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Enacting “Electronic Qur’ans”: Tradition Without a Precedent

Natalia Suit describes instances in Egypt in which the Qur’ān is enacted through the daily routines of worship and piety known as the etiquette of the muṣḥaf. These practices, she argues, are inseparably entangled with technology. A book made of paper is not the same as the Qur’ānic text on the screen of a phone. A text visible on the page does not necessarily appear in the same way as its digitized version under a plastic cover. When the medium of the message changes, the etiquette of the muṣḥaf changes as well, and practices are redefined to accommodate this new and unprecedented materiality of the text.

MLA citation format:
Suit, Natalia.

“Enacting “Electronic Qur’ans”: Tradition Without a Precedent”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 18 November 2015. [date of access]

 

MATERIALITY OF A HOLY TEXT
In an act of iconoclasm, Terry Jones, pastor of a small nondenominational church in Florida, announced in 2010 that he would burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. Soon the press was full of reports about why and where he was planning to do it. Yet the press had it all wrong. Neither Jones, nor anybody else for that matter, could “burn the Quran.” The reason has to do with religious dogma. In Muslim theology, the word “Quran” does not describe a physical book but rather the immaterial message of Allah sent to people through the Prophet Muhammad.
Figure 1: Contemporary maṣāḥif on display. Photo by author.

What enabled Jones’ iconoclastic move was the fact that the divine message has to be transmitted through material means, including vocal cords, airwaves, stone, parchment, paper, and digital bytes. Undeniably, there is a long and rich tradition of Quranic recitation that is central to Muslim religious practice, yet the emphasis on vocal mediation of the message does not mean that the tangible object that mediates the Quranic text is inconsequential. Muslims have not neglected the corporeal medium of the Quran, whether to beautify it through calligraphy, or to address it through acts of ritual purity, or to treat it with particular forms of deference. Given the persistent presence of the Quranic book in Muslim religious practice (millions of its copies being printed every year in the Middle East) — and the extreme treatment of its material body in other parts of the world — it is increasingly hard for me to think of the Quran only in terms of abstract, ethereal message.

The Qur’an and a Muṣḥaf: Objects as Actors

Etymologically, the word Quran is derived from the root word qara’a that refers to “reading” or “reciting.” More precisely, Quran means “the spoken message of Allah.” This emphasis on vocal mediation is grounded in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad himself, who encouraged his companions to memorize and recite the message. “Chant it, for whoever does not chant it is not one of us,” says the Prophet in a well-known hadith narrated by Ibn Kathir. [i] There are many accounts like this in addition to verses in the Quran itself that remind Muslims about the importance of recitation.
As in the past, memorizing the Quran and reciting it aloud constitutes a large part of Muslim religious education in contemporary Egypt. Children learn to recite the Quran in public schools, although in order to memorize the whole message they often have to take additional private classes from licensed instructors. In recent decades the larger mosques and religious centers in Cairo have started offering courses in Quranic recitation. Radio and TV channels broadcast contests featuring Quranic reciters, which are especially popular during the fasting month of Ramadan. Apart from beautiful voices and musical virtuosity, participants in these competitions demonstrate their knowledge of the rules of tajwid — a particular form of recitation characterized by vocal embellishments. Recitation as a performance elicits strong emotional responses and it is common to see the audience weep during performances of their favorite qari’ (reciter), although a less elaborate form of recitation called tartil (slow and ordinary chanting) may also bring a performer and his listeners to tears.
But the Quran mediated by voice has also a less evanescent medium in the form of a book — consisting of pages, binding, and script — that is called a “muṣḥaf” (read with “s” and “h” pronounced separately) The word muṣḥaf comes from the root “ṣuḥuf” (bound pages) and is primarily understood to refer to the pages that carry the text of the Quran. It is not mentioned in the Quran itself but appears later in scholarly writings about the Quran. Grammatically, unlike the Quran, muṣḥaf has a plural form “maṣāḥif,” indicating an essential difference between the ontological status of the two. One is divine; the other is not. Despite the fact that reporters covering the memorable Burn-the Quran-Day often used the word Quran in plural — “the Qurans” (as it is customarily done with the Bible, where a proper noun denotes both the content and the object that carries it) — in Arabic the word Quran does not have a plural form. There is only one Quran – al-Quranthe Quran — mediated by a tangible book, a muṣḥaf.
Figure 2: This old postcard showing a boy reading the Qur’ān was found by the author in one of the antique stores in Cairo. Producer unknown.

Books as Acting Objects 
It is a muṣḥaf that Terry Jones tried to burn, and it is the state of this book as an object that concerns me here. The precarious state of books as objects was already noticed a century ago by Walter Benjamin in his essay Unpacking my Library, [ii] where he spoke of books not as a source of intellectual enrichment but collectors’ pleasures. However, my approach was directly informed by the writings of historians Roger Chartier, Donald F. McKenzie, and Patrick Hanan, [iii] who specifically concentrate on graphic technologies in a social context. Chartier and McKenzie in particular make it clear that the meaning a text evokes at a particular time cannot be separated from its form, place, and technology of manufacture. Both scholars criticized the tendency to see texts as a category of things whose material form is irrelevant to their use and signification. I share their conviction that treating texts as mere repositories of meaning neglects the corporeality that surreptitiously shapes our responses to them. To study, then, how tangible books mediate the Quran means to ask questions about the potential effects of their material form in the realm in which they circulate: in this case, the realm of Quranic makers, custodians, and users.

A broader theoretical claim informs my inquiry as well: material objects are not hapless bearers of human projections. This contention is informed by a long anthropological interest in material culture (museum collections, archaeology, social use of things). Yet although classified, described, and collected, objects were often treated by anthropologists too narrowly, as merely expressing human ideas and/or as tangible projections of particular social orders. Even seminal works that explicitly focused on the material conditioning of the social order and human self- transformation through production of things (Marx), [iv] or ways in which objects participated in shaping individual’s psyche (Freud), [v] emphasized the importance of things for human purposes and needs, eventually shifting the focus from objects to people. Material worlds, although indispensible, appeared to be somewhat generic. It is true that now and then the ability of individual things to directly interfere in human affairs was acknowledged; for instance in Durkheim’s description of totemic emblems and the importance of their physical presence for the clan’s existence [vi] or Mauss’s argument that particular objects, when exchanged as gifts, created social bonds. [vii] In order to theorize culture one had to take its material component into account, but the focus on people in these accounts tended to leave the relationship between things and people somewhat asymmetrical.

Symmetrical Relationships
Bruno Latour in particular has been telling us for quite a while now that objects do not merely “‘express’ power relations, ‘symbolize’ social hierarchies, ‘reinforce’ social inequalities, ‘transport’ social power, ‘objectify’ inequality, and ‘reify’ gender relations.” [viii] Social theorists may think of them as docile but their action is more varied and their effect is much more ambiguous than such a narrow list of competencies would suggest. On the contrary, they may be at the origin of social affairs by actively participating in formation of assemblies of people and things. It is tracing these assemblies which allows us to see the kinds of agencies that make up the surrounding world.

My research aims at highlighting the moments in which the muṣḥaf acts independently of, or in addition to, what the Quranic message produces. Let me be clear, though: I do not propose here some sort of idolatry or anthropomorphism in thinking about objects; I do not treat them as somehow willful. I am not trying to turn Muslim doctrine on its head and suggest that a muṣḥaf takes precedence over the Quran. I am simply proposing an inquiry into how objects help to construct the world in which we live. By “constructed” I mean make solid and durable.

Tracing the associations between humans and other objects (and other non-human entities, Latour would add) that emerge thanks to the fact that the Quran is mediated not only through a sound but also via paper, ink, script, orthography, diacritics, and so on, allows me to see what builds the world without deciding ahead of time what kind of reality is actually being produced: political?, economic?, religious?, technological? or something else? This way I do not limit my inquiry in advance: I do not constrain myself to fields that are commonly associated with the study of religious texts and media. As a result, I extend my study to multiple technologies involved in disseminating the Quranic text, as mediating the Quran has as much to do with science as it does with theology. [This post explores specifically only one of the many human-nonhuman networks centered on the Qur’anic book that emerged during my research; a network that consists among others of practitioners, rules of the etiquette of handling the muṣḥaf, requirements of purity, and smart phones that happen to mediate the Qur’anic text in addition to other popular phone applications (apps).]

ENACTING THE QUR’AN
A quick search online for the word “Quran” shows that in popular English, the Quran is often referred to as the Muslim “holy book.” Yet strictly speaking, and as we already know, it is not a book. Nor it is “holy” in the common understanding of this word. Neither the book nor the message are “holy” in the way the Bible is referred to in the Christian tradition. In the Arabic language, the word muqaddas and its derivatives do not index the Quran or its tangible body. Perhaps it is because al-kitab al-muqaddas — the “holy book” — is the phrase already reserved by the Arabic-speaking Christians to describe their own scripture, the Bible. My friends in Egypt never spoke of the Quran or muṣḥaf’s holiness but instead always emphasized the notion of “deference” (iḥtiram) which should be directed towards the book that carries the text of the Quran. The word iḥtiram etymologically comes from the root ḥarima “to be prohibited, to be forbidden, to exclude or withhold, which in some of its derivative verbal forms has the connotation of being set aside or inviolable. But, etymology should not be our guide in understanding the realities of the muṣḥaf and the Quran. Rather than tracking the word’s semantic field, I suggest we turn to the actual practices of iḥtiram performed by Quranic users, people who read and handle Quranic copies in the course of daily activities, and to think of them as meaning-making enactments [ix] of the Quran.

What follows then is a description of instances in which the Quran is enacted through the daily routines of worship and piety known as the etiquette of the muṣḥaf or adab al-muṣḥaf. These practices, however, are inseparably entangled with technology. A book made of paper is not the same as the Quranic text on the screen of a phone. A text visible on the page does not necessarily appear in the same way as its digitized version under a plastic cover. When the medium of the message changes, the etiquette of the muṣḥaf changes as well, and practices of iḥtiram are redefined to accommodate this new and unprecedented materiality of the text. I will return to this issue in a moment but in order to grasp the precarious status of the switch to a new medium, I need to briefly describe the forms of rapport long established between the practitioners and their printed maṣāḥif.

What practitioners know about adab al-muṣḥaf comes from lessons at the mosque, education at home, mass media, and self-study, and pertains to multiple situations in the course of daily activities. Over time, I trained myself to pay attention to the small gestures of deference that surrounded the muṣḥaf in private and public spaces. I learned to notice that a muṣḥaf was not left open turned upside down, was not covered with other books and objects, was not left on the floor or on a table with food. I watched these acts of deferment implemented daily through gestures of iḥtiram. I saw my friends and strangers uncover a muṣḥaf, pick it up, move it, put it away. I learned where and when it could be left undisturbed, at least as much as life in crowded and polluted spaces allowed. In interviews, I was given many examples of what not to do with the muṣḥaf: I was warned not to wet my finger with my saliva when turning the pages; not to read it in bed; not to sit, sleep, or lean upon a muṣḥaf; not to throw it; not to put anything between its pages except empty sheets of paper; and not to scribble notes on it.

Sometimes ordinary acts of respect would take me by surprise or frustrate me. I remember my embarrassment when Rahab’s mother removed a pair of golden earrings I accidentally put on her muṣḥaf. I also remember working in a library in Cairo where an anonymous stranger would persistently remove a muṣḥaf from the lower shelf where its call number would require it to be to the top shelf, out of cataloging order.

Although the rules of adab al-muṣḥaf are quite clear and specific, even classical scholars recognized the difficulty of following the rules of purity in all circumstances and at all times. A well-known example cites the case of pupils in the Quranic schools who, if the rules were upheld, would have to perform ablutions after every urination or defecation, which would disrupt the class and take too much time away from instruction. Therefore different provisions and exceptions, such as holding or touching the book with other objects or between the outer parts of one’s palms, have been made to reconcile the rules of purity with the daily exigencies. These provisions and exceptions have become incorporated into daily routines, and are even more necessary as transmigratory life in Cairo makes following the rules more cumbersome: for instance, the long hours of commuting to work could be spent on reading the Quran but making the required wudu’ beforehand is not always possible. It is, therefore, left to the conscience of individual practitioners how to reconcile adab al-muṣḥaf with the contingencies of rapidly changing and accelerated lifestyles.

Human friendships also make relationships with some objects more complicated, forcing the practitioners to make uneasy choices about whether their allegiances lie with people or things. I know I was at times the cause of such dilemmas.

When I traveled with Rahab to her family’s cabin on the shores of Marsa Matruh, I was not aware of the rules that guided the handling of a muṣḥaf. At the end of the day, I sat on a comfortable bed and stretched lazily, not being able to decide whether I was too tired to read anything. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a book on the bedside table and picked it up. It was a muṣḥaf. I flipped through the pages absentmindedly. Rahab walked into the room and saw the book in my hands. “Do you mind putting it away?” she said somewhat sheepishly, “you are…you know…your hands are not clean.” “I just washed them,” I said, not sure what she meant. “That’s not it.” She was clearly uneasy. “You are…you are not a Muslim so…you shouldn’t touch it.” Rahab did not want me to hold the muṣḥaf. But because we were good friends she could openly ask me to put it away, although it was not a comfortable request to make. In my interactions with other people, I occasionally saw a fleeting hesitation and an almost instinctive jerk of the hand in a protective gesture when I reached for a muṣḥaf. Once or twice it was silently removed from my hands with a quick but telling motion. But Rahab was one of few who candidly referred to my impurity.

As a non-Muslim I was not in a state of ṭahāra, but neither was Rahab that evening in Marsa Matruh. At her request I put the muṣḥaf down. She immediately picked up two other books from the coffee table and using them as tongs carried the muṣḥaf out of the room. “I’m having my period,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice, responding to the surprised look I threw at her contraption. By not touching the Quranic text while menstruating, Rahab followed the rules of handling the muṣḥaf habituated by generations of Muslim women. Nonetheless, not all take for granted this particular bodily comportment with the book. The piety movement that is becoming more popular among Egyptian women has produced female practitioners who want to learn more about their religion. By rejecting modern and secular values promoted by the government, they turned to religion for empowerment. These women choose to fully embrace and to submit to Islamic principles that require diligence.

The reactions of my female friends and acquaintances to the issue of touching a muṣḥaf during menses illustrate modern shifts in the attitudes towards one’s own body. Some of the women, like Rahab, considered menstruation as a state of impurity and simply accepted the fact that in that state they could not read the Quran. Others were unsure about how to think of their own menstruating bodies, perceiving the prohibition not so much a matter of ritual uncleanliness but rather a tradition that should be upheld. These women often find creative ways around the rules that separated them from the actual text, such as listening to the recordings on their mobile phones or reading the Quran on a computer screen, that does not require touching the text. Some distinguished touching the text itself from touching the blank corners of a page. Still others, like Dalia, treated menstruation as a biological function that should not prohibit a pious person from cultivating a personal relationship with Allah, including holding the words of the message mediated in a tangible way by a muṣḥaf.

It would be easy to dismiss these acts of deference towards the object as simply reflections of the extraordinary nature of the Quranic message. But I cannot overlook the material mediation of the muṣḥaf in the fabric of religious practice, affect, and knowledge. Attention to the corporeality of the book does not mean that the Islamic theological pronouncements that stand behind the rules of adab al-muṣḥaf assign priority to the object over the message. Yet the same pronouncements attest to the fact that it is very hard to demarcate a clear boundary between the immaterial, eternal words of Allah and their material mediators in the form of perishable ink, paint, and paper. On a practical level, disentangling the relation between the book and the message is only possible when the medium that carries the message is drastically changed. The introduction of digital technologies in the dissemination of the Quran provides us with an opportunity to ask: how does a change in medium circumscribe the message? How does one enact a “digital Quran”?

“Electronic Qurans” 
Digitization of the Quranic text is a relatively new phenomenon. In Egypt, only within the last decade have software and apps companies started offering electronic editions of the Quran in Arabic (English translations have been available since the mid-to late 1990s). It is the technology itself that for long happened to be the obstacle. In spite of growing interest in digitization of the Quranic text, boosted by the spread of new technologies and skills, rendering the Quran in a digital format presented numerous conundrums for programmers and religious authorities. Although practitioners with access to computers and other electronic devices saw benefits of using the digitized Quran, it was the programmers’ inability to properly reproduce the Quranic text in an electronic format that impaired its spread at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty first century. The Quran was only available in a form of a digitized picture but it was not available as an independent, searchable text that might be practically used in study and learning in different computer applications.

The calligraphic styles used over the centuries for writing maṣāḥif and imitated through the lithographic and offset printing — that facilitated continuation of many calligraphic traditions in mechanically reproduced texts of the Quran — have produced their own regimes of authority and authentication that would be hard to recreate through a font style that did not participate in the tradition of Quranic calligraphy. It is particularly true when we consider how the introduction of typographic print in Egypt disrupted the semantic system of distinct calligraphic styles and their fields of signification by visually unifying texts belonging to different spheres of religious, political and economic practice. With the introduction of printing, a variety of calligraphic styles that communicated different contents of the text was replaced by one uniform printing font that lost its capacity to convey meaning through format. A Quranic typeface soon recreated its own distinctive visual format that in many ways was much more grounded in the pre-print scripts than in then-contemporary secular printing, full of innovative designs.

Figure 3: A page from a printed muṣḥaf with the typographic font imitating handwritten maṣāḥif. Photo by author.

A Quranic typeface soon recreated its own distinctive visual format that in many ways was much more grounded in the pre-print scripts than in then-contemporary secular printing, full of innovative designs. When digitization entered the printing and dissemination markets in Egypt at the beginning of the nineties, it preserved the Quranic calligraphic tradition by reproducing handwritten copies or printed masahif as uneditable, undividable text blocks that could not be copied or searched. By that point in history adjustments in religious visual culture (prompted in particular by Quranic editions such as Mushaf Fu’ad and in general by the modern aesthetics of the secular texts) had changed the reading habits of Muslim practitioners. People desired to read the text of the Quran that was “legible” and print-like and they wanted it to be like other easily accessible and usable electronic texts. Therefore, the push to digitize the Quran in Egypt did not come from scholars at al-Azhar but through the initiatives of individual practitioners who were interested in both the correct spelling/diacritics and usability of the text.

The basis of the digital revolution, the Unicode system used worldwide for encoding texts in different writing systems is grounded in a typographic, Latin-script based tradition. A particular code is ascribed to a particular letter or sign in a sequential order. This system does not support the variant glyphs of primary graphemes with additional signs floating above or below the baseline, which is crucial for the Arabic script. The Quranic text written in such software was not only lacking many specifically Quranic signs. It was also easily distorted and altered because each letter was treated by the software as an individual sign, uncorrelated with the rest of the diacritics and letters around it.

Figure 4: An example of Arabic print distorted and disconnected by incompatibility of Mac Office with the Arabic font. The letters are disconnected and the words are in an inverted order. Image by author.

The letters are disconnected and the words are in an inverted order. Technically, it was not difficult to copy and paste the Quranic text but the results were often disastrous. From this perspective, the ease of transferring text from one format to another, or from one electronic device to another was, ironically, one of the biggest predicaments of disseminating the digitized Quran. The challenge was to create a program in which the Quranic text would be stable enough, yet editable, not easily manipulated but transferable.

An attempt to create a program that would allow searching, copying, and pasting the Quranic text without distortion of the position of the letters, or changing them into numeric signs and symbols, has been undertaken at the King Fahd Quran Complex. Its team of engineers has recently released to the public domain a font application that is also compatible with Unicode. This application is available for free on the Complex’s website and has been developed specifically for the text of the Quran. Also, Thomas Milo and his company DecoType has been successful in developing new ways of encoding Arabic script strictly following the rules of Arabic calligraphy.

The transition from print to digital has offered new possibilities for transmission of the Quranic text and has produced alternative philosophies of interaction between script and its digital medium. It has also engendered a critical change in the ways practitioners perceive Quranic text as an integral part of the muṣḥaf. The “electronic Quran” is not a book in the ordinary sense of this word at all. It is a text mediated by the screen of a computer, an electronic device, or a mobile phone, where it shares memory space with other texts and images. An electronic device can hardly be called a muṣḥaf. For that reason, opinions regarding how to act towards an electronic copy of the text are considerably at odds among the practitioners and scholars alike. Some insist that the rules of adab apply in the same way to both objects, while others follow the argumentation summarized by a well know anecdotic fatwa:

A man asked a sheikh whether it was permitted to bring a mobile phone with the Quranic verses to the bathroom. 

The sheikh answered, “It is permissible because the verses are in the memory of the phone.” 

The man asked again, “But sheikh, we are talking about the Quranic verses and the most beautiful names of Allah, and you are saying that it is permitted to take them to the bathroom?” 

The sheikh replied, “Have you memorized any verses from the Quran?” 

“Yes,” said the man. 

“Well then,” retorted the sheikh, “when you go to the bathroom, leave your head by the door and then step in. 

The doctrinal confusion created by the use of new technology has been successfully deployed by menstruating women to read the Qur’anic text in spite of having period. For that reason, it is not uncommon among the Egyptian women to read the Quranic text from a mobile phone during that time, following the opinion that an electronic device constitutes a carrier and a barrier of the text at the same time. It is a safe barrier as it cannot be crossed — one cannot directly touch the digital letters. In this case menstruation has no effect on the practical use of the Quranic text.

I think it is important, then, to ask what happens to the Quran when its enactments start quite suddenly differing from the ones carried out by the previous generations of practitioners? Annemarie Mol suggests that when we foreground the practices surrounding things we are able to track how those things come into being. If the practices differ, new things appear and the realities are multiplied. Instead of a passive thing in the middle seen from multiple perspectives we are faced with new things constantly coming into being. Yet the multiple objects do not fall apart, but as she puts it, they “tend to hang together somehow.” [x] For Muslim practitioners the Quran in a phone that can be touched without ablutions is not suddenly different from the Quran in a muṣḥaf that cannot. This happens because practices that have ability to create new realities are always entangled with practices that stabilize things, give them a kind of inertia, and make them “hang together.” However, the accelerating use of technology in accessing the Qur’anic message begs a question: how much longer will the adab al-muṣḥaf be relevant to the Qur’an and when/if it ceases to be germane to the Muslim practice, what will this change do to the way the Qur’an itself is understood and interpreted?

Endnotes 
  • [i] Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al’Azim, vol. 7, Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1966, p. 481.
  • [ii] Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969, [1931]): 59-67.
  • [iii] Roger Chartier, The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994). Patrick Hanan, Judith T. Zeitlin, and Lydia He Liu, Writing and Materiality in China: Essays in Honor of Patrick Hanan (Cambridge, Mass.: Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2003). Donald F. McKenzie, Making Meaning: “Printers of the Mind” and Other Essays (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002).
  • [iv] Karl Marx, Capital (Provo, UT: Regal Publications, 1993 [1867]).
  • [v] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,1950 [1913]).
  • [vi] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 [1912]).
  • [vii] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990 [1923]).
  • [viii] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): 72.
  • [ix] Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): 31-33.
  • [x] Ibid.

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