The Crescent shines for all


One of the few benefits of our increasingly stop-and-go traffic situation in the Twin Cities is the increased opportunity to read bumper-sticker messages and think about the process of communication through this medium.

Recently, I have been noticing more and more cars sporting a nifty bumper sticker (and lately, posters and banners, including one hanging from a building on the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota) that I want to get my own hands on. This is because it makes a thought-provoking declaration of support for pluralism in American society and perhaps the world.

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.

The message states the word COEXIST, but the message is not limited to that one word. The word itself is designed to demonstrate the concept of coexistence, and this has been done by an imaginative and visionary designer by replacing the letters with symbols of several religions, philosophies and scientific concepts resembling the letters replaced.

I have to admit that seeing a crescent representing the first letter of the COEXIST concept always makes me smile, and that is not just because the symbol represents the religion of Islam.

Certainly, the history of the Muslim world is a history of diverse peoples interacting, trading and migrating, and of their mutual involvement in learning as well as in the synthesis and creation of knowledge, and to me, that alone justifies the use of a symbol for Islam in this message promoting pluralism.

But because the crescent is a symbol that has been used by people in many cultures and civilizations long before, and beyond, the culture of Islam to represent things higher than this Earth, the crescent itself is a sign of what various cultures and civilizations share in a history that belongs to all humanity.

As long as humans have gazed at the sky …

A review of the crescent’s history as a symbol reveals a part of the story of human co-existence: a rich, complex and global tale that erases some of the boundaries between peoples and cultures.

The crescent, by itself or paired with one or more stars, has been used across cultures throughout the world since ancient times.

Such wide use should not be surprising given that the moon and the stars are part of the universal human experience. They are seen by virtually all of us anywhere on this planet on a daily – or rather nightly – basis.

From the time our ancestors became capable of thinking and questioning, human beings around the world have wondered about the nature and purpose of what they saw in the night sky. As people reflected on their earthly experiences, they gave these heavenly objects many mystic meanings, including people who were members of cultures that are said to form the foundation of Western European civilization.

The Crescent: An ancient symbol

The Anchor CrossIn the classical Greco-Roman world, the crescent represented the virginal Greek goddess Artemis (the Roman Diana). Early Christians appropriated it to represent the Virgin Mary, and it appears as part of the “Anchor Cross” (left) to represent her purity.

The crescent often appears in medieval and early renaissance-era western European art along with unicorns (which also are associated with virginity). One example is the famous series of tapestries entitled “The Lady and the Unicorn” displayed at the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris (and reproduced at right).

The first known use of the crescent and star combination was in the Roman province of Illyricum (in the Balkans), to represent the god Jupiter during the reign of Hadrian. It later became the symbol for Byzantium, capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire after its division in the year 285 of the current era (CE). The crescent was retained as the city’s symbol after being renamed Constantinople to honor the first Christian emperor after his death in 337 CE.

The crescent was a commonly used symbol in the Eastern Roman Empire, today referred to by historians as the Byzantine Empire. When much of its eastern territory became part of the emerging Arab Muslim civilization in the mid-600s, Eastern Orthodox Christian artisans working in the Byzantine artistic tradition occasionally included it along with many other symbols in objects and buildings created for Muslim patrons. The crescent was not adopted by Muslims to symbolize their faith or community even though the two civilizations had strong political, economic and cultural relations with each other and Eastern Christian members of the newly developing Arab Muslim civilization played a tremendously influential role in building it.

The Sassanid Persian Empire (226-651 CE) also used the crescent occasionally as a symbol. Again, the crescent was not adopted by Muslims to represent their own faith or community after the absorption of Persian civilization into the emerging Arab Muslim civilization in the mid-600s, even though Persians also played a tremendously influential role in its development.

There is a very simple reason Muslims did not adopt the crescent and star during the early history of Muslim civilization: the crescent and star is not an “Islamic” symbol. It does not represent God, a belief or practice. It is not mentioned in the Qur’an as a religious symbol, nor was it used by Prophet Muhammad or his early community. Although the Islamic calendar was based on the lunar cycle, that did not make the moon a sacred symbol in Islamic life.

Thus, the crescent is not seen often in the classical arts of the Muslim world, and art reference guides to designs in Islamic art rarely include it. Indeed, it is not found on any art object displayed in the Islamic gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where I serve a guide as part of its Collection in Focus guide program.

The crescent rarely appears in the decor of local mosques and Islamic centers used by Minnesota’s Muslim community, and when it does, it is not a prominent feature, simply because there is no extensive history of crescent symbolism in Muslim culture overall.

Red Cross, Red Crescent

The crescent was linked to Muslims for the first time after the Ottoman Muslims incorporated the last remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire and Byzantine civilization into their own empire during the mid-1400s. The Byzantines were weakened over many centuries by attacks by western Latin (Roman Catholic) Crusaders and pirates, and the Byzantine crescent was adopted by the Ottomans Muslims to symbolize their role in ensuring the continuity of Eastern Orthodox Christian civilization along with that of other Christian churches within their multi-cultural and multi-religious empire. This empire also included large local Jewish communities and welcomed other Jews, especially those fleeing Christian persecutions such as Spanish Inquisition.

The Ottomans occasionally included the crescent amongst the various designs on their public buildings, but the crescent was not used as often as people mistakenly assume, based on distant views of finials topping domes of mosques in modern-day Turkey and other countries formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. When seen from a distance, many of these finials resemble crescents, but they actually are stylized designs of flowers, particularly the lily and tulip. These designs developed because artists saw in them the shape of the name of God as written in Arabic.

When the international Red Cross movement arose in response to various wars within Europe during the mid-1800s, the Ottoman Empire used its influence to develop the Red Crescent as an additional symbol for the movement. Ottoman representatives pointed out that the Christian cross appeared on the flags of many other European empires, kingdoms and countries, and that it was important for the international Red Cross to avoid giving the impression it was linked officially to any European state when working with Ottoman subjects. Perceptions of such links might have posed problems for the work of the international Red Cross at the time, as many European states were actively attempting to dismantle the Ottoman Empire.

The international Red Cross movement needed to adopt an alternative name and symbol quickly. As the Ottoman Empire was the only European Muslim state in which the international Red Cross operated in at the time, representatives of the movement made a swift decision to borrow the crescent from the Ottoman flag to simplify communication with Ottoman subjects during difficult wartime circumstances.

Although the Red Crescent name and symbol is used widely nowadays in the Muslim world, some countries such as Persia (now Iran) and Afghanistan initially rejected its use because of its Ottoman origin, preferring symbols derived from their own national histories.

The Ottomans did not add the star to their crescent-bearing flag until the early 1800s. After the end of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, the crescent and star was retained for its national flag for historical and not religious reasons. Although the population of Turkey is predominantly Muslim, it is an officially secular state.

The Crescent and 20th-century Muslims

In the mid-20th century, other predominantly Muslim countries achieving national independence from European colonial powers, such as Pakistan, adopted this symbol in emulation of Turkey. This was because their modernized elites saw it as a model for the development of their own modernizing multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious nation-states in the modern world.

The subsequent rise of movements for interfaith understanding and inter-religious cooperation led to a need for internationally recognizable symbols for religious communities. By default, the crescent was adopted for use by mainly non-Muslim organizations to represent Muslims in modern settings because it already was known through the work of the international Red Cross/Red Crescent movement.

The crescent was added to reference guides to symbols in art published in Europe and the U.S. and began to be used by non-Muslim graphic designers to symbolize Islam in a variety of public settings. The various “Islamic” meanings ascribed to the crescent in these reference guides were developed mainly through inferences about the historic importance of events or the religious importance of beliefs and practices, rather than observation or documentation of the history of symbols used amongst Muslims.

For their part, Muslims eventually emulated non-Muslim usage of the crescent symbol, particularly in logos, where this non-religious symbol was preferred over an image directly linked to the Islamic religion (such as a text from the Qur’an) so as to avoid the possibility of inadvertent desecration. But this emulation also was the result of Eurocentric education, which meant Muslims were more familiar with designs and symbols developed in the modern European era than the meaning of designs and symbols from their own rich artistic tradition.

The Crescent endures as a universal symbol

Despite this modern linkage to Muslims, the crescent is not exclusively Muslim. It continues to be used by a variety of people, groups and organizations who are working with the universal symbolism of the moon and stars as it relates to their own sphere of activity. One of these is the magazine New Moon, published in Duluth, Minn., by and for girls aged 8 to 14. It uses moon, crescent and star designs in the publication and related merchandise.

The universality of crescent-and-star designs and the modernizing trend in recent history is symbolized by the history of the crescent and star. It embraces a period of nearly 3,000 years in a variety of political, religious and cultural communities. Thus, the crescent is a fitting symbol to represent the first letter of the COEXIST design.

Nahid Khan is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Mass Communication and minoring in Museum Studies and Religious Studies. She was a staff writer for the Moscow (Idaho)-Pullman (Wash.) Daily News, and now lives in Brooklyn Center, Minn.