Book Rage

in imperial watch

In Gitmo, reported Newsweek, “Interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur’an down a toilet”. Since the publication of the report, 9 people have died in Afghanistan in widespread protests [in Jalalabad, they burned the Pakistani consulate]; the protests have spread to Pakistan; and to Indonesia; Shaukat Aziz is mad; the Saudi’s are irked; US denies it ever happened but pledges some action nonetheless [I loved this bit: "we have heard from our Muslim friends around the world about their concerns on this matter"].

Why is the tearing or flushing of a copy of Qur’an such grievous offense? For Muslims, Qur’an is not a compilation of reports about God by prophets or disciples, but the exact, direct and inviolable speech of God. Singlevoiced and unidirectional, it is the suprahistorical word of God. The sanctity and sacredness of Qur’an transcends its physicality while at the same time is contained within it. A Muslim dare not even touch it without ritual purity.

But, there are still some differences that need elaborating. The Afghanis and Pakistanis are burning and dying in the streets while the Saudis are merely expressing their “ire”. Explanation lies in the difference in the treatment of the “book” vs. the “text” between Arabia and South Asia. In South Asia, the physical Qur’an becomes a holy relic – to be placed in a scented and clean spot above head; to be handled with veneration and respect. In Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, such veneration is frowned upon and they are apt to treat it just as a special book.

Such gradation aside, the Qur’an cannot be surpassed in value as the locus of sacredness in Islam. In one of my favorite verses, Muhammad Iqbal writes …

… and the Koran√≥
a hundred new worlds lie within its verses,
whole centuries are involved in its moments;
one world of it suffices for the present ageó
seize it, if the heart in your breast grasps truth..
A believing servant himself is a sign of God,
every world to his breast is as a garment;
and when one world grows old upon his bosom,
The Koran gives him another world!
Javed Nama [1932]. Translation by A. J. Arberry

Torture happened in Abu Gharib and we persecuted the odd grunt soldiers. Torture happens in Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt at the behest of CIA or FBI and nobody cares. Torture happened in Abu Gharib but it is all ok because Saddam did worse [btw, Hitch. If you have to moralize based on Saddam's level of morality, you have lost the battle, the war and your mind.]

The destruction of this Qur’an [s?] was psychological torture aimed at just the people to whom each printed dot is the word of God. They will break, I am sure it was argued, rather than face the annihilation of their sacred word. The French did the same in Algeria. The Israelis did the same to Hamas and Hizb prisoners. It makes sense to do it, doesn’t it? Break what they hold dearest? Go Patai on them? Maybe the prisoners in Gitmo did break down and disclose secrets. Or maybe they didn’t. But, if the age of Terrorism is an age of blowback, then the consequences of torture and the desecration of the Qur’an will remain hidden for a little while.

update: Clerics threaten Holy War & Newsweek clarifies the “alleged” bit [thanks to J. Lederer for the tip]

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