The flags of contemporary Islamic states tend to use one or several of the Pan-Arab colours, (black, red, white, green), and sometimes religious inscriptions such as the shahada or the takbir. The shahada has also become popular as an inscription on jihadist flags since the 1990s.
The early Muslim community did not use any designs or geometric shapes as symbols on their flags. During the time of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, Muslim armies and caravans flew simple solid-coloured flags (generally black or white) for identification purposes. In later generations, the Muslim leaders continued to use a simple black, white, or green flag with no markings, writings, or symbolism on it.
Muhammad used flags of different colours in different Ghazwat (or campaigns commanded by Muhammad himself) and Saraya (or campaigns commanded by any Sahaba, the companions of Muhammad). The major flag of Muhammad was known as Al-Uqab (The Eagle); it was pure black, without symbols or markings. Its name and colour was derived from the flag of the Quraysh, an Arabian tribe, whose flag, also called Al-Uqaab, was black with an eagle
Medieval and early modern flags
Religious flags with inscriptions were in use in the medieval period, as shown in miniatures by 13th-century illustrator Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti. 14th-century illustrations of the History of the Tatars by Hayton of Corycus (1243) shows both Mongols and Seljuk Turks using a variety of war ensigns.
War flags came into use by the Ottomans in the 16th century, gradually replacing (but long coexisting with) their traditional tugh or horse-tail standards. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Ottoman war flags often depicted the bifurcated Zulfikar sword, often misinterpreted in Western literature as showing a pair of scissors. A Zulfikar flag claimed to have been used by Selim I (d. 1520) is on exhibit in the Topkapi Museum. Two Zulfikar flags are also depicted in a plate dedicated to Turkish flags in vol. 7 of Bernard Picart's Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (1737), attributed to the Janissaries and the Ottoman cavalry.
The crescent symbol appears in flags attributed to Tunis from as early as the 14th century (Libro de conoscimiento), long before Tunis fell under Ottoman rule in 1574. The Spanish Navy Museum in Madrid shows two Ottoman naval flags dated 1613; both are swallow-tailed, one green with a white crescent near the hoist, the other white with two red stripes near the edges of the flag and a red crescent near the hoist.
Crescent moon and star
In the Tanzimat reforms of 1844, Ottoman flags were redesigned in the style of European armies of the day. The flag of the Ottoman navy was made red as red was to be the flag of secular institutions and green of religious ones. As the reforms abolished all the various sub-sultanates, pashaliks, beyliks and emirates, a single new flag was designed to replace all the various flags used by these entities with one single national flag. The result was the red and white flag with the crescent moon and star, which is the precursor to the modern Turkish flag. A plain red flag was introduced as the civil ensign for all Ottoman subjects.
By the mid 20th century, this type of flag was widely used by successor states of the Ottoman Empire, including Algeria, Azerbaijan, Mauritania, Tunisia, Turkey, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Libya.
Because of its supposed "Turkic" associations, the symbol also came to be used in Central Asia, as in the flags of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The star-and-crescent in the Flag of Pakistan is stated as symbolizing "progress and light" (while the green colour is stated as representing Islam). The star-and-crescent in these flags was not originally intended as religious symbolism, but an association of the symbol with Islam seems to have developed beginning in the 1950s or 1960s. By the 1970s, this symbol was embraced by both Arab nationalism or Islamism, such as the proposed Arab Islamic Republic (1974) and the American Nation of Islam (1973).
The Pan-Arab flag and colours
The Pan-Arab colors were first introduced in 1916, with the Flag of the Arab Revolt. Although they represent secular Arab nationalism as opposed to political Islam, the choice of colours has been explained by Islamic symbolism in retrospect, so by Mahdi Abdul Hadi in Evolution of the Arab Flag (1986): black as the Black Standard of Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphate, white as the flag of the Umayyad Caliphate, green as the flag of the Fatimid Caliphate and red as the flag of the Khawarij.
On 30 1917 Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, leader of the Hejaz Revolt replaced his plain red flag with one horizontally striped in black, green, and white with a red triangular area at the hoist. This was seen as the birth of the pan-Arab flag.
Since that time, many Arab nations, upon achieving independence or upon change of political regime, have used a combination of these colours in a design reflecting the Hejaz Revolt flag. These flags include the current flags of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Palestinian National Authority, Algeria, and Sudan, and former flags of Iraq and Libya.
Some flags of Muslim states or jihadist groups use inscribed flags, either with the shahada, as in the flags of Saudi Arabia, or in the case of the 1979 Islamic Republic of Iran a stylized writing of the word Allah. The Flag of Iraq uses the pan-Arab colours sice 1921, with the addition of Allahu Akbar since 1991.
The practice of inscribing the shahada on flags may go back the 18th century, used by the Wahhabi religious movement. In 1902 Abdulaziz Abdulrahman Al-Saud, leader of the Al Saud and the future founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, added a sword to this flag. The current flag of Saudi Arabia is a continuation of the flag Emirate of Nejd and Hasa introduced in 1902. The First East Turkestan Republic of 1933 used it on their flag, and the Taliban introduced it on their flag of Afghanistan in 1997.
The modern conceptualization of the "Islamic state" is attributed to Abul A'la Maududi (1903–1979), a Pakistani Muslim theologian who founded the political party Jamaat-e-Islami and inspired other Islamic revolutionaries such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Six internationally recognized states identify as Islamic states: Saudi Arabia (formed 1932 out of Wahhabist predecessor states), Pakistan (since 1956), Mauritania (since 1958), Iran (since 1979), Yemen (since 1991), and Afghanistan (since 2004, and before 1973). The majority of countries of the Arab world define Islam as their state religion. Most of these states have national flags that include Islamic symbolism. Besides, there are unrecognized jihadist de facto states, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant controlling parts of Iraq and Syria, and the Taliban, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram ruling parts of Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria, respectively, which use jihadist flags.
The flag of Mauritania (1959), star-and-crescent on green.
The Taliban replaced their solid white flag with a white flag inscribed with the shahada in black as they took power in Afghanistan in 1997. Various Muslim armed groups have use the black flags inscribed with the shahada in white since ca. 2001.
During the 2000s, it became popular in mujahid terminology to refer to the black flag as al-raya and the white flag as al-liwa' , after the terms of the black and white flags flown by Muhammad according to the hadith. The white flag is sometimes identified as the "flag of the Caliphate" while the black one is dubbed the "flag of Jihad".
Representation of flags
Unlike the practice in most Western nations, flags are usually depicted in Islamic countries with the staff to the right. This is analogous to the right-to-left form of most Arabic and Arabic-influenced scripts. This can make for confusion when flag images are shown without an accompanying flagstaff, as it may not be immediately obvious which way around the flag is being depicted.
In keeping with Islamic law, Muslim flags generally do not bear any representations of live creatures, though some Arab flags have the Eagle of Saladin that are used as supporters on the Coats of Arms. These flags are not necessarily Islamic in their nature; rather they more likely to derive from the Pan-Arabist movement. It is rare to find plants depicted on flags of Muslim nations, even though this is permissible under Islamic guidelines. Some state and royal flags of Saudi Arabia depict palm trees.
- e.g. Jaques Nicolas Bellin, Tableau des Pavillions de le nations que aborent à la mer (1756).
- Nozomi Karyasu & António Martins, 8 October 2006 on Flags of the World.
- The symbolism of the star and crescent in the flag of the Kingdom of Libya (1951–1969) was explained in an English language booklet, The Libyan Flag & The National Anthem, issued by the Ministry of Information and Guidance of the Kingdom of Libya (year unknown, cited after Jos Poels at FOTW, 1997) as follows: "The crescent is symbolic of the beginning of the lunar month according to the Muslim calendar. It brings back to our minds the story of Hijra (migration) of our Prophet Mohammed from his home in order to spread Islam and teach the principles of right and virtue. The Star represents our smiling hope, the beauty of aim and object and the light of our belief in God, in our country, its dignity and honour which illuminate our way and puts an end to darkness."
- Edward E. Curtis, Black Muslim religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975 (2006), p. 157.
- Pan-Arab Colours, crwflags.com; Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, The Great Arab Revolt, passia.org
- Firefly Guide to Flags of the World. 2003. p. 165. ISBN 978-1552978139. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
- The flag replaces the solid-green flag of Libya under Gaddhafi 1977–2011, strongly reminiscent of the solid-green flag of the Fatimid Caliphate but not officially stated as symbolizing religion so much as Gaddhafi's political philosophy.
- "Pakistan flag". Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of Pakistan. Retrieved 2007-12-11.