Tag Archives: spirituality

Sacred Places as Cultural Ecologies: Making space for the intangible

Sacred places take many forms and are experienced and understood in many different ways. There are no fixed definitions. For me, a sacred place is somewhere that is recognised for its spiritual significance, usually because of the way people engage with it through ceremony, worship of a deity, or acts of homage. It may be a large tract of landscape or a modest or prominent feature within a landscape. It may have cross-cultural significance or it may be important to a small number of people. Sacred places have physical presence, but their spiritual dimensions are intangible. Continuity in a sacred place may manifest as resilient living and working practices and/or ceremonies or rituals associated with it and passed on from generation to generation. But these are not static relationships, each generation remakes its beliefs and values and ‘sacredness’ is continually re-structured and re-enacted.

I approach sacred places as ‘cultural ecologies’. Cultural ecology is concerned with transactional relationships between people and the environments they inhabit. It offers a framework for looking at how people experience the world and how they come to understand it, and how through the acts of living and working people shape the environment around them and are shaped by it. Cultural ecology provides a lens on the processes of continuity and change that give rise to cultural patterns and cultural traditions.

One strand of my research in cultural ecology has been in collaboration with law scholar Dawid Bunikowski who has expertise in legal pluralism. We developed a framework that integrated cultural ecology and legal pluralism, which we see as complementary approaches at a theoretical level, to provide a basis for making a case for ‘indigenous customary law’. Indigenous customary law supports both moral and legal claims concerning recognition of customary land rights and land management. It asks questions about a range of state institutions, from social welfare and education to fiscal policy, and the extent to which they empower people locally. Indigenous customary law is compatible with the notion of ‘judicial activism’, of people engaging in decisions about how resources are used so that they can serve the common good locally. We made our case primarily in the context of the Sámi people of northern Europe and the Nisga’a people in Canada where different models of legal pluralism have been enacted.

Although I have spent some years living and working in Finland and undertaking study visits to Lapland, I know the Arctic only as an informed visitor. The chapter that Bunikowski and I wrote for a book on indigenous customary law proposed an integrated framework with the conviction that it could be developed into something that had practical utility. We drew on cases from Sámi and Nisga’a cultures because they offered the most informative examples addressing some of the contentious issues around locality, resources and the rights and responsibilities of indigenous people and how these are reflected in statutory and customary laws[1]

New questions arose when I joined the Sacred Sites group, convened by Francis Joy at the University of Lapland, with its focus on relationships between sacred places, heritage and forms of land-use in the Arctic. What makes a place sacred? To whom is it sacred? Should these places be ‘protected’ and, if so, what legal status would they have? What is it that we actually ‘protect’? Who should exercise rights over them? What responsibilities would the wider community have towards them? How would any legal framework be generated? These matters are important to all indigenous peoples. Increasingly, places that are sacred to the Sámi of northern Europe are threatened by mining or desecration by inconsiderate tourists. Does the integrated cultural ecology/legal pluralism framework that Bunikowski and I produced have anything to say about these matters?

By way of a preamble, I will explain a little about my homeland, the Wessex chalklands of central southern England. This is a landscape rich with prehistoric monuments. My extended family have lived and worked in the region for generations. They have a deep commitment to the landscape. The chalklands are now intensively farmed, but they are also places where the presence of the monuments imparts cultural and spiritual significance. The concept of ‘sacred’ is no longer used but there are special places.

The Uffington White Horse is one of them. It is a huge piece of land art, a ‘hill figure’ or ’geoglyph’, some 110 metres long, an abstracted shape built into the turf of a spectacular stretch of escarpment overlooking the Upper Thames Valley (figure 1). Archaeological research has shown the White Horse to date from the late Bronze Age, which makes it around three and a half thousand years old. People who constructed it approximately one hundred generations ago where closer to nature and their environmental sensitivities were different from those of people today. The original context is lost, and can never be recovered. Given that the Horse needs regular maintenance to prevent it being overwhelmed by vegetation, its survival is remarkable. The historical story is about a continual re-making of place. The monument survives, but the inter-generational changes in the way people engaged with it leave little trace.

Figure 1. Uffington White Horse Hill, oil on board, (84 x 60 cm), Anna Dillon, (2010).

The White Horse and a large area of surrounding landscape is now managed by the National Trust as a public amenity. It is a scheduled ancient monument which means it has statutory protection. The area is managed as sheep-grazed grassland. Typically, when legal status is assigned to a place deemed to be culturally or historically important, it is ‘protective’ of the material fabric of the ‘site’, often known as its ‘tangible heritage’. Legal status may also confer rights on individuals or groups for access and for the performance of certain acts. The White Horse attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year. Most of them want a day out in the attractive countryside. Some people maintain a spiritual connection, often choosing quite times to engage with the Horse ‘in the moment’, in whatever ways that are meaningful to them.  Others express their connections through art, music and writing.

Herein lies a dilemma. Legal protection means a place becomes part of an institutional bureaucracy, a ‘site’ that appears on a map and requires a management plan. The more it is publicized, the more it attracts visitors and the more its ‘sacredness’ is compromised. Without protection, it is at risk from development or exploitation. The White Horse is ‘protected’, but other places in the Wessex Chalklands of lesser historical significance are being overrun by extensive, poorly planned, urban development. This is the equivalent of the disruption to traditional ways of living and working caused by mining in the Arctic. People everywhere living within the tradition of the landscape face similar problems, it is only the detail that differs.

‘Sacredness’ is something intangible, without a physical presence, that connects an individual or a group to a particular place. It might be generalised as a fluid accommodation between the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of place and the beliefs and values of the people who engage with it. But generalisations translate into tangible frameworks that are abstracted from lived experience. In law they require specification and become rule-based. One can see how the framework proposed by Bunikowski and myself might have some utility in combining statutory and customary elements in regulating tangible matters concerning hunting, fishing and reindeer herding in the Arctic, and equivalent matters elsewhere. However, there is more to the sacred and intangible; it is not a fixed entity and it sits uncomfortably in a world of classification, specification and order.

The sacredness of any one place is unique to that place, but everywhere there is the challenge of ensuring that the agency of the sacred is integral to creating conditions conducive to maintaining the possibility of sacredness. We can learn from each other’s experiences. Cross-cultural discourse and sharing offer starting points: exploring processes of continuity and change; finding an appropriate ‘voice’ to approach sacredness; understanding what can and cannot be ‘protected’ and the implications of any actions taken.


Miles, D. 2019. The Land of the White Horse. London: Thames & Hudson.


[1] Bunikowski, D. & Dillon, P. 2017. Arguments from cultural ecology and legal pluralism for recognising indigenous customary law in the Arctic, pp.37-64 in L. Heinamäki, & T. Herrmann & (Eds) Experiencing and Protecting Sacred Natural Sites of Sámi and other Indigenous Peoples, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Cyrus Rohani & Behrooz Sabet (eds.), Winds of Change: The Challenge of Modernity in the Middle East and North Africa. (London: Saqi Books, 2019)

From a Western point of view, one of the key challenges facing us is, how the Islamic MENA region can find peace, modernize and contribute positively to human life on Earth. The Arab spring brought hope for positive changes:

“The Arab spring has awakened the world to the legitimate aspirations of Muslims worldwide to democracy – inspired by western values yet infused by Islamic ideals,” writes Dr. Christopher Buck, an independent scholar and attorney from the USA, in one of his essays in Winds of Change (p. 87). Unfortunately, such legitimate aspirations have not yet been met, and the MENA region is as war-torn as ever.

Wind of Change contains 15 essays written by 11 intellectuals with the perspective that Islam’s spiritual ethic and sense of justice has something valuable to offer to the world, as it did during the “Islamic worlds flourishing sociocultural era” (750-1250) (p.8). This period is referred to as the Golden Age.

The editors, management consultant, MBA, Cyrus Rohani and Dr. Behrooz Sabet believe that changes are under way in the Middle East. Rohani writes that dictatorships relegate people “to the level of animals” which “defies the purpose of their creation” (p. 45). At the same time “our planet is suffering owing to our betrayal of the trust bestowed on us as a gift from our Creator” (p. 48). He envisions the “establishment of a planetary civilization based on organic unity of mankind” (p. 49).

Six narratives deal with timely issues such as environmental challenges, press freedom, gender inequality, interfaith dialogue, education and the Arab spring, while the others apply more historical / philosophical perspectives. The latter strive for a common ground on which the Middle East and the West can meet and work together in solving global problems. Generally, the essays are written with a deep appreciation for Islam, a critical view on traditional Middle Eastern leaders, and a taken-for-granted view on the West. The book suggests that there is a need for spirituality, materialism and science to be integrated to create a global society with human dignity, happiness and appreciation of differences.

An interesting example of the search for common ground is Dr. Ian Kluge’s discussion of reason in Islamic and Western philosophy. Kluge, who on websites are presented as Canadian Baha’i scholar, writes:

The re-appropriation of rationalism is the major goal of numerous Muslim thinkers wishing to revive the fortunes of the Islamic world in face of modern challenges. However, they want to find the basis for such changes in Islam itself without having to depend on ideas imported from, among other things, the European Enlightenment.” (p. 155)

Islam has the concept of ijtihad that, according to one Islamic tradition, implies “free debate on matters to everyone” (p. 145). Kluge quotes the Qur’an for saying: “Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason” (p. 146), and he compares the spirit of this text to Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question about enlightenment (p. 150).

Throughout history, Muslims have disagreed on who should be allowed to practice independent spiritual reasoning and search for truth. Some believe that “ijtihad may only be practiced by mujtahids,” while others do not agree with this limitation (p. 151). In Islam there is for example a long tradition for reasoning stemming from the Muʿtazali theology of the eight century, modernized by Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). Originally the philosophers drew on different sources of inspiration, including Greek philosophy such as Aristotle’s logic of deductive reasoning. However, in the 12th century, the limitations of philosophy were exposed in the book The incoherence of Philosophers (p. 161), and the value of ordinary people’s reasoning was questioned by people in power.

Kluge argues that acceptance of individual reasoning and discussions can revitalize Muslim societies. As for international cooperation, he suggests that the “considerable common ground between Kantian understanding of ‘enlightenment’ and what we find primarily in the Qur’an, and secondly, what is offered by Mu’tazalism” (p. 163) can create a shared understanding that will benefit both the MENA region and the West. However, when Muslims use reasoning, they do not necessarily consider Western scientific methods superior, because they do not share the materialistic worldview. When scientists study the material world, their results say obviously little about important spiritual issues.

Buck is the author of three analyses related to norms, ethics and law. One is about good governance, one about the possible development of a shared moral compass for Sunnis and Shi’is, and the third about testing the value of Sharia laws. In each case, the methodology is the same. Buck interprets key Islamic texts and discusses Islamic practices. For example, he interprets basic principles for good governance from a letter written by the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Caliph Ali, who is respected by both Sunnis and Shi’is. This respect is important because his idea is to create a set of shared Islamic guidelines for good governance. He interprets the spirit of each paragraph in the letter and relate it to present-day situations.

In the two other essays the key text is the Qur’an. In one of these essays, he asks: “does Islamic law mirror Islamic ethics”? (p. 169). A Pew Research Center survey cited in his article found that most Muslims in many countries approve of executing apostates. Buck writes: “There is a clear contradiction between the sharia law of apostacy and Islamic claims to ‘freedom of religion” and to a “well-known Qur’anic verse: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion” (p. 176). Buck then discusses this difference and Islamic scholars’ writings about it.

Many of the essays in this volume can best be considered sincere and informed opinion pieces. Not all of them follow a strict academic form. But they bring fresh ideas and perspectives to important debates.