[By Rafael Narbaez Jr. (a Muslim convert)]
The city of Byzantium (Constantinople, modern Istanbul) was dedicated to Diana, goddess of the hunt, and the crescent was the symbol of Diana. In 330 CE, Constantine rededicated the city to the virgin Mary, whose star symbol was added to the previous crescent. When the Turks took possession of Constantinople, they found lots of crescent flags and adopted it as a symbol of good omen.
“The star and crescent” was first hoisted on behalf of the Muslims by Mahomet II after the capture of Constantinople in 1453 CE. Prior to that, it was common on the arm of knight and esquires. A star within a crescent was a badge of Richard I, 250 years before Constantinople fell. They quit using it when it became the banner of Muslims. It has been used more and more ever since by Muslims in a way to identify themselves.
I remember that as a former Jehovah’s Witness, one of the things that we were taught to always stay away from was the use of religious symbols. It was thought that this would lead to some form of idol worship that could eventually compromise our worship of the one true God. We were not permitted to wear religious icons like the cross because, in the first place, we never believed that Jesus Christ was hung on the cross. Secondly, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in idols and they feel that the use of these in religious worship is idolatry.
Neither could we wear anything that might be perceived as showing allegiance to a particular government, nation or political group. We could not keep a flag of any nation in our homes. We were not permitted to wear a patch of the American flag on our clothing or any of our possessions. We did not vote, sing the national anthem or recite the pledge of allegiance.
They warned that the Bible clearly states that “you shall have no other gods before me.” It also states, “you shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
You can imagine my concern, when, as I was embracing Islam, I became aware of the use of “the star and crescent.” My concern was genuine; I did not want to offend God. I did not want to interpret that I gave allegiance to anyone except Allah. I remember asking some brothers about what “the star and crescent” symbol meant. “Oh, it’s nothing to be concerned about,” they said. “It just represents the Muslim.” One brother, I remember, drew me a clearer picture. “Well,” he said, “you know how the Christians use the cross and the Jews, the star of David? We use “the star and crescent” to identify ourselves world-wide as Muslims.”
Although I didn’t make it a big issue, I decided to do some research and find out for myself. I was not going to stumble over this issue, but at the same time, I didn’t want to do anything that would offend God. The following is some information that I found in my research and I wanted to pass it on to you. Afterwards, I’d like to share with you an interesting view on this matter from a personal perspective and why I think it’s important to consider how we view the use of the star and crescent.
Image: Roman silver denarius coin of Hadrian (117-128AD) with this symbol. This is a seven-rayed star within a crescent moon …
During the Byzantine Empire, the city of Byzantium (a.k.a. Constantinople and Istanbul) was dedicated to Diana, goddess of the hunt. The crescent was the symbol of Diana. In 330 CE, Constantine rededicated the city to the virgin Mary, whose star symbol was added to the previous crescent. When the Turks took possession of Byzantium, they found lots of crescent flags and adopted it as a symbol of good omen. In 339 BC, Philip of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) was thwarted from overtaking the city of Byzantium because his army was spotted due to a bright crescent moon.
“The star and crescent” was first hoisted on behalf of the Muslims by Mahomet II after the capture of Constantinople in 1453 CE. Prior to that, it was common on the arm of knight and esquires. A star within a crescent was a badge of Richard I, 250 years before Constantinople fell. They quit using it when it became the banner of Muslims. It has been used more and more ever since by Muslims in a way to identify themselves. Sultan Othman, founder of the Ottoman empire, had a dream of crescent moon growing bigger and bigger until it reached East to West.
Banners or flags are what people customarily unite around or behind. It may or may not represent some characteristic about them. The twelve tribes of Israel, for example, each had it’s own banner or symbol, e.g. ‘The Lion of Judah,’ etc. An insignia could represent one’s cause, philosophy, belief or attitude; whether religious or secular. The colour and the symbol’s use on national flags is also most interesting. Red is the Ottomon (Turkish) colour and thus, a star and crescent on a field of red. In Mauritania, green stands for prosperity and hope. The star represents the people. On the Pakistani flag, the crescent is for progress and the star for enlightenment.
THE PROPHET’S FLAG
As to what the actual Holy Prophet used, we find some very interesting information. It has been reported that the Holy Prophet’s first standard or flag was a black flag to contradict the white flag of the Quraish, who had a black eagle on it as well. The earliest such flag or banner used by the Prophet was a sable curtain which hung in the chamber of his wife, Ayesha (radhiyallahu anha). In the centre, the Prophet attached a white cloth which was a turban that he captured from the city of Boreide. On it was written the inscription, Nasr um min Allah, which meant “the help of Allah”. Most appropriate. One can see how powerful a symbol this was to be used as a banner or flag. In modern times, some governments, like Saudi Arabia, prefer not to use the star and crescent of the Turkish government, but instead use a plain green field with the Shahadah on it in white. There is also a white sword underneath. Several modern day Muslims use the Shahadah in white on a green field as their way of showing they are Muslim. It was reported that the Prophet’s favourite colour was green; which incidentally represents life.
FLAG OF SYMBOL AS AUTHORITY
But, why all this fuss about a flag or a symbol anyway? In particular, the star and the crescent? Why is it so important to search for a more profound meaning to what it means and what it stands for? Is it really that big of a deal? I mean, it’s just a flag or a symbol, right?
Well, the truth of the matter is that symbols and especially flags, have more than just a casual, passing representation. They actually stand for something and have a definite meaning. A stop sign, for example, isn’t there just to blend in with the landscaping. It represents the law, the authority. It requires some action from you every time you come to it and that action is to stop. It also means there is a reaction from it if you choose not to stop there and that is that you will be cited for failing to obey that sign or symbol.
THE AMERICAN FLAG
With that in mind, let’s look at the flag of the United States. This is not the time to go through a two hundred year history of all the changes in the flag and how it got to it’s present form, however, since we live in this country, I think it’s appropriate to understand a little about it.
The first American flag was one that had thirteen stars in a circle on a blue field with a background of thirteen alternating red and white stripes. The thirteen stars represented the thirteen original colonies that became the United States of America. Why stars? Why not thirteen trees or thirteen fish? Perhaps because a bright star is such a beautiful thing to behold. Remember the last time there was a clear night and you looked up at the sky to admire the bright starry sky? They seem so near and yet they are so far away.
Muslims appreciate stars very much because they realize that stars do fulfil many wonderful purposes. They are both beautiful and a way to guide us in a time when perhaps other navigational instruments fail us. But, as Muslims, when we look at a star or any other work of beauty, we always appreciate the Creator, Al-Khaliq, more than the creation.
As the United states added more states they added a star for each new state. Thus, today we have fifty states and also fifty stars on our flag. The stars are laid on a blue field; blue being the colour of truth. The red stripes stand for the blood that was spilled in establishing our republic. The white stands for purity, cleanliness, holiness. Put all together, one can see how easily it would be for one to perceive that these fifty states, America, is to be admired because it was conceived with the blood of righteousness; with the purest and holiest of intentions and it stands for truth and goodness. You can trust her. You can depend on her. She will guide you to success and prosperity. See how she sparkles and shines? Follow her.
LOYALTY AND ALLEGIANCE
Some people might argue that such reasoning is absurd. That respecting the flag does not mean giving loyalty to it as you would the country or government. That it does not mean that we show the same allegiance to it that we show our country and that it certainly does not take the place of God for guidance in our lives. Reality, however, does indicate that people look at the flag and the symbols on it with more than just respect and that they do view what it symbolizes in the same manner that we’ve described above. Let’s look at an example.
Growing up in America, I remember the first thing we did every day in school before class started was recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But allegiance to who? To our God and Creator, Allah? Well, let’s see. The Pledge of Allegiance says, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands”. To demonstrate our loyalty, love, affection and allegiance to the flag and the republic or country “for which it stands”, we would place our right hand over our heart. Contrary to what some people may believe, the oath of allegiance is to the country or government because the flag stands for or represents exactly that and you have just pledged your allegiance to both, the flag and the republic or country; they are one and the same. I’ve always admired some brothers who would tell me that when they received their United States citizenship and had to pledge allegiance to the flag, they would be pledging allegiance to Allah, instead.
Some persist in their view, however, stating that, recently the United States Supreme court upheld the decision that, burning the American flag is permissible because it is a right of expression. The burning of the country, on the other hand, would not be construed as a freedom of expression, they argue, but as an act to overthrow the government of the United States. Therefore, they cannot be one and the same according to them. The pledge of allegiance to the flag, in their opinion, is not the same as a pledge of allegiance to the country. Sounds good, but when you take into consideration the people of this country as a whole, I think you will find that the overwhelming majority feel that burning the flag is wrong and offensive to them because it represents a total disregard and disrespect to the country or government “for which it stands.”
Also, consider this. If they don’t mean the same thing, then, why is it that on the insignias of uniforms, cars or property of local, state or federal peace officers; or even of athletes, or anyone that represents our country, the decal or insignia is of an American flag? If they don’t mean the same thing, then, why don’t they have an insignia of the map of the U.S. or just the words, United States of America. Another thing. When someone, like a military veteran or government official dies, they drape the American flag over his coffin. Do they say that the individual died for his flag or gave his life for his flag? No. They say he died for his country. The reason is because the flag, symbol or insignia stands for or represents the government.
Those of us who have had the misfortune of being under colonial rule at one time, remember all too well the phrase “loyal to the Crown”, meaning the British, of course. How quickly we forget. The fact is that to the great majority of people in this country, and around the world, for that matter, the flag, symbol or insignia and the country do stand for the same thing.
Another thing to consider when speaking of flags and the country or people that they represent is: if a country or people separate or abolish the use of certain symbols does it necessarily mean that they have changed their views or stands on certain issues.
For example, hardly anyone can argue the fact that the ‘swastika’ is a symbol for what nazism stood for: a pure Aryan race and all that implies. That symbol still represents that ideology even to this day. In all fairness to the German people, they have taken the initiative to separate themselves from such racism by changing the symbols of their flag as well as rejecting the ideology of a supreme white race.
Some will argue that the United States has done the same thing by insisting that the southern states remove and make illegal the old Confederate flag with the symbol of the ‘stars and bars’ because of what it once represented, namely, slavery and the oppression of black people. Some states, however, still persist in using the Confederate flag. Some people of the South are even more vocal and adamant about the continual use of the Confederate flag.
Taking the two examples just given, we see that in Germany, although it no longer supports the theory that a German white Aryan race is superior it still denies equal rights and justice to many of its citizenry, e.g., the Turkish population and others. The United States is really no better off. She has not taken sufficient steps to educate its populace on the issue of racism and tolerance and has consistently shied away from providing continual legislation that would eradicate such racism by making it absolutely illegal to act in such a manner. In fact at the present time, we see the United States reversing herself on what little legislation it once had that addressed such issues. We see with both countries, especially the US a double-tongue policy of “we’re not better than you, you’re just not as good as us.”
In Spanish there is a saying that says, “Tanto peca el que mata la waca, como el que detiene la pata.” This was a saying contrived in the old cattle rustling days. It means, “Just as guilty is he who kills the cow, as he who ties down it’s hoofs.” If the people of a country are not willing to change the policies of its government by publicly voicing its displeasure, even going to the extent of changing it’s elected officials or even its form of government, if need be, then they agree with the way their country is being represented and perceived; more importantly, the way they are represented and perceived. They publicly reaffirm this perception every time they wave ‘Old Glory’ around. That flag and the symbols on it represent both the government as well as the people.
Now, as Muslims, why should we be so concerned about all this? Well, for one thing we should never want to look to any person, nation, government or anything as a source of guidance or direction over Allah. To do so would be shirk. No one is worthy of that honour except Allah, the Almighty.
So many people all over the world put so much trust in the US for finding the solutions to their problems. The US itself brags about how it is ‘the greatest nation on the face of the earth.’ People in other parts of the world think it is such a great honour to be allies or associated in some way with the United States of America. There was a time when these people, especially third world countries, thought that the streets in the US were paved with gold. Anything that they can possess that is American brings a sort of prestige. I remember, a few years ago, having a visitor from Egypt. I asked if there was anything I could get for him to take back to Egypt while he was here. He decided on running shoes and a jogging suit but insisted that they be Nike’s. The reason, he said, is because he would be the envy of his entire town. Anything with a designer label from the US was highly sought.
What is really sad when we see so many brothers looking to the United States as the source for relieving their afflictions. Especially where people are oppressed or seeking justice and especially, when those people are sincere Muslims. Nothing or no one take the place of Allah as our Protector; no flag, no government, no nation, not even the believers themselves.
The Qur’an says:
“Do the unbelievers think that they can take my servants as protectors besides me? Verily we have prepared hell for the unbelievers for their entertainment.” (Quran Al-Kahf 18:102)
There are some enemies of Allah that feel that although they practice evil deeds, perhaps if they mingle with the true believers, they will protect them against calamity. Allah assures them that their place is in the hell fire. The Qur’an teaches us in Ash-Shura 42:9-10 that:
“It is God alone who has power over all things and that in Him we should trust.”
So, coming back to our original subject, what does all this have to do with the symbol of the ‘star and the crescent’? Well, for one thing, both symbols, the star and the crescent, come from the false worship or adoration for someone other than Allah. In the case of the crescent, it was the goddess Diana and with the star it was Mary, the mother of Jesus (‘Eesa alayhissalaam). As much as we love and respect Mary, the mother of Jesus, peace and blessings be on her, she is not worthy of worship and she would be the first to tell you so. For that matter neither is Musa (Moses) or ‘Isa (Jesus) or even our beloved Prophet, Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi easallam). Nor is the Qur’an worthy of worship or the entire record of ahadith or the two Holy Mosques or the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs (may Allah be pleased with them) or anything in this universe, past, present or future. Only Allah stands alone as worthy of worship. Yet some of us carry these symbols around as an expression of identity with those very beings and are proud to associate ourselves as Muslims through them.
Some may think that this is making a mountain out of a molehill and that it’s silly to think that the use of these symbols could jeopardize our relationship with Allah; but I think it deserves a lot of prayer and deep meditation and thinking about this. Do we really want to take a chance of offending Allah and facing Him on the Day of Judgement with this on our record? Is associating ourselves with these symbols or icons really worth it? We must strive to ‘always be true to Allah,’ says the Qur’an, Al-Hajj 22: 31 ‘and never assign partners to Him’.
Let us use our ability to reason and ask ourselves, is it really necessary to have an insignia or symbol to make the statement that we are Muslims? If one can so easily identify oneself as a Muslim by simply carrying the symbol of ‘the star and crescent’ around, then what’s to say that the enemies of Islam can’t do the same, as some of them have? I remember, my first Ramadan, one brother proudly revealed his chest to show ‘the star and crescent’ tattooed above the area of the heart. Wouldn’t it be better and certainly more reliable, to identify ourselves as Muslims by our Islamic personality; demonstrating by our righteous deeds that we are of ‘those that bow to Allah in Islam‘(Qur’an, Al-Baqarah 2:136)?
There are many nations and religious organisations today that identity themselves as being Muslims by the use of these two symbols, ‘the star and crescent’ and yet we can see by their deeds that they are totally un-Islamic. How easily they live among us, corrupting the word of God and causing divisions among us and all they have to do to prove they are Muslims is flash the sign of the star and the crescent.
On the other hand, there are organisations like the Red Crescent that do so much good work for their fellow mankind. Also there is a big difference between the symbol of the ‘star and crescent’ and the hilal.
In conclusion, let me state that all acts are acts of worship. We all try to do the best that we can according to the extent of our knowledge and our level of Iman. Everyone has a conscience. How sensitive our conscience is toward what we have discussed depends on what we previously stated, the extent of our knowledge and the level of our Iman.
It is not the responsibility of Muslims to point the finger at each other and try to force anyone to his personal understanding of matters. Religion and especially the interpretation of matters pertaining to religion should never be forced on anyone. We all know that the Qur’an states:
“…there is no compulsion in religion…” (Qur’an, Al-Baqarah 1:190)
We know that there is nothing wrong with respecting the flag of any country. The degree to which one cares to show such respect is an individual matter of conscience. No one has the right to impose his conscience on another. But, it is important to know how some people feel about a flag, symbol or insignia. As to the use of the ‘star and crescent’ symbols, we know that Allah will judge all of us according to our niyah, our intentions, and how we choose to interpret all matters pertaining to Tawheed.
Proper attention should be given, however, to the use of a symbol or icon that at one time represented the worship of a goddess or to one that symbolises our ‘godly’ adoration for a righteous person whom some may place on the same plane of reverence reserved only for Allah. May Allah guide us as we search to perfect our worship of Him as He has perfected our religion. In the end we all return to Him and He will teach us what was best; for He is the best to decide as mentioned in the Qur’an, Yunus 10:108-109.
Incidentally, the ‘Golden Age of Islam’ that we all reminisce so passionately about came to a close about the mid-l5th century with the fall of Spain and the invasion of the Mongols. This was about the same time that ‘the star and crescent’ started to be hoisted up as the banner or representation of Muslims. We’ve never been able to regain that greatness again. Coincidence??