Despite having extensively written about the so-called Khamsa Hand, known by Muslims as the Hand of Fāṭima and by Jews as the Hand of Miriam, I feel little has been told yet on the visual differences between this apotropaic symbol and another, very similar icon used in the Middle East, the Hand of ‘Abbās.
The Hand of ‘Abbās is the stylized representation of a hand popularly attested among the religious imagery of Shiite Muslims in countries like Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. ‘Abbās Abū Faḍl was the son of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, fourth caliph of Islam and pivotal figure in Shiism, and was killed during the Battle of Karbala (680 AD). He supposedly got his hand cut off by his Umayyad adversaries while fetching water for his brother al-Ḥusayn bin ʿAlī’s encampment and was later killed. Being an important and highly revered martyr in Shiism, a symbolical hand appears referring to the slain ‘Abbās during commemorative events like ʻĀshūrā’, an annual Islamic holiday Shiites traditionally mark for the commemoration of al-Ḥusayn bin ʿAlī’s defeat and martyrdom during the Battle of Karbala.
The Hand of ‘Abbās symbol is generally found in the following set-up: a brass hand on a pole decorated with a crescent with commemorative and religious texts. The hand itself has the thumb always on the right side. In Islam, like the other Abrahamic faiths, the right hand is associated with piety, benevolence and obedience to God, while the left hand is to be avoided and remains to be used for the “lesser” tasks of the human body. The Khamsa Hand is in that matter much more ambiguous, and is mostly (but not always) depicted as one hand having two thumbs, both on the left and the right. The center of the brass Hand of ‘Abbās is reserved for the Arabic vocative, a grammatical case used for calling someone or supplicating to someone following the vocative particle يا (yā), in this case yā ‘Abbās ʿAlamdār (ʿAlamdār being the Persian word for flag-bearer). This is again a major difference with the Khamsa Hand, which doesn’t bear any inscriptions or commemorative texts.
A third main difference would obviously be the geographic prevalence of each symbol. The Khamsa Hand is popular in Sunni areas, most notably North Africa. The Hand of ‘Abbās is popular in Shiite areas. Interestingly enough, however, is the visual influence it has imprinted on many of the neighboring Sunni areas, especially the Caucasus and the Mughal Empire. This is most strikingly noticeable when exploring the so-called ʿAlam, heavily engraved brass, silver or steel hands used as flag pole tops under the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals alike without the Shiite religious context.
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.