We can safely claim that we all look more or less alike these days. We dress similarly, and save for the Muslim veil, our outward appearance does not profess religious, ideological, or political beliefs. Yet, some of us supplement their outfits with a slight detail that holds a decisive message: I am Shiite, I am Druze, I am Coptic… Some of these symbols have a spiritual dimension, while others are laden with socio-political references – as is the case with partisan or political symbols.
Here are seven examples of insignia from the Arab world expressing religious and ethnic affiliations
Five-Pointed Star: I am Druze
This star is no different from any other star save for the fact that each of its sides carries a color that symbolizes an “end”, or one of the five principles in the doctrine of monotheism and the Imam or “Mawla” who embodies these principles. Interpretations of the “ends” and their corresponding colors vary. However, in the most prominent readings green symbolizes the mind through “Mawlay” Ahmad Hamza bin Al-Zouzni ; red symbolizes the self through “Mawlay” Ismali bin Hamed Al-Tamimi ; yellow symbolizes the word that came out of the self from the mind through “Mawlay” Mohammad bin Wahab Al-Qurashi ; blue represents the past or the need to learn from one’s past ; and white represents what follows or the wisdom in dealing with the future.
Cross Tattooed on the Wrist: I am Coptic
The Coptic cross is different from other Christian crosses. It has equally numbered ribs that intertwine in the middle. There are three points on the tip of each rib, representing the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Combined, they make a total of twelve points that symbolize the twelve apostles who conveyed the message of Christ.
The tradition has been passed down through generations of Copts, although it is not clear when it first emerged. It is widely believed that the practice dates back to the “Era of Martyrs,” or the persecution of Christians, when parents would get their children tattooed so that they would recognize their religion should they be persecuted or killed. That symbol, still in use today, identifies one’s belonging to the Coptic community.
Dhu al-Fiqar Sword: I am Shiite
Long and incised toward its end, the two-bladed sword is often worn as a pendant. It’s called “Dhu al-Fiqar” after “al-Fiqar,” Arabic for notch. A popular saying among Shiites goes: “There is no young man like Ali, and no sword but Dhu al-Fiqar,” referring to the sword of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first successor of Prophet Muhammad according to Shiite beliefs. It’s said that the Prophet gave Ali the sword at the Battle of Uhud, after Ali’s own sword broke during the fighting. For Shiites, the sword symbolizes the bravery of Ali ibn Abi Talib.
The Green Band: I am Shiite /I am Alawite
The slim green band is worn around the wrist, with no distinction as to whether the person wearing it is Shiite or Alawite, although the two sects are quite different from one another. The habit of wearing the green band is not exclusive to one region, and is seen from Bahrain in the Gulf, to Lebanon in the Levant. The band may be made from any green cloth, as long as the cloth has touched the shrine of an Imam, or a place that’s holy to both confessions. Alternatively, verses from the Koran may be recited and the band is thus blessed. Shiites and Alawites believe that green was the color of the Imamate in the past, and the color of the clothes of those in heaven. “These it is for whom are Gardens of perpetuity wherein flow rivers; they are adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they wear green robes of fine silk and thick brocade…”
The Catholic Rosary
Worn around the neck or as a ring if smaller, this rosary consists of five sections with ten beads each. It can be easily distinguished from other religious rosaries (the Islamic rosary has 99 beads divided into three sections) and is definitely different from rosaries that men use today to keep their hands busy. The Catholic rosary is used to recite prayers such as “Hail Mary.”
The Orthodox Rosary
This is another type of rosary used by Eastern Orthodox and Catholic denominations. Made primarily of black wool and exceptionally from other fabrics, the Orthodox rosary contains successive knits, which may number 30, 33 or 90. The rosary is an ancient object adopted by several religions such as Hinduism under different names, and it’s believed that the rosary was chiefly used to assist the monks in the reading of Psalms 150 times a day. The Arabic word for rosary is “Masbaha,” and is derived from “Subhan Allah,” Arabic for Hallelujah. The trend today is to wear it around the wrist.
Zebibah – I am a very pious Muslim
Zebibah, or prayer bump, is a black layer of callused skin formed between the brow and the hairline as a result of repeated friction with a rough surface from kneeling too many times during Islamic prayer. In the past, the Zebibah decked the foreheads of Sheikhs and the elderly as a sign that they had been praying for years. Today, it has become a phenomenon that crosses the age spectrum in countries where Islam is on the rise. Ironically, the protruding shape does not show easily despite the observance of the prayer ritual five times a day, and its presence on the foreheads of young Muslims today is somewhat of a public display of, and boasting about one’s faith and religious affiliation.