Image of Ali ibn Abi Talib

Syrian banner

Materials: Stamped metal, Jacquard woven nylon fabric
Dimensions: 29 Centimeters high
Place acquired: Damascus, Syria, 2007
Place of manufacture: Syria

As I write this a civil war is taking place in Syria. Bashar Hafez al-Assad is trying to cling to power in the face of a host of rebel groups fighting to depose him. It may seem something of a stretch of the imagination to try to link these very current events with an islamic leader who lived 1,400 years ago. But there is a link, and this little banner, bought in the Syrian capital of Damascus several years before the current conflict, is a poignant witness to this.

The link is islamic sectarianism – the rift between the Sunni and the Shia traditions of Islam – and one of the central issues in that rift concerns the status of the man depicted on this banner. Ali ibn Abi Talib was the cousin and the son-in-law of the muslim prophet Mohammed. He was a staunch supporter of the prophet during his lifetime, and is an enormously respected founding figure in both Sunni and Shia traditions of Islam, but there is a rift concerning his position as heir to Mohammed. Shia muslims regard Ali and his lineage as the true inheritors of Mohammed’s authority, as willed by the prophet himself. Some Shia sects even accord him near-divine status. Sunni muslims reject this, and support an alternative line of authority via Abu Bakr, the first elected Caliph after Mohammed's death.

The majority of Syria’s population are Sunni muslims. But the ruling Assad family comes from a Shia sect known as Alawis, or Alawites. The name is taken from Ali ibn Abi Talib, and this little banner depicting him with his head surrounded by a halo is a classic piece of Alawite iconography. The Assad regime has always attempted to tread a delicate secular path through these sectarian divides, but in the polarised circumstances of the present war things may well have taken on more heightened meanings. What in 2007 would have been an innocent banner of faith to hang in your car or on your wall, in 2014 may seem so closely linked to the Assad regime as to take on more political connotations. It would not be exaggerating to say that its possession, in certain circumstances, could be dangerous.

The image on this banner is not painted or printed on to the fabric, it is woven using a computerised jacquard technique. It is cheap and mass-produced, but the fact that it is woven – like a tapestry – gives it a permanence and an aura of status. This same Image will be hanging in certain Syrian homes right now with a significance heightened by the conflict.