Source: Clare M. Lopez, Lopez Liberty LLC, October 17, 2023
The Islamic Republic of Iran has just raised the black flag of mourning over the shrine of Imam Reza, the 8th Imam of Shi’ite Islam and one of its most revered figures. The shrine complex is in the eastern city of Mashhad, Iran and is an important place of pilgrimage for Shi’ite Muslims worldwide. Born Ali ibn Musa al-Ridha, the 8th Imam was murdered by the Abbasid caliph in 818 CE and thus entered the pantheon of Shi’ite martyrs.
On the black flag over Mashhad is written “We shall not cry, we shall avenge”. This is likely a reference to the Israeli counteroffensive being waged against HAMAS and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza. Other more familiar black flags—for example, those used by Al-Qa’eda, the Islamic State, as well as the green national flag of Saudi Arabia – contain the shahada, the pledge of allegiance to Islam. The shahada says:
There is no god but Allah & Muhammad is his prophet
Aside from during the Islamic month of Muharram, this black flag is not typically flown. But it has been raised over Mashhad now, signifying that the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran is in mourning for the HAMAS dead in Gaza, but also as a way of declaring jihad (which is warfare against the non-Muslim) against Israel, the U.S., and the West in general. It is also a kind of declaration of solidarity with both HAMAS (which is Sunni) and PIJ (which is Shi’ite).
The black flag of jihad resonates with the Shi’ite Muslim faithful because it is referenced in a Shi’ite hadith (a saying attributed to Muhammad) that states
“When the black flags come from Khurasan, go to them, for among them is the khalifah of Allah, the Mahdi.”
The figure of the Mahdi is the messianic figure of Islam for both Sunnis and Shi’ites, but for the Iranian Twelver Shi’ites (who follow the 12th Imam), the Mahdi is held to be the 12th Imam who died in the 9th century and will return to earth to usher in the End Times and Day of Judgment.
Khurasan is the name of the easternmost stretches of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenian Empire of the 6th-4th century BCE and the Parthian empire, which spanned from the 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century CE. Today, what was ancestral Khurasan includes parts of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.