Popularizing the Sacred: From the Maori to the Sufis
The pros and cons of the popularization of sacred symbols is a question I have been wondering about for recently. There are two interesting posts about this subject over at Eyeteeth. Urban Wandjina: Aboriginal Street-Art and The Face of Maori Resistance.
It seems common sense to me that cultures that don’t change disappear. There are many adages from my Western culture about this vary fact, “Trees that don’t bend break” est. I suppose the first question must be is this true? Is a culture more lasting if it is flexible or if it is more absolute? And does long lasting equal better? Or is there more value in a culture that does not change, even if it does not last?
What I wonder are the benefits, drawbacks, and responsibilities in popularizing an ancient and sacred culture. Last semester this came up for me in a directing theory class. I was interested in looking at ritual within theater and so drew upon my personal experience with ritual, which is Sufi Islamic (my order) ritual. So I decided to perform a scene from the play we were working on Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O’Hara, in a dhikr. I was worried that people would not understand the ritual because they did not have the cultural background (my class being almost entirely Western non-Muslim students.) However, what was surprising to me was how successful the piece was. What I discovered was that, although I’m sure the subtleties of dhikr were lost, much of (at least Sufi) ritual is universal. People not only understood that a ritual was being performed (an interesting question between performing and doing), they also saw and felt the ritualistic state that was being created. They also, most importantly, felt that the ritual had added to the quality and power of the performance.
However, this raises many of the questions above. For example, clearly this was not a sacred space (at least in the Islamic sense) and none of my actors had done their ablutions, a necessary part of a proper dhikr, so was this sacrilegious? Also, what is my legitimacy in using this culture “improperly”? On one hand I am Muslim and was raised so. However, I was not raised in a Muslim country with all the cultural knowledge that would endow. As someone who is questioning his faith and thus not practicing Islam does that change the legitimacy of my actions? Finally, and most importantly, what are the benefits and what are the consequences to treating religious culture in a none sacred way?