Status of the Sacred

in Contemporary Culture


Dr. Abbas Al Jirari(*)



To provide, by way of a brief introduction, a definition of culture, I would say that it represents the set of emotions, ideas and beliefs that an individual acquires through a process of inheritance, practice, education and learning. Culture also finds its definition in the knowledge, expertise and capacities that a person acquires, whether consciously or otherwise.This knowledge gives shape to his nature, refines his mind, confers cognisance on his conscience and determines the traits of his personality. Thus, culture becomes a way of life developed by man according to the environment in which he evolves, and which adjusts to the various components that define it, creating patterns of behaviour that soon become customs and traditions.

Culture, as each and every one knows, is thus an essential component of personality and of society, as well as of the other elements with which it interacts and to which itbecomes attuned in total harmony. These elements are: the nation, the language and the religion or the sacred element that synthesises them. Hence, culture and the sacred become two pillars in the formation of this identity of such an importance that I can safely say that if culture were the heart of the human being, then the sacred would be its heartbeat, or the blood that flows through this beingís arteries.

It is thus that the sacred, under its different manifestations, and being a religious belief embodied by cultural practices, becomes the core of safety and the focal point of stability. It constitutes the innermost part of the person, inspiring well-being and serenity as it confronts the pressures and cruelties of life. The sacred preserves the psychological health of the individual against the influence of material elements, with all the risks and negative social consequences they entail. These problems constantly threaten to expand, feeding on other conditions of suffering and misery, in order to generate fundamentalism and violence and spread horror and terrorism, as is the case today in many parts of the world.

Thus, the sacred shapes the mind of the person and moulds to his temperament, emotions and character. It gives substance to his status as a human being and achieves the balance that serves as a framework binding him to his environment and to the universe. It enables him to successfully discharge his cultural and role as a civiliser. The sacred also opens up new horizons that bring man closer to the truth, to well-being, happiness and conviction.

Once this balance is achieved, through harmony between culture and the sacred, the divergence between reason and heart, science and faith, and between life and religion disappears. Thanks to this balance would also disappear manís hesitationbefore the major questions and obscure problematics that face him. It becomes thus possible to draw closer to answering the occult questions of the metaphysics and grasp their complexities; a matter that the mind has never before been able to do, no matter how high its degrees of maturity and knowledge.

Hence, manís proclivity for what is sacred is a common feature of all human beings since God created the universe. In fact, it is in the sacred that they find an explanation for the existence itself of this world, even in the primal beliefs they held long before the appearance of the divine religions with which God sent his messengers, to guide humanity on the path to salvation. The importance of this inclination finds its origin in the human attachment to divinity, to knowledge about it, to faithin it and to all the thorny problems that are inherent to it and that mask the absolute. Faith in divinity is, in fact, a quasi natural and instinctive disposition for beings who feel unsure, if not incapable, of solving these problems and overcoming their strenuous difficulties.

Seen in this light, the sacred is the link, whether tangible or invisible,that a person maintains with the world. Itmakes him aware of his verity, as well as of the role that he must play in this existence. It enhances his awareness of what draws him to the other, even when this other does not share his beliefs. Thesacred thus lightens the heavy burden of the enormous responsibility that God has entrusted to man, after having honoured and favoured him over many of His creatures. Without the sacred, this burden would have been extremely weighty and unbearable.

Lastly, the sacred is a fully integrated and homogeneous system where faith and divine law become unified with reason, emotion and behaviour. This confers a taste to life in general, and provides man with a code of conduct to be observed vis-ŗ-vis himself as well as the others, thus giving him hope in the future and in coming generations.

History, ancient and modern, reveals that the presence of the sacredhas always been very strong. This was the case when this sacred ruled uncontested and controlled all spheres of life.This was also the case when it was harnessed and placed at the service of another power that sought to control it and impose its homogeneity, or, more precisely, when the sacred was used as a pretext to achieve interests and feed the greed of an authority that was perfectly cognisant of its importance and its power to influence. This placed the sacred in a crisis that only worsened that which had affected the faith itself.

In general,a crisis of the faith is not the result, as is generally believed, of a total negation or a lack of belief in this sacred, for if this were the case, it would not have problematic for the doubtful. It is rather caused by a disorderthat destabilises their faith and which, in most cases, soon straightens out irrespective of its duration. This goes to show that the seed of faith does exist in them, or in the majority of them, at varying degrees of steadiness and strength, however weak or hidden that may be. As for the faithful who suffer no internal emotional qualms, this dilemma is not an issue.

The researcher in the history of religions and cultures soon realisesthat this element is applicable to all of them. It remains the case in spite of an absence of cultural and civilisational concordance and of the ensuing divergence in opinions and feelings, starting with the perception that each society holds of itself. This is also the case for the Arab culture that Islam has visibly and strongly marked. The situation is similar for the western culture that has undergone mutations that affected European modes of thinking and research under the influence of Christianity and the Hellenistic heritage. These developments have fractionated, or nearly succeeded in separating science from faith, as proves the conflict that opposed philosophers and clergy after the Renaissance, and particularly in the eighteenth century. Such a conflict has, also in one way, or another, marked the Islamic culture after its apogee. In fact, the problematic of reason and faith was clearly prominent in the debates of philosophers, theologians and mystics.

The observer of this conflict, experienced by the western as well as the Arab-Muslim cultures, will conclude that but for those who proclaimed their atheism and fought religion as such, the majority of the initiators and participants in this debate had as basis the element of faith, or at least took it into consideration, being well aware not only of its very strong tie to the human being and to life, but also of the pressing need that man has for it. Nonetheless, each partyperceived and used it from a different angle.

Consequently, I perceive a need to differentiate between the sacred, in its broader sense Ė and religion, in the first place, and between the interpretation of those who judge this sacred from their own understanding of it. Thus, it is religion that acquires the status of sacred and not their interpretation of it, because religion is divine and celestial, while understanding it is a human exercise that is influenced by the mentality of those who practice it, by their degree of maturity and knowledge, and by the nature itself of their cultural environment.

The sacred, which is unconditionally valued in culture, is perceived with tolerance and flexibility comparatively with another sacred, pushing it therefore to accept it. This leads it to respect and value it, even as it prepares it for dialogue, co-existence and interaction. This reveals in all clarity how much humanity is in need, in all circumstances, of a religion of this category, particularly when culture develops within the context of a ferocious materialism.

Material civilizational development, and the ensuing advances in sciences and knowledge,in the industrial and information sectors particularly,suggest a certain loss in the importance that is and should be granted to the sacred and to culture. This situation is further consolidated by manís settling in mental and behavioural patterns that associate life and happiness with the fulfilment of material whims, and with the excitement of sensual motivations, not to say manís instinctive animal impulsion. This situation is further heightened by the heresies that have spread and which go against sound human nature, particularly at the social level, such as the deterioration of family ties, unrestricted sexual freedom and marriages between persons of the same gender.

The situation is more alarming in the scientific, biological and genetic fields since it has become possible today to clone human beings. This is detrimental to human nature, dignity, and the real status of manís existence.

All these developments will lead the individual to lose his human status and turn into a mere numeral or matter that could be reduced to nothing. Managing these developments requires a conscious understanding of the concept of the sacred, its consequences and the means of adopting it. But prior to this, it entails ensuring the possibility of attuning this sacred to modernity in order to find a position for it within the context of globalisation.

In fact, there is the enlightening and creative aspect of modernity in profiting of which developing societies have already lagged enough behind in spite of the vital need they have for this aspect which will enlighten their thought and their culture. Other facets of this modernity exist but their repercussions can only serve as an arena for the uprooting of these societies, if not for games with the mind and with the freedom of thought. This loosening carries the risk of leading to tyranny. And what could be a more violent absurdity than the conflicts, crises and challenges that humanity is facing today! This situation, intrinsically threatening and worrisome, will lead to absolutism, despotism and destruction, as long as it continues to have as reference an arrogant, pretentious and domineering unilateralism that refuses to accept the other and the essence of this otherísdifference.

Within the framework of this movement, the individual is led to rebel against the sacred in general and religion in particular. He simultaneously experiences a horrible nightmare that makes him permanently under stress and continuous anxiety. He also wades through skepticism and confusion that cause him to lose the vigilance of conscience and mind and the capacity to grasp his authenticity, and that of his existence and his position within the universe. This situation arises as an obstacle to normal life since it destroys its balance and the source of its homogeneity, thus stifling the person, restricting the mind, obscuring the vision and, by the same token,killing any optimism and hope for a better future.

It is clear that to build oneís futureis no longer a condition of the self and its capacity to guide the person and achieve his blossoming, following a specific drive to achieve specific goals in this future. The edification of the latter has rather become conditional upon other elements, external, that find their roots in the scientific and technological developmentof the West and within the context of globalisation.

There is no contesting the benefits of the progress achieved by the West, nor what this development entails in terms of freedom of expression andrespect for human rights. Similarly, no one can deny what globalisation calls for in the fields of economy, trade, free exchange, the bridging of distances, the wider distribution of profits and the generalisation of technologies, in spite of the risks this may hold for entities. However, the core of the conflict lies in the fact that globalisation is based on grounds and criteria that differ from or oppose those that condition others. It is dedicated to the fulfilment of goals and purposes that may constitute difficult challenges to meet. With this determination and this support, the objective of globalisation would be to abolish the characteristics and specificities of the diverse cultures, in such a way that they are replaced by a given cultural model that strives, by force, to be accepted or imposed, in the same way that military force, economic hegemony and scientific and technological development could be imposed, with all its benefits and disadvantages.

The attempts to abolish the various cultural identities affect also the sacred as well as all its components, namely religious beliefs, spiritual values and moral ethics. The latter are eclipsed by a set of other values and components marked by materialism and the pragmatics of globalisation, even when this happens at the expense of the heart and of conscience, i.e. of the human reality, and without taking into consideration the uprooting that this process generates.

This cultural uprooting would lead impoverished peoples who aspire to attain development and modernity, to either lose their sense of belonging once they become resigned and yield, or deploy more attachment and ardour in defending it, be it through violence and terrorism. In both cases, it remains difficult for these peoples to achieve development and modernity and liberate themselves from the under-development plaguing them. Even advanced societies that have already gone through several stages of modernityand aspire to achieve more would but feel uprooted in case they were swept away by the current of globalisation in its intellectual and cultural aspects. This is a consequence of the clash of values and the absence of a pattern of behaviour that would have at its base the human aspects without which life would have no more meaning.

Nonetheless, and despite the shaping that is desired for culture, I believe that the position of the sacred in the culture of every society and in its identity in general would acquire further importance with globalisation. The reason for this expansion is that the sacred, as well as the culture it stands for within the components of the identity, are for people, who are proud of and attached to them, the only possibility and means still in their hands to express and concretise their originality. This is particularly true in the case of beliefs and values that are specific to the sacred, without forgetting the universal human values that are of a global nature such as freedom and human rights, even when the perception of the latter may differ from one society to another.

Whatever the accomplishments of this violent movement or the spaces it devastates, it does not, in reality, have the power to obliterate what belongs to people -strong and weak alike- in terms of their civilizational and cultural heritage, their solid markers and the persistent and unshakeable effects of their collective memory. Indeed, it is no easy task to uproot these effects or obliterate their deep-seated impact thanks to their affinity with the sacred. This phenomenon becomes even more apparent when it affects Arab and Islamic societies that enjoy a particular status in history and a remarkable place in culture and civilisation, not only at the local and regional levels, but also at the international one.

There is little need to prove thatany domineering or narcissistic behaviour generates nothing but the evil that leads to conflict which is an inevitable result of the feeling of threat experienced by the human being to himself and to the components of his person. This benefits no one, no matter what their degree of predominance and the illusion of superiority they have. If the disparity between peoples in terms of development leaves roomneither for listening nor for reciprocity in exchanges, it can at least make possible the opportunity of a complementarity that humanity is in great need for. This complementarity between the various civilizational and cultural identities will support and enrich the human heritage. It will also make possible the striking of a balance and the concretisation of coexistence between the materialist nature of globalisation, with its imposed cultural model, and the spiritual attribute that its has lost and that can only be recovered through a return to what societies have internally accumulated, and the religious values that condition this attribute.

There is little doubt that this living and constantly prospering treasure has enabled these societies to meet several other challenges of which the most important was colonialism. They are also able today to overcome the under-development from which they suffer. The prerequisite for their access to development is to know how to bring together in harmony, through a conscious and mature exercise,the components of the self with what is convenient among the modern accomplishments of the other, without obliterating their identity or losing their personal attributes.

What I mean here by conscience is the real awareness of the selfand of the internal and external reality. What I mean by maturity is the fact that we become aware of the need for development in our world, of all the rules that control it, and of the changes that result therefrom and that have centralised power- or nearly did so- within a single pole. The latter attempts to eliminate the other and everything that is different, not only at the political, military or economic level, but also at the level of culture, taste and behaviour. In order to confer shape on its thought, this pole uses highly sophisticatedinformation technologies that enable it to impose and spread this thought through its advanced communication channels. Through this thought, it conveys values that oppose, as a whole, those of societies that find themselves forced to consume them and to submit to their influence, without taking into account the need to strike a balance that would, as previously mentioned ensure co-existence and interaction.

This balance, however, cannot become a reality if only societies already weakened by the effort they exert were requested to become responsible, in order to find the best formula for this integration. It is necessary that the strong party shows its willingness and readiness to accept the other and grant him the opportunity of self-achievement. This entails theengagement of a positive and constructive dialogue among the different parties, particularly among the Mediterranean countries that have, over many centuries, witnessed the birth of two great civilisations on the shores of their basin, and for the preservation, development and thriving of which they are today responsible: the Arab-Islamic civilisation and the European civilisation, for their well-being and for that of all the peoples that are attached to their respective identities and that find themselves today forced to confront the disadvantages of globalisation.

The purpose of this dialogue should not be the elimination of the difference of beliefs, for this is an impossible and unimaginable task. Its objectives should rather be to find a common ground of cultural rapprochement at the level of the values that all religions and beliefs share and have called for. These shared valueswill make it possible for man to recover his human status in order to be able to enjoy the respect that God has bestowed on him, discharge the mission entrusted to him and live in a world of peace and serenity.