Sunday, 2 September 2012

Philosophical Investigations: The Koran as Idol

Rao Abdur Raheem, lawyer for the man who accuses Rimsha Masih of blasphemy, said: 'The girl is guilty. If the state overrides the court, then God will get a person to do the job.'

A lawyer representing the man who accused a Pakistani Christian girl of blasphemy has said that if she is not convicted, Muslims could "take the law into their own hands". Rao Abdur Raheem cited the example of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who last year shot dead a politician who had called for reform of the much-abused blasphemy law. The apparent hijacking of the case against Rimsha Masih by organised extremists, including lawyers, could further complicate a bitterly contentious case.

The lawyer's comments are likely to further complicate a bitterly contentious case that has caused an international outcry and embarrassed the Pakistani government. It could intimidate the court and would put her life at further risk even if she is freed.

The girl, Rimsha Masih, from Mehrabadi, Islamabad, whose family says she is 11, was arrested this month and charged with desecrating the Qur'an after a neighbour, Malik Hammad, claimed that he saw her with burnt pages of the holy text in a bag she was carrying. Her family had hoped that she would be granted bail on Thursday after a medical report this week found that she was a minor - thus eligible for bail - and had learning difficulties. But those hopes were dashed when Raheem challenged the report and the hearing was postponed. (1)

What matters more? A book, or a person? Books are replaceable, even if they are the Koran. What kind of religion is it that so elevates a book to such divine status that it becomes more important than a human being? People revere religious books, but to regard the destruction of a book, even if it was done with malicious intent, as blasphemous, is to place that book on a pedestal.

For a religion like Islam, that is fervently against any kind of idolatry, to revere a book in that kind of way is to make an idol of it. Joy Davidman, in "Smoke in the Mountain" has commented on how idolatry works:

The sceptical Greek philosopher may remind us that, after all, the image of Athena is only a symbol, only a means of fixing one's rambling thoughts upon the spirit that is Athena. Yet the idolater will persist in losing sight of the forest for the trees, and the god for the image. The gold and ivory statue of Athena becomes holy in itself, an answerer of prayer, a mysterious source of power, a material object somehow different from other objects. The crucifix, the plaster image, the saint's relic or miraculous medal or cheaply and illegibly printed Bible may become themselves things considered holy and magical, able to stop a bullet. Worse yet, the god confined in an image is a shrunken and powerless god. Because you have limited your concept of God to a man shape on a carved crucifix, you may be in danger of inferring that you are free to outrage the man shapes walking and breathing around you.

And one might add, with the story in Pakistan, that confining the wisdom of the holy Koran to the thing of paper, means that those who take up arms against its destruction see that they are free to outrage human beings.

The prophet Isaiah saw how idols could ensnare people in this way:

A person uses part of a tree for fuel and part of it for making an idol. With one part he builds a fire to warm himself and bake bread; with the other part he makes a god and worships it. With some of the wood he makes a fire; he roasts meat, eats it, and is satisfied. He warms himself and says, "How nice and warm! What a beautiful fire!" The rest of the wood he makes into an idol, and then he bows down and worships it. He prays to it and says, "You are my god---save me!" Such people are too stupid to know what they are doing. They close their eyes and their minds to the truth. The maker of idols hasn't the wit or the sense to say, "Some of the wood I burned up. I baked some bread on the coals, and I roasted meat and ate it. And the rest of the wood I made into an idol. Here I am bowing down to a block of wood!" It makes as much sense as eating ashes. His foolish ideas have so misled him that he is beyond help. He won't admit to himself that the idol he holds in his hand is not a god at all.  (Isaiah 44:15-20)

If he was speaking of Pakistan, he might say that with some of the wood he makes a Koran, and he revered it, and threatened to kill anyone who destroyed that part of the wood, when the rest was burnt up anyway.

Now Muslims might say that they revere the Koran because of its contents. But then it is surely the words within that count, not the medium in which they are conveyed, which, after all, will decay and fall to pieces, as all paper does in time. What are they so afraid of that they have to be the guardians of their faith in this way?

The Koran, incidentally, has no clear blasphemy law which would cause the destruction of a copy to merit a penalty. But it does have texts which can be interpreted along those lines. As one commentator noted, there are verses in the Koran that may lead Muslims to enforce blasphemy laws:

 (66:9) - "Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and be stern with them.
 (9:123) - "O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness."
 (8:12) - "I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve.".

For this is the fact about words. Words are never precise, and in holy books, they can always be taken and read to believe what people want them to say. And, in these cases, the result is mob rule:

In July, a mob of thousands, egged on by clerics, dragged a man from a police station after he had been accused of blasphemy, beat him to death and set his body alight. Desecration of the dead is un-Islamic. In Nov. 2010, Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian mother, was convicted of blasphemy after complaints by Muslim women she had an argument with. She remains on death row. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, a liberal Muslim belonging to the ruling People's Party, who championed her case was gunned down by his bodyguard. The killer was hailed a hero. About 200 lawyers showered petals when he came to court. Nearly 500 hard-line clerics forbade their followers from attending the governor's funeral for which President Asaf Zardari did not show up. Even the powerful chief of the army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, did not commiserate publicly with the grieving family, reportedly because too many of his rank-and-file sympathized with the assassin. Two months later, gunmen assassinated Shahbaz Bhatti, the country's only Christian cabinet minister. He, too, had criticized the blasphemy law. (Jason Kenney attended his funeral but not Taseer's, showing the Stephen Harper government's own sectarianism). (2)

It should be noted that Islamic scholars in Pakistan have come out strongly against misuse of the blasphemy law - but not against its removal:

Recommendations by the Council of Islamic Ideology of Pakistan (CIIP) on the country's most discussed blasphemy law which have been presented to parliament await the government's response for the last several years. Apparently the government is reluctant to give a final nod due to unknown reasons. Some believe that clerics are pressing the government not to consider these recommendations. The CIIP has made these recommendations on a reference sent by the federal government in the wake of increasing complaints about the misuse of the law. According to religious scholars, the misuse of the blasphemy law was tantamount to blasphemy, and therefore a person who was guilty of misuse of this law should be punished under the same law. The council has recommended death penalty for anybody misusing the blasphemy law. "The incorrect complainant and witnesses in a blasphemy case should be handed similar punishment (capital punishment) as a guilty person," the recommendations read. "The government should not allow anyone to misuse the blasphemy law and it should take all appropriate measures whether administrative, procedural or legislative to stop incidents of mishandling the blasphemy law." (3)

So they are not against the law as such, but against the deregulated and fickle way it seems to operate on accusations, sometimes wild. That's an improvement, but that is like saying that accusations against witches have been rushed through courts without proper consideration of evidence, and once we have better evidence, we can go ahead and burn them.

But there's nothing new under the sun. In the "Father Brown" story, the Quick One, a temperance lecturer is touring with a Muslim, promoting the teetotal way of life:

'I ask you, friends,' said Mr Pryce-Jones, with expansive platform gestures, 'why does our friend here set an example to us Christians in truly Christian self-control and brotherhood? Why does he stand here as a model of true Christianity, of real refinement, of genuine gentlemanly behaviour, amid all the quarrels and riots of such places as these? Because, whatever the doctrinal differences between us, at least in his soil the evil plant, the accursed hop or vine, has never - '

At this crucial moment of the controversy it was that John Raggley, the stormy petrel of a hundred storms of controversy, red-faced, white-haired, his antiquated top-hat on the back of his head, his stick swinging like a club, entered the house like an invading army.

'And you will have your usual, Sir,' said Mr Wills, leaning and leering across the counter.

'It's the only decent stuff you've still got,' snorted Mr Raggley, slapping down his queer and antiquated hat. 'Damn it, I sometimes think the only English thing left in England is cherry brandy. Cherry brandy does taste of cherries. Can you find me any beer that tastes of hops, or any cider that tastes of apples, or any wine that has the remotest indication of being made out of grapes? There's an infernal swindle going on now in every inn in the country, that would have raised a revolution in any other country. I've found out a thing or two about it, I can tell you. You wait till I can get it printed, and people will sit up. If I could stop our people being poisoned with all this bad drink - '

Here again the Rev. David Pryce-Jones showed a certain failure in tact; though it was a virtue he almost worshipped. He was so unwise as to attempt to establish an alliance with Mr Raggley, by a fine confusion between the idea of bad drink and the idea that drink is bad. Once more he endeavoured to drag his stiff and stately Eastern friend into the argument, as a refined foreigner superior to our rough English ways. He was even so foolish as to talk of a broad theological outlook; and ultimately to mention the name of Mahomet, which was echoed in a sort of explosion.

'God damn your soul!' roared Mr Raggley, with a less broad theological outlook. 'Do you mean that Englishmen mustn't drink English beer, because wine was forbidden in a damned desert by that dirty old humbug Mahomet?'

In an instant the Inspector of Police had reached the middle of the room with a stride. For, the instant before that, a remarkable change had taken place in the demeanour of the Oriental gentleman, who had hitherto stood perfectly still, with steady and shining eyes. He now proceeded, as his friend had said, to set an example in truly Christian self-control and brotherhood by reaching the wall with the bound of a tiger, tearing down one of the heavy knives hanging there and sending it smack like a stone from a sling, so that it stuck quivering in the wall exactly half an inch above Mr Raggley's ear.

It would undoubtedly have stuck quivering in Mr Raggley, if Inspector Greenwood had not been just in time to jerk the arm and deflect the aim. Father Brown continued in his seat, watching the scene with screwed-up eyes and a screw of something almost like a smile at the corners of his mouth, as if he saw something beyond the mere momentary violence of the quarrel.

And then the quarrel took a curious turn; which may not be understood by everybody, until men like Mr John Raggley are better understood than they are. For the red-faced old fanatic was standing up and laughing uproariously as if it were the best joke he had ever heard. All his snapping vituperation and bitterness seemed to have gone out of him; and he regarded the other fanatic, who had just tried to murder him, with a sort of boisterous benevolence.

'Blast your eyes,' he said, 'you're the first man I've met in twenty years!'
'Do you charge this man, Sir?' said the Inspector, looking doubtful.
'Charge him, of course not,' said Raggley. 'I'd stand him a drink if he were allowed any drinks. I hadn't any business to insult his religion; and I wish to God all you skunks had the guts to kill a man, I won't say for insulting your religion, because you haven't got any, but for insulting anything - even your beer.'

Father Brown later comments of him:

Didn't you see how that old man, with the heart of a lion, stood up and forgave his enemy as only fighters can forgive? He jolly well did do what that temperance lecturer talked about; he set an example to us Christians and was a model of Christianity.

It is forgiveness (as we see in the "Father Brown" story, that is precisely what is lacking when people lash out and the mob runs amok, fired by zealous clerics, because a book has been defiled, and they have to rise and defend their faith, in however violent a manner they see fit. Ink on paper is elevated to be an idol, and the image of God in man sacrificed to that idol. But people are living breathing individuals, while a book, however holy and revered can do nothing of its own. It needs human hands to defend it, and kill on its behalf.

They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they put it in place, and there it stands, unable to move from where it is.  (Isaiah 46:7)



James said...

Words are never precise, and in holy books, they can always be taken and read to believe what people want them to say.

Not really the issue here.

Bear in mind that the Koran and the Bible are not the same, because the Bible has been translated and retranslated to attempt to ensure that the thought underneath it remains consonant with the culture it speaks into. In certain places the language used in the King James version, taken at face value, now says something radically different to our culture than it did then.

The Koran has never been formally translated. There is no KJV/NIV/whatever version of the Koran used by mosques, and nor is the translation you quote above used in worship. It is the same book that existed ten centuries ago, entirely divorced from the culture it now exists in. In that way a nearer kinship exists with the highly stylised ritual of Freemasonry, which has also remained largely static.

So in one way you are wrong: the Koran is very precise in what it actually says. But what it means when people attempt to contextualise it in their own situation is in many regards far more up for grabs than the Bible.

TonyTheProf said...

Not so. There are several facets to the Koran:

a) the original Arabic is not wholly understandable, parts of it are obscure. To read it and render it into modern Arabic is a matter of translation. As one Islamic site says:

"However, even if they were Arabs, you should not expect the translation to be perfect. The Quran is in ancient Arabic language. Many of the vocabulary in the Quran are not used in Modern Arabic. However, even when compared to ancient Arabic literature and poems, the Quran is far more challenging to comprehend fully. That is why ordinary Arabs today, including well-educated Arabs, who are not experts in Arabic language, only understand the general meaning if they simply read the Quran, without reading additional Quran commentaries and interpretation books written by Islamic scholars."

Once you have the need for the "additional", you have lost precision!

b) Even if the Koran had been written in a language that was the same as modern Arabic, any word has a range of meanings (as can be seen in a dictionary). To know which meaning applies in any given text is an art of interpretation, and it is very easy to fall into the semantic fallacy called the "illegitimate totality transfer" whereby the reader sees meanings in the text which were not there.

c) Language changes in meaning even when the words are the same - diachronic shift - hence an ancient text, however perfectly preserved, will have words in it that have changed in meaning. To understand the words requires a comparative analysis of words used in the culture at that time, and again precision is not exact. This is the same as the KJV problem. No language is static, and even if it is the same book, it may not have the same meanings.

The complexity can be seen by looking at the resume of one scholar here:

d) It seems likely (from MS found in Yemen) that textual variants existed in early Korans which were destroyed in a deliberate move to standardise the text.