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Q: So, I know that the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam and is featured on the flags of a bunch of countries. But why? How did that symbol come to represent Islam? What’s up with that?

A: Just as the cross is the internationally-recognized symbol of Christianity, and the Star of David tied to Judaism, the crescent moon is the accepted symbol of Islam and the dominating symbol of many Muslim countries. It adorns flags, mosques, and is even used on some product advertisements.

Although the crescent moon and star symbols predate the founding of the Islamic religion by thousands of years, the most prevalent explanation involves the ancient city of Byzantium, which later became known as Constantinople and Istanbul. According to the stories, the rulers of Byzantium had adopted the crescent moon as the symbol of the city. Most historians say it was chosen in honor of the goddess Diana, or that it was in honor of a battle won on the first day of a lunar month, when the moon is at its slimmest.

Later, when the Ottoman Empire conquered the city (then called Constantinople) around the year 1450, they adopted the city’s flag and its symbol. The story continues that Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, had a dream in which a crescent moon filled the sky from one end to the other. He took the dream as an omen that his kingdom would stretch across the earth, and adopted the symbol as his own. And since, for centuries, the Ottomans ruled much of the Muslim world, the symbol became associated with the religion as a whole.

Got a question about goings-on in the Mideast? E-mail Stripes at: news@estripes.osd.mil

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