"Not all Muslims are terrorists" has become a common adage in Western society today. As hordes of angry Muslims protest in great numbers throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we see hundreds of different flags and symbols being used to display their purpose and allegiance. Analysts and writers frequently jump to the conclusion that these flags are "jihadist" or terrorist flags, evidencing their similarity to the banners used by extremist groups across the world.
As a vexillologist, a new adage I would purport to the Western world is that, "not all black flags are terrorist flags." Instead it must be said that these flags are being flown not for their alignment with extremist but for their direct connection with the Prophet Muhammad. In the West, a black flag has meant everything from anarchy to piracy, but it holds deep and ancient symbolism in the Muslim World. It is important to note why this flag is being flown during these protests and why it means so much to Muslims around the world. Muslims around the Middle East are taking up these banners for their historical and religious significance.
Indeed there have been Al-Quaeda flags flown during these attacks, and the flag used by Al-Shabaab was one of the flags hoisted over the US Embassy in Cairo. Yet we must note that there are numerous flags being flown that are not terrorist in nature, though they are all largely derived from the same banner, Al Uqab, or the Eagle, the personal standard of Muhammad. Thirteen hundred years later, the Eagle inspired the later flags designed and adopted by various extremist groups like Al-Shabaab and Al Quaeda in order to associate themselves with the original, fundamental, roots of Islam.
Muhammad is said to have crafted this flag from his wife Aisha's headscarf, and was at times accompanied by a smaller white flag known as the Young Eagle, which has made numerous appearances alongside the black flag in the tumult of these demonstrations. It being based on the banners previously used by his tribe, the Quresh, the flag became a revered represenation of Muhammad, his family, his history, and his message. The black flag is an integral part of Islamic symbolism and remains one of the only permissible symbols evoking the Prophet Muhammad and the early days of Islam. The flag continued to be flown by the Abbasid Caliphate after Muhammad's death, and now for more than a millenium the black flag has represented Islam, without any writing or symbols necessary.
On the other hand, a number of terrorist cells adopted Al Uqab, as the basis for their own colors. Beginning in the 1980's many organizations made distinct versions of their own adding various inscriptions and symbols. They frequently display a flag used later in Islamic history known as al raya or "the banner" which adds the inscription of the the Shahada, or the Muslim declaration of faith. Bearing the likeness of this holy and ancient banner, groups such as Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab hope the show themselves to be aligned with the roots and history of Islam. These terrorist flags are based upon the black standard, but like the organizations behind them, they have strayed far from their origins.
The violent attacks that have occurred against our embassies abroad are abhorrent, but we cannot rush to give credit to Al Qaeda or any single terrorist group. The flags mean far more than we might take at face value were they associated with terrorism. The black flag represents the roots of Islam. Those who fly it today literally take up the same banner the Prophet Muhammad did in the 7th century. It speaks to their reverence for the important figures of their faith but also for their common history. Symbols and flags are just as poignant and important today as they were so many years ago when Islam began spreading across the sands of Arabia.
Darrell Rivers is a member of the North American Vexillological Association, a former intern at the Iraqi Cultural Attache in Washington, DC and is a writer for 361Security and HistoricInsights.blogspot.com