CRUCIBLE: Squabble for Sacred Space

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 19 June) – Today, the Vatican embarks on a peace dialogue in the Middle East. Pope Francis hosts President Mahmud Abbas of Palestine and President Simon Perez of Israel in an inter-faith prayer in a sprawling garden near the Basilica.

It is the first time in contemporary history where the Office of the Papacy takes a step beyond simply expressing sentiments on the problem in the Middle East. In the past, the words of the Popes while important sound like words in the wilderness as parties involved hardly listen to the call for peace by the Pontiffs.

This new engagement of Pope Francis kicked off after his visit to the Holy Land few weeks ago. For some, they consider the Pope’s visit and the Vatican’s peace dialogue initiative as historical, while others question how much impact such initiative could actually effect in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Irony and contradiction

For those who follow present development in the Middle East and world history as well, it is not difficult to identify the extent of contradictions today’s major religions act or play in their contest for sacred space.

Everyone knows that Jerusalem is considered holy to three great Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land is symbolic, it nonetheless displays a rare desire to confront the crucible despite tension and awkward relation amongst the three great religions. In fact, the visit of the Pope highlights the irony into which Roman Catholicism has long been positioned where the Vicar of Christ had to do a pilgrimage or visit coming from distant land – Rome – to the birthplace of the founder of Christianity in Bethlehem even as Palestinians – both Muslims and Christians – are systematically booted out from their Homeland.

On her part, the State of Israel while purportedly chiseled out as a modern idea of nation-states and formally created with the imprimatur of the United Nations, the same country displays too stringent a position against the Palestinians despite the fact that the latter and their supporters supposedly invoked the same principle of nation-state system with the UN failing to exercise the same imperative.

As said international body cringed helplessness to address the issue, Israel continues to widen and deepen the occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank and other areas in Palestine. Israel’s position is emboldened by a claim to Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine that dates back eons ago. Meanwhile, big powers today continue to pass around the ball of Palestinian problem from one administration to another amid increasing brutality of Israel’s occupation.

Even then and despite their awful condition, Palestinians could simply praise the visit of the Pontiff as they view him as capable in providing respite into their plight even momentarily, although deep inside they question how such visit could create concrete results on the ground. Given the grip that Israel has imposed on every inch of Palestinian territory notwithstanding the double standard and one-sided support by big powers on Israel, many doubt the prospect of peace dialogue initiative by the Vatican.

Today, as in the past, there is probably no place on earth as too religiously contrived as a conflict zone than Jerusalem. She has become the source of division amongst people, religions and civilizations across periods of history. This happened amid a glaring fact that while Semitic religions spoke of the highest ideals for mankind; yet, their followers could not simply realize them in that small piece of land.

We speak of this subject as a backdrop on the contradictory role that peoples’ quest for sacred space plays not only the source of peace and solace for themselves on one hand, but as a source of fierce and enduring conflict on others.

Dialogue on extremism

Few days before the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land, I was invited by the Silsilah Dialogue Institute in Zamboanga City to speak on the phenomenon of religious extremism in major faith traditions. To put the topic in context, I tried to delineate concepts like extremism, revivalism, fundamentalism, terrorism and few others. I used them to analyze the major antecedents of extremism in major religions including their contemporary dynamics and their precipitations in Southeast Asia and the Philippines. I made use the works of Marty and Appleby, Yusuf Al-Qadarawi and few others.

To say the least, one of the highlights of my talk was the point I raised that the hardest conflicts to crack or to resolve are those deeply embedded with claims and counter-claims over sacred space. I contended that major religions and civilizations including minor ones have their own versions of sacred space spawning conflicts across centuries that are becoming more dangerous given the increasing “technologization” of warfare in our time.

This point has never been as pertinent into the raging debate in Turkey today: what should be done to Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya) – whether to transform it into a mosque or to remain as a museum for tourist attraction?

Ayasofya is a historical site in Istanbul that was built dating back to the Byzantine Empire. I had visited Ayasofya twice. I hardly noticed that there is inside what is referred to by the Greeks as the Omphalion believed to be the navel of the earth or ancient stone, a place used by the Byzantine Empire for ordination of priests and bishops.

Buddhism, for its part is known with its main sacred space – the Mahabodhi Temple in India. It is believed to be the place when Buddha gained enlightenment in around 250BCE. Earlier, the place was simply an ordinary, natural space, untouched by any development. Few centuries later, a temple was built on said place; hence, the notion of sacredness was clothed around it and was subsequently institutionalized with such elaborate structure and monumentality. Elsewhere like China, there is a view that she is the center of “Penyin” the center of the world. In Japan, Mt. Fuji is considered as world’s axis.

As mentioned, three great Semitic faiths consider Jerusalem as their respective Holy sites. Judaism considers the area as the seat of the House of David that was destroyed for the first and second time. Accordingly, it is imperative for the Jews all over the world to establish the Third Temple. Some say that the creation of the State of Israel is a prelude to the building of the Third Temple. It is in consonance with a millenarian, end-time perspective of Jewish history as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

The Holy Sepulcher, sacred to Christianity, is just few meters away from both the Wailing Wall (which is sacred to the Jews) and the Masjidi l-aqsa (Dome of the Rock), the place according to the Qur’an when Prophet Muhammad (SAW) ascended to Heaven during the Isra wa l-miraj (Travel and Ascension).

There was a twist in the history of Jerusalem as the first qibla (direction of prayer) in Islam. After the hijra (migration) and after Jerusalem serving according to some traditions seven to 10 months as Muslim direction of prayers, there was a revelation that the qibla should be directed to the Ka’aba in Makkah.

The Ka’aba, as known practically to everyone, is the Sacred House in Islam. In suratu l-maidah, the Qur’an says: “Allah made the Ka’aba as the Sacred House, an asylum of security for men as also the Sacred Months (Maida: 100).” Because the Ka’aba and its surrounding area are sacred, it is prohibited to engage in warfare there during the months of Dhu l-hijja, Dhu l-qaida, and Muharram.

What we are saying is, the history of religions and civilizations is intimately attached with claims, at times, counter-claims on sacred space. The politicization of such space is the consequence how their respective followers embossed or clothed interpretations into their versions making the issues surrounding them entrenched with ideology of sacral space which are too hard to crack or too difficult to address especially if it becomes a source of conflict.

A case in point is that some years ago, Hindu fanatics tore down the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh in India. They believed that the place where the 17th century mosque has been standing is the place of Hindu god dating back many centuries ago. On their part, the Taliban demolished the image of Buddha in Afghanistan few years ago. Now with the rise of new Islamists in Africa and the Middle East, many more tombs, shrines and other important relics in the Arab world are threatened of being destroyed.


When I visited Zamboanga eight months after the war last year, my first inkling was to visit the Sta. Barbara Mosque. It was able to recover somehow as there was already repair and reconstruction done, but the surrounding areas are still replete with destruction like burned houses and shops showing how fierce the war was.

Unknown to some, Zamboanga was actually the object of claims and counter-claims not only in recent times, but in the past too. With the building of the Fort Pilar for strategic defense of Spanish forces in the 17th century, a prominent tourist spot in the city, the area had been subjected to attacks by the Dutch and the British, not to mention attacks coming from the Maguindanao Sultanate and the Sulu Sultanate that lasted almost until the end of Spanish colonialism.

What is crucial in the story of Fort Pilar is how a myth was created in 18th century when accordingly a Marian apparition happened where a Spanish soldier guarding the area allegedly saw Virgin Mary. Since then, the Fort was viewed not simply as military fortress but was clothed with some sacred significance.

The depth of sacrality of that area is obviously not similar with other areas like Jerusalem and others. To say the least, Fort Pilar provides Chavacanos their version of sacred space making it as their point of center as a small minority within Muslim minority territory.

Attendant factors like Zamboanga’s strategic location and the circumstance where Chavacanos are being sandwiched both linguistically and demographically with the influx of Bisayans coming from the north and the coming in of Tausug and Sama from the south especially from other island provinces, make the area and the city as a whole volatile as shown in the past as it is today.

The Philippines, incidentally, has a lot of notions of sacred space like the claim of so-called Babaylan on the sacrality of Mt. Banahaw and the rise of Christian fundamentalist organizations claiming sacrality into their myths including the transfer accordingly of old Jerusalem to Mindanao. These speak of how volatile religions and how they could easily be used for varying purposes: as source of solace and pride by their respective followers; and as source of tension and conflict by others. This is, how in our view, the politics for sacred space is so critical even as it has increasingly defined world politics today.

Sacred, profane, and power

When we highlight the case of Jerusalem and the visit of the Pope, it is to dramatize the irony of our time: religions, which should supposedly serve as source of peace are, viewed in another sense, can serve as a source of conflict. It is because the ideals that each religion envisions is contrived by varying concept, claims and counter-claims for sacred space.

We had surveyed a number of literatures on this subject. The closest work that explains what we meant is Merciade Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion.” In a pertinent chapter, it reads:

“So it is clear to the degree the discovery – that is the revelation – of a sacred space possesses existential value for religious man; for nothing can begin, nothing can be done, without a previous orientation – and any orientation requires acquiring a fixed point. It is for this reason that religious man has always sought to fix his abode at the center of the world. If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded – and no world can come to birth in the chaos of homogeneity and relativity of profane space. The discovery or projection of a fixed point – the center – is equivalent to the creation of the world.”

Eliade provides a conceptual scheme where the concept of sacred space must be viewed. Incidentally, he also has version of what he refers to as a “profane experience,” which seems to counter the notion of a sacred space. He writes:

“Where profane experience, on the contrary, space is homogenous and neutral; no break qualitatively differentiates the various parts of its mass. Geometrical space can be cut and delimited in any direction but no qualitative differentiation, and hence, no orientations are given by virtue of its inherent structure.”

Eliade provides thus two types of space. One, a space conceived to be sacred; while the other one, profane. In our view the combination of these two perspectives especially as the latter can be connected and contrived into the structure of power and domination given the long tradition of colonialism and imperialism, can make situation even more loom with danger. The contest would not only be claim for sacred space but can be complicated with politics, power and domination especially by big powers.

This is the case of three religions that are invariably connected or disconnected to politics of big powers. In the case of Christianity particularly Roman Catholicism, she was, once upon a time, a global force but eventually constricted as she lost her “spatial” empire in the Middle Ages with the lair of the Pontiff relegated into a small piece of land in Italy.

In the case of the Muslim world, the break-up of the Caliphate and the subsequent birth of Muslim nation-states allowed her to develop a new form of daru l-islam (Land of Islam) through nation-state system. But she failed to pool its resources together and failed to appropriate power and global influence altogether. The Muslim world possesses, no doubt, all the elements necessary to become a respectable player in international arena, but with the rate she is doing, it is still too far for the ummah to be able to recoup and dispose power responsibly. As power in the Muslim world is managed poorly, it is such that she is pitifully powerless at all.

In the case of the Jews, barely 13 million people many of whom are still in diaspora are able to control the source of power and domination particularly the United States. Today, the latter provides the motor in entrenching Zionist interest in the heartland of the Middle East. This is the difference, at least, when we view the competition for sacred space in the context of global power and domination.

Incidentally, the Kurds show more prominently the reverse case of Israel. They too are surrounded by different states, in fact, not necessarily or always hostile unlike Israel’s relation vis-à-vis the Arab world. But as the Kurds do not have substantial connection to big powers and do not have a notion of sacred space that make their politics entrenched and galvanizing, the Kurds are easily pulled apart by interests of neighboring states making it doubly hard to effect Kurdish national unity and statehood.

There are many cases that we could narrate that speak of different cases of states and minorities who have connection or disconnection as the case may be to their notion of sacred space with the interplay and shade of power and domination. And they display varying forms of political and social tension. What we are saying is, the most enduring and the most dangerous are those conflicts, which have been spawned by centuries of claims and counter-claims on sacred space. And it is becoming more dangerous as technology of war is reinforced with birth of ideological fundamentalist groups in practically all religions and modern civilizations, states, and groups.

Adjustment and fluidity

Finally, while we view the new peace dialogue effort of the Vatican as laudable, we could not help but be concerned with the prospect of how she is able to advance substantially the cause of peace in Palestine and resolve the contradictions amongst religions given the attendant big power politics that is intricately entangled in Jerusalem and other issues in Palestine.

In our previous khutbah, “Plurality of Space,” we already had articulated Islam’s consistency with what we call territorial and cultural pluralism. As we said, Islam has its own way in positioning herself and relating with the other. The verse in suratu l-ankabut we previously invoked speaks how universal the concept of space in Islam and why Muslims should embrace the world instead of just a single area or space. The Qur’an says: “O My servants who believe truly spacious is My earth. Therefore, serve ye Me and Me alone.”

When we surveyed the major works of Mufassir (interpreters) on this ayah (verse), they are unanimous on the fact that this verse legitimizes the need for believers to take refuge or seek other spaces including the recourse to hijrah if necessary. Ibn Kathir, Yusuf Ali, and Ali Unal speak of the imperative in transferring to new area if need be. For instance, Yusuf Ali writes:

“There is no excuse for anyone to plead that he could not do good or was forced to evil by his circumstances and his surrounding, or by the fact that he lives in evil times. We must shun evil and seek good, and God’s creation is wide enough to enable us to do that, provided we have the will, the patience, and the constancy to do it. It may be that we have to change our village or city or country; or that we have to change our neighbors or associates; or to change our habits or our hours, our position in life, or our human relationship, or our own callings. Our integrity before God is more important that any of these things, and we must be prepared for exile (hijrat) in all these senses. For the means which God provides us for His service are ample; and it is our own fault if we fail.” (p.1045).

In fact, if we look at the spread of Islam, it is precisely due to the fact that early Muslim communities followed a natural, dialectical course of history. When Andalus or Spain, for instance, was recaptured by the Reconquesta, they accepted their fate quite willingly in the face of medieval policy of exclusion and extermination; yet, in so short a time, there germinates new groups of Islamic communities in Europe, India, and China and so on.

Today, in fact, the most active members of new daru l-Islam are not traditional places in the Muslim world. The most dynamic are those who engaged in “hijra” or those Muslim immigrants who transferred from their countries to other places and they are doing good service more distinct than they were previously in their respective places of origin. Even if Islam has its own concept of sacred space, the vision of universality, tolerance, and the ability to live with the other is very much alive in history with contemporary trends showing the proliferation of Muslim communities in many parts of the world. It is because their notion of space is not limited to just one or two places; they embrace what the Qur’an refers to: “Truly spacious is My earth.”

[MindaViews is opinion section of Mindanews. A revised khutbah delivered at UP- Institute of Islamic Studies on 13 June 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]