There are two polar attitudes to Quran which exist in the world, the iconic (i.e. treating Quran as religious or holy item) and the ‘beaconic’ (from the word ‘beacon’ and so to make it as guidance). These attitude are the two extreme ends and there are infinite shades in between.
Growing up, I was exposed to images of the imprisoned members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This was the early 90ies and I remember seeing pictures of them holding the Quran up in with rage. They were fighting for the Islamic State, a project I later learnt had nothing to do with Quran at all. This image remains the greatest example of the iconisation of Quran for me. Quran isn’t even recited in this case, it’s just lifted in front of their faces and used as a thumping device. One may as well use a piece of wood to make the point.
Another great example of iconisation is the writing of Quranic verses and using them as magical aids. These Muslims write verses, dip them in water and drink the water. They also write the verses and place them above their doors for protection or as amulets to become wealthier or more fertile. This is iconisation to me but at least, they do use loosely relevant verses to do each particular job!
Of course, there is the world-wide phenomenon of Quran recitation and memorisation. This is definitely better than the two examples above. There are millions of Muslims who can recite the Quran but fail to understand a single word. Malaysia even has (or had) one ‘Akademi Al-Quran’, an American Idol style reality tv-show in which reciters compete for the prize by reciting in various forms. The message of the text becomes totally irrelevant in this case.
The worry we should have in the iconisation of Quran is making Quran an idol besides Allah. If we believe that Quran contains magical words or represents an absolute form of religiosity (i.e. reciting by itself is a means of salvation), then we have diminished the infinite power of Allah.
It is the same with the notion that the Quran has always existed with Allah (the doctrine of ‘ghayr makhluq’ held by the Sunnis). This doctrine states that the word of Allah is eternal and has always existed). This doctrine was used to shun off dynamic interpretations of the text as because the text has always existed, the meanings must have existed as well and the meanings Sunni scholars proposed were eternal. As if the words and interpretation of the word were the same! This has done the understanding and application of Quran a tremendous disservice.
By now, you probably understand what I mean by the ‘iconic’ approach to Quran. What about the ‘beaconic’ attitude? This seems fairly logical – instead of treating Quran as a cultural artifact as the examples above, we simply read it and use it as a beacon to lead us into the light. This seems to be the role of Quran according to itself (Quran 14/1). The beaconic attitude is the first response of any reform movement in Islam. Reformists tell us, don’t just recite Quran but actually try to understand it. It is natural for Muslims to see Quran as their first beacon.
But what if a beaconic reader wanted to only accept parts of Quran? How should we react to that? Iconic readers of course would invariably accept the entire text of Quran. The whole Quran after all is an icon and thus its authenticity will not be questioned. The question we need to ask though is, would the iconic readers really apply it? In all honesty, I find very little of Quran applied in Traditionalist Islamic discourse anyway. Even among Quranists, most usage of Quran is for polemical purposes or to justify or redefine religious practices. There is very little application beyond that. Ghulam Ahmed Parwez, Muhammad Shiekh and Mohamed Shahour are probably the only figures who have articulated actual systemic doctrine from Quran. The majority of quranist discourse is polemical and apologist.
So what is the problem with someone who says that he finds only a few verses in Quran applicable in his life. Should we not just wish him well and assist him in that application? I feel we should. In Quran, I do not see any verses which says ‘yakfur bil quran’ (rejecting or concealing the Quran) but rather many verses which say ‘yakfur bil ayat’ (rejecting the signs) or words to that effect. This suggests to me that when something from Quran manifests as a sign in one’s life, only then can one legitimately accept or reject it. Most of Quran remains a dead text for these people and so we cannot assume they reject it with due knowledge.
The above illustrates a major issue with the beaconic attitude. However, there is an extreme ‘beaconism in which the entire text of Quran will become secondary. A very interesting view by the Muslim scholar Mohamed Arkoun is that Quran should have remained oral and its transmission would be by meaning (bil ma’na) rather than verbatim (bil lafz). When this happens, the words will change to reflect the times and tendencies of the community.
I have a severe problem with this approach. While I do not believe that the words of Quran are holy (meaning they are effective in magical incantations), I do believe that were inspired by Allah. This would mean that the words are the most effective in conveying the meanings intended by the author of Quran – Allah. They are objective insofar as Allah is with knowledge of every thing. Therefore, when they are changed, the subjective minds of human beings would change their meanings and diminish their effectiveness. This actually happens in translations but since we have the original text, we could refer to it and derive better translations. If translations were made from translations while disregarding the original text completely, we would have the same problem as we would with Arkoun’s suggestion above.
I believe the ideal attitude with respect to iconism and beaconism lies somewhere in between. We do not need to be iconic about Quran but we do need to preserve the text. Muslim institutions which exhibit the iconism are the ones we need to thank for doing just this. Iconic attitudes may be unhelpful in the application of Quran but they were certainly helpful in preserving it. This is where iconism should stop however. When it comes to employing Quran as a beacon, no view should be made sacrosanct. Every person should have right to understand the text for him or herself.