Symbols are the building blocks of culture and communication. As defined by the dictionary, a symbol is “an object or action that represents a particular idea or quality”. By this definition, words and letters are also symbols. Our entire mode of communication is based upon them. When I say “friend”, you know that this sound and the combination of symbols (letters) means that you are a person with whom I like and enjoy to be; someone whom I trust and support. This defines our relationship.
Now imagine if I changed the meaning of the symbol from ‘friend’ to ‘enemy’. Now you are someone I hate and whom I may try to harm. In this situation, you can certainly see the dangers in changing a meaning.
Therefore it is imperative, on a fundamental level, for symbols to remain true to their meaning. Otherwise what is the point of having them if their definition is consistently altered?
Now let’s take this concept and expand it to religious symbolism. Religious symbols often times have deep-rooted meanings. They stem from experiences and have an extensive historical backgrounds. They conjure emotions, hope and faith in people who see them. How many stories have we heard of people that have discovered an image of the Virgin Mary in various places and then feel connected, hopeful, and turn to that in order to find solace from the world and their problems? That symbol and what it represents helps them to survive and find peace.
Unfortunately, in a finance-centric world, companies and organizations are constantly looking for ways to prey on the emotions and vulnerabilities of the public. They seek out ways to use religious symbolism as a way to earn a Dollar (or Euro). In 1997, Nike created shoes with a design on the heel similar to the word “Allah” (God) in Arabic.
After much controversy, they removed them one year later. What was the purpose of putting religious symbolism on footwear, if not to prey on the faith of Muslims and make money.
In 2004, Roberto Cavalli used images of Hindu deities on bathing suits, causing outrage in the Hindu community, and was subsequently removed.
These examples illustrate the lack of respect that some individuals and companies have for religious beliefs. The sacred nature of symbols is disregarded for self-serving purposes. This has been the argument of some Native Americans across the U.S. Their symbolism is used as a mascot on sports teams and as Halloween costumes. Also, some mascots mimic their sacred dancing during half-time shows. This has become commonplace and now not much thought is given to the sacred symbolism of the Native American headpieces or dance.
These changes do not occur overnight. Desensitization takes place at a gradual pace until the new meaning replaces the old, as is the case with the swastika symbol.
It was originally a sacred Hindu symbol representing well-being and harmony. It was placed on images of Hindu gods, dating back over 6,000 years. In the 1920s, the Nazis slightly altered and rotated it by 45 degrees. Now, over 90 years later it is almost exclusively associated with hatred and death, and is outlawed in a number of countries. What about the origin of the symbol? What became of its sacred meaning?
Some may say, “What is the big deal?” To them, my response is that religious tolerance is decreasing and one of the first ways is by discrediting and devaluing their symbolism. Once that is allowed, ridicule of beliefs and traditions is not far off as the sanctity of faith is stripped. So, the “big deal” may not lie in the actual clothing but its symbolism.
Today Roberto Cavalli is once again using religious imagery. This time taking the sacred symbol of the M.T.O. Shahmaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism and using it as his Just Cavalli brand’s logo. This symbol represents love, self-knowledge, harmony, and unity, whilst spelling out sacred Quranic words. But Cavalli has turned it into a “snake-bite”, a symbol of sex, lust, and original sin. The delicate and spiritual meaning is replaced by carnality.
Sufi students around the world will not sit idly by and watch their symbol take the same course as the Hindu Swastika. They will stand up and be heard. They will object to the denigration of faith symbols and the demeaning of spirituality. Please help our cause. Sign our petition and take a stand against the shifting of sacred symbols for self-gain and monetary benefits.