The medium of the Quran is itself the message
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Marshal McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher whose ideas revolutionized our understanding of the “medium” in communication. Most notably, he presented the idea that technology is an extension of man, with the phonetic alphabet being the greatest technology ever invented by the human race. In his books, he revisits the history of mankind from the perspective of medium development and made the famous profound statement that “the medium is the message.”
In this statement, he implies that the perception and reaction of humans to the content of communication is overly determined by the medium through which the content has been delivered. He also provides examples of how our perception of an event relayed to us differs if it is communicated through radio or television. He traces back the human development to pre- and post-phonetic alphabet eras. In this post, we will attempt to extend McLuhan’s theory to understand the interaction of the medium in the context of the development of monotheistic messages over history.
The impact of the medium on the message is so apparent and instrumental that Allah defined the medium to Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, in the first revelation before communicating any content. One would assume that the first communication the Prophet received would be related to the most important part of the messages, which is monotheism in this case. Nevertheless, the first word communicated was:
Surat Al-‘Alaq 96:1
Reading is a communication medium, not the content of a message by itself. An apparent explanation would be that the message Prophet Muhammad was receiving is the same that was sent to all previous messengers, as all of them preached monotheism. Yet, the final message with which the Prophet was sent required a new medium that is different than previous messengers. Since the message did not change, Allah let the Prophet know the difference between his message and previous messages (that is the medium through which it is communicated) before stating the similarities (the content of the message).
The content of monotheism was relayed immediately after the declaration of the medium. The first revelation concluded that writing would be necessary for learning and preserving knowledge:
اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ
Read in the name of your Lord who created humanity from a clot. Read and your Lord will be most generous, who taught by the pen that which humanity knew not.
Surat Al-‘Alaq 96:1-5
Understanding the message of Islam in the sphere of the medium is very critical as in it can explain how our interaction with the message is governed by the medium of the message. This approach raises such questions: Why did Allah signify reading for the final message? Why did He speak directly to Moses without asking him to read? Since the medium has developed from the time of Prophet Muhammad, why are there no more divine messages or prophetic messengers after him? And what did Allah say about the medium of communication at the time of Prophet Jesus?
Answering those question will help us not only understand something of the history of all monotheistic religions, but also understand our future in the context of the continuous development of the medium.
The prophetic history of writing and the phonetic alphabet
In Islam, Adam possessed knowledge in the form of language embedded within him by Allah. This knowledge included all terminologies that define the limits of what humans can know. Adam did not read or write, as Prophet Muhammad informed us that writing was introduced by the Prophet Idrees:
كَانَ نَبِيٌّ مِنَ الأَنْبِيَاءِ يَخُطُّ فَمَنْ وَافَقَ خَطُّهُ فَذَاكَ
There was a prophet among the prophets who wrote script, so whoever writes according to his way is right.
This prophetic tradition shows that reading and writing were introduced by Allah, through the Prophet Idrees, to conserve knowledge. The knowledge from Adam before was communicated verbally from one generation to another. This oral tradition of conveying knowledge has a tendency to be lost over time and is heavily reliant on human interaction.
The phonetic (abjad) alphabet is deemed as the greatest invention in the history of mankind as it enabled preserving sounds in a picture format. Through the phonetic alphabet, the words can be preserved eternally and resurrected to produce the same sounds of the speaker at any time. The development of reading and writing for preserving knowledge lines up in a profound manner to the sending of messengers after Ibrahim, indicating that Allah used this development to preserve the word of Ibrahim:
وَجَعَلَهَا كَلِمَةً بَاقِيَةً فِي عَقِبِهِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ
And he made it a lasting word among his descendants that they might refer to it.
Surat Az-Zukhruf 43:28
Allah speaks directly to Moses
The phonetic abjad alphabet, as the ultimate medium for preserving knowledge, requires two main components. First, it requires the ability to write with all elements of a medium to write on, such as paper, and a medium to write with like pens and ink. Second, it requires the ability to read the script.
At the time of Moses, writing was a luxury only for the elite as paper and pen has not been invented yet, hence, reading was a luxury that only the most noble enjoyed. To preserve knowledge, a hybrid method was developed in which the written word was delivered directly to Moses and the knowledge of it was communicated verbally when Allah spoke to him:
وَلَمَّا سَكَتَ عَن مُّوسَى الْغَضَبُ أَخَذَ الْأَلْوَاحَ ۖ وَفِي نُسْخَتِهَا هُدًى وَرَحْمَةٌ لِّلَّذِينَ هُمْ لِرَبِّهِمْ يَرْهَبُونَ
When the anger subsided in Moses, he took up the tablets and in their inscription was guidance and mercy for those who are fearful of their Lord.
Surat Al-A’raf 7:154
This hybrid method provided a written reference for the preserved knowledge that could be communicated to the masses verbally. However, this method has two mains weaknesses.
The first problem is that the illiterate masses are subject to the interpretations and intentions of those who can read. One can see quite easily how a reading and writing upper class in this arrangement can take advantage of an uneducated under class. In fact, the Old Testament records that the Prophet Jeremiah criticized the scribes and priests of his time for this very reason:
How can you claim we are wise and the law of the Lord is with us? In fact, the lying pen of scribes has produced falsehood.
To solve this problem, Allah continuously sent prophets to the Israelites to act as guardians of the message and to ensure a proper interpretation of the text as it was read to the masses.
The second problem relates to the environment of tribalism that the verbal means of communication promote. As McLuhan has observed in his research, societies that rely on oral tradition, or those that are illiterate, have tribalism as the main social order. The history of the Israelites reveals how this strong sentiment of tribalism grew out of control until it eventually lost the core values of the monotheistic message.
The pivot from Moses to Muhammad
The two apparent problems in the hybrid medium of Moses, which involved a written text and an accompanying oral tradition to preserve knowledge, indicates that this medium was transient. The limitation of this approach was observed by the Prophet Zechariah, known in Arabic as Zakaria, as he noticed he was growing in age and he feared there would be no prophet to follow him. Knowing that a prophet is critical to act as a guardian for the message as it was read to the masses, Zechariah expressed his concern to Allah:
وَإِنِّي خِفْتُ الْمَوَالِيَ مِن وَرَائِي وَكَانَتِ امْرَأَتِي عَاقِرًا فَهَبْ لِي مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا يَرِثُنِي وَيَرِثُ مِنْ آلِ يَعْقُوبَ ۖ وَاجْعَلْهُ رَبِّ رَضِيًّا
Verily, I fear the successors after me and my wife has been barren, so give me an heir from Yourself who will inherit me and inherit from the family of Jacob. And make him, my Lord, pleasing to You.
Surat Maryam 19:5-6
The response to Zechariah from Allah was very insightful. He was given the glad tidings of a son who would be a prophet. However, his son will not be able to have children:
فَنَادَتْهُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَهُوَ قَائِمٌ يُصَلِّي فِي الْمِحْرَابِ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يُبَشِّرُكَ بِيَحْيَىٰ مُصَدِّقًا بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَسَيِّدًا وَحَصُورًا وَنَبِيًّا مِّنَ الصَّالِحِينَ
The angels called him while he was standing in prayer in the chamber: Verily, Allah gives you glad tidings of John, confirming a word from Allah and who will be honorable, celibate, and a prophet from among the righteous.
Surat Ali Imran 3:39
The Prophet John, known in Arabic as Yahya, would be among the last to guard the message received by the Israelites, indicating that this hybrid medium was coming to an end. Moreover, a subtle hint of this change was communicated to Zechariah as the sign of this era ending:
قَالَ رَبِّ اجْعَل لِّي آيَةً ۚ قَالَ آيَتُكَ أَلَّا تُكَلِّمَ النَّاسَ ثَلَاثَ لَيَالٍ سَوِيًّا فَخَرَجَ عَلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ مِنَ الْمِحْرَابِ فَأَوْحَىٰ إِلَيْهِمْ أَن سَبِّحُوا بُكْرَةً وَعَشِيًّا
Zechariah said: My Lord, make for me a sign. Allah said: Your sign is that you, without bodily defect, will not be able to speak to the people for three nights. So he came out to his people from the prayer chamber and signaled to them to glorify Allah in the morning and afternoon.
Surat Maryam 19:10-11
The hybrid era that started with Moses talking to Allah ended by Zechariah ordered not to talk. This order was also given to Maryam as she gave birth to Jesus, who would succeed John as the final messenger to the Israelites:
فَإِمَّا تَرَيِنَّ مِنَ الْبَشَرِ أَحَدًا فَقُولِي إِنِّي نَذَرْتُ لِلرَّحْمَٰنِ صَوْمًا فَلَنْ أُكَلِّمَ الْيَوْمَ إِنسِيًّا
If you see any mortal, say: Verily, I have vowed to fast for the Most Merciful, so I will not speak today to any man.
Surat Maryam 19:26
With the hybrid medium initially introduced to preserve the word of Ibrahim coming to an end, the next step was to wait for the new declaration of a medium that would better preserve the teachings of Ibrahim and make them directly available to the masses.
Islam through reading and recitation
The declaration of the new medium came almost 700 years later with the first revelation to Prophet Muhamad in the word read, as reading and writing by the masses themselves would be the ultimate preservation of knowledge, the Quran would be the final scripture, and Prophet Muhammad would be the final messenger.
Nevertheless, as different mediums were introduced and have developed after Prophet Mohamad, a question remains as to why the message of Islam is the final message and there would be no divine revelations after it. To answer this question, one has to dig deeper into what defines a medium and which aspects of the medium continued to develop after reading and writing became available to the masses.
A medium is defined by three main qualities: 1) its ability to preserve content, 2) its ability to preserve context, and 3) its efficiency in conveying knowledge.
Reading and writing in the phonetic alphabets is the ultimate means of preserving content; this post having been written in a phonetic alphabet is a testimony of its power to continuously preserve content. The indisputable preservation of the Quran in its wording until today is a living testament that its monotheistic content was faithfully preserved.
As for the Quran’s context, it was preserved through two main methods. First, the Quran was revealed in a fully parsed Semitic language of Arabic. The language has a capacity to convey deeper meanings through parsing. Second, the character of Prophet Muhammad preserved the context as his interaction with the Quran and his practices, known collectively as his Sunnah, were recorded by a rigorous system of chains of authority (isnad).
The third element of the medium, efficiency, is what continuously develops. The efficiency of the medium began with sending written messages on horses, to automobiles, and finally to our current information age in which a written message can be sent to millions of people literally at the speed of light.
Whereas the content and context of the final message of Islam were carefully preserved, the efficiency in which they are conveyed is ever changing. If the divine messages were timed with the development of the medium, what does the incredible efficiency with which knowledge is spread in the modern world say about our role today?
A final note on modern extremism
In current times, jihad is a term that has been misused by extremist and the media alike. It is important to clarify the meaning of jihad in spreading the word of Islam to both refute the extremist claims and to correct the media’s use of the term.
As the message of Islam is the final and only monotheistic message that was entirely preserved, Muslims were tasked with the duty to convey this knowledge to humanity. In pre-modern times, countries and entities tended to be homogeneous in their philosophy and religion following the ruling elite. Within this arrangement, conveying the message of Islam was viewed as a threat to those entities.
In this context, a conflict would arise if Muslims wanted to spread the message of Islam to the masses while they were prohibited from receiving it by the existing political structures. That conflict usually lead to wars and battles initiated by dynastic powers, such as the Romans and the Persians who viewed the spread of Islam as a threat to their means of control. The main reason for the early Muslims participated in these wars was to earn the freedom of people to obtain revealed knowledge outside the control of ruling elites.
In the contemporary period, the free flow of information and accommodation of religious diversity has been embraced by almost all advanced societies. In this case, jihad is the effort a Muslim should give to explain and convey the knowledge of Islam, and not for starting wars or killing others for some worldly ambitions. Jihad as a word refers to the struggle to uphold the values beloved by Allah, whether it is by struggling in worship, struggling in intellectual activity, or struggling in self-defense. The struggle to convey knowledge has been made much easier in our time due to development of technology and the absence of pre-modern political obstacles. Muslims must understand this purpose and context, and look forward to how the medium of the message can develop to bring humanity better and more accurate information about Islam, lest we risk becoming irrelevant to our era.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.