Forget everything you may think about Islam and Qur’an burning. There needs to be a serious reevaluation of how Muslims deal with it.
This issue first came to worldwide attention three years ago, when Terry Jones, pastor at the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, announced he would burn a bunch of Qur’ans on the anniversary of 9/11. He did this presumably in memory of those who died at the World Trade Center and Pentagon on that horrific day, but it soon became clear he was nothing but a small self-promoter who had struck on a big idea—a novel and outrageous way to attract attention.
And the Muslims gave it to him.
There was outrage in many parts of the Muslim world at the desecration of the Qur’an. Unfortunately, this erupted into violence and rioting in some places. The world wondered why the Muslims went wild over the burning of what they saw as just a book. Why the Muslims care for the dignity of the Qur’an is another story, but it is truly a shame one man could rile up so many people and have them playing his tune, actors in the play he directed, raking in the profits while people suffered and died.
In a way, Terry Jones’ actions were the straws that broke the camel’s back (a racist pun was not intended by the use of this animal in this analogy about Muslims). They served as insults on top of injuries; after a decade of the U.S.’s war in the Middle East, and decades of political corruption, occupation, and neo-colonialism, this was perhaps one blow too much.
The need for dialogue has never been more urgent for the Ummah, and the need for proper, thorough education regarding this religion also. They say, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and they’re absolutely right. A lack of comprehensive information and nuance in Muslim discourses around the world is dangerous. Many people have a tidbit of information about the deen and think they know it all. They commit big actions, like rioting against the offense intended to the Qur’an, and they feel religiously justified and righteous in doing so. And yet they cause more harm than good as a result: Terry Jones gets book deals and speaker engagements as the frightened Christians’ champion against the Muslim hordes, and they are even less receptive towards hearing the message of Tawheed we communicate to them.
And the irony of the situation is that in the eastern world, book burning does not mean what it does in the western. The West lived through centuries and millennia when knowledge was actively repressed, when information was jealously guarded by a few, and dissenting ideas were censored for the benefit of the state. The image of the Nazis burning books is still fresh in the minds of Europe and America. That is what it means to them. And yet, that is not what book burning means in the East, where there was light when Europe was in darkness, under Muslim rule. The most famous example of book burning in Islamic history was actually of the Qur’an itself, and by a righteous Muslim Khalifah!
Uthman ibn Affan, the Companion of the Prophet ﷺ, one of the ten noble Sahabah promised Paradise as they lived on Earth, and the third of the Rightly-Guided Khulafa’ of Islam, was responsible for standardizing the Qur’an. It is not well-known, but the Qur’an was revealed in the multiple dialects of the Arabs. As Islam spread, disputes arose between the Muslims of multiple Arab tribes, each of whom claimed their dialect was superior. So Uthman made the decision, as the Qur’an was taught outside of Arabia, to standardize the sacred text and keep one dialect. The dialect of Quraysh was chosen, the one the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ spoke and recited primarily in, and the other written manuscripts in other dialects were burned, to dispose of them.
And yet, the Muslims still considered what they burned to be Qur’an. It boggles the western mind, but in the eastern tradition, burning the written Qur’an, the mus-haf, is a most respectful way of disposing of it when it becomes old or damaged. Is it befitting the Word of Allah to rot in some landfill, surrounded by filth, or litter the street as trash to be stepped on? No, the Muslims preferred to wipe the words away, either by burning or by drowning the manuscript in a river, where the ink on the pages would be washed away by the flowing water. Rather than being upset with Terry Jones, the intelligent Muslim should’ve thanked him for boosting the book sales of the Qur’an, then following up by respectfully disposing of it according to Shari’a!
The Qur’an can never be burned away. It’s not recorded on paper, but in the minds of its Huffaadh, literally, the Guardians. They have been called in previous centuries, Haamil al-Qur’an, the Carriers of the Qur’an. Were all the copies of the Qur’an burned away today, within a few days we’d have it reassembled from memory with just the students of this university, forget the rest of the world. This has been the case since the Qur’an was revealed; while there were parts of the Qur’an written down here and there, the vast majority of Muslims didn’t own a written copy, as Muslims do today. Muslims memorized the Book and passed it on orally. The Arabia of Muhammad ﷺ had a rich oral tradition, where poets were the celebrities of their people and could memorize hundreds of lines of normal verse. How much easier is it to memorize words which are divine miracles, ayaat, so that even many non-Arab Muslims can do it?
Terry Jones had his fifteen minutes of fame and faded into obscurity since. Others like him will come, poking, mocking, and criticizing Islam. But we cannot engage with them on their terms, sacrificing our values and the collective wisdom and knowledge of centuries of Islamic civilization. We must understand our iman is not merely on our tongues, but in how we act when Islam is challenged and confronted. No one who believes in the truth of the Qur’an could’ve believed it was ever in serious danger from Jones or his ilk; Allah says in Suratal Hijr,
“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian.”
Jones intended to disrespect the Qur’an, and that should displease us. But we should look at what he was trying to accomplish, and feel pity for the ignorance he’s operating in and the futility of his efforts.