In the Name of God, The Most Compassionate, The Dispenser of Grace
Sacred Space and Reimagining Rituals
All Praise, Thanks and Gratitude is due to Allāh alone, Who has honoured us with the din of Islām, and has chosen us to be among the ummah of the choicest of Prophet’s brought forth for the guidance of the world, our beloved Nabī Muḥammad, may Allāh’s Everlasting Peace and Blessings be upon him.
Praise be to Allāh, Who has revealed and vouchsafed to us the best of scriptures and the most dignified of speech, the Qur’ān, a guidance and a mercy to all creatures.
I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allāh, Who is alone without partners. I bear witness that our leader Muḥammad (saw) is the servant and messenger of Allāh.
In today’s Khuṭbah, I would like to return to a topic I addressed briefly two years ago in a post-Tarawih talk, I would like to focus on our sacred spaces, our Masajid. I want today however to look at our Masajid particularly probing their relationship to the rituals we perform in them, and in doing so, hopefully connect the two – sacred spaces and rituals – to help us to develop a deeper appreciation of them and Insha-Allah, stimulate and inspire in myself and you more vigour and exuberance in the performance and adherence to these beautiful rituals.
Humankind has always been concerned with space and place, the measurement of spaces, the scientific dimension and qualities of space. Our lives in modern society are centred around negotiating different spaces and finding the best space for a given activity, whether it is the perfect and romantic space for a wedding venue, a safe neighbourhood and ample space for a new house, the closest parking space at Pick ‘n Pay, or the most comfortable space in the Masjid on a Friday. We are on a sub-conscious level always travelling between, existing within and interacting around spaces, yet rarely are we cognizant of the natural architectures and genuine significance of space.
To realize the value of one kilometre, ask the residents of Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay, (or one of the runners along tomorrow’s route). To realise the value of one metre, ask the family of a child killed in an air strike in Syria. To realise the value of one centimetre, ask a doctor performing life-saving surgery one year.
Space has an intrinsic value and it can serve as the bedrock of our bond with each other and can be the catalyst to creating a transformation of self and community, specifically when sacralised – when we make space sacred.
In Islam, the concept of sacred space is deeply embedded in our tradition and its importance is attested to in the existence of this very space we are inhabiting at this present moment, the Masjid, as well as the archetypal sacred space towards which we will be facing when we perform our Salah, namely, the Ka’ba in Makkah al-Mukarramah, our qibla, which was sanctified for the purpose of worship of Allah (swt) as is declared in the Glorious Qur’an in Surah Baqara (Chapter 2: Ayah/Verse 125)
وَإِذْ جَعَلْنَا الْبَيْتَ مَثَابَةً لِّلنَّاسِ وَأَمْنًا وَاتَّخِذُوا مِن مَّقَامِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ مُصَلًّى ۖ وَعَهِدْنَا إِلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَإِسْمَاعِيلَ أَن طَهِّرَا بَيْتِيَ لِلطَّائِفِينَ وَالْعَاكِفِينَ وَالرُّكَّعِ السُّجُودِ
And when We made the House (at Makka) a resort for mankind and sanctuary, (saying): Take as your place of worship the place where Abraham stood (to pray). And We imposed a duty upon Abraham and Ishmael, (saying): Purify My house for those who go around and those who meditate therein and those who bow down and prostrate themselves (in worship). [Pickthall 2:125]
This is further elaborated specifically to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) a few verses later in Surah Baqara, Ayah 144, when Allah, the Most Exalted declares:
قَدْ نَرَىٰ تَقَلُّبَ وَجْهِكَ فِي السَّمَاءِ ۖ فَلَنُوَلِّيَنَّكَ قِبْلَةً تَرْضَاهَا ۚ فَوَلِّ وَجْهَكَ شَطْرَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ ۚ وَحَيْثُ مَا كُنْتُمْ فَوَلُّوا وُجُوهَكُمْ شَطْرَهُ ۗ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ لَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِنْ رَبِّهِمْ ۗ وَمَا اللَّهُ بِغَافِلٍ عَمَّا يَعْمَلُونَ
We have seen the turning of thy face to heaven (for guidance, O Muhammad). And now verily We shall make thee turn (in prayer) toward a qiblah which is dear to thee. So turn thy face toward the Inviolable Place of Worship, and ye (O Muslims), wheresoever ye may be, turn your faces when ye pray) toward it. Lo! those who have received the Scripture know that (this Revelation) is the Truth from their Lord. And Allah is not unaware of what they do. [Pickthall 2:144]
Thus, Islam undoubtedly subscribes to the concept of sacred spaces, as embodied by Masjid al Haram in Makkah and all Masajid elsewhere, with their primary function being for the worship of Allah (swt) through the performance of salah. In fact, the sacred space which is known as a Masjid derives its name from the root verb s-j-d, which is the word for prostration, one of the most important acts performed during the Salah, the sujud. There is a clear link made between sacred space and ritual in the Qur’anic verses cited above and elsewhere, it must however be acknowledged that there are those within the tradition who also cite the Hadith of the Prophet (saw) recorded in various forms in Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah, which says that the entire Earth has been created a Masjid, so believers may pray anywhere.
عَنْ أَبِي سَعِيدٍ الْخُدْرِيِّ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ
الأَرْضُ كُلُّهَا مَسْجِدٌ إِلاَّ الْمَقْبَرَةَ وَالْحَمَّامَ” ”
It was narrated that Abu Sa’eed Khudri said:
“The Messenger of Allah said: ‘All the earth is a mosque, except for graveyards and Hammam.'”[Sunan Ibn Majah 745/ Book 4, Hadith 11]
The proponents of this notion do not dismiss the idea of the importance of a Masjid, but maintain that no Masjid specifically contains Allah, or Allah is to be found everywhere and that making places so sacred as to believe they alone contain spiritual significance is coming close to idolatory.
But we know all this – so what is it your khutbah wants to tell me – you may be thinking?
Well, I believe that the view and perception of the mosque and its role in the community is skewed towards a veneration and quietism (literally) which only sees the sacred space as a place where God is worshipped in one way – Salah and possibly through dhikr and dua. This is severely limiting to our spiritual growth and communal well-being. The idea I really want to hone in on is the underemphasized and often unrecognized communal transformative value of sacred space and the rituals we perform in it. My thesis or take home point is that our sacred spaces and our interactions in them can be the sites/loci of rituals which can spark and create shared worlds and avenues for societal change and becoming better people. What do I mean?
Let’s start with how sacred space is important in this picture. Firstly, the threshold that one passes when you walk through the door into the Masjid is not merely physical, it is psychological and spiritual. We move between two modes of being – the sacred and the non-sacred or profane as Mircea Eliade described it. Removing your shoes as one does before entering a mosque tangibly marks this change for us. We are in a sacred space where the veil between humans and the transcendent God is thin, facilitating communication between heaven and earth. Rituals can get us to see everyday things in a new way. We become subject to ritual rules. Shoes are just shoes, no matter how expensive or trendy they are, they are in this space entirely unimportant as we step on sacred ground. Our words and actions are more carefully considered and we become “better” versions of ourselves. Sacred space, is then a catalyst for a change in our attune-ment to God.
But how does this tie in with rituals or create shared worlds of change?
Let me give you a few examples: Firstly on a smaller level.
Let’s consider the example of teaching a child to say “please/ kanallah” and “shukran/enkosi/thank you.” This ritual is not needed to explain to assist in communicating what she or he wants, it is a ritual of social etiquette creating a shared world of politeness. When you first teach a child to say please and thank you, you have to constantly remind them to do it, and it hopefully eventually becomes ingrained simply through the process of rote repetition. If you succeed in making the expressions of these pleasantries nearly automatic for them, they will for the rest of their lives make a small contribution towards creating that shared world of politeness whenever they interact with others. But the effect of the ritual often extends further – helping them see all of life through a gracious and grateful mindset, a mindset of shukr. Because they have for so long inhabited a subjunctive world of politeness, that world’s structure serves as a guide for how to act; practicing the please/thank you ritual can develop their ability to express gratitude more effectively.
Now, let’s look at an example of a small ritual in the sacred space of the masjid. A ritual which is unfortunately not practised as often as it used to – the greeting of the musallis who sit next to you. We are too often engrossed in ourselves to offer a greeting of peace despite the Hadith recorded by Abu Dawud and Tirmidhi in which the Prophet (saw) informed us that “The person nearest to Allah is one who is the first to offer greeting.”
وعن أبي أمامة صُدي بن عجلان الباهلي رضي الله عنه قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: “إن أولى الناس بالله من بدأهم بالسلام” ((رواه أبو داود بإسناد جيد)
Riyad-us-Salihin – Book 6, Hadith 858
We find more infrequently that people greet one another in the streets when passing by, let alone, if they work in the same office. Thankfully, the ritual of bestowing peace upon your sister and brother is a salient feature still of our scared spaces.
If we follow the same simple logic as with teaching children please and thank you – the person who greets her sisters and for whom it becomes normal practice i.e. ritual – in essence creates a shared world wherein people greet and are cordial with one another. The person who is greeted is more likely to then follow this action and greet others and so a very small but important ritual can morph into a communal transformative value and extend the sacred space into the ordinary spaces we inhabit.
The important thing to remember about rituals is that they are done repeatedly so that they become a feature of a particular aspect of one’s life. Here too, we can harken to the Prophetic tradition for guidance, in the well known Hadith, wherein the Prophet (saw) is reported to have said, on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (ra):
سَمِعْتُ أَبَاهُرَيْرَةَ،يَقُولُقَالَرَسُولُاللَّهِـصلىاللهعليهوسلمـ: “ اكْلَفُوا مِنَالْعَمَلِمَاتُطِيقُونَفَإِنَّخَيْرَالْعَمَلِأَدْوَمُهُوَإِنْقَلَّ ”[Sunan Ibn Majah: Book 37, Hadith 4381/ Vol. 5, Book 37, Hadith 4240]
“Take on only as much as you can do of good deeds, for the best of deeds is that which is done consistently, even if it is little.”
The examples I have given thus far, can be said to be individual and not necessarily communal in nature, yet rituals in sacred spaces are often most beneficial when they are based within community. I want to end with 2 quick examples of how group ritual can amplify and create transformative change. The first two are located outside of sacred space, the first on the field of rugby. New Zealand’s national rugby team famously performs the Haka in front of the opposing team before all their matches. The war dance ritual not only psyches them up, it instills courage, and confidence while suppressing fear in preparation for the game.
Finally, the ritual chanting of the Takbir and the wonderful atmosphere of joy, accomplishment and spiritual renewal is hard to recreate without a jama’ah. Ask anyone who has celebrated ‘Id-ul-Fitr or ‘Id-ul-Adha on their own. The beauty and elation that is created through the shared ritual of Takbir on ‘Id morning is intoxicating and truly transcendent. Each individual contributed to intensifying the shared mood — and so you felt a sense of unity and warm connection with everyone – a collective identity. Together you created a moment that was able to transcend the everyday.
Ritual participants can together create a shared world – a different dimension that transcends the everyday, worlds that for brief moments, creates pockets of joy, pockets of inspiration and transcendence. Worlds and spaces where we can be inspired to be the best we can and repudiate and reject the pessimism and cynicism which characterise our other spaces.
Rituals within sacred spaces can start to open another world of possibilities, and at the same time, helps turn those possibilities into reality.
I have over the last few years often lamented and complained at how little we appreciate and express shukr and gratitude at this unique, extraordinary and humble space we are sitting in at this very moment. To complete the erection of this masjid in the 1854 was nothing short of miraculous. It came just 20 years after the official abolition of slavery in the Cape. This area had only recently been named Claremont, it was an outlying village and not yet linked to Cape Town via rail. Yet, despite their arduous work and living conditions, we are witness to the traces of the toil and labour of the foremothers and forefathers who established this Masjid through great hardship and sacrifice; but with even greater love for their Lord and vision for the future.
Today we can hear the echoes of their duahs in the legacy of worship and the extolling of the name of Allah in this place.
We pray, Allah, Al-Mutakabbir, the Majestic will assist us to be more mindful of the many rituals we engage in when visiting Allah’s House, so as to grow closer to Allah and to one another.