The hamsa (Arabic: خمسة khamsah, meaning lit. “five”) is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and commonly used in jewelry and wall hangings. Depicting the open right hand, an image recognized and used as a sign of protection in many societies throughout history, the hamsa is believed to provide defense against the evil eye. The symbol predates Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In Islam, it is also known as the hand of Fatima, so named to commemorate Muhammad’s daughter Fatima Zahra (c. 605 or 615 – 633). Levantine Christians call it the hand of Mary, for the Virgin Mary. Jews refer to it as the hand of Miriam in remembrance of the biblical Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron.
Some say that in Islamic tradition the five fingers represent the Five Pillars of Islam. In Old-Turkish this sign is called: ‘pence-i al-i aba’, with ‘pence’ meaning ‘hand’ or ‘five’, referring to the household of the Islamic prophet Muhammed. The household of Muhammed is enumerated as those five people over whom the prophet held a cloth; they are: Fatima-tül Zehra, Ali-el Mürteza, Hasan-ül Mücteba, Hüseyin-i Desht-i Kerbela, Muhammed Mustafa.
Early use of the hamsa has been traced to ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). A universal sign of protection, the image of the open right hand is seen in Mesopotamian artifacts in the amulets of the Qāt Ištar / Inana. In that time, women were under immense pressure and expectation to become mothers. The women’s upbringing was centered on becoming a mother as an exclusive role, and it indicated child bearing as necessary. In addition, it was also thought marriage was a sense of protection for both the man and woman.
Other symbols of divine protection based around the hand include the Hand-of-Venus (or Aphrodite), the Hand-of-Mary that was used to protect women from the evil eye, boost fertility and lactation, promote healthy pregnancies, and strengthen the weak, and in the Buddha’s gesture (mudrā) of teaching and protection.
One theory postulates a connection between the khamsa and the Mano Pantea (or Hand-of-the-All-Goddess), an amulet known to ancient Egyptians as the Two Fingers. In this amulet, the Two Fingers represent Isis and Osiris and the thumb, their child Horus and it was used to invoke the protective spirits of parents over their child. Another meaning of this symbol relates to the sky god, Horus. It refers to the eye of Horus, which means man cannot escape from the eye of conscience. It says that the sun and moon are the eyes of Horus.
Another theory traces the origins of the hamsa to Carthage (Phoenicia) where the hand (or in some cases vulva) of the supreme deity Tanit was used to ward off the evil eye.
With the advent of Islam, the khamsa came to be known as the hand of Fatima to commemorate Fatima Zahra, the daughter of Muhammad. The hamsa hand is known by many names—hamsa, hamsa hand, hamesh, hamesh hand, khamsa, and chamsa. Arabs also call the amulet simply al-kaff (“the hand”). According to Bruno Barbatti, while this motif is “the most important apotropaic sign in the Islamic world,” many modern day representations continue to “show unmistakably that they derive from sex symbolism.”
The Hand of Fatima represents femininity. It is referred as the woman’s holy hand. It is believe to be having extraordinary characteristics that use to protect people from evil and other dangers. This relates to the belief that God exists in everything.
The hamsa’s path into Jewish culture, and its popularity particularly in Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities, can be traced through its use in Islam. Many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God. This “favorite Muslim talisman” became a part of Jewish tradition in North African and Middle Eastern Muslim countries. The symbol of the hand appears in Kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets, doubling as the Hebrew letter “shin,” the first letter of “Shaddai,” one of the names referring to God.
The khamsa holds recognition as a bearer of good fortune among Christians in the region as well. Levantine Christians call it the hand of Mary (Arabic: Kef Miryam, or the “Virgin Mary’s Hand”). Well after the end of Islamic rule in Spain, its use was significant enough to prompt an episcopal committee convened by Emperor Charles V to decree a ban on the Hand of Fatima and all open right hand amulets in 1526.
Symbolism and usage
The Hand (Khamsa), particularly the open right hand, is a sign of protection that also represents blessings, power, and strength, and is seen as potent in deflecting the evil eye. One of the most common components of gold and silver jewellery in the region, historically and traditionally, it was most commonly carved in jet or formed from silver, a metal believed to represent purity and hold magical properties. It is also painted in red (sometimes using the blood of a sacrificed animal) on the walls of houses for protection, or painted or hung on the doorways of rooms, such as those of an expectant mother or new baby.
The hand can be depicted with the fingers spread apart to ward off evil, or as closed together to bring good luck. Highly stylized versions may be difficult to recognize as hands, and can consist of five circles representing the fingers, situated around a central circle representing the palm. It symbolizes the Five Pillars of Islam for Sunnis, and the Five People of the Cloak for Shi’ites.
Used to protect against evil eye, a malicious stare believed to be able to cause illness, death, or just general unluckiness, hamsas often contain an eye symbol. Depictions of the hand, the eye, or the number five in Arabic (and Berber) tradition are related to warding off the evil eye, as exemplified in the saying khamsa fi ainek (“five [fingers] in your eye”). Raising one’s right hand with the palm showing and the fingers slightly apart is part of this curse meant “to blind the aggressor.”
Another formula uttered against the evil eye in Arabic, but without hand gestures, is khamsa wa-khamis (“five and Thursday”). As the fifth day of the week, Thursday is considered a good day for magic rites and pilgrimages to the tombs of revered saints to counteract the effects of the evil eye.
Sufi staffs or poles are often topped with a khamsa. Among Shiites, the fingers of the hand of Fatima also represent the ‘five holy persons’ of Muhammed’s family: Muhammed, Fatima, Ali, Hassan, and Hussein. Ali’s name or those of all of The Twelve Imams are sometimes engraved on metal Hands of Fatima.
Due to its significance in both Arabic and Berber culture in Africa, the hamsa is one of the national symbols of Algeria and appears in its emblem. It is also the most popular among the different amulets (such as the Eye and the Hirz—a silver box containing verses of the Quran) for warding off the evil eye in Egypt. Egyptian women who live in baladi (“traditional”) urban quarters often make khamaysa which are amulets made up of five (khamsa) objects to attach to their children’s hair or black aprons. The five objects can be made of peppers, hands, circles, or stars hanging from hooks.
As a ‘good luck’ charm, it appears on necklaces, keychains, postcards, telephone and lottery cards, and in advertisements. It is also incorporated into high-end jewellery, decorative tilework, and wall decorations.
After the establishment of Israel, the widespread use of the talisman by Jews from Islamic countries was considered a sign of ‘Easternness’, looked down upon in the Eurocentric Ashkenazi cultural milieu that dominated.