Aside on beuks

My intention was to write a long and learned treatise on the Islamic concept of “People of the Book,” but after a sip of tea I forgot about it. My classical Arabic is not up to requirements, and my understanding of Islamic jurisprudence is, quite frankly, slow.

For instance, I am easily defeated by the question, “What is a Sabian?” Having been told that Christians, Jews, and Sabians were “people of the book,” I wanted to meet a Sabian. According to the (safely dated) sources I consult, they might have been some gnostic, middle-eastern sect, but according to the Hadiths, they were all “converted to Islam” anyway.

But I’m still curious. Can I see their Book?

Or, “Beuk,” as I like to spell it, to imply a Scottish brogue. Rhymes with “neuk,” “nook,” or “nuke,” depending on one’s state of civilization. Presbyterians do not, so far as I know, admit to being “people of the beuk,” even if it is the Institutes of Calvin. But most other Protestants seem happy to use the phrase, of themselves. They would be referring to the Bible, though in point of fact, the older sort of Muslims (say, 10th century), would be indicating the Gospels alone, as distinct from the Psalms, the book for the Hebrews.

There are liberals in all religions, and eventually even the Sikh Adi Granth was accepted, by India’s Muslim conquerers, as a bona fide “Beuk”; and this although most Sikhs deny that it is scripture.

Skipping forward, there seems to be a consensus among the scholars that Monotheism, not a book per se, was what would save the neck of an infidel, so long as he also paid the jizya. This confuses me because they eventually half-tolerated the Hindus (who had them seriously outnumbered); and in light of the Trinity, considered Christians to be polytheists, too. I often wish their phanatics would try harder to establish some dogmatic consistency, before they start blowing people up.

But I’m with them when they attribute a kind of magic, to Beuks in the abstract. In this, they were like all the simple, and complicated, peoples of the world, until the invention of printing. It was not only a question of labour. (It took time to copy a manuscript, legibly.) I think Prospero’s attitude towards his precious books conveys this ancient superstition. One could use a book to perform magic.

Nobody understands this today. Consider, if thou wilt, gentle reader, our modern distinction between matter and spirit. It was a Cartesian breakthrough. Ancient people could hardly understand a distinction they’d never heard of, and even if a slicker like Shakespeare had heard, he didn’t trust it.

Neither do I, and in particular, I strongly doubt that books are not magic. This naturally applies to books that contain falsehoods, or may be composed entirely of falsehood, as well as to books that are true. They all have magical properties, as can be demonstrated by the continuing influence of many from the past. They should be treated with reverence (which includes respect), until they are discovered to be evil, in which case they should be burnt.

This is, I confess, an unmodern view. It is not because a book is “useless” that it should be dispensed with. It is rather because the book contains the wrong sort of magic. It encourages, nay empowers, its owner to do wrong. It should not be burnt casually, therefore.

The reason no one agrees with me, is that they don’t take books seriously any more. Thanks to printing and further technical developments, they are turned out today very cheaply. The quality of printing and binding is low. I am myself disinclined to let any book printed after, say, 1970, into the High Doganate. This is because they are ratty. All will be pulped or landfilled, in due course, with the newspapers and magazines. (I once adapted a wood stove for this purpose.)

Instead, we should insist on fine paper, crisp typography, adequate margins, stitched gatherings, strong board covers, or better. This will make burning them an event.


A reader argues that the texts of beuks will survive on the Internet, but as nobody reads those, it is not a problem. Moreover, the Internet itself doesn’t last, and after a few years, it is the electronic equivalent of trying to retrieve old banana peels.