A social phenomenon attested throughout history is the representation of powerful cultural spheres of influence by an agreed-upon set of colors. These colors are strongly associated with their respective spheres and are often the result of a long social and cultural growth process. In a previous post, I focused on the so-called Pan-Arab color code used in many Arab countries today. One can also think of the color red used as part of the Soviet influence and the Communist legacy. The visual representation of Persian culture and lore is found in four distinct colors: red, white, green and yellow. These colors are currently most notable found among three national flags ascribing to the Persian continuity: Kurdistan, Tajikistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Historically, however, many more examples have seen use across the region.
The color green (Persian: سبز – sabz) is intimately connected to Islam through the “spirit” of colors in Persian literature and traditional Sufi imagery. The very abstract and figurative nature of Persian literature has elevated the use of colors as figures of speech for rhetorical or vivid effect. Green is connected to life and vitality, a figurative reference to Islamic Paradise and those who dwell therein (the سبزپوش - sabzpūš). God says in the Qur’an: “Upon them will be green garments of fine silk (thiyāb sundus khuḍr) and brocade, and they will be adorned with bracelets of silver” [Chapter al-Insān 21] He also describes them as “‘reclining on green cushions and beautiful fine carpets” [Chapter al-Raḥmān 76]. The color green is in Shiism also heavily associated with the Prophet Muḥammad himself, as well as the Ahl al-Bayt, his kinsfolk. During the ʿĀshūrāʾ celebrations the tenth of Muḥarram, so-called sayids (descendants of the Prophet Muḥammad) wear green scarfs and turbans to honor the memory of al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, the Prophet’s grandson.
The color white (سفید – safīd) represents piety and purity from sins. The color played a major role in the priestly dresscode of the ancient Persian religions of Mandaeism and Zoroastrianism, where it presented the divine light as opposed to the eternal darkness so typical for their dualistic worldview. Zoroastrians wear a sacred cotton shirt (sudreh) underneath all other items of attire. Priests wear on top of that a white, silk mouth veil (padām) to prevent their breath from polluting the sacred fire. Islam continued this legacy of the color white, and associates white with the pious and pure. God says about the Day of Judgement: “On the Day faces will turn white and faces will turn black” [Chapter Āl ʿImrān 106]. One should also consider Chapter al-Aʿrāf 76, in which God grants his Messenger Mozes the miracle of: “And he drew out his hand; thereupon it was white [with radiance] for the observers.” Most notably, however, and in line with the dress of the Zoroastrians and Mandaeans, cotton shirts are used by Muslim pilgrims (the so-called iḥrām garment) during the ʿUmra or Ḥajj.
The color red (قرمز – qarmaz) is a very powerful and violent color strongly associated with blood, martyrdom, war and sacrifice in Shiism. The color is used popularly during ʿĀshūrāʾ to commemorate the martyrdom of the previously mentioned al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī. Red flags are also used on graves and mosques to represent deaths not (yet) avenged, the most famous one being the Jamkarān Mosque near Qom which unfurled a red flag after the death of general Qāsim Sulaymānī. Red is on the other hand also a very energetic color associated with power in the Sufi tradition. It is connected with activity and strength but also with wrath, and a Sufi who radiates power is called sorḵpūš (سرخپوش – red-mantled).
The color yellow (زرد – zard), last but not least, is closely associated with the sun and with fire, a central element in several different ancient Persian religions like Zoroastrianism, Yazidism and Yarsanism and with traditional celebrations like Nowruz. Fire is seen as the supreme symbol of purity, and a figurative means of taking away ill-health and problems. Especially Zoroastrianism has a major focus on fire (atar), and maintain sacred fires in so-called Fire Temples (dar-e mehr). These fires represent the light of Ahura Mazda as well as a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom are gained, and are a key part of purification ceremonies.
In flags of states with a distinct Islamic character, like the short-lived Kingdom of Kurdistan (1922-1924), associated mainly with Mehmûdê Berzencî, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the color yellow has been left out for obvious reasons.
The first national banner to have officially combined all these four colors mentioned above was adopted in the wake of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 during the last years of the Qajar dynasty. The flag’s design was described in article five of the Supplementary Fundamental Laws of October 7, 1907. This article goes as follows: “The official colors of the Persian flag are green, white and red, with the (yellow) emblem of the Lion and Sun.” It was not clear, however, how these colors should appear, or in what order, so a different number of designs surfaced including these three colors and the Lion and Sun symbol in a tricolor flag design that became the basis for most modern Persian official and unofficial flags.
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.