Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
The absence of representations of human or divine figures in mosques, monuments, and other public buildings is in striking contrast to the decorative arts of other religious traditions, such as Christianity and Hinduism. The absence of human or other figures reflects the Islamic belief that an attempt to create a human figure is an attempt to rival God, who is the creator and sustainer of all life. Instead, Islamic art and architecture are both renowned for delicately conceived patterns of interlaced lines in a style known as arabesque, and intricate surface patterns conceived in vivid colors. Artists have produced many beautiful realizations of the phrase Bismallah ("In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate") in either the Kufic (geometric) style of calligraphy, or the flowing style known as naksh. These sometimes serve as symbols of Islam.
Many non-Muslims think of the hijab (veil) or the sword as symbols of Islam, but these are not symbols the Muslims themselves use. Nor is the symbol of the crescent moon and star universally accepted by Muslims, although it is widely regarded as an international symbol of the faith. The symbol of the crescent moon and star is older than Islam, probably dating to pre-Christian Byzantium. When the Ottoman Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire and captured its capital city Constantinople in the mid-15th century, the Ottoman Empire adopted the city's existing flag and symbol of crescent moon and star as its own. In the modern world, a number of Islamic nations have a version of the crescent moon and star on their flags, including Algeria, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Turkey.
The Red Crescent is one of the internationally-recognized symbols of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, an international volunteer humanitarian movement dedicated to protecting human life and health, and preventing and alleviating human suffering. The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are placed on humanitarian vehicles and buildings during wartime to protect them from military attack. The International Committee of the Red Cross was founded in 1863 in Switzerland, and has unique authority under international humanitarian law to protect the victims of armed conflict. A few years later, during the Russo-Turkish war of 1876-1878, the Ottoman Empire replaced the Red Cross with a Red Crescent, fearing that the cross would alienate Turkish Muslim soldiers. The International Committee of the Red Cross secured Ottoman agreement that it would respect the sanctity of the emblem of the Red Cross, and Russian agreement that it would respect the sanctity of the Red Crescent. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was founded in 1919, and the Red Crescent was formally recognized in the Geneva Conventions of 1929. Today, the two emblems fly together outside the movement's museum in Geneva, along with the recently-added Red Crystal.