Islam and the Colour Green

It was St. Patrick’s Day when I started to write this blog: the day when people, whether of Irish descent or not, parade around in funny green hats, down a lot of green beer, and toss green dye into fountains and rivers–all in the name of honouring the Emerald Isle’s patron saint. Since I am well-acquainted with the story of St. Patrick and how he drove the snakes out of Ireland (and you probably are familiar with it, too), I thought I would focus on another ‘green’ in this blog. I have always wondered: Why are Muslims partial to the colour green? This is my attempt to answer that question.

Of the 57 member states which make up the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), four member countries have flags with an all-green background: Bangladesh, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. And of the rest, 35 have the colour green somewhere on their flags. The Islamic terrorist organization Hamas has a flag with an all-green background.
Saudi Flag
Flag of Saudi Arabia
Iran Flag
Flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Hamas Flag
Flag of the Terrorist Organization Hamas

Green is found on Islamic buildings as well (including the local mosque). A green-coloured dome stands above the tomb of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, located in the southeast corner of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The dome, not green when erected in 1279, was later painted green by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent(r.1520-1566).
Muhammads Tomb3
The Green Dome

History shows that the colour green was favoured by Muslims from Islam’s earliest days. The Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171), for instance, had a green flag. During the time of the Crusades, the Islamic forces wore green, and so the Crusaders avoided the colour green in their coats-of-arms in order to avoid being killed by ‘friendly fire’. The Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) favoured the colour green as well.

Why this preference for the colour green? It derives, in part–I would think–from the sartorial tastes of Islam’s Prophet himself. Green was allegedly Muhammad’s favourite colour. It is reported that he wore a green turban and a green cloak. Interestingly, in Persia (now Iran), only the descendants of Muhammad–the Sayyids–were allowed to wear green turbans. When Muhammad died, he was covered with a green square garment.

Another reason behind the preference for green: According to the Qur’an, those who attain Paradise are given green garments:
…they will be given armlets of gold and will wear green robes of finest silk and gold embroidery, reclining upon thrones therein…(Surah 18:31).

The reason behind the prevalence of the colour green in the Muslim world is no great mystery, then: it has a lot to do with the personal tastes of the Prophet himself.

Much more mysterious is an obscure figure I encountered while reading up on this topic: al-Khidr, ‘the Green One’, as he is known and a revered figure in Islam. A dome dedicated to the Green One stands on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Dome of al-Khidr

The story of al-Khidr is found in the Qur’an in Surah 18 “The Cave”: 60-82. The tale begins with the prophet Moses and a servant heading to a “point where the two rivers meet.” On the way there, they lose a fish they had taken with them. While searching for the fish, they encounter a man who possesses special knowledge granted to him by Allah. Moses asks to follow the man so that he can acquire the same wisdom the stranger possesses. The stranger is reluctant to let Moses follow him, but acquiesces when Moses promises that he will be patient, and not challenge anything the stranger does. And so they set out. Along the way, the stranger commits three seemingly senseless acts: he drill a hole in a boat and sinks it; he kills an innocent young man; and he rebuilds a city wall in a community hostile to the two visitors. Moses cannot restrain himself on all three occasions, and questions why the stranger has done these things. Because Moses has not kept his end of the bargain, the stranger terminates the relationship–and then proceeds to explain the reasons behind his actions. (It’s probably unnecessary to say this, but an event such as this appears nowhere in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament account of the life of Moses.)

The man who possess special knowledge is never named in the Qur’an. It was Arab commentators who later elaborated the story, giving the man the name al-Khidr, the ‘Green One’, claiming that the wise man turned green when he dived into the spring of life. He is one of the four prophets whom Islam regards as immortal, the other three being Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus.

Up to this point in time, the only ‘green man’ I was familiar with was the leafy character who takes part in May Day celebrations in certain parts of Britain. On May Day, a man assumes the role of ‘Jack-in-the-Green’, donning a conical or pyramid-shaped eight-foot-tall costume of leaves, a face mask, and crown of flowers. He travels though the city streets accompanied by men and women dressed and painted all in green. He’s a trickster kind of figure who chases attractive young women and just generally plays the fool. ‘Jack’ constitutes a fertility symbol–a very ancient one–and dates from the pre-Christian, Celtic era. Green Men like Jack are not unique to pre-Christian Britain, however, as Green Men have been found elsewhere: in ancient Rome, India, and the Middle East.

Attribution: Photographer Simon Garbutt

When I set out to discover the association between Islam and the colour green, I never expected to encounter ‘the Green One’. What to make of this story? If anything, it certainly lends credence to the notion that the Qur’an draws on material from multiple sources and challenges the idea that the Qur’an is made up of God’s very words. Some scholars believe the mysterious stranger in Surah 18 is one more manifestation of the ancient symbol of the ‘green man’. He well could be.


The Islamic State (IS) and the Great Battle of Dabiq

Claims by Western leaders that the acts of terrorism and atrocities we’re witnessing have nothing to do with Islam have been debunked yet again. (Anyone who has read the Qur’an and has some knowledge of Islamic history wouldn’t have been persuaded by such claims to begin with.) In recent days it’s come to light–thanks to Graeme Wood’s article in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic–just to what extent the Islamic State (IS) draws on–some would say ‘exploits’–Islamic eschatology in order to grant the terrorist organization legitimacy and to inspire Muslim youth worldwide to flock to Syria to fight on behalf of the ‘caliphate’.

From the Greek word eschaton meaning ‘farthest, remotest’, eschatology refers to that branch of theology having to do with the end times. Christian eschatology tells of a great battle that will occur at the time of the end: a battle commonly known as the ‘Battle of Armageddon’. This future battle takes its name from the Hebrew har-magedon , ‘Mount Megiddo’, a name which occurs only once in the Bible, in Revelation 16:16. The Valley of Jezreel and the Plain of Esdraelon lie near Megiddo. This area was the scene of decisive battles in Israelite history and, according to John, will one day be the scene of the ultimate and final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Described as “the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” by John (Rev 16:14), this battle marks the final overthrow of the forces of evil.

Scholars have noted, however, that there is no mountain in the region called Megiddo. Furthermore, the valley and plain lying southwest of Nazareth could not possibly contain the number of armies that John predicts will be gathered there by God for the final confrontation. The term ‘Armageddon’ should thus be understood in a symbolic sense, and not taken for a literal place.

Islam has its own version of Armageddon: the so-called ‘Great Battle of Dabiq’. Islamic prophecies are found, not in the Qur’an, but in the hadiths, the ‘collected reports of what Muhammad said and did in his lifetime’. Hadith 6924 predicts that a final great battle will occur in the vicinity of Dabiq, Syria, a town of about 3,300 inhabitants located 44 km. north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. According to Abu Hurayrah, one of Muhammad’s Companions, it was Islam’s Prophet Muhammad himself who predicted that Dabiq would be the site of al-Malhama al Kubra, ‘the Great Battle’, the final showdown between Islam and the ‘Crusaders’. This battle would be won by the Muslim forces, leading directly into Judgment Day. Hadith 6924 reads:

The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them)…They will then fight and a third (part) of the army would run away whom Allah will never forgive. A third (part of the army) which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah’s eye would be killed and the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople.

At first, Western observers were baffled by IS’s interest in the small and seemingly-insignificant Syrian town. After IS forces captured the town in August 2014, the reason became clear. In taking Dabiq, the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi revealed his apocalyptic aspirations: He wants to fulfill the prophecy of the Great Battle of Dabiq. As part of its strategy, IS subsequently launched a slick, glossy magazine (propaganda tool) named Dabiq. When asked why this name, IS replied, “The area will play a historical role in the battles leading up to the conquests of Constantinople, then Rome.” The fourth issue of Dabiq depicts a black IS flag flying atop the Egyptian obelisk in the centre of St. Peter’s Square in Rome. In the fifth issue, IS vows that its flag will fly over not just Rome, but over Mecca and Medina, and Jerusalem as well.

Another Islamic prophecy predicts that the infidel force at the Great Battle of Dabiq will fly the flags of 80 different countries. (Currently, there are 60 countries represented in the coalition forces.) IS is attempting to lure more ‘infidels’ to join in the upcoming battle. IS, alone, it would seem, wants ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria. And IS’s brutal executions are meant to goad the infidels into action. The beheading of the American hostage Peter Kassig took place in Dabiq. At the time of his murder IS said, “Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

World conquest is the ultimate goal of IS. In the fifth issue of Dabiq, IS makes the following prediction:

“The shade of this blessed flag [black IS flag] will expand until it covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth, filling the world with the truth and justice of Islam and putting an end to the falsehood and tyranny [the state prior to Islam] even if America and its coalition despise such.”

Western leaders–the majority, it would seem–are confounded by the behaviour of Western-raised and Western-educated Muslim youth who are travelling to Syria to join IS. So far, 3400 Westerners have joined the fight on behalf of IS. Unbelievably, there still some who–despite all the evidence to the contrary–put it all down to lack of job opportunities. As I see it, what IS has done–through social media, its magazine Dabiq, and imams who share IS’s vision–is to have given idealistic Muslim youth a cause: a chance to play a vital role in a ‘hallowed’ and truly earth-changing event, the triumph of Islam worldwide.

There will have to be ‘boots on the ground’ at some point. And when there are, those boots will have to be present in sufficient numbers to totally eliminate IS. For only then will the ‘Great Battle of Dabiq’ lose its grip on youthful Muslim imaginations.