Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Desecrating Scriptures: Uses and Abuses

According to several articles in the Daily Times, Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws make the charge of desecrating a Qur'an particularly dangerous. In one case, a man in Lahore apparently framed another for burning a Qur'an in order to buy his property at half price. In another case, a Christian man has been jailed without bail for burning a Qur'an. He claims to have been told that doing so would help him get his wife back (but he is also claiming insanity).

The seriousness of these charges is illustrated by stories about people beaten after speaking ill of Muhammed, Islam or the Qur'an, and then being arrested while their attackers go free. Some religious and political leaders are calling for the death penalty for blasphemers, and mobs and jailors occasionally carry it out. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has been protesting these laws for many years, as have Pakistani Christians, but apparently with little success.

These stories obviously show the social power transacted by the use and abuse of an iconic book. But they also point out how hard it is to control the iconic dimension of scriptures. Scholars and other religious authorities traditionally dominate interpretation of the textual dimension, so that debates over doctrine and orthodoxy remain under the control of a few rival elites. The iconic dimension, however, can be manipulated by whoever has access to a copy of the text--whether to honor a scripture or to desecrate it or to frame a rival or to gain economic advantage or, as in the case of the hapless husband mentioned above, to try to harness its iconic power for personal ends. This story, if accurate, shows an esoteric use of an iconic book coming into conflict with the same text's exoteric veneration. The exoteric usually wields greater power, as this man's continuing jail stay shows.

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