This is a red line. Its symbols are sacred and disrespecting them is an affront to their sanctity. Lebanon, a country still healing the wounds of a bloody civil war, is in essence a sectarian country. Its citizens expend considerable efforts to preserve the current coexistence, especially in the workplace and in public places where people of different religions interact regularly. Lebanon is characterized by a fragile civil peace, one that is threatened at all times.
In Lebanon, you get asked about your name, and if your name does not indicate what sect you belong to, you get asked about your place of residence or the place of birth or name of your father. Wearing jewelry bearing religious symbols can help to spare yourself the barrage of questions. However, it is important to remember that in some cases, this jewelry could provoke, intentionally or unintentionally, members of other sects. Often, religious symbols whose size are exaggerated have the aim of stirring sectarian strife and fanaticism. So, does jewelry truly express a deep faith, or does wearing it merely represent an attempt to differentiate oneself from others? Where does one draw the line between religion and adornment?
Most people wear jewelry of different shapes and colors that reflects obvious tenets of their personalities. In this way, these pieces of jewelry constitute a bridge of communication and harmony between individuals, who can express their tastes, or their literary, national, ethnic, professional, political and intellectual orientations. Yet, religious jewelry has more of an impact as religious symbols have the potential to draw more attention than other symbols. Religious jewelry reflects, to a large extent, the character of the person wearing it, providing others with a preview of the ideology or religion of that person. It might be worn to attract the attention of others, or simply as a kind of good-luck charm for the person wearing it.
Between Sociology and Religion
Muhib Shansaz, social researcher and anthropology professor at the Lebanese University, notes that “religious jewelry is primarily meant to express religious identity, since conviction or faith comes from within. The person who does not have adequate space for expression usually resorts to expressing their convictions through symbols, rather than behavior. We can divide people who wear such jewelry into those who wear them as an accessory and a symbol of fashion, and those who wear them to express sectarian elements of their personality. We, as researchers, always tend to observe and analyze and we do not judge things by appearances. For this reason, we cannot speak of matters relating to human nature with much certainty.”
In an in-depth study done by late professor Hasan Qubaisi on the early Muslims, the author concluded that faith alone is not sufficient for the formation of a religious group. He noted that a group needs to stand out from others, and that groups often try to strengthen links among its members with external appearances, including clothing or religious jewelry that reflect the group’s beliefs.
The Pharaohs are the first known to have designed and worn jewelry with religious meanings. They used to believe in the existence of latent magical powers that could protect them from evil spirits. With the advent of the Abrahamic religions, the practice of burying the dead with their jewelry was no longer commonplace, and a jewelry industry developed that started to reflect religious concepts.
Father Jean Maroun, the parish priest of Al-Sayydeh Church in the area of Al-Hadath, says: “Symbol is sacred in the Christian ideology because it carries a certain meaning. The believers wear or carry these symbols because they believe it will protect them. Any abuse done by the person wearing these symbols will only distort the person’s image of them, since his act does not represent in any way the Christian religion or the church. This issue revolves around the freedom of expression and belief. That is why we have to establish a new culture based on respecting the other, understanding their feelings, building a sense of responsibility between individuals and trying to eradicate fanaticism.”
With the emergence of Islam, the idea of decorating and gilding the writing of Quranic verses evolved and gained the attention of women. Men started to wear rings studded with precious stones. We asked Sheikh Hussein Abdullah about this phenomenon, and he replied: "The symbol often reflects the link between the individual and his religion. The person who wears jewelry that has religious connotations is not necessarily a sectarian individual. He is just like the person who considers himself secular and wears jewelry that represents the intellectuals or the revolutionaries whom he believes in. That is why we should not consider them sectarian. From a religious point of view, wearing jewelry is permissible and wearing religious symbols as jewelry does not harm or contradict the general rules.”
For and Against
Away from any religious or social opinions, some people like to wear religious symbols. Meanwhile, others reject the wearing of these symbols, claiming that this is not an act of faith.
Leslie Bel’is, a director at a tourist office, says that she never takes off her necklace bearing a cross pendant. She says that she always wears it but hides it in a way so that no one can see it. She explains that “I wear it purely out of faith as it always reminds me of my prayer duties and is a strong deterrent against any mistakes I might commit. It is a source of comfort and tranquility, and it gives me hope in any given situation. Personally, I don’t think that the type of clothing I put on can offend the symbols that I wear. Decency is reflected in your words, the looks you give and your behavior.”
In turn, Naima Sabra, a housewife and the mother of two children, tells us that she never gave thought to why she wore such jewelry “I have been used to wearing them since I was a child, and I remember that when I got married my mom gave me a Quran necklace pendant as a gift and put it in around my neck. Also, when I gave birth, my first child’s gift was a gold pin with a symbol of the Koranic Holy verse of Ayat Al-Kursiand: a blue bead that can be hanged on the baby’s clothes to protect him from the evil eye.”
On the other hand, Lebanese University philosophy professor Basil Salih says: “The issue is problematic and it revolves around the different methods to express one’s identity. Jewelry that displays its owner’s religion is a problem for that person, since it is not done out of faith, but rather as a quick way to express this person’s identity.”
He continued: “There are two ways to determine one’s identity, either through emphasizing who we are and thus excluding myself from others, or through excluding ourselves from others to determine who we are. The first scenario is natural, while the second one reflects a problematic expression of identity. For a person to choose to affirm their own identity through sectarian jewelry implies that this person wants to create a road map that identifies the individual’s position in it and exclude the other.”
“Wearing a necklace that has a religious symbol does not reflect one’s faith, since religion represents a specific relationship between the person and his creator. In this case, the individual tries to distinguish himself from other members of the society. Yet, distinction in Lebanon only means discrimination of rights between one citizen and another since Lebanon is a country ruled by the rights of sects and not the rights of its citizens,” he added.
In this context, Kareem Itani, jewelry designer and an owner of a jewelry shop in the Corniche al-Mazra area, says: “The purchase of jewelry that carries religious symbols is widespread among various social classes since these pieces of jewelry are fashionable, making [them] people’s first choice when buying a gift.”
He adds that “such jewelry include chains that has the words "God’s wills" or the “Holy Verse of Ayat Al Kursi,” which are meant to constantly remind anyone who sees them of God or are meant to protect from the evil eye. Other pieces of jewelry include crosses that comes in different sizes, or a picture of the Virgin Mary.”
He noted that “in the past, religious jewelry was associated with rural women and with those from the working-class areas. However, now its scope has expanded to include others who are buying them for all kinds of occasions.”
At first glance, the issue seems prone to exaggeration. However, we must not forget that religious appearances constitute one of the most important elements of sectarian discourse. The Lebanese Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and belief. This is why citizens should always show awareness and responsibility, respect the differences of others to avoid any sensitive issues that might be exploited by those who aim at harming civil peace. By doing so, the freedom of the Lebanese citizens will remain a blessing, and will not become a curse.