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What is a Hamsa?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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A hamsa is a type of charm, symbol or talisman that is commonly used by people of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, although members of other faiths might use it as well. Also called a hamesh hand, it looks like a hand that has three fingers pointing upward and the thumb and pinkie finger pointing outward. The palm of the hand is commonly covered with an eye. This symbol is thought to ward off "the evil eye" and offer protection from the hand of God.

History

The earliest use of a hamsa predates Islam, although the name hamsa is Arabic. Some people connect this symbol to its use by the Phoenicians or Punic people in honor of the goddess Tanit. She was considered the patron of Carthage and a goddess who controlled the lunar cycle. Many people identify Tanit as a possible type for Greek goddesses such as Hera and Athena.

Meaning and Uses

Jews also use the hamsa symbol to ward off the so-called "evil eye." To many Jews, the symbol is connected to the five books of the Torah and is used for many things. Wall plaques, keychains and amulets often feature this symbol. Representations of the symbol might include the words of certain Hebrew prayers as well.

Wearing charms or amulets is technically against Qu’ran law, but in Islamic countries, one can often see plaques or other items that depict the hamsa symbol. Further, some people connect the five fingers of the hand to the Five Pillars of Islam.

Other Names

Muslims often call this symbol "the hand of Fatima" or "the eye of Fatima," a reference to Muhammad’s daughter. Jewish people might refer to the hamsa symbol as "the hand of Miriam," a reference to the sister of Moses who is said to have watched over the baby Moses and to have ensured that their mother would be his nurse after he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Some Christians refer to it as the "hand of Mary," a reference to the mother of Jesus.

Symbol of Peace

Some advocates for peace in the Middle East have begun wearing the hamsa to symbolize this goal. When worn in this fashion, it stands for the common ground shared by Jews and Muslims and the common source from which the Jewis and Islamic religions spring. Instead of being a talisman that is thought to have protective qualities, it becomes a gesture of hope for peace in the war-torn regions of the Middle East.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments
By burcinc — On Mar 24, 2011

The hamsa sounds so mystical. I heard of it in a mystery novel that I read recently. It was about a police officer in Syria during the French occupation who was trying to solve a murder. The hamsa was one of the objects that helped him unravel the mystery. I know it's a novel but I'm sure the hamsa was still used in Syria in that time period.

It seems that the hamsa has not lost any popularity for hundreds of years. It must really work or why else would people keep using it.

By bear78 — On Mar 23, 2011

If the hamsa predates both Judaism and Islam, how come religious figures like Miriam and Fatima were associated with it? Were the Jews and Muslims trying to justify the use of this talisman even though it has no religious significance?

Cultures seem to want to hold on to their traditions and sort of adapt historical objects, symbols, even deities to new belief systems. It's just very interesting how a hamsa pendant is still believed to protect from evil even though there are religious texts which state the opposite.

By SteamLouis — On Mar 21, 2011

I actually have a hamsa but had no idea what its origin and meaning was. I bought a necklace with a hamsa pendant at a bazaar while traveling in Egypt. My hamsa also has a little blue evil eye stone in the center. I knew about the evil eye pendant and I thought that the hamsa looked really unique. I'm totally an advocate of Middle East peace, so I am really happy that I was symbolizing that with my hamsa necklace even though I wasn't aware!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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