This article originally appeared on the 4th of June 2020 on the website of Silah Report written by yours truly.
By 1879, the so-called Great Game between the Russian Empire and Great Britain over Central-Asia entered one of its final phases after the British victory in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. In the web of diplomatic and political maneuvers so apparent during this turbulent period, it was of paramount importance for the British Crown to keep the Russians at bay and reduce their influence on Afghanistan as much as possible. In this article, we will examine the markings on Afghanistan’s indigenously produced rifles.
To establish a strong foothold in the country and to assure British interests were met in local politics and the state’s foreign relations, the British Empire supported the appointment of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Khān (r.1880 – 1901) as the new Emir of Afghanistan. A member of the ruling Pathan (Pashtun) Barakzai dynasty, the British had in ʿAbd al-Raḥmān both a political ally rooted in Afghanistan’s monarchical system as well as an authoritative ruler with clanship ties to the unruly and rebellious Pathan south.
Within a year of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān’s rule beginning the British and Russian governments formed a joint Anglo-Russian Afghan Boundary Commission to define the borders between the Russian Empire and the north of Afghanistan. Despite Afghanistan’s de jure status as an autonomous state, it was a mere bystander of this political agreement. Since the Pathan-inhabited south of the country remained occupied by British troops, the country was de facto nothing more than a British-led dynamic buffer zone between the two rival empires.
Only in 1893, after 13 years of the Emir’s rule, did ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Khān and British civil servant Sir Henry Mortimer Durand agree to mark the boundary between British India and Afghanistan, heralding the infamous Durand Line. This settlement and the mutual recognition of the country’s borders by both Russians and British allowed the Emir to focus on internal affairs, embarking on a campaign of industrialization, modernization and the violent crushing of a number of rebellions, earning him the nickname “the Iron Emir”.
To make sure Afghanistan could live up to its role as a buffer zone, the British Empire supported ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Khān goal of establishing the Kabul Arsenal (Kār Khāneh Kābul in Dari) just before the turn of the 20th century. This industrial factory in Kabul needed to provide his army with modern British arms and ammunition, most notably the Martini rifle and its various variants. In a recent episode of Silah Report’s podcast collector and author Vernon Easley, talked us through the various rifles which were built at the Kabul Arsenal. Between the 1890s and 1921, an estimated total of about 56,000 rifles were manufactured and they came to exemplify the Barakzai dynasty’s military development. By the time that local production of Afghan Martini rifles reached its desired potential and industrial capacity around 1901, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Khān’s son and successor Ḥabībullāh Khān (r. 1901-1919) inherited his father’s kingdom and introduced a national emblem to be featured on the state’s flag and official administration.
While Ḥabībullāh’s father ruled his nation with a plain black flag, he decided to include the white silhouette of a mosque with a minbar (pulpit) within and flanked by two minarets, the whole surrounded by a laurel wreath. In the tradition of modern heraldry, this was to become his country’s emblem as well. Between 1901 and 1919, this image was used to mark Kabul Arsenal weapons and become a characteristic and familiar part of the Martini’s receiver. Stamped on its right side, the receiver also features the production date in the Islamic Hijri calendar and an inscription written in a very stylized mix of foliate Kufic and Khorasan Kufic calligraphy reading Kār Khāneh Kābul. During the second half of Ḥabībullāh’s rule, he changed Afghanistan’s emblem to resemble the Ottoman imperial standard and replaced the laurel wraith with an eight-pointed rayed star, which was subsequently adopted by Ḥabībullāh’s successors until Nāder Shāh’s Kingdom of Afghanistan in 1930. From at least 1910 onward, this emblem was stamped on the Martini rifles, completely replacing the former version.
This Afghan design and the Ottoman standard obviously evolved over time and the eight-pointed star is actually a much older Islamicate figure popular in the figurative and geometric art so distinctly developed by Muslim artists. This geometric figure is known in Arabic as rubʿ ḥizb, literally “the quarter of a ḥizb”, the latter 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 a rubʿ of a 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 octagon, 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 is 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, the rubʿ ḥizb became consequently incorporated into the large corpus of Islamicate figures and patterns.
That being said, the figure serves no religious or apotropaic (talismanic) purposes, unlike the six-pointed Seal of Solomon I discussed in part 1, 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.
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.