On Flags, Islamic History, and al-Qa’ida

After writing my post on Libya, AQIM, and the spotting of a flag that appeared to be al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s (AQI) hanging over a court building in Benghazi there has been much written over the past few days regarding this flag as well as one waved at a rally also held in Libya that showed the Islamic State of Iraq’s (AQI’s successor group) flag.[1] Earlier this morning, it sparked an interesting debate between Ed Husain and Will McCants on Twitter. The flags in question were the following two:

al-Qa'ida in Iraq's flag. This was the one that appeared on top of the court house in Benghazi.

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Husain contended that one should not describe this flag as an “al-Qa’ida flag,” stating: “By calling it AQ flag we give them what is not theirs. The Prophet used those colours in his raids against pagans.” On the other hand, McCants argued that Muhammad may have used similar colors (i.e. black and white), but no other Islamic movement uses the exact same styled flag as the Islamic State of Iraq. Husain mentioned Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) as a counter example, yet that does not hold up to scrutiny, see:

Hizb ut-Tahrir's flag

Indeed, in the case of the AQI and HuT flags they both use black as the background and contain the shahada (Islamic testament of faith: ‘There is no God, but God; and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’). While the Islamic State of Iraq’s only has the first half of the shahada at the top while on the bottom is the seal that Muhammad used in official documents. They all differ a bit though since they have different styled typeface. Further, if one were to contend as Husain did that “we” are giving al-Qa’ida something that is not theirs then we should look back and see what flags the Muslim prophet Muhammad actually used as well as the Rashidun Caliphate, Ummayad Caliphate, and the Abbasid Caliphate.

Muhammad used two flags depending on the type of raid or battle he was in. One was a solid white flag while the main flag he used was a solid black flag called rāyat al ‘uqāb (flag of the eagle). Neither flag had markings or symbols. The black flag derived from Muhammad’s tribe Quraysh’s flag, which was called the same thing, but actually did have an eagle on it. Muhammad’s two flags would have looked as follows:

Muhammad's black flag

Muhammad's white flag

Following the death of Muhammad, the Rashidun Caliphate continued to use Muhammad’s black flag as seen above. The Ummayad’s used the white flag in both Damascus and al-Andalus. Whereas the Abbasids used the black flag once more. As such, if one looks at early Islamic history there is no connection to the flag that al-Qai’da in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq adopted. Of course the Islamic State of Iraq uses the shahada on its flag to try and show Islamic legitimacy. The Islamic State of Iraq also incorporated the seal that Muhammad used in official correspondance:

Muhammad's seal

That said, it does not necessarily mean one cannot state that the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag is not the al-Qa’ida flag since no one has ever used that specific design, typeface, and set up in the history of Islam.

[1] According to Leah Farrall, the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag was first designed and flown by the original al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which was located in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. It was popularized, though, by the Islamic State of Iraq.

15 Responses to On Flags, Islamic History, and al-Qa’ida

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  5. Hamid says:


    Interesting comparison.
    At a certain level of meaning, the difference in calligraphic styles calls for interpretation as well. The flag of the Islamic State of Iraq is written in the archaic “kufic” style. A hieratic style, dominant in the early period of Islam, and bereft of diacritical and vocalization marks, making it difficult to decipher. In its artisanal austerity, it seems to gesture toward a time of origin, of beginnings. Much more can be said in terms of “salaf”, and the relationship between writing and meaning, etc.

    The “tuluth” style of the other two flags is a later style, attributed to Ibn Muqla. Same script used on the Saudi flag. Some have ventured “that Ibn Muqla’s innovation of the proportioned script for writing the Qur’ān reflected a contemporary belief in the exoteric nature of the word of God”, making it a “well-established anti-Shi’i message.” (Yasser Tabbaa). Its use of diacritical marks and vocalization is, in a certain way, the historical inscription of the “mawali” in the history of Islamic calligraphy.

    A few scattered thoughts that need further development.

    Thanks for the article!


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  8. A very interesting article, I am currently writing my dissertation on the Aniconic tradition in Islam and I was wondering in what sources I would be able to find more information about the flags of the Prophet and of the Rashidun caliphate?

    Thanks again for the great article!


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