The Ismaili Flag is a simple flag: green with a diagonal red line from top left to bottom right. But behind that simple motif is a wealth of symbolism and history.
Displayed proudly on the tails of Imamat aircraft, the flag flies outside many jamatkhanas, the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, is often a backdrop at many official Imamat events, such as at the Canadian Parliament buildings where Mawlana Hazar Imam addressed both houses on February 27th, 2014, and has even graced the streets of cities like Vancouver. It’s even made it to the top of Mount Everest!
Al-Khidr — considered by some as Moses’ prophet-initiator, a prophet in his own right and wali or friend of God — literally means “the Green one” or “Verdant one.”
The significance of green
For many cultures, worldwide, green symbolizes fertility, paradise, youth, luck, nature and other similar notions. Green is even mentioned several times in the Holy Qur’an, usually describing Paradise:
- Their raiment will be fine green silk … (76:21)
- Reclining on green cushions … (55:76)
- See thou not how Allah sent down water from the sky and then the earth become green … (22:63)
- they will be given armlets of gold and will wear green robes of finest silk …(18:31)
Green is also an important colour in the Prophetic tradition. Al-Khidr — considered by some as Moses’ prophet-initiator, a prophet in his own right and wali or friend of God — literally means “the Green one” or “Verdant one.” In verse 18:65 of the Holy Qur’an, he is considered a rahma or mercy Allah sent to the world. In the same verse, Al-Khidr is said to be endowed with gnosis from God and is the one Moses must seek knowledge from. 1 Even the traditions of Prophet Muhammad make many references to green. Ibn Khaldun — the famed Arab Muslim historiographer and historian, regarded to be among the founding fathers of modern sociology, historiography, demography, and economics — wrote in his Muqaddimah:
[Khadija] also asked [the Prophet] what garments he liked best to wear during the revelation, and he replied, “White and green ones.”
Green is also often seen on flags of Muslim countries and is the predominant colour in flags of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Azerbaijan as well as many others.
The word Adam, the name of the first prophet, literally translates to “red” in Hebrew. And, like the colour green, is also often referenced in the Prophetic tradition.
The significance of red
Although red is often associated with blood, love, fire, and even force, like green, it too is found on flags of Muslim countries like Turkey. Unlike the colour green, red is scorching and passionate.
The word Adam, the name of the first prophet, literally translates to “red” in Hebrew. And, like the colour green, is also often referenced in the Prophetic tradition:
I saw Allah’s Apostle in a red leather tent and I saw Bilal taking the remaining water with which the Prophet had performed ablution. I saw the people taking the utilized water impatiently and whoever got some of it rubbed it on his body and those who could not get any took the moisture from the others’ hands. Then I saw Bilal carrying a short spear (or stick) which he planted in the ground. The Prophet came out tucking up his red cloak, and led the people in prayer and offered two rak`at.
Narrated by Abu Juhaifa, Sahih Bukhari (Vol. 1, No. 373)
I did not see anybody in a red cloak looking more handsome than the Prophet.
Narrated by Al-Bara’, Sahih Bukhari (Vol. 7, No. 788)
The first caliphate to use green in their flag was the Ismaili Fatimids — the only caliphate ruled by Imam-Caliphs and Mawlana Hazar Imam’s ancestors.
Red and green’s Ismaili roots
The first caliphate to use green in their flag were the Ismaili Fatimids — the only Caliphate ruled by Imam-Caliphs and Mawlana Hazar Imam’s ancestors. The Umayyad Caliphate used white while the Abbasids used black as their primary flag colour. Inscribed on the green Fatimid banner was the following verse from the Holy Qur’an:
The hosts will all be routed and will turn and flee.
Holy Qur’an 54:45
Interestingly, it was the Fatimid use of green that led the colour to be the “official” colour of Islam, and is why so many Muslim countries today use it. After the Nizari-Musta’li split at the tail of the Fatimid era, the Nizari Ismailis relocated their centre to the fortress of Alamut, now in modern-day Iran. The first head of Alamut, Hasan-i-Sabah, is said to have hoisted a green banner on the fort, as a symbol of the Ismaili Imamat.2
Red is said to have come into the picture when, Hasan-i-Sabah foretold the advent of the qiyamat initiated by Imam Hasan Ala Zikrihi’s Salam
According to a narration in one of the early treatises of Alamut by Haft Bab-i Baba Sayyid’nam, red is said to have come into the picture when Hasan-i-Sabah foretold the advent of the qiyamat initiated by Imam Hasan Ala Zikrihi’s Salam, and said:
When the Imam appears, he will sacrifice a camel, and bring forth a red standard.
According to Jamiut Tawarikh, during the qiyamat large white, red, yellow and green banners were raised in Alamut’s corners.
The birth of the Ismaili flag
The first time Sultan Muhammad Shah visited the East African Jamat was in 1899. During his visit, in order to celebrate, Ismailis would often wave red flags bearing the Imam’s name in white. Thereafter, red banners became so popular they were hoisted at all the jamatkhanas and festivals. Unfortunately, however, it is not currently known where this tradition of the red flag originally arose.2
In the 1920s, Wazir Kassim Ali Fateh, Kamadia of the Thana Jamatkhana in India, heard about this tradition of red banners during Sultan Muhammad Shah’s visit to East Africa and wanted to adopt it for his Jamatkhana. This led to an unsuccessful effort to design a flag until April 28th, 1927, when the Thana Jamat celebrated Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s Golden Jubilee and came to an agreement regarding the colours. 2 The Jamat sent their decision to Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, who replied with the following telegram:
The Thana jamat can use my green colour in the flag, with a red crossing stripe.
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, when presented with the new Ismaili flag, exclaimed: “Excellent! This is my flag” Henceforth, it became known as “My Flag”…
Shortly after, on Eid al-Ghadir, the new flag was officially unfurled to the Thana Jamat and similar unfurling ceremonies took place at jamats all over the continent and East Africa. On his arrival to Bombay, on December 9th, 1928, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, when presented with the new Ismaili flag, exclaimed:
Excellent! This is my flag.
Henceforth, it became known as “My Flag” in the Ismaili community.2
When Mawlana Hazar Imam is present at an event, some may have noticed the flag appears with the Imamat Crest in gold, as shown at right. This version, with the Imamat Crest, is not the Ismaili community’s flag, but Hazar Imam’s Personal Standard which the Ismaili Constitution explains, in paragraph 16.1, he has “in accordance with historical right and ancestral tradition.” Both the Imamat Crest and Hazar Imam’s Personal Standard may only be used by Hazar Imam.
Hasan and Husayn: Immortalized in red and green
When Yazid wrongfully ascended to the Caliphate, the Shia Imam Husayn refused to give his allegiance and the people of Kufa prevailed upon him to lead them in a rebellion against Yazid. While on his way to Kufa, Husayn, his family, and companions were intercepted by the Umayyad armies at Karbala. Outnumbered 286 to 1, Husayn, his family, and companions were brutally slaughtered. Even in the face of an innumerable evil, Imam Husayn stood his ground, defending the Imamat. 3 Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, recounted the incident:
In the field at Karbala, a fierce battle was waged against Imam al-Husayn. At that time he fought alone against thousands of men. He endured the immense suffering and cruelty by the hands of his enemies and in spite of all this he still proclaimed: “I am the Imam.”
Address made in Kutch Nagalpur, November 28, 1903
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah: [At Karbala Imam al-Husayn] endured the immense suffering and cruelty by the hands of his enemies and in spite of all this he still proclaimed: “I am the Imam.”
This tragic event is today remembered as Ashura on the tenth day of Muharram, in the Islamic calendar. The only male member of Husayn’s family that survived was his son — Imam Ali Zayn al-Abidin, our third Imam. However, what does Karbala have to do with the colours red and green? Henry Corbin recounts a legend involving Imam Husayn, his brother Pir Imam Hasan and their grandfather Prophet Muhammad:
…when the two child-Imams Hasan and Husayn asked their grandfather the Prophet to give them a new garment as a present, two robes came down out of the sky. The robes were white, but the two boys declared that they would not be satisfied until they were dyed the colour they wanted. Hasan asked for his garment to be green as the emerald, while Husayn wanted a colour like that of the red hyacinth. This was brought about through the ministration of the angel Gabriel, the angel of Revelation. But while the Prophet rejoiced, the angel shed tears; and when the Prophet asked him the reason, he could not but announce the fate that awaited the two young Imams in this world. Hasan would perish through poison, Husayn would be assassinated.
Henry Corbin (Temple and Contemplation, p. 43)
It is thus through the colours of the Ismaili flag that we honour and remember the sacrifice of Imam Husayn ibn Ali at Karbala.
It is thus through the colours of the Ismaili flag that we honour and remember the sacrifice of Imam Husayn ibn Ali at Karbala. Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah confirmed this in his explanation of the colours and their relationship to Karbala:
In reply to your letter of 8th October, the colours of our family are, as you know, Red and Green. The reason being that we represent both the (offices of) Shah [Imam] and Pir. The Shah was Husayn and the Pir was Hasan. Hasan had the Pir’s colour of Green, but Husayn’s martyrdom was so enormous in events and was so opposed to even the smallest laws of war that the colour of his Holy Blood, namely Red, was accepted with the Green of the Prophet’s flag as a souvenir and remembrance of that terrible day.
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, (Letter to Dr. Pir Muhammad Hoodbhoy, October 16, 1954)
- Omar, Irfan. “Khidr in the Islamic Tradition.” The Muslim World, Vol. LXXXIII. 3-4 (1993): 282-83. Print.
- Mumtaz Ali Tajddin, “Ismaili Flag,” Encyclopaedia of Ismailism, Karachi, 2006, p. 256
- Mourning for Ma’rifah: Imam Husayn at Karbala, ismailignosis.com, October 25, 2014, accessed 26th July 2015
About the author
Alyjan Daya is a third-year student at the University of Texas at Austin pursuing a triple major in Islamic Studies, Computer Science and Honours Business Administration. His main interests include Natural Theology, Ismaili Philosophy, as well as early Christian and Islamic History.
Article: Alyjan Daya
Image: Background: The Essential Ismaili
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Images: Ismaili Flag and Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Personal Standard: The Essential Ismaili