The Black Banner A.K.A. Black Standard

Black Standard
Black Standard

The Black Banner or Black Standard (Arabic: راية السوداء‎‎ rāyat as-sawdāʾ, also known as راية العقاب rāyat al-ʿuqāb “banner of the eagle” or simply as الراية ar-rāya “the banner”) is one of the flags flown by Muhammad in Islamic tradition. It was historically used by Abu Muslim in his uprising leading to the pro-Shia Abbasid Revolution in 747 and is therefore associated with the Abbasid Caliphate in particular. It is also a symbol in Islamic eschatology (heralding the advent of the Mahdi)

The Black Banner has been used in contemporary Islamism and jihadism since the late 1990s.

Origin

Before Islam, visible standards were used at least in the Roman army to identify the core of the legion, the Eagles. By the mid-600s, the Arabs were using standards for the same purpose. Among the Arabs the rāya was a square banner; not to be confused with the liwāʾ or ʿalam, an identifying mark like a red turban.

Islamic tradition states that the Quraysh had a black liwāʾ and a white-and-black rāya. It further states that Muhammad had an ʿalam in white nicknamed “the Young Eagle” (العقاب al-ʿuqāb); and a rāya in black, said to be made from his wife Aisha’s head-cloth. This larger flag was known as the Eagle.

The hadith reports Muhammad said that the advent of the Mahdi would be signaled by Black Standards proceeding from Khorasan and that it will be the flag of the army that will fight the Masih ad-Dajjal.

At the Battle of Siffin, according to tradition, Ali used the liwāʾ of the Prophet, which was white while those who fought against him instead used black banners.

Historical use

The Abbasid Revolution against the Umayyad Caliphate adopted black for its rāyaʾ for which their partisans were called the musawwids. Their rivals chose other colours in reaction; among these, forces loyal to Marwan II adopted red. The choice of black as the colour of the Abbasid Revolution was already motivated by the “black standards out of Khorasan” tradition associated with the Mahdi. The contrast of white vs. black as the Fatimid vs. Abbasid dynastic colour over time developed in white as the colour of Shia Islam and black as the colour of Sunni Islam.

After the revolution, Islamic apocalyptic circles admitted that the Abbasid banners would be black but asserted that the Mahdi’s standard would be black and larger. Anti-Abbasid circles cursed “the black banners from the East”, “first and last”.

A black flag was used by the Hotak dynasty in the early 18th century, following Mirwais Hotak’s Sunni rebellion against the Twelver Shi’i Safavid dynasty and later by the Emirate of Afghanistan under Abdur Rahman Khan (1880–1901).

The Bábí leader Mullá Husayn raised the Black Standard in his westward march from Mashhad starting July 21, 1848, to proclaim the Báb’s message. It is reported the Black Standard flew above the Bábí fortress Shaykh Tabarsi. As Arab nationalism developed in the early 20th century, the black within the Pan-Arab colors was chosen to represent the black banner of Muhammad.

The Ahmadiyya religious also employs black and white colours in its flag (Liwaa-i Ahmadiyya), first hoisted in 1939. Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the fourth caliph of the Ahmadiyya Caliphate, explained the symbolism of the colours black and white in terms of the concept of prophethood.

Jihadist black flag

The Pashtun tradition of using a black flag with a white shahada (Islamic creed) inscription as a military ensign, harking back to the 18th-century Hotak dynasty, was adopted by the Taliban, and thence by Al-Qaeda in the 1990s. This usage was adopted by the global jihadism movement in the early 2000s, and in the 2010s by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The 'flag of ISIS' with the 'seal of Muhammad' design.
The ‘flag of ISIS’ with the ‘seal of Muhammad’ design.

A black flag with the shahada inscribed in white appeared on jihadist websites from at least 2001. (Reported on Flags of the World by Santiago Tazon on 17 November 2001: “I have found in several ‘hard Islamic’ websites the symbol of a white Taliban flag crossed with its inverted colour version (probably identified as Al‑Qaeda flag): black background with shahada in white. I do not know if this flag is recognised by Al‑Qaeda; but it is normally flying in pro-Al-Qaeda sites.”)

Ahmadiyya flag, designed in 1939.
Ahmadiyya flag, designed in 1939.

Even though the historical black banner did not have any inscription, this variant is commonly known as al-rāya (the banner) or as rayat al-ʻuqab (banner of the eagle) after the hadith tradition, and some western observers have dubbed it the black flag of jihad. Islamic extremist organizations which have used such a black flag include:

  • al-Qaeda
  • al-Shabaab
  • the Islamic Courts Union
  • the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS/IS)
  • Hizbul Islam (2009)
The Black Standard as used by various Islamist organisations (since the late 1990s) consists of a white-on-black shahada.
The Black Standard as used by various Islamist organisations (since the late 1990s) consists of a white-on-black shahada.

In the last decade of the South Thailand insurgency, the al-Raya’ flag has largely replaced the colourful secessionist flags formerly used by the different groups involved in violent actions against the government of Thailand.

The variant used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and before that by Al-Shabaab (since c. 2006) depicts the second phrase of the shahada in the form of a depiction of the supposedly historical seal of Muhammad. The white circle represents the seal, enclosing the three words, الله رسول محمد (allāh rasūl muḥammad “Muhammad is the prophet of God”). Note that this word order is different from the second part of the conventional form of the shahada, ”muḥammad rasūl allāh.

Flag of Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, used in their beheading videos.
Flag of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, used in their beheading videos.

In August 2014, British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that anybody displaying “the Islamic State flag” in the United Kingdom should be arrested. It has also been banned from a public demonstration in the Netherlands in August 2014. The use of the image or the ISIL/ISIS/IS flag (but not other versions of the black standard) for non-educational purposes has been forbidden in Germany by the Federal Ministry of the Interior since September 2014. Neighbouring Austria proposed a ban in the same month.

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