Conference considers significance of religious spaces

Various keynote speakers and panels discussed the importance of sacred spaces like mosques, churches and temples, as well as the role of traditional elements such as clothing, on campus Thursday.

The event was hosted by the John A. Widtsoe Foundation, a Mormon religious and scholarly organization, and included opening remarks by USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni.

During a panel discussion on the importance of sacred clothing, Aziza Hasan, the Founding Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, explained that clothing often serves as an agency of protection and safety, but can be turned into a barrier.

“One of the five pillars of Islam is to perform a pilgrimage, known as the hajj,” Hasan said. “Men and women are required to wear very specific clothing. Everyone is equal as the other, rich and poor, man and woman. It’s a leveler of society and a reminder that in the eyes of the almighty we are all the same.”

Hasan also said that often, religious ceremony combines with the acquisition of finer goods.

“During Ramadan, there is fasting sundown to sunset,” Hasan said. “You are not allowed to eat or drink anything. Coffee helps a lot, even more so do lavender and incense. During Ramadan you can see more individuals seeking lavender and pretty smells, so that they can focus on prayer at end of the day.”

According to Hasan, therefore, obtaining decadent clothing or objects is a tradition that makes it possible for Muslims to partake in the experience.

“All this access to beautiful resources comes down to relationships,” Hasan said.“When you think about buildings textiles, you want to think of how this is made and how it affects people and has big social impacts.”

Lori Meeks, an associate professor and chair of the School of Religion at USC, said that the creation of the physical parts interacted with during religious ceremony showcase how practitioners make faith a personal journey.

“One thing that really struck me is that if we put sacred materials in context, we notice the contributions of others that don’t appear in the orthodox doctrinal texts,” Meeks said. “We can see the importance when we think about material aspects, how fabrics were made and so on.”

Vinayak Bharne, an associate professor at the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, said that the idea of making faith personal can transcend tradition, making religion practical in the 21st century.

“Hinduism has its own canons and rules and places for rules,” Bharne said. “What is beautiful is the more I encounter the entity, the more that I see they broke every single rule. Sacredness is very personal.”

For Hasan, this is why sacred spaces have become an important part of developing the faith of the individual, rather than just the select religious scholar.

“It’s about ordinary people coming together to convene in sacred spaces,” Hasan said. “It’s very special. Sometimes, we defer to experts and to the elite, but creating spaces where everyone is an equal is important. It helps to build connection and support in the community, and is an important part of what people of faith can do together.”

Bharne explained that individual sacred spaces can often manifest in what he called the “unintentional monument,” and that it is not necessarily religious.

“If someone has passed away, the spot is marked with flowers and it becomes monumental for the family but not monumental,” Bharne said. “You feel so much for that place when you mark it. All the places I’ve visited that are converted to formal temples are designed to announce its presence, to let people know they are there. They are not personal all.”

With the modern era offering more chances for interconnectivity and understanding, Bharne said that it is important to continue to investigate other belief systems in order to comprehend how religion defines perspectives.

“The danger of not going behind the scenes is that we always tend to be outsiders,” Bharne said. “We look at the phenomenon from the outside, make our own experiences, tend to draw conclusions, and go away. We need to not be hasty, but take time to change our angle and take time to understand where they are coming from and how they perceive phenomenon.”