A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why are the star and crescent symbols of Islam?

July 9, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

The star and the crescent moon symbol that represent Islam, what do they mean?

Let me tell you, I had to do some research on this one. Couldn't find jack on the "Ask a Mullah" site; even less on the Virtual Mosque site. The Virtual Mosque's virtual mullah just says "Islam ain't got no symbols, bub." Which we know is bunk, otherwise why the question?  But I got to the bottom of it at last.

In fact, the star and crescent are not (repeat, NOT) official symbols of Islam. According to the Hadiths (collection of binding religous decisions), it is a sin to use anything as a symbol of Allah (Arabic for "God").

So we look back into history, although it's somewhat cloudy. Our preferred explanation: the crescent moon was a symbol of a local deity of Istanbul, the sky-god. When the Ottoman Turks took over Istanbul, they decided to use the town's symbol as their own. Other explanations, however include the story that Osman, founder of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1295, had a dream of a crescent moon stretching over the earth, took it as a good omen, and adopted it as the symbol of his dynasty. (This sounds like a parallel of the Constantine dream story.) Another story says the crescent and star originated in central Asia, brought to Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks. Some sources suggest it was originally a crescent moon and sun. Regardless of earlier origin, by the mid-1300's it was the symbol of the Ottoman dynasty.

Since the Ottomans were also ruling Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam, the community of believers), folks started adapting the crescent moon as a symbol for Islam in general, and began putting it on mosques, minarets, and anything else they wanted to decorate. But they didn't ever use it for decoration on the Koran (holy book or "bible" of Islam), since the Koran was "dictated by the Angel of God to the Messenger of God" and so should not bear any symbol. I can hear Prez Bush saying, "Wouldn't be prudent."

Christians, seeing the crescent moon displayed as a batttle standard, assumed it was the symbol of Islam, analogous to the cross as the symbol of Christianity. 'Twas not so, but it's not the first time that erroneous understandings have taken root.

So the bottom line is that the symbol of crescent and star technically were the symbols of the Ottoman dynasty, but have come to be thought of as symbols for Islam, even by Muslims.

There is some debate in the Muslim community even today about the use of the crescent. Some believe that a symbol helps to distinguish Muslim establishments from non-Muslim establishments, especially from Christian places that have crosses and crucifixes everywhere. Other Muslims consider the use of any symbol, and especially the crescent moon which was originally pagan, to be a sin.

The most rabid anti-Muslim Christian fanatical groups say that the use of the moon symbol proves that Allah is really the old moon goddess in disguise. We won't tell them about the pre-Christian use of the cross symbol, or the pagan origins of things like the dating of Christmas.

An alternatice theory: Gerald Hawkins, author of Stonehenge Decoded, thinks that the crescent moon and star may represent a "conjunction of the moon and Venus [that] took place in the dawn sky of July 23, 610." Some believe that date exactly coincides with the night when the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) received his initial revelation from God.  Certainly it is very close.

A footnote: Mohammed is said to have carried both a black flag and a green flag into battle. The black flag was said to have had a white outline, but could have been just white fringe. Hence, black and green tend to be color motifs on flags of Islamic countries, many of which adopt the crescent (or crescent and star)--even countries that have no connection to the Ottoman dynasty, like Mauritania and Pakistan.

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