Sacred Space, Symbolic Universe, and the Bathroom

Sacred Space, Symbolic Universe, and the Bathroom

The other night there was a fascinating documentary on my local PBS station titled “America at a Crossroads: The Mosque in Morgantown.” It told the story of a mosque in Virgina a university town. The issue arose when a young Islamic women returned to Morgantown and attempted to enter the Mosque door where only men are permitted to enter. One of the elders directed her to the appropriate door for women. She was struck by what has been characterized as “exclusionism against women, intolerance toward non-believers, and suspicion of the West.” Troubled yet determined she started a campaign against what was thought to be extremism in this Islamic Center. Protesters were gathered, the media was called in, and the battle was engaged.


This is a fascinating story, but not for a reason that is not readily obvious. Since 9-11, as an American I’ve been concerned about any extreme forms of religion and non-religion ideology that leads to violence against others. With that said I’m not here to defend either party in this dispute. Rather, what I’d like to do is draw lessons from this crisis about culture and the idea of symbolic universe (or world view). It is my hope that we will adopt a different perspective for understanding why people from other cultures think and act the way they do when it seems strange and/or inappropriate to us. This is a tall order, but I’ll do my small part.

Fact: The young lady was denied access to an mosque entry designated for men only. She was permitted to enter only through the appropriate entrance. Questions: Why did this happen? Why is there a men’s entrance to a mosque? I’m not concerned with the theological basis for the type of mosque’s entrances. Rather I’m interested in the cultural and social phenomenon for such designations. Cultural anthropologist speak of the “symbolic universe” that is shared by the members of a culture. A symbolic universe is meant the socially/culturally created map that people share within the same culture. It brings sense to the world and their place in it. A symbolic universe is used to order the world while answering questions of group and individual identity. A symbolic universe is a map that puts things in their place and makes a place for everything. People know what is acceptable/unacceptable, in-bounds/out-of-bounds, what things and events are sacred, etc. Cultures teach us what to value, what to feel about any given thing, what to aspire after. With this in mind we might be able to look more objectively at incidences such as the documentary reports.

A foreigner who lives in any country, in this case America, will not doubt begin to some degree take on some of the values of the predominant culture. America is none for its revolutions, its fight for democracy, civil rights, equal rights, women’s rights, etc. Part of the American culture is a hermeneutic of suscipion. Along with that freedom comes the responsibility to be critical of our own values, beliefs, and customs especially before we question the rights, practices, and traditions of other cultures. We are often guilty of ethnocentrism. We see our values, beliefs, and symbolic univerise as something which every nation should share and appreciate.

Taking a closer look at the situation in Morgantown through the lens of cultural anthropolog we should ask the question: “What is the significance of the entrance for men in Islam culture and religion. The mosque like the church and synagogue is sacred space. There are purity lines/boundaries that must be respected. Only officially sanctioned individuals are permitted to cross those lines and enter such spaces. A symbolic universe can be seen in six categories: 1) Purity, 2) Rites (rituals and ceremonies), 3) Body, 4) Sin, 5) Cosmology, and 6) Evil and Misfortune (Neyrey, Paul in Other Words). Time does not permit explanation of these items. But it can be said that purity must be maintained. Rituals involve restoring order where boundary lines have been transgressed. Ceremonies along for the passage of individuals across these boundary lines by social sanctioned means. I would suggest that the young lady would have been better served if she had sought the socially accepted means to breach the boundary that was symbolized by the entrance. If this argument does not seem to hold up, consider this comparison.

As I was watching the program a simple example of sacred space (not in the religious sense of the world) is the bathroom. In American society it is strongly felt that women must be permitted to breach boundaries that have been restrict and reserved for men only. It was once a time in American when women have the right to vote. Women are fighting to receive equal pay in the work place. But it dawned on me what if a man decide to enter the women’s room. There would be immediate outrage and the authorities would be sought so that they might enforce the law (our socially sanctioned values, beliefs, and norms). We hold that each person has a right to his or her own body. The body is private, off guard to others unless permission is granted to enter. This right is protected in our laws. However, in middle eastern/non-Western cultures that are similar to ancient cultures the body is representative of the social body. The body is a symbol of the social group and it reflects the shared concern for purity. But this correlation extends to social space as well. Like the individual’s body the social space has boundaries and rules governing how its space is to be used and by whom and at what time.

In Western cultures, particularly American culture, we are preoccupied with self; our culture is individualistic. We usually don’t notice the extent to which the individual’s health and soundness is dependent upon the social body and its health. socially connected. This leads to a disproportionate concern for self that might misunderstand the base of and the function of sacred space in other cultures. Its norms, values, beliefs, customs, and practices might seem old fashion and out-dated. However, we fail to see the interconnectedness between the individual’s identity and function with the group’s identity and values. We don’t know culturally significant beliefs and traditions underlying such practices. They often go unspoken by foreigners because they are assumed and shared. They are implicit and go without stating. We think and act as individuals. They act as a collective. There is socially prescibe behavior for each occasion.

Unfortunately, the young lady brought shame to that community. She stepped out of the social prescribed means of change. She formed a protest group. She invited foreigners/outsiders to sit in judgment. It was said by one mosque member things would have changed eventually. Traditions and beliefs are important to all people such that we will die for what we really believe in. These beliefs give people identity, purpose, and a sense of belonging. We must be careful using prescribed courses of action in our culture to address what we perceive to be a problem in another culture. In this situation what one woman might feel is a problem for her might not be a problem for the women in another culture. In ancient culture it was the responsibility of the husband to defend and protect the honor of his wife. This inevitably would lead to certain courses of action such as not speaking in public, covering the body, and so on. It’s about maintaining boundaries and purity. Men don’t go into the women’s room unless he is a janitor who enters only with properly marking boundaries during prescribed times he might enter.

This article is some food for thought. I’m not a cultural anthropologist as this article will clearly show. However, I find it interesting to apply models of behavior that might help us better understand what we do and how we are similar and dissimilar.

In closing, I would like to briefly point out points of similarity between the symbolic universe of the modern Islam with that of ancient Israel. Both carve out sacred space for religious practice. Both set boundaries for men and women. Gentiles were set in a specific space as well. Only select men from select lineages were allowed to occupy the most sacred of spaces. The high priest was only permitted to enter the most sacred of spaces, the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple. There is another lesson. We should read scripture with the same cultural sensitivity and respect we must show to others living in our times. Perhaps we will read Paul’s letters with this in mind, particularly when he writes of the roles of men and women in the church.

WRITTEN BY: