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Published on 23 Shawwal, 1424.

The Handprint In Islamic Art

By Siddiqua Shahnawaz

Iraqi Modern Islamic Art

Iraqi Modern Islamic Art

Australian Aboriginal Rock Art in Dampier, North Western Australia- featuring the handprint.
Australian Aboriginal Rock Art in Dampier, North Western Australia- featuring the handprint.

From the ancient cave paintings in India, to aboriginal art in Australia, to folk art in Africa, to the most contemporary artwork in the West, handprints have been widely used as a medium of artistic expression. Being the most primitive form of expressing one’s creativity, they’re still regarded today as a powerful element in art and design.  

In Islamic art as well, this handprint has been one of the most powerful and outstanding symbols, deeply rooted and beautifully woven into the Islamic culture, faith, philosophy, religion and psychology.  

Although there are many reasons why the handprint remains so important in our history, its predominant significance has come from the fact that it is an essential part of the ‘alam’.

Makkassan Prau in Groot Eyland cave painting, reflecting the handprint, Northern territory, Australia.
Makkassan Prau in Groot Eyland cave painting, reflecting the handprint, Northern Territory, Australia.

The alam is a flag of Islam, outstandingly representing Imam Hussain ('a)'s army in the battle of Karbala. For centuries, this alam has been one of the most sacred symbols signifying faith, devotion, sacrifice and bravery.

The handprint on the alam symbolizes the hand of Hazrat Abbas ('a), the brave and loyal brother of Imam Hussain ('a). This valiant son of Imam Ali ('a) was the flag-bearer of Imam's army at Karbala and is one of the most revered heroes known for his undaunting bravery, devotion and loyalty. Popularly known as the bright full moon in the star filled firmament of the clan of Bani Hashim, he laid down his life upholding the cause of Imam Hussain ('a) at Karbala. This mighty warrior faced the onslaught of hundreds of soldiers from Yazeed’s army with only a flag and a mashkeeza (water-flask) in one hand, and the reins of his horse in the other. 

Imam Hussain, alaihi salam- Karbala- reflecting the handprint of Abbas, alaihi salam.
Imam Hussain, alaihi salam- Karbala- reflecting the handprint of Abbas, alaihi salam

His desire to quench the thirst of the little children in Imam’s camp was so great that without any weapons, he managed to tear through the enemy’s army and reach the river Euphrates. He did not drink a single drop of water himself, but quickly filled the mashkeeza and began riding back towards the camp, when the enemy surrounded him from all sides and began ruthlessly slaughtering him. He lost both his hands in this onslaught, but kept riding, till a soldier from the enemy’s army finally struck the mashkeeza with an arrow. The water flowed out and so did all the hopes of Hazrat Abbas ('a). The alam and mashkeeza fell, and Abbas too fell from his horse, terribly wounded and heart-broken at being unable to fulfil the request of the little children, especially his most favoured niece, the four-year-old Sakina. The handprint on the alam signifies the great sacrifice of Hazrat Abbas ('a) and the readiness of his followers in laying down their lives for the cause of Imam Hussain ('a).

Zuljanah - Imam hussain's horse depicted at the Battle of Karbala reflecting the handprint of al-Abbas ('a).
Zuljana- at the battle of Karbala- reflecting the handprint of Abbas, alaihi salam.

The handprint also represents the pure Ahlul Bayt ('a). The five fingers in the handprint stand for the five holy personalities extolled in the verse of the cloak, an important Islamic hadeeth. The holy five are the Prophet Muhammad ('s), his daughter Sayyida Fathima Zahra ('a), her husband and the prophet’s cousin Imam Ali ('a), and her sons Imam Hassan (as) and Imam Hussain ('a). It was through these holy personalities that the foundation of Islam was laid. Thus, the handprint symbolizing the purity and merit of these holy five is an essential part of the Islamic faith.

The handprint also symbolizes a bayyat, which is an allegiance that every Muslim who follows the Holy Prophet ('s), pays to his Imam. Traditionally, giving one’s hand in Imam’s hand and promising Imam complete faith, loyalty and fealty to him paid the bayyat. The handprint hence signifies the believer’s continued loyalty to and complete faith in the present Imam-e-Zamana (atf).

Although the reasons of the significance of the handprint in Islam stated here are the few outstanding ones, one would need to thoroughly and comprehensively study Islamic history to completely grasp its importance.

The following are a few couplets of Mir Anees in praise of this grand living symbol of Islam. They are a part of his great classic poem on the sacrifice of Karbala -

Islamic Banner

“The five-pronged emblem's radiance robbed the sight;
Its gleaming was reflected on the sand;
It lit the high empyrean with its light
A bridegroom's face veiled in a golden strand.
The emblem and the sun shone in both ways,
Entangling in the air their brilliant rays.

The banner of Abbas goes forth unfurled.
The company of the Prophet rules the world”


Author: Siddiqua Shahnawaz
Artists: Unknown
Chief Editor: Hj Nurzaynab El-Fatah
Production: Hj S. Abidin
Published Date: 23 Shawwal, 1424.

Modification Date: 12th January 2009/ 15th Muharram, 1430
Publication ID: 04handprintArt. The Handprint In Islamic Art
Copyright: © Victory News Magazine, 2010


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