Sanctity as Argument, Danger

By Khaled Ghazal

The Sanctified Throne: Religion in Culture and Culture in Religion (in Arabic)
By Abd al-Hadi Abd al-Rahman
Beirut, Dar Al Talia, 2009

In the past, the Sacred was almost exclusively connected to religion, with principles, values, and rituals which are essential to its performance. But over time, and especially in Arab and Islamic communities, the concept of the sacred has expanded to include many aspects of modern human experience, so that it has become difficult to distinguish between the traditional/spiritual definition of the sacred and the formal or political one. In the wake of rising Islamic fundamentalist movements and an alarming trend of religion being expanded beyond a specifically religious place and purpose, the dangers of religion being employed to justify violence against the Other have become magnified. This makes an examination of sacred urgent.

The sacred is a powerful force, since its symbols are often immune to opposition, critique or even analysis. This is what has allowed these symbols to survive throughout history. This is not only characteristic of Islam, but of all of the world’s great religions, monotheistic or otherwise. In his “The Sacred Throne: Religion in Culture and Culture in Religion,” published by Dar Al Talia in Beirut, Abd al-Hadi Abd al-Rahman interprets the historical and contemporary condition of the sacred, describing the sundry roles it plays in human life. 

Abd al-Rahman views the sacred as not only religious (even if it is rooted in religion), but also as a force in our daily routines and states of mind that relates to such things as optimism and pessimism, the systems that govern us and through which we govern, our relationships to work and family, marital institutions, maxims, accepted truths, and folk-tales. Nevertheless, in spite of the many functions of the sacred, religion is its primary purpose.

Religion occupies a central place in the private and social life of the individual, in addition to being important for the community as a whole. Abd al-Rahman adopts the definition of religion proposed by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who said that religion was a unified system of beliefs and events directed toward sacred things, such as prohibitions. It is a system of cosmic beliefs and agreement about past events that provides comfort and guidance in a moral society. The Church is the nucleus of much activity. This force to which the believers resort, is not merely a physical institution, but also a social force that is the sacred in its own way, allowing the community a place and means of worship.

With a powerful social dimension that influences society on both the micro and macrocosmic levels, religion can be present in almost any aspect of human life. Addressing metaphysical questions and supernatural truths, it also contains an emotional element that is reflected in human feelings. Religion is historical in that every religion offers a history of its development and place in the world, while its myriad symbols and concepts also lend it a mythical quality. Another component is ritualism, which provides meaning, connection and continuity between the past, present and future. It is also ideological: in specifying what exactly the faithful should believe, religious ideology is then reflected in human customs and social behavior, such as circumcision, marriage and funeral rites. Most obvious perhaps is its moral aspect, which centers largely on the obligations that the devout have to one another and to God himself. Abd al-Rahman provides a useful definition, calling religion “the human project that builds a scared existence…an existence that was built in a sacred framework, and the sacred here is a force with large, secret characteristics outside the individual, but it is related to him. All structures called sacred are designed to shield us from dangerous forces, and therefore man bestows upon the outside world a meaning and, within the sacred universe, the miracle and the divine example are realized.”

At this historical juncture, the role of the sacred is of special interest because of the rise of religious and non-religious identities that are transforming themselves into political movements, some of which advocate violence to achieve their goals. The more extreme forms of resistance championed by some Islamic fundamentalists against perceived opponents of Islam is obviously an issue of special concern for today’s global society. These types of fundamentalist movements justify their acts of terrorism by citing certain Quranic scriptures that call for Jihad. According to these extremists, the defeat, decline, and subsequent backwardness of Muslims followed their abandonment of Jihad in modern times. They say that violent resistance is endorsed by major religious texts, whose sacredness is settled and indisputable. But this textual defense of violent sacredness overlooks the fact that the credibility and relevance of ancient texts, as well as the appropriateness of their injunctions, is imperiled by the fact that they were written within a very specific historical context that no longer exists. 

The other Sacred is the one that expresses itself in the resurgence of fanatical, nationalistic, tribal, sectarian and religious identities. These identities do not see themselves as able to coexist with each other, and are governed by the logic of domination and monopoly. Religion becomes an important tool in the politics of identity, being used to both differentiate one’s own group from that of the Other, as well as to vindicate one’s own position. Here, the religious, symbolic and authoritarian become interwoven. If the individual rejects the sanctity of his religion and its many rituals, he may become stigmatized as an infidel, leading to terrible consequences for him in both the now and hereafter. In modern identity politics, he who refuses to sanctify the tribe or the nation becomes subject to charges of treason, defeatism and regression. In this way, the sacred becomes a multi-layered organism of dogmatism and repression that stifles and sometimes even destroys the individual in the name of group progress. 

Translated from the Arabic by Rebecca Joubin

The Arabic version of this review appeared in An Nahar, February 11, 2009

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63