Rubʿ ḥizb (Arabic: ربع حزب) literally means “a quarter of a ḥizb“, a ḥizb being a sub-unit with which the Quran is divided into smaller segments. Traditionally, the memorization of the Holy Book has been facilitated for students of knowledge by dividing it into several smaller units. The Quran consists of 114 chapters, each made up of a varying amount of verses. Because the length of each chapter varies all throughout the Book, it has additionally been divided into units of near-equal length, the largest of which is the juzʾ, totaling an amount of thirty. Each of these ajzāʾ is further divided into two aḥzāb, with a total of 60. Each ḥizb is then divided into four quarters, called rubʿ or maqraʾ, reaching an amount of 240 all throughout the Book. These are the smallest segments, and make it easier to memorize the Quran gradually.
As a result, each of these quarters is highlighted in the Quran in order to inform the reader where to start and where to finish. This has been done by simply writing down rubʿ, or by means of a decorative figure. The most common of such geometrical figures to emphasize such rubʿ ḥizb has historically been a square with another square superimposed in a 45° turn. Each of the squares’ angles is positioned perpendicular on the exact center of the corresponding side. It has been described as an octagram or octogone, but both polygons do not exactly fit the above description. Since this figure has been the most common one to designate a quarter of one ḥizb, it’s itself commonly known simply as rubʿ ḥizb. My own interpretation on the specific form of this octangular figure would be that it actually represents each of the quarters one juzʾ has, eight in total.
Due to the aniconic nature of Islamic art, geometric figures play a central role in artistic expressions. The rubʿ ḥizb became consequently incorporated into the large corpus of Islamicate figures and patterns, appearing most notably on flags and in decorative architecture. Morocco is probably one of the regions to have historically featured the rubʿ ḥizb most prominently on its banners. One of the very earliest examples is an early-13th century Almohad banner captured by the Castilian army during battle. It is at display at the Patrimonio Nacional Museo de Telas Medievales in Burgos and is made of silk and gilded parchment, preserved in an excellent condition. Contrary to popular belief, however, very little evidence indicate a common Moroccan dynastical use of this symbol on official banners after the Almohads, like the often-mentioned Marinid (1244–1465) and Saadi (1554-1659) dynasties. The rubʿ ḥizb also knows a prominent place in Central-Asian heraldry, most notably on the state emblems of countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
However, it definitely is decorative art in which the rubʿ ḥizb sticks out most notably. From wall tiles to wooden ceilings, from marble inlays to tapestry, this eight-pointed star has become synonymous to Muslim identity and artistic expression. The art of the Iranian howz (from Arabic ḥawḍ), for example, has perfectionized the use of the rubʿ ḥizb by using its geometric simplicity and symmetry as an asset to highlight the whole. A howz is a centrally positioned courtyard pool used for aesthetic purposes in traditional houses or for practical reasons regarding ablutions outside mosques. It is very often designed exactly like or a variation of the rubʿ ḥizb. That being said, the figure serves no religious or apotropaic purpose, unlike the six-pointed Seal of Solomon, and has little to no restrictions as to how it should exactly look like, hence the occurrence of several stylized variations of this polygon throughout the Muslim world.
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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.