Burning the Qur’an? ‘Wherever they burn books, they will in the end Burn Human Beings’

A tiny, fringe fundamentalist cult in Florida, of the sort that American popular Christianity specializes in producing, has announced that it will burn the Qur’an on the anniversary of September 11 because it considers Islam an evil religion. The group also targets gays and the Wicca worship of the Goddess.

This is more cult-like thinking, of the sort I discussed yesterday, in which ‘good’ equals ‘us’ and ‘evil’ equals people we don’t agree with.

The German poet Heinrich Heine (d. 1856), in his play lamenting the forced conversion of Spain’s Muslims to Christianity, “Almansor,” wrote, “Wherever they burn books, in the end they will burn human beings.” (When the Nazis burned books in 1933, Heine’s were among those set afire, and his prediction was borne out).

The antidote to hateful and grandstanding ignorance such as this is learning and reading. The way to combat book-burning is to spread around books and consume them.

I discuss in my book, Engaging the Muslim World, the various charges against Islam from groups like this one and show how they are not true.

I liked the response of CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, to this proposal, which is that Americans should take the opportunity presented by this controversy to actually read the Qur’an. I’d go them one better and suggest that some book reading groups who meet regularly select the Qur’an for their next set of discussions.

For the early chapters of the Qur’an, I warmly recommend Michael Sells’s Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, which manages to be both a pleasure for the English style and sensitive to the nuances of the underlying Arabic.

I’ve done study groups on the Qur’an from time to time in informal settings, and was surprised to find that the translation people told me they found most accessible is Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s rendering of the Holy Qur’an. Intended in in part for English-speaking South Asian Muslims, it is steeped in the Muslim tradition of Qur’an commentary but goes out of its way to explain phrases that are cryptic or telegraphic in the original Arabic.

Reading the Qur’an without context is actually not very useful since it is a highly historical work that refers to contemporary events constantly. Although it is now an older book, W. Montgomery Watt’s Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman is still a good place to start for understanding the context of the Qur’an. In fact, I’d advise people to read it first, and then read the Qur’an backwards, starting with the shorter Meccan chapters that Sells translated and moving toward the front of the book with its longer Medinan chapters, many of which retell the stories of Abraham, Moses, Joseph, and Jesus or refer to Muslim attempts to avoid being wiped out by the attacking Meccan pagans (which anti-Muslim polemicists misinterpret as Muslim aggression).

I’ve done a little spadework on issues in Qur’an interpretation on issues of peace at this blog from time to time, and the links are here.

And, speaking of Heine and old Muslim Spain or Andalus, for a delightful book about the relations of Christians, Jews and Muslim in medieval Spain, see Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. You’ll find there that current controversies like that in Florida are nothing new. But Menocal argues that while there were periods of fundamentalism and persecution, the over-all achievement of Spain (both Christian states like Valencia and Muslim ones like the Umayyad Caliphate centered at Cordoba) was of a broad tolerance and a shared love of learning (the library at Cordoba had 600,000 volumes at a time when there were probably only a few thousand manuscripts in all of France). In many ways, the multicultural religious atmosphere of medieval Spain , before the Almohads from one direction and the Inquisition from another did it in, most resembles that in the United States today.

Menocal is brilliant throughout, but especially good at recognizing the secular aspects of Arab culture that often formed an attraction even for those in Andalusia who did not convert to Islam. Alvarus, a hard line Christian priest, lamented:

‘The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literture as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their own language. For everyone one who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in this language than the Arabs themselves.’

Menocal suggests, in more elegant language, that Arabic romantic poetry was a babe magnet in Cordoba even for the Christian girls.

In many ways, the shoe is now on the other foot. Young Muslims often devote themselves to English and to American pop culture, and it is English that has the massive library, whereas the modern Arabic one is thin despite areas of excellence, as with the novels of Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz. But all along, the two cultures have interacted on a basis of admiration, not just competition or bigotry. Menocal thinks that the Renaissance and Enlightenment were actually peculiarly parochial in Europe, in contrast to the mixed-up character of medieval Spain, and despite the ugly periods and occasional fundamentalist movements, there are certainly innovations in toleration achieved in Valencia (a Christian kingdom that made a legal place for its Muslim subjects) and Cordoba that can inspire us today.

24 Responses

  1. I do not think that it will do the vast majority of Americans any good at all to just read the Quran. They also need to have someone that they can turn to ask their questions and make comments to about what it is that they are reading. Then depending on the person that they communicate with they may come to have a greater appreciation for the book or they will be really turned off by it depending on who their “guide” is. It is not just a question of the intelligence of the person with which they are studying the Koran but how well student and teacher fit together. Most guides or teachers will try to convert you to Islam. Just as a reminder to anyone who would consider taking the time to study the Koran. It is the students job to remain skeptical but also open minded. Such a balancing act is an art not a science. In my opinion no one not even God or the Gods themselves can give you a grade on any conclusions that you would come to.

  2. Dear Professor:

    I find your comments and references to books on the Qur’an useful as I just started to read it, in an attempt to learn more about the Muslim world. I read your posts every day and find them to be the most useful and truthful information about the Middle East.

    Many thanks,

  3. Wonderful reading recommendations. I look forward to checking them out.

    FWIW, I’ve very much enjoyed the translation/commentary by Muhammad Asad entitled _The Message of the Qur’an_. It’s pitched at people like me who are more philosophical than religious. And he himself of course was a wonderful human symbol of cosmopolitanism — a secular Jew who converted to Islam and became Pakistan’s first ambassador to the UN.

    I also recommend Youssef Chahine’s wonderful movie “Destiny” where Avveroes is cast as a cosmopolitan hero. The punch of the message is seamlessly woven into a rousing song and dance musical in the way only Egypt or Bollywood can do.

  4. Interesting reflections given the controversy over “Cordoba House,” which the fear mongers would have us believe is intended as a celebration of Islamic imperialism.

  5. It seems odd that there is now an outpouring of anti-Muslim bigotry that was largely confined to the fringes immediately after September 11, 2001. Immediately after 9/11, there definitely was some growth in anti-Islamic hate speech and hate crimes against Muslims. However, nearly all prominent public figures spoke against bigotry, emphasised the similarities between the three monotheistic faiths, and spoke about universal values shared by Americans of all faiths.

    The recent public debate about Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan seems to have started a new “guilt by association” meme that would have been regarded as unacceptable back in 2001.

    Today, we see Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich making no distinction between ordinary Muslims and the violent fanatics who join Al Qaeda. Gingrich in particular has tried to argue that the use of the term Cordoba House is offensive to non-Muslims, ignoring the fact that the period of dominance of Cordoba Caliphate over most of the Iberian Peninsula gave rise to the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain. Additionally, his demands to see the operation of churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia make no mention of the fact that someone who wished to convince the Saudi authorities of the wisdom of religious tolerance would point to the example of Cordoba Caliphate.

    I am most angry now at the Anti-Defamation League in arguing that “strong passions and keen sensitivities” make Cordoba House inappropriate. Jews should be the first to recognise that passions and sensitivities that compel reactions to an entire religious or ethnic group are based upon ignorance and bigotry. The appropriate reaction is not to capitulate to people’s discomfort, but rather to educate them.

    Building community centres where people can learn about other cultures might help reduce discomfort that people experience when encountering Muslims. Keeping copies of the Koran intact so that people may read them might also help.

    The video that you link shows Terry Jones expressing his opposition to Islam as opposition to Islamic law, or Sharia. What he does not mention is that Halacha is filled with all sorts of prohibitions and Biblical requirements to use the death penalty against violators. Just as moderate Jews and Christians can interpret these provisions out of use or at least recognise that they should not be the basis for a criminal justice system, moderate Muslims do the same with some of the more inflammatory parts of Sharia. However, those moderate Muslims will have trouble gaining prominence in their communities when their voices are drowned out by Muslims and non-Muslims who argue that Islam is synonymous with fanaticism.

  6. Gainesville is near the northern boundary of an interdimensional weirdness convergence zone that runs across the state and extends southward to Kissimmee.

    Weirdnesses poureth forth from the cornucopias of small denominations. My favorite personal experiences include the firm believer in Intelligent Design who was so morbidly obese he had his stomach stapled and the high school principle who declared “God will save us” from global warming, but is apparently powerless against low FCAT scores.

    BTW, three of the four contenders for the senate seat made Raw Story’s top ten corrupt list. Idiot wind plus corruption. Yea, verily, Florida is paradise.

  7. Professor:
    I think you miss one important avenue in your recommendations, nominally what Muslims think and recommend about interest and usury. Any good book?

  8. Islam should be taught with wisdom and intelligence in all schools of the Western world. Apart from the books Prof Cole has recommended, even books like ‘Islam, the destiny of man’ by Le Gai Eaton, ‘A brief history of Islam by Tamara Sonn, Islam -a brief history by Karen Armstrong, ‘Heart of Islam by Carl Ernst. Also books by Prof John Esposito regarding political Islam should be highly recommended to all schools,universities and colleges. Also available to all general public. This could go a long way to educate ignorant minds. Unless and until minds are truly educated about another religion or ideology in a truly positive way there is no hope to clear this animosity that exists among Western society regarding Islam.

  9. I find a combination of Quranic translations to work better than any one text alone. For me, AJ Arberry’s “The Koran Interpreted” and W. Pickthal’s “The Meaning of the Glorious Koran” are favorites, as they preserve the poetics of the native text like no other interpretation (and both are rightly presented as interpretations, rather than a literal translation, although they can be read as such). Going back and forth between the Arabic and the English texts is especially rewarding for those who can read Arabic. In fact, the joy of reading these interpretations is that they illuminate the Arabic text in ways that are both unexpected and very moving. In the same spirit, I find that Michael Sells’s Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, is an exceptionally beautiful rendition of the early passages. Otherwise, I find most recent translations to be rather vapid. I am looking forward to read Tarif Al Khalidi’s translation which, given his scholarship, promises to be quite rewarding.

  10. I am currently reading Hans Kung’s Islam: Past, Present, and Future. Have you reviewed or read this book. It is quite a task.

  11. It seems to me, Prof. Cole, that your quote from Alvarus is entirely the point of Christian extremists. Given their paranoid belief that anything less than a total monopoly on power means that they are slaves, they already think they are living in a Hell of diversity. But if the Spaniards were able to slaughter, torture and conquer their way out of the weakness of diversity, then so can America. To them the Golden Age could only have been when white Christians held the world in chains, filling the coffers of a Christian despot like Charles V or Queen Victoria. If they can purify the thoughts of young, military-age Americans, they can turn things around and rule the world!

    Insane, but not unusual.

  12. I read the Koran during operation desert storm to enable me to have a better understanding of the people who lived in that part of the world. My version contains the original Arabic, English translation, and commentary. The Koran is so closely tied to Arabian culture and history that without the commentary I would have been totally unable to understand it.

    Among other things, I learned that Muslims are supposed to respect Christians and Jews and “people of the book.” However, like people of other religions, including us Christians, Muslims don’t always follow the Koran. If they did, there would be less conflict. That said, it is easy to find plenty of things that Christians have done that are totally contrary to the imperatives of the Bible.

    All religions have divisions, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Everything is subject to interpretation, regardless of what anyone says.

  13. The two translations of the Qur’an into English which are recognized as being the most accurate (to the extent possible) of the meaning of the Qur’an are:
    1. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation entitled “The Qur’an”. (link to amazon.com)
    2. Ahmad Zaki Hammad’s “The Gracious Quran: A modern phrased interpretation in English.” (link to amazon.com).
    I personally like M.A.S. Haleem’s translation because it is easy to read and uncluttered. Hammad’s translation is also excellent, but is also directed towards scholars since he carefully explains in a very long and separate section why he translated certain terms in the manner that he did. Both translations are vastly better than Yusuf Ali’s, Picktall or even Arberry’s.

  14. Now I ask you, as an analogy, would reading the Bible give you an understanding of the fundamentalist Christians, or even the Christian world? I think not. This is one of the fallacies of academics. Burning the Quran is no more of an attack on the Quran than attacking the Twin Towers was an attack on the Twin Towers. For the attackers, what’s inside the symbols will be nothing but an annoyance. As for the young, they need to be forced to read the Quran as much as they need to be forced to read the little red book of Mao, or the Bible, for that matter. Maybe the only place to be forced to read any of them would be in a psychology or political science class.

Comments are closed.