“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan, the communications mastermind, once said. A short stroll through the history of the Quran, Islam and egalitarianism proves him right.
We are living in a time when the role of the press, once the sole and trusted disseminator of information, is increasingly under attack.
On one hand, detractors criticize the media for being populated with out-of-touch elites. The Internet has democratized the spread of information, they say, and the traditional gatekeepers are increasingly irrelevant.
On the other hand, we have the advent of fake news and websites expressly created with the intent to sow dissension and chaos.
The problem of how to spread your message while simultaneously retaining control over it is an ancient one.
The original Aryans dealt with it by restricting themselves to oral transmission of the Vedas. Subsequent Hindu-Buddhist civilizations went a step further by developing an elaborate iconography. In later centuries, Islamic civilizations used the power of the written word, but elevated the act of writing, i.e. calligraphy, to a sacred art practised by a select few.
The impulse to spread the word is initially a democratic one. If only everyone, we think, could hear our message, what choice would they have but to come over to our side? But how many websites that once encouraged two-way conversations via a comments section now moderate comments or remove them altogether?
Islam and Egalitarianism
The earliest Arab conquests were similarly motivated by a missionary zeal, a desire to spread the Quran’s egalitarian vision.
Quranic verses such as: “The most noble among you in the sight of God is the most pious,” or, “Men are equals like the teeth of a comb,” challenged hierarchies based on lineage and wealth. Here was a radical religion that bypassed the intermediary of a church or priesthood and assumed the equality of all male believers.1
Early Arab society, although tribal, was strikingly egalitarian too: a scarcity of resources meant that the kind of social stratification seen in the sophisticated civilizations of Persia or Byzantium was absent.
Reflecting the social context, the earliest Qurans were simple and accessible, written on parchment in regular script (see the Birmingham Quran above).
Reality Sets In
With the success of the Arab conquests, however, these egalitarian ideals came up against the realities of administering an increasingly large and complex empire.
Entrenched aristocratic elites in Byzantine and Persian territories, for example, were not content to play second fiddle to Arab conquerors, no matter how pious. And so, compromises were made for the sake of peace.
New hadiths or proverbs, such as, “Overlook the offences of men of good qualities” (associated with Aristotle and the Iranian monarch Parvīz) and, “When a noble member of a group comes to you, honour him,” came into being, to allow for the primacy of the noble-born.
Over a longer period, other aspects of the conquered societies—including a quadripartite social hierarchy based on a hereditary division of labor (caste system, anyone?)—found favour with prominent Muslim philosophers such as al-Fārābī and Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī.
(The egalitarian ideals of early Islam were not entirely forgotten, however. Even today, we see that the promise of a return to the Islamic past holds much appeal for the world’s poor and disenfranchised.)
As the subversiveness of the original Quranic text became diluted, later Qurans correspondingly became less about the democratic transmission of knowledge. These later books were elaborate and expensive works of art, commissioned by elites to display their status and power.
By the time of the Sulawesi Quran (below), Islam was deployed in Sulawesi as a legitimizing ideology to unify various polities under one ruler. Quranic challenges to existing hierarchies in Bugis-Makassarese societies were neutralized.
Pass on the Press
There is an interesting postscript to the story. In 1537, the owner of a printing press in Vienna published the first printed Quran. As he lacked the requisite training and knowledge, the resulting book was full of errors and deemed sacrilegious. Thus, the Islamic world passed on the printing press.2