I want to join the fray and say a few words about the disgraceful side-show to this year’s commemoration of the September 11 attacks, but it will perhaps be best to enter upon this delicate subject by mentioning that, as a First-Amendment fundamentalist of the sort I seldom meet here in Canada, I wholly agree with Alexander Cockburn’s remarks on the non-event of the Rev. Terry Jones’s threatened Qur’an burning: “By the end of this week, the air was so thick with pieties about the need for tolerance and respect for all creeds that one yearned for the Rev. Terry Jones, mutton chop whiskers akimbo, to toss those Qurans in the burn barrels outside his Gainesville church in Florida and torch them on this year's anniversary of 9/11.”
I myself believe the Qur’an is a rich historical document, one among many others, and for this reason I hope you will understand that I can’t really convince myself that burning it would shake up the cosmic order any more than the incineration of old newspaper (a pastime at which I have much experience). I particularly don’t enjoy thinking that fear of reactions outside the United States should prevent people within the United States from performing a perfectly legal and merely symbolic act such as the burning of whatever book it is that they happen not to like. What would ordinarily be a distasteful gesture from a clueless yokel such as Jones is for me transformed by the threat of a violent reaction into a question of sovereignty and freedom.
But this should all have remained entirely off all of our radars, off Obama’s radar, off the radars of the rabble-rousers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, just as the Qur’an-burning remained that was successfully carried out by another thoroughly primitive Christian church in Kansas in 2008. It should not have been news, I mean to say, and I don’t want to draw it out any longer by treating it as news even after its expiration date (which arrived with the burning’s non-happening yesterday). Instead I want to use this non-event to ask a question about what book burning is, or indeed must be.
I am assuming that if Jones had gone through with it, the ‘Qur’ans’ used would have been the inexpensive, paperback English translations available in chain bookstores in not-exactly-bookish places like Gainesville, Florida. They certainly would not have been any more scholarly or authoritative than the Penguin edition of the Qur’an that I own, for which I paid $9.95 in 1994.
When the Qur’an was first dictated in the 7th century, by contrast, there were a few minimal conditions that had to be met in order for the resulting work to count as holy, and thus to count as the Qur’an at all. For one thing it had to be in Arabic. For another, it had to be written by hand. As Jack Goody expounds at length in his Logic of Writing and the Organisation of Society, the introduction of the printing press into the Muslim world was significantly slowed down by a widespread perception that a printed text cannot serve as an adequate replacement of a written text. This perception was rooted in particularities of both Islamic theology and of Arabic philosophy of language, and to suppose that any edition of a work, in any language, produced for any reason, can stand as an equal exemplar of that work relative to all others is surely a bit of Western cultural hegemony being allowed to dictate what a subaltern people thinks of as its distinctive homegrown ‘values’. In fact, not only has there often been serious debate as to whether a non-English approximation of the Qur’an can count as the Qur’an at all, but there was also a long period during which even a printed Arabic text could not pass the test of authenticity, which surely must precede the test of holiness.
I have already mentioned --by coincidence very recently-- that I believe books are on their way out, and that even my own library is probably destined for the flames. Though we have yet to hear much discussion of it, this epochal shift will no doubt have serious ramifications for all of the so-called peoples of the Book. One wonders whether a USB stick that contains a pdf of the Qur’an could ever be seen as a true token of the holy text, to the extent that the public destruction of this data-storage device (which in the end is all a book is) could lead to threats of violent revenge. What about taking a sledgehammer to a computer whose browser is open to www.quran.com? What about destroying a computer that simply has this URL in its browser history?
These examples sound facetious, but in the late-7th century it would have seemed no less strange to suggest to a devout Muslim that someday the enemies of Islam would find it a fitting expression of their hate to burn printed paperback translations, and that some Muslims in turn would find it fitting to take offense, believing that God himself considers these mass-produced, disposable, and now moribund bits of mass-cultural flotsam to be worthy of some particular protected status. As we transition from a book-based to a screen-based form of literacy, what it is for a ‘text’ to be ‘sacred’ will surely become a much more difficult question to answer. No doubt the devout will continue to find ways to be offended, and their enemies will find ways to taunt them, and we should not be too surprised to see some regions of the internet being designated as sites of sacredness. In any case the spectacle that failed to happen yesterday already seemed, to me anyway, rather quaint.
Fortunately for the various peoples of the Book, however, literature is an allographic and not an autographic art-form. It is a familiar point from Aesthetics 101 that you do not have to see Dostoyevsky’s ink-filled notebooks in order to claim to have fully experienced The Brothers Karamazov, and by the same token if you throw your copy of the novel in the trash, or donate it to the Salvation Army, you have not thereby lost anything of particular value. You can’t destroy the novel in the way you can destroy, say, a painting or a sculpture, because any given token of the novel is not the novel itself.
For better or for worse, the sacred texts of the Abrahamic faiths are of the same ontological variety. You can’t really do anything at all to them, because they are not physical objects. It follows from this more general fact that some cheap paperback English translation of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an. And it follows from this that it is not holy, or any more holy than old newspaper, and so also that the Rev. Jones could not have done anything particularly unholy no matter how hard he tried. The dignified response, therefore, would have been to ignore him.
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