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Pan-Arab Colours

Arab Revolt Flag, Arab Liberation Flag

Last modified: 2013-11-15 by joe mcmillan
Keywords: pan-arab colours | arab revolt | hejaz | triangle: hoist (red) | arab liberation flag | arab nationalism | egypt | iraq | jordan | kuwait | palestine | sudan | syria | transjordan | united arab emirates | western sahara | yemen |
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[Arab Revolt Flag]
Arab Revolt Flag
image by Filip Van Laenen, 3 November 1996



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Origin of the Pan-Arab Colours

From the PASSIA home page:

Red
The Khawarij were the first Islamic group to emerge after the assassination of Caliph Uthman III, forming the first republican party in the early days of Islam. Their symbol was the red flag. Arab tribes who participated in the conquest of North Africa and Andalusia carried the red flag, which became the symbol of the Islamic rulers of Andalusia (756-1355).
In modern times, red symbolizes the Ashrafs [ie. Sharifians] of the Hijaz and the Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet.
Green: The Fatimid Dynasty (909-1171), North Africa
The Fatimid Dynasty was founded in Morocco by Abdullah Al-Mahdi, and went on rule all of North Africa. They took green as their color, to symbolize their allegiance to Ali, the Prophet's cousin, who was once wrapped in a green coverlet in place of the Prophet in order to thwart an assassination attempt.
White: The Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), Damascus
The Umayyads ruled for ninety years, taking white as their symbolic color as a reminder of the Prophet's first battle at Badr, and to distinguish themselves from the Abbasids, by using white, rather than black, as their color of mourning. Mu'awia Ibn Abi Sufian (661-750), founder of the Umayyad state, proclaimed himself Caliph of Jerusalem.
Black: The Prophet Mohammad (570-632)
In the seventh century, with the rise of Islam and subsequent liberation of Mecca, two flags - one white, one black - were carried. On the white flag was written, "There is no god but God (Allah) and Mohammad is the Prophet of God."
In pre-Islamic times, the black flag was a sign of revenge. It was the color of the headdress worn when leading troops into battle. Both black and white flags were placed in the mosque during Friday prayers.
The Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258), ruling from Baghdad, took black as a symbol of mourning for the assassination of relatives of the Prophet and in remembrance of the Battle of Karbala.

Quoted source: Abdul Hadi 1986 [hdi86].


Arab Literature Club, Istanbul (1909-1911)

Arab Literature Club by Ivan Sache, 21 June 2003

According to P. Lux-Wurm, Les drapeaux de l'Islam ([lux01]), the use of these colours by Arab liberation movements can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century. The Arab Literature Club was founded in Istanbul (Turkey) in 1909. Its flag was horizontally divided white-black-green-red. The four colours of the flag refered to a poem by Safi al-Din-al-Hili (1278-1349): "White are our acts, black our battles, green our fields, And red our swords." The flag of the Arab Literature club vanished in 1911, when new movements took the leadership of pan-Arabism.
Ivan Sache, 21 June 2003


Society of Young Arabs (1914)

Society of Young Arabs by Ivan Sache, 21 June 2003

In March 1914, the Society of Young Arabs was founded in Beirut (Lebanon). Its agenda was to fight against the Ottoman Empire until the independence of the Arab countries. In August 1914, when the first World War broke out, the movement spread to other Moslim countries. The Party for Ottoman Decentralization (Hizb al-lamrkaziya al-idariya al-uthmani) was founded in Cairo (Egypt) by Syrians. Its agenda was the fight for decentralization and autonomy of the provinces within the Ottoman Empire. Both organizations used the same flag, horizontally divided green-white-black. The symbolism of the colours was described by the Party for Ottoman Decentralization in an official statement as follows: "Praise be to our nation covered by the night (black), by our consciousness (white) and by hope (green)." There was no explicit religious reference, most probably because the Party called for struggle between Muslim countries.
Ivan Sache, 12 June 2003


Arab Revolt Flag

[Arab Revolt Flag]
Arab Revolt Flag
image by Filip Van Laenen, 3 November 1996

From the PASSIA home page:

"Sharif Hussein designed the flag of the Arab Revolt on June 1916. The Palestinian people raised it as the flag of the Arab National movement in 1917. In 1947, the Arab Ba'ath Party interpreted the flag as a symbol of the liberation and unity of the Arab nation. The Palestinian people readopted the flag at the Palestinian conference in Gaza in 1948. The flag was recognized by the Arab League as the flag of the Palestinian people. It was further endorsed by the PLO, the representative of the Palestinians, at the Palestinian conference in Jerusalem in 1964."

Quoted source: Abdul Hadi 1986 [hdi86].

After the fall of Hejaz the colors were used by Husain's sons 'Abdulla (emir of the Transjordan) and Faisal (king of Iraq). Later on they became known as the Pan-Arab colors.

Harald Müller, 13 March 1996

The flag of Sharif Hussein of Hejaz, was a conscious union of the old Islamic dynasties, plus the red of Sharifian clan. The red also came to symbolise revolt against the Turks. Husain's 3 sons became kings of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, hence the minor differentiations in the Sharifian flag. Hussein's original intent was for his flag to be identical in those 3 countries with the addition of one star for Jordan-Palestine, two stars for Iraq, and three stars for Syria. The Jordanian one is the only that has survived, and the Palestinians use the same flag without the star as a tie to their original territorial integrity. (Palestine and Transjordan were split in 1923 to clarify that a Jewish homeland did not apply to the latter.) In 1961 Kuwait switched from its red Gulf flag to a Sharifian variant.

T. F. Mills, April 1998

During World War I, Arabs in the Hejaz (the Red Sea coast of the Arabian peninsula) rose up against the Ottoman Sultan, with the help of the British, who were fighting the Ottomans at the time. The revolt was headed by the Hashemite dynasty of Mecca, and their banner was red, white, green, and red. Jordan is the last state left with a Hashemite ruling king, and thus its flag is closest to the original model. The colours are intended to correspond to the early Islamic dynasties of the first half of the middle ages; this is probably an "invented tradition," as the use of flags by such dynasties is anachronistic.

The Hashemite revolt was the Arab world's first embrace of European-style nationalism, but it was largely unsuccessful, mostly due to lack of Western support. The Arab-speaking areas of the old Ottoman empire were mostly divided up between France and England, though the British did install Hashemite princes as local rulers in the areas they controlled. Even in the Hejaz, the Hashemites were driven out by the Wahabi Saudi dynasty, which, then as now, was less concerned with Arab nationalism than in its doctrine of religious fundamentalism. Nevertheless the flag was remembered as associated with Arab nationalism, even if the Hashemite dynasty was not.

Joshua Fruhlinger, 11 January 1999


Arab Liberation Flag

[Arab Liberation Flag]
by Santiago Dotor, 11 May 1999

The Egyptian revolution of 1953 gave birth to the "Arab Liberation Flag" wherein the pan-Arab red-white-black tricolour took on new meaning. Black stands for the past history of foreign oppression, white stands for the bright future, and red stands for the bloody sacrifice required to get from the black to the white. Radical states (e.g. Ba'athists) have adopted variants while preserving the basic symbolism.

T. F. Mills, Aril 1998

When the next phase of Arab nationalism began, in the aftermath of WWII, it was dominated by pan-Arabist parties like the Ba'ath party and military strongmen who set up republics. Although this wave of nationalism swept away the Hashemite king of Iraq, most of its leaders used a red-white-black banner derived from the original Arab revolt. Egypt adopted a red-white-black flag at this time, though not identical to the current model. The fact that this flag adoption coincides with the adoptions of very similar flags by Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya (Qadaffi's all-green flag didn't come in till later) seems to prove false the idea that said colors are inherently Egyptian. In fact, the Egyptian regime that made this flag choice is the same one that would later participate in the short-lived experiment of the United Arab Republic, a brief union between Egypt and Syria. This project shows aspirations beyond mere Egyptianism. Since this tide of Arab nationalism did not result in Arab unity, as the failure of the UAR helped show, it is not surprising that the current Egyptian government ties the color scheme to purely Egyptian ideologies. However, I think this helps demonstrate the dangers of taking "official" descriptions of flags at face value.

Joshua Fruhlinger, 11 January 1999


Stars in Arab Flags

The stars that serve to differentiate most of these flags have practical meanings. The Sharifian flags [Jordan, Iraq 1920-1924 and 1924-1958] have seven-pointed stars symbolising the seven fundamental verses of the first Surah of the Qu'ran. The Arab Liberation flags have five-pointed stars: The United Arab Republic flag of 1958 had two stars (in green to restore the missing pan-Arab colour) representing Egypt and Syria. In 1962 the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) adopted a one-star version (representing unity and independence). In 1967 the People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen adopted a version with one red star on a light blue triangle (the star being the National Liberation Front leading the blue people). United Yemen's flag in 1990 is a plain tricolour with no stars. In 1963 Syria and Iraq switched to 3 stars to represent pan-Arab (Ba'athist) solidarity (and Iraq alone has that flag today). In 1972 Egypt, Syria and Libya formed the Federation of Arab Republics incorporating the hawk (not eagle) of the Quraish, which represents the tribe of Muhammad, instead of stars. The Federation did not last long, and Syria in 1980 reverted back to the two-star UAR flag, and Libya in 1977 switched to a plain green flag (representing the "green revolution").

T. F. Mills, April 1998


Comparative Chart of Arab Flags

The following chart is adapted and expanded from Smith 1977 [smi77], pp. 154-155. Copyright notice: For design reasons, no image credit has been mentioned in this table — check the referred pages for image credits.

Ole Andersen, 23 July 2002

  Yemen (South) Yemen (North) Sudan Egypt Libya Syria Iraq Jordan
-1911 [Colony of Aden] [flag of the Ottoman Empire] [flag of the Ottoman Empire] [flag of the Ottoman Empire] [flag of the Ottoman Empire] [flag of the Ottoman Empire] [flag of the Ottoman Empire] [flag of the Ottoman Empire]
1911-1914 [flag of the Kingdom of Italy]
1914-1918 [Flag of Egypt, 1914]

[Flag of the United Kingdom]

[Flag of Egypt, 1914]
1918-1919   [Syria 1918-1920] [Arab Revolt Flag]
1919-1920 [Iraq flag, 1921]
1920 [French Mandate July-August 1920 (Syria)] [Iraq flag, 1922] [Transjordan (1921-1928)]
1920-1921 [Autonomous State of Damascus 1920-1924 (Syria)]

[Autonomous State of Aleppo 1920-1924 (Syria)]

[Autonomous State of the Alawites 1923-1930 (Syria)]

1921-1922 [Jordan]
1922-1923 [French Mandate of Syria 1920-1932]
1923-1924 [Flag of Egypt in 1923]

[Flag of the United Kingdom]

[Flag of Egypt in 1923]
1924-1925 [Flag of the Kingdom of Iraq]
1925-1927
1927-1932 [Kingdom of Yemen]
1932-1939 [Syrian flag 1946-58 and 1961-63]
1939-1947
1947-1951 [Flag of Cyrenaique, 1947]
1951-1954 [Libyan flag in 1951]
1954-1958 [Flag of Sudan, 1956-70]
1958-1959 [Flag of UAR] [Syrian flag 1958-1961]
1959-1961 [Colony of Aden]

[Federation of South Arabia]

[1959 Flag of Iraq]
1961-1962 [Syrian flag 1946-58 and 1961-63]
1962-1963 [North Yemen]
1963-1967 [Federation of South Arabia] [Syria 1963-1972] [Iraq 1963]
1967-1969 [South Yemen]
1969-1972 [Flag of Sudan] [Libyan flag 1969-72]
1972-1977 [Flag of Egypt 1972-1984] [Flag of Libya 1972-1977] [Syria 1972-80 (1972-77 Federation of Arab Republics)]
1977-1980 [Libyan flag]
1980-1984 [Syria]
1984-1991 [Flag of Egypt]
1990-1991
Yemen

[Flag of Yemen]
1991- [Flag of Iraq]