Postures and Gestures

views updated


POSTURES AND GESTURES are primal aspects of religious belief and behavior and as such have emerged, with other elements of culturally symbolic expression and communication, at the threshold of human existence. Their use is not, of course, restricted to the human species; nonhuman animals display a wide variety of postures and gestures that serve to demarcate species from each other and to signify territorial dominance, propagation procedures, and social hierarchy. However, culturally generated and transmitted postures and gestures, which may retain elements of phylogenetically evolved ones, nevertheless transcend these in their specific configurations of learned and intentional patterns, significations, and symbolizations.

Every religious tradition recognizes an intimate relationship between inward dispositions and external postures and gestures of the human body, which is capable of expressing and celebrating a great range of attitudes, moods, motivations, and intentions, whether sacred or profane. The study of postures and gestures has not progressed as far as the study of other aspects of religion or as far as the study of social science as a whole; but such studyespecially the emerging disciplines of kinesics, ethology, and semioticsdeserves close attention.

Islam: A Case for Preliminary Observation and Analysis

Among the Abrahamic religions, Islam contains in its ritual observances a rich and varied repertory of postures and gestures that are mastered by every adherent. Christianity also has many body movements and gestures of deep significance, but they are neither universally performed within the tradition nor permitted across all classes of believers. All Muslims perform the rakʿah s (bowing cycles) of each alāt, or prayer service, with a combination of standing, bowing, prostration, and sitting postures accompanied by coordinated head, hand, arm, and foot gestures. By contrast, the postures and gestures of Christian worship, for example in the Roman Catholic tradition, are assigned to laity or clergy in a carefully regulated manner; although certain basic forms, such as kneeling and making the sign of the cross, are shared, the laity nevertheless do not raise the sacramental elements, nor serve them, nor blessthese are gestures reserved for ordained priests.

A Muslim, or a knowledgeable outside observer, can tell at a glance and from a distance when a Muslim is at formal prayer (alāt ), and moreover at what point in the ritual, just from observing postures and gestures. If the worshiper is standing, with the hands placed slightly in front and to the sides of the head, with the thumbs aligned with the earlobes, then the observer knows that the prayer has just begun with the utterance "Allāhu akbar" ("God is most great!"). But the worshiper seated with knees on the floor and buttocks resting on the ankles is either at the midpoint of the cycle or near the end, depending on the precise placement of feet and hands. If the right hand is resting on the right thigh, and gathered into a fist, with the index finger waving slowly back and forth, and if the left foot has been placed beneath the right ankle, under the buttocks, then the cycle is nearly finished. If it is the final cycle in the seriesand each daily alāt has a set number of required rakʿah sthen the observer will know that the prayer is nearly over by the worshiper's turning of the head to the right and the left, uttering a blessing in each direction. This is the only point in any alāt service at which the worshiper turns aside in any manner from the qiblah, or direction of Mecca. Other important parts of the rakʿah, which itself means "bowing," are actual bowing and, most important, a full prostration with the forehead touching the floor or ground; this gesture, called in Arabic sajda, is the climax of Islamic worship, when the slave of God symbolizes his total submission and obedience. If the worshiper is seen in the sitting posture, but with hands extended in front, palms upward, he or she is not engaged in the formal alāt, probably, but is performing duʿāʾ, the voluntary prayer of personal petition frequently uttered after formal worship and at other auspicious times, such as at the close of a Qurʾān recitation, especially of the entire text. Or a prostration may be enacted in conjunction with the recitation of a special Qurʾān versewhose hearing renders meritorious an immediate sajda but omitting the other postures and gestures of the full rakʿah.

Social Functions of Religious Postures and Gestures

Religious postures and gestures serve not only to symbolize and regulate devotion; they also demarcate religious communities and subcommunities. If one sees, for example, in a Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian context, where the vast majority of people are Muslim, a person kneeling in an attitude of devotion, with hands folded or palms pressed together, with head bowed and eyes closed, one is seeing a member of the Christian tradition or possibly a Buddhist. Muslims do not kneel at prayer, fold their hands, or bow their heads with closed eyes like the Christians. Moreover, within Christianity itself there are significant variations that identify specific churches, denominations, and sects and, in some casesas evident from art and iconographydistinct historical periods. Kneeling, for example, is a biblically warranted posture of piety that has been adopted at some time or other by most Christian communities. But in formal worship, Christians from different traditions do not necessarily all kneel at the same point, or for the same reason. Some Christians kneel in adoration, whereas others reserve that posture for penitence, which is often done in private. Some Christians stand while receiving Communion, whereas others kneel.

Likewise, there are varying ways of making the sign of the cross, two of which distinguish Roman Catholics from Eastern Orthodox: the former move the hand from the left to the right shoulder, whereas the latter move the hand from right to left. Both gestures are unambiguously Christian, yet the slight difference symbolizes also a great historical and communal separation. Similarly, particular Islamic subcommunities may exhibit variations of gesture: for example, in the standing position of formal worship some allow the hands to hang loosely at the sides, whereas others fold them gently in front of the body. By contrast, as already noted, the Islamic cultus of posture and gesture is remarkably uniform throughout the world and has been so since its early formalization. A Baptist of narrow experience who visits a high church Episcopal service would be at sea about what to do next in the liturgy: stand, kneel, or sit? But every Muslim with minimal religious upbringing would be at home in Islamic worship anywhere in the world. Even a Muslim who does not understand a word of Arabicthough most do know a few religious phrasesprobably knows the postures and gestures of worship in every detail.

Symbolic Range of Religious Postures and Gestures

Religious postures and gestures are cultural products and are transmitted in various ways and with different understandings. Consequently, the question of whether there is an intrinsic relationship between inward dispositions and outward manifestations is difficult to resolve. It would seem that in most cases these manifestations are intentional signs that serve to reinforce as well as express doctrines and attitudes. Nevertheless, they are similar in many cultures; there is a high correlation between certain postures and gestures and a wide range of emotions and purposes that are usually if not exclusively religious or magical. Among these are adoration, affirmation, blessing, consecration, curse, gratitude, greeting, humility, invocation, meditation, mourning, oath taking, penitence, pleading, praise, prayer, protection, remorse, reverence, sorrow, and submission.

Kneeling is often associated with adoration, blessing, confession, humility, penitence, pleading, petition, remorse, and submission, especially in Christianity. Prostration is a dramatic posture expressing submission, penitence, consecration, and humiliation. It is especially closely associated with Islamic worship, but known also in the Bible and other religious contexts.

The sitting posture sometimes symbolizes religious attitudes, particularly in the Buddhist attitude of concentration wherein the legs are crossed, right over left, with soles facing upward, hands resting on the thighs, with thumbs touching. This "Lotus Position" is basic to Buddhist meditation as well as to Hindu yoga. Muslims commonly sit in a posture similar to the Lotus Position when in a mosque or adopt it as a normal posture anywhere. Egyptian Muslims like to rock back and forth in this position when listening to Qurʾān recitation, which can be highly rhythmic. A similar practice is found among Jews. Sitting is also understood as a royal and a divine posture, as evidenced by thrones and mounts, from whence commands and judgments descend.

Standing is a posture that in religious tradition signifies respect, as evidenced when Christians stand for the reading aloud of the gospel lesson. Early Christians stood for congregational prayer, and standing throughout the service is still practiced in Eastern Orthodoxy. Muslims stand at the beginning of the alāt when making their nīyah, or "intention," and uttering the first takbīr, "God is most great!" The Islamic funeral service may be performed only in a standing position, and it is recommended that Muslims stand in respect when a funeral procession passes, because a soul is being transported to its place of repose until the Resurrection. The most profound point of the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (ajj) is the wuqūf, or "standing" ceremony, when the pilgrims stand for hours in repentance and hope for mercy from God. So important is this ritual standing to the Muslim that its omission for any reason invalidates the individual's pilgrimage; unlike certain other elements of the pilgrimage, the wuqūf must be performed beginning on a set day and at noon.

Dance as practiced in religious contexts combines many postures and gestures in complex configurations. The American Indians, for example, developed dance for religious and magical purposes in pursuit of healing, hunting success, rain, good crops, and victory over enemies, as well as for critical and calendrical rites having to do with matters such as puberty, initiation, seasons, harvests, and natural calamities. Dance has been of central importance in the religious life of peoples in all regions, and it extends far back into prehistory. The Mevlevīs, members of the ūfī order of "dancing" or "whirling" dervishes founded by Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273), spin around their leader like heavenly bodies rotating about the sun. The twentieth century has seen a renewed interest in both Roman Catholic and Protestant worship in sacred dance, in the conviction that the body and its movements are repositories of holiness and a fundamental means for communing with God and celebrating the mysteries of salvation. Likewise, celebration of the whole person, soul and body, was a basic dimension in the worship of the Jews of biblical times, who danced and clapped their hands in joy in the presence of God.

Hands, which express the broadest range of religious and magical meanings and are major instruments of gesture in all traditions, are used in such motions and configurations as are necessary for blessing, praying, consecrating, healing, anointing, protecting, welcoming, ordaining, and other purposes.

Mudrā, a Sanskrit word meaning "sign, gesture," denotes a highly ramified and conceptually sophisticated symbolic hand language developed by the closely related Indian religions Hinduism and Buddhism; it interpenetrates and connects various levels of their belief, behavior, aesthetic sensitivity, and communal life. Mudrā s take many forms, each of which symbolizes a doctrine or truth or realization or experience. In Buddhism, for example, a fundamental event in the founder's career may be symbolized by means of mudrā. Mudrā s are used extensively in ritual, iconography, dance, drama, and teaching in Hindu and Buddhist regions. Without an understanding of mudrā, one could not interpret and thus fully appreciate the hundreds of stone reliefs concerning the Buddha's cosmic evolution that adorn the magnificent stupa of Borobudur in Central Java.

Not only the hands, but also the arms have been important in religious gesture. Extending the arms out to the sides has been practiced as a gesture of solar adoration. Coptic Christians spread out their arms in the form of a cross at baptism. Ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Etruscan worshipers spread their arms in prayer. Ancient Egyptians, Buddhists, and Romans prayed with arms crossed on the chest. Present-day extending of the arms by Armenian Christians is symbolic of the Trinity; in this position the neophyte turns toward the west and spits at the Devil, then turns east with spread arms and faces heaven in acknowledgment of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Mouth and lips, too, have been prominent in sacred gesture among very diverse peoples. Magical practices have included spitting three times into the folds of one's garment to avoid the evil eye (ancient Greece), spitting on children for the same reason (ancient Rome), spitting into the eye of a close relative to prove the absence of evil-eye intentions (ancient and modern Greece), and other spitting gestures, such as the Shintō and Buddhist practice in Japan of spitting at healing deities. The Qurʾān instructs one to take refuge from the "evil of the women who blow on knots," meaning the witches who cast harmful spells by ritual spitting on knots tied in a cord (113:5).

Kissing particularly is often used in ritual gesture. Women kissed Christ's feet (Lk. 7:38). The thresholds of churches have traditionally been kissed, as have been relics, burial sites, and other powerful repositories of the holy. Muslim folk practices include the kissing of saint shrine enclosures for barakah ("blessing"). Christians have been known to kiss the Bible when taking an oath. Shīʿī Muslims sometimes kiss copies of the Qurʾān. Jews kiss the mezuzah when leaving or entering the home. Mecca pilgrims try to kiss the holy Black Stone embedded in the Kaʿbah, in imitation of Muhammad's custom. Ancient Greeks kissed the sacred oak of Zeus at Aegina. Catholics kiss the crucifix. Many ancient Near Eastern peoples kissed the hands, feet, and clothing of sacred images. Pope John Paul II kisses the ground of the countries he visits. Muslim youth kiss the hand of their Qurʾān teacher as a gesture of deep respect not only for the teacher as a person but for the treasure that the teacher carries and imparts.

In addition to postures adopted by the living are those imposed upon the deceased by others acting on their behalf. Burial in a fetal position, for example, has been known for prehistoric archaeology and ethnography. This unusual practice may have come about to prevent the spirit of the deceased from wandering about after death, especially in cases wherein the body has been tightly bound. An alternative interpretation is that the position imitates the state in the womb, with burial representing a sort of return. Most peoples lay the body on the back for burial, sometimes with particular orientations. Muslims sometimes bury their dead lying on the right side, with the face pointing toward Mecca; even if the body is supine, the face is oriented in that direction. Al-Ghazālī, the great Muslim theologian (d. 1111), advised the pious to go to bed at night lying on the right side, facing Mecca, because sleep in the Islamic view is a "little death," from which an individual might not wake. Again, Christian baptism by immersion imitates a posthumous position, in which the initiate submits passively as the officiant symbolically buries the old person who is presently to be cleansed and resurrected in the new life in Christ.

Social, Magical, Avoidance, and Self-Destructive Gestures

Perhaps the most extensively studied, if not the most richly developed, social gestures among civilized peoples are those found in Mediterranean societies, such as Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, and the Maghreb. Most of the postures and gestures cannot be interpreted as religious; in fact, many are utterly profane, even obscene, and have been so since antiquity. An example is the sign of the fig, made with the thumb protruding from between the index and middle fingers. This is a sexual insult, usually, and in the Middle Ages was declared illegal if directed at religious images and symbols. The sign of the horns, made by extending the index and little fingers from a closed fist, and directing it toward the eyes of a threatening person, has long been an apotropaic gesture. Among Muslims, for example in North Africa, a gesture called the Hand of Fāimah is made by extending the fingers toward a supposed enemy in order to neutralize the evil eye. If uncertain whether harm is actually intended, the gesturer may make the gesture under a cloak or other covering, particularly when the danger is not perceived to be grave. The "horns" are also sometimes thus covered.

Social postures and gestures sometimes involve ritual avoidances. Among Muslims, especially in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, a strong distinction is made between the right and left sides of the body. Only the right hand is considered clean and fit for gesturing, giving, receiving, blessing, greeting, eating, and touching. The left hand is considered as unclean because it is used for humble tasks only, such as the toilet. It is a great breach of propriety to use the left hand for what is properly a right-hand function. The right foot leads when entering a mosque, but one leaves a holy place left foot first. The toilet room is entered left foot first and exited with the right foot leading. The soles of the feet are considered, by Muslims and other Eastern peoples, to be unclean, and so it is essential to avoid directing them toward anyone (as an American may inadvertently do when resting the feet on a desk top). In Java it is considered arrogant and disrespectful for a boy or man to cross his legs or ankles in the presence of a superior, especially while sitting in a chair. Although that is a cultural taboo, the observance of it is especially noticeable in pious Muslim contexts, where proper physical deportment is a mark of the religious person. Social postures and gestures in highly stratified traditional societies, like Java, provide valuable clues about religious worldview.

In religious practice certain self-destructive gestures exist that express powerful emotion. One is the ritual flagellation practiced by Christian ascetics, especially during Passion Week. A structurally similar practice is the self-flagellation, often with chains, of Shīʿī men in processions associated with the Tenth of Muharram, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam usayn ibn ʿAlī at Karbala, Iraq, in 680. The ancient Israelites mourned by putting ashes on their heads (2 Sm. 13:19) or tearing their hair and beards (Ezr. 9:3). Modern Palestinian women beat their breasts, tear their hair, scratch their cheeks, and throw soot on their heads in mourning, gestures that can be traced back to ancient times.

See Also

Dance; Hands; Hahayoga; Human Body; Knees; Mudrā; alāt; Spittle and Spitting; Touching.


For an excellent collection of sources and an extensive bibliography, see Betty J. Bäuml and Franz H. Bäuml's A Dictionary of Gestures (Metuchen, N.J., 1975). Religious postures and gestures have yet to be given much attention by students of religion, at least as a comprehensive subfield. However, a comprehensive literature on ritual and devotional practices, including detailed analysis and interpretation of postures and gestures, exists within numerous religious traditions. In addition to ritual, liturgical, and scriptural sources, a variety of other sources, for example, works on law, ethnography, and art history, provide information on the subject.

The relatively new sciences of ethology, kinesics, and semiotics give great promise of increasing the understanding of posture and gesture. Konrad Lorenz's studies, for example, offer some provocative ideas concerning the relationship between phylogenetically transmitted and culturally transmitted gestures in animals and humans; see his Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge (New York, 1977).

Frederick Mathewson Denny (1987)