Why is the Moon so Important in Arab Culture?
By: Yaseen Rashed/ Arab America Contributing Writer
The moon has always been symbolic and apparent in Arab culture. From holidays to music, to literature, to superstitions, the moon has manifested itself in many of the inner-workings of Arab existence. The moon has also emerged as a symbol for Islam, as the crescent and star have become almost symbols of the religion. This is prominent in the mosques and other religious symbols of the region. The crescent and star are also seen on multiple flags in the region which pays tribute to the dominant religion as well as the culture tied into the symbolism of the crescent and star. Countries like Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and even Turkey all have symbols of a crescent and star.
When Islam emerged in the Arab peninsula, it came at a time where many of the desert trade routes were traveled by night because during the day the heat would reach unbearable heights. Because there weren’t many determinants for directions given the harshness of the desert conditions, these caravan leaders relied on the moon to tell them what day of the month was and gave them directions. These merchants used also stars concerning the seasonal cycle to determine where they were going.
The moon illuminated their way and because their eyes were conditioned to see in the low lighting setting, the moon’s light was just enough to help them navigate through their journey. This culture surrounding travel and the moon has contributed to an era of familiarity with the moon being romanticized. From songs to poetry to art, the moon has risen to symbolize a familiarity within the Arab culture of safety and protective oversight. Even in pre-Islamic times, many of the local religions worshiped deities connected to the moon and stars. Even early paintings of the Virgin Mary depicted her in moonlight or simply as the moon holding baby Jesus
The moon has also been symbolic of Islamic Traditions. One of the main ways it manifests itself through this culture is the prominent use of the lunar calendar. In the Arabic lunar calendar, there are 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days depending on the moon sighting on the last day. This has created a culture of anticipation for the results of the moon at the end of every month.
One of the main ways this is seen in modern Arabic culture is the wait for Ramadan. The anticipation for the arrival of Ramadan is built up throughout the year and the last couple of days before its arrival many await to see what date will the fasting begins. If the moon is seen on the 29th night, this means that there will be prayers that night and fasting will begin the next morning. However, if the new moon is not seen that night, that means everyone will have to wait another day before the fasting starts. This tradition comes to a close by the end of Ramadan when people await to see when the Eid celebrations will begin.
The moon in the modern day is also used as a symbol of beauty. There’s a common phrase in the Arab world that roughly translates to “Her face is as beautiful as the moon’s glow” which signifies the standard of beauty the region holds. This however in recent years has risen to be a problematic phrase as it draws on colorism and the idea of brightness being the standard of beauty. Nonetheless many use the reference to the moon’s glow as it relates to holiness and a sense of greater power. It’s almost as one can’t escape the moon in the Arab world, not during the day or night.
It transcends religious lines from the Judeo-Christian tradition to pagan pre-Islamic Arabia to Islam. The prominence in the moon in all three of these cultures indicated a unique understanding of the moon that is specific to the region. These traditions also did not die over time, as even today; they are still a hallmark of culture and tradition. From elders to little kids, everyone seems to have a personal relationship with this symbol. It’s beautiful to look up at the night sky and know that the same moon has inspired entire nations by its light and glow and it continues to do so every day.