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The History Behind the Crescent and Star on Flags of Arab Countries

posted on: Sep 28, 2020

The History Behind the Crescent/Star on Flags of Arab Countries

By: Noureldin Mohamed/Arab America Contributing Writer

When we think about flags, rarely do we think about the meaning of the colors and shapes regarding meaning and symbolism. But, in the Arab world, there are several distinctions and even common colors and shapes that represent Arab identity. For example, red usually symbolizes blood spills and struggles that the nation had to endure in terms of freedom and revolution. Respectively, the color black mainly represents colonialism or battle, as many of the Arab countries had to endure British and French colonialism. It is quite different flags of countries like Jordan and Syria to represent the Abbasid empire, the third Islamic caliphate.

The History Behind the Crescent/Star on Flags of Arab Countries
Except Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Mauritania are among the Arab countries bearing the Star & Crescent design.

Likewise, the crescent and star also account for much of the symbolism of countries like Tunisia, Mauritania, Somalia, Libya, and Djoubti. In that sense, the star and crescent usually symbolize the religion of Islam. This could mean that majority of the population is made up of Muslims, but it also can represent the lunar month in Islam. In other ways, these shapes mainly represent the honor and dignity of those Arab identities. Ottoman successor states used the star and crescent design in their flag like Tunisia (1831), Libya (1951, re-introduced 2011), and Algeria (1958).

So What is the History Behind It?

The combination of shapes is mainly found similarly belonging to the Ottoman Empire. Historically, the ottoman empire seized control of the Arab region from 1517-1918, influencing it with religion, culture, and customs. The adoption of star and crescent as the Ottoman state symbol started during the reign of Mustafa III (1757–1774), and its use became well-established during Abdul Hamid I (1774–1789) and Selim III (1789–1807) periods. A buyruldu (ruling decree) from 1793 states that the ships in the Ottoman navy have that flag and various other documents from earlier and later years mention its use. The ultimate source of the emblem is unclear. It is mostly derived from the star-and-crescent symbol used by the city of Constantinople in antiquity, possibly by association with the crescent design (without star) used in Turkish flags since before 1453.

The History Behind the Crescent/Star on Flags of Arab Countries
Flag of the Naval Standard of the Ottoman Empire. A close match to that of modern Arab countries, and the now Ottoman country, Turkey.

With the Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century, flags were redesigned in the style of the European armies of the day. The flag of the Ottoman Navy was made red, as red was to be the flag of secular institutions and green of religious ones. As the reforms abolished all the various flags (standards) of the Ottoman pashaliks, beyliks, and emirates, a single new ottoman national flag was designed to replace them.

The Arab Revolt

The first was the growth of a nascent Arab nationalism that drew inspiration from 19th-century Western ideas. Some Arabs looked to the nationalist movements of the Slavic (and mostly Christian) minorities of the Ottoman Balkan territories, which had all won their independence by the end of 1912. This Arab nationalism was largely fostered by educated urban elites – intellectuals, civil servants, and former or serving officers in the Ottoman Army – living in great Arab cities like Damascus and Baghdad. Several secret societies were formed, although none of these succeeded in spreading their ideas to the wider Arab population before the outbreak of the First World War.

The Islamic motif of the crescent and star does not only symbolize the influence of the Ottoman Empire and the adaptation of its culture.

The second unsettling factor was the completion in 1908 of the Hejaz railways, which provided a direct link between Medina and Damascus, greatly facilitating Ottoman access to the Arabian interior. When it opened, Ottoman authorities emphasized the benefits to Muslims undertaking the religious obligation of the Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca).

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire continued to control or have a suzerainty (internal control) over most of the peninsula. Subject to this suzerainty, Arabia was ruled by a patchwork of tribal rulers, with the Sharif of Mecca having pre-eminence and ruling the Hejaz.

The Islamic motif of the crescent and star does not only symbolize the influence of the Ottoman Empire and the adaptation of its culture. In fact, it also shows a historical significance in the struggle for Arab nationalism towards the ottoman empire that lost control of the region. There is no doubt that the Ottoman Empire had both positive and negative influences on our Arab world. However, to this day, we can still find proof of similar customs, languages, and cultures between Arab countries and Turkey (modern Ottoman Empire).

Pictured above: King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Lawrence of Arabia, and several revolutionaries that would later establish the Arab identity post-Ottoman age.

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