Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Ownership of Meaning

Yesterday I wrote about changing concepts of literacy, based on a Washington Post article (to which you can link from yesterday's post). That article, in addition to many other interesting comments, reminded us of the effect of the introduction of the printing press on "those who wanted to protect and interpret the word of God" - they didn't like it. Then as now, knowledge was power. If you possessed and controlled information upon which others depended, you exercised a degree of power over those people as long as your information monopoly remained secure. The medieval Church relied on the illiteracy and ignorance of the masses to protect its monopoly on the text and meaning of the Bible - people believed the Bible said what the priests and bishops said it meant. People believed, among other things, that they could purchase indulgences to buy their way out of sin (and, oh-by-the-way, enrich the Church officials who sold them the indulgences). Once books could be printed in mass quantities, and in the vernacular, people could read them themselves, ask questions, and extract their own meanings from them. This marked the beginning of the decline in the secular power of the Church. Today, dozens of different versions of the Bible are available in virtually every language. The ultimate source of the word of God for billions of people can be purchased (or obtained for free), read, and studied by anyone, without the need for a religious hierarchy to tell them what they're reading.

The situation is different in Islam. Practicing Muslims believe the Koran is the ultimate, perfect, final word of God, every letter of which is exactly as God gave it to Mohammed via the angel Gabriel. The real importance of this belief lies in the fact that God gave this document to Mohammed in the language spoken in the Arabian desert of the seventh century. What this means to Islamic scholars is that no version of the Koran not written in that language can be considered true and authentic. God spoke to Mohammed in Arabic; therefore, you must speak Arabic in order to understand what he said. No other language is valid.

Consider this for a moment. One of the great strengths of Christianity was it's ability, once it came to grips with the technology of the printing press, to spread its version of God's word in languages intelligible to the vast mass of people. It didn't matter if you spoke English, Greek, Hebrew, Xhosa, or Mandarin - there was a Church-approved translation of the Bible available for you (indicated by the certifications "nihil obstat" - "nothing stands in the way (of publication)," and "imprimatur" - "free of errors.") In Islam, by contrast, the only valid version of the Koran is the one in Arabic.

This is a problem, of course, if you don't speak Arabic. If you aren't fluent in that language, you must depend on an Imam to tell you what God's word is. And this leads to a problem when Muslims who don't speak Arabic depend on Imams who often don't speak their language. Many of the Imams exported around the world from the Middle East to interpret the Koran for Muslims are trained and paid by the harshly intolerant Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia (which, by the way, you are indirectly funding by purchasing the oil sold by the Saudi royal family). If your Imam believes in the most hostile and intolerant verses of the Koran, if he tells you the Koran says you must shun or kill believers in other faiths, if he tells you the Koran says that women must be covered from head to foot and utterly subordinated to men, if he tells you the Koran says Jews and Christians are apes and pigs...and you don't speak the Arabic which would let you see if that's what the Book really says and ask the questions you should ask, you are likely to grow up believing a form of your religion which has produced legions of suicide bombers and a system of justice that endorses mutilation of thieves and flogging or stoning of adulterers.

The ownership of meaning is a critical issue. Christianity grew by sharing and spreading the word of God in the vernacular, making it accessible to everyone. Islam is growing on the basis of absolute and unquestioning faith in a document most of its adherents cannot read without the interpretation of an Imam who may have his own agenda.

There's an old joke that defines The Golden Rule as "whoever has the gold makes the rules." The same might apply to the ownership of religious information. As long as a select coterie of people controls the meaning of critical information, they make the rules by which you live.

And they may not have your best interests, spiritual or temporal, at heart.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

There are still some Christian religions that take what the bible says as absolute fact with no room for interpretation.

zero_zero_one said...

A friend bought me the film of Fahrenheit 451 for my birthday, and I fell in love with it immediately. The most fascinating part for me is where someone is explaining why it is necessary to destroy every instance of the printed word: because if people read then they will think and if they think for themselves then they won't all think the same...

Amanda said...

I like your title a lot 'The ownership of meaning'.

Blind faith is certainly a scary thing. Not just in today's world but at any time. I always think of the two young Pakistani boys from the movie Syriana and how they were so easy to manipulate.

John said...

Maybe in another 1000 years or so the Koran will be available in all languages.

Thanks for another insightful post.

Mike said...

If you get any deeper in thought about about this you're going to disappear deep within yourself or - your brain is going to explode. If the latter happens make sure Agnes videos it for YouTube.

Bilbo said...

Andrea, you are absolutely correct that there are Christian sects that take an ultra-extreme, literal interpretation of the Bible, often cherry-picking the parts they want to believe (that's how we ended up with snake-handling cults). But my point is that these people can READ the Bible themselves, and decide what they think it means, for good or ill.

zero_zero_one, I hadn't made the connection with that classic sci-fi story, but that's a great linkage!

John, the interesting thing is that you can, in fact, purchase the Koran and find it on the Web in translation...but Muslims don't view any of those translations as having any validity, because they aren't in the language they believe God originally used.

Mike, there isn't much chance of my brain exploding from anything other than overly strenuous attempts to learn dance routines. Don't look for me on YouTube.

Amanda, you're right about the dangers of blind faith...that's one thing that scares me more than the IRS.