It was in 2004, when American businessman Nicholas Berg’s brutal execution by beheading was widely shown all over the Internet, that most Americans caught their first glimpse of the black flag of Islam. Hung on the wall behind Berg and his murderous executioners was a black banner with Arabic writing in white.
Since the murder of Nicholas Berg, in numerous al-Qaida videos posted online, the same black flag has been observed hanging prominently behind the speaker.
And now the same black flag is proudly flying high over the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia and is waving across the world. Welcome to Obama’s so-called “Arab Spring.”
Over the past few days, the black flag has been observed amidst the protests and riots in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Nigeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Jerusalem, Gaza and even Germany, Australia and England. Across the world, Muslims of every race, tribe and nation are marching under the same black banner.
While many commentators have been referring to this banner as the flag of al-Qaida, this does not convey its full meaning and history. What exactly what does the black flag of Islam truly symbolize?
According to Islamic history and tradition, during the career of Muhammad, the “prophet” and founder of Islam, his forces carried a large black banner known as ar-Rāya into battle. The first black banner was said to be made from a large piece of cloth once wrapped around the head of his child-bride, Aisha. When Muhammad and his men attacked a convoy, or village, it was this black flag that would herald their approach and lead them into battle.
When the Muslim forces returned to Mecca in conquest after a prolonged expulsion to Yathrib (Medina), enforced by the powerful Qurayshi tribe, this marked a major turning point in the expansion and victory of the Muslims over the region. Prominently leading the Muslim armies was Muhammad’s black flag. It is for this reason, namely the military conquests of Muhammad, that some versions of the flag today have a silhouette of the sword of Muhammad running along its lower half. Another name for the flag in Arabic is al-Ùqāb, and is sometimes referred to as “the Eagle” or alternately as “the Punishment.” Since the time of Muhammad’s original military victories, the black flag has represented the unified and ever-expanding Islamic movement or government, and is a reminder of the expansionist conquests of Muhammad and his armies.
The element of black seen today in many of the national flags of Islamic countries is a hearkening back to Muhammad’s original black flag.
Last week, in the midst of the fierce anti-American rioting and protesting, there were even attempts to hoist the black banner over the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Islam’s black flag is most often emblazoned with white Arabic writing. The phrase in Arabic, lā ʾilāha ʾillà l-Lāh, Muḥammadur rasūlu l-Lāh translates into English as, “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This is the creed and very heart of Islamic theology. This phrase is known as the “Shahada.” The Shahada affirms not only the exclusive and singular claim to deity of Allah, the god of Islam, but also the supreme role of Muhammad as the final messenger of this god to mankind. If one wishes to convert to Islam, this is the phrase that one must recite. When every Muslim child is born, the first phrase they will hear are these words whispered into his ears by his father.
While some in the Western media have claimed that the symbol of the black flag belongs exclusively to radical terrorist groups, in fact, the flag is also used by Hizbut-Tahrir, an international Islamic group whose goal is to reestablish the Caliphate, though it claims to reject all violence or terrorism.
The restoration of the Caliphate, a goal shared by jihadist groups such as al-Qaida, as well as moderate activist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir is a vision to unify the entire Islamic world into one Islamic superstate, called the Caliphate, led by a single leader, known as the Caliph. The Caliph is the pope, president and general of the Islamic world, bringing the religious, governmental and military offices all under one head. At virtually every Hizbut Tahrir rally, it is the black flag that will be the most prominent symbol on display.
Finally, beyond symbolizing the return to a unified Caliphate/Islamic superstate, there is a very important eschatological dimension to the symbol of the black flag as well.
According to Islamic prophecies, Muslims believe that the emergence of Muslim armies carrying black flags is powerful sign of the end times, heralding the coming of the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah figure. Muslims believe that the Mahdi will unify the Islamic world, conquer Israel and cause Islam to gain victory over the non-Muslim peoples and religions of the world as the Caliph of Islam. One version of the prophecy of black flags, as relayed by Suyuti, commands all Muslims to join this army:
“The black banners will come from the East and their hearts will be as firm as iron. Whoever hears of them should join them and give allegiance, even if it means crawling across snow.”
Another version of the prophecy as recorded by Tirmidhi, has the armies marching from the east and placing their flags on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as the seat of the coming unified Islamic superstate under the Mahdi/Caliph:
“Armies carrying black flags will come from Khurasan. No power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Eela, (Baitul Maqdas, “The Holy House” in Jerusalem) where they will erect their flags.”
Christian theologians have highlighted the similarity between the Islamic vision of their Mahdi with the warnings of Jesus and Paul who saw the biblical Antichrist setting himself up on the Temple Mount as the demonic claimant to world leadership:
So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
– Matthew 24:16
He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple.
– 2 Thessalonians 2:4
To discerning Christians who still recognize the warnings of biblical prophecy, it is clear that the Islamic Caliphate, or the “Mideast Beast” is on the way (Daniel 2, 7, Revelation 13, 17). Of course, even if one rejects the words of Jesus and Paul, it is clear that there is a powerful movement swirling throughout the Islamic world with strong apocalyptic or eschatological threads running throughout. But God knows that it is not a matter of if, but when the apocalyptic volcano that is the Middle East will explode. As we all anxiously watch the events unfold in the Middle East, it is time for Christians and unbelievers both to prepare their hearts and lives for all that lies ahead. For whether we like it or not, there are dark clouds, and black flags, gathering on the horizon.