A number of events in the past few years have served to highlight the enormous symbolic, political and emotional importance that the Qur’an has in the Muslim world. In 2005, a report that Qur’ans were being flushed down the toilet as an interrogation tactic caused a worldwide outcry. In 2010, Florida pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn the Qur’an sparked enormous violence around the globe. Most recently, the burning of Qur’ans at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan resulted in violence that has yet to die down even a month after the incident occurred.
Why does a book, even a holy one, receive this level of veneration? Are the violent (over)reactions in parts of the Muslim world even about the Qur’an, or are they the result of decades of simmering resentments looking for any excuse to explode?
Certainly, political and social realities on the ground, and the ongoing cultural insensitivity displayed by Western military forces, play an important role in priming the ground for violence and anger. It is not, however, the only issue. The Qur’an holds a particularly holy place in the hearts and minds of the world’s 1 billion Muslims. Its revered status is the result of centuries of ongoing debate within Islam about the holy book’s precise qualities and place within the faith. As a result of its central importance, the Qur’an has also been at the heart of many of Islam’s most critical theological debates. Over time, these debates have gradually given the Qur’an a status within Islam unparalleled to that enjoyed by any other holy book.
This is not to say that only the Qur’an is imbued with such importance: the Danish cartoon controversy and the recent Saudi furor over Hamza Kashgari’s twitter remarks certainly suggest that any perceived disrespect towards the Prophet Muhammad can also cause firestorms. Nevertheless, it is helpful to look at modern events through the lens of history and to understand that controversies surrounding the Qur’an have been an important part of Islamic history, often as proxies for larger political and theological debates.
Though Muslims have always venerated the Qur’an, the written text was not always held in such high esteem.
According to Islamic history, the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations from the Angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic) in approximately 610 CE. The revelation did not occur all at once, but rather came piecemeal over the next 13 years, until the Prophet’s death in 623 CE. The Prophet shared these revelations with his people orally, and from the start, the Quran was preserved through oral memorization or by writing bits of text on scraps of parchment or palm leaves. The oral form was long considered the truest form of revelation. In fact, most early, preserved Qur’ans do not contain the diacritical marks of modern standard Arabic, which would be necessary to truly read the text. Instead, these early written versions most likely served as memory aides for oral recitation. Pages of the Qur’an were also used for symbolic purposes. For example during the first Islamic civil war, fighters would attach verses from the holy book to their spears, possibly as a request for arbitration or in order to intimidate, distract or disarm their opponents.
Though the Prophet may have begun the task of editing or arranging the pieces of the revelation, the written Qur’an did not take on its final form, as a coherent, limited text with 114 distinct chapters, or suras, until sometime after his death. The canonical Qur’an, known as the ‘Uthmanic mashaf, was supposedly compiled, copied and disseminated during the caliphate of ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan, who ruled from 644-656 CE. Any versions of the Qur’an containing minor regional or personal variations were collected and destroyed, though many of the differences were preserved in the Book’s oral recitations. Today, although only one textual version of the Qur’an exists, orthodox Sunni Islam accepts seven different oral recitations, each differing slightly from the others.
Once the canonical form of revelation had been established, the exact status, origin and quality of the Qur’an became the focus of centuries of scholarship and debate. The Qur’an itself states it is revelation directly from God, but what, in theological terms, does that mean? Almost immediately, this became an issue of central importance.
The Mihna and the Createdness of the Qur’an
In 833 CE, the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun began an unprecedented process known today as the mihna. The caliphate, the government of the Islamic empire, attempted to impose a specific set of religious beliefs upon its religious scholars, the ‘ulama. For the first and last time, the caliph implicitly challenged the interpretive authority of Islam’s thought-leaders. This questioning was based on a point of faith regarding the Qur’an, namely, whether the Book was ‘created’ by God or, as His speech, was co-eternal with God.
Although this may seem like a minor and rather arcane point of theology, it was a contentious issue dividing two of the major theological movements at the time, the Mu’tazila and the proto-Sunni ‘Asharis. The Mu’tazila championed the idea of the ‘created’ Qur’an, essentially arguing that nothing except God was eternal. This understanding of the holy book also fit in with the Mu’tazilas’ more rationalist theological tendencies. They believed that the morality and ethical rules contained in the Qur’an were rational and accessible to human understanding and some even asserted that it was possible to reason one’s way into Islam without the Qur’an. The ‘Asharis, on the other hand, felt that the religious truths and ethical boundaries laid down in the Qur’an were outside of human understanding, and that God’s distinctions between right and wrong, permissible and impermissible, were inaccessible to human logic. Along with this anti-rationalist position, they believed that the Qur’an, as the Word of God, was eternal and uncreated, and that it existed before and outside of creation.
Though the differences between these two schools went much deeper, it was the issue of the Qur’an – its createdness or uncreatedness – that became the flashpoint between these two schools of thought. When the caliph al-Ma’mun stepped into the argument he sided firmly with the Mu’tazila, asking scholars to affirm the created nature of the Qur’an. The few scholars who refused to submit, including Ahmad ibn Hanbal, eponymous founder of the strict Hanbali school of law, were imprisoned and possibly tortured.
The mihna ended in 848 CE, due to enormous public outcry over the caliph’s overreach and the arrest of prominent scholars. With its end, any hopes of the caliphate controlling or dictating religious dogma came to a close. The political authorities were firmly defeated, and their Mu’tazila allies quickly lost legitimacy. As a result and ever since, Islamic orthodoxy has upheld the Qur’an as the eternal, uncreated Word of God.
Despite this consensus, debates about the Qur’an continued and one’s beliefs about the Qur’an became a litmus test for orthodoxy. While today considered among the most important Islamic thinkers, Imam al-Bukhari (died 870 CE), the compiler of the most famous collection of Prophetic traditions, found himself mired in controversy surrounding the Qur’an. According to the well-known Islamic scholar Jonathan Brown, many of Bukhari’s more conservative colleagues refused to accept him as a legitimate scholar because of his views on the Quran. Although he believed that the Qur’an itself was uncreated, Bukhari insisted that the lafz of the Qur’an –the sounds of the words as they are produced by a human being during oral recitation – was created.
These debates were not just about the Qur’an, but rather also about authority, authenticity and orthodoxy, among other things. In any case, as a result of these discussions an orthodox consensus surrounding the eternal nature of the revelation emerged, giving the Qur’an’s text even greater sanctity than it initially possessed. This sanctity was reaffirmed in a variety of legal opinions about who was permitted to handle or recite the Qur’an, and under what conditions. According to these opinions, a person has to be in a state of ritual purity before handling the Qur’an, a stance that effectively bars non-Muslims and menstruating women from accessing the holy text (sometimes, an exception for ‘academic’ use is allowed, which makes it permissible for non-Muslims to use it for study rather than for worship). Likewise, as has exhaustively been covered in the wake of various recent Qur’an-desecration controversies, disposing of a Qur’an involves an extensive array of regulations designed to protect the name of God and His word from indignity and desecration.
Reverence for the Qur’an and Violence
When Ahmad ibn Hanbal was arrested during the mihna in the 9th century CE, his followers in Baghdad (who numbered in the tens of thousands) threatened to riot. During the ‘Abbasid years, religion in Baghdad was very much an issue for the masses, and the Hanbalis in particular regularly took to the streets to protest against other Muslim schools of thought that threatened their beliefs. As an example, the famous Shafi’i scholar of hadith known as al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (died 1071 CE) is said to have been bricked into his home by angry Hanbalis. On the occasion of the mihna, it was the arrest of ibn Hanbal himself that set off his followers. and forced the caliph to release him.
Contemporary violence in response to the perceived desecration of the Qu’ran owes much to the current political and social situations in certain Muslim countries, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan. The actions of American and Western forces, as well as an overall assumption about bad intentions, have led to a situation where any perceived slight may explode into violence. At least in part, these angry individuals are attempting to assert their own authority over their religious symbols, just as their governments are acting to assert their legal authority over these symbols by punishing those responsible for their desecration. Because of its enormously sacred position within the Islamic faith, the Qur’an has been and will continue to be, a potent focal point for this dynamic.
As the violence rages on, debates about the Qu’ran also continue. Despite the popularity of orthodox beliefs about the holy book and who is permitted to handle it, these positions have been challenged by some Muslims, particularly by modern rationalists and feminists, who believe themselves to be defending the Qur’an, and, through it, the faith as a whole. This sort of debate, is neither new nor surprising. In fact, it was precisely the kind of discussion that epitomized the mihna of the ‘Abbasids, and that cemented beliefs about the revelation’s particular qualities in the first place. It is fitting that current political and religious debates continue to be carried out in a similar fashion.
*“Leila” is a pseudonym used by a freelance writer who has lived for more than six years in Saudi Arabia. She holds an MA in Islamic Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.