In my two previous posts on IS (Here and Here), I talked a little about where they came from and the differences between the Sunni and Shia beliefs. Today, I want to talk a little about their flag and the symbolism of it.
Just the Facts
The IS flag is a pretty simple, unassuming design. But there is a lot of symbolism in it. I’ll try to explain some of it here (though, as I said previously, I’m not an Islamic/Arabic expert, even though I can read and write Arabic relatively well).
First, the top line says لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا الله or (roughly transliterated) “La ‘ilaha ‘illa-llah” (in Arabic transliteration, the ‘ is symbol for a hard, glottal stop…a sound we don’t really make normally in English, but think of saying “The End” and really accentuating that they are two distinct words…the E in End has a hard edge from the back of your throat to it when you really purposefully say it as two words, that is a glottal stop).
What this phrase means is “There is no God but God(Allah).” This is the first part of what is called the shahada, or Islamic statement of faith or creed (the second part is “Mohammed is God’s messenger”). This shahada is used as a proclamation of faith and for both Sunni and Shia Muslims, it is one of the “pillars of faith” that you must do to convert to Islam. It has also been used to separate Muslims from non-Muslims in certain terror attacks (such as the Westgate Mall in Kenya).
The big white circle with writing in it contains three Arabic words, the first is “Allah,” the second “messenger,” and the third is “Mohammed.” The roughness of the circle and Arabic script is intentional in the design because this is the seal (signet ring) that Mohammed used to sign letters and official documents after the foundation of Islam (think using his ring to impress wax on a letter to prove the origin).
Symbolism in the Flag
The flag itself is very simple and plain in design. However, the symbolism that is missed by most “Westerners” or non-Muslims is what makes it so powerful. Here I’ll break down a few of the larger symbolic meanings of the flag.
First, including the shahada on the flag, makes an immediate appeal to all Muslims, but especially the Sunni. Reciting the shahada is the “First Pillar” of Sunni Islam, it’s the first step, the first requirement. It is the very foundation of their belief and it has immediate appeal to them.
Second, the very inclusion of the word “Allah” immediately makes the flag sacred. This means that it is heresy for anyone to desecrate the flag in any way. It is considered by Muslims to extremely sacrilegious to burn, tear or in any way harm an object that has the word “Allah” written on it. So the inclusion of that one word suddenly marks the flag as something to be revered. Not all Muslims are strict adherents to this, and many ISIS flags have been burned by Muslim protesters in the MIddle East, but it at least causes some degree of hesitation with many Muslims.
Third, the inclusion of the signet seal of Mohammed creates a very intentional historical and theological reference point for ISIS. They are making a not so veiled claim of Mohammed’s approval/endorsement of them as the legitimate heirs to his caliphate (see post #1 for information on the caliphate). Essentially, they are publicly proclaiming across the Muslim world that they are seeking to establish a global caliphate where the entire world will a) convert to Islam or die and b) be ruled by the caliph under theocratic rule. They are seeking to throw out the current world order and create a new one by their own rules.
Fourth, the nature of the font speaks volumes. This isn’t the fancy, beautiful calligraphy that is present in so many Islamic flags and symbols. The Saudi national flag contains the shahada as well, in a beautiful, intricate script (on a green background). This script is intentional an ancient variation of Arabic from the 7th and 8th century. A symbol that ISIS doesn’t want to take the world forward, but take everything back in time to when the caliphate ruled much of the world.
Lastly, the stark black and white colors of the flag are probably the most symbolic part of the flag. Unlike other Muslim groups who have colorful flags (such as Hamas that uses a green flag or Hezbollah that uses yellow), ISIS uses a solid black background for intentional reasons. The solid black flag was the war banner (“raya”) used by Mohammed as he was conquering the Arabian Peninsula in the name of Islam. It is a war banner, pure and simple. While this is missed by most non-Muslims, the vast majority of Muslims will recognize it as such. Their goal is not peace, not coexistence; it is simply to conquer and/or kill, in the name of Islam, following the example set by Mohammed.
Another thing that is interesting about the flag that ISIS uses is that they didn’t actually come up with it. Al Qaeda in Iraq (the origin of ISIS and Al Shabaab in Somalia) have used variations of it. The flag in its entirety is a bit of a throwback, laden with historical and Islamic conquest references. As Americans many of us take great pride and show great respect and honor for our flag, but the ISIS flag is intentionally designed to go many steps beyond that. It is designed to rally Muslims to their cause and to demean and subjugate Muslims who don’t follow. It goes beyond pride and honor, to the very core beliefs of Islam.
And it is a war banner, pure and simple.