On Sep. 11, 2011, pastor Terry Jones decided to burn a Qur’an, marking the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. At that time, President Obama expressed his fear, saying, “The book burning would be disrespectful, dangerous, idiotic and un-American and could put US forces serving in Muslim countries at further risk”. In addition, the international police agency, INTERPOL, warned governments worldwide of an increased risk of terrorist attacks if the burning went ahead, and the U.S. State Department issued a warning to Americans traveling overseas.
In June 2023, an Iraqi Christian refugee living in Sweden burned a copy of the religious text outside Stockholm’s central mosque. The man was given permission to destroy a copy of Quran, which led to Sweden evacuating its embassy staff from Baghdad after the building was stormed and set fire to by protesters. Afterwards, many Muslim-majority countries have strongly condemned the burning of the Quran. Nearly 1,000 demonstrators in Baghdad tried to reach the Danish embassy after that incident.
The present article highlights Al-Azhar’s stance on desecration of the Qur’an, the value of sacred books in Islamic texts, and how Islam and Muslims hold profound reverence and great respect for these books. Before delving into this issue, many points should be made clear.
First: the phenomenon of book burning, in general, is concerned with the decline of civilization and the end of progress. Book burning can be an act of contempt for the contents or author of a book, intended to draw wider public attention to this opinion, or deny the book any publicity. History is the best witness to these facts as this is clearly manifested in the era of the Chinese emperor Shi Huang, 212 BC, when he burned the books of scholars, intellectuals, and writers. The same action took place by the Mongols, who destroyed the Grand Library of Baghdad that was full of invaluable books. All these vicious acts only indicate the deterioration and lack of real awareness.
Second: this is not the first incident where gangs of terrorism and extremism tore up and burned a Qur’an. Rather, several similar incidents took place across various places, targeting either the Qur’an or Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). In 2023, a number of Quran burnings occurred in Sweden, the most notable of which was on 28 June 2023, when a 37-year-old Iraqi refugee ripped out and set fire to pages of the Quran outside the Stockholm Mosque. This incident triggered international protests and condemnation, particularly in the Muslim world.
Third: These criminal acts will have no impact on any civilized person as Qur’an will remain a guiding book for mankind and a beacon of goodness, righteousness, and beauty. In addition, Qur’an is so enshrined among Muslims that a Muslim would sacrifice himself and his belongings to honor the word of Allah, the Almighty, and the key reason for pleasure in both worldly life and the Hereafter. A Muslim is keen to learn, understand, and contemplate the Qur’an and to educate his children and grandchildren on its teachings. To Muslims, Qur’an is the main source of pride and wisdom. Therefore, those barbaric acts of burning will only increase Muslims’ faith in their cause, further preserve their religious identity and love of their sanctities.
Burning Qur’an is an obvious manifestation of the assault on the religious sanctity of the other, which is one of the most distinctive characteristics of humanity. It is no exaggeration that such burnings are more severe than the assault on a Muslim’s soul and body. The Qur’an has explicitly forbidden people from such an assault as Allah, the Almighty, says, “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah” (Qur’an: 6: 108). Is it possible that such barbarism could lead to peaceful coexistence that we all aspire to?!
It is a widely acknowledged fact that mistake a cannot be corrected by another mistake, nor an insult can be cleared with another. Allah says, “Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend” (Qur’an: 41: 34).
The person who burned a Qur’an deliberately provokes Muslims and lures them into reckless actions. The propaganda machine then starts to distort the image of Muslims even more disgracefully. If it was permissible to burn the Torah and Gospel on the ground that Qur’an supersedes them, the same argument would have worked in the other direction as well. In addition, if burning the Torah and Gospel is the decisive response to Qur’an burnings, how irking and provocative this would be to the Jews and Christians whose categorical rejection of burnings is unmistakable?
A key feature of the Prophet’s endeavors was to fully preserve places of worship and sacred scriptures, whether they were Jewish or Christian. This is because Allah, the Almighty, says, “And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned” (Qur’an: 22: 40). It is known that monasteries, churches, and synagogues are all non-Islamic houses of worship. However, Allah instructed Muslims to protect them from any assault. This is clearly manifested in the covenant that the Prophet signed with the Christians of Najrān, “Muslims are to protectand defend the Christians, their churches, places of worship, places of prayers, places of the monks, the (sacred) areas which they tour wherever they may be in a mountain, valley, cave, city, plain, or a sandy track”.
In addition, the Prophet PBUH had a frank dialogue with a delegation of Christians from Najrān in his mosque and recited the following Qur’anic verse to them, “Say, ‘O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship anyone except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah.’ But if they turn away, then say, ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him]’” (Qur’an: 3: 64). The Prophet neither insulted nor rebuked any of them. In another verse, the Prophet (PBUH) is divinely instructed to say, “then say, ‘For me are my deeds, and for you are your deeds’” (Qur’an: 10: 41).
One of the greatest examples showing the Prophet’s tolerance is the situation that took place between him and the Jews of Khaybar. The Prophet found some scriptures of the Torah among the spoils of war. When the Jews asked the Prophet to reclaim them, he instantly commanded his companions to give back the scriptures.
It is an Islamic teaching and a Prophetic tradition to respect others’ beliefs and religions and seek to establish peaceful coexistence regardless of the fundamental differences among people. Furthermore, the Jews used to study Torah in Bayt al-Madāris in al-Madīnah al-Munawwarah; the Prophet did not prevent them from this practice.
In addition, it was narrated that a group of Jews invited the Messenger of Allah to visit them in Bayt al-Madāris, saying, “Abu al-Qasim, one of our men has committed fornication with a woman; so, pronounce judgment upon them. They placed a cushion for the Messenger of Allah who sat on it and said: ‘Bring the Torah’. It was then brought. He then withdrew the cushion from beneath him and placed the Torah on it saying: ‘I believed in you and in Him Who sent you’”.
As for the best way to respond to those who desecrate the Qur’an and insult the Messenger (PBUH), it can be achieved in two ways:
(1) The best step that Muslim countries should adopt is to show all types of peaceful objection to such a disgraceful act. This starts with releasing strongly worded statements, holding vigils, and seeking all ways to make our angry protest heard worldwide. This further involves political and economic pressures such as boycotting the goods and products of countries that allow Qur’an burning. If all Arab and Islamic countries agree on one stance, those countries would refrain from issuing licenses to perpetrators.
(2) Arab and Muslim countries should try to present a positive image of Islam and Muslims worldwide through spreading the true word of Islam and discrediting those perpetrators. Accordingly, it is obligatory upon Muslims to reverse the false image about Islam.
It is worth noting that Al-Azhar Al-Sharif stresses that committing such heinous acts under the glare of the international community is regarded as a crime and a blatant violation of the international law, norms, and conventions that stipulate respecting all religious sanctities. In addition, Al-Azhar regards these acts as a form of terrorism undermining peace-promoting efforts, interfaith dialogue, and communication between the East and the West. Al-Azhar calls upon the international community, especially, Arab and Muslim countries to take a serious stance against countries tolerating such vicious acts.
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Prof. Ahmed al-Tayeb stressed that those unbearable, provocative crimes against Islam and its sanctities undermine peaceful coexistence among people, tolerance, and cooperation; and fuel the fires of hatred, malice, and desires for revenge. Therefore, all western countries, which tolerate such barbaric crimes and provide them with security protection under the pretext of freedom of speech, must take heed that they are undermining their security and social fabric.