The Format and Function of Tiny Religious Texts
- ISBN: 9781781798614
- Published By: Equinox
- Published: October 2019
Most readers do not think twice about a book’s physical size—at least not when it is a standard size. Yet once a book is miniaturized, people notice. Diminutive books are found in various religious traditions throughout history but have received little attention from scholars interested in religious texts. Miniature Books: The Format and Function of Tiny Religious Texts, edited by Kristina Myrvold and Dorina Miller Parmenter, offers scholars of religious texts new insights about miniature books and their significance and functions.
In this collection, scholars discuss examples of religious miniature books from different times, places, and peoples. The contributors provide examples from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Some of the chapters are oriented around specific books or archival materials. Other chapters focus on theoretical questions, such as how miniature texts are ritualized and why miniature texts are desirable.
A number of themes emerge across the chapters. First, the format of miniature books can vary. Although the maximum size for what constitutes a miniature is not definitive, perhaps 3 inches or 7.6 centimeters in length or width, it generally fits into the palm of a hand (2). The format of tiny religious books is not restricted to codex and scroll formats; rather, “book” is conceived broadly, so “prayer nuts”—a wooden bead resembling a nutshell that could be opened up to show Christian scriptural events in relief with verses inscribed in Latin (45)—is counted as a book format. Miniature books may have special containers for display and/or protection. The book could be attached to something, such as a magnifying lens or a keychain, or have paratexts, extras beyond the specific religious text. Such variabilities in format may impact the use, function, and meaning of the miniature book.
Another theme found in multiple chapters relates to the user’s sensory engagement with the physical text. The miniature book can be a tactile experience for the user—for example, the use of prayer nuts during a Christian’s private prayers. It can also be a hyper-focused visual experience as one engages with the small script of the diminutive book. Interaction with a miniature text can result in a sensory response for the person who views the book as containing the very words of the person’s deity. Finally, the central theme connecting the chapters is that miniature books serve numerous functions depending on the user and their context. The function of particular religious miniature books are not inherent, but depend on humans interacting with them and the meaning those humans attribute to the book.
While each chapter offered interesting insights, I found the four chapters related to miniature Qur’ans to be particularly beneficial. Together, they illustrate the importance of communities and contexts for understanding the use and function of particular religious miniature books. First, Heather Coffey’s discussion of a miniature Qur’anic falnama (book of divination) shows how a mini-Qur’an with an included falnama could be used for bibliomancy within the wider divinatory practices of the Safavid period in 16th-century Persia.. By comparing the miniature falnama of Adomeit C12 to other large-scale illustrated falnama, Coffey suggests how the miniaturization results in different meditative focus and experience. As the text gets smaller, the focus shifts to the Arabic letters from the pictorial. The seeker “towers over” and “envelops” the miniature book, while, inversely, the seeker becomes immersed within the larger, illustrated falnama.
Second, Kristina Myrvold tells the story of how David Bryce, a Glasgow publisher, produced the “mite Koran” for India and helped to establish a global trading network at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. The technological changes in 19th century European publishing made it possible for the mite Koran and other tiny religious texts to be published and marketed. Myrvold shows that the tiny book functioned as gifts, souvenirs for Muslims going on Hajj, portable scriptures, collectibles, religious amulets, and so on. In briefly challenging the standard orientalist narratives during the First World War that linked Bryce’s mini-Qur’ans to the Islamic amulet tradition, Myrvold highlights that only the Qur’an, among the tiny religious texts provided to soldiers, is framed as a potential charm, talisman. She suggests that the mini-Qur’an indexed “complex relationships between the British colonial rulers and their subjects” (124).
Third, Myrvold and Andreas Johansson explore miniature Qur’ans during the First World War. By looking at the archival records related to the Indian Soldiers’ Fund, the chapter shows that standard sized and miniature Qur’ans functioned in multiple ways, depending on the user. For the British authorities, providing a miniature Qur’an to Muslim soldiers from India was an attempt to meet their religious needs and ensure India’s loyalty and troops to the British war efforts. For Indian elites who donated the books, Qur’ans served to show their loyalty to the British crown. For soldiers, miniature Qur’ans could be something to read, used as a religious stimulus, an amulet, a memento of civilian life, or even a souvenir to bring home from the war.
Fourth, Jonas Svensson looks at why mass-produced miniature mushafs are desirable objects in the 21st century. Svensson draws on the concept of affordances—the idea that physical objects (like a miniature book) host potentialities that arise from encounters between the object and a potential acting subject—to suggest reasons one might desire a miniature Qur’an. Since the physical properties of an object provide and constrain affordances, the miniaturization of a Qur’an will, in comparison to the prototypical Qur’an, provide increases in some affordances (such as portability) and constrain other affordances (such as readability, even if some users nevertheless read it). Svensson identifies additional affordances for the miniature Qur’an as an iconic text, such as the social affordances of being easily “displayable” and even “wearable” due to its size and portability. They are also “giftable,” and “procurable as souvenirs.” Svensson also suggests two final affordances “controllable” and “cuteness” due to their size.
The photographs of the books under consideration enhanced the volume’s effectiveness. Their presence in the chapters made the artifacts easier to envision. The colored photos captured the artistic features of the books. The photographs displayed the smallness of miniature books by placing the books next to small reference objects (i.e., coins), or a ruler, or in a hand.
Overall, the editors and contributors have provided a welcome and thought-provoking addition to the study of iconic texts. By looking at miniature books, the semantic dimension of religious texts is decentered and questions about the format and function of the books in miniature receive attention that is often missed with standard sized books.
John W. Fadden is an adjunct instructor in religious studies at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY.John W. FaddenDate Of Review:October 18, 2021