The Downloadable Revelation
May 21, 2012
How do you treat your iPhone when it contains the iQuran?
Your house is on fire. In one room is your copy of the Quran; in another, your iPhone. You only have time to rescue one of them. Which will it be? Thanks to a recent fatwa, this dilemma can be avoided. Your copy of the Quran can reside on your iPhone. In March, Islamic scholars in Abu Dhabi ruled that Muslims in the United Arab Emirates may store and read Quranic passages on their smartphones and other mobile devices.
But the existence of virtual sacred texts presents other perplexing dilemmas about the application of traditional rules for proper reverential handling, use, and disposal. Can one take the Quran-loaded mobile device into a bathroom, an “impure” place in which the analog analog is forbidden? And is there any place more impure than the interior of one’s iPhone, where the bytes of the digital surahs can commingle with Lady Gaga’s or Nancy Arjam’s bits on video?
I began this series by contemplating Julian Huxley's stirring dream of a future in which the “universal culture” of science would unite the sundered human tribes; where collective international pursuit of the scientific enterprise—“by its nature opposed to dogmatic orthodoxies and to the claims of authority”—would hasten the reign of reason. One intrusion of reality into Huxley's dream, as I have noted in the course of this series, is a strain of “reactionary modernism” in which the trappings of modern science and technology are appropriated by conservative movements in the service of anti-modern, inegalitarian values.
The story of the smartphone fatwa presents another. Here the force of modern science is pushing people in the direction of change, not because they adopt the intellectual outlook of critical rationalism but because in practice they embrace the use of technological products in the hurly-burly of their everyday lives.
The Abu Dhabi government includes three bodies that appoint religious scholars or muftis to issue rulings on matters of Islamic law. The Justice Department provides fatwas on “justice and jurisprudential matters,” the Zakat Fund answers fatwa inquiries related to the religious duty of charitable giving, and the General Authority of Islamic Affairs & Endowments (GAIAE) “on all Sharia matters.” An Abu Dhabi government website invites citizens to send their requests via “text message in Arabic, English or Urdu not exceeding 200 letters” (responses are sent via SMS), to call “the Fatwa toll free number (800 2422) available in Arabic, English and Urdu from 8 AM to 8 PM” or to submit a question “to Reliable Guide Service through the Authority’s website.”
According to the coverage by the Abu Dhabi-based journal The National, the smartphone fatwa—issued, like other GAIAE rulings, in response to a questioner whose identity was not revealed—quoted the Quranic surah Al-Muzzammil (“the Mantled One,” or “One Folded in Garments”), “Read you, therefore, of the Quran as much as may be easy for you” and reasoned that believers are to read the text “using whatever means possible, for that is better than not reading at all” and that they will be “rewarded greatly for doing so.” The ruling also noted that “gadgets that make searches easy” could be used for religious betterment.
As is usually the case with new technologies, the commentators were giving their belated blessing to the voyage of a ship that had long since steamed out of port. Among those not awaiting permission from some muftis in UAE was Guided Ways Technologies, Ltd., a UK-based developer of iQuran, iPray, iZakah, iEatHalal, and other Islamic applications for iPhone, iPod Touch, and all major mobile devices. Its iQuran app, which features sophisticated audio components to facilitate the hearing and learning of tajweed, the proper pronunciation and intonation of the verses, is already in version 3.2.1; according to the Guided Ways website, its products are used by over 2.5 million people worldwide. The company has stated its intention to make all of its software available free of charge at some point; its statement of “ideology” gestures towards a general individualism: “We at Guided Ways do not believe in sects/divisions within muslims, nor do we aim to promote such a thing. We don’t believe in Labels (which inherently promotes sectarianism).”
Every Bit Is Sacred
The widespread adoption of technologies such as the iQuran ensures that ordinary believers will confront countless religious conundrums in miniature, such as those expressed in this post to a discussion board at Islam in Action:
Cell phone are on the side of belt and at times like on airport etc we cannot leave cellphone outside so it goes with us in the rest room. With Sharia is it going to be [disrespectful] to Quran to have it on iphone or other smart phone when some times it goes to restroom or if I take my daughter in my lap sometimes her feet touches the cell phone even though it is un-intentional?
One respondent offers this solution:
So long as the [Quran] application is not open, there would be no problem with having the phone under the belt, etc. . . . so long as the application is not opened, it would not be wrong to do so, more so if you have no other choice. Best to have the phone fully covered when entering the restroom, merely out of respect. . . . [Out] of sheer respect for the fact that the application is present, even though not opened, do give the ‘iphone’ its due care and respect.
Not unlike Surah Al-Muzzammil, which excuses from intensive scripture reading those who are “in ill-health,” “travelling through the land,” or “fighting in God’s Cause,” this suggestion is nothing if not pragmatic. Still, it is not without theological implications—and at least two incompatible implications at that. When does a mobile device count as a Quran? Whenever it stores the right set of metaphysical and moral truths, a body of information the essence of which can be retained even in binary bytes? If so, then believers may be required to give their iPhone 4s ritual burials when the next upgrade arrives. Or is a mobile device a Quran—literally, “the Recitation”—only when it is instantiating this information in the right human-decipherable language, or perhaps only when it is generating the sacred auditory object itself? If so, then it may follow that even a paper version is sacred only when a believer is engaged in recitation with it.
Such questions go to the heart of one of the most important and longstanding controversies of Islamic theology: What is the Quran? Is it a part of history, a message directed by God to humanity at a particular moment in time that may be interpreted by human reason? Or is it timeless, eternal, a sacred object that is to be venerated and imitated through ritual recitation of “the original Arabic”—God’s phonemes, as I put it in The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights (leaving aside for the moment that revisionists have discovered multiple variants of the texts, with Ibn Warraq numbering them at thirty-two)?1 The Mu‘tazilite school of thought, which flourished during the ninth and tenth centuries CE, fiercely defended the historicist position on the grounds that the alternative elevated the Quran to the point of idolatry and contradicted the doctrine of free will, for it entailed that the revelation existed prior to all human history.2
What must make Steve Jobs smile down on us from his brushed-stainless-steel perch is that the future of such theological questions is slipping from the hands of traditional scholars and government authorities and into the pockets of individual believers as they adapt their religious attitudes and practices to new habits of lived experience in a technologically-enhanced world. As the professor of religion and culture Rachel Wagner and others have been documenting, new communication technologies are challenging traditional models of authority in Muslim communities throughout the world, especially by enabling easy access to formerly obscure foundational documents by laypersons, most of whom are not Arabic-speaking. The very technologies that the General Authority of Islamic Affairs & Endowments endorsed may make it less likely to be consulted at all the next time.
1. Ibn Warraq, ed., Which Koran? Variants, manuscripts, linguistics (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2009).
2. Richard Martin, Mark Woodward, and Dwi Atmaja, Defenders of reason in Islam: Mu’tazilism from medieval school to modern symbol (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997).