After the outbreak of the First World War, the European Allies faced the unified Central Powers consisting the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The British military needed to open another front against the Ottoman state, de facto ruled by the Young Turks, to pin down tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers in the region in order to relieve their own resources and troops in Egypt and to facilitate the Allied offensive on the Dardanelles. In order to succeed, British intelligence services turned their attention to the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula, more specifically the Emir of Mecca, al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī al-Hāshimī. As a subject of the Ottomans and leader over the holy Ḥijāz region, he would be a perfect candidate to lead an assymetrical revolt against his former overlord.
The Arab Bureau of the British Foreign Office instigated revolutionary sentiments among the tribal Bedouins of the Peninsula. Prior to the outbreak of the actual revolt, later known as the Great Arab Revolt of 1916, a lengthy correspondence took place between al-Ḥusayn and Henry McMahon, a British diplomat and High Commissioner in Egypt. Both sides pledged their allegiance and assistance to each other’s cause. It should be mentioned that Arab nationalism in the region was already heightened since the 19th century due to several important factors, not in the least because of extensive European initiatives to stimulate and support Arab nationalists and undermine Ottoman cultural and ethnical dominance, as extensively described by Heghnar Watenpaugh in her The Legacy of Ottoman Architecture in the Former Arab Provinces (2007). From its side, Britain pledged to recognize the new Arab state that would be announced the moment the Ottomans would be defeated and driven away from the region. This was a major offer to convince al-Ḥusayn to join and lead the revolt, as it was no secret that he vied for the position of king of the Arabs, and even caliph of the Muslims.
Al-Ḥusayn claimed descent from the Banū Hāshim, a historical clan of the Quraysh tribe to which the prophet Muḥammad and his family belonged. This is an important piece of information, as it was believed that the Hashemites were not only the model and example of Arabness, but also the most qualified to lead the caliphate. As a matter of fact, a valid legal opinion within the Islamic governmental jurisprudence (fiqh) states that the caliph of Islam should actually be a proven descendant from the Quraysh tribe. To assist the Hashemites, Britain sent several pivotal figures to support and accompany these largely unexperienced volunteer troops, most notably T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence convinced the two military leaders of the revolt, al-Ḥusayn’s sons Fayṣal and ʿAbdallāh to co-ordinate their actions in support of the British strategy. To facilitate this coordination and to unite the revolutionaries under one banner, the British officials asked diplomatic adviser Mark Sykes to design a banner, in order to fuel the nationalist sentiments. American scholar on the Middle East, Elie Kedourie, confirms this in his In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth (1976) by stating that ” it was meant to symbolize Arab unity.”
Sykes was assisted by the Lebanese poet and Arab nationalist Fuʾād al-Khaṭīb in the choice of the flag’s colors. Peter Wien mentions in his Arab Nationalism: The Politics of History and Culture in the Modern Middle East (2017) a story that al-Khaṭīb recalled a reunion he had with nationalist friends in Beirut where he conferred about a flag that could represent Pan-Arabism. He brought up historical banners, more specifically the white banner of the Umayyads, the black banner of the Abbasids and the green banner of the Fatimids. Al-Ḥusayn endorsed this idea, but added the red banner of the Hashemites, the lords of the Ḥijāz. Approved and drawn by Sykes, this flag gained fame as the so-called flag of the Arab Revolt, it’s colors, called Pan-Arab colors, inspiring many future flags in the region.
Al-Khaṭīb was right on the Umayyad and Abbasid dynastical colors. The Umayyads were known for their white colors, the Abbasids for their black. Yet in case of the Fatimids, he followed a popular modern misconception that they would have preferred green banners, an idea that is maintained in most of the recent and current works on the subject. However, contemporary historical sources describe the Fatimid banners being white. Al-Maqrīzī (d. 1442), an important Medieval scholar on this dynasty, wrote in his al-Dhahab al-Masbūk that a Fatimid caliph covered the Ka’ba with a white cloth during his reign over Mecca, which he described as the color of the Fatimid’s banner. This narrative is reiterated by Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) in his Muqaddima. The Tunisian scholar notes how these so-called ‘Alids (Shia dynasties claiming descent from ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib) used white as opposed to the Abbasid black in their revolt against Abbasid rule. Ibn Khaldūn confirms that this was used by the ‘Alids in the East and throughout Fatimid rule, the latter belonging to the Ismaili branch of Shi’ism.
Why then, were the Fatimids associated with the color green? The association is not entirely unjustified. The color green did indeed represent the so-called Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the prophet Muḥammad, and more specifically his daughter, Fāṭima. In the same paragraph, Ibn Khaldūn mentions that the Abbasid caliph al-Mam’ūn temporarily used green flags and clothing (to appease his Shiite allies). Indeed, partisans of Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafiyya led by al-Mukhtār already carried a green flag during the 7th c. Kufa Rebellion against Umayyad rule, as mentioned by Wilferd Madelung in his contribution Abdullāh B. al-Zubayr and the Mahdī (Journal of Near Eastern Studies v. XL). It’s important to note that the Fatimids claimed descendance from ʿAlī and Fāṭima, as opposed to the Umayyads who claimed descendance from the Banū Umayya clan and the Abbasids, who claimed descendance from al-ʿAbbās ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib, the Prophet’s uncle. It’s this association between the Shiite Fatimids and the color green that pushed Pan-Arab nationalists to include the green color into the post-colonial national flags.
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.