The lion is mostly associated with the African Savannah, which isn’t a surprise in our modern age. Throughout history, however, lions were common all across Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia and India. This Asiatic lion, as it is scientifically called, became an important part of many local traditions and imagery, from Ḥamzah ibn ‘Abdul-Muṭṭalib’s nickname “Assad Allāh” to the famous lion hunt of Ashurbanipal to Hercules’ Nemean Lion. Besides local customs and human relations with this Panthera leo leo, the Asiatic lion was more generally associated with the astrological sign of Leo, the fifth sign of the zodiac. It became customary among Turkic and Mongol peoples to depict Leo’s lion in front of a bright sun, as the astrological constellation is part of the so-called “house of the sun”, our solar system. It’s about this combination of lion and sun that this piece will focus on.
The lion and sun, or šir-o xoršid (شیر و خورشید) in Persian, is one of the most famous Medieval Persian symbols and became associated with both Shiism and the royal Iranian dynasties. To this day, it still remains an emblem of Iranian nationalism and royalism. Like I mentioned earlier, the combination of the lion (šir) and sun (xoršid) predates the Persian Safavid dynasty, but strictly in a non-religious and non-royal context. It were the Safavids under Shah ʿAbbās I (r. 1587-1629) who made it into a religious and imperial symbol. By the time the Safavids rose to power and proclaimed Twelver Shiism to be the state religion of their Persia during the sixteenth century, the šir-o xoršid became a familiar symbol after they adopted it as part of their royal insignia. As Fahmida Suleman writes in her Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shi’ism (2012), the Safavids effectively made the lion and sun emblem into a symbol of Shiism.
In the early Islamic society, it was common among the Arabs to use meaningful epithets, like Abū Hurayra (Father of the Kitten) or Sayf Allāh (Sword of God). The prophet Muḥammad’s uncle Ḥamzah ibn ‘Abdul-Muṭṭalib was nicknamed Assad Allāh (Lion of God, but he wasn’t the only one associated with lions. The prophet’s cousin, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, was as well named after this mighty animal. It was at the Battle of Khaybar (628 AD) that ʿAlī proclaimed: “It is me whose mother called him ḥaydarah, like the forest lion with a terror-striking face!” Mentioned by al-Bayhaqī (994-1066 AD) in his Dalāʾil al-Nubuwwa and narrated by Muslim, it shows how important this symbolic relation between man and lion actually was. This narration is accepted by both Sunni and Shia Muslims, although the revered position of ʿAlī in Shiism made the association between the lion and ʿAlī one of holy proportions, the latter often being referred to as Assad Allāh al-Ghālib (The Victorious Lion of God).
However, the religious visualization of ʿAlī and the lion wasn’t anything the Safavids came up with. It actually gained popularity within the Fatimid state in the early 10th century, who propagated Isma’ilism, also known as Sevener Shiism. Ingvild Flaskerud quotes in her Visualizing Belief and Piety in Iranian Shiism (2010) a poem of Fatimid poet Nāṣir Khusraw (1004–1088 AD), in which he equates the prophet Muḥammad to the light of the sun and combines it with ʿAlī as lion to express the esoteric relationship between the two revered figures. This brings us to the šir-o xoršid‘s sun, the concept of “light” playing an important role in Shiism and Islamic mysticism/esotericism. It’s indeed believed that Muḥammad was created out of light. In the oldest known Shia ḥadīth collection, the Book of Sulaym ibn Qays, the prophet is reported as saying: “I and my family were light, walking in presence of God 14.000 years before the creation of Adam.”
In Al-Malaʾ al-Aʿlā (2017), abstracts from the famous Kitāb al-Kāfī, a Shia ḥadīth collection compiled by al-Kulaynī (d. 941 AD), a quote from al-Kāfī is mentioned in which ʿAlī’s grandson says: “God created Muḥammad and ʿAlī and 11 of his descendants from a marvelous light.” These narrations support the interpretation of the sun in the šir-o xoršid actually representing Muḥammad and his Ahl al-Bayt, while the lion represents ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, a concept politically adopted by the Safavid state to represent their Islamic legitimacy and royal proximity to the Prophet’s family and lineage. Jean Chardin (1643-1713) was a French traveler who left for the East Indies in 1664 through Constantinople, reaching Persia in 1666. In 1670, he returned to Paris and published his eyewitness accounts in his book Le Couronnement de Soleiman Troisième. The first page of the book contains an image of a bright sun (Louis XIV) flanked by two lions, each with a sun on its back (the Safavid Persians).
In 1789, the Qajar dynasty rises to power and in 1796, Muḥammad Khān Qājār was officially crowned shah of Persia. With regard to the šir-o xoršid, one could observe the beginning of a shift in symbolic interpretation from the previous Safavid concept. Indeed, starting from the second Qajar shah, Fatḥ ʿAlī Shāh (r.1797-1834), the Islamic component of the state was de-emphasized and instead, it tried to affiliate its sovereignty with the glorious years of pre-Islamic Iran. This played a role on how the šir-o xoršid was interpreted. Afsaneh Najmabadi writes in her Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (2005) how the sun became Jamshid, an important figure in Persian mythology and folklore with an important position in Zoroastrianism and further popularized through the Shāhnāmeh. The lion became Rostam, the most celebrated legendary hero in Iranian mythology and, again, the Shāhnāmeh. She adds, however, that the religious meaning of ʿAlī as Assad Allāh wasn’t necessarily replaced, but rather expanded upon with nationalistic concepts.
The šir-o xoršid continued to be the national emblem of Iran after the Pahlavi dynasty took over in the 20th century, and was featured on its state flag all the way up until 1979. As the symbol was increasingly associated with the imperial Iranian dynasties and pre-Islamic history, the Khomeini-led government post-Islamic Revolution of 1979 officially abolished it and it was removed by decree from public spaces and government organizations, to be replaced by the present-day emblem of Iran. Unlike the faravahar and despite its Shiite origins, this meant the end of the lion and sun’s political use. Today, however, the šir-o xoršid is still used by a part of the Iranian community in exile as the symbol of opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
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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.