Saturday, September 18, 2010


The first Quran I ever owned was while I was in my teens: an interlinear edition, with English transliteration sitting below the swirling lines of Arabic above and below, an ‘interpretation’ in English (never a translation, as it is held that the meanings of the divinely revealed book could never adequately be rendered in another language.) It was difficult to read, though I persisted, because I had been told that just as one cannot understand the references and turns of phrase of modern Greek literature without first having read the Bible, so too would it be impossible to understand the references and imagery of Arabic and Persian literature, without having read the Quran.
Specific aged acquaintances objected to my possession of the book. According to them, that book personified the evil that had been unleashed upon the world by infernal powers, caused our people untold suffering and continued to be a source of conflict and violence in the world today. The opinion of one of these, a witness and survivor of the ethnic and religious persecution of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, I respected and thought deeply about. That of another, who claimed that her copy of the Bible was contaminated with communist interpolations that gave Jesus a Jewish lineage, I discounted right away.
My second Quran was given to me when I was in Turkey, by two Pakistani gents who offered me their hospitality. Having eaten, they uncovered a Quran, lovingly swathed in a velvet cloth, so as to be protected from profane hands, and for five gruelling hours, they proceeded, seated either side of me, to explain why the Christians were wrong, deluded and mislead by a holy book that was corrupted and, in turn why the Quran perfectly expressed God’s revelation for mankind. It was a harrowing experience and I felt not a bit threatened by the fervour of my two hosts, who demanded to know, at regular intervals, whether I agreed with them and did not stop with their preaching until morning. Possibly to reward me with their endurance, they gave me their Quran as a parting present the next day.
My third Quran was obtained in Albania. I was visiting a hodja at a Bektashi tekke, (a mystical Islamic order, deemed heretical by Sunni Islam and incorporating, at least in Albania, many Christian practices). I expressed interest in the revival of religion in the country in general, after the imposition of forty years of compulsory atheism by Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime, and in particular the reconstruction of churches and mosques throughout the countryside. “Most of these new mosques are built through Saudi Arabian funds,” he sighed wistfully. “They are importing Sunni Islam into a region that has never known it. They have also flooded the country with copies of the Quran, like this one.” He handed me a small, well-printed book, from a vast pile in a storeroom. “What they don’t realise is that this country is still very poor and we have more need of food and infrastructure than anything else. In the winter, many Muslim families burn these for fuel.”
To read any book deemed holy by people is to embark upon a roller coaster ride of emotion, thrill, and perplexity. Holy books inspire people to goodness, maintain and sustain them in times of trouble and are a pilgrim’s staff of support upon the weary path of life. Misused however, they can inspire hatred, intolerance, violence and misery, simply because in claiming to be the entire truth, they are by their very nature, exclusive of others who do not or cannot share or recognise the validity of their contents. Regardless, to deface, abuse or burn such books or other religious symbols is a heinous act, insulting the innermost core of a person’s belief and causing lasting hatred.
For example, in May 2008, hundreds of New Testaments were burned in Or Yehuda, Israel after having been collected by the Deputy Mayor who described the material as "Messianic propaganda" and claimed the books were burned by 3 Yeshiva students. In May 2009 a Russian orthodox church in Northern Israel was showered with stones thrown by students, injuring many of the congregation. A frequent complaint of Christian clergy in Israel is being spat at by Jews, often students. Even Christian ceremonial processions have been alleged to have been spat at, with one incident near the Holy Sepulchre causing a fracas which led to the destruction of the Armenian Archbishop's 17th-century cross. Such acts of disrespect, limited though they may be, have the capacity to cause lasting inter-denominational rifts.
Similarly, the recent defacement of the Assyrian Genocide monument in Sydney with the Islamic star and crescent, accompanied by slogans such as “F-k you Assyrian dogs,” may imply in the minds of many, regardless of whether this is erroneous or not, that the religion symbolised by the Star and Crescent condones the massacre of people on the basis of their race and religion.
The latest example of religious intolerance – the proposed and then cancelled ‘Burn the Quran’ day, by the Dove World Outreach Centre is a senseless as it is intolerant, contradicting the peaceful connotations indicated by the ‘dove,’ and certainly flouting the basic Christian beliefs that this organisation purports to hold. Furthermore, rather than highlighting the horror of the attack on the Twin Towers, all such an act, and even its very proposition, is to inflame anti-Christian feeling in the Middle East. This in turn, would cause further persecution of and acts of intolerance towards the already beleaguered Christian communities of the region, a minority that the ‘Christian’ West, seems not to care about at all and which are subject to harassment and restrictions in almost all Muslim countries. Further, how the burning of the holiest book of Islam, will achieve any rapprochement or common ground between the West and the Middle East, or serve to defuse the works of fanatics is difficult to discern. Rather, it should be viewed as a populist attempt to appeal to those lowest facets of the human character – bigotry and hatred – that it purports to condemn. Had the Dove World Outreach Centre truly wished to raise awareness of problems within Islam, they could have done so through civilized debate.
Ultimately, the success of a mature, pluralistic society can be measured in the manner in which it cajole extreme fringe groups to respect the rights and sensitivities of others. The fact that after pressure and protest, “Burn the Quran” day was abandoned is a mark of a healthy society in which wiser heads can prevail. It is this – the overwhelming outcry by churches and other groups against disrespecting Islam, that Muslims should pay attention to and not the ravings of the bigoted.
In his 1821 play Almansor, Heinrich Heine commented: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also,” and the events of the twentieth and twenty-first century have certainly proved him right. There is much to be enjoyed, rejoiced in and also to ponder in the books that form the basis for humanity’s belief in the supernatural. The Quran, whether one believes or understands its teachings and claims or not, is one of the most important and widely read works of literature and it should be respected, as well as subjected to critical analysis. After all, books do not kill people. People do. Until next week, mind those paper cuts.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 18 September 2010