Last week’s post focused on Jesus and Muhammad, the founders of Christianity and Islam. Another essential element among religions is religious texts. Texts represent a written language which embodies knowledge about abstract and concrete ideas. Religious texts are a repertoire of religious beliefs and guidelines for religious rituals and practices. Religious texts also provide details of the history of the religion, serve as a yardstick for moral behaviour, and function as a comprehensive guide for religious communities. They also provide the framework for establishing new religious communities.
One may distinguish religious texts into sacred and religious texts. A sacred text is specifically perceived to be a product of divine inspiration and therefore contains the direct words of the supernatural, though written in human language. For religions with sacred texts, their religious beliefs and practice depend on these specific books. On the other hand, religious texts are writings which are considered to be of a lesser status than the former.
One thing about many sacred texts is that religious founders did not write these texts. Jesus did not write the New Testament containing his life and teachings. The apostles documented it after his death. The situation is similar in Islam. The Qur’an text was not personally written down by Prophet Muhammad, who had the revelation from God. In fact, the Qur’an explicitly described him as ‘the Unlettered Prophet’ (Qur’an 7:157). Therefore, he repeated his revelations to his followers, who then wrote them down. Hence, the use of the Arabic word ‘qur’an’, which means ‘recitation’, to describe the text.
Although the Bible and the Qur’an share many similarities as religious texts, even in content, authorship and its implications matter a lot. Christianity teaches that all scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16), and the authors wrote according to their context. Hence, the Bible contains many references to the then Middle Eastern Culture. As I argued in the past, Jesus used wine made from grapes because grapes grew there. It might have been pineapple or palm wine if Jesus had lived in the tropics. On the other hand, Islam teaches that the content of the Qur’an was a direct revelation from God through the Angel Gabriel. Prophet Muhammad did not dilute, alter the words, or adapt them to the context as he dictated to his followers.
The above point is instructive because it distinguishes between inspiration and dictation of revelation. While the former enables documentation of revelation whereby the receiver actively documents the message based on his context, the latter shows that the receiver is merely an active instrument to channel the message.
The gospel of John affirms that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This interpretation plays out in Islam, where the Qur’an is seen as the direct word of God, that should be given the utmost respect. Therefore, the Qur’an has many etiquettes governing its handling and reading. For instance, no other book is allowed to be kept on top of the Qur’an, and it should not be read in places of impurity. Old texts are burnt, but not together with the trash. It may also be buried (wrapped in something pure) where people do not walk.
Ignorance of this has led to violence and a threat to inter-religious dialogue. While the Bible and the Qur’an are sacred texts, they are different. Hence, we should not argue that Muslims should not be deeply offended when the Qur’an is abused because Christians wrongly and easily desecrate the Bible, eliciting no strong reaction, even from Christians. Countries that allow people to tear or burn the Qur’an publicly stoke religious tensions.
On 21 January 2023, Rasmus Paludan, a Danish-Swedish far-right politician, torched a copy of the Qur’an outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm with police permission and protection from the Swedish authorities. On 22 January 2023, a Dutch far-right politician, Edwin Wagensveld, tore the Qur’an before burning it in the Hague, Netherlands. These acts led to protests in Sweden and around the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Pakistan, and Somalia are among the countries that issued a strongly worded statement to express their deep dissatisfaction.
Although the law in European countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, may permit such acts to “protect the freedom of expression”, it is not opportune because of the wider impact on the country. As those who often desecrate the Qur’an in Europe are far-right ideologues who are largely Islamophobic, it appears they do this to express their dissatisfaction with the rise of Islam in Europe. Yet, such an approach is counterproductive, as local and global reactions show.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾