In 622 AD, the prophet Muḥammad and a group of emigrants, the so-called Muhājirūn, emigrated from the pagan city of Mecca to Yathrib, a town more favorable towards the new religion of Islam. The local Aws and Khazraj tribes and some of the Jews in the area converted to Islam, and became from then on known as the Anṣār or Supporters The town of Yathrib was renamed al-Medīna (The City), and was to become the first territory under control of the earliest Islamic state. Muḥammad increasingly took on a leading political role in combination with his position as a prophet. As was the custom in his era, leaders flew their personal flags and banners as a form of identification and a symbol of their authority.
I explicitly say flag and banner, as there exists a factual historical difference between the two concepts in early Islamic politics. According to the Cambridge dictionary, a banner (liwāʾ in Arabic) is “a long piece of cloth with words written on it”, while a flag (rāya in Arabic) is “a piece of cloth, usually rectangular, that represents a country or a group.” Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148), an Andalusian judge and legal scholar, was quoted in Fatḥ al-Bārī vol. VI as saying: “A banner is what is tied to the side of a spear to rally around, while a flag is that which is planted and left to be waved by the wind.” In other words, the banner serves a clear military purpose, to organize and identify squadrons and troops during the battle. A flag, on the other hand, is stationary and serves an authoritative, symbolic function.
The flag of the prophet Muḥammad and the earliest Islamic state was a plain black square cloth. Al-Tirmidhī narrated in his Sunan – Book of Jihād on authority of Ibn ʿAbbās that he said: “The flag of God’s Messenger ṣallā Allāh ʿaleyhi wa sallam was black and his banner was white.” In another narration, al-Nasāʾī reports in his Sunan al-Kubrā on the authority of Yūnus ibn ʿUbayd that he said: “Muḥammad ibn al-Qāsim sent me to al-Barāʾ ibn ʿĀzib to ask him about the flag of God’s Messenger ṣallā Allāh ʿaleyhi wa sallam. He told me it was a black namira square.” ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Kattānī (1884-1962) mentions the term namira in his book Niẓām al-ḥukūma al-nabawiyya, explaining it with regard to the flag as a black wool or velvet cloth with some white threads or white spots present. Based on above authentic narrations and the subsequent scholarly commentary on said narrations, it’s safe to state that the Prophet’s flag was indeed plain black. We learn from the historical texts on this flag that it was nicknamed al-ʿUqāb, which can be translated as Young Eagle. Eagles native to the Ḥijāz region, like the Golden Eagle or Verreaux’s Eagle are indeed of a rather dark color.
The banner of the prophet Muḥammad and the earliest Islamic state was white. Ibn Abī Shayba narrated in his Muṣannaf on authority of ʿAmra bint ʿAbd al-Raḥmān that she said: “The banner of God’s Messenger ṣallā Allāh ʿaleyhi wa sallam was white.” More importantly, al-Tirmidhī narrated in his Sunan – Book of Jihād on authority of Jābir that the prophet Muḥammad “entered Mecca with his white banner.” The conquest of Mecca occurred in 630 AD and marked a decisive Muslim victory. This could associate the color white with victory and conquest, and black with the state and the government.
Contrary to the plain blackness of the flag, there exists a possibility that the white banner had something written on it in black. In a narration with a strong chain but one weak narrator due to his old age, Ibn ʿAbbās said: “The flag of God’s Messenger ṣallā Allāh ʿaleyhi wa sallam was black and his banner white, written on it: Lā Ilāha Illā Allāh Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh”. This was mentioned by al-Ṭabarānī (874-971 AD) in his Awsaṭ. In addition to this, Ibn Ḥajar (1372-1449 AD) also comments in his Fatḥ al-Bārī on the above mentioned narration of Ibn ‘Abbās. And just like al-Ṭabarānī he mentions that it is said that something in black might’ve been written on the prophet’s white banner. This scholarly opinion increases the possibility that white banners might have been used with something in black written on them, although not necessarily standardized or uniform in any way.
Within Islamic eschatology, the black banner symbolism soon developed into an importance of almost messianic proportions, being considered the heralds of the coming of the famed Mahdī and his army, who will brandish the banners and carry them with them from the East to the West. There exists a collection of narrations reported from the prophet Muḥammad about these events, but it’s safe to say that none of these narrations is authentic or trustworthy. Rather, they range from weak to very weak. The reason these narrations still persist to this day, may originate from it’s strong propaganda value for the Abbasid Caliphate. It’s noteworthy that these narrations could indeed have been reinforced by Abbasid propagandists in the course of the Abbasid Revolution, led by Abū Muslim al-Khorāsānī in 747-750 AD. The Abbasids famously used the black banner in their uprising against their Umayyad predecessors, which they launched from the eastern provinces of the Umayyad state.
According to his The Shaping of Abbasid Rule (1980), Jacob Lassner states how Abbasid narrations reported that a black banner was given to Abū al-‘Abbās in a dream by the prophet Muḥammad himself. That the first Abbasid caliph dreamed of receiving the black standard by God’s Messenger, a “symbolic transfer of authority directly through God’s appointed Messenger to a chosen successor”, was masterfully connected to the existing corpus of narrations on the black banners coming from the East. When the Abbasids subsequently unfurled their banners in the eastern region of Khorāsān, it wasn’t just a historical event, nay, in the eyes of the revolutionaries it was harbinger of a new religious order as prophesied by God’s Messenger himself, the anticipated coming of a new era. And as such, the Abbasids kept using the black banners throughout their caliphate, with some exceptions, until it fell into disuse after their demise.
In general, the black banner became much less used after the Abbasid era, the Ottoman caliphate after them instead using a whole range of different colors and symbols. And still, it persisted among Muslims, albeit low-key and in a religious setting. During the so-called Nebī Mūsā ceremony in Palestine, for example,
Muslims brandished the (“holy”) black and white flags during the procession. The Nebī Mūsā ceremony was a pilgrimage to the supposed grave of the prophet Moses, said to been buried there. In this same spiritual interpretation, the Ahmadiyya community adopted the black banner as their own. They attach great importance to its eschatological meaning with regard to the return of the Mehdī, as mentioned above. Indeed, they believe their founder, Ghulām Aḥmad, was appointed by God as Mehdī and Messiah.
For others, the black banner doesn’t so much represent a spiritual or eschatological meaning as it represents the Islamic state and Islamic rule of law. This became increasingly the case during the twentieth century, as Islamic activism and the so-called Islamic awakening movement started to gain momentum. One of the earliest examples would be the white (with black writing) standard of Muḥammad Aḥmed (1844-1885), a Sudanese Muslim cleric who proclaimed himself the eschatological Mahdī and leader of an Islamic state and who led an uprising against the Egyptians and their British allies, culminating in the Mahdist War (1881–1899 AD). The inscription on the burlap standard was written with tar and translates as: “O God, O Most Merciful, O Most Pitiful, O Eternal, O Everlasting, O you owner of glory and bounty. There is no god but God. Muḥammad is the prophet of God. Muḥammad the Mahdī, the caliph of God’s Messenger”.
Another early example is the flag of the Ikhwān, including the one used during their 1927-1929 revolt against ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Āl Sa’ūd and his British allies. This was a black flag with a white shahāda and sword on it, a major symbol for their puritan intentions. The Ikhwān served as a Bedouin army for the nascent Third Saudi State, helping to establish it as a kingdom in the Peninsula. Influenced by the teachings of the 18th c. scholar Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, however, they turned against ‘Abd al-‘Azīz but were eventually defeated after the Battle of Sabilla (1929).
Contemporary Muslim militant organizations and armed activists aspiring to defeat the enemies of Islam and to establish an Islamic state through jihād generally rally behind a black banner of their choice. This has been a constant factor after the Afghan-Soviet War of the 1980s. Not all those who share the same goals and gather under the shade of the black banner resort to violent means, however. One of the most famous, non-violent organizations to use the black banner in relation to its state symbolism is Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr, found in 1953 by the Palestinian Taqī al-Dīn al-Nabahānī. The flag the organization and its adherents use is black with a white, stylized shahāda in thuluth calligraphy. For the movement, the colors black and white unequivocally represent the Islamic state and the rule of sharīʿa, a goal they invest all their energy in.
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.