The Hoax in the ISIS Flag

Claiming to channel pure Islam, the Islamic State fell for a long-debunked 19th century hoax

The Hoax in the ISIS Flag
A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State group in a tunnel that was reportedly used as a training centre by the jihadists, on March 1, 2017, in the village of Albu Sayf, on the southern outskirts of Mosul / Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP via Getty Images

In 1854, a French diplomat named François Alphonse Belin made a bombshell announcement: the discovery of an original letter sent by the Prophet Muhammad to the governor of Egypt in the seventh century, complete with Muhammad’s personal seal. Biographies of the Prophet tell us he wrote such letters, but until then it was thought that none survived. Belin’s account of the discovery is thrilling, albeit fictitious. But the letter’s real history — and the histories of other letters purportedly written by Muhammad that surfaced soon after it — is no less fascinating. The forged letters passed through the hands of canny businesspeople, eager scholars and gullible sultans. They were eventually enshrined in the most unlikely of places: the official flag of the Islamic State group.

According to Belin, Muhammad’s letter had been unearthed by a Frenchman named Etienne Barthélémy when researching in the libraries of Coptic monasteries near the southern Egyptian town of Akhmim. Belin’s account of Barthélémy’s find is full of sensationalist flourishes: It depicts Barthélémy struggling heroically against exhaustion and bankruptcy to rescue ancient books from oblivion and bring them to the light of science. His perseverance was rewarded when he came upon an Arabic manuscript. Examining the damaged binding, he spied a sheet of parchment within it and began to pry the binding apart, having recognized the word “Muhammad” written in an ancient hand. Feverish with excitement, he bought the manuscript for closer scrutiny. Belin quotes a letter that Barthélémy sent to his family soon afterward, describing his painstaking efforts to decipher the letter and concluding: “Given the seal and the beginning of the first line, I am inclined to believe that this parchment is a letter from Muhammad addressed to the Coptic nation, and that this seal is that of the prophet of the Muslims.”

Though trained by the foremost Orientalists of his time, Belin had pursued a career in the French foreign service, working first as a translator and then as consul in Cairo and Istanbul. With his scholarly credentials and his prominent position, Belin’s judgment carried considerable clout. The detailed study of the purported letter that he published contained a transcription and French translation of the text, which calls on the Christian inhabitants of Egypt to convert to Islam and proposes dialogue on the basis of shared monotheism. Belin’s description of the document precisely matched the descriptions of Muhammad’s letter contained in early Muslim historical works, such as the ninth century “Conquest of Egypt” of Ibn Abd al-Hakam. In addition, Belin argued that the script of the letter resembled the ancient scripts used in the early Quranic manuscripts that French Orientalists had acquired (by force) during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. Thanks, no doubt, to Belin’s endorsement, the letter was bought by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid in 1858 for the staggering price of 500,000 Turkish piasters — equivalent to 73 pounds of gold.

Orientalist scholars, too, were caught up in the excitement. Although the journal of the German Orientalist society admitted in 1856 that the letter’s authenticity had not yet been established with certainty, it declared that Belin’s thorough study had made it very likely. Four years later, Theodor Nöldeke, in the first edition of his groundbreaking study of the Quran, claimed that the authenticity of the letter could not be doubted. Given this overwhelming agreement, the letter’s script was subsequently used to authenticate other texts. For example, in 1857 a newly discovered cache of copper coins was declared authentic on the basis of similarities between the script of the letter and that on the coins.

The first cracks in the consensus appeared in 1863, when another letter purportedly written by Muhammad came to light. This letter was likewise bought by the Ottoman sultan. Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer, the doyen of Orientalist studies in Germany at the time, openly mocked the second letter, writing that “the Italian who has forged or peddled it must have been born under a lucky star if he manages to fool truly learned Muslims.” Pointing out many crude errors in it, such as the misspelling of the addressee’s name, Fleischer suggested that “the man wanted to see whether the hen that laid such beautiful golden eggs for the seller of Muhammad’s [other] letter … is still alive.”

Tracing of a letter claiming to have been written by the Prophet Muhammad / Courtesy of author

A more extensive and definitive critique came from the Austrian Orientalist Joseph Karabacek, who worked on the Arabic papyrus collection in Vienna, which contains some of the oldest documents written by Muslims anywhere in the world. According to Karabacek, a comparative paleographic analysis — focusing on the form of the script — of these ancient papyri and the letter to the Copts clearly showed the latter to be a forgery. The German scholarly community quickly accepted Karabacek’s conclusions. When Theodor Nöldeke published the second edition of his Quran book, he frankly reversed his earlier stance, declaring that the letters were “definitely not authentic.” (British Orientalists, far behind their mainland colleagues in the study of scripts, held out longer.)

In the Muslim world, the authenticity of the purported letters from Muhammad went undiscussed for some time, probably because the letters were initially hidden from the public eye. The Ottoman sultans, who had quickly amassed a total of four such letters, kept them within their collection of sacred relics (which also contained items such as Muhammad’s tooth, cloak and beard hair) and paid their respects to them on ceremonious annual visits. Questions were not raised until 1904, when an article in the Egyptian journal al-Hilal argued that the letters’ script betrayed a crude attempt to imitate early Islamic writing. But the letters received staunch support from the Hyderabadi scholar Muhammad Hamidullah, who, in a series of publications from 1935 to 1985, defended the authenticity not only of the four letters that had been in the sultan’s collection but also of two other letters in private hands.

Hamidullah’s central argument was that neither Muslim nor Orientalist scholars in the 19th century had sufficient knowledge of early scripts to produce such sophisticated forgeries, so the letters had to be genuine. But this is not true: Already half a century before Belin’s article, Orientalist scholars — foremost among them Belin’s teacher Sylvestre de Sacy — had studied and characterized the script of early Quran fragments, which they called “Kufic.” Radiocarbon dating has since established that these fragments do indeed date from the first century of Islam and comparing them to the letters makes it clear that the latter are fake: The scribes who wrote them were struggling to imitate a profoundly unfamiliar script. The baseline of the words is inconsistent, the spacing is off, and the letters are drawn unsteadily rather than written. Thanks to the internet, today one can browse dozens of samples of Quranic writing, as well as other documents and rock inscriptions, from the first decades of Islam. Next to these genuine samples, the purported letters look like Disneyland castles juxtaposed with their medieval models. But at a time when few people had access to genuine Kufic texts, the forgeries had a chance of passing successfully.

The seal at the end of the letters also raises questions. According to early descriptions, Muhammad’s personal seal contained the phrase “Muhammad, apostle [of] God,” with each word on a separate line, starting with “Muhammad” on the top. The phrase in this form is attested on very early Islamic coins. But by the 14th century, some Muslim scholars were beginning to speculate that the word order on the seal might actually have been the opposite: “God” on the first line, “apostle” on the second and “Muhammad” on the third. This arrangement would have placed God, rather than Muhammad, at the top, which these scholars felt would be more appropriate. The idea was taken up by al-Halabi (died 1635), the author of a fanciful but enduringly popular biography of Muhammad that featured all kinds of fictional embellishments. However, as Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (died 1449), an authority on reports about Muhammad, pointed out, there is no historical evidence to support the claim that the seal’s text began with “God.” It was a medieval invention.

So the letters are fakes. But who forged them, and why? Karabacek suspected Egyptian Copts, pointing to a well-known medieval practice in Christian and Jewish communities of forging letters in which Muhammad exempts the recipients from taxation. But these medieval letters were written for an obvious practical goal, their content was unattested in historical accounts, and they generally claimed to be mere copies rather than originals. By contrast, the letter touted by Barthélémy was marketed as the genuine one, from the hand of the Prophet himself. It replicated the text of a known document, mimicked the early Kufic script and was written on parchment rather than paper (an important detail, since paper was adopted in the Arab world only after Muhammad’s time).

The first suspect must be Barthélémy himself, a keen entrepreneur with knowledge of Oriental languages. He publicized his find actively among diplomats and academics and succeeded in securing Belin’s endorsement, which facilitated the enormously lucrative sale of the letter to the Ottoman court. Other suspect figures include two Europeans, Ribandi and Wilkinson, who acted as intermediaries in the sale, and an Italian who claimed to have obtained the second letter through daring subterfuge, traveling across Syria in native disguise (a trope of 19th-century Oriental adventure fantasies), purchasing the letter under false pretenses. The tales of these European “discoverers” are full of colorful clichés but remarkably thin on details. In which monastery did Barthélémy find the Arabic manuscript containing the first letter? From whom did the unnamed Italian buy the second letter?

The formulism and convenient omissions of these stories and the suspicious features of the letters themselves indicate that the letters were forged in the 19th century by Europeans who had enough scholarly training to produce credible fabrications as well as the requisite connections and business savvy to turn them into money. These men took the early historical reports that Muhammad sent letters to foreign rulers and spun them into artifacts that could pique the interest of the Ottoman sultan.

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the letters and other prophetic relics in the sultan’s collection were incorporated into the Topkapi Palace museum and displayed as tourist attractions. They also continued to hold devotional value for the pious, as shown by a 1920s post-Ottoman pamphlet featuring an image and a Turkish translation of the letter to the Copts.

But the letters received an entirely new lease on life in 2007, when the militant group then calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq adopted a flag that includes an exact replica of Muhammad’s purported seal, copied from the forged letters. In an anonymous document disseminated online, the group explicitly acknowledged the Topkapi letters as the source of the seal. To their credit, the militants were aware that the word order on the seal did not match early descriptions, but they argued that the discovery of the actual letters made further doubts about the correct order moot. That the letters might be fake, or that their script was questionable, was not mentioned.

When the group renamed itself the Islamic State in 2014 and established its short-lived caliphate, the forged seal of Muhammad became the symbol of the militants’ rule. It not only was used on the infamous black flag but also branded the Islamic State’s considerable propaganda output and was stamped on its documents. A European Orientalist fraud was broadcast to the world by a group claiming to be the rightful inheritors of the Prophet’s mantle.

The Islamic State embraced what it thought was Muhammad’s seal for the same reason that the Ottoman sultan was willing to pay exorbitant prices for Muhammad’s purported letters: to claim legitimacy. Whereas the sultan’s purchase of the letters was a continuation of his dynasty’s centuries-long campaign of amassing sacred objects, the Islamic State had little interest in the objects themselves; it merely sought to harness the symbolic significance of the seal, which could be easily reproduced and disseminated. It is, perhaps, understandable that neither the Ottomans nor the Islamic State were interested in examining the actual historicity of their symbols too closely.

Instead of springing from the pen of Muhammad’s scribes in the seventh century, the letters attributed to him were products of an enterprising class of men in the age of European colonialism who saw an opportunity to monetize the growing hunger of museums, libraries and private collectors for historical artifacts. Although local inhabitants of the Middle East also profited from such frauds, it was Europeans who occupied the most high-profile and lucrative positions in this thriving industry. They possessed the resources, the prestige and the scholarly tools that enabled them to identify and obtain genuine artifacts — and to credibly fabricate others. The case of Muhammad’s letters shows how unsavory origins could be camouflaged with sensationalist stories of discovery and scholarly window-dressing to satisfy an audience willing to believe that they were looking at the real thing. The Islamic State’s caliphate was in no way unique in this regard: Countless postcolonial states were built on colonial mythologies created and developed by Orientalist scholars. Yet the fact that the Islamic State — a group obsessed with its own authenticity and freedom from outside influences — fell for a 150-year-old European fraud is not without irony.

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