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, June 27, 2020

Qur'anic Matters by Natalia Suit

Qur'anic Matters

New book by Natalia Suit, Qur'anic Matters: Material Mediations and Religious Practice in Egypt (Bloomsbury, 2020).

The publisher's description: In Qur'anic Matters, Natalia Suit explores the materiality of books, focusing on the mushaf. With its paper, binding, ink, and script, the mushaf is not simply a carrier of the Qur'anic text but, by the virtue of its material body, it also has the ability to engender reformulations of religious knowledge and practice. Reading the Qur'an on a screen of a phone, for example, does not require the same forms of ritual ablutions as reading a printed text. The rules of purity limiting the access to the Qur'anic text for menstruating woman change when the Qur'anic text is mediated by digital bytes instead of paper.

Qur'anic Matters spans the time between two important technological shifts-the introduction of printed Qur'anic books in Egypt in the early nineteenth century and the digitization of the Qur'an almost two centuries later. Throughout, Natalia Suit weaves together the theological, legal, economic, and social “presences” of the Qur'anic books into a single account. She argues that the message and the materiality of the object are not separate from each other, nor are they separate from the human bodies with which they come in contact.

Part I: The Makers
1. The Beginning(s)
2. Pens, Letters, and the Politics of Correctness
3. Qur'anic Icons
Part II: The Custodians
4. Debating Defects
5. The (Ortho)Graphic Blueprint
6. What the Eyes Can't See but the Hands Can Touch: Mushaf in Braille
Part III: The Users
7. How Printing Created Manuscripts
8. Uses and Abuses
9. Enacting the Electronic Qur'an

Friday, June 26, 2020

From Scrolls to Scrolling Sacred Texts, Materiality, and Dynamic Media Cultures

New open access book edited by Bradford A. Anderson, From Scrolls to Scrolling: Sacred Texts, Materiality, and Dynamic Media Cultures (De Gruyter, 2020).

Test Cover Image of:  From Scrolls to Scrolling
  • Bradford A. Anderson, "Introduction: Materiality, Liminality, and the Digital Turn: The Sacred Texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Material Perspective" 1
I Sacred Texts and Material Contexts
  • Anna Krauß and Friederike Schücking-Jungblut, "Stichographic Layout in the Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls: Observations on its  Development and its Potential" 13
  • Dan Batovici, "Reading Aids in Early Christian Papyri" 35
  • Asma Hilali, "Writing the Qur’ān Between the Lines: Marginal and Interlinear Notes in Selected Qur’ān Fragments from the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar" 51
  • Ben Outhwaite, "The Sefer Torah and Jewish Orthodoxy in the Islamic Middle Ages" 63
  • Javier del Barco, "From Scroll to Codex: Dynamics of Text Layout Transformation in the Hebrew Bible" 91
  • Eyal Poleg, "Memory, Performance, and Change: The Psalms’ Layout in Late Medieval and Early Modern Bibles" 119
  • Amanda Dillon, "Be Your Own Scribe: Bible Journalling and the New Illuminators of the Densely-Printed Page" 151
II Sacred Texts and the Digital Turn
  • Garrick V. Allen, "Monks, Manuscripts, Muhammad, and Digital Editions of the New Testament" 181
  • Alba Fedeli, "The Qur’ānic Text from Manuscript to Digital Form: Metalinguistic Markup of Scribes and Editors" 213
  • Joshua L. Mann, "Paratexts and the Hermeneutics of Digital Bibles" 247
  • Natalia Suit, "Virtual Qur’ān: Authenticity, Authority, and Ayat in Bytes" 263
  • Bradford A. Anderson, "Sacred Texts in a Digital Age: Materiality, Digital Culture, and the Functional Dimensions of Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" 281

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Responding to Trump's Bible Pose

Since Donald Trump violently expelled protestors in order to pose with a Bible in front of a church, media and social media has overflown with outrage and ridicule. All this talk will likely prove ineffective, because it is just talk. Trump took symbolic action. The only way to counter ritual action is with other symbolic action.

Bad rituals can only be corrected by good rituals. That is true whether you believe that the rituals have real effects or that they are only symbols. Either way, they have visceral effects on participants and observers. So commentary by supporters and critics has little do with whether or not the picture of Trump holding the Bible will have its desired effect.

What would counter rituals look like? Well, protestors could hold bibles while they march, and claim this powerful symbol of the Christian religion for their cause. Their signs could quote bible verses like “Let my people go!” (Exodus 5:1), “You must love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), “You must love the immigrant as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34), “Let justice and righteousness flow like a river” (Amos 5:24), and “Blessed are the poor … but woe to  the rich” (Luke 6:20, 24).

Better yet: people holding up bibles could march side-by-side with people holding up qur’ans (Muslims) and torahs (Jews) and gitas (Hindus) and sutras (Buddhists) and Adi Granths (Sikhs) and wampum belts (Native Americans of the northeast) and other sacred symbols of different religious and cultural traditions that each community would choose as appropriate for these protests.

A picture of that protest would counter Trump’s pose with a Bible more effectively than all the words on media and social media put together. That picture would reclaim religious and cultural symbols for proclaiming the priority of justice and compassion for all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Trump's Bible Pose

Yesterday, troops and police used force and tear gas to clear a path through protestor for Donald Trump to walk from the White House to a nearby Episcopalian church, which had suffered some damage from the protests. There, he posed for photographers while holding up a Bible. He did not give a statement or speech there, and hardly spoke at all.

This photo op immediately prompted angry denunciations, not only from journalists who recognized the strong-man imagery, but also from police commanders who complained about this misuse of their personnel, and from the Episcopalian bishop who complained about this misuse of religious symbols. And well she should.

Trump’s performance was an attempt to gain legitimacy by associating himself with the Bible and with the Church. His picture in front of a church building damaged by a small fire cast Trump in the pose of a “defender of the Church,” a traditional self-characterization of Christian kings and generals to justify their bloody violence.

Trump’s pose holding up a Bible was something more. By manipulating a Bible, he legitimized himself by association. Manipulating a physical book of scripture associates a person with its message and with the religious tradition that it represents. Holding a Bible is a way to portray oneself as Christian, as pious, and as religiously orthodox. This pose is readily recognizable because of its use in Christian art for thousands of years. It does not need verbal commentary to communicate.

Politicians traditionally manipulate bibles or other scriptures at their inaugurations. Yesterday, Trump reasserted God’s support for his presidency with a few simple pictures. To his opponents, like me, these pictures look simplistic, clumsy, and artificial. But they may well be politically effective.

Scholars have often complained that manipulating physical scriptures is a misuse of them. Their complaints usually fall on deaf ears. While people readily ask experts to interpret the meaning of a biblical verse, they don’t need them to understand the symbolism of a book of scripture. They touch and hold their iconic books to feel comforted, protected, and legitimated. Trump’s pose with a Bible was calculated to communicate viscerally to everyone who holds their own bibles close. That is a lot of people.