Photo Essay: Sacred Spaces Through the Lens of Muslim Harji
BY MUSLIM HARJI
INTRODUCTION: A sacred space is any space or area that has been dedicated for a religious or sacred purpose. All world religions have places set aside that are treated as holy, and where individuals gather with utmost humility and respect to carry out prayers and rituals for spiritual development and growth. It is in these sacred spaces that individuals dedicate their time to detach themselves from the profane, and seek out special moments for peace and happiness by praying to their Creator.
The name for this sacred space differs according to faith. Christians have churches, monasteries, shrines, sanctuaries, and chapels. Muslims worship in mosques, as well as in khaneqahs and jamatkhanas, and Jews in synagogue. Buddhists and Hindus call their spaces temples. Often, mausoleums and burial sites of important saints become sacred places over a period of time, where people of different faith converge and offer their submissions to the saints for the resolution to their problems. In many instances individuals and families dedicate special rooms in their homes as sacred spaces, imitating the spaces in the same way as their prayer houses. The point remains the same: it is a place where believers can encounter God in a special way.
In my travels around the world, I have encountered numerous places of worship and sacredness, and I am delighted to share the pictures I have taken with readers of this blog. For the benefit of the readers I have compiled a very brief summary, where possible, of each world religion or faith in order to broaden the reader’s horizon of the photos that are shown.
Hinduism is generally regarded as the world’s oldest organized religion. It consists of “thousands of different religious groups that have evolved in India since 1500 BCE.” Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic religions. They recognize a single Deity, and view other gods and goddesses as manifestations or aspects of that supreme God or Goddess. Hinduism has grown to become the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. It claims about 950 million followers — about 14% of the world’s population. It is the dominant religion in India, where 95% of the world’s Hindus live.
The ritual of aarti – the Hindu ceremony of light – is being performed on a stage by a group of young pandits or priests. They are all drapped in saffron coloured robes, and are carrying their containers of offerings (puja) of burning camphor or incense in their right hands. Photo: Muslim Harji. Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Although the city of Varanasi or Benares is popularly called the city of Shiva (one of the principle deities of Hinduism) and Ganga (or Ganges, which is considered a sacred river), it is at once the city of temples, the city of ‘ghats’ (riverfront steps leading to the banks of River Ganga – Varanasi has 87 ghats), and the city of music. The entire city is a sacred space and it is regarded as the spiritual capital of India. Photo: Muslim Harji. Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Meenakshi Amman Temple is a historic Hindu temple located on the southern bank of the Vaigai River in the ancient temple city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India. It is dedicated to Meenakshi, an avatar of the Hindu goddess Parvati, consort of Shiva – who is worshipped mainly by South Indians. A religious and mythological symbol dating back 2,500 years, the temple’s 14 towers are each covered in thousands of colorful stone figures depicting animals, gods and demons. Photo: Muslim Harji. Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Buddhism is a religion to about 300 million people around the world. It has its origins about 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gotama, known as the Buddha, was himself awakened (enlightened) at the age of 35. To many, Buddhism is more of a philosophy or ‘way of life’.
Pindaya Cave in Myanmar is located next to the town of Pindaya in Myanmar, and it is an important pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists as well as an attractive, unusual sights for tourists. The caves are known to contain over 8,000 images of Buddha. There are several levels of caves and new Buddhas are added regularly. Photo: Muslim Harji. Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Taoism is the oldest religion in China and takes its name from the word Tao (the Way), the ancient Chinese name for the ordering principle that makes cosmic harmony possible. It is based on the teachings of the Tao Te Ching, a short tract written in the 6th century BC in China. It is estimated that about 300 million people practice Tao in its various forms. For example, the Chinese practice of Tai Chi exercise or Qiqong is considered as a form of Taosim.
Founded over 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469, the Sikh religion today has a following of over 20 million people worldwide. The word ‘Sikh’ in the Punjabi language means ‘disciple’. Sikhs are the disciples of God who follow the writings and teachings of the Ten Sikh Gurus, the last of whom lived from 1666 to 1708. Sikhism preaches a message of devotion and remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality of mankind and denounces superstitions and blind rituals. Its core philosophy is that there is only One God and He is the same God for all people of all religions.
The Golden Temple of Amritsar, India, is the spiritual centre of the world’s Sikh community and is considered as “the most tangibly spiritual place in the country” that is steeped with vibrant devotion. Although the building itself has great historical and architectural interest, it is the Golden Temple’s great spiritual meaning for Sikh believers (and others) that is most memorable to visitors. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Judaism is an ancient monotheistic religion, centered on the conviction that there is only one God. The Torah is its foundational text (part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible which were recorded as early as 8th century BCE), and there is supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Midrash and the Talmud. Judaism was founded over 3500 (1500 BCE) years ago in the Middle East. Today, there are around 14 million people who identify themselves as Jews. Moses is the most important prophet in Judaism, and he along with Aaron led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the Holy Land that God had promised them. Jews believe that God appointed the Jews to be his chosen people in order to set an example of holiness and ethical behaviour to the world.
The Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem is a vast, open-air synagogue that is the preferred place to pray for Jews worldwide. This unifying symbol of Jewish life has been a source of controversy among the Jews. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have long opposed organized women’s prayer services at the Wall; prayer services they maintain, may only be conducted by males. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Jews from all countries as well as tourists of other religious backgrounds go to pray at the Western Wall. People who cannot pray at the wall can send in prayers or ask for the Kaddish, a specific Jewish prayer, to be said for departed loved ones. Prayers that are sent in are placed into the stones of the walls and are called kvitelach. When the small pieces of papers become too numerous – more than 1 million are placed each year – they are removed and buried. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Opened in 1859, the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, is a historical building in Budapest, Hungary. It is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. It seats 3,000 people and is a centre of Neolog Judaism or the reform movement of Jews in Hungary. Photo: Muslim Harji. Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Like Judaism (as well as Islam), Christianity is a monotheistic religion that grew out of Judaism as it was practiced between 200 BCE-100 CE. It is the name given to that definite system of religious belief and practice which was taught by Jesus Christ in the country of Palestine or the Holy Land 2000 years ago, during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, and was promulgated, after its Founder’s death, for the acceptance of the whole world, by his disciples. Among the doctrines that were promulgated was that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah awaited by the Jews and that he was the Son of God because he was born to Virgin Mary, and that he died and was risen as a final sacrifice for humans’ sins.
Christianity is the largest of the Abrahamic religions by number of adherents, though it’s divided into many denominations and sects. It has three major branches: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Of course, the variety of beliefs and practices between the branches and within the various denomination is huge. Primary disagreements include: the nature of God, the nature of Jesus, the role of Church authority, the validity of various texts, and the question of how people can “access” God.
The Altar of the Nativity in Bethlehem with the star built over the cave that tradition says the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. Thus it is considered sacred by Christians. The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
St. Georges Monastery, Jerusalem, where Christian monks maintain their ancient way of life, began in the fourth century with a few monks who sought the desert experiences of the prophets. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
This route through the Old City of Jerusalem is revered by Christian pilgrims as the route taken by Jesus as he was led to his crucifixion. It is the setting of regular processions. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
The Stone of Unction, also known as the Stone of Anointing, is just inside the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and is believed to be the place where the body of Jesus Christ was laid down after being removed from the crucifix and prepared for burial. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
A Dhupad or spiritual performance by the Gundecha Brothers in the beautiful Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes in Montreal, where the spiritual ambiance of the Chapel, and the stirring spiritual singing beautifully blended, inducing deep feelings of peace and contemplation in the audience that was present. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
A Coptic Christian priest at the Lake Tana Churches and Monasteries in Bahar Dar, Ethiopia, holding for display an early manuscript. The Lake Tana area was important from the 14th through 16th centuries in view of its role in maintaining the Christian faith against contemporary pressures, and the rise of the Solomonic Dynasty which patronized the building of churches and monasteries. Many of the earliest manuscripts and precious examples of ecclesiastical art as well as royal objects were safely stored in their treasuries. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with over 1.6 billion followers. It is a monotheistic faith based on revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years in 7th-century Saudi Arabia. The Arabic word Islam means “submission,” reflecting the faith’s central tenet of submitting to the will of God.
According to Islamic tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared to the Prophet revealing to him many messages from God. These revelations are contained in Islam’s Holy book, the Qur’an, which is regarded as God’s final message to mankind.
All Muslims affirm the fundamental Islamic testimony of truth, the Shahada, that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) is His Messenger. They believe that Muhammad was the last and final Prophet of Allah, and that the Holy Qur’an, God’s final message to mankind, was revealed through him. Muslims hold this revelation to be the culmination of the message that had been revealed through other Prophets of the Abrahamic tradition before Muhammad, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, all of whom Muslims revere as Prophets of God.
Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad divisions arose within Islam that resulted into two primary Muslim denominations — the Sunnis and Shias. The Sunni position is that the Prophet nominated no successor, and that spiritual-moral authority belongs to those who are learned in matters of religious law. Thus the Sunnis do not accept the idea of continuity of religious leadership by members of the Prophet’s family, as is the case with the Shias.
The Shias believe that after the Prophet, his cousin and son-in-law Ali, became the first Imam — the spiritual leader — of the Muslim community and that this spiritual leadership (known as Imamat) continues thereafter by hereditary succession through Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. Through history, the Shias divided into numerous branches. The Twelver Shia believe in Twelve Imams, and revere a “hidden” Imam who will return on the Day of Judgment to take part in the final judgment. The Ismaili Shias are the only Shia Muslims to have a living Imam, namely His Highness the Aga Khan, who is the 49th Imam.
In addition, millions of Muslims associate themselves with Sufism, which focuses on the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam. There are many Sufi orders around the world, and they have a following among both Shias and Sunnis.
Today, the Sunnis constitute 75-90% of the world’s Muslim population.
Jerusalem is where three monotheistic religions converge. Islam’s 3rd holiest place, the Dome of the Rock, stands tall behind the Kotel, the unifying symbol of Jewish life. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
A close-up of the beautiful blue-and-gold shrine, the Dome of the Rock, in Haram Esh-Shariff, Jerusalem. It was built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik to enshrine the outcrop of bedrock believed to be the place where Abraham offered up his son in sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-18; the Koran, Sura Al-Saffat 37:102-110). The Dome of the Rock (Arabic, Qubbat al-Sakhra) is one of the most recognizable architectural glories of the world. A shrine and not a mosque, the Dome is the third holiest place in Islam after the Ka’aba in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Either Abd al-Malik or his son Caliph al-Walid I, then built the large mosque at the southern end of the Haram, which came to be called al-Aqsa. In Muslim tradition, al-Aqsa is also identified as the “furthermost sanctuary” from which the Prophet Muhammad, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel, made the Night Journey to the Throne of God (The Holy Qur’an, Sura Al-Isra, 17:1). Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
The interior of the historic Blue Mosque (Called Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) in Istanbul. The mosque is known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design. Built between 1609 and 1616 years, during the rule of Ahmed I, the mosque also comprises a tomb of the founder, a madrassa and a hospice. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
This is the dargah of one of the most famous Sufi saints, Nizamuddin Auliya, located in the Nizamuddion basti in the heart of India’s capital, Delhi. Thousands of Muslims, Hindus and those of other faiths and religions visit it every week, especially on Thursdays, to witness the beautifully lit up dargah after sunset accompanied by soulful Sufi music. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
While walking deep inside the Nizamuddin neighbourhood of the revered Sufi Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the bursting aroma of sandalwood (agarbattis) mingle with the smell of New Delhi, and the open courtyard of the dargah is gradually filled with men and women. The agarbattis and diyas brightens up the dark closure, with each person lighting up to 20 agarbattis at a particular time in order to get purified of the evil and to clean the air of the surrounding negativity. It is said that the saint’s powers can cure people from all the djinns and negativity surrounding their bodies and hence leave them purified. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Inside the sanctum — a layer of rose petals and chaddars many inches thick, the grave surrounded by a circumambulating line of men praying for the deceased, or seeking his intercession in the redressing of their pleas. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Women and men alike come to the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya with a belief that the saint will grant all their desires. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
A whirling dervish at the mausoleum of the Mevlena Rumi, the great Muslim Sufi mystic and poet. Rumi was the founder of the Sufi Mevlevi order (known for the Whirling Dervishes). He spent the last fifty years of his life in Konya. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
The ceremony of sama or dhikr, remembrance, in progress at the mausoleum of Mevlana Rumi in Konya, Turkey. Sama is a means of meditating on God through focusing on melodies and dancing. It brings out a person’s love of God, purifies the soul, and is a way of finding God. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
This Blue Domed Mausoleum was built by Imam Reza, the 8th of the 12 Shia Imams of Twelver Shias, to honor one of his servants who died when his entourage was passing through Yadz when Imam Reza was going to Mashad. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
The lighted ceiling of the tomb in Shiraz, Iran, of the Persian poet Hafiz. Many Iranians who visit the tomb bring rosewater to wash the tombstone and put some flowers on the grave. Then, they touch the tombstone and pray by reciting Qur’anic verses to ask for the blessing of his soul. Some proceed to request Hafez to talk to them through his poems — to tell them about the state of their lives or give them some wise advice through the words in his poems. Then, they open their eyes and open the book of his poetry on any page it randomly opens and continue to read it enthusiastically. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Badakhshan in Central Asia is dotted with Ismaili prayer houses. Every town and village has a prayer house, either as a free standing Pamiri house or a designated room in a Pamir home. Typically, a Pamiri home has five supporting pillars, symbolizing the five members of Prophet’s family: Prophet Muhammad, his son-in-law and successor Hazrat Ali, Prophet Muhammads’ daughter Hazrat Bibi Fatima , and their sons Hazrat Hassan and Imam Hussein. The ceiling inside this prayer house at the Dar-al-Noor cultural centre in Khorogh, incorporates a skylight with four concentric square box-type layers known as ‘chorkhona’ (four houses) representing, the four elements earth, water, air and fire, the latter being the highest, touched first by the sun’s rays. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.The skylight, in the foyer of the main entrance in the administration area of the Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe draws on the traditional sacred design of the roof of a Pamiri home. The design incorporates four concentric square box-type layers known as ‘chorkhona’ (‘four houses’) representing, respectively, the four elements — earth, water, air and fire, the latter being the highest, touched first by the sun’s rays. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Inside an Ismaili prayer house in Rushan, Badakshan. Like other prayer spaces in the Pamirs,it is adorned with photos and exhibits of Ismaili Imams, Ismaili historical figures as well as Ismaili history. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
The interior of this Ismaili prayer house in Langar, Wakhan Valley, contains the symbolic pillars representing the family of Prophet Muhammad, exhibits as well as photos of Ismaili historical figures. A portrait of Nasir Khusraw adorns the wall at the left. Seen hanging from the wooden ceiling at the far wall just behind the chandeliers are horns from a species of a wild sheep, which are abundantly found in the Pamirs. Local tradition has it that this particular set of antlers was gifted to Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, during his first mulaqat (visit) with the jamat of the Langar Valley in 1995. In response, the Imam asked the jamat to safekeep the unique gift. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
In 1995, Mawlana Hazar Imam, met with the jamats of Badakhshan for the first time, and Langar in the Wakhan Corridor of Badakhshan was one of the places he visited. In the photo above we are looking out of the stage that was set-up for Mawlana Hazar Imam for the mulaqat with his followers who were seated in front of him, adjacent to the prayer house that is shown in the preceding photo. The mountains in the background are in Afghanistan. Badhakshan is a common region to both Tajikistan and Afghanistan. They are separated by the Panj River. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. Copyright.
Date posted: Friday, November 18, 2016.
Last updated: November 24, 2016.
Copyright: Muslim Harji. 2016.
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Textual material for this photo essay was compiled from the following sources: