Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Finding Sacred in Everyday Life

Sacred scrolls in a sacred Jewish ark

This blog isn’t sacred.  Or is it?  It could be, depending on the definition of sacred.

The dictionary defines sacred as “connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration … the power, being, or realm understood by religious persons to be at the core of existence and to have a transformative effect on their lives and destinies.”

Sounds perfect: sacred = religious. 

Gutenberg Bibke
By that definition. religious texts are considered sacred. So, too, the Gutenberg Bible, first printed around 1455.  Only 40 of the original 150 to 180 books have survived.  The last one sold publicly went for $2.2 million in 1978, but experts estimate a single Bible today could bring in as much as $25 million.

Other books are sacred, too.  For example, not that long ago, in Afghanistan, several copies of the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, ended up in a trash heap and were burned in front of NATO headquarters there.  Gen. John Allen, then-supreme commander of NATO troops, said the books were included in trash to be discarded and inadvertently given to troops to burn.

Then-President Barack Obama has also apologized to the Afghans, well aware that Muslims believe the Quran is so holy that it can only be touched with freshly washed hands.

Despite the apologies, the opposition Taliban called on Afghanis to kill infidels who dared to burn the book in what Muslims call an act of intolerance and bigotry. Several NATO soldiers were killed by angry Muslims.  There were also a handful of riots.

Burning the Bible would outrage some Christian leaders, too.  Jews would be furious if a Torah ended up in the flames.

They are all considered sacred.  However, the Quran is a book.  So is the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the Avista of the Zoroastrians and every other religious text.  They have no value except as books.  They are seen as sacred because they contain religious teachings.  That means they are only of value to someone who believes in the words.

Besides, where does one stop?  How about the printers’ plates used to produce religious texts?  The electronic images of the pages sent to the printer? Shouldn’t they be saved?  How about the machines that the books are printed on?  In linotype, book pages are put together letter by letter. Ever wonder what happened to the type that was used for that purpose?  It was melted down and recast.  God’s name and all.  Shouldn’t the metal pieces have been preserved?

Coins issued by Caliph Uthman
Has any Muslim ever asked where are all the pieces of paper, leaves and linen used to record down the Prophet’s words?  In Muhammad’s day, the late 6th and the early 7th century, there were no stationary stores, no letterhead, no fancy paper with watermarks.  People wrote down their thoughts and stories on whatever was available: palm leaves, walls, whatever.

That material was collected some 30 years later in the reign of Caliph Uthman.  The text became standardized in the middle of the 7th century, but even Islamic scholars agree that not all of it may have originated with Muhammad.  Some may have been added or subtracted as times and conditions changed.

What happened to the original writings?  They were discarded, of course.  So were early texts of biblical books.  Historians would love to find an original Matthew or Mark, for example, but none exists.  The oldest New Testament dates from around the 3rd century with only rare fragments from earlier times.

Even the early “sacred” Jewish and Christian texts have a spotty history.  They were discarded, maybe burned.  Once they wore out from use, they were copied (with the usual assortment of errors added) and then the original was thrown away.  They were also written on vellum, parchment and
Dead Sea Scrolls in situ
papyrus, none of which can endure very long.  Parchment documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls  disintegrated when exposed to the light. Texts written 2,000 years ago and not as well protected hardly had a chance.

Jews developed the policy of not destroying the name of God.  They bury books and sacred items, such as prayer shawls, which may contain God’s name.  In a way, that’s a good thing: the long-lost writings of the famed Jewish philosopher Maimonides were recovered centuries later because they were hidden and not burned.  However, his books were kept in a house.  How long would they have lasted in the ground?  How long do any sacred objects buried today last?  Ask any archaeologist.  The stuff that survives is made of stone.  Almost nothing else endures.

Regardless, the standard definition of sacred is far too narrow.  Consider the collection of plays written by William Shakespeare. 

The great playwright was largely forgotten after he died in 1616.  Copies of his plays, all handwritten, vanished, too.  Then, a couple of his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, decide to collect whatever they could find, including handwritten copies created by theatergoers.  In 1623, they published what has become known as the First Folio.

First Folio
It contains 36 plays and claims to be the authentic words, but we know today that other versions of Shakespeare’s plays exist.

Want to buy a copy of the First Folio?  About 40 have survived in various conditions.  The last one sold at auction at 2006 fetched about $2.8 million.   

The books are retreated with great respect and even awe.  To many people, they are sacred. 

How about images?  Sure. 

Several years ago, Palestinians in Gaza gathered outside a French cultural center, chanting "Leave Gaza, you French, or we will slaughter you by cutting your throats” because of cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo, a now-famous French satirical magazine.

In Niger, the Associated Press reported:

173 people have been injured; at least 45 churches have been "set ablaze in the capital (Niamey) alone," and a "Christian school and orphanage were also set alight." Numerous sites were pillaged before being burned.  A video from Niamey showed protesters waving Qur'ans and yelling "God is great" while tearing apart Bibles and throwing them onto the ground.

Pakistan was no better.  According to published reports from there:

Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters outside the French consulate. A Pakistani photographer for AFP was shot and wounded, the news agency reported.  At least 200 protesters were involved in the violence, which broke out after Muslim religious parties called on supporters to condemn the cartoon following afternoon prayers, said Ahmed Chinoy, chief of Karachi's Citizen Police Liaison Committee.  Images from the scene showed police in running street fights with demonstrators.  Those protests came after Pakistan's parliament unanimously passed a resolution condemning the caricatures printed in Charlie Hebdo.
Actual cartoon

That’s rights: drawings of of Muhammad are sacred enough to incite murder.

One Israeli newspaper quoted a Gaza protestor named Abu Abdallah Makdissi as saying, "Today, we are telling France and world countries that while Islam orders us to respect all religions, it also orders us to punish and kill those who assault and offend Islam's Prophet Mohammad."

Actually, that’s not factual.  The Muslim holy book, the Quran, does not ban images of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad in any form.  There are only two lines in the religious text that even offer advice on this subject:

 [Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth... [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him. (42:11)

[Abraham] said to his father and his people: “What are these images to whose worship you cleave?' They said: “We found our fathers worshiping them.” He said: “Certainly you have been, you and your fathers, in manifest error." (21:52-54)

Abbreviated Commandments
That teaching parallels the second Commandment in Jewish teachings: 

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of then that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments. (Ex: 20: 4-6)

The Abraham account in the Quran is also very similar to a Jewish tale about Abraham objecting to and later destroying idols made in his father’s workshop.

In Islamic tradition, however, images of Allah, Muhammad and all the major prophets of the Christian and Jewish traditions are prohibited.  Muslims have gotten around their restriction largely by using calligraphy as art, while Jews have simply avoided depicting anything that could be worshiped as a deity.

Not that everyone paid attention to such rules.  Artists in the Middle East, but principally in Persia, regularly produced images of the Prophet starting in the 7th century.

Obviously, the definition of sacred linked only to religion is wrong.  Something sacred could be linked to religion, but it doesn’t have to be.

Who knows, then, this blog could become sacred in some distant future.

Bill Lazarus is a religious historian who also writes about American history.  He holds an M.A. in communication and an ABD in American studies.  He has had multiple books published, both fiction and nonfiction, including Revelation, Adventures in Bonding, Comparative Religion for Dummies and A Guide to American Culture. He can be reached via his website:

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