ISIS black flag – an iconographical reading

ISIS and their black flags is well known. Documentaries have been shot and articles have been written. Yet, the flag in itself sometimes remains unexplained.

It is black, with some Arabic words on it, and a white circle with inside, again, some other words. It is their sign, and their marks. It is quite simple in itself, yet it bears a message. Or even more than one.

The importance of the sign

The sign is important: ISIS is not notorious only because of the terrible message it fosters and destruction its militants spread. ISIS is known for its flag.

The black flag is omnipresent in the demonstrations, gatherings, cities, cars, roofs of the cities the militants conquer.

Demonstrators in support of ISIS in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. Courtesy North Country Public Radio.
Demonstrators in support of ISIS in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. Courtesy North Country Public Radio.

The sign is important: it is their trademark in a way. But it is also important to understand what it means and the symbolism in it.

Taliban's flag, reading the profession of faith 'la ilaha illa allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allahi
Taliban’s flag, reading the profession of faith ‘la ilaha illa allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allahi” (There’s no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God)

The black flag is nothing new: the Taliban’s flag was black, with, once again, white lettering. But the style of the writing was different, the content was different and the symbol in itself was not that known. If you think about the Taliban you don’t recall the flag, but other notorious facts.

Thus, what’s the difference? Black is black, and the message is quite similar. Still, ISIS’s flag is different, and the way it is designed is not casual: it aims to give a quite clear message, as every other symbols.

Black: the tradition of flags in Early Islam

As we learn from the Encyclopaedia of Islam “flags played an important part in Islam”. Groups and dynasties have used flags with different colours to state their belonging: the Umayyad adopted a white banner, the ‘Abbasids a black one, the Shi’ites a green flag.

Jonathan Bloom, in an article for PRI, linked the black flag adopted by ISIS to the ‘Abbasid tradition. Yet this is something I could not clearly understand: why the ‘Abbasids?

ISIS's black flag
ISIS’s black flag

The black colour is anyway linked also to an earlier tradition, dating back to the Prophet Muhammad. Also Muhammad used to have a flag (surely in a more peaceful way than ISIS). Traditions are different and also the colour of the flags may vary. In any case according to one tradition the Prophet had two flags: the white one, called liwa’, and the black one, raya. According to yet other traditions the raya was also used to summon the faithful to the prayer.

The black flag can thus be linked to the earliest Islam, to the first decades of Islam and, to the Prophet of Islam itself.

The white circle – the seal of the Prophet

Reproduction of the seal of the Prophet Muhammad.
Reproduction of the seal of the Prophet Muhammad.

The white circle on the lower part seems to be the representation of the seal of Muhammad. Nothing seems to be sure about the symbol, and scholars have long debated on the real shape of the seal.

The seal seems to be reproduced on a letter of Muhammad to the Mauqaqis, that subsequently Muhammad sealed. In the seal we read Allah – rasul – Muhammad which can be translated ‘Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’. The tradition says the phrase in the seal war re-arranged so that the word ‘God’ stayed on top.

Be the tradition only a tradition or originating from a real fact and a real letter, it is not the point here. Once again, the image, or better the symbol, used in the flag dates back to the origin of Islam. Again.

The letter sealed by the Prophet itself is quite interesting: it was directed to the Muqauqis, ‘chief of the Copts’. In the letter the Prophet urge the Copts to embrace Islam, believing in one God. At the end we also find an exhortation/threat: “And if ye decline, than bear witness that we are Moslems” (in David Samuel Margoliouth’s translation).

The writing – from the early period

Calligraphy plays an important role in every Islamic tradition: Fatimid and their kufic, Seljuqs and the introduction of cursive script in the Qur’anic manuscripts… just to name few facts.

Thus, leaving the actual meaning of the phrase in the first line aside, which is by the way ‘There’s no god but God’, I think it’s interesting to (try to) understand the calligraphic style.

Muhammad's letter to Muqauqis, as published by Margoliouth in 1905.
Muhammad’s letter to Muqauqis, as published by Margoliouth in 1905.

I cannot find anything similar. What we see in the flag is actually a quite plain style, without any particular stylistic embellishment. Again something plain that Bloom in a way links to something ‘archaic’.

I would say ‘oversimplified’ instead of archaic or ancient.

In ancient inscriptions the group lam-alif was not written like that and hamza was totally absent from the writing.

In any case it is fair enough that ISIS’s graphic designers had something like that in mind: ancient-looking-style, once again bringing back to the beginning of Islam and Prophet times. If we compare the word Allah in the flag and in the letter to Muqauqis allegedly dating back to the Prophet times, it can be even proposed that the letter itself was taken as source of inspiration.

Symbolism of a flag, but nothing more

Symbolism is always interesting: symbols have always been used and exploited throughout times and places. Symbols should be read, understood and analysed. They are the visible signs of groups and movement and understanding the signs they use let us better understand their aim. They are a way to understand how the group represents itself.

The fact that the style looks oversimplified… I have some ideas: maybe the clarity, the aim to reach also non-Arabic speaker Muslims that maybe join the cause without knowing Arabic, the lack of knowledge, aesthetic (who knows?).

The symbolism is as simple as that…sorrowfully they seem to be more concerned in spreading their territory, capturing new cities and plots of land.

Strikingly it seems that ISIS is not using inscriptions or other signs expect the flag. Looking at documentaries and pictures, the only thing they seems to write on buildings, as far as I can see, is the shahadah and things like ‘Islamic State of Syria and Iraq”, nothing more.


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