The Importance of the Islamic Star

The star and crescent symbol have origins that predate Islam.
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When it comes to religious symbolism, the most commonly accepted symbol of Islam is the star and crescent. It can been seen embossed upon the flags of various Islamic states such as Pakistan, Tunisia and Malaysia as well as the secular republic of Turkey. In addition, the two shapes are often found engraved into the doors of mosques, painted on Islamic ceramics and inscribed upon the signboard of Muslim establishments. Although upheld as an Islamic symbol by popular belief, the star and its looming crescent vastly predate the Islamic faith.

1 The Star of the Ottoman Empire

Although the origins and of the star and crescent are debated by scholars, it is widely accepted that they first became symbols associated with Islam during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. The two symbols were used on the flag of the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, which is now modern-day Istanbul. Because of the duration and vast reaches of power of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, the crescent and star became synonymous with Islam.

2 The Sumerian Star

In Central Asian religious history, the symbol of the star, independent from the crescent, dates back much further than the Ottoman Empire. The Sumerians, although polytheistic in nature, are believed by historians to be the ancestors of the Turkic peoples, as the two cultures are related linguistically. It is likely that the Ottoman star symbol was adapted by ancient Turks, as the Ancient Sumerian word for God was represented in their writing system with an eight-pointed star.

3 Shamanism and the Star

In addition to the Sumerian origin of the star, the star has been traced by historians to other ancient ancestors of the Turkish people. These populations practiced a shamanistic religion and prayed to various celestial gods representing the sun, moon and sky. The star and crescent symbols are believed to have emerged from these early Asiatic peoples who celebrated nature and the cosmos. Because of the polytheistic nature of this origin hypothesis, many Muslims reject the crescent and star as a symbol of Islam.

4 The Sufi Star

In Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, the star has intimate spiritual significance. Is is displayed centrally on the universal symbol of Sufism, the winged heart. It is referred to as an expression of divine light -- the light that enters the heart during creation and exits the heart during annihilation. It is also representative of man -- and man’s divine union with God -- as it evokes the silhouette of a person with his arms and legs extended.

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.