Monthly Archives: September 2014

Who is IS/ISIS? – Part 3 — The ISIS Flag

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.

ISIS-Flag

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.

Springs of Living Water

I’ve always loved the image of what Jesus does in John 7: 37-39.  There is this whole big festival going on and at the pinnacle of the festival (with the priests carrying the “living water” from the pools below up to the temple and circling the altar), Jesus stands up in the middle of the huge crowd and shouts.  Here is what it says in John (New Living Translation):

37 On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds,“Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! 38 Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”

To me, I think it must have been driving Jesus a little nuts.  To see this big, noisy, joyful celebration going on.  And for the people there to not realize who was standing in their midst.  And so He finally just cries out.  Perhaps there was a hush to the crowd.  Perhaps most of the people ignored Him.

But what Jesus says here is so important.  And so multifaceted that whole books have been written about it.  But one thing that recently hit me really hard about this scripture and verse 39:

39 (When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.)

…is the “Rivers of living water will flow from his heart,” part.  Understanding John’s parenthetical explanation that this living water that Jesus gives us is the Holy Spirit flowing into us, then the Spirit flows OUT of us, too.  And yet we fight it from flowing out.  And suppress it.  We downplay it.  We push the Holy Spirit back into a little corner and only allow Him to flow out at church (if then) or in special, “safe” situations.

Tonight, my son read to me at bedtime from his Bible about Jesus saying in Matthew 25:35-36:

35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

And so after he read it, we talked about what that means.  And how doing we can do those things TO Jesus.  It struck me that doing those things is the very nature of “Living water flowing from [our] heart[s].” The problem is that we get freaked out about letting the Holy Spirit “do His thing.”  Because we’ve seen something weird on TV with some televangelist.  Or we’ve heard some story about a cousin’s uncle’s best friend.  And we don’t want people thinking we’re a fake.  Or that God is fake.

I’ve seen the Holy Spirit do some amazing things.  Some things that rocked my world.  Physical healing.  Emotional healing.  Complete transformation of lives.  Worship times that changed lives, where the tangible presence of God was evident to everyone there (even people who weren’t believers who said, “God is in here…I need to leave.”).  But I’ve also seen the Holy Spirit move someone to speak up and offer a word of encouragement to someone when no one even knew they needed it.  Or to offer a helping hand.  Or to love someone who doesn’t expect it.

So why do we push back?  Why do build a dam to contain this “living water?”  As followers of Christ, we have the life changing, world altering, history making power of God INSIDE OF US.  And we suppress it?  Really?  What the heck?  But man we sure whine and complain about how the world needs to change.

I for one, am a little tired of fighting that fight.