Arab Flags: Colors and Symbols
Interpretation of الألوان
It is not by coincidence or simple aesthetic necessity that الأسود، الأحمر، الأبيض، والأخضر are the four most common colors in the flags of Arab countries today. All four colors were first combined on the banner of the 1916 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The leader of the revolt and designer of the banner, al-Sharif Hussain الشريف حسين of Hijaz, had envisaged the overthrow of the Turkish rule and the unification of the Arab nation under one Pan-Arab banner. The name “pan-Arab colors” symbolizes this desire for unification. These particular colors were chosen because each one of them was of major significance to one of four different, great Arab/Muslim dynasties that emerged between the seventh and thirteenth centuries.
The following paragraphs offer a brief overview of the history of these colors as well as the modern meanings that they have taken in accordance with the individual countries’ history and aspirations.
The color red الأحمر has taken on several meanings in modern Arab flags. In the Lebanese flag الأحمر symbolizes the blood of the martyrs who struggled against the Ottoman rule. In the Jordanian flag, it is the symbol of the reigning Hashemite dynasty الهاشميّون. This color refers to the pre-1952 revolution era characterized by the struggle against the local monarchy and British colonialism in the Egyptian flag.
Historically, الأحمر was adopted by the Khariji الخوارج, an Islamic faction that emerged in AD 658 (37 Hijri). This group believed that only a descendant of Prophet Muhammad can be Caliph خليفة. This faction group is said to be behind the death of Uthman II عثمان بن عفّان, the fourth Caliph to rule after Prophet Muhammad’s death. الأحمر was later adopted in the Arab Revolt banner of 1916, and now figures in the flag of many Arabic countries as illustrated above.
White الأبيض can be seen in several modern Arab flags with a variety of connotations. In the Algerian flag, white stands for purity. It was the color used according to some sources by the famous Algerian independence movement leader, Prince Abd al-Qadir الأمير عبد القادر (who died in 1883) in his struggle against French occupation in 1847. In the Egyptian flag, white refers to the revolution of 1952 that ended the monarchy without bloodshed. In the Lebanese flag, white symbolizes the snow-capped mountains of Lebanon. In the Kuwaiti and Palestinian flags it symbolizes good deeds.
Historically, however, white was the symbolic color of the Umayyad الأمويّون, an Islamic dynasty that came into power in AD 661 (40 Hijri). They massively extended the Islamic territory to Portugal and Spain in the west and Samarqand in Central Asia. The Umayyads were among the most secular of all ruling dynasties in the Islamic world. They were most famous for their contributions to science and for the buildings they erected, such as the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (690s AD/70s hijri), and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (705 AD/85 Hijri).
In some modern flags, black came to signify the battlefield as in the Kuwaiti flag, and the oppression of colonialism as in the Syrian and the Egyptian flags.
Black is the color adopted by the Abbasid العباسيّون. The Abbasids ruled from AD 750 (131 Hijri) until
1258 (655 Hijri). The Abbasid era is considered the Golden age of the Arab-Islamic world where literature, philosophy, science, and architecture flourished.
Green represents the fertility of the land, as in the flag of Oman where it symbolizes الجبل الأخضر (the Green Mountains) in the north-east of the country. It also conveys other meanings such as the meadows in the Kuwaiti flag.
This color has been adopted by the Fatimid dynasty الفاطميّون. The Fatimids founded their dynasty in North Africa and ruled the Muslim world from the early 10th century AD (third century Hijri) until late 12th century AD (fifth century Hijri). One of their achievements was establishing a new trade route with Central and Eastern Asia through the Red Sea instead of the Persian Gulf that was still under Abbasid control.
Although the Pan-Arab colors are dominant in the Arab flags, other colors are also used. For example, the purple is used in the Qatari flag to distinguish it from the Bahraini flag, with which it shares the same design due to the overlap of their history. Other examples can be seen in the Mauritanian flag that contains the blue color and the Somali flag that contains the yellow color. These two flags are great indicators of their countries’ culture; they exhibit the countries’ preservation of their African roots, symbolized by the Pan-African colors yellow and blue, and their pride in their dominant Muslim religion represented by the crescent and the star.
Common Symbols and Emblems
Two recurrent symbols in Arab flags are the star النجمة and the crescent الهلال . Both symbols have now come to commonly connote Islam even though historically their use predates Islam as it started as a Byzantine tradition. These symbols exist in the flags of many countries such as تونس ,الجزائر ,العراق and سوريا. We note that the stars are mostly five pointed except the one in the Jordanian flag which is seven pointed and thus represents the first seven verses of the Quran. The Five pointed star represents the five pillars of Islam which are Al-Shahaada or declaring that “There is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet,” prayer, fasting, zakaat or charity and pilgrimage to Mecca. الهلال is not historically the symbol of Islam, but it has become affiliated with the Muslim world as a tradition that started with the Ottomans. In fact, Legend holds that the founder of the Ottoman Empire, عثمان, had a dream in which the crescent moon stretched from one end of the earth to the other. Taking this as a good omen, he chose to keep the crescent and make it the symbol of his dynasty. The Turkish influence can also be seen in the Tunisian flag, where the resemblance to the modern Turkish flag is striking. This similarity in flags can be explained by the desire of former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba to adhere to some of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk’s (founder of modern Turkey) policies such as his secularism and his support for women’s rights.
Uncommon Symbols and Their Meaning
Other not so common symbols that figure on the Arab flags are:
- The Pentagram of the Moroccan flag, which symbolizes Fatima the daughter of the prophet and makes the connection between God and the nation.
- The golden Egyptian eagle which is reminiscent of Saladin صلاح الدين, the famous Ayyubid ruler who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
- The cedar, a native plant to Lebanon symbolizes immortality in the Lebanese flag.
- The Saudi sword represents justice.
- The white triangles in the flag of Qatar and Bahrain represent the five pillars of Islam.
Writing on the Flags
Some Arabic flags such as the Saudi and the Iraqi flags contain writing. The Saudi flag reads Al-Shahaada
"لا إله إلاّ الله و محمّد رسول الله". The Iraqi flag reads “God is great” الله أكبر.