By Danny Jalil
The crescent moon and star has become a widely accepted symbol of the Islamic religion. It is found on several national flags, and atop most mosques in Singapore. However, its origin as a religious symbol is not a well-known fact, leaving many practising Muslims like myself frequently perplexed. So what exactly is the story?
Today, the crescent moon and star are mainly associated with Islam, but its earliest known origin is during the Babylonian period.
Before Islam, there were many uses of the symbol, with some theorising its origins in ancient moon worship. Some schools of Islam rejected the image of the crescent and star, as it was thought of as a kind of idol worship, which is forbidden in the religion.
Some have theorised that the crescent moon may have had Arabic, pre-Islamic origins. Before the rise of Abrahamic religions, the primary deity in pre-Islamic Arabia was Hubal, the Syrian god of the moon, which would have been aptly represented by the crescent symbol.
In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire began adopting the crescent and star on its flag. Its use does not originate from Islamic traditions and is largely unknown, although it has historically been a symbol of the city of Constantinople. The image of this star and crescent is also prevalent in the flags of Muslim countries such as Tunisia.
In the early days of Islam, black, white, and later green and gold flags, with no markings or writings on them, were used by Islamic armies. The image of the crescent and star became prevalent only in the last few hundred years.
The moon, in all its waxing and waning glory, has always been a part of how time is measured in the Islamic calendar. Each year, the fasting month of Ramadan slides earlier into the year due to how the Islamic calendar, based on the moon’s phases, progresses.
The Islamic calendar uses a lunar cycle of 29.5 days, meaning that Islamic months are 29 or 30 days. Twelve lunar months are about 354 days, compared to 365 days in the Gregorian solar calendar, resulting in Ramadan moving backwards by 11 days each year.
This moon cycle encompasses all phases of the moon, and in the region, the idea of the moon marking the passing of time is heavily ingrained in Malay-Muslim culture and language. For instance, the Malay word for ‘month’ is ‘bulan’, which translates literally to ‘moon’.
The most significant month for Muslims around the world then is the month of Ramadan. While we have the internet and precise calculations to determine exactly when Ramadan will occur, historically, the moon was an important guide, especially the sign of the crescent moon.
In the Islamic calendar, a crescent moon marks the beginning of a new month. To sight the moon, you need a clear view of the western horizon, where you can see the sunset, as the crescent moon always appears near a sunset.
It’s important to note that the sun must be below the horizon as it needs to be dark enough for the slither of the new crescent to be detected. The moon, on the other hand, needs to be above the horizon, separated from the sun by 5 to 7 degrees. The sighting of a new crescent moon marks the start of Ramadan.
As mentioned earlier, the crescent and star symbol was rejected by certain schools within Islam as a form of idolatry. However, a common argument against this position is that the crescent moon and star are inanimate objects and therefore cannot be regarded as idols.
The crescent moon and star on mosques may not always have been an Islamic symbol. However, it affords Islam a definitive identity, much like how Judaism is identified with the Star of David and Christianity with the cross.