Islamic period :

The Islamic state of Medina continued the old Arab custom. In this context, the sources mention two synonyms, i.e., liwa (flag) and rayah (standard). It was liwa (pl alwiyah) which was ordinarily used in all expeditions; but ruyat (pl. of rayah) were used in all the battles. The Islamic armies under the Prophet was drawn from various tribes. Each unit consisted of a tribe, usually fighting under its own chief. Each tribe had its own tribal banner borne aloft by its bravest champion.

This office or military post retained its tribal character through out the period of the Prophet. Nevertheless, the Prophet representing the central authority, had his own banner, black or mostly green in colour. Reuben Levy writes in "The Social Structure of Islam" (Cambridge, 1962, pp. 434-5) that, "Flags had another significance in Muslim warfare. Each tribe had its own and regarded it as the ralling centre in battle, for near it was the commander." When the Prophet ordered an expedition in Medina, no call was made aloud or any trumpet was blown, but he planted his green banner in the mosque to rally the Muslims under it.

Statistics show that the military organisation in the period of the Prophet took its due course to develop. He appointed a number of military officiers and functionaries as and when the strategic and military demands of the time required. With the passage of time, he appointed the officers and functionaries included the commanders of the expeditions (umara' al-saraya), wing-officers (umara' al-maimanah), scouts (tali'ah), spies (uyun), guides (dalil), officers to look after booty and the prisoners of war (ashab al-maghanim wa al-asara), officers for weapons and horses (ashab al-silah wa al-faras), body-guards (ashab al-haras), and the standard-bearers (sahib al-liwa wa al-rayah) etc. Amar bin Yasir relates that the Prophet always liked that every person should fight under the banner of his own unit of forces.

Ibn Abbas narrates that the colour of the Prophet's flag was green and of standard white. During the battle of Badr, three different banners however were used; the bigger one was in the hands of Ali bin Abu Talib, containing the symbol of an eagle (ukab), representing the force of the Muhajirin. In this connection, Nasir Khusaro (1003-1088) writes in his couplets (vide "Nasir-i Khusraw Forty Poems from the Divan" tr. By P.L. Wilson and Gholam Reza Aavani, Tehran, 1977, p. 121) that:-

Who slept in Prophet's bed, while the Messenger fled
from his enemies in the migration? to whom the Prophet
gave the banner at the battle of Badr when all others
quailed? the lion, the warrior,
whom God has made all heroes to love?             

While the one leading the Ansar was assigned to Sa'd bin Mu'adh. Waqidi (d.822) writes in "Kitab al-Maghazi" (London, 1966, p. 226) that the white banner was given to Musab bin Umayr of the clan of Abdul Dar. He carried the Prophet's white banner in Badr and Uhud in memory of the old privilege of the clan of Abdul Dar. The Prophet however executed overall as a supreme commander in the battle. On the other hand, the Meccans likewise had three banners, one of which was born by Talha bin Abi Talha, the other by Abu Ghazyr bin Umayr, and the third by Nassar bin Harith, all of whom were the descendants of Abdul Dar.

In the battle of Uhud, the Meccans mobilized all their powers and resources and came out to avenge the deaths of their men fallen in the battle of Badr. The Meccans filled the battlefield with the victims of fighting and the banner of the Muslims fell from the hands of Musab bin Umayr when he died bravely. The Prophet called Ali to take over as a standard-bearer. In one hand, he held the banner, and in the other that favious sword Dhulfikar. Thus, Ali took over the banner which went up unfurled in his hand during the fighting which had reached its climax by that time.

Tabari (d. 923) writes in "Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk" (Cairo, 1960, 2nd vol., p. 402) that when the Prophet sent his first expedition under the command of his uncle, Hamza towards Sif al-Bahr at the western coast in 629 with 30 soldiers, he also sent one standard-bearer with him. Tabari (2nd vol., p. 402) further writes that, "The importance of the symbol may be gauged from the prominence given to the names of those who bore the Prophet's banner and that of the Ansar at the battle of Badr, also of the standard-bearers in other later engagements. The phrase used for sending out an expedition is to bind on a banner, and the granting of a banner was regarded as the sign of conferring command."

In the battle of Khaibar in 629, the Prophet declared a day before an operation, "Tomorrow, I will hand over the banner of Islamic army to such a person who is an impetuous warrior and not an absconder; he befriends God and His Apostle and is also befriended by them. God is sure to grant victory on his hands." Every one of the Prophet's Companions was anxious to be signalised on the morrow as the friend of God and His Prophet. They passed the night in great anxiety as to which one would prove to be the blessed one. Sa'd bin Abi Waqqas narrates, "I knelt down opposite to the Prophet, and then rose, hoping to obtain the banner." The Prophet however asked, "Where is Ali bin Abu Talib? Bring him here." In short, Ali had been given the charge to lead the assault. The green Islamic banner which the Prophet had planted before his camp besides the tree where it lay through the night, heavy with dew, flew limpidly. The Prophet pulled the banner out from the ground, raised it, and after shaking it three times, he confided it into the right hand of Ali, saying, "Take this standard and march on with it until God grant you victory." Hubab al-Munzir and Sa'd bin Ubaidah also followed Ali with another banners. For the first time, three distinct banners were used instead of the small pennants hitherto sported in battle.

Jabir bin Abdullah narrates that the Holy Prophet entered in Mecca with white flags at the head of the army. "Islamic Shi'ite Encyclopaedia" (Beirut, 1970, 2nd vol., p. 127) writes that on that memorable day, the banner of Islam was carried by the Ansar leader, Sa'd bin Abadah at the head of the army. No sooner did he see the outskirts of Mecca than his mind was flooded with the memories of the Qoraish hostality towards the Prophet and his followers. He cried out in emotion, "This day is the day of massacre. Today it is permitted to kill in the Kaba." When the Companions heard this cry, they became terrified and hurried to the Prophet and related to him the words of Sa'd. The Prophet called Ali and said, "Go to Sa'd immediately and take the banner from him. You should be the first one to enter Mecca." Tabari (2nd vol., p. 445) writes that, "The utterance of Sa'd bin Abadah was defeating the objective of the Prophet, who intended to hoist Islamic banner in Mecca without bloodshed, therefore, he immediately removed Sa'd and designated Ali as his standard-bearer." This errand was the entry of Mecca with modesty, peace and humble attitude of the Muslims without massacre.

In 629, the Prophet mustered a force of 3000 men at the command of Zaid bin Harith for the Mauta expedition against Shurahbil bin Amir, the Ghassanid governor in Syria. During the thick of the battle, the Muslims found themselves in presence of a force several times more numerous than themselves. Zaid bin Harith seizing the banner, led the charge of the Muslims, plunging into the midst of the enemy ranks until he fell transfixed by their spears. Seeing him fall from his horse, Jafar Taiyar rushed timely to grab the banner from the dying Zaid, and raised it aloft to command the Muslim force. The enemies closed in on the heroic Jafar, who was soon covered with wounds. Fighting at close quarters, Jafar was struck from the side at first on his right hand by the enemies. As the bleeding hand, hung to the flimsy muscles, he took the sword in his left hand, pressing the banner to the saddle. Then the left hand was cut off and as his sword fell, Jafar took the banner from the saddle with the stumps of his bleeding hands. When both his hands were cut off gripping the banner, he still stood firm holding the staff between his two stumps, until the enemies struck him a mortal blow. As Jafar fell from the horse in that blood soaked field of Mauta, Abdullah bin Rawaha immediately took the banner from the slain man. Abdullah bin Rawaha also met death in the encounter. Khalid bin Walid assumed control on that juncture. He took the banner and methodically withdrew from the field with the Muslim force and returned to Medina.

It was the common practice that the signal for the attack was given by the waving of the flags or by trumpet blast or both. Baladhuri writes in "Futuh al-Buldan" (ed. M.J. de Goeje, Leyden, 1866, p. 303) that during the battle of Nihawand, Noman bin Muqaran, the amil said, "I noticed that when the Prophet failed to give battle in the morning he would wait until the sun set and the wind blew." He added: "I shall now shake the banner I carry three times. At the first shake let each man perform his ablutions and satisfy his natural wants; at the second each attend to his sword and prepare himself. When the third shake comes, charge; and let no man heed his neighbour."

According to Waqidi (p. 995), the Prophet appointed Abu Bakr over the camp (askar) and conferred upon him his greatest standard (liwa'hu al'azam) just before the army set out for Tabuk, which was the last campaign commanded by the Prophet in 630 A.D.

In sum, during the eight years of fighting, there had been almost 101 expeditions (sariyah, pl. sarayah) and battles (ghazwah, pl. ghazawat), in which 27 were commanded himself by the Prophet, and remaining 74 were led by other persons he nominated. The Prophet is reported to have appointed about 86 standard-bearers (sahib al-liwa wal-rayah) in Medina from among 9 Arabian tribes during the expeditions and battles. The most important from among the Qoraish was Ali, who was assigned the banners as many as ten times. The other standard-bearers were Zubayr bin Awwam of Asad, Hamza bin Abd al-Muttalib of Hashim, Sa'd bin Abi Waqqas of Zuhrarh, Musab bin Umayr of Abdul Dar, Abu Bakr of Taym and Umar bin Khattab of Adi. From among the Khazraj tribe, the famous standard- bearers were Sa'd bin Ubaidah, Hubab al-Munzir, Zaid bin Thabit and Umarah bin Hazm. Among the Aws tribe were Sa'd bin Mu'az and Usayd bin al-Huzayr, etc.

According to "The Social Structure of Islam" (London, 1957, p. 3), "Before his death in A.D. 632, Muhammad had gathered to his banner most of the inhabitants of Arabia. The exceptions were Jews and a few Christians and Magians, whom he permitted to remain in their own faith provided they recognised his political overlordship by the payment of a poll-tax."

One rare banner preserved in the Topkapi Saray Museum at Istanbul, called as-Sinjaqu 'sh-Sharif, is said to be a most sacred emblem. It is the original standard of the Prophet. It is made of four layers of silk, the top-most of which is green, those below being composed of cloth, embroidered with gold. Its entire length is twelve feet.

Ali bin Abu Talib had assigned the duty of the standard-bearer to his another son, Ibn al-Hanafiya (642-700) during the battle of Camel in 656 A.D. It is related that he hesitated at first to bear his father's banner, but his father said to him, "Do you have doubts concerning an army commanded by me?" These words firmly decided him, and he took charge of the standard. While giving the banner to Ibn al-Hanafiya, his father is further reported to have said that, "Mountain may move from their position, but you should not move from yours. Press your teeth. Lend your head to God. Fix your feet in the ground. Have your eye on the remotest foe and close your eyes (to their numerical majority). And keep sure that succour is but from God, the glorified." (vide "Nahjul Balagha", Qum, 1981, sermon no. 11, p. 78). Ibn Khallikan (d. 1282) writes in his "Wafayat al-A'yan" (Paris, 1838, 2nd vol., p. 576) that once he was asked how it happened that his father exopsed him to danger and thrust him into difficulties, while he never risked his other sons, Hasan and Hussain. To this he replied, "Hasan and Hussain are his two eyes, and I am his hands, and protect his eyes with his hands."

Aisha advocated march on Basra in 656 to muster her force against Ali. When it was informed, Ali bin Abu Talib set out with his force. When he pitched his camp at Rabaza, near Basra, a contingent of Ansars appeared foremost. Its banner was held by Abu Ayub Ansari. Then another contingent came in sight to join Ali. Its banner was borne by Abu Qatada bin Rabyee. The next contingent appeared, whose banner was in the hand of Qais bin Sa'd bin Idadah. Then again followed a contingent of the Companions of the Prophet, whose standard-bearer was Qathm bin Abbas. After passing of a few contingents, a huge multitude of the young combatants was seen, wherein there was such a large number of spears that they were overlapping and flags of numerous colours were flying. Among them a big and lofty banner was seen with distinctive features.

One should think of the admonitions and encouragement that Ali bin Abu Talib gave his soldiers on the day of Siffin in 657 A.D. According to Tabari (1st vol., p. 3290) and Ibn Athir (d. 1233)in "Kamil fi al-Tarikh" (Beirut, 1965, 3rd vol., p. 150) that Ali said in one of his speeches that:-

Straighten out your lines like a strongly constructed building.
Place the armed men in front, and those who are unarmed in the rear.
Keep (something) wrapped around the tips of the spears. This preserves the sharpness of points.
Keep the eyes down. This keeps the soul more concentrated and gives great peace to the heart.
Do not hold your flags inclined and do not remove them. Place them in the hands only of those among you who are brave.
While examining the sermon no. 122 of "Nahjul Balagha" (p. 214), it appears that Ali bin Abu Talib also imparted his soldiers further in these words:- "Do not let your banner bend down, nor leave it alone. Do not give it to any one except the brave and the defenders of honour among you, because they alone endure befalling of troubles, they surround the banners and encircle them from both their sides, their rear and their front."

In the battle of Siffin, Malik Ashtar was in command of the horsemen and Ammar bin Yasir of the foot soldiers of Kufa, while Suhail bin Hunif commanded the horsemen and Qais bin Sa'd was the commander of the foot soldiers of Basra. Hashim bin Utba, among them, was the standard-bearer. Hashim bin Utba fell in the encounter, and was killed by Harith bin Munzir, therefore, the banner of the contingents was taken over by his son, Abdullah. On other side, the standard-bearer of the Syrian army led by Muawiya was Abul A'awar.

Abbas (645-680), the step-brother of Imam Hussain (661-680)was charged the duty of the standard-bearer in the battle of Karbala, who became also known as Abbas Alambardar (Abbas, the standard-bearer). It is recounted that he had the banner of the Prophet, which was borne by Ali bin Abu Talib during the assault of Khaibar, and since then the green banner became the heir'loom in the progeny of Ali bin Abu Talib.

Abbas bore the banner for one day on the tenth and last day of the battle of Karbala. He proceeded towards river Euphrates to bring some water for his niece, Sakina. He took the flying banner in one hand, in the second a spear and the water-bag on the shoulder. He penetrated the lines of the enemies and jumped into the river alongwith his horse and filled the water-bag. Suddenly, an enemy hurled a blow from behind with which his right hand was cut. He immediately caught the spear in his left hand, and the banner he pressed in the armpit, and set the water-bag aright. A tyrant made a thrust at him and separated his second hand. On that juncture, Abbas held the spear and the water-bag in his front teeth with the banner pressing in armpit wherefrom his hand was cut down. In sum, Abbas sacrificed his life in the battle by defending the prestige of green banner of Islam. The tradition further has it that Imam Hussain brought the banner back to his tent. Later on, it was plundered in the booty and sent to Yazid in Damascus. When the family of Imam Hussain left Damascus for Medina after a year, the sacred banner was handed over to Bashir bin Noman, who held it and entered Medina with Imam's family.

The banner remained inactive in Medina with Imam Zayn al-Abidin (680-713), who remained aloof from the politics. Meanwhile, a storm of grief and anger raged in every heart in the Muslim world because of the tragical event of Karbala. It stirred religious and moral sentiments among the Muslims. For seeking vengeance for the blood of Imam Hussain, numerous movements sprouted out in Kufa. Among them, the movement of Mukhtar Thaqafi (622-687) against the Umayyads was prominent. He mustered a large force and turned to Imam Zayn al-Abidin, showing his loyalty and offered the Imam to take command of his movement. The Imam refused and declared him publicly to be a liar who was trying to exploit the cause of Ahl-al-Bait for his own interests. Mukhtar also failed to obtain the green banner possessed by the Imam, since it was aslo a next potential instrument to advance his propaganda in procuring large support of the Muslims. It is also said that Suleman Surad (d. 684), the head of the another movement in Kufa, called Tawwabun (penitents) also tried in vain to have that banner for making his movement effectual against the Umayyads.

The green was a favourite colour of the Holy Prophet, and so was his banner. The tragic event of Karbala however infused a new fervour and the red colour symbolizing sacrifice for the cause of religion, also began to be used. Henceforward, the flag played an important role in Islam. The sayf and kalam were the terms denoting a military standard and alam became a religious flag. In Egypt, the word liwa was used for the small banner, and rayah for big one.

We may pause here for a while to note a key point that the Abbasids used the black colour, therefore, they were also known as al-musawwidah (the black ones), and their black standard became so famous that, in T'ang dynasty (618-907) of China, the Abbasids empire was also known as the "Black Robe Arabs" (Hei-i Ta-shih). Abul Faraj Ispahani writes in "Kitab al-Aghani" (3rd vol., p. 1012) that, "Black, during the rule of caliph Mansur, had become the colour prescribed for the officials serving the Abbasid regime. Black remained in fashion until caliph Mamun, who ordered in 815 that green should become the official colour. This sudden change was of brief duration, black coming once more after one year."

The Alids who were against the Abbasids assumed the white colour, and were known as al-mubayyidah (the white ones). The Khurramiyya adoped red colour, known as Muhammira or Surkh Jamagan (wearers of red).

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