The Origin of the 3 Religious Symbols

As designers, we understand the significant importance of symbols, both in our work and its psychological effect when used to represent something. The easier and clearer the symbols are, the stronger and faster they are intuitively understood. There are whole books written about the creation, usage and power of those symbols that can be created from simple lines or geometric shapes, however, this study was to understand the origin of symbolism behind the 3 Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism). To truly understand what a symbol represents to each.

It never occurred to me otherwise, but growing up as Muslims we accepted the star and crescent symbol as a reference to Islam and the importance of lunar months, even though the symbol itself was usually decorative in use (perhaps more so in our Khaleeji culture compared to South Asian/Turkic cultures).

This belief was confronted suddenly in a subtle detail from a Turkish student during his presentation about Turkey for international students; he said that the star and crescent on the Turkish flag was inspired from what Kemal Atatürk (secularist leader of modern Turkey) witnessed; a reflection of a star and crescent on a pool of blood during the brutal war of Turkish independence. I scoffed at the idea how one can deny a known symbol of Islam to whatever they believed in.

I never thought twice about it, instead I though how arrogant and close minded one can be to force a “modern” belief into a new symbol.

A few months later when I bothered to search the origin, this same sentenced applied to me. I was the arrogant one. I didn’t know the meaning behind it too.

The Crescent

Minarets in Muscat from @ayghazali

Today, most people understand that the crescent and star represents Islam; it’s on the tip of our minarets and is proudly shown on the flags of many countries. In some other cases, this symbol also represents Turkic people (who are also predominantly Muslim).

Some flags with crescents’ that represents Islam, an interesting observation is the placement of stars representing how those nations viewed them from their location.
Some flags with crescents’ that represent Turkic people (and/or Islam).

But the application of crescent and stars in the flags is very recent. Most of those flags appeared during late 19th century to early 20th century, when those countries were granted independence from colonial influence. Why did they pick these symbols? They simply inherited it from either the Ottoman empire, or the Orientalist view the Europeans held that the crescent and star was a symbol for Islam (compared to their cross). Hence as those newly formed independencies wanted to adopt an icon for Islam to further enhance the support from their people and distance from the colonials, they also adopted the Western-perception that crescent and star represented the countries’ faith ironically. It’s the same reason the Zionist movement adopted the six pointed star as a Jewish symbol to represent a new, different state that represents the Jews, though I will focus on it after finding the origin of the Ottoman flag.

Variations of some flags used by the Ottomans.

The last Ottoman flag was also only officially standardised in the late 18th century. Before that it was usually a mix of different flags of strips, stars and crescents. But what was the origin of the Ottoman flag?

There are various sources of where this originates, such as being inherited from Constantinople or from a dream from Osman I (founder of the Ottoman Empire). Others point that as Islam spread and there was a ban on dismantling/ransacking religious temples, the muslims added a crescent under the cross to signify that it became a Masjid.

The most prominent story though is that of the moon and star occulting on a reflection in a bloody puddle after the battle of Kosovo (1448) which was a difficult yet decisive Ottoman victory — the event commemorated by Sultan Murad II. According to sources, the days of the battle (17–20th October) the bright planet Venus does coincide quite closely to the crescent moon on that exact day and area. The same story that Kemalists attributed to Atatürk in the 20th century.

However, the flag of crescent and moon can be found in South Asia too in the late 17th century in paintings depicting the Mughal army or Carnatic Sultanate. And further before them, a depiction of the star and crescent on the side of the Muslims was found in a manuscript of the Yarmuk battle from Catalan during the early 14th century, though it was at least 600 years after the battle, so they deception of those flags might be based on the then-current use by Muslims.

Depiction of a star and crescent flag on the Abbasids side in the Battle of Yarmouk (manuscript illustration of the History of the Tatars, Catalan workshop, early 14th century).

So how did this symbol end up in Muslim hands? The crescent and star was used in previous civilizations, such as the Greek, Egyptian or ancient Persians. The closest we can get to a true answer is that it was influenced from the Sassanians. As during the spread of Islam and decline of the Sassanian empire, the Abbasid Muslims adopted the Sassanian coins, and started a gradual approach of replacing details in the coin (re-miniting?) by adding Islamic faith declarations or texts.

Left: Sassanian coins. Right: Sassanian-Arabic coins

These coins already had the star and crescent from Sassanian beliefs. So there is a probability that Muslims inherited it from previous Persian/Sassanian use.

Regardless, in Islam there is no true symbol for Muslims. As ‘Muslim’ means one who is submitted to God, so there is no sense for Muslims into adopting any sign or emblem. One of the first idols distanced by Islam was a deity named Hubal, a moon god. While the importance of lunar months in Islam is true, the new crescent that signifies a new month starts from the right, opposite of the widely used ‘old moon’ crescent (like the Turkish flag).

For a symbol that dates as old as humanity, it is difficult to find the true answer of its origin.

The 6-pointed Star

The images above might have hinted the use of another star alongside the moon; the 6-pointed star. It’s well known now as a Jewish symbol and the symbolic icon of the Zionist state. Widely accepted as Solomon’s shield (درع سليمان); it was spread by the Islamic civilizations as one of its geometry designs, sometimes regarded as a “protective charm”, stemming from the same Judaism prophet Solomon or Suleiman in Arabic.

Through the movement in discovering and naming sciences and mathematics the Muslims first named this star as Solomons shield (without any previous reference, as far as I researched). Even Jewish researches didn’t find a source of the Star of David outside of Muslim use. As Jews, like Muslims, were very cautious from using a symbol that would lead to idolatry. This gives the star the most widely accepted origin from Muslim geometry.

How did it end up defining the jews? It was introduced to Europe from either the Islamic Andalusian kingdom or from the renaissance architectural movement adopting Muslim/Christian buildings to new European gothic, as Europe started adopting architectural and decorative motifs into their new monuments, the 6-pointed star was used in churches in the late 14th century prior to synagogues.

(From various internet sources)

The first (known) use of the star by the Jews was in Prague’s Synagogue in the 18th century, and from there it spread around the Czech republic and south eastern Germany. Before finally coming to represent the Jews in 1897 after the first Zionist conference; a symbol that will unite all the Jews under one banner after the brutal holocaust, to certify their existence and preluding the Zionist community and the subsequent flag of occupied Palestine.

Ofcourse, the 6-pointed star could be found in other cultures, although the use was wide and far in between that it didn’t spread as well as other symbols from their origin.

The Cross

The cross is well known ancient symbol — it represented in most ancient cultures the sun or the sun’s rays. It was adopted into early Christian use from the Chi Rho (⳩) symbol also known as chrimson, which itself comes from the first use of “cross” from the greek Greek ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos). There were two main origin stories of the cross being adopted in Christianity. The first: From Roman emperor Constantine when he kept losing battles after asking help from different gods, until he asked with the One God which then sent him a vision of a cross of light over the sun-he later won the decisive battle. Later at at night he dreamt of Christ commanding him to replicate the sign. The second origin story comes from historians claiming that the cross was a mistranslation of Greek “staus” (which meant a single pole).

Regardless, early Christians where hesitant to use the cross as this representation deemed too gruesome. Other, like the Protestants, still reject its use as they see it as a form of idolatry; Christians shouldn’t presume an object of human invention having divine power, similar to the Muslim and Jewish belief on Idolatry. (Though sometimes a plain cross is used).

Maltese cross on a necklace worn by the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad V. Dated 824 B.C.

The cross started spreading swiftly as in icon during the Roman empire; easily recognisable pagan symbol found in previous cultures or civilizations, such as the Maltese cross necklace worn by Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad V, as this cross was prominent during the Assyrian period.

Another prominent cross before Christianity was from the ancient Egyptian Ankh, also known as “cross of life”. A cross with a loop on top, hieroglyph symbol for “life” or “breath of life”; the ankh symbolises both mortal existence and the afterlife. The origin of the ankh isn’t certain before Egyptian use, however it also came to use in early christianity during 4th century CE, as the coptic Church re-symbolized the Ankh as the eternal life through Christ.

We now understand symbols don’t necessarily retain their origin meaning, instead they sometime last more than empires and religions beforehand. And to some people this symbol represents homeland, history and unity of cultures.

So how can we define a symbol?

We can’t. Each one of use has difference paradigm or view for a symbol. The cross on a Chevrolet has an extremely different meaning of patriotism to American-Chevrolet fans, while the nordic cross on Norways flag has also a completely different patriotic meaning to Norwegians.

If we return to the Turkish flag: Does the Turkish flag really change its meaning if it was created by Atatürk or by Sultan Murad II? Does the flag represent Secularism or Islam? The flag represents different thing to different people, which makes the flag effective is that it means motherland to all of them. Perhaps the flag is effective in part that it still means motherland to to all of the Turkish people, regardless of their meaning behind it. The symbol managed to create a unified understanding that branches to other sub-meanings.

In summary, the is no correct “understanding” of symbols. To use an old symbol or to create a new one it is essential to understand its meaning with the target audience and user — and then to connect it with their beliefs. This initial research is crucial because each one of us understand a symbol differently.

Sources: Gershom Scholem. (1949, September). The Curious History of the Six-Pointed Star: How the “Magen David” Became the Jewish Symbol. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from Commentary Magazine website: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/gershom-scholem/the-curious-history-of-the-six-pointed-starhow-the-magen-david-became-the-jewish-symbol/History of the Star and Crescent — Steemit. (2021). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from Steemit.com website: https://steemit.com/history/@mand/history-of-the-star-and-crescentLewis, D. (2016, July 6). How Did the Six-Pointed Star Become Associated With Judaism? Retrieved February 21, 2021, from Smithsonian Magazine website: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-did-the-six-pointed-star-become-associated-with-judaism-180959693/Mark, J. J. (2016, September 19). The Ankh. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from Ancient History Encyclopedia website: https://www.ancient.eu/Ankh/#:~:text=The%20Coptic%20church%20of%20Egypt,the%20promise%20of%20eternal%20life.Myers, S. (2013, March 29). The power of symbols — Practical Insights. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from Practical Insights website: https://steve.myers.co/the-power-of-symbols/‌‌‌‌WHAT is the origin of the crescent moon symbol seen throughout Islamic cultures? | Notes and Queries | guardian.co.uk. (2011). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from Theguardian.com website: https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-1411,00.htmlWikipedia Contributors. (2021, February 12). Star and crescent. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_and_crescentzeevveez. (2012). The six pointed star and the crescent. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from Blogspot.com website: http://star-of-david.blogspot.com/2012/02/six-pointed-star-and-crescent.html(n.d.). The Origin and Meaning of the Turkish Flag. Retrieved from https://www.nave.is/utgefid_efni/skra/241/

Industrial & Exhibition Designer. Ex-Traveler. Interest in languages, museums, cultural appropriation mental clarity and chai

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