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The crescent: Islam’s accidental symbol
A self-proclaimed fundamentalist movement gave Moroccan pharmacists one month to dismantle the bright green crosses representative of the pharmaceutical industry in many countries around the world. The ultimatum, issued on the internet, expired on Aug. 28. Besides the huge media attention it got, this incident highlights the strong values attached to religious identities in the form of symbols. But where does the crescent come from in the first place?

In Turkey, the symbol most commonly associated with pharmacy is a red E (for Eczane) on a white background. It is a neutral symbol that is supposed to express the "secular" nature of that country, just like it is in the case of those who adopt the rod of Asclepius or the caduceus.

The green cross, which is used in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, among others, as well as most of their former colonies including Argentina, with the exception of its color, is a replica of the emblem of the Crusaders, a sign of civil defense and military strength in the West.

And Muslims who argue that the symbol bears testimony to foreign domination in the land of Islam also believe that their presence in the Muslim majority north Africa’s pharmaceutical circles prove the strength these historical symbols.

While, Morocco alternates between green crosses and green crescents, Algeria has banned the cross outright in favor of the green crescent. Tunisia, on the other hand, has opted for the the rod of Asclepius sometimes referred to as the caduceus, steering clear of modern religious symbols.

But in reality, these choices, to a less superficial extent, show a strong Western acculturation of the Arab tradition, which has never been associated with the pharmaceutical symbol, although Arabs ruled that discipline between the 9th to the 14th century and are the inventors of modern pharmacies.

Similarly, in what concerns flags, pennants and banners, it is a known fact that the choice of the Prophet Mohammed was a unique color, none of which ever bore a star or crescent.

Despite appearances, the famous crescents that adorn the pinnacles of minarets and domes of mosques do not share the same status as the crosses atop churches.

In that, unrelated to the Islamic dogma, history describes the crescent only as a decorative element linked to the external architecture of mosques.

Its first appearance, in the 11th century [that is four centuries after the emergence of Islam], although late, takes precedence due to a dire need for a symbolic opposition to the cathedral of Ani, whose cross was replaced by a silver crescent to mark its new status as a mosque.

The Turkish flag, a model for ten states

For centuries, the Ottoman army’s flags, banners and pennants only marginally showed the crescent or star. They were mainly decorated by religious symbols like the Zulfikar [a legendary that belonged to Ali, the first Caliph after the death of Mohammed], and verses of the Koran, as well as ornaments including the lily and tulip flowers among others.

And it can be proven that when in 1799, Sultan Selim III established the Order of the Crescent, a decoration for foreigners "which excluded nationals", the most powerful Islamic state had not yet adopted the crescent as its religious symbol.

However, it was around the same time that it became a national emblem: the initial adoption of the crescent with the star on a red background. It is linked to the creation of troops organized in a typical European style under the Ottoman empire’s Nizam-ı Cedid. [1]

A sporadic representation of a crescent and a star, the flag’s symbolic value first spreads in the West where it is systematically associated with Turkey. The latter eventually adopt it as a national identity.

The value of this flag becomes final in 1826, after the abolition of the Janissary Corps under Mahmud II, which marks a further Westernization of the country.

For many young Muslim states that blossomed in the 20th century, Turkey’s powerful and prestigious flag, albeit secular, becomes the Muslim flag of choice. Ten states use it as a model to create their own emblem.

Now an Islamic symbol par excellence, the crescent as a religious symbol has joined the ranks of the Christian cross and the Jewish star of David.

[1] A series of reforms carried out by the Ottoman Empire sultan Selim III during the late eighteenth century in a drive to catch up militarily and politically with the Western Powers.


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