Friday, July 23, 2004

Black Banners

Juan Cole mentions that the group which kidnapped the truck drivers in Iraq is called the "Black Banners," and goes on to use the Abbasid Revolution to explain how this is not necessarily Shi'ite symbolism. I won't dispute any claims he makes about how the symbol is understood today, and hence the implications he draws in current events. However, it should be mentioned that the Abbasid Revolution was largely a proto-Shi'ite movement.

The basic story is this: The Umayyad dynasty was growing unpopular for reasons too complicated to go into. Many people had long felt that the best person to rule the community would be a member of the Prophet's clan, especially one descended from Ali and Fatima, and there had been rebellions of these "Shi'ite" groups. (I place Shi'ite in quotation marks because they hadn't reached the point of development we normally associate with the religious sect.) When the Abbasids began spreading their revolutionary propaganda, they did so in the name of a member of the Prophet's clan who remained unnamed, but whom people generally assumed would be an Alid.

When in fact it turned out to be a descendant of the Prophet's uncle Abbas, it was a bit surprising, kind of like if George Bush had in 2000 hinted at appointing an African-American Secretary of State hoping people would think of Colin Powell, but then nominated Alan Keyes instead. Thus, although they were a Sunni dynasty, they had a lot of Shi'ite overtones to their early rule. In fact, an early justification for their rule was the claim that Abd Hashim, a grandson of Ali via Muhammad Ibn al-Hanafiyya (around whom an important revolt centered), had named the Abbasid heir as his own successor.

Incidentally, this web site gives information on important colors in the Arab world.


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