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A star (or stars) and crescent featuring in some combination form the basis of symbols widely found across the ancient world, with examples attested from the Eastern Mediterranean, Persia and Central Asia.
The early Muslim community did not have a symbol. During the time of prophet Muhammad, Islamic armies and caravans flew simple solid-colored flags (generally black, green, or white) for identification purposes. In later generations, the Muslim leaders continued to use a simple black, white, or green flag with no markings, writing, or symbolism on it.
During the 19th century, it represented the Ottoman Empire, figuring on the Ottoman flag from 1793. The Ottoman flag of 1844 with a white "Ay-yıldız" (Turkish for star-crescent) on a red background continues to be in use as the flag of the Republic of Turkey. Other successor states of the Ottoman empire also used the symbol, including Libya (1951–1969 and after 2011), Tunisia (1956) and Algeria (1958) and also used in the Cypriot Turkish flag of Cyprus.
In Unicode, a "star and crescent" symbol is encoded at U+262A: ☪
The star and crescent appear in combination in finds from in and around ancient Palestine. It has been associated with the Moabites (14th or early 13th – 6th century BC), as the symbol or symbols appear on what are thought to be Moabite name seals. Crescents appearing together with a star or stars are a common feature of Sumerian iconography, the crescent usually being associated with the moon god Sin (Nanna to the Sumerians) and the star (often identified as Venus) with Ishtar (Inanna to the Sumerians). However, in this context, there is a third element often seen, that being the sun disk of Shamash. Academic discussion of a star or stars together with crescents in Sumerian representations does not always clearly indicate if they appear in isolation (the "star and crescent" as such) or as part of a triad of symbols, "the three celestial emblems, the sun disk of Shamash (Utu to the Sumerians), the crescent of Sin (Nanna), and the star of Ishtar (Inanna to the Sumerians)" or "the crescent of Sin (the moon god), the star of Ishtar and the ray of Shamash". Nevertheless, later use of the star and crescent by the Parthians, and other Iranian dynasties is often traced to earlier use in Mesopotamia. As one scholar observed, "[t]he Parthian king Mithradates I conquered Mesopotamia around 147 BC, and Susa in about 140 BC A later Parthian king, Orodes II (58-38 BC), issued coins at Susa and elsewhere which display a star and crescent on the obverse. The succeeding ruler, Phraates IV (38-3/2 BC), minted coins showing either a star alone or a star with crescent moon. In representing the star and crescent on their coins the Parthians thus adopted traditional symbols used in Mesopotamia and Elam more than two millennia before their own arrival in those parts." Along these lines, some scholars maintain that later use of the symbol arose from Babylonian mythology in which the juxtaposition of Sin (moon god, father of time) and Shamash (supreme ruling sun god, judge of heaven and earth) was a metaphor for the cosmic powers given to the Babylonian king to rule.
The star and crescent was also the emblem of Mithradates VI Eupator. "His royal emblem, an eight rayed star and the crescent moon, represented the dynasty's patron gods, Zeus Stratios, or Ahuramazda, and Men Pharmacou, a Persian form of the native moon goddess." Other scholars have suggested that the star and crescent are more directly related to the cult of the god Mithra. Ustinova associates the star and crescent motif attested in a number of finds in the Bosporan Kingdom (which date from the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD) with the cult of Mithras, and indicates the star and the crescent together constituted the emblem of Pontus and its kings, asserting that it was introduced to the Bosporus by Mithradates and his successors, where it is attested on coins, locally produced jewelry and other objects. She suggests that this emblem indicates "the possibility of an earlier association of the Pontic dynasty with the cult of mounted Mithra. Mithra in fact must have been one of the most venerated gods of the Pontic Kingdom, since its rulers bore the theomorphic name of Mithradates […] although direct evidence for this cult is rather meager." McGing also notes the association of the star and crescent with Mithradates VI, discussing its appearance on his coins, and its survival in the coins of the Bosporan Kingdom where "[t]he star and crescent appear on Pontic royal coins from the time of Mithradates III and seem to have had oriental significance as a dynastic badge of the Mithridatic family, or the arms of the country of Pontus."
As a Turkish scholar has observed:
The significance of the star and crescent on royal coins has also been frequently debated. Many scholars have identified the star and the crescent as royal symbols of the Pontic kingdom. Their appearance on every royal issue suggests they were indeed important symbols, and the connection of this symbol to the royal family is definite. The nature of it, however, is still uncertain. Kleiner believed they were symbols of an indigenous god and had their origins in Persia. He associated the star and crescent with the god Men and saw them as representations of night and day (the star may be considered the sun here). Ritter, on the other hand, suggested that the star and crescent symbols derived from Perseus, just as the star symbol of the Macedonians did. […] Ma and Mithras are two other deities with whom the star and crescent symbol are associated. Olshausen believed that the star and crescent could be related to a syncretism of Pontic and Iranian iconography: the crescent for Men and the star for Ahura Mazda. Recently, Summerer has convincingly suggested that Men alone was the inspiration for the symbol on the royal coins of the Pontic kingdom.
A combined star and crescent motif is commonly found on later coins minted by the Sassanids. This has led some researchers to suggest that Muslims adopted the symbol in the context of its use by Sassanian rulers. After describing the crowns of a number of Sassanid kings, which featured a crescent, sphere and crescent, or star and crescent, H. Ayatollahi remarks, "Sasani coins remained in circulation in Moslem countries up to the end of the first century (Hijra). This detailed description of Sasani crowns was presented because the motifs mentioned, particularly the crescent and star gradually changed into Islamic symbols and have often appeared in the decorative patterns of various periods of Islamic art." This author asserts that "The flags of many Islamic countries bear crescents and stars and are proof of this Sasani innovation.".
By the late Hellenistic or early Roman period, the star and crescent motif had been associated to some degree with Byzantium. If any goddess had a connection with the walls in Constantinople, it was Hecate. Hecate had a cult in Byzantium from the time of its founding. Like Byzas in one legend, she had her origins in Thrace. For example, some Byzantine coins of the 1st century BC and later show the head of Artemis with bow and quiver, and feature a crescent with what appears to be a six-rayed star on the reverse. According to accounts which vary in some of the details, in 340 BC the Byzantines and their allies the Athenians were under siege by the troops of Philip of Macedon. On a particularly dark and wet night Philip attempted a surprise attack but was thwarted by the appearance of a bright light in the sky. This light is occasionally described by subsequent interpreters as a meteor, sometimes as the moon, and some accounts also mention the barking of dogs. However, the original accounts mention only a light in the sky, without specifying the moon. To commemorate the event the Byzantines erected a statue of Artemis (or Hecate) lampadephoros (light-bearer or bringer). This story survived in the works Hesychius of Miletus, who in all probability lived in the time of Justinian I. His works survive only in fragments preserved in Photius and the 10th century lexicographer Suidas. The tale is also related by Stephanus of Byzantium, and Eustathius.
Devotion to Hecate was especially favored by the Byzantines for her aid in having protected them from the incursions of Philip of Macedon. Her symbols were the crescent and star, and the walls of her city were her provenance.
Later, under the Romans, cities in the empire often continued to issue their own coinage. "Of the many themes that were used on local coinage, celestial and astral symbols often appeared, mostly stars or crescent moons." The wide variety of these issues, and the varying explanations for the significance of the star and crescent on Roman coinage precludes their discussion here. It is, however, apparent that by the time of the Romans, coins featuring a star or crescent in some combination were not at all rare.
The use of the crescent symbol on Muslim flags is first seen by Europe during the Crusades. Flags showing crescents appear in depictions of flags from the 14th century, in the Libro de Conoscimiento and the Catalan Atlas.
In these early examples, the crescent mostly pointed upward. 14th-century Muslim flags with an upward-pointing crescent in a monocolour field included the flags of Gabes, Tlemcen (Tilimsi), Damas and Lucania, Cairo, Mahdia, Tunis and Buda. Evidence of crescent use is also found in the 14th century blue ensign of Nubia/Dongola and yellow ensign of Mamluks of Egypt. Flags with crescents facing the fly are attested from the 17th century.
The star and the moon are two sky elements symbolizing the Tengriist beliefs of the sky-worshiping ancient Turks. In Turkic Mythology four colors are associated with four cardinal directions such as "gök-blue" (east), "ak-white" (west), "al-red" (south) and "kara-black" (north). These colors represent the direction towards the zenith where the Tengri is residing in the sky. Red and white colors on the flag of Turkey symbolize the south-western branch of Turks called Oghuzes who are the founders of present-day Turkey as well as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Gagauzia. Black Sea and Turkish/Qırımtatar names of Mediterranean (Akdeniz) got their name from the same mythology; Karadeniz being in the north and Akdeniz being in the west respectively. Turkestan's flag is similar to Turkey's, with only difference being blue.
It has been suggested that the star-and-crescent had been adopted from the Byzantines. Franz Babinger (1992) suggests this possibility, noting that the crescent alone has a much older tradition also with Turkic tribes in the interior of Asia. Parsons (2007) considers this unlikely, as the star and crescent was not a widespread motive in Byzantium at the time of the Ottoman conquest.
Turkish historians tend to stress the antiquity of the crescent (not star-and-crescent) symbol among the early Turkic states in Asia. In Turkish tradition, there is an Ottoman legend of a dream of the eponymous founder of the Ottoman house, Osman I, in which he is reported to have seen a moon rising from the breast of a Muslim judge whose daughter he sought to marry. "When full, it descended into his own breast. Then from his loins there sprang a tree, which as it grew came to cover the whole world with the shadow of its green and beautiful branches." Beneath it Osman saw the world spread out before him, surmounted by the crescent.
The unofficial coat of arms of "Illyria" from the Fojnica Armorial. "Illyria" being an early concept of a South Slavic, Yugoslav state. At the time, the white-crescent-on-red was not yet used by the Ottoman Empire, which used an entirely different flag. It was preserved in a Franciscan monastery, and is not specifically associated with Islam.
The late Ottoman Navy flag with an eight-pointed star and crescent was used between 1793 and 1844
Besides the most prominent example of Turkey (see Flag of Turkey), a number of other Ottoman successor states adopted the design during the 20th century, including the Emirate of Cyrenaica and the Kingdom of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and the proposed Arab Islamic Republic.
Islamic flags containing the calligraphy of the Quran were commonly used by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, it was the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who is known to have inlaid the Crescent and Star symbol upon his personal shield, his son Aurangzeb is also known to have used similar shields and flags containing an upward Crescent and Star symbol. Various Nawabs also preferred to utilize the Crescent and Star symbols such as the Nawab of the Carnatic.
Today the flag is also used by Muslim-majority states which are not successor states of the Ottoman Empire.
National flags (used by sovereign states) displaying the star-and-crescent symbol:
Flags with variant symbols, involving a crescent and several stars:
Flag of the Arab Maghreb Union
Flag of Grande Comore
Flag of Hyderabad (princely state) (1724-1948)
Princely flag of Janjira
Flag of Kashmir
Flag for the Nation of Islam
Flag used by Tatarstan nationalists
Emblem of Maldives (1954-1968)
Some star-and-crescent designs appearing in other contexts, sometimes unrelated to either the Ottomans or Islam, other times influenced by them. The People Nation street gangs have been known to use a star and crescent. The Leliwa coat of arms, one of Poland's many coats-of-arms adopted by several families, used the star and crescent. One of the families that adopted it was the Tarnowski family, and its usage is reflected on the arms of several Polish and Ukrainian towns.
The truth is that the crescent was not identified with Islam until after the appearance of the Osmanli Turks, whilst on the other hand there is the clearest evidence that in the time of the Crusades, and long before, the crescent and star were a regular badge of Byzantium and the Byzantine Emperors, some of whom placed it on their coins. William Ridgeway, "The Origin of the Turkish Crescent", in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 38 (Jul. - Dec. 1908), pp. 241-258 (p 241)
Moreover, the question is what the symbol of Constantinople was at the time it was captured by the Turks. And an inspection of the coins issued by the Christian rulers of that city during the thousand years and more it was in their hands, will reveal to the enquirer that though the crescent with a cross within its horns appears occasionally upon the coins of the Emperors of the East, and in one or two instances we see a cross of four equal arms with each extremity piercing a crescent, it is doubtful if a single example of the so-called "star and crescent" symbol can be found upon them."—John Denham Parsons, The Non-Christian Cross
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