Qur'an: Why Not to Burn or Ban?
by Stephen Schwartz
Burning and banning Qur'an remain stimulating topics in global discourse, as the Christian preacher Terry Jones, in Florida, USA, affirms he will continue his anti-Muslim campaign. Jones is moving on, from a "trial" of the Islamic scripture, which ended with its consignment to the flames, to a similarly exhibitionistic proceeding against Muhammad. Presumably, the indictment of Islam's prophet would be based on events attributed to Muhammad's life, even though the first biography of Muhammad was written a century after he lived, and is considered unreliable.
Meanwhile, the very real legal case against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who advocates banning Qur'an, has resumed.
Much has been said by many people about the rights of Jones and Wilders to engage in their anti-Islamic agitation. Such arguments are usually conducted without much awareness of the real status of freedom of expression, including opinions critical of Islam, in the USA and Holland. Jones' right to say and do whatever he wants short of direct incitement to violence is protected under American law. Wilders' right of "free speech" is not. Holland criminalizes "hate speech," considering certain opinions harmful to society and worthy of prohibition. Before Wilders can claim a right to voice his condemnation of Islam, he will have to establish that, in Holland, such a right exists.
These considerations have, however, become somewhat banal. After Jones' Qur'an-burning, violence in Afghanistan left at least 21 people dead, including foreign workers in aid programs. Then the blame game began, and accusations of responsibility for this tragic outcome were directed at all concerned: some blamed Jones, some blamed Afghan president Hamid Karzai, some blamed radical Muslim preachers, some blamed the whole Islamic umma.
But rather than perpetuating this unproductive approach, I propose a pair of thought experiments, applicable to both Jones, who burns Qur'an, and Wilders, who seeks to ban it. A thought experiment, in scientific inquiry, seeks to test theoretical, rather than practical, effects in nature. As I shall try to demonstrate, thought experiments about burning and banning Qur'an may also correlate with real-world results.
First, a thought experiment for Jones. The Christian book-burner has admitted that he is no expert on Qur'an, and has been caught out in many fabrications and intrigues. He promised not to burn Qur'an, then did it. He has made other claims that have been exposed as false. But we should doubtless take him at his word about his ignorance of Qur'an. He is very likely unaware that the form of Qur'an as it is now written and read did not exist in the time of Muhammad. As all Muslims know, Muhammad was illiterate, and the text of Qur'an was typically recited in his lifetime. Chapters (surat) and verses (ayat) were written down at his direction on dried bones and other media, and, only after his death, assembled in a series of redactions. The first was probably a collection without definitive authority, created at the order of the original successor to Muhammad, or caliph, Abubakr (c. 570–634). The canonical version that has survived was, according to tradition, compiled twenty years after Muhammad's death, by the third of the caliphs to succeed him, Uthman ibn Affan (d. 656). The "Uthmanic codex" was produced in five copies, with the original stored in Medina and four others sent to Mecca, Damascus, Basra, and the town of Kufa in modern-day Iraq.
But later Islamic scholars detected errors by the copyists, and "non-canonical readings" survived. In addition, other Companions of the Prophet possessed and preserved their own copies. Variant recitations or readings of the "Uthmanic codex" retained legitimacy; in the 11th century C.E. fourteen readings were accepted, and three readings are still in use. The main reading is the standard Egyptian text, published in 1923, but two variants continue to be accepted in Sudan and some parts of West Africa.
Let us imagine that someone comes to Terry Jones with an old Qur'an, calligraphed, perhaps decorated or rendered in a previously-unstudied language, with variations in the text. Such a volume would be of exceptional value not only to Muslims but to all scholars of religions and culture. Would Jones hesitate to cast it into the flames? Very likely not. He might even take special joy in destroying an old and beautiful Qur'an. Jones wishes to suppress the content of Qur'an, and in doing so, would probably not be susceptible to arguments for preservation of copies with special characteristics. Burning books for their content means that no edition or copy is exempt from the pyre.
We will now proceed to a thought experiment for Geert Wilders. Suppose that he is found innocent of hate speech, that he becomes the leader of the Netherlands, and bans Qur'an. How would he go about enforcing this prohibition? Dutch libraries and universities house many valuable copies of the Islamic holy book. Would Wilders order them removed from access or use by scholars? Would possession of Qur'an be criminalized? Would Dutch officials search travelers for copies of Qur'an and, if they were found, confiscate them? How would human knowledge benefit from such an action? Or does intellectual understanding matter to Geert Wilders?
The attitudes of both men are reminiscent of the infamous German Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, who wrote, "when I hear about culture, I release the safety catch of my Browning pistol!"
I am a Muslim, but one should not have to be a Muslim to find the demand to burn or ban books reprehensible. I fail to see any difference between the cultural vandalism, and even nihilism, of Jones and Wilders, and that of the Al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists who bombarded the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001. The world's cultural legacy is one, and deserves to be protected. Aside from its spiritual value, Qur'an is part of this inheritance and should be treated as such. Similarly, we at the Center for Islamic Pluralism are concerned that the despoliation of mummies and other Pharaonic relics in the aftermath of the recent Egyptian revolution might herald an unrestrained fundamentalist campaign of destruction of pre-Islamic monuments. Saudi Wahhabis have led the way in the devastation of the Islamic heritage of Arabia, and for all that can be said against the infernal regime in Iran – and I, for one, hope the clerical dictatorship in Tehran will fall sooner, rather than later – it never undertook to wipe out the pre-Islamic patrimony of the Persians.
The rage of Jones and Wilders against a book likewise recalls an incident 450 years in the past. In 1562, a Catholic priest, Diego de Landa, accumulated all the Mayan painted books he could find in the Yucatan peninsula and burned them. Only three Mayan manuscripts survive today. Again, as a Muslim, I am no longer, as I once was, a fervent admirer of pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico and Central America, where religion centered on bloody human sacrifice. But the conflagration that robbed the world of the Mayan painted books diminished human cultural understanding significantly.
Qur'an (5:32) says that God "told the House of Israel that whoever takes a life unjustly, it is as if all humanity were killed; and whoever saves a life, it is as if all humanity were saved." This wisdom appears in the Jewish Talmud. Having lived in the Balkans, during the aftermath of the late wars in which many libraries, including irreplaceable books, periodicals, official archives, and manuscripts, were wantonly eradicated, I have learned that the English poet Milton was right when he equated the burning of books with the murder of men. But I would go further. As I saw in the annihilation of Balkan Jewish literature held in the libraries razed by the Serbs, and in the obliteration of Albanian Catholic culture under the Communist regime in that country, to burn or ban a book may be to annihilate a universe of collective memory.
So far, the fulminations of Jones and Wilders appear as little more than demagogic rhetoric intended to gain attention for these individuals. Let us hope their threats do not lead to wider consequences; above all, let us not, by treating these personalities as free of responsibility, turn the burning and banning of books into habitual activities. But let us not forget that the Serbian devastation of the Bosnian National and University Library in Sarajevo, in which hundreds of thousands of books and documents were incinerated, and the rocket attack on the Oriental Institute in the same city, with the loss of thousands of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Bosnian, and Hebrew manuscripts and other items, took place in 1992, less than 20 years ago.
The Bosnian National Museum was also attacked, and a Bosnian Muslim saved the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the most exquisite and valuable Jewish manuscripts in the world, which is housed there. During the second world war, the Museum's director, another Muslim librarian named Derviš Korkut, had concealed the Haggadah from Nazis who wanted to confiscate it. To Bosnian Muslims, the Jewish manuscript is a symbol of a pluralistic Bosnian national identity. It belongs to Bosnia-Hercegovina and the world, and not to the Jewish community alone. In the same way, Qur'an belongs to the world, and not to Muslims alone.
Muslims and Jews alike believe that reading is a form of worship. As a rabbi from Sarajevo, Nehemiah Hiyya Cajón, wrote in the 17th century, "There is no whisper quieter than the print in a book, to be read by a person in solitude." I believe the world has come to a great turning point, in terms of our relation to history, culture, and faith. We must choose with whom we stand: with those who would burn or ban books, or with those who would preserve them. We must choose between the vandals, like Jones and Wilders, who would take us back to the evil days of de Landa, and the responsible stewards of the human cultural birthright, like Derviš Korkut and his successor in 1992, who looked to a positive future. Between these two positions, there can be no middle ground. Crimes against culture may be advertised as free expression, but they remain violations of the human soul. That, I believe, is the result of my thought experiments.