The shape that most clearly represents Morocco in my mind’s eye is the eight-point star. It is a simple shape made by overlapping two squares. The hard-edged lines make it indicative of Moroccan patterns, which are known for their use of straight lines in contrast to the curvilinear arabesque of the Middle East. It has a feel that is both modern and ancient. What is the meaning behind this particular shape and what does it represent? (Note: this article was revised on March 24, 2008)
In truth, the eight-point star is not unique to Morocco. It appears in cultures around the globe. It can be found on national flags and in religious iconography. It carries various meaning associated with each culture that utilizes it. The are eight-paths in the way of Buddah and eight immortals in Chinesse tradition. However, its universal symbolism is one of balance, harmony, and cosmic order. Its pattern is associated early astronomy, religion, and mysticism. It is symbolic of both stars and humanity’s earliest attempts to understand and communicate the order and unity inherent in Creation, nature’s rule.
The roots of the eight-point star symbol are in early astronomy. The eight lines are symbolic of the four corners of space (north, south, east, and west) and time (two solstices and two equinoxes). 1
Use in Islam
By the middle-ages, the eight-point star is widely used as a symbol in Islamic art. It is called khatim or khatim sulayman, seal of the prophets, as in signet ring. The phrase “seal of the prophets” is also used in the Koran and has particular ideological meaning for Muslims. Moroccan zillij artisans also refer to the eight-point star as sibniyyah,sabniyyah, which is a derivative of the number seven sab’ah.
The design of the Muslim khatam was likely inspired by Jewish version, which is the Seal of Solomon. The seal of Solomon is a six point star formed by overlapping two triangles. According to the brilliant book, Beginners Guide to Constructing the Universe” Muslim legend recounts Solomon using the star to capture djinns, genies, the immaterial counterparts to humans.
Ancient use of Eight-point Star Symbol
The eight-point star was used as a symbol long before the rise of Islam.
An Italian nobleman named Pietro della Valle discovered the use of an eight-point star as a seal in the ruins of the ancient city of Ur (~2000BC), Tell al Muqayyar, in the mid-seventeenth century. He wrote “I found on the ground some pieces of black Marble…which seem to be a kind of Seal like what the Orientals use at this day: for their Seals are only letters or written words…Amongst the other letters I discovered in a short time was…a star of eight points…”
Abraham, the shared prophet of the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) lived in the Sumerian city of Ur. Excavations from Ur reveal early use of the eight point star, often in the form of an eight petal rosette used in jewelry or metalwork decoratation.
The Sumerians used an arrangement of lines as a symbol for both star and God. The linear eight-point star represented the goddess Inanna, Sumerian queen of the heavens and Ishtar (Astarte), the Babylonian goddess known as “The Lightbringer.” An eight-point star enclosed within a circle was the symbol for the sun god. The “Babylonian star-cult is the core and the archetype of subsequent astrology.” 3
For centuries, the Greeks believed that the morning and evening star we different entities. The Greeks recognized Venus as the morning and evening star is 400 BC, 1,500 years after Sumerians.4
Religous Integration of Symbol
How does the pagan symbol for God/star transform itself into an Islamic symbol? What could the connection be between the Islamic use of the eight-point star and its uses as a symbol in Sumerian culture?
I mention the Sumerian history to show the earliest origins of the eight-point star as a reflection of astronomical observations from one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Sumer is located in an era of the world where several civilizations, such as Babylonian, Arkadian (Semetic), Elam (proto Indo-Iranian), Egyptian, and Greek expanded and retracted. It doesn’t require much imagination to imagine how these symbol migrated to other cultures and eventually made its way into Islam. Why the eight point symbol endured instead of a six point star or some other shape is the real story, I suppose.
Additionally, all the monotheistic religions accommodate astrology in some way through fact that the stars are part of the Creation. Islam inherited pagan symbols along the same lines as other monotheistic religions, which share the same history and origins. Muslims accommodated ancient symbols inasmuch as they supported the Islamic view of Creation.
Moreover, astronomy plays an important role in Islam in both its expansion, obligations (pilgrimage), and daily act of worship (five times of daily prayer done directed towards Mecca). Astrology had an impact on Muslim scholars as well. As inheritors of ancient texts and avid supporters of scholarly study, Islamic scholars poured over Greek learning, which included meanings attached to the movement and position of the stars. Pythagoras, who is credited as being the first person to call himself a philosopher (lover of wisdom), is of particular important to Muslim scholars. Pythagoras developed a system of belief that centered around mathematics. Pythagoras identified the planets as being spheres rotating around a central fire. Pythagoras also influenced Plato and Aristotle and the philosophies that followed.
The following picture, taken from www.discoverislamicart.org is of an astrolobe in the Batha Museum in Fez. “This astrolabe includes all of the component parts of the planispheric astrolabes that were indispensable to ancient astronomers for determining prayer times and the height of the stars, and for establishing horoscopes. It is one of the first portable astrolabes in the West.”
Use in Ornamentaion and Pattern Building
Further symbolism of the eight-point star can be discovered by examining its role in Islamic ornamentation and pattern building. Thekhatam is at the heart of many Islamic ornamental patterns.
Ornamentation is particularly important in Islam. Islam discourages representational art in an effort to avoid the temptation of idol worship that arises with created mimics of Creation. Therefore, Islamic art grew from the study of geometry and the practice of ornamental decoration, as well as the sciences, literature, and development of architecture. The idea in Islamic faith is to seek to understand Creation, not to worship it, but to honor the Creator through the application of understanding. “Praise God the creator who has bestowed upon Man the power to discover the significance of numbers” the Prophet Mohammad is quoted as saying.
Furthermore, the mental disciplined, study, and restraint required for constructing complex, precise, geometric patterns support the Islamic belief that humans are the greatest of God’s creation.
The following photo shows detail of a zillij pattern used to decorate a wall in the media of Fes. The pattern contains multiple uses of the eight-point star, both as a center point and an encompassing shape of the pattern.
More complex patterns can be developed using the khatam or its variant as a centerpiece. The following diagram shows how a pattern that employs a symmetry of eight is built around a central khatamusing a grid of four circles around a central circle.
The following picture shows a fountain in Fes that is decorated with various patterns based around a central khatam that radiates outwards into various star formations.
The Sufi mystic Ibn al-Arabi drew a diagram similar to the one used to develop a pattern around...see above). However, Al-Arabi’s diagram’s diagram is concerned with spirituality, not ornamentation. He drew it as part of his explanation that “all phenomena are nothing but manifestations of Being, which is one with God.” Conincidentally, Al-Arabi was born in Spain at around the same time the practice of zillij, mosaic design, was starting to flourish. As Sufism had particular appeal to North Africa, his spirtual use of the pattern may explain the prolific use of the eight-point star and and symetries of eight in Moroccan Islamic patterns.
The number eight was important among Sufi mystics. “The octagon, with a ninth point in the center, is also central to the mystical symbology of Sufism. It is the seal or design which Ernest Scott says ‘reaches for the innermost secrets of man’. Meaning wholeness, power and perfection, this primary geometrical symbol is one which Sufis associate with Shambhala …”
On his website of natural patterns, Ian Alexander refers to the eight-point star as both the Sufi star and the Moroccan star. He offers the following explanation, as quoted from Friday mosque in Iran “Form is symbolised by the square. Expansion is symbolised by the square with triangles pointing outwards (an 8-pointed star). Contraction is symbolised by the square with triangles pointing inwards (a 4-pointed star). The two star-shapes together symbolise the cycle of creation, ‘the breath of the compassionate.’”
Breath of the Compassionate
The following pattern is created by repeating the khatam. The cross-like four-point star mentioned above appears in the negative space. This pattern is called the Breath of the Compassionate. Of the ninety-nine knowable names of God in Islamic tradition, the Compassionate is the highest pronounceable name. “Through the polar cycle of the divine breath the universe is periodically created, maintained, dissolved, and renewed…More than just an ornamental motif, the Breath of the Compassionate is a cosmological model symbolizing the interplay of polarities that manifest form.” Given the Muslim belief in both humans and jinns and the squares association with material worlds, it is no wonder that the Breath of the Compassionate and the Seal of the Prophet in the Muslim context would also represent a balancing act between the two.
Keith Critchlow has extensively studied Islamic patterns and states the four-fold archetype “has a deep and profound relationship to the Moroccan genius, particularly as it relates to the crossroads of Africa and the migration of symbols from the south. Critchlow describes the Moroccan patterns language similar to late King Hassan II’s often quoted description of Morocco: “…drawn from the depths of Africa but transmuted in the light of Islam, memorized and learnt by heart and transmitted from generation to generation for the love of beauty.”
The eight-point star as a symbol marks early human understanding of the intellegent order that underlies our universe. Today, it carries religous and mystical associations. Known as the khatam in Islamic cultures, it and its variants are found at the center of stunning zillij masterpieces throughout Morocco. Amidst the color and compostion, the khatam stands as a symbol of early astronomy, interconnectedness, and faith in the ultimate harmony of Creation. In this way, the khatam represents the highest virtues in Moroccan culture: learning, community, faith, and love of beauty.