Q. Would you please let me know the significance of the crescent moon and star in Islam and Islamic architecture?
A. There are several theories on the origin of the crescent and star in Muslim usage. They range from the importation of the Zoroastrian symbol used on the coinage of the Persian Khusrau (590-628), the astronomical positioning of the Moon and Venus that allegedly occurred sometime in 609 or 610 and supposedly coincided with the beginning of revelation, as well as the assumption that since Islam came to herald a new dawn, the crescent depicts this concept. The foregoing theories, we think, are all farfetched if we make a proper examination of the evidence. The earliest standards in Islam range from a black eagle, to the green and black flags of the Alids and Abbasids. There is nothing to show that at this time the crescent and star were being used as symbolic of Islam.
What we do know is that the symbol came into use after 1453, having been imported from a Christian symbolism that was itself imported from earlier Byzantine pre-Christian imagery. The best fact-based theory that we have found so far is that in 339B.C., the Macedonian Philip, father of Alexander the Great, sought to attack Byzantium. The residents were saved from a surprise attack because of a bright moon over the city, and in gratitude adopted the crescent of Diana as the city's emblem. When the city was conquered by Constantine in 330C.E., in a pattern of redefinition that was to underline Christian outlook, the crescent was deemed to be attributed to the Virgin Mary (among other things, Sunday, the day of the Sun god was deemed to be the day of the new Sabbath, and December 25th the birthday of Christ, etc.).
In 1299, Sultan Othman, conquering what is now Turkey, had a vision of a crescent moon stretching over the world, and took the crescent as a symbol of the Ottoman dynasty. When Constantinople fell in 1453 to Muhammad II, the crescent came to represent both Islam and the Turkish empire. The star was added by Selim III in 1793, and its five points established in 1844. The fact that the Ottomans ruled the Muslim world until the end of World War I and the abolition of the caliphate on March 3, 1924 is responsible for their symbol becoming so widely used in the Muslim world. Many people sought more esoteric interpretations of the symbol, and somehow forgot the origins of the usage. One of the earliest Muslim songs -- "Tal'a al badr alaynaa" (the moon has risen on us) -- would seem to provide fuel to certain theories of Prophetic usage, except that badr means a full moon and not a crescent.
The viewing of the crescent (hilal) to start the months is also viewed by some as supportive of a theory we earlier dismissed, that of the dawning of a new era. While dismissing alternate theories, we do not deny that it is possible that Sultan Othman or Muhammad II may have had their own personal interpretations for the crescent. But if they did, they left no records to the best of our knowledge, and we cannot formulate theories based on conjecture as to what they may have thought. We have provided our answer based on the information provided by Clare Gibson in her book "Signs and Symbols" which, according to our checking of the historical sources, is accurate. And Allah knows best.
Posted September 13, 2000