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ALAM is a banner; more particularly, the banners carried in religious processions. ʿAlam or tuq banners gradually lost their original military function to take on an exclusively religious one. Since Buyid era, ‘alam became one of the Symbolic objects using in Ashura mourning rituals. The prototype of Muharram standards is the ʿalam carried by Abbas b. ʿAli, Imam Hussain’s ʿalam-dar (standard bearer).

History and Terminology[edit | edit source]

In both Arabic and Persian, the word ʿalam (pl. aʿlām) conveys various senses connected with the general meaning of a distinctive sign or mark. In Persian, the word had early carried the meaning of ensign (neshan) and of standard or flag. [1] The same meanings may also be rendered by the word ʿalama (pl. ʿelām, ʿalāʾem, ʿalāmāt), which derives from the same root. Synonyms in the meaning of standard or flag include Arabic lewaʾ and raya, Turkish beyraq (Turkman beydaq) and sanjaq, [2] and Persian paṛcham. [3] For the Turks, ʿalam (pronounced alem) retains about the same meanings, while also designating their national and religious emblem, the crescent, [4] a symbol that was also used by some rulers of Persia. Timur employed it as an emblem and perhaps as a talisman; [5] his huge tents were held up by long poles topped by “an apple of burnished copper above which is a crescent”. [6] But the chronological evolution of the shape and function of finials is difficult to trace.

Any serious research into the historical development of banners is hindered by the scarcity and heterogeneity of sources (archeological, iconographical, literary, etc.). Problems arise from the identification of both finials and streamers or other pieces of cloth attached to the staffs. Shapes and functions of standards, banners, and badges from pre-Islamic Persia until now undoubtedly show signs of continuity, particularly in the use of astral symbols. [7] Contradictory views have been voiced about the appearance and shape of the Shir o khurshid (lion and sun) motif in iconography and on the cloth or finials of standards. [8] Although it became the Iranian national armorial bearings, it was not the most frequent emblem to appear on religious standards or Shiʿite ʿalam banners.

Alam in Muharram Rituals[edit | edit source]

Banners of some kind seem to have been used in Muharram ceremonies under the Buyids. [9] In the popular Persian and Turkish literature relating to the drama of Karbala drums and banners (tabl va ʿalam) are an attribute of all the historical or legendary avengers of Hussainn’s blood. [10] Drums, banners, and royal ensigns were also distinctive signs of dervish orders.[11] Tuq banners were used by religious story tellers.[12] Under the Āq Qoyunlū, ʿalam banners and drums from Imamzadas were carried by ʿolamaʾ and ʿalam banners and tuqs by dervishes in a civil and military review in Fars. [13] With the advent of the Safavids [14] and the establishment of Twelver Shiʿism as the state religion, banners came to be used extensively in Muharram ceremonies and other rituals. Only from the Safavid period onward is it possible to summarize the formal functional evolution of religious ʿalam banners; first, however, certain preliminary remarks need to be made. [15]

Carried in procession, ʿalams are hardly recognizable, since they are loaded with ex-votos (sing. nadhr, dakhil) similar to those attached to sacred trees, and ornaments; these include pieces of cloth (cashmere shawls, ribbons, etc.); precious or eye-catching objects such as mirrors, jewels, and watches; large feathers, vases with flowers and greenery, rose water bottles, lamps, lanterns, and candles burning in tulip shaped glasses (lala). The banners are called many names besides ʿalam. The word tuq, although said now to be confined to Qom[16], was used in Qajar times in Azerbaijan, [17] Tehran (Van Vloten, “Drapeaux;” Mostawfi, Sharh), and probably elsewhere. Beyraq seems still to be used to designate various kinds of religious banners. [18] The Mongol term kotal also applied to specific kinds of banners, [19] which may be known under other names. [20]

Various kinds of banners and pennants are used in Muharram ceremonies; each social group such as senf (guild), hayʾat-e madhabi (religious organization), and mahalla (town or village quarter), owns at least one, symbolizing its own identity. An ʿalam banner as wide as a street and provided with many staffs and spearheads was exhibited in Tehran at least until recently at the Abanbar qahwa-khana. Colors used in banners include black, the so-called color of the Prophet, but also that of the Mahdi and the ʿAbbasids: blue or purple, the traditional color of mourning; green, the ʿAlid color from Imam Riza’s time and the color of Islam; white (even though it was connected with the Umayyads and the Fatimids; [21] yellow[22]; and red, which is connected with Mahdist movements and the cult of martyrs and is the color of Imam Hussain’s banner. There was a progressive restriction in the use of red, since it is the color of the villain’s garments in the taʿziya and was used by the Kharijites on their banners; in India, Shiʿites avoid it because it is the Sunnis’ color. [23]

Tuq or ʿalam banners are taken out of their respective tekyehs only before noon on the day of Ashura. [24] Under Naser-al-din Shah the ornamentation and departure of the royal ʿalam from the andarun to the tekyeh was made with great ceremony. [25] Influential preachers (rawza-khan) had their emblematic ʿalam banners. [26] Heavy banners needed to be carried by strong bearers (ʿalam-kesh, tuqchi, beyraqdar), generally belonging to a local zur-khana or “house of strength,” who were surrounded by attendants (patuqi). In Qom, these patuqis protect the bearer from the pressure of the crowd eager to touch or kiss the spearhead of the tuq. Various kinds of banners were used in contests between young men in towns and villages. [27] Jugglers of banners (ʿalam-bazan, patuqi) exhibited their skills in Muharram ceremonies. [28]

Historical Developments[edit | edit source]

(1) In its traditional form, a standard is a lance (derafsh, neyza) to which is attached a piece (or pieces) of cloth (e.g. the tuq mentioned by Kashefi, loc. cit.). Religiously it has both a heavenly and a human value; its shape is anthropomorphic: a finial (head), a staff (body), and a pad (foot). Its symbolic function is akin to that of tree.

(2) From the Saljuq period onward messianic ideas were revived in Turco-Iranian circles. Gazi Turks came to be considered the military element able to bring forth the triumph of the Mahdi, [29] whose apocalyptic weapon is the celebrated Dhu’l-faqar, ʿAli’s double-edged or double-bladed sword, imitations of which were introduced as finials, sometimes combined with tuq devices, among the sacred emblems kept in tekyehs and carried in Shiʿite ceremonies. ʿAlam banners are often mentioned in the numerous historico-legendary accounts of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom and his avengers. [30]

(3) Each emblem carried in procession is linked to the events of Karbala. Thus, the prototype of Muharram standards is the ʿalam carried by ʿAbbas b. ʿAli, Hussain’s ʿalam-dar (standard bearer). Various shrines in Iran, India, and elsewhere claim to possess this relic or other standards connected to various events; the hagiography connected to each needs to be studied individually. Although it may have an older prototype, the spread hand emblem (pancha) representing the panch tan [31] is also linked with Hussain’s cult.

(4) Early prototypes of ʿalam banners may have been the standards (sometimes provided with staffs of extraordinary lengths) which are a familiar sight on shrines in oriental Iranian lands, including Afghanistan and Central Asia, and in northern India.

(5) It is difficult to know exactly when ʿalam or tuq banners lost their military function to take on an exclusively religious one. The politico-military connection of the term ʿalam was retained in such expressions as amir ʿalam/mir ʿalam, which became an honorific title. [32]

Alam under Safavid[edit | edit source]

The most striking feature of Safavid ʿalam banners is the “extraordinary length” of their staffs (Della Valle); their crests were relatively small and mostly made of metal. Besides the tuq device and its variants, the pancha was widely used [33] and eventually became the equivalent of the Turkish crescent; it figured on standards, religious and civil monuments, “national” flags, etc. Crests included “scissors” (probably a Dhu’l-faqar device), cross-like emblems, rings, lions, two cardboard dragons (variant of the tuq device; Oléarius, with drawing), a kind of tower with four scimitars[34], and a horseshoe which allegedly belonged to ʿAbbas (Muhammad’s uncle according to Oléarius, more probably ʿAbbas b. ʿAli). There was a tendency toward a shortening of the staff and a lengthening of the spearhead blades of the tuq device, which could reach considerable size. There was also a multiplication of the spearhead blades above the ʿalam banner’s cross-bar.

Components of ‘Alam[edit | edit source]

In its most common shape, an ʿalam banner used in modern Shiʿite rituals in Iran comprises essentially three parts: [35]

(1) a strong wooden staff generally provided with a horizontal metallic bar which gives to the assembly the appearance of a cross;

(2) a spearhead blade fixed on top of the central staff flanked by metal dragon heads on either side, while smaller spearhead blades fixed on the cross-bar usually flank the central one;

(3) various metal objects on the cross-bar; these include animal representations (goats, peacocks, doves, hybrids such as birds with human heads and fish tails, etc.), other metal objects such as models of mosques, and small bells hanging from the spear-heads.

Alam in Persian Folklore[edit | edit source]

Both military and ritual uses of ʿalam banners have given rise to sayings and proverbs. ʿAlam be khun charb kardan “to anoint the ʿalam with (the enemies’) blood” seems to be connected with old magical practices to obtain victory. ʿAlam va kotal rah andakhtan “putting banners on the way” was used to mean disturbing public order by street demonstrations. Many other expressions may be found in Persian literature and folklore.[36]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. drafsh/derafsh; see Zamakhshari, Pishrow-e adab ya moqaddamat al-adab, ed. M. K. Emam, Tehran, 1963, I, p. 406.
  2. Persian sanjaq; used mostly in Ottoman controlled areas, it seems to have early designated a standard larger than a beyraq, raya, or ʿalam; see J. Deny, “Sanjaq,” EI1 IV p. 148-50.
  3. introduced recently with this meaning; see ʿA. Nayyer-e Nuri, “Beyraq,” p. 953; Ḏoka, “Tarikhcha,” I, p. 14, n. 1.
  4. A. Sakisian, “Le croissant comme emblème national et religieux en Turquie,” Syria 13, 1941, pp. 66-80.
  5. Ackerman, “Standards,” p. 2778.
  6. D. N. Wilber, in Iran 17, 1979, pp. 131ff., fig. 1, b and c, quoting Le Strange, Clavijo, Embassy to Tamerlane, London, 1928, pp. 238ff.; see also Ackerman, loc. cit.
  7. Ackerman, “Standards,” pp. 2771ff.
  8. a few hints in Ackerman, “Standards,” pp. 2778ff.; ʿA. Nayyer-e Nuri, “Beyraq;” Ḏoka, “Tarikhcha;” H. Nayyer-e Nuri, “Ḏayl”.
  9. Calmard, Culte, pp. 103, 257, n. 257.
  10. ibid., pp. 230ff., and below.
  11. e.g., the Kazeruniya had their own neshana, ʿalam, va nawbat; ibid., p. 192.
  12. maddahan; see Kashefi, Fotuwat-nama-ye soltani, ed. M. J. Mahjub, Tehran, 1350 Sh./1971, pp. 288ff.
  13. Jalal-al-din Davani, ʿArz-nama, ed, Ī. Afshar, MDAT 3/3, 1335 Sh./1956, p. 47.
  14. 907-1145/1501-1732.
  15. FIGURES 22-24.
  16. Faqihi, Tarikh, p. 277.
  17. described in Lassy, Mysteries, p. 112.
  18. e.g. Lassy, loc. cit.; Homayuni, Farhang, pp. 400ff.; here, Figures 25-27.
  19. Calmard, “Etendards,” pp. 37ff.
  20. e.g. the ʿalam e rakhtpush formerly used in Qom, Faqihi, Tarikh, p. 275.
  21. Van Vloten, “Drapeaux,” pl. V.
  22. ibid.
  23. Ali, Observations, p. 37.
  24. Faqihi, Tarikh, p. 278.
  25. Moʿayyer-al-mamalek, Yaddashtha, p. 105.
  26. Mostawfi, Sharh, I, pp. 282ff.
  27. e.g., Calmard, “Etendards”, p. 36.
  28. e.g., Calmard, Monde iranien 2, 1974, pp. 80ff., 114ff.
  29. Calmard, Monde iranien 1, 1971, p. 67.
  30. Calmard, Culte, pp. 220ff.
  31. the “five persons;” see fig. 28.
  32. cf. the territorial connotation of sanjaq in Turkish; see also H. Bowen, “Bayraqdar,” EI2 I, pp. 1134-35.
  33. e.g., Chardin, De Bruijn.
  34. ibid.
  35. Figure 24.
  36. Dehkhoda and other dictionaries.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • P. Ackerman, “Standards, Banners and Badges,” Survey of Persian Art VI, pp. 2766-82.
  • Mrs. M. H. Ali, Observations on the Mussulmauns of India, repr. Oxford, 1978, pp. 17ff.
  • J. Calmard, Le culte de l’Imām Ḥusayn, Etude sur la commémoration du drame de Karbalā dans l’Iran pré-safavide, thesis, Paris, 1975.
  • Idem, “Les étendards funéraires shiites et leurs désignations turco-mongoles,” in I. Melikoff, ed., Traditions religieuses et para-religieuses des peuples altaïques, Paris, 1972, pp. 27-40 (with reference to Chardin, Della Valle, De Bruijn/Le Brun, Kotoff, and Oléarius).
  • J. David-Weill, “ʿAlam,” EI2 I, p. 349 (superficial).
  • B. D. Eerdmans, “Der Ursprung der Ceremonien der Hosein-Festes,” ZA 9, 1894, pp. 280-307 (considers ʿalams and finials as phallic symbols).
  • A. A. Faqīhī, Tārīḵ-emaḏhabī-e Qom I, 1350 Š./1971 (with photographs, pp. 274ff.).
  • K. Greenfield, “Shi’a Standards of Hyderabad,” The Moslem World 27, 1937, pp. 269-72 (no illustrations).
  • J. N. Hollister, The Shi’a of India, London, 1953, pp. 164ff.
  • Ṣ. Homāyūnī, Farhang-e mardom-e Sarvestān, Tehran, 1349 Š./1970.
  • M. ʿA. Jamālzāda, “Beyraqhā-ye Īrān dar ʿahd-e Ṣafawīya,” Honar va mardom, 1344 Š./1965, no. 39-40, pp. 10-13.
  • I. Lassy, The kaharram Mysteries among the Azerbeijan Turks of Caucasia, Helsinki, 1916.
  • H. Moser, Armes et armures orientales, Leipzig, 1912 (illustrations from the author’s collection).
  • D. ʿA. Moʿayyer-al-mamālek, Yāddāšthā-ī az zendegānī-e ḵoṣūṣī-e Nāṣer-al-dīn Šāh, Tehran, 1327 Š./1948.
  • ʿA. Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendegānī-e man, Tehran, 1343 Š./1964, I., pp. 274ff.
  • ʿA. Nayyer-e Nūrī, “Beyraq-e šīr o ḵūršīd,” Īrānšahr, Tehran, 1343 Š./1964, II, pp. 946-55.
  • Ḥ. Nayyer-e Nūrī, “Ḏayl-ī bar selsela-ye maqālāt . . .,” Honar va mardom, 1347-48 Š./1968-69, no. 77-78, pp. 61-74.
  • Jaʿfar Šarīf, Qānūn-e Eslām, tr. Herklots, Islam in India, Oxford, 1921 (with illustrations, pp. 151ff.).
  • G. van Vloten, “Les drapeaux en usage à la fête de Hucein à Tehran,” Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie 5, 1892, pp. 105-11 (with plates).
  • Y. Ḏokā, “Tārīḵča-ye taḡyīrāt va taḥawwolāt-e derafš va ʿalāmat-e dawlat-e Īrān . . .,” Honar va mardom, 1344 Š./1965, no. 31, pp. 13-24; no. 32-33, pp. 21-38. (J. Calmard).

Source[edit | edit source]