BY KEVIN TANG
Most organized groups have at least one symbol. Symbols are identifiers but also summaries of the most important tenets of a group. Since it is an immediate identifier, symbols are distinct and send an immediate message. Religious symbols are no different. The three symbols I use are the Christian cross, the Jewish star and the Islamic crescent. At the same time, none of these symbols originated as representative of these religions and even of their core beliefs. They all came to become symbols through historical experience and appropriation and representative of the history of these religions. Thus, I start with an examination of the history to these symbols.
Jewish artists and institutions have used the Jewish star for many years but as ornamentation, not as a symbol of Jewish identity. In polytheistic contexts, it symbolized the reconciliation of opposites, such as female and male sexuality or fire and water. Instead, the menorah served as one of the primary symbol of the Jewish people for most of their history. The star’s use was limited to Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. In early modern times, Jewish communities chose to use the Star of David as a symbol to signify their community the way Christians use the cross.
Likewise for the Christian cross, cross-like symbols existed since antiquity, including the Egyptian Ankh and other polytheistic symbols. It appeared on jewelry and graves in pre-Christian societies. The Romans used the cross for punishment for slaves and enemies of the state, but not free citizens. In this context, it was a symbol of low class and disgrace. Scholars dispute whether Jesus was crucified on a crossbar or a simple stake. Ironically, the cross was avoided by early Christians due to its associations with the execution of Jesus. But it persisted and eventually came to symbolized the Christian idea of Jesus’ sacrifice and redemption.
Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam has symbols whose use predate its emergence by centuries. Nearly every Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilization has used the crescent and star. The Turkic peoples who dominated the Middle East politically were the root of the modern Islamic star and crescent. It was actually a pagan symbol representing the polytheistic Turkic moon and sun god. During the Arab Islamic Caliphates, their flags were monochrome or had shahada. The star and crescent became prominent on the flag of the Ottoman Empire. Since then, many states formed from the Empire’s collapse have reinterpreted them as symbols of Islam. Yet, , many do not agree on what it means specifically. To Pakistan, the crescent and star symbolize progress and light. To Libya, the crescent represents the beginning of the lunar calendar and the star represents hope. Despite some modern controversy, Muslims continue to use and be identified by others through the star and crescent.
In my design, I portrayed the common symbols of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in a circle, as if it were an arabesque design. I chose this circle as the meeting point because the circle is a symbol of the heavenly realm in Islamic symbolism. This is not to say invalidate other religion’s symbols of divinity. Since the project is Islam and peace, it made sense to use Islamic symbols as frameworks of peace. I chose to populate the symbol of the heavenly realm with symbols of all the Abrahamic faiths to show their shared belief in the afterlife and one god. This is to emphasize similarities, rather than differences amongst them. This is not an inclusion to the exclusion of polytheists, atheists and other types of faith. But the three Abrahamic religions are particularly close since they are part of the same religious lineage. Their idea of the afterlife, God and the supernatural are more similar to each other than other faiths. Therefore, it is aesthetically and ideologically consistent to show that they share similar divine space.
I used their most common symbols for recognizabilty but also for the fact that these symbols are often used to differentiate amongst the faiths. This is not a problem in and of itself. However, symbols are also used to perpetuate difference and exclusion. For example, extremist groups of all religions use their symbols as sources of pride. The Crusaders used the cross. Zionist settlers wear the Star of David. The Young Turks flew the star and crescent. The irony is that these symbols were not always emblematic of their faith. It may even have represented an idea contrary to their faith, such as the star and crescent or cross once having been polytheistic symbols. Since monotheism rejects polytheism, this may seem paradoxical.
However, it is also strikingly poetic since it also represents continuity. All monotheists have polytheistic heritage and traditions. In a way, this can be comforting because peoples and customs can never be wiped out. It is disingenuous to say that a part of the past does not represent us since we did not yet have xyz religion. Our important aspects, our human qualities, fear, love, hate, rage are constant. The idea of an age of “darkness” and “ignorance” is ridiculous since we did not become inherently brilliant or moral, for having a certain religion. Yet people try, as seen in ISIS’s and other extremists’ attempt to destroy pre-Islamic history and heritage. Despite the fact that these “non-believers” were the ancestors of the modern people, their statement is that “they” are not part of us. Non-acceptance in the diversity of one’s past can be seen as the first step toward non-acceptance in diversity outside a narrowly constructed community. If one portrays as “other” portions of one’s own heritage, by comparison, it is remarkably easy to view as “other” those who do not share their created heritage.
Thus, I use symbols to represent faiths despite their contested heritage and use as objects of exclusion. Symbols can represent our whole history and heritage or none at all, depending on the user. Those in a certain group identify with those symbols can and have used them for either good or evil. In this case, within the context of Islam and peace, I chose to use the symbols of Islam and other religions as a context for interreligious co-existence. Rather than using these symbols as means of exclusion, those who use Islam and other faiths as a path to peace can appropriate its symbols to that end.