Abuse of Sacred Symbols – Why Muslims Get Offended.

Firstly, my apologies for not blogging regularly. I am not an incessant blogger, I don’t blog for the sake of blogging. I only blog when I feel the need to share something that I feel strongly about or something that I have thought long and hard about and feel the need to articulate.

Someone read my blog post and sent me an email about the Nike furore (see http://masudblog.com/?p=335) and the email that does the rounds every so often:

From: “xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx”
Date: Thu, 12 May 2011 12:07:27 +0000
To:
Subject: Re:Just wondering

I do not mean to offend I am just trying to educate myself and understand. I saw your blog on the nike shoes. YOu seem like you are a resonable person and relitivly safe to ask.
I do not understnd why having Allah’s name attached to a product is offensive.
It would seem that a muslim would want his name on things. It would help people have a conversation about What they believe. Symboles , art, media, ect……. are a good way to have these much need descussions.
In my faith, we are to go into the world and tell the good news and so what ever it takes to do that wheather it be a symbol on my clothing, or a price of jewlery, or the book that I carry, or the soft words that I speak, anything that might get people to talk to me about it i feel is a good thing.

SO in short, why is having the word or name Allah(symbol) on products offensive to muslims?

I thought about this for a while and realised that to answer such a question would not be a quick and simple task and initially responded thus:

From: Mas’ud Ahmed Khan

Sent: 05/13/11 07:06 AM

To: xxxxxxx@gmx.com

Subject: Re:Just wondering

Hi xxxxxxx,

Your question is an excellent one and there is no offence caused by it in the least. Let me first thank you for your desire to understand and know the answer to such a question. It is always wonderful to receive a message from someone like yourself who seeks understanding and dialogue.

I am actually writing a much more detailed response to your question and request your patience in the matter.

Best wishes

Masud

I spent a couple of days writing and pondering this issue. Here is what I came up with:

To answer your question as to why Muslims consider the use of sacred symbols on products as offensive? Please allow me to rephrase and re-frame your question to why Muslims consider it offensive to use sacred symbols on footwear in particular and not products per se.

As I said previously, the question is not straightforward to answer. In an overtly material modern world, the sense of the sacred and sacrosanct is being eroded in the ever increasing secular and consumerist societies. We only have to look at the most sacred of Christian symbols, the crucifix, to see how much abuse this sacred symbol endures in popular culture. The problem is that by not showing sacred symbols the reverence and respect they deserve, the reverence and respect to what they represent is eroded too.
Now, let us examine what the sacred means in general and what it means to Muslims in particular.

In general, the dictionary definition of “sacred” is:

sa•cred [sey-krid]
–adjective
1. devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated.
2. entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
3. pertaining to or connected with religion ( opposed to secular or profane):

Whilst this gives us an idea of what the sacred is, non-religious people and perhaps religious people brought up in a secular society don’t actually know or understand what this entails. The Reform period in Europe and later the Post-enlightenment period has much to do with this. The erosion of the sacred and religious institutions in Europe has been going on for the last 400 years and thus we are where we are and religion and the sacred have been removed from the public sphere; the sacred seems to have disappeared altogether. For the purposes of this discussion, when I mention “Europe” take it to mean all European countries and cultures including North America.

Muslims retain a very strong sense of the sacred. This is also true of most, if not all, non-European cultures, societies and religions. When the sacred is eroded in these cultures it is, more often than not, due to the influence of European culture delivered primarily through the media and corporations. It is an overtly material influence, the greatest and largest exporter of this culture is the United States of America. I’m not saying that it is all bad, but you only have to look at the marketing and advertising that goes with the products these corporations offer to realise that they are appealing to people’s base and animal emotions in order to create an emotional response or attachment to the product they are trying to sell. The subtle thing is that many of these corporations use logos and symbols that have a religious or sacred connotation. Take Nike, for instance, Nike is the Greek goddess of victory. The subtle hint here is that “if you buy our product you will be imbued with godlike qualities and you will win”. Another company that uses a subtle sacred symbol is The Apple Corporation, the apple in the logo with the bite, symbolises “the forbidden fruit”, the message here is “our products are paradisiacal, heavenly, divine, godlike”, most people are aware of the cult-like and pseudo-religious overtones of The Apple Corporation’s marketing strategy and this is not accidental. There are probably other examples of logos and marketing strategies that invoke religiosity for the sake of consumerism. Consumerism, it seems, is the new religion and the shopping mall is the temple.

So what’s the upshot here? Again, it is diluting and eroding religion and spirituality supplanting it with consumerism. The “spiritual” feeling people get when going through the experience of buying the latest product, the buzz, the “messianic” hype, the conversations about the latest product, the adverts and sense of anticipation are all things that traditionally religious people would feel from pilgrimages, visiting holy men and participating in spiritual rituals. Spiritual “highs” were not easy to gain and took months and perhaps years and even decades to achieve through spiritual exercises and refining of one’s soul and character. We now have an easy solution “buy this product and feel the divine elation”. What this elation is, is the inflation of the ego. Real spirituality humbles you, it grounds you, it makes you realise that you are not as high and mighty as you think you are; the latest consumer product, be it a gadget or apparel, has the opposite effect, it makes you have a high and mighty, you have the power of the product and it gives you an “I have this and you don’t” attitude.

That said, what does the sacred mean to Muslims and why [ab]use of sacred symbols causes offence?

As you have asked about the Nike issue, I shall base my observations and thoughts around that. There are both physical and metaphysical reasons as to why people get offended when sacred symbols are “inappropriately” used.

In the 90s, Nike released some shoes with a flaming logo on them. The flames, in the minds of some Muslims, resembled the Arabic name of God “Allah”. In the psyche of the Muslims, this name is The Supreme Name and is the most sacred of words in the Arabic language. The name “Allah” is used extensively in Islamic art and calligraphy, you find it on jewellery too and on ornamental artefacts such as plates. Such uses of Islamic sacred symbols are permitted, so long as the resultant item is itself then treated with the reverence of the words it carries.

The entire text of the Qur’an is considered sacred, it is so sacred that in order to read it (in Arabic) one must purify oneself through a short ablutionary ritual which includes washing the face, arms and hands and feet before touching the physical book. This is to honour and revere the Word of God and to differentiate between the Qur’an and ordinary books. You would not hang Qur’anic art in places of ill repute, you wouldn’t, for instance, hang it in a restroom as it is considered unclean and a place of defilement; a most unsacred of spaces. Even Muslims who are not particularly religious or practising the faith retain a deep sense of the sacred and will respect and honour the sacredness of the Qur’an, its text and religious symbols.

The most noble part of a human, is considered to be the head. I don’t think that any culture will disagree. When a monarch ascends to the throne, their head is crowned as a sign of ennoblement. Christ, as we know, was given a crown of thorns as a symbol to abase him in the eyes of the people, this act was to dishonour and disrespect him by abusing the most noble part of him.

In common language, “the head” means “leader” and symbolically “head” signifies ennoblement. When a person is haughty, they are called “big-headed”, when you show pride you “raise your head”. Whilst God is free from direction and dimensionality, the upward direction symbolises God’s transcendence and our supplications are offered in the upward direction. The heavens are symbolised by the vertical and God’s grace always comes “down” upon us. When Muslims pray, they prostrate with the forehead planted on the ground, this the most noble part of the human is brought down from its height and abased before God. It is to acknowledge and concede that whilst we may be a king in this world, in front of God we are nothing, our ennoblement accounts for nothing before Him. There is also a metaphysical quality to the prostration, that, whilst our head and faculty of reason (the brain/mind) is abased, our heart, in the position of prostration, is elevated above the outward symbol of stature and status and is granted ascendency only when the human humbles themselves before God.

So, with the above in mind, height and the vertical is to do with the divine, honour, status, pride, ennoblement etc. The ground and lowering oneself is about abasement, humbling and to degrade, the phrase “to drag someone or something through the dirt” springs to mind as well. In Eastern cultures, to sit with one’s legs outstretched, with the soles of one’s feet (or shoes) pointed at another person is considered extremely rude and ill-mannered, this act is considered highly offensive and a sign of dishonour, feet/shoes are what are in constant touch with the ground and there is the connotation of dirt and impurity associated with the ground and this, along with the contextual setting I have outlined above, is why you just do not have sacred symbols anywhere near your feet or footwear, it would be considered dishonouring, disrespecting and degrading the sacred symbol to have it used in such a manner. Remember, that in the Bible, Moses is instructed to remove his footwear at the burning bush when he entered into the presence of God. Muslims remove their shoes when entering a mosque, when praying and even in most houses shoes are not permitted to be worn and are usually left by the door before entering someone’s house.

I hope I have at least clarified the issue a little bit in my hurried response. There is probably a lot more to say if I sat and thought about it a little more.

Best wishes and thank you once again for you question and interest.

Masud

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2 thoughts on “Abuse of Sacred Symbols – Why Muslims Get Offended.”

  1. good post

    I often think that one of the things that still separates Muslims, is that we still have a space in our lives that we consider sacred. A lot of people don’t get why we care about stuff.

  2. Very well written response and thoughtfully put across – background/history is always important and I believe that even if someone has no religious/sacred knowledge – somehow innately feels and knows what feels right and what feels wrong. And sacred symbolism on footwear feels wrong.

    Anything known and considered sacred especially on items anywhere below the waist would be considered offensive. Thank you for clarifying the Divine with the vertical and above – and flames and fire in itself has always been associtaed with satan and symbolises hell. If there was for example a crucifix in flames on footwear then the offense would still standout clearly to everyone – not just to christians – because the crucifix is depicted as a symbol of sacrifice and love and acting in the higher good.

    The symbol ‘Allah’ transcends everything – the symbol in flames is depicting the arrogance of satan from the beginning of humanity. If accepted would be considered a victory because satan refused to accept Adam (mankind) when asked to bow down to him by Allah. So; the way I see the symbolism is mankind (Adam) wearing footwear that still upholds satans rejection of him. To conclude: it does not harm Allah as He is the creator of the Universes and everything within and beyond – but the enlightened ones can see the abuse and offenses commited against man himself in a state of heedlessness eroding the sacrosanctity of what guides man to his ultimate goal – His Lord. Misguided and lost in the frivolity of this physical life one requires to remove these negative energies to transcend and innately know what it right and what is wrong. Sacred symbolism is more than sacred when honoured and respected.

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