Sacred and profane – its like black and white with no boundary in-between. Where one ends the other begins. We are all too familiar with this distinction…so familiar that we assume the act of defining sacred space is an absolute one. Space contained within becomes sacred and that left without profane, black and white. This sacred space is recognizable and clearly inviolable because sanctity can never be compromised. This is a universal belief. All sacred spaces embody this belief.
But can sanctity be experienced equally by every person?
Sanctity is a construct. Meaning is not intrinsic to space or form. It is contingent on the cognitive comprehension of the user. A mosque can be experienced as sacrosanct, transcendental space, as a manifestation of the divine spirit or as simply as a building, an artifact of the city. Any building is essentially as sacred as we make it. In that, a house can function as a mosque. By a simple act of signification, space within is sanctified, and the house is recognised as a mosque. Now that space is inviolable in a state of ritual impurity, but it does also remain just a house. The supposed black and white dulls into grey. How many times have we over-stepped a (sacred) threshold with our shoes on or received blessings with the wrong hand forward. Doesn’t sacred and profane only exist within a certain belief system? People from outside this belief system do not recognize and simply cannot tell sacred from profane.
This is not to suggest that sacred space is indistinguishable from profane in an unfamiliar environment. People assign symbolic meanings to forms and spaces and these associations are consolidated or rejected over time, with those that endure becoming more widely acceptable. So the dappled clerestory light in the sanctuary, the flamboyant calligraphic compositions, the awe-inspiring courtyards and lofty volumes of the Friday Mosques or the complex geometric ornamental patterns on wall or ceiling have come to represent Islamic religious space and persist in the repertoire of elements used in mosque architecture. Even a glimpse of the minaret or a suggestion of an arch or dome suffices to establish a mosque today. Ofcourse, there is nothing essentially sacred about these forms. Sanctity has been assigned to them.
The photograph below shows a mosque nestled into a residential neighborhood in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It does not possess any of the recognizable formal and spatial elements mentioned above. It becomes clear that the quest for demarcating sanctity tends to essentialise certain qualities of architecture, and these qualities cannot be understood as constant and universally accepted. They are manifest differently across time and space. Though certain significations are explicit, accessible to all, there are often those implicit and intelligible only to specific individuals or communities. They constitute a complex of forms well-established and those lesser known specific to cultural and regional differences that may render them unrecognisable to an outsider. For a specific community, sacred and profane are like black and white and the material construct of the mosque dissolves into a spiritual understanding while for an outsider, the separation is not as clear, a manifestation of recognisable and unrecognisable forms that constitute the greying of sacred and profane.