ʿALAM VA ʿALĀMAT (Ar. ʿalāma), banner; more particularly, the banners carried in religious processions. For banners in the pre-Islamic period, sec Derafš.

i. History.

ii. The Art of Metal ʿAlams.


i. History

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 (nešān) and of standard or flag (drafš/derafš; see Zamaḵšarī, Pīšrow-e adab yā moqaddamat al-adab, ed. M. K. Emām, Tehran, 1963, I, p. 406). The same meanings may also be rendered by the word ʿalāma (pl. ʿelām, ʿalāʾem, ʿalāmāt), which derives from the same root. Synonyms in the meaning of standard or flag include Arabic lewāʾ and rāya, Turkish beyraq (Turkman beydaq) and sanjaq (Persian sanǰāq; used mostly in Ottoman controlled areas, it seems to have early designated a standard larger than a beyraq, rāya, or ʿalam; see J. Deny, “Sandjaḳ,” EI1 IV p. 148-50), and Persian paṛčam (introduced recently with this meaning; see ʿA. Nayyer-e Nūrī, “Beyraq,” p. 953; Ḏokā, “Tārīḵča,” I, p. 14, n. 1). For the Turks, ʿalam (pronounced alem) retains about the same meanings, while also designating their national and religious emblem, the crescent (see A. Sakisian, “Le croissant comme emblème national et religieux en Turquie,” Syria 13, 1941, pp. 66-80), a symbol that was also used by some rulers of Persia. Tīmūr employed it as an emblem and perhaps as a talisman (Ackerman, “Standards,” p. 2778); his huge tents were held up by long poles topped by “an apple of burnished copper above which is a crescent” (see 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.). 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 (Ackerman, “Standards,” pp. 2771ff.). Contradictory views have been voiced about the appearance and shape of the šīr o ḵūršīd (lion and sun) motif in iconography and on the cloth or finials of standards (a few hints in Ackerman, “Standards,” pp. 2778ff.; ʿA. Nayyer-e Nūrī, “Beyraq;” Ḏokā, “Tārīḵča;” Ḥ. Nayyer-e Nūrī, “Ḏayl”). Although it became the Iranian national armorial bearings, it was not the most frequent emblem to appear on religious standards or Shiʿite ʿalam banners.

A striking feature of ʿalam banners is the tūq/towq (also written tūḡ, toq, tūqa, ṭūḡ, and ṭūq; Calmard, Etendards, pp. 35ff., with a philological appendix by L. Bazin), an apotropaic symbol introduced (or reintroduced?) from the Turco-Mongolian steppes and used as an emblem of military and then civil power. It consists essentially of a pennant or tassel of yak or horse tail attached to a staff or to a helmet crest; the number of tails indicated the rank and place of the amir, pasha, etc., in front of whose tent the tūq was placed. Its use probably derives from Mongol shamanism; the same finials and tassels can be seen in Tibetan lamaism and popular religion in Himalayan countries (G. Tucci and W. Heissig, Les religions du Tibet et de la Mongolie, Paris, 1973, p. 189, with drawings, and index s.v. t’ug). After the advent of the Safavids, the tūq apparently retained both military and shamanistic functions in “Moḡolestān” (Bābor-nāma; Beveridge’s tr. quoted by Ackerman, “Standards,” pp. 2776ff.; E. Mano, in Seinan Asia Kenkyū [in Japanese] 17, 1966, pp. 29ff.).

Mongol banners and emblems coincide on important points with early Iranian customs (Ackerman, “Standards,” pp. 2770ff., 2776). With the arrival of the Mongols, a kind of combination of tūq and flag is seen in Persian miniature paintings (see below, part ii). The metal finials of these banners are made of confronted dragons on either side of a central piece (which may be ovoid, shaped like a spear-head, etc.); shapes and functions of this “tūq device” evolved considerably from the Safavid period onwards (see below).

Banners of some kind seem to have been used in Moḥarram ceremonies under the Buyids (Calmard, Culte, pp. 103, 257, n. 257). In the popular Persian and Turkish literature relating to the drama of Karbalā drums and banners (ṭabl va ʿalam) are an attribute of all the historical or legendary avengers of Ḥosayn’s blood (ibid., pp. 230ff., and below). Drums, banners, and royal ensigns were also distinctive signs of dervish orders (e.g., the Kāzerūnīya had their own nešāna, ʿalam, va nawbat; ibid., p. 192). Tūq banners were used by religious story tellers (maddāḥān; see Kāšefī, Fotūwat-nāma-ye solṭānī, ed. M. J. Maḥǰūb, Tehran, 1350 Š./1971, pp. 288ff.). Under the Āq Qoyunlū, ʿalam banners and drums from Emāmzādas were carried by ʿolamāʾ and ʿalam banners and tūqs by dervishes in a civil and military review in Fārs (Jalāl-al-dīn Davānī, ʿArż-nāma, ed, Ī. Afšār, MDAT 3/3, 1335 Š./1956, p. 47). With the advent of the Safavids (907-1145/1501-1732) and the establishment of Twelver Shiʿism as the state religion, banners came to be used extensively in Moḥarram 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 (FIGURES 22-24).

(1) In its traditional form, a standard is a lance (derafš, neyza) to which is attached a piece (or pieces) of cloth (e.g. the tūq mentioned by Kāšefī, 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. Ḡāzī Turks came to be considered the military element able to bring forth the triumph of the Mahdī (Calmard, Monde iranien 1, 1971, p. 67), whose apocalyptic weapon is the celebrated Ḏu’l-feqār, ʿAlī’s double-edged or double-bladed sword, imitations of which were introduced as finials, sometimes combined with tūq devices, among the sacred emblems kept in takyas and carried in Shiʿite ceremonies. ʿAlam banners are often mentioned in the numerous historico-legendary accounts of Imam Ḥosayn’s martyrdom and his avengers (Calmard, Culte, pp. 220ff.). (3) Each emblem carried in procession is linked to the events of Karbalā. Thus the prototype of Moḥarram standards is the ʿalam carried by ʿAbbās b. ʿAlī, Ḥosayn’s ʿalam-dār (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 (panǰa) representing the panǰ tan (the “five persons;” see fig. 28) is also linked with Ḥosayn’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. Their possible Iranian Buddhist (or non-Zoroastrian) origin has been suggested (A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, Monde iranien 2, 1974, p. 18). Lances (Av. drafsa, hence NPers. derafš), which may have functioned as banners, are mentioned in the Avesta (Yt. 1.11, 13.136; on the parallel function of derafš and sanǰāq, see Deny, EI1 IV, p. 149). (5) It is difficult to know exactly when ʿalam or tūq 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 amīr ʿalam/mīr ʿalam, which became an honorific title (cf. the territorial connotation of sanjaq in Turkish; see also H. Bowen, “Bayraḳdār,” EI2 I, pp. 1134-35).

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 tūq device and its variants, the panǰa was widely used (see, e.g., Chardin, De Bruijn) 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 Ḏu’l-feqār device), cross-like emblems, rings, lions, two cardboard dragons (variant of the tūq device; Oléarius, with drawing), a kind of tower with four scimitars (ibid.), and a horseshoe which allegedly belonged to ʿAbbās (Moḥammad’s uncle according to Oléarius, more probably ʿAbbās b. ʿAlī). There was a tendency toward a shortening of the staff and a lengthening of the spearhead blades of the tūq device, which could reach considerable size. There was also a multiplication of the spearhead blades above the ʿalam banner’s cross-bar.

In its most common shape, an ʿalam banner used in modern Shiʿite rituals in Iran comprises essentially three parts (Figure 24): (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 sides, 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. Carried in procession, ʿalams are hardly recognizable, since they are loaded with ex-votos (sing. naḏr, daḵīl) 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 (lāla). The banners are called many names besides ʿalam. The word tūq, although said now to be confined to Qom (Faqīhī, Tārīḵ, p. 277), was used in Qajar times in Azerbaijan (described in Lassy, Mysteries, p. 112), Tehran (Van Vloten, “Drapeaux;” Mostawfī, Šarḥ), and probably elsewhere. Beyraq seems still to be used to designate various kinds of religious banners (e.g. Lassy, loc. cit.; Homāyūnī, Farhang, pp. 400ff.; here, Figures 25-27). The Mongol term kotal also applied to specific kinds of banners (Calmard, “Etendards,” pp. 37ff.), which may be known under other names (e.g. the ʿalam e raḵtpūš formerly used in Qom, Faqīhī, Tārīḵ, p. 275).

Various kinds of banners and pennants are used in Moḥarram ceremonies; each social group such as ṣenf (guild), hayʾat-e maḏhabī (religious organization), and maḥalla (town or village quarter), owns at least one, symbolizing its own identity as opposed to that of rival factions (a remnant of former ʿaṣabīyāt). 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 Ābanbār qahwa-ḵāna. Colors used in banners include black, the so-called color of the Prophet, but also that of the Mahdī and the ʿAbbasids: blue or purple, the traditional color of mourning; green, the ʿAlid color from Imām Reżā’s time and the color of Islam; white (even though it was connected with the Omayyads and the Fatimids; see Van Vloten, “Drapeaux,” pl. V); yellow (ibid.); and red, which is connected with Mahdist movements and the cult of martyrs and is the color of Imam Ḥosayn’s banner. There was a progressive restriction in the use of red, since it is the color of the villain’s garments in the taʿzīya and was used by the Kharijites on their banners; in India, Shiʿites avoid it because it is the Sunnis’ color (Ali, Observations, p. 37).

Some ʿalam banners are embodied with a special barakat or prophylactic efficiency connected with fertility, children’s protection, recovery from disease, etc.; this is enhanced by the inscriptions engraved or cut out in the metallic finials. These range from groups of names such as “Allāh, Moḥammad, ʿAlī”, to Koranic inscriptions such as that granting victory (Figure 23). Inscriptions may also be cut or engraved in panǰas (Figure 28) or be written out on the banners themselves.

Tūq or ʿalam banners are taken out of their respective takyas only before noon on the day of ʿĀšūrā (Faqīhī, Tārīḵ, p. 278). Under Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah the ornamentation and departure of the royal ʿalam from the andarūn to the takya was made with great ceremony (Moʿayyer-al-mamālek, Yāddāšthā, p. 105). Influential preachers (rawża-ḵān) had their emblematic ʿalam banners (Mostawfī, Šarḥ, I, pp. 282ff.). Heavy banners needed to be carried by strong bearers (ʿalam-keš, tūqčī, beyraqdār), generally belonging to a local zūr-ḵāna or “house of strength,” who were surrounded by attendants (pātūqī). In Qom, these pātūqīs protect the bearer from the pressure of the crowd eager to touch or kiss the spearhead of the tūq. Various kinds of banners were used in contests between young men in towns and villages (see, e.g., Calmard, “Etendards”, p. 36). Jugglers of banners (ʿalam-bāzān, pātūqī) exhibited their skills in Moḥarram ceremonies (e.g., Calmard, Monde iranien 2, 1974, pp. 80ff., 114ff.).

Both military and ritual uses of ʿalam banners have given rise to sayings and proverbs. ʿAlam be ḵūn čarb kardan “to anoint the ʿalam with (the enemies’) blood” seems to be connected with old magical practices to obtain victory. ʿAlam va kotal rāh andāḵtān “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 (see Dehḵodā and other dictionaries).


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).

ʿA. 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 Muharram 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)


ii. The Art of Metal ʿAlams

Although no depictions of banners appear to survive from pre-Mongol Islamic Iran, there is some evidence of their probable form. The Schefer Ḥarīrī manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale, which was probably produced in Baghdad in 634/1237, shows the use of a broad-bladed probably metal device affixed to the top of a wooden shaft adorned with flags or tassels (R. Ettinghausen, Arab Painting, Skira, 1962, pp. 118-19). This form of device continued to be used in Egypt and Syria throughout the Mamlūk period, and many steel examples are known (e.g., L. A. Mayer, “Saracenic Arms and Armor,” Ars Islamica 10, 1943, pp. 1-12, figs. 12-13). The Turks are known to have introduced the ṭūḡ (or tūḡ), a bunch of horse-hair tied to the top of a pole, which again functioned as a standard or banner (J. Sauvaget, “Remarques sur les monuments omayyades. II. Argenterie "Sassanides",” JA, 1940-41, pp. 19-57; idem, “Une représentation de la citadelle seljoukide de Merv,” Ars Islamica 15-16, 1951, pp. 128-29).

The first depictions of banners in Persian miniature painting show a ṭūḡ or a flag, or a combination of both (e.g., Rašīd-al-dīn, Jāmeʿ al-tawārīḵ MS, Edinburgh University Library). The flag is cut in flames down the free side, a tradition deriving, like the ṭūḡ, from Central Asia (Sauvaget, op. cit.). To this combination of ṭūḡ and flag was added a further device, first illustrated in the second half of the 8th/14th century: a pair of metal dragon heads at either side of a spear-head shaped centerpiece (B. Gray, Persian Painting, Skira, 1961, p. 43). This then developed into a variety of forms and became a striking feature of warfare and parades, though almost invariably combined with a flag of some sort. To trace the development of such banners and flags is at present impossible owing to the lack of published examples. A number of them, probably from the 10th/16th century, exist in the Topkapi museum (Plate XXXII); others are found in museums around the world. They are usually of pierced steel inlaid with gold (e.g. Survey of Persian Art, pl. 1433 A & B). The only other source of information for these objects is miniature painting, where they are common in works from the 9th/15th and 10th/16th centuries, but here the depictions do not suggest a specific tendency in terms of design (for examples see Gray, Persian Painting, pp. 134-35; I. Stchoukine, Les peintures des manuscrits timurides, Paris, 1954, pls. XXII, XXXV, XLVI, XLVII, LXXXIII, etc.). Flame-edged flags continue, at least up to the middle of the 10th/16th century, but there also seems to be a preference for single pennant flags during Safavid times. A piece of cloth, like a scarf or unwrapped turban, tied at its middle round the lance, is also a common form of pennant, and is found from the 7th/13th century through the 10th/16th.

The metal banners made today in Iran are employed only in religious ceremonies, the most important of which are the processions on ʿĀšūrā. The banners are often more complex, containing at their center the traditional form but with other smaller banners attached, and sometimes metal peacocks, birds, and lamps. The center piece is invariably ornamented with the names of ʿAlī, Fāṭema, Ḥasan and Ḥosayn, in addition to those of God and the Prophet (J. and S. Gluck, A Survey of Persian Handicraft, Tehran, 1977, pp. 142-45). Modern banners are usually steel fretwork inlaid with gold, and thus show a continuity of production from much earlier times (H. E. Wulff, The Traditional Crafts of Persia, Cambridge, Mass., 1966, pp. 72-73).

Bibliography: Given in the text.

(J. Calmard, J. W. Allan)

Originally Published: December 15, 1985

Last Updated: July 29, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 785-791

Cite this entry:

J. Calmard, J. W. Allan, “ʿALAM VA ʿALĀMAT,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/8, pp. 785-791; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/alam va alamat,alam wa alamat,'alam wa 'alamat,'alam va 'alamat,alama (accessed on 17 May 2014).