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.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Calligraphy in decline?

Several new articles about religious calligraphy: An Iranian manuscript illuminator laments the decline of his art form because his contemporaries "prefer modern art to traditional work." I mentioned a similar complaint from a Indian calligrapher in a previous post. Two other articles show that some calligraphers still find patrons for hand-copied Qur'ans (Muslim scriptures) and Guru Granths (Sikh scriptures) in India and Canada. But both scribes' goal of writing the largest copy of their respective scriptures hints that calligraphic art alone is no longer enough either.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Monumental Qur'an: Checkpoint into Mecca

Since my query a few weeks ago concerning a Qur'an monument over a highway, I have finally found what I was looking for. In fact, this is the checkpoint into Mecca, on the road from Jeddah. Since Jeddah is the nearest major airport to the holy city of Mecca, most pilgrims to Mecca arriving by air would enter this way. It is the place where (male) pilgrims don their white garments for the hajj, and a state of ritual purity and equality begins. Non-Muslims are not permitted beyond this checkpoint into the sacred sites of Mecca.

I intend to investigate this monument more (when was this built? who designed it? what do other checkpoints look like?), and will update this post as I learn more, but if anyone else can contribute some information, please comment.

These photos are from the website virtualtourist.com. I am surprised that I haven't been able to find more pictures of this iconic book monument. While it is understandable that images from the sacred sites of Mecca might be limited, pictures of the Ka'ba other places are widely available.

Any ideas why this image is not more globally known?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sutra Paintings & Accessories

The Korea Times reviews an exhibit at the National Museum of Korea titled "Sutra Painting: In Search of Buddhahood."

... The exhibition consists of two themes. The first highlights the Diamond Sutra Block made of gold found in Iksan Wanggung-ri pagoda, Buddhist reliquary as well as objects such as sutra case, sutra chest, and cloth for wrapping sutra.

The second offers the sutra paintings ranging from the period of Unified Silla (668-935) to the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) arranged chronologically to present an entire view of the distinguishing characteristics in accordance with its period and style. ...

The exhibit runs until September 16.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Giant Vietnamese Declarations of Independence

Thanh Nien News reports:
A calligraphy book in wood weighing over 300kg, thought to be the largest in Vietnam, titled Declaration of Independence, is on show in Hanoi.

The 2 m by 84 cm book was created in 21 days by Trinh Van Tuan from rare and durable kinds of wood and paper, and is a reproduction of three works considered national declarations of independence.

The first two documents included in this his new work of calligraphy date to 1077 and 1428 while the third was written by Ho Chi Minh "based on the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen to affirm the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from France."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Koreana Tripitaka (2)

Yohan Yoo has provided me with the following links to background information on the huge collection of carved wooden printing blocks of the Buddhist scriptures called the Koreana Tritipaka, which I mentioned in a previous post. They emphasize the iconic intention that motivated their production as well as their preservation and veneration up to the presernt. The links take you to pictures as well as the full articles:
From Korean Tripitaka: "The entire Korean Tripitaka was carved twice during the Koryo Dynastry (918-1392), both times on wooden blocks. The king and the people believed that the presence of these sacred texts would help to drive back invasions and also bring good luck."

From Wikipedia: "The Tripitaka Koreana was first carved in 1087 when Goryeo was invaded by the Khitan in the Third Goryeo-Khitan War. The act of carving the woodblocks was considered to be a way of bringing about a change in fortune by invoking the Buddha's help. The original set of woodblocks were destroyed during the Mongol invasions of Korea in 1232, when Goryeo's capital was moved to Ganghwa Island during nearly three decades of Mongol attacks, although scattered parts of its prints still remain. King Gojong thereafter ordered the revision and re-creation of the Tripitaka; the carving took 16 years, from 1236 to 1251. This second revision is usually what is meant by the Tripitaka Koreana. In 1398, it was moved to Haeinsa, where they have remained housed in four buildings."

Life in Korea adds: "The original set took 77 years to complete, and was finished in 1087. However, it was destroyed in 1232 by a Mongol invasion. King Kojong ordered the set remade and work began in 1236. It was felt that replacing the wood blocks would convince Buddha to intervene and help repel the Mongolian invaders. Originally carved on Kangwha Island, they were moved to Haein-sa during the early years of the Yi dynasty."

Korean Tripitaka concludes: "The Korean Tripitaka has great national significance to the Korean people. It represents their steadfastness in adversity and their wish to maintain their cultural identity. In some ways it is the national conscience of Korea."

This collection of iconic texts imbued with both religious and nationalistic significance is doubly fascinating because it is the print blocks, not the printed texts produced from them, that were given and have retained such revered status. Perhaps that is because the wooden blocks are materially larger and more substantial and take much longer to create than printed paper books and so are better suited to veneration as monuments.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Married to the Qur'an

Mohammed Al Shafey reports in Asharq Alawsat about a custom in Sindh province of Pakistan called being "married to the Qur'an."
... In this type of marriage, young girls are asked to dedicate themselves to memorizing the Holy Quran. Their families then hold a ceremony to marry the girl to the holy book. A girl places her hand on the Quran and takes an oath that she is married to it until death. ...

Women who are married to the Holy Quran are not allowed to have a relationship with a man or to marry anybody. Moreover, men fear being cursed if they have a relationship with a woman who is married to the Quran.

The trend is more notable amongst the rich and feudal families in Sindh. It was first devised to deny women their rights of inheritance and out of fear of property being passed on to outsiders through the daughters or sisters [i.e. their spouses or children]. According to independent sources in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, approximately 10,000 girls are married to the Quran in the Sindh province. ...

Shafey notes that the government along with community activities have tried to suppress the practice, which he and they judge to be un-Islamic.

From the perspective of the comparative study of iconic books, this is a fascinating example because it combines a traditional iconic use of the physical Qur'an for taking oaths with its traditional performative use for memorized recitation. The oath becomes a wedding vow of fidelity to the recitation of the book itself. The combination thus becomes a marriage ritual with the power to constrain the young woman's future behavior. The social and religious power deployed through such ritual uses of scripture is very clear.

Islamic Art in London (2)

In addition to the article cited in my previous post, the BBC has now published a review of the London exhibit, Spirit and Life, which includes a slide show of seven images from the exhibit, including this page of a blue Qur'an. It adds that "Other texts on display include a single page from a vast Koran whose pages stretch 2m (6.5ft) in height and a scroll the width of a palm with a microscopic text probably painted with a single-haired brush."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Gigantic Books

The worth of iconic texts gets marked by, among other things, the construction of monuments that take the shape of the books themselves. Monuments of the Qur'an appear in the palace square of Sharjah in the UAE (above) and on roadsides in Bahrain, while the tablets of the Ten Commandments fill an entire hillside in Murphy, North Carolina.

Gigantic monuments to secular texts apparently have more difficulty in getting funded, if the aborted plan to construct a 50-foot tall replica of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is any indication.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


A summary review of In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000, edited by Michelle Brown, has been posted by the Review of Biblical Literature.

The "Magic" of Original Documents

Gannett News Service provides an interview with U.S. National Archives senior curator Stacey Bredhoff, who describes the effect of viewing the Declaration of Independence in the Archives Rodunda:

Q: Why is it important for people to come here to see the declaration firsthand?
A: I think there is some kind of magic in standing in front of the original document. You’re standing in front of the original Declaration of Independence, faded as it is, but still you can make out some of the signatures and you think, “Whoa, these people were real. This really happened.”

I compare this tendency to ascribe "magical" power to viewing some significant textual exemplars to the religious role of relics. Whereas any copy of the Declaration of Independence is iconic in American political culture, the "original" in the Archives Rotunda is a relic: it does is not displayed so that visitors can analyze its meaning in depth or read it aloud in its entirety (it's much too faded to do either very well) but for its material, visual effect alone.

Ritual Rhetoric and Scripture

(With apologies for self-promotion) My book, Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture, is now out. Its contribution to the topic of iconic books is primarily in chapter 9, "The Rhetoric of Scripture," which reproduces my 2005 JBL article with a small addition discussing David Carr's book, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (2005).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chinese to preserve Tibetan books

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the China Tibetology Research Centre is launching a two-year effort to preserve 426 volumes of Buddhist scriptures on palm-leaf manuscripts, dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries C.E. For a short history of the development and impact of palm leaf manuscripts, see Palm Leaf. An impression of the literary and artistic effort that went into creating the vast Tibetan libraries can be gathered from the pictures and introduction to the exhibit, Guardians of the Sacred Word, that was on display in New York in 1996. The difficulties involved in such preservation work are described vividely in the report on similar efforts in Thailand.

The vast majority of the Tibetan libraries and their contents were destroyed during and after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951. This new effort at preserving Tibet's manuscript heritage under Chinese sponsorship seems to be a remarkable policy reversal. I wonder how the Tibetan government in exile feels about this ...

Islamic Creationists and the Rhetoric of a Beautiful Book

The New York Times article "Islamic Creationist and a Book Sent Round the World" examines the recent mailing of Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation to scientists, politicians, and museums in the United States. Of interest to Iconic Books aficionados is the role that appearance plays in this latest round in the debate over human and natural origins. According to the article, "for many, it is too beautiful for the trash bin but too erroneous for their shelves." The article quotes UCB evolutionary biologist Kevin Padian as saying his colleagues were "just astounded at its size and production values and equally astonished at what a load of crap it is." Elsewhere, the article quotes Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller: "While they said they were unimpressed with the book’s content, recipients marveled at its apparent cost. 'If you went into a bookstore and saw a book like this, it would be at least $100,' said Dr. Miller, an author of conventional biology texts. 'The production costs alone are astronomical. We are talking millions of dollars.'"

Scholars of iconic books are quite familiar with the rhetorical value of a beautiful book and equally familiar with Islam as one of the traditions that is most well-known for its beautiful religious texts. Here, I think, we see a member of that tradition put those artistic and rhetorical tools to use in a different kind of argument. Even if the content of the Atlas of Creation fails to persuade the audience, the physical presence of the book is too powerful to ignore.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Islamic Art in London

Rare Book News points out the opening of "Spirit and Life," an exhibit of Islamic Art from the Agha Khan Museum collection at the Ismaili Center in London, July 14 through August 31. The displays include "one of the finest illustrated manuscripts ever produced, the Persian epic masterpiece of Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), and an extremely rare copy of the Canon of Medicine of Ibn Sina also known as Avicenna."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Burning Bible

The image of a burning Bible appeared multiple times Wednesday in a German TV documentary about Christian fundamentalism. Bild, in a report headlined "TV-Skandal!" picked up by other German media, asked several political and church leaders if one is allowed to do this, getting predictably critical answers. One commented on how much greater the negative reaction would be if it had been a Qur'an: "Was wäre wohl in Deutschland los, wenn die ARD einen brennenden Koran gezeigt hätte?"

It is worth noting the different standards and practices revolving around the iconic use and misuse of scriptures--and how they change over time and influence each other across religious boundaries. The Western media attention to Qur'an desecration over the last few years has heightened some people's sensibilities about other sacred texts and leads one to wonder about the differences.

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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Funeral for the "N-Word"

This last weekend, an NAACP-led gathering in Detroit held a funeral for the "n-word," intending to remove it from usage. Most major news sources have an article about the event, and the Chicago Tribune article includes a video. The funeral for the racial slur is comparable to the handling of iconic books, treating the word as a person and conducting it out of common usage with the ceremony customarily used for people, including a horse-drawn cart containing a pine box and black flowers.

What strikes me as most interesting here is the way that something as celebrated as a religious text or name and something as reviled as the n-word can both be handled with the same practices. At the level of language, the racial slur is talked around with the euphemism "the n-word" in much the same way that the divine name and the names of certain religious personages are handled with care, such as writing "G_d" or using titles instead of the proper name (i.e., "The Prophet"). The word is ushered out of usage with a funeral, a ritual more commonly associated with showing respect for the deceased than with erasure. The value of a text or a word can be either positive or negative, but in either case, it can be treated as an icon and handled through caution and ceremony.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Qur'ans as Islamic Art

The Australian provides a review by Sebastian Smee of "The Arts of Islam," an exhibit in Sydney of part of the private collection Nasser D. Khalili. Among many other things are a group of Qur'ans that illustrate several features of iconic and relic texts that we have been discussing on this blog:

"... the show opens with a display of Korans, big and small, from Iran, China, North Africa, Egypt and Sicily. Later on, there is a fragment from a Koran believed to have been inscribed by a one-handed, left-handed calligrapher from the central Asian city of Samarkand. Trying to impress the great ruler Tamerlane, he had written a Koran so small that it could fit under a signet ring. The ploy failed so he turned around and made a giant Koran: each page almost 1m long and 1.8m high, with only seven lines per page.

"A single line is on show here. Impressive as it is, it serves as a reminder that many of Islam's greatest cultural treasures -- a high proportion of them in book form -- have been split up or otherwise tampered with in the name of profit. The practice continues unabated today, with random pages from previously whole manuscripts and individual tiles ripped from the walls of buildings appearing at auction on a regular basis."

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Uneasiness over Non-Canonical Texts

April DeConnick, on the Forbidden Gospels Blog, has raised the question, “Why do non-canonical texts make us uneasy?” As a scholar of Nag Hammadi texts and other early Christian writings, she has repeatedly run up against the desire among fellow academics to keep such materials marginalized.

The issue is not new, though the publication in accessible form of “Gnostic” materials in the last several decades has brought it home to students of early Chistian history. One hundred years ago, it was the publication of the Gilgamesh flood story that threatened to relativize the Hebrew Bible’s account of origins by placing its materials within a wider and older historical and religious context.

The cultural standing of Jewish and Christian scriptures, however, seems not to have been dented much by such discoveries over the last one-and-a-half centuries or by the two-centuries of historical-critical scholarship on their origins and development. I suggest that resilience is due to the fact that the Bible’s reputation depends as much on the inspiration it produces through performance in sermon, song and dramatization (now frequently on film) and on the legitimacy conveyed by its iconic representation in ritual, art, and mass media as it does to the textual authority conveyed by interpretations of its message by scholars.

If anything, the main effect of biblical scholarship on public perceptions of the Bible is to emphasize the scripture’s importance precisely because so much attention and effort is devoted to controversies over its meaning and origins. Here may lie one source of anxiety about non-canonical texts: the intuitive suspicion that more attention to these other materials raises their status and dilutes claims to the unique importance of the scriptures.

The history of the actual religious influence of such scholarship suggests that Christians and Jews have little reason to worry. The net effect of comparative scholarship is probably to draw even more popular attention to scriptures whose status is, at any rate, well protected by the ways in which Jews and Christians ritualize their iconic and performative dimensions.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Magna Carta visits Constitution Center

Lincoln Cathedral has loaned its copy of the Magna Carta to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for a three-week exhibit, starting July 4th. (The Center has put an English translation of it online.)

It will be interesting to see how the Center displays the document. I've been struck by the very different treatment accorded iconic political texts in the United Kingdom and the United States. The British Library in London displays its two original copies (of the four extant) of the Magna Carta in its room of "Treasures," exhibited on a par with several dozen other rarities such as the Leningrad Codex of the Hebrew Bible, the original manuscript of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, etc. (And it puts electronic fascimiles of many of them on-line: the Magna Carta is here.)

The U.S. National Archives in Washington, by contrast, displays the fourth original copy of Magna Carta alone in an alcove (see my photograph above) off to the side of the Rotunda that houses the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution--not nearly so grand as the Rotunda itself (see picture in previous post) but an elaborate iconic display nonetheless that emphasizes its uniqueness much more than the British Library's rather documentary approach.

The American emphasis on the iconicity of founding national documents reflects how much the U.S. government stakes its political legitimacy on being "Constitutional."

Timbuktu's Old Books

The Guardian today put online a beautifully photographed audio slide-show showing a sample of Timbuktu's scattered ancient manuscripts which, as my previous post noted, are now being collected into libraries and catalogued.