False, Red and Black Flags in Islam

This past week I did two radio interviews.  One was a 70″-long discussion with my good friend Pete Turner on his “Break It Down Show” about two topics: patriotism-nationalism and then the Middle East, focusing on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and whether the ayatollahs have any desire to use them to “hotwire the apocalypse.”  (The answer is “no,” as anyone who follows me will already know–which makes the attempt to paint Iran’s leadership as apocalyptically suicidal a false flag one).  The other was with my Colorado friend at KNUS AM 710, Denver, Peter Boyles.  He and I discussed the US’ forever war in Afghanistan.

Analyzing Iran and Afghanistan started me thinking about Khurasan (or Khorasan)–the ancient geographical region straddling modern Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan whence came the Abbasids, in 750 AD, bearing their black flags. These banners exploited eschatological hadiths and empowered the Abbasid movement to conquer the Umayyads and set up a caliphate that came to be known as the “Golden Age” of Islam.


Khurasan, c. 9th century AD, under the Tahirid Dynasty (from “Abdallah ibn Tahir al-Khurasani,” Wikipedia). 

The Abbasids’ original flag was, it seems, a purely black one.  Their successors, the Seljuks, added the shahadah (“there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”)–as shown in this illustration, center-right:


“A troop of spectators on horseback and with inscribed banners…from al-Hariri of Basra….” (from “Islamic Flags,” Wikipedia). 

Here’s the flag of the modern “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” (from “Flag of Afghanistan,” Wikipedia):


Here’s the top text, isolated.  It reads “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger;” and below that “Allahu akbar,” “God is great[est].”


Here’s the flag of the modern Islamic Republic of Iran (taken from “Flag of Iran,” Wikipedia):


That calligraphy in the green and red fields actually reads “Allahu akbar” (albeit with the second word in Arabic turned on its side):


And of course what’s on the ISIS flag? The same shahadah as on the Seljuk or Afghan (or Saudi) flags–but seemingly written by someone just starting madrasah:


From “Black Standard,” Wikipedia.

And in a more overtly eschatological vein, here’s the flag of the Mahdist State of the Sudan, 1881-1898 (from “Mahdist State,” Wikipedia):


An excellent close analysis of this and various other flags of the state established by the Sudanese Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, can be found here.  But I want to zero in on the last two lines of the one above:


The first line reads…wait for it…”there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”  Surprised? I think not.

The second one kicks things up a notch, eschatologically (and heretically), however: “Muhammad al-Mahdi [is] the khalifah of the messenger of Allah.” Of course, few outside Sudan in the late 19th century believed that. But it does show how seamlessly End Times belief in Islam can be grafted onto extant, established beliefs.

So is it a red flag day in the Islamic world, at present? Or a black flag one?  Both, it seems, as there is little difference between them.

Let’s just hope we don’t see a Mahdist flag day any time soon. We won’t in Iran–but we might from ISIS or elsewhere in the Sunni world.

(And if you’ve not yet done so: listen to U2’s “Red Flag Day” from their latest album, Songs of Experience.)