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Is a Digital Book as Devout as a Physical Copy?

By Roger Tagholm

Gold-blocking machine

Dar Al-Baroudi’s gold-blocking machine

Walking the aisles in the air-conditioned splendor of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair this week, the physicality of Islamic holy books is impossible to ignore. Lavishly decorated Holy Qu’arans, religious texts or works by Arab poets of old glint at you from almost every corner, their intricate, tooled covers catching the light. There’s enough gold leaf on display here to pay off the UK’s national debt.

This year, Beirut-based Dar Al-Baroudi, which specializes in high-quality, traditional leather-bound books, has even brought its gold-blocking machine with it, so fair-goers can see beautiful books being made, as if they are in an ancient workshop. It’s strange to look at its giant lever pointing towards the heavens and realize that this was once new technology.

Islamic booksOne of the paradoxes of the Arab world is that people will tell you there is no culture of reading, yet at the same time there is clearly huge respect for its religious and poetic heritage, as evidenced by the many beautiful editions on display.

Holding a beautiful, $350 edition of Arabia’s most famous poet Al-Mutanabbi, Dar Al-Baroudi’s MD Mohammed Omeirt said: “You cannot do this with digital. This is art. You want to see. You want to touch.”

The devout of all faiths adore their books. They carry them to services, mark their most cherished passages and pass them on to the next generation. Can the same ever be said for a digital edition?

Agree, disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Posted April 26, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I would argue that the devout would be able to quote their cherished texts from memory and to them it doesn’t matter how or where those words are recorded. Cherishing a particular edition is different to being devout; antique book collectors are likely to behave just the same whether they have faith or not. To me, the true art is the composition, not the binding. That’s not to say you can’t be devout and still cherish a beloved book at the same time…!

  2. Posted April 26, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    “Can the same ever be said for a digital edition?”

    The word “can” perhaps chosen without much thought in that question is key. “Can” they? Yes, of course, they “can.”

    “Will” they? I would say it would only be possible for a very few members of “religions of the book” as Islam refers to Judaism and Christianity.

    The fact is that we are all heirs of physical books containing actual writing on various types of “pages.”

    While one can enjoy the content digitally, the sense of holy and sacred with which Jews, Muslims and Christians regard their holy books can not be replaced by simply having it resident on one’s iPhone or Kindle.

  3. C Kaefer
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I would agree with a previous comment and that if I were to put my trust and devotion into a material thing be it a book or something else, I am already missing the point. The beauty of a digital Bible for example is that I have instant access to translations that I did not even know existed and allows me to dig deeper into meaning and context that was really not possible before and all leading to a better understanding. Don’t get me wrong, I love my worn, marked up etc hard copy but it is not more or less holy than anything else I have.

  4. Fred Stielow
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    This argument appeared previously when the print revolution overtook the “opus deum” of handwritten codices and continues with the Jews and the perfect requirements for production of the Torah. Check out the famous laments of Trithemius in De Laudem Scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes) from 1492. It’s never a bad thing to check out history :-)

    Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    A seemingly odd question given our contmeporary view of written material. The cherished nature of a physical copy of a sacred text harkens to times past when literacy was limited to the elite or those functioning as scribes. Writing then was relatively rare and to possess a work whose contents preserved the established views of ones faith must have indeed been awe inspiring. Consider the amount of labor to write/copy the sacred texts and the cost of materials to assemble them into a useable format (a scrool or book for example). Often a community in the long past might have had only a single copy of their religious book at their disposal to be cherished and protected over the generations.

    Now with e-formats, photocopying and lots of publishers capable of churning out tons of paper copy books, the apparent sacred value seems to lose appeal to all but the most strident among the religious. However, even those of us with less religious attitudes value the artistic and historic value of original ancient texts, regardless of their source.

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