The Quran-in-the-car delusion

Magical thinking at work: Keeping this book in your car might somehow reduce the chances of getting into an accident.

If you had to choose, which would you say is more important: having your car insured, or having a copy of the Quran in it?

If you’re not Muslim, the answer is as obvious as poop on a white dress. But for the majority of my fellow Egyptians, I worry that this question might pose a bit of a head scratcher.

After all, an Egyptian Muslim’s car may lack air bags, working seat belts, ABS, a fire extinguisher, functioning headlights, even a license to drive it, but it most certainly will never (ever, ever) lack a copy of the Quran hidden somewhere.

Why?

“The holy book has protected me from accidents time and again.”

Those were the words of my Cairene taxi driver when I asked him the other day whether he thought the Quran he boasted on top of his glove compartment offered some kind of divine insurance scheme.

His sentiment is as unsurprising as it is common.

In fact, the idea that the physical presence of the Quran can ward off misfortune is as widespread here as the idea that Egypt demolished the Israeli army in 1973 — which is to say, it’s very widespread.

This worries me — not as much as the rampant cocktail of sexist/classist/paternalistic social injustices that stain our society worries me, nor even as much as the prospect of a zombie apocalypse, which is something that keeps me up sometimes.

Still, it worries me that it would not be an exaggeration to say that millions upon millions of my fellow citizens believe (at least implicitly) that they have access to a magic book — an actual magic book in the sense that its mere presence can somehow impact on how things unfold in the real world.

To justify this concern of mine, let me break down some of the premises behind the belief that the Quran has the capacity to ward off misfortune:

1) The creator and maintainer of the universe — the wisest, most perfect being imaginable — decided that the best way to pass along his final, divine message to humanity, was through an illiterate merchant living in one the least developed places in the world during the onset of the dark ages.

2) This message (later transcribed into a book) has — quite literally — magical powers. It’s presence in your car can actually impact on the physical world, such as by supernaturally improving the brakes in your car when you need them most, or by somehow emitting some kind of vibe that impacts the neurons in your brain to make you more readily aware of the huge pot hole further down the road. Alternatively, or additionally, this book creates some kind of force field to shield you from the accident-inducing envy of others, a.k.a. the Evil Eye.

3) All the above is actually quite rational.

True, most drivers here are unlikely to see it that way. Having a Quran in their car just makes them feel a little more comfortable, they might say, that’s all.

But scratch beneath the surface of the “it’s-just-a-tradition-that-makes-me-feel-more-at-ease” argument, and invariably there will be some implicit belief that maybe, just maybe, the presence of this book might save their life one day.

The real objection Muslim car owners are likely to voice is towards premise number 2. It’s not the book that does any actual protecting, they might respond, it’s God. Having a Quran in your car just makes it a little tiny bit more likely for God to intervene in the physical world to stop you from having an accident.

Really?

So, basically, one of the criteria that the most merciful and gracious being uses when deciding on whether to allow for a potentially life-destroying, family-devastating car accident is whether you have a copy of his book with you?

That’s … genius. From a marketing point of view, I mean. If only I could convince tens of millions of people that if they don’t buy a copy of The Thirty-Third Marriage of Donia Nour and keep it next to their toilet, they are more likely to get hemorrhoids.

Yes, if I were the god of hemorrhoids, I would factor in whether someone particularly constipated had a copy of my book next to them before deciding on whether to give them hemorrhoids.

No I wouldn’t. That would make me an asshole.

The irony behind all this is that, despite the fact that virtually all Muslims in Egypt keep a copy of the Quran in their car, Egypt has the third highest road fatalities in the world.

This raises the obvious: might keeping a Quran in your car actually increase the chances of getting into an accident?

I don’t know, but the fact that highways here are often as uneven as a stretch of lunar landscape certainly doesn’t help those chances. The perception of many drivers that traffic rules are only “suggestions” also doesn’t help.

Still, you have to wonder: if you believe your car might be even vaguely divinely protected, would you drive as carefully as you would if you didn’t believe it was at all?

It’s a question that I think psychologists and social scientists should actually explore in the context of Egypt. How many accidents have been directly or indirectly caused because superstition has been held as a partial substitute for proper driving/well-maintained cars? A bit of empirical data at this point might just be very eye opening.