Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On the crescent

Why is the crescent the symbol of Islam? I asked around. Well I asked a few fellow cabbies, and googled and wikied. The answer, it seems, is not very clear.

It seems that there is no theological reason behind this. It was not the Prophet’s symbol. And some argue that using any natural object as a symbol of Islam violates the faith’s fundamental tenets.

One idea is that the crescent symbolizes the new beginning. The Islamic calendar is a lunar one. The new day begins in the evening, and a new month begins with a new crescent, the hilal. Anyone growing up in a Muslim country would know the excitement the sighting of the hilal at the end of the month of Ramadhan causes.

So the crescent symbolizes the new beginning? Hmm… probably not. See, the hilal is a waxing crescent — its horns are facing left in the northern sky (where all Muslim lands are). The crescent that you see in the flags of many Muslim countries is waning — the horns are facing right in the northern sky, it’s not a new moon, it’s a dying moon!

The other idea is that the crescent featured in the symbols of many pre-Islamic powers of West and Central Asia. It was the symbol of Diana, the pre-eminent goddess of Byzantium aka Constantinople aka Istanbul. After capturing the city, Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, apparently had a dream that a crescent covered the Earth. Taking this as an omen, he adopted the crescent as the symbol of his domain. Osman wasn’t the first ruler of that city with a dream-omen. Constantine, the Roman Emperor after whom Constantinople was named, adopted Christianity after he saw the cross in a dream, before a decisive battle.

Anyway, the crescent became the symbol of the Ottoman Empire, many centuries after the Prophet, but what does this have to do with Islam? Maybe it was the Firangis, equating the Ottomans with Islam, gave Islam the crescent symbol. After all, they gave the Turkish Sultan the title of the Caliph.

Right, so the crescent really may have nothing to do with Islam. Neither the Islamic Republic of Iran nor Saudis in their capacity as the guardians of the Holy Cities have it in their flags. Turkey may have historical reasons to have a waning crescent in its flag. But why did the Pakistanis adopt this for their flag? Or did Pakistan’s founders realize that the country they were creating would be ever-waning?