The Black Flag Myth: An Analysis from the Science of Hadith (the Prophet’s Tradition)
(c) Mustazah Bahari and Muhammad Haniff Hassan, 2014
Lately, images of black flags have become a prominent feature in the media. It was proudly displayed by militants of IS (formerly known as ISIS / ISIL) during their victory parades and were flown across vast Sunni territories in Iraq that have fallen into their hands.
In fact, the black flag is not exclusively used by the IS. It is used as a symbol by a number of radical and militant groups such Taliban, Jabhah Al-Nusrah (a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria), Al-Qaeda, the Chechen fighters and the Hizb Al-Tahrir (Unarmed Muslim political movement). See the diagram below.
Generally, the masses are not aware of the symbol and meaning behind the said flag. The more perceptive ones would speculate that this may not be a coincidence and the flag may have some significance but could only wonder what actually the significance is.
Thus, this article is written in order to provide a brief explanation of, a) the symbolic meaning behind the black flag, and b) the validity of this meaning from the Islamic theological viewpoint.
The use of the black flag by Muslim revolutionary movements is not new.
Prophet Muhammad used black flag as his military standard. However, the Prophet’s black flag was never a symbol of his movement. It was used merely for identification purpose. It has also been reported that the Prophet used other colours as his military flag.
Black flag was prominently used by the Abbasid revolutionary movement which was based in Khurasan. It rebelled against the Umayyad caliphate and sought to bring it down. The movement succeeded by founding the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. The black flag then became the official flag for the Abbasids.
Many historians argued that the Abbasid revolution was the major contributor to the popularity of narratives and mystical meanings behind the black flag. Fabricated stories and narratives were disseminated for the purpose of winning over people’s support of the revolution until they became part of accepted popular tradition and legend in the name of Islam.
The black flag is nowhere mentioned in the Quran. There is not even a single hint in the Quran that promotes the use of the flag and regards it as holy or sacred.
What then makes the black flag a positive symbol capitalised by contemporary revolutionary movements?
The answer is in a few hadiths (Islam’s second most authoritative source) recorded in books of hadith. The hadiths prophesise the emergence of an army from an area known as Khurasan (today covering Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran and parts of Pakistan) flying the black flag before the end of this world. From this army, the Muslim Mahdi (Messiah) will appear, lead them to achieve decisive victory against enemies of Islam and finally restore the glory of Islam. The hadiths also call on Muslims to support and join the army of black flag when they appear.
The hadiths provided the black flag with symbolic meanings for:
• truth-bearing group
• legitimacy of a struggle
• victorious group
• Muslim obligation to support and join the group carrying it.
The hadiths do not provide details of the actual design of the black banner. That is why there are different versions of it. Arabic words such as La ilaha illa Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah (there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger), Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest), Al-Jihad Sabiluna (Jihad is our way) and others are additions only to further enhance the flag’s symbolic meanings.
Since the theological basis of the black flag is derived from the hadith, it would be appropriate to analyse the authenticity of the hadiths in order to ascertain their validity in Islam.
This article will not be able to provide the analysis of all hadiths on the black flag due to its number. Only selected few key ones will be analysed here from the approach used in the sciences of hadith. The analysis will conclude with the general theological position of Muslim scholars with regards to hadiths on the black flag for the benefit of the public.
Abdullah bin Mas`ud narrated that the Prophet said, “A Nation will come from the east with a black flag and they will ask for some “khair (charity)” (because of them being needy) but the people will not give them (charity). Then, they will fight and win over those people (who did not give them what they asked). Now the people will give them what they asked for but they will not accept it until they will hand it over to a person from my progeny who will fill this earth with justice just as it was previously filled with oppression and tyranny. So if anyone of you finds this nation (i.e. from the east with black flags) then you must join them even if you have to crawl over ice”
This hadith is narrated by Ibn Majah and Al-Bazzar from Yazid ibn Abi Ziyad, from Ibrahim Al-Nakha`i, Abdullah bin Mas`ud to the Prophet.
Al-Bazzar said that Yazid ibn Abi Ziyad was not known to receive the hadith from Ibrahim Al-Nakha`i.
Waki `ibn al-Jarrah said, “this hadith is not known.” Ahmad bin Hanbal held the same view.
Hammad bin Usamah, as reported in Al-Dhu`afa by Al-`Uqaily, declared that he will never accept hadith from Yazid ibn Abi Ziyad, even if he swore (upon its truth) 50 times in front of him. Al-Zahabi said, in his book Siyar Al-A`alam, Yazid is hadith narrator with a flaw and Ibn Hajar, in his book Al-Tahzib Taqrib, regarded him as a weak hadith narrator with shite inclination.
Abdur Rahman Al-Jarshi narrated by a companion of the Prophet, Amr Bin Murra Al-Jamli said that the Prophet said: “Surely Black Flags will appear from the Khurasan until the people (under the leadership of this flag) will tie their horses with the Olive Trees between Bait-e-Lahya and Harasta. We asked: “Are there any Olive trees between these places?” He said, “If there isn’t then soon it will grow so that those people (of Khurasan) will come and tie their horses there.”
This hadith was narrated from Abdul Rahman Al-Jarshi whose real identity is unknown. The text could not be traced from any sources which thus makes it unverifiable.
Abu Hurairah narrated that the Prophet said, “(Armies carrying) black flag will come from Khurasan. No power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Eela (Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) where they will erect their flags.”
This hadith is narrated by Ahmad bin Hanbal, Al-Tirmizi, Al-Tabarani and Al-Baihaqi from Rusydain bin Sa`ad, Yunus bin Yazid, Ibn Syihab, Qubaishoh bin Zuaib, to Abu Hurairah.
Al-Tirmizi ruled this narration as weak because the actual chain of narrators is doubtful.
Some narrated from Yunus from Ibn Shihab. While others narrated from Rusydain, from Ibn Shihab.
The Prophet reportedly said, “When you see the black flag coming from Khurasan, join them even if you have to crawl over the snow … that is the army that will liberate the Holy Land, and there is no power that can stop them.”
Hadith scholars such as Al-Zahabi, Ahmad bin Hanbal and Al-Tabarani concluded that this hadith cannot be accepted because the content has been mixed up with other narrations on the black flag of Khurasan.
Ibn Majah and Al-Hakim recorded that the Prophet said, “If you see the black flag coming from Khurasan, go to them immediately, even if you have to crawl over the snow, because indeed amongst them is the Caliph al-Mahdi .. and no one can stop the army until they get to Jerusalem.”
This hadith was also narrated by Imam Ahmad from the path of Sharik bin Abdillah, from Ali bin Zaid bin Jad`an, from Abu Qilabah, from Thauban. According to Al-`Ijli, in his book Ma’rifat Al-Rijal, the chain of this hadith is disconnected because Abu Qilabah never heard a narration from Thauban.
Ibn Al-Jauzy, in his book Al-‘Ilal Al-Mutanahiah, mentioned this hadith through the same path and concluded that Ali bin Zaid bin Jad`an is a narrator with flaw.
The hadith was also narrated by Ibn Majah and Al-Bazzar from Abd Al-Razzaq Al-San`ani from Al-Thauri, from Khalid Al-Hazza’, from Abu Qilabah, from Abu Asma’ Al-Rahbi, from Thauban.
Scholars, however, differ on the validity of the hadith from this path. Al-Bazzar and Al-Hakim considered it as authentic. Ibn `Ulayyah, Al-`Uqaili and Ibn Qudamah ruled it as weak, similar to the chain of Khalid Al-Hazza’ as reported in the book of Al-`Ilal, by Imam Ahmad, Al-Dhu`afa and Al-Muntakhab Min `Ilal Al-Khallal.
Muhammad, son of Al-Hanafiah said: “Black flag will come out for the children of Al-Abbas. The other black flag will come from Khurasan. Their turbans will be black and their clothes white. On their front will be a man named Shuayb, the son of Salih, from Tamim. They will defeat the companions of the Sufyani until he comes to the House of Jerusalem where he will establish his power for the Mahdi, and he will be supplied with three hundred (men) from Syria after his arrival and the matter will be settled for the Mahdi in seventy-two months (six years).”
Contemporary scholars such as Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Turaifi and Sheikh Adnan Al-`Ar`ur, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq and many others ruled that this narration could not be traced to any source. There is possibility also that the content has been mixed up with other narrations associated with the black flag and Al-Mahdi.
Several conclusions can be made based on what has been presented above.
First, black flag has no symbolic meaning in Islam due to the absence of authentic evidence to support it.
The authenticity of the narrations are considered weak or rejected by scholars of hadith. The main cause of the rejection is either due to the flaw of the narrators or fabrications.
Sheikh Al-Sharif Hatim bin Arif Al-`Auni, an expert in the field of hadith from Umm Al-Qura University says, “Symbols such as the black flag is fabricated by liars for their own personal agenda from the past till today.” This is consistent with Al-Zahabi, in his book Al-Siyar and Al-Tarikh Al-Kabir, who said that history has recorded how Abu Muslim Al-Khaulani was the one who raised the black flag during the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate and similarly, Yazid bin Mahlab, a rebel at the time of Umar bin Abdul Aziz, raised black flags calling upon people to give him a pledge of obedient.
Ahmad bin Hanbal prohibits all narrations on black flag because they are not reliable and authentic.
Second, in addition to the above basis that the narrations are not acceptable, no one should also believe, support or join any group that makes use of the black flag to legitimise their struggle simply on the basis of the symbol. Muslims should not regard them as the trustworthy group to represent the truth.
Third, history itself has provided proofs of the black flag claim. Al-Mahdi has not appeared and the Day of Resurrection did not happen after the black flag was raised by the Abbasid rebellion and various groups that came later. Even if, for argument’s sake, the narrations are considered acceptable based on a few “authentic” hadith or the narrations mutually strengthen each other, no one can give assurance that the group who raises the black flag represents the group prophesised by the Prophet. It is possible that the Prophet refers to other groups which have not emerged yet.
Fourth, some of the militant groups understood very well the weaknesses of the black flag hadiths and that its symbolic meaning is just a myth. Thus, they have never used these hadiths as basis. Their use of black banner is simply an act of manipulation of popular myths and folklores among Muslim to support their political agenda. A search at Minbar Al-Tawhid and Al-Jihad website, considered as the largest repository of jihadist ideological materials, does not produce any finding on the black flag hadiths or relevant materials.
Finally, it is important for Muslims to understand that truth is not judged from the use of symbols such as flag, turban, colour and clothing style. Truth in Islam is based primarily on evidence found in the Quran and hadiths and supported by reasoned and scientific arguments. It must also be manifested through right behaviour according to the religion.
Thus, no symbol or slogan, not even the writing of the two testimonies of the Islamic faith, can justify acts of terror and extremism.
Mustazah Bahari is Associate Research Fellow and Muhammad Haniff Hassan is Research Fellow, at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.