A Theocracy Doesn’t Mean People Understand The Holy Book

From Our Correspondent In Iran:

Recently an official in Iran, in his inaugural address, had referred to Nas Surah in Quran and its emphasis on working for the people, hoping he, too, could live up to the teachings of Quran and serve our people. Little did he know that the Surah had nothing to do with the subject.

In Arabic, Nas means people (mankind more like in the context, really) so, his Excellency didn’t deem necessary to go any further and check the content. The Surah has to do with asking God for protection from demons and devils. It is also one of the shortest chapters of the Quran with six sentences and often recited by the faithful in daily prayers. So, if you’re into that sort of thing you’d know the Surah by heart and know what it’s about.

I probably should note that most people in Iran cannot speak or understand Arabic. They teach it in every grade since middle school according to the sixteenth amendment of the constitution. Yes, really! The founding fathers had their priorities. But you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that no one takes much out of our free education system. The system is supposed to indoctrinate too, so we have decided to be content with their incompetence, there. Not that we had much say in the matter, anyway. Another story for another day.

This goes to show a couple of interesting points. First, in a theocracy, where acting pious pays, piety, or at least theatrical demonstrations of it, becomes a currency to buy success or in some cases survival. Given enough time, piety loses its virtues and is reduced to a meaningless exaggerated ritual, even for the pious. So, yes, the separation of church and state protects not only the state but also the church. Good advice, if you are about to write a constitution.

Second, when people think about the political class or sometimes the society at large in places like Iran, they might imagine zealots. Surely, we have enough of those to go around, but more often than not, in these settings, people just conform to the current fashions and ruling values in their public life. It doesn’t go any deeper than that. That’s why sometimes we notice drastic shifts in the public sphere. It’s not that people change their minds all of a sudden, it’s that they find the opportunity (and courage in some cases) to express it.

Furthermore, Public Choice theory tells us that politicians too are humans like us, trying to maximize their interest. The theory extends to unlikely places such as a political office in Iran (and when a theory does that, you know it works) in which politicians are trying to gain a position and reap the fruits of power by saying whatever is expected of them on the way.

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Quentin Vole

Among the many problems faced by modern Islam is that its holy book is written in a language that few of its adherents understand (many of them being barely literate in their own language). Even if you’re fluent in modern Arabic, the Koran is written in its 7th century ancestor, so reading it is like trying to read Beowulf with no knowledge of Old English.

Christianity had a similar problem, until Tyndale, Luther and co. Believers depended on the church to tell them what they were meant to believe.