By Contributor Philip Stine
Many Christians have trouble understanding why the destruction of copies of the Quran brings about such violent reactions from Muslims. This response comes whether the destruction was accidental, as recently occurred on a military base in Afghanistan, or deliberate, as when an American pastor announced his intentions to do this. Westerners tend to think the scriptures or holy writings of other religions have the same significance as the Christian or Jewish scriptures do in their contexts. This is not the case.
The importance of the Quran in the Muslim faith and in practice is, in some part, derived from the emphasis on the holy writ of Islam’s older sibling traditions of Judaism and Christianity. But Islam is not just one of the three “book religions.” It is significantly more radical in terms of the exalted place it assigns to its book.
A major point of view of the Quran is that throughout history God has sent to nation after nation either a prophet or apostle to lead people in correct understanding. Examples include the Torah being given to Moses, the psalms given to David and the Gospel sent to Jesus, as well as the Quran revealed to Muhammad. The belief is that in the earlier cases the community strayed from the right path and allowed its scripture to be either lost, changed or debased. Consequently, to Muslims, the Quran is a final divine revelation.
Further, because the Quran in Arabic is God’s direct discourse, in Islam there has been a consistent rejection of the notion of translation into other languages. This contrasts with Judaism. Although there has been a tenacious insistence upon the study and use of the Hebrew language, the pragmatic need for congregations who do not know Hebrew to understand the content of the Torah led first to the translation into Greek, the Septuagint. And then there were the post-exile targums, which are Aramaic paraphrases of the Torah. Christianity translated the sacred texts into the vernacular languages from the very beginning, believing that the word of God was compatible with the speech of everyday life in any culture.
Another contrast relates to the understanding of how different writings became recognized as “scripture.” Christians and Jews see the writings collected over a period of time as God dealing with God’s people in different ways at different times. But Muslims see revelation as having been sent in one final culminating time in the course of one prophetic career.
Most significantly, Jews and Christians accept their scriptures contain the word of God. Muslims see the Quran as the verbatim speech of God, given once and for all through a single chosen prophet. The very word Quran is a verbal noun derived from the Arabic root Q-R-‘, the basic sense of which is “to recite, read aloud.” The Quran is the recitation God gave to Muhammad. As followers recite it, they are reminded constantly of God’s presence.
For Jews, the prime medium of encounter between God and humans is the Torah. But this is not understood simply as scriptural text but as divine will, cosmic order, and human responsibility, to which the Torah is the guide.
For Christians, the encounter comes first and foremost through the person and life of Christ. This is accessible, but not exclusively so, in scripture.
In Islam, on the other hand, it is in the concrete text, the very words of the Quran, that Muslims most directly experience God. Scripture in Islam is itself the divine presence as well as the mediator of divine will and divine grace. In the Quran, God speaks with his own voice, not through inspired human writers. Thus it is not an exaggeration to compare Quran recitation with the Christian Eucharist. Nor is it exaggeration to say that the closest equivalent to the Quran for the Christian is not the Bible but the person Jesus Christ, who is the word of God incarnate in the Christian tradition.
It should be no wonder then that the desecration of copies of the Quran by non-believers brings about deep sadness and anger for Muslims, and in recent cases, retribution.