Book Rage

Posted by sepoy on May 13, 2005 · 4 mins read

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 Koranó
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]


Biloo | May 13, 2005

I can't help but think of how riled up the heathens got at the thought of biting into pork/beef-greased bullets in 1857. This kind of thing always ends badly. I'm not suggesting that anything on the scale of the Sepoy Rebellion will happen now, but it's just not good times.

Sohail | May 14, 2005

It's a very good written piece, Sepoy, although, in one small article, u have touched upon two very different sides of the same issue - one, the difference between the way South Asians and the Arabs rever the Quran and two, the possible consequences of the mode of rattling prisoners, which CIA has reportedly adopted. Thanks, too, for introducing me to the term "blowback". I dont intend to defend Muslim fanatics, but it should be clear to the world that terrorism like all crimes is a disease and needs to be cured rather than stamped out. Those who have procalimed war against terrorism obviously know this but dont care what their actions might lead to.

actualfactual | May 15, 2005

As a devoutly atheist Englishman (albeit with a copy of the Qu'ran and a Bible on my bookshelf and the knowledge that it really is a bad idea to order the steak if you've gone out to dinner with the parents of your equally atheist English girlfriend who just happens to have Indian, Hindu parents), I find myself disagreeing with you on this one. The problem is (and I'm sure this is the problem for many Western liberals i.e. Mr Hitchens) I can't exactly pin down where my disquiet lies (there's a long treatise somewhere in my thoughts, but that's more for a personal post on my own site than for a comment here). In the end it comes down to cultural differences - I find destroying books abhorrent - I don't care what the book is: the bible, Qu'ran or Enid Blyton - but I find the idea of flying planes into buildings, blowing myself up in an Israeli cafe full of teeneagers or dropping a bomb on a market because there are "enemy combatants" in the area far, far worse.....

Alan Little | May 19, 2005

It occurs to me to wonder: could this have something to do with Indian (and Pakistani too, up to only a generation or so ago) Muslims being surrounded by/steeped in Hindu culture - i.e. picking up influences from the dodgy idolators?

Mahavir | June 30, 2010

No, some Hindus feel great passion about sentient beings which feel pain and suffering such as cows; certain acts such stepping on ANY book and other such actions are also considered improper and repulsive among some Hindus due to the high respect which many Hindus put on learning and knowledge but . However, the passion that engulfs Muslims and the Koran, that is sui generis to say the least. Then again, the sui generis nature has to do with the incredible severity with which blasphemy and dissent has been treated in Islam.