What happens to the sacred nature of the Qur’an as a physical object after the text has undergone the process of digitisation? This is a pertinent issue which will play an important part in our future relationship with the Sacred Text. However, for the question to have meaning, we must first understand what digitisation is exactly. By digitisation we mean, quite intuitively, the process of rendering in a digital form an object that was previously available in a physical form. A formulation that admittedly may sound technical but I personally see digitisation as the process of translating ‘atoms to bits’. The distinction between bits and atoms in this context and, in particular, in contemporary practices in the Digital Humanities, the emerging field at the intersection of digital technologies and the humanities, is something we have to bear in mind. As a second and more specific definition, digitising a text involves the translation of a visual, two-dimensional sign, the alphabetic letter, into a visually equal sign on a computer screen.
If we stop here, the digitising process would be just a medium for translation: of putting words that were previously in a book on a computer screen. The fact of rendering a text in an electronic format, however, means much more than this. The main advantage of the digital, as emphasised by the advocates of digitisation, is that digital information is infinitely replicable. A digital text is potentially accessible from anywhere and at any time: this is a fact we experience each time we glance over a piece of writing on the internet. This same ubiquity of digital over physically mediated information leads to a consideration of accessibility of that same information. If a text is digitised and put in an online repository, the information contained in the text is accessible to anyone who has a computer and an internet connection. At the same time, this accessibility and iteration of the text means that those words, once digitised, cannot be lost ever again: no fire, war, cataclysm or simple negligence can erase it, as it is now nowhere and, at the same time, virtually, everywhere.
So much for what we mean by the digitisation of a text according to much of digital archiving practice. Such a concept of digitisation involves the assumption that books as physical objects are nothing more than vehicles of information. In this vein, the digital is just a much more efficient means of transmitting the intended message. On the one hand, we have dispendious, perishable and exclusive vehicles of information such as books and manuscripts. On the other, we have a digital format that allows information to be cheaply available to all. It sounds like a race doomed from the start. Some texts, however, can’t be reduced to mere vehicles of information. This is certainly the case with the Qur’an.