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The Meaning and History behind the Pan-Arab Colors

posted on: Jul 21, 2021

The Meaning and History behind the Pan-Arab Colors
The Pan-Arab colors. Source: Transparent Language Blog

By Evan Ploeckelman / Arab America Contributing Writer

Many people know the pan-Arab colors – Black, White, Red, and Green – and the places where they are used, such as on the flags of many Arab nations. What, however, do these colors represent? And why were they chosen initially and to be used on flags?

History of the Symbolism of the Colors

One of the meanings of the colors is the succession of Islamic Caliphates. Black represents the Rashidun caliphate, which existed from 632-661, and the Abbasid Caliphate, which existed from 750-1517. These are the first and third true Caliphates respectively, and they were marked by a pure black banner. The color white represents the second Caliphate, the Umayyad Caliphate, which was the true Caliphate from 661-750, and whose banner color was white. The color green represents the Fatimid Caliphate, which existed from 909-1171 in North Africa before being conquered by the Abbasids. Red represents the Hashemites, who have traditionally ruled Mecca, and the Ottomans, who, while not Arab, were the fourth true Caliphate and controlled many Arab lands. 

Another popular understanding of the Pan-Arab colors comes from a 14th century poem written by Iraqi poet Safi ad-Din al-Hilli. This particular poem is a fakhr, or a boasting poem, where he relishes the fact that he was able to avenge his uncle in battle. The exact line goes as follows: “White are our deeds, black are our battles, Green are our tents, red are our swords.” Ad-Din al-Hilli was a prolific poet, so these lines have had a long history of influence over the Arab world, which made them prime to be chosen to represent Arabs as a whole.

Origin of Pan-Arab Colors

The Meaning and History behind the Pan-Arab Colors
The Banner of the Arab Literature Club. Source: Flags of the World

The story of how Arabs came to use these colors, however, involves the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. In the waning years of the Ottoman Empire before World War I, there were many Arab-led nationalist movements seeking nations of their own. One notable organization was the Arab Literature Club, founded in Istanbul in 1909, whose purpose was to further Arab culture in the region. Their banner was a four colored flag with its colors taken from the previously mentioned poem by ad-Din al-Hilli, with white on top followed by black, green, and red. This was the first instance of these colors used by any Arab group, but the Arab Literature club was short-lived, ending in 1911.

The Meaning and History behind the Pan-Arab Colors
The Flag of the Society of Young Arabs. Source: Flags of the World

The colors were again used by another group in 1914 called the Society of Young Arabs, whose goal was to fight for Arab independence from the Ottomans during World War I. This flag was slightly different, however, because it was green, white, and black, lacking the color red. The Society of Young Arabs said the colors signified night (black), consciousness (white), and hope (green). They deliberately avoided religious language in this symbolism due to the infighting their revolt would cause amongst similar religions.

The Meaning and History behind the Pan-Arab Colors
The Arab Revolt Flag. Source: Flags of the World

These colors were used again by the Arab Revolt flag, which was made in 1916 by Sharif Hussein, the king of Mecca at the time. It is formed of a tricolor pattern of black, green, and white with a red triangle on the left side. It was originally used by Arabs, especially the Hashemeites, in the Hejaz region who were fighting against Ottoman and colonial control. This is why this design is extremely similar to the modern Jordan flag, as the Hashemite dynasty currently rule Jordan. This design has also been adopted by the Ba’ath party, notably in nations such as Syria, along with Palestine. Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait also have similar current flag designs.

The Meaning and History behind the Pan-Arab Colors
The Arab Liberation flag. Source: Flags of the World

In 1953, another pattern emerged in the Arab world, the Arab Liberation Flag, which was marked by a tricolor of red, white, and black (notably missing green). This design emerged during the Egyptian revolt, and quickly spread around the Arab World. The colors in this design have additional symbolism beyond the other ones, with black symbolizing a history of colonialism, white symbolizing a bright future, and red symbolizing the blood and sacrifice necessary to get from the black to the white. This design is used in many different Arab countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

With the advent of the Arab Liberation Flag, the Pan-Arab colors seemed to have been officially established. These colors have served a useful purpose in unifying Arabs around the Arab World through shared experiences of sacrifice, colonialism, and revolt. Just like other pan-ethnic colors around the world, these colors have been closely interwoven with the Arab experience.

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