of Archaeology of Durham University (2012) states that “there is much evidence that the art left on their walls was magico-religious in nature. Humans interacted with cave walls in many ways during the Upper Paleolithic, possibly because they were thought to form the thin veil which separates this world from others, a remarkably common notion across the world.”
The Bradshaw Foundation, which documents and preserves rock art across the world, states that “where there is a spiral incorporated into the motif, as at La Cienega and Three Rivers for example, they may be depictions of healing energy that channels through the hands – the ancient practice of Reiki.” Indeed, the hand stencils might be the remnants of ancient shamanic rituals. We can’t know for sure. Whatever the case, the open hand with the palm towards the viewer is an international symbol associated with certain spiritual beliefs, from native American cultures all the way to Buddhist, Hindu and Jain symbolism. However, this post is specifically about the khamsa hand, popularly known as the Hand of Fāṭima.
The origins of the open hand as a symbol for healing and protection is, as illustrated above, as old as human art itself, intrinsically connected to the human ideas revolving magic, spiritualism and religion. The more human civilizations evolved, the more concrete each of their symbols became. With regard to the southern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, the open palm grew into a means of protection against the evil eye and black magic.
The Phoenician goddess Tanit was one of the chief deities of Carthage, generally assumed to have functioned as a mother goddess and a symbol of fertility. Tanit knew a popular following in the whole Punic Mediterranean, from Phoenicia to southern Iberia to eastern Malta, although her popularity reached its zenith in Carthage itself. She was considered to be the consort of Baal Hammon, the chief deity of Carthage. Like most mother-goddesses, she was associated with healing, fruitfulness and nursing. A large amount of stelae bearing the Sign of Tanit, a triangle with sometimes two branches raised and a disc at the top, also feature an open palm. The worship of Tanit continued in North Africa long after the fall of Carthage, the goddess’ cult being adopted by the native Amazigh people and by the Romans as well, who called her Caelestis, the supreme Heavenly Goddess that embodies the aspects of several pre-existing goddesses.
Another major deity is also often depicted with both her hands open showing their palms, namely the Sumerian goddess Inanna, known as Ishtar in the Akkadian language of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Ishtar was a prominent deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, especially among the Assyrians who elevated her to become the highest deity they worshiped. On the so-called Ishtar Vase, currently at the Louvre in Paris, she is depicted with both her hands showing their palms. The famous Burney relief at the British Museum in London, shows her holding rod-and-ring symbols in both her open hands. The worship of Ishtar was introduced in the kingdom of Judah and survived in parts of Anatolia and upper-Mesopotamia as late as the eighteenth century AD. Again, just like Tanit, Ishtar was seen as the Queen of Heaven and associated with love, desire, fertility and beauty. Note that both goddesses are women, the open hand for protection increasingly bearing an exclusively female connotation.
It’s needless to say that the worship of Tanit and Ishtar left its traces in the whole region, and the symbolism of the open hand for protection continued being used, resulting in the so-called khamsa symbol, tafust in the Berber languages. It is used as a palm-shaped amulet or simply a human hand to provide protection against the evil eye and black magic. Silver khamsa talismans and pendants are very common and popular, especially among the Berbers of North Africa. Hands can also be seen painted above doors, being used as door knockers or incorporated into the house’s wall. Several late-19th to mid-20th century khamsa talismans are displayed in famous museums like the British Museum or the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. The Hand of Fāṭima is also depicted above the Gate of Justice in the Alhambra fortress in Granada, which was the original entrance gate to the Alhambra, built by Yūsuf I, sultan of Granada in 1348. The position above a door is a common practice to keep evil out.
While Muslims call it the Hand of Fāṭima, referring to the Prophet Muḥammad’s daughter, Jews call it the Hand of Miriam, referring to the Prophet Moses’s sister. Both women with a significant historical role, both relatives of important prophets. Remember the gender of both Tanit and Ishtar, confirming the fact that the khamsa hand is in fact a female hand. In Arabic as well as in Hebrew, a common name for this Hand talisman is respectively khamsa (خمسة) and khamsa (חמסה), the word for the number five, a reference to the five fingers of the hand.
Beside Muslim cultural imagery, the khamsa is also an important symbol in Jewish art, mysticism and certain rituals as well, and commonly appears in the daily life of modern Jewish households, at times being as ubiquitous as the Star of David. The function is the same: to protect against evil, black magic and bad luck. The khamsa’s popularity is particularly high with the Sephardic (North-African) Jewish community, exposed to Berber culture and the cult of Tanit in the Punic lands. During Sephardic henna parties for example, the khamsa is recreated by painting an “eye” on the palm of the hand and exposing the palm. Previously looked down upon by Ashkenazi (European) communities in Israel, it is today commonly spread and accepted among all ethnic and cultural groups within Judaism.
Although the khamsa’s popularity and historical origins are mostly attested throughout North Africa and its Berber peoples, probably as a direct legacy of Tanit’s symbolism, another similar hand is quite popular in Asian countries like Iran, Pakistan and India, the so-called Hand of ‘Abbās. Often conflated with the Hand of Fāṭima, this hand is generally attested in Shiite imagery or that which has been visually influenced by Shiite imagery. ‘Abbās Abū Faḍl was the son of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, and was killed during the Battle of Karbala (680 AD). He supposedly got his hand cut off while fetching water for their camp. An important and highly revered figure in Shiism, a symbolical hand appears with references to the slain ‘Abbās in commemorative events like ʻĀshūrā’, an Islamic holiday used by Shiites for the annual commemoration of the aforementioned battle. Because of its same look and invocative/reverent function, it’s hard to tell the Hand of Fāṭima and the Hand of ‘Abbās apart, except for specific inscriptions.
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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.