The Story of Arab Flags: Red, White, Black, and Green. Colonial Colors? Or Ancient Arabic Poetry?
By: Mohammed Abduljabbar / Arab America Contributing Writer
Flags represent the national and cultural identity of countries. As a matter of fact, not only countries but virtually any entity. Humans have used icons, symbols, patterns, and colors for millennia to proudly showcase their identity. This includes emblems, flags, national anthems, and so on. Arabs are no exception to this.
Historical Background of the Pan-Arabism Color Scheme and Design
During WWI, the Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the MENA region. Arabs aspired to achieve independence. To weaken the Ottomans, the United Kingdom (UK) endorsed these aspirations. To do so, the UK pushed to create symbols for the Arab identity to motivate Pan-Arabism movements. Part of this initiative was creating an Arab banner. Upon the UK’s recommendations, Arabs adopted four colors: red, white, black, and green. In the early 20th century, these colors came straight from London in a letter from the diplomat Sir Mark Sykes likely addressed to the King of Hejaz, Hussain bin Ali. The colors refer to the four major Muslim dynasties. Red for the Hashemites, black for the Abbasids, white for the Umayyads, and green for the Fatimids. These colors, indeed, became the colors of Pan-Arabism. Using these colors, a flag for the Grand Arab Revolution was created following the pattern below.
The Origins of the Colors and Their Semantics
Ever since the Grand Arab Revolution of 1916, most Arab flags have followed similar patterns and colors. However, the British were not the first to come up with these colors to signify Pan-Arabism. In fact, these colors defined the Arab identity before the British empire came about and well before the UK had any colonies in the region.
Safi Al-Din Al Hilli, a significant Arab poet from Hilla, Iraq, wrote a piece signifying Arab pride during the Golden Age under the Abbasid Caliphate. In his poetry, Al Hilli mentions these four colors and their relation to Arab identity:
وإنا لقوم أبت أخلاقنا كرما أن نبتدي بالأذى من ليس يؤذينا
بيض صنائعنا سود وقائعنا خضر مرابعنا حمر مواضينا
Which loosely translates to: “and our values stand in pride and generosity as we would never hurt those who do not hurt us. White are our acts, black our battles, green our fields, and red our swords.” This piece was written roughly 700 years before the United Kingdom made the recommendation to King Hussain.
Current Debates About Colonial Influence on Arab Symbolism
There’s still, however, a debate in the Arab community about the origin of these colors. Some argue that every Arab country should choose a color scheme from its own unique past to signify its history instead of following the colonial recommendation of the UK. In fact, some organizations have made it their mission to mobilize the people to demand a national flag change. In Iraq, for instance, multiple organizations have designed and recommended an alternative Iraqi flag and are pushing to change the current banner.
The Evolution of the Flag
Iraq changed its flag quite a few times due to political changes and national reforms. All of these changes have followed, in one way or another, Al Hilli’s color scheme and pattern, except for one. In 2004, Iraq radically changed its flag to signify its dissociation from the previous regime’s values. In order to do so, it broke the traditional Arab pattern and used a white blue, and yellow flag. The legislative body approved the flag as the new national banner. However, it was accused of deliberately diluting the Arab identity of Iraq and familiarizing Iraqis with western-style colors, specifically Israel. All of these accusations killed the newborn flag in the cradle. In spite of the fact that it was approved as the national flag, it never waved on Iraqi soil.
Will Iraq Break Out of Its Own Poet’s Colors?
Ever since then, Iraq continued with the Al Hilli’s style of flags which sparked a debate among Iraqis. This debate led the ministry of culture to release a formal statement addressing the matter. During a televised meeting, Iraq’s minister of culture Hassan Nazem expressed the ministry’s efforts to design a new flag and national anthem for the country. In spite of the fact that Iraq has adopted eight flags (including the controversial flag of 2004) since it became a modern state, this upcoming change can potentially be the most eccentric. The ministry’s goal is to create a new pattern and color scheme that highlights Iraq’s unique identity and rich history. However, it’s been over a year since and no announcements regarding the matter have been made. This begs the question; will Iraq pursue this change? If so, what would that mean to the deeply rooted Arab identity of the nation?
While many people might think Arab flags look very similar, it’s important to mention that each country has unique semantics to the colors and patterns in addition to Al Hilli’s. For instance, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have very similar flags. Jordan, Sudan, and Palestine have similar flags as well. Also, While Tunisia’s flag is unique compared to its Arab counterpart, it’s very similar to the flag of Turkey. From a first glance, Bahrain‘s flag looks similar to Qatar‘s. However, Qatar chose the color maroon making it the only Arab and Middle Eastern flag with that color. But each one of these flags has meanings of national importance to each respective country. Some Arab countries chose not to follow Al Hilli’s colors such as Somalia, Djibouti, and Comoros.
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