The Qur'an: from Ashes to Ashes

by - 8th April 2011

BASED ON THE VOLUME and intensity of recent press coverage, it might be surprising that the first recorded burning of Islam’s holy book was not in a Florida church’s parking lot - nor did a Christian conduct that first burning.  The now-infamous pastor Terry Jones was preceded in history by the 3rd Caliph Uthman’s order to burn multiple copies of the Qur’an around 656AD.

The tradition of burning books is an old one and is certainly not limited to religious texts. The Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all philosophy books and history books from states other than Qin — beginning in 213 BC. The emperor emphasized his point further by burying alive a large number of intellectuals who did not comply with the state-enforced dogma.

Renowned historian Flavius Josephus relates that, in about the year 50, a Roman soldier seized a Torah scroll and, with abusive and mocking language, burned it in public. This incident almost brought on a Jewish revolt against Roman rule, similar to the revolt that broke out two decades later. However, the Roman Procurator Cumanus appeased the Jewish populace by beheading the offending soldier.

The New Testament reports how early converts to Christianity in Ephesus who had previously practiced sorcery also burned their scrolls: "A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas" (Acts 19:19). TheRoman Emperor Diocletian issued a decree to burn Christian books in 303 as part of his demand for an increased persecution of Christians.

The repeated fires in the library of Alexandria, Egypt, are also tragic stories. The library of the Serapeum in Alexandria was trashed, burned and looted in 392 at the decree of Theophilus of Alexandria, who in turn had been ordered to do so by Theodosius I. One of the largest destructions of books ever occurred at the Library of Alexandria in approximately 640. The precise date of the fire is unknown, and historians are not certain whether the fire was intentional or accidental.

Unlike the Florida case, the first burning of a Qur'an was intended to snuff out, not stir up, controversy.  Muslim source materials report that at least four different versions of the Qur’an existed before the political order was given to have them burned (Al-Tamhid 2, 247). People who knew Muhammad personally wrote those four versions, each one unique. The differences in the texts were serious enough to divide Muslims of that day. The Islamic source "K. al Masahif” reports that the disagreements led one Muslim group to label another group heretics.

Uthman ibn 'Affan, the third Caliph of Islam after Muhammad, is credited with assembling the verses of the Qur'an. Although the Qur'an had previously been propagated pirmarily through oral transmission, it also had already been recorded in at least three codices.  The most important of these are the codex of Abdullah ibn Mas'ud in Kufa and that of Ubayy ibn Ka'b in Syria.

Sometime between 650 and 656, a committee appointed by Uthman produced a unified version in seven copies, and Uthman is said to have sent one copy to every Muslim province. Shortly thereafter, Uthman ordered any other Qur'anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be destroyed, thereby ensuring that his authenticated Qur’anic copy would become the primary source others would follow.  Yet, even the adoption of an "official" Qur’an and the burning of all competing versions did not eliminate ill feelings and differences of opinion among Muslims of the day.

 In the time since Uthman ended the struggle over “the” Qur’an, a very solemn protocol has emerged about how to do away with unusable copies of the book. The Muslim respect for the Qur’an requires that it be placed in a visible place in the home.  When through normal use a Qur’an becomes worn and deteriorated to the point that it is no longer usable, the book must still be disposed of with the utmost respect.

There are three options for disposal.  The preferred method is to arrange a respectful burial, in the same way the Jews have been known to bury their old Torah scrolls through the ages.   Second, unusable Qur’ans may be weighted down and sunken in deep running water.

Muslims have a difference of opinion regarding the third option for disposal of a deteriorated Qur’an, which is to burn the book.  Those who consider burning to be permissible cite Uthman’s action.  They also contend that burning the Holy Qur’an also ends the possibility that particular copy could be discovered and abused or desecrated in the future.

Muslims' high regard for the Qur’an is admirable.  Non-Muslims would do well to respect their holy texts as much.   But this solemn and ancient respect for the text itself has converged with a novel and increasingly harmful assertion that Islamic norms are universal. 

A demand of universal validity was never before asserted in Islamic history. The old distinction between the Muslim faith universe (Dar al Islam or house of Islam) and “Dar al harb” (house of war) – which recognizes and permits cultural and religious norms contradictory to Islam - seems to have vanished from Islamic-majority countries. 

The consequences of this new demand have become one of the world’s most urgent challenges.  The result has been an epidemic of burned Bibles and other holy texts, destroyed churches, temples and synagogues, ruined Buddhas, and an unbearable loss of human life.

If the practitioners of non-Islamic faiths – or no faith at all - were to retaliate based on the same logic Muslim leaders employ in their countries, the consequences would be disastrous.  We might as well burn the UN Declaration of Human Rights along with its own universal claims of respect for human dignity and the value of each individual.

 Unfortunately, the human race does not appear to have matured much over the centuries when it comes to the habit of burning books.  It is a defensive, ranty, and almost childish reaction.  This is especially clear when we note how ineffective book burnings are in exterminating ideas or movements. 

Seen in that light, Pastor Jones deserves the public's exasperated accusations of disrespect for Muslims and their holy book.  Still, it is equally important to condemn and decry the murderous rampage of mobs incensed by his provocative act.  Freedom of political and religious speech has been achieved only after centuries of legal and cultural anguish in Pastor Jones' country.  This is precisely because it inhibits and finally does away with murderous religious zealotry,  a tendency too available to evil men with axes to grind. 

Simply put, no action of disrespect to Islam’s holy book - or honored books anywhere in the world - justifies the killing of innocent people.  

Revd. Dr. Arne H. Fjeldstad is the CEO of The Media Project and has lived more than a decade in the Middle East and in a Muslim-majority country.