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_02
Dome of al-Khidr wikipedia.org

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.
Kingston_Jack_in_the_Green

Jack-in-the-Green
Attribution: Photographer Simon Garbutt Wikipedia.org

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.

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