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Religious Symbols between Form and Essence

The relationship between religion and symbols has been a matter of debate for centuries. What is religion; the essence that provides the spirit to believe and worship, or the form that frequently expresses itself in both worship and the individual code of conduct? Or is it all of these together? Without a doubt, just as there is no meaning in forms without religious fundamental beliefs and values based on the essence, a religious life that does not reflect a personal code of conduct will be distant from the essence that is intended by the religion. All religions that include belief in God emphasize the importance of homage and dependency on God, as well as the believer's beliefs and thoughts and the code of conduct that puts God in the center of life. Therefore, it is the symbols, which disclose the code of conduct that appear before us as important religious components. This is true to such an extent that belief does not affect only the mental and philosophical world of the individual, but also an individual's behavior and social position; a believing individual desires a role-model from the social environment in which they live, and they try to follow a certain discipline that covers their entire life, down to the way they dress. In this context, the formal and symbolic arrangements that are connected to every religion produce uniformity rather than plurality. This is true to such an extent that it is possible to differentiate the identities of Muslims from that of Christians, Jews or Buddhists, from their appearance down to their codes of conduct.

The ceremonial aspects of the religion are very effective in both individual life and worship, and this can be defined as a code of conduct if it is practiced regularly; therefore, some of the prayers are entirely ceremonial, each acting within the ceremony and loaded with symbolic meanings. If we do not take the meaning of these symbols into account then it is not possible to say that we have found the true meaning of that form of worship. For example, there are different forms of worship in Islam, like pilgrimage, prayer and fasting, and every form of worship has external appearances that carry symbolic meanings. If one does not understand the significance of the qiyam (standing position), ruku (bowing) and sujud (prostrating) then it is not possible to comprehend the saying of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that "prayer is the believer's miraj". In the same way, one cannot comprehend the meaning of circumambulating the Kaaba, or standing at Arafat during hajj (pilgrimage) without considering the monotheistic principle of Islam, life after death, or the day of judgment; one cannot comprehend the importance of stoning Satan if one does not put a distance between themselves and all forms of evil and the enemies of Allah. Without such a comprehension it cannot be said that one has truly comprehended these forms of worship. A Christian who participates in the Eucharist and eats of the holy bread and drinks of the holy wine without thinking of Jesus Christ, who is being represented in this worship, cannot be thought to have comprehended Jesus' message. It is possible to go on like this.... This and similar religious acts are mainly related to symbols and forms and it is a fact that every form and symbol carries a variety of symbolic messages.

While the secularism that dominates the world in which we lives opposes these characteristics of religion, carrying out a battle against the holy ideas that are expressed by a variety of symbols, it forms its own holy ideals. The most basic holy ideal of secularism is to organize a social life for the human being that has no reference to religion, thus creating a society made up of identical individuals. In this context, the investigation of the religious symbols begins to be scrutinized; thus the prayers, as well as the creeds of truth and salvation, are made to be circumstantial and thus turned into shallow acts.

Today the discussions that are being carried out about religion and form, or religion and dress should be evaluated not only from different perspectives, but also in connection with this. Thus, the attempt to create an argument concerned with the practice of Muslim women's dress, which is clearly stated in the Quran and which has been practiced for 1,400 years without any problems arising, is based on whether it is an essence of the religion or a form. The clear statement of the Quran is reduced to an argument about whether it is the form of the religion or the essence of the religion; this is nothing more than an attempt to interpret the religion within the holy framework of secularism. 

 

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Şinasi Gündüz

Professor Şinasi Gündüz, the head of the Religious History department at the Faculty of Theology, Istanbul University, graduated from the Faculty of Theology, Ankara University in 1984. In 1991 he completed his doctorate at the Middle East Research Department, Manchester University. In 1995 he received his associate professorship from Ondokuz Mayıs University, Faculty of Theology, and he became a professor in 2003 at Istanbul University, Faculty of Theology. Still head of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Istanbul University, Faculty of Theology, Şinasi Gündüz is a member of the Executive Board of the Faculty of Theology, Istanbul University and is a member of the Senate of Istanbul University; Professor Gündüz has published a large number of international articles. He has written sections for international publications and presented articles in a number of refereed journals and at international academic conferences, making great contributions to the field of religious history. In 2004 Professor Gündüz was seen worthy of the Successful Researcher Award by the Istanbul University Rector's Office and in 2005 by the Istanbul University Academic Research Projects Institute.

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