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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Symbolism

Written by: Anna Akasoy

There are several symbols of Shiite religiosity that can be displayed in everyday life. Connected to Muhammad's family, they are often not exclusive to Shiites, but particularly prominent among these Muslims.

A prominent symbol is Dhu l-fiqar, the bifurcated sword of Ali, which is worn, for example, on necklaces. It also appears in poetry to symbolize Ali's bravery, in calligraphy in connection with the name Ali or the Arabic letters lam and mim (particularly significant in letter mysticism), or to mark a level in Sufi hierarchies. Several stories circulate that account for its origin. According to one version, the sword was given to Ali by Muhammad and an audible voice said that "there is no brave young except for Ali and there is no sword except for Dhu l-fiqar," a play on the Islamic profession of faith. Another version has it that the sword was brought down from heaven by Gabriel—a parallel to the Quran, which the archangel brought down to Muhammad.

A symbol that also enjoys popularity in non-Shiite regions of the Islamic world, notably North Africa, is the hand of Fatima (khamsa), which, like Ali's sword, is believed to protect from the evil eye. According to the Shiite tradition, the five fingers symbolize Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Hasan, and Husayn as well as the severed hand of Abbas when he tried to get water from the Euphrates for Husayn and his companions.

Green and black turbans are a distinctive Shiite symbol that is restricted to descendants of Muhammad. Prominent Shiite clerics such as the recently deceased Lebanese Fadlallah, who descended from Hasan, and the Iraqi scholar Sistani can be seen wearing black turbans. In taziyah plays, the heroes wear green as the color of paradise, while the villains wear red to suggest that their clothes are soaked with the blood of the martyrs.

Even though there is a long tradition of painting human figures in the Islamic world, such images are largely absent from Sunni sacred spaces. Decorative traditions in mosques often rely on calligraphy, and the names of Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, Husayn, or only Ali are often displayed in Shiite sacred buildings, where pictures of Muhammad and Ali are also sometimes displayed. Sometimes they are present in invocations such as the frequently uttered Ya Ali (Arabic for O Ali). Other calligraphies use the names of God or Quranic verses referring to the Imams. These names and verses as well as prayers are attributed with magical power. They can be found on profane objects too such as astrolabes.

In the modern world, popular art showing scenes from early Islamic history flourishes. While pre-modern manuscripts already contained illustrations of Ali, images in a distinctly modern, often kitsch style proliferate in print and on the internet. A black-bearded youthful Husayn is shown wearing a green turban and accompanied by a white horse. Awaiting a violent death himself, he is sometimes shown grieving for his infant son Ali Asghar or his teenage son Ali Akbar.

 

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