Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

How important are sacred texts, really?

As I was going about pursuing my personal mission of presenting Islam in the worst way possible by posting this article to my facebook along with a quote from the Qur’an, ‘‎’There is no compulsion in religion’ (Sura 2:256), I realised that I’m touching on a far larger discussion. This verse about religion is frequently held in great esteem by Muslims who interpret their religion to support confessional pluralism and liberal freedoms, and used by the same to argue against those who suggest that Islam is inherently hostile to non-Muslims. There are other sources in the texts that those who wish to punish apostates may draw upon and the theology behind this debate is far beyond my ken, but it leads me to consider a major question:

What is the role of ‘sacred’ texts in how people interpret belief systems?

Let me first explain what I mean by the term ‘sacred text’. I’m referring to a piece of written work that is more than simply an expression of intent, belief, or perspective. A text is sacred when it is held to be an object of symbolic or invested value. A sacred text is infallible and commands deference; it is not a medium for the views of  an individual or group rallying behind it but a source of legitimacy and truth. The obvious example of this would be  religious scripture, but I think that other texts could qualify as well.

An easier example than the Qur’an for me to discuss is the question of how Israel should negotiate with the Palestinian Hamas. Hamas has been a key player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict process over two decades, participated victoriously in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, fought a brutal little civil war against their rival Fatah, and ended up controlling the Gaza Strip while Fatah remained in charge of the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank. Israel and the international community have taken a stance of ‘no recognition and no negotiation’ with Hamas: a controversial position given Hamas’ power and popularity. Why might this be? Hamas consistently acted as ‘spoilers’ during the peace process of the 1990s by carrying out provocative and violent acts against Israeli civilians, and until January 2009 fired a continuous stream of short-range, unguided rockets at Israeli communities bordering the Strip. While Fatah also carried out (marginally less hideous) terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada, in general they have shown more overt willingness to work towards a negotiated and permanent settlement. Yet Hamas has also shown themselves capable of pragmatic compromise, as demonstrated in a fantastic book by Avraham Sela and Shaul Mishal (reviewed briefly here).

Let’s consider the ‘sacred text’ of Hamas: its Covenant, or Charter. In short, this document expresses in dogmatic religious language that all Israel rests on land granted to Muslims by God, and that no recognition of Israeli legitimacy or long-term political settlement would be acceptable. Compare this to the charter of the PLO, the traditionally-primary Palestinian nationalist-militant political group until the 1993 Olso Accords. Based on rational-legal terms rather than religious dogma, this charter was amended to recognise Israel’s right to exist – a compromise of great symbolic significance. However, Hamas has offered compromises in religious terms, such as a 10 year truce called a ‘Hudna‘. In a Haaretz article I remember reading a while ago, a former police intelligence chief said in an interview that during his interrogations of  the late Hamas head Ahmed Yassin, Yassin told him outright that a long-term settlement was possible (I haven’t been able to find the article yet). So it appears that despite the dogmatic refusal to recognise Israel in the Hamas ‘sacred text’, the reality of its interpretation in practice is that pragmatism is often displayed after sufficient epistemological gymnastics have taken place.

Of course, it’s no surprise that religious people selectively follow and interpret explicit commands set forth in scripture, as hilariously demonstrated by the Australian comedians The Chasers. But what about non-religious texts? The American constitution has semi-sacred status amongst many US citizens, and they engage in furious debate not only over what people today want for their society but also what the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the United States wanted. I’m no expert like some on this political discourse, but it seems that for some people the Founding Fathers are quasi-prophetic and their political vision quasi-dogmatic. The irony appears to be while many involved in this discourse believe that these liberalist prophets had a distinctly Christian vision for their nation, the reality is that this is unlikely. Other parts of this debate include the role of private weapons ownership or the scope of government intervention in society, not as a practical response to today but within the vision of the constitution as dogma and the ‘fathers’ as infallible (one example).

There are some lessons I think we derive from the examples I’ve provided about the relationship between text and the practice of interpretation. Let me suggest a few:

  1. People who express their beliefs in dogmatic terms are constrained by those terms, but also aware of the need for pragmatic engagement with their immediate circumstances
  2. People will find often find ways to justify their beliefs and their desires regardless of what appears to be unequivocal statements to the contrary in the texts they claim as sacred, or despite a considerably more reasonable reading of those texts supporting less convenient beliefs in contradiction of those desires
  3. The process of interpretation is considerably more twisted and complex in belief systems with unchangeable texts compared to belief systems which still have near-dogma set forth in writing, but include avenues and institutions to change even their principle positions

And perhaps the most important message for secular activists or really just anyone observing and critiquing adherents of a seemingly dogmatic, textually-justified position:

Just because it says something horrible in a sacred text does not mean that the people who claim to follow it are unable to deviate from it or any other passage.

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5 responses to “How important are sacred texts, really?

  1. thekeyofatheist February 7, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    I would add:

    4. The textual traditions of the world’s major religions allow both for a great diversity of interpretation and for an extreme commitment to any given interpretation. Both the diversity and the investment in specific views result from aspects integral to the text and and the beliefs that surround it.

    • Said Simon February 7, 2011 at 7:59 pm

      I actually completely disagree. I think the diversity and the investment result entirely from the instrumental use of that text and belief as a guide to behaviour in a certain context. Life is complicated and texts need to be interpreted to produce context-specific prescriptions. Life is also sometimes very challenging, demoralising, dangerous, and confusing, and the more it becomes these things the greater investment a person might make into something as helpful as religion.

      • thekeyofatheist February 7, 2011 at 8:11 pm

        This is all true. What I’m claiming is that religious texts, for various reasons, tend to generate deeply held and deeply different interpretations when subjected to the circumstances that you describe. There’s a cyclical aspect to it; circumstance also has profound short-term and long-term effects on the production of religious scripture.

        The force of my claim is that this reality amplifies the tendencies for diversification and fanaticism. My best guess as to why is that due to the nature of their manufacture, the content of religious textual traditions tends both to necessitate selective adherence and to promote a collective delusion of completeness.

      • Said Simon February 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm

        In the case of most religions that I can think of, not much in the way of new scripture is produced. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s the texts themselves that generate deeply held and deeply different interpretations but the needs of the religious adherent. As I discussed in an earlier post, a religion is not only a formal belief system but a culture. The statements of texts are not the only contributing factor to a religious belief, and what I’m trying to show here is that actually they may not even be a primary factor in some cases.

        You are correct that the content of religious texts requires interpretation in almost all cases. This is what marks a sacred text as being different from a changeable one. In the case of the latter, as I discussed with reference to the PLO, the text can simply be changed to reflect new realities rather than wrung through epistemological gymnastics.

  2. Pingback: God Doesn’t Want Me To Study The Bible « The Key of Atheist

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