Friday, March 30, 2012

Burning Bibles and Qurans

Every so often someone will ask me how to dispose of old Bibles. Is it proper to burn them? Should they be buried? Is it okay to throw them in the trash or bring them to the dump? I tell them to treat them like any other book. But because it is “the Holy Bible” people are hesitant to treat them in any manner that might be sacrilegious.
We learn as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts the proper way to dispose of American flags. Certainly there must be an equivalent procedure for Holy Scriptures. To tell the truth, there isn’t. Some denominations have developed ceremonies in response to parishioners concerns, but most Christians simply do not have an official protocol for disposing of Scriptures.
This is why we do not understand the outrage of Muslims in Afghanistan when American soldiers disposed of old Qurans by burning them this February. The soldiers were not intentionally disrespecting the Islamic holy book. They didn’t know any better. They were treating them like they might treat old Bibles. The problem is that Muslims do not view the Quran the way we view the Bible.
For Muslims the Quran is more than a book; it is divine. They believe that it exists eternally in heaven in Arabic and was verbally dictated to Muhammad. While studying in Israel, I heard an Islamic scholar say that Muslims view the Quran the way Christians view Christ – as the incarnate Word of God.  That should cause us to ponder the implications of Quran burnings!
If our soldiers had been more knowledgeable about religious traditions, then we would not be in the situation of having a top American military commander and the president of the United States publically apologize to Muslims. But Americans are so afraid of indoctrinating American public schoolchildren with Christian dogma that we have not adequately educated our children about religious beliefs and practices.
Consequently we have produced a generation of religiously illiterate adults unequipped for life in a pluralistic world. Students don’t know enough about the Bible to understand Shakespeare, much less know anything about the Quran!
I have read the entire Quran several times; I took a doctoral seminar in Islam at my Baptist seminary. I wish that all Christian ministers were required to study other religions. I have had lengthy theological discussions with a Sunni imam on a series of radio programs where we both were guests. I visited his mosque in Pittsburgh and graciously received from him an inscribed copy of the Quran. Personally I do not accept the Quran as scripture nor believe its teachings, but I would never think of treating the book disrespectfully.
I am also very wary of present-day Islam. My study of Islamic history enables me to see through the well-meaning rhetoric that insists that Islam is a “religion of peace.” Muhammad was a warrior who spread Islam by the sword. I have viewed his sword in a museum in Istanbul! In the same way, the word “jihad” is often said to mean nothing more than spiritual struggle – not violence. That may be true for today’s moderate Muslims, but throughout Islam’s history jihad has primarily meant military conquest. No postmodern rewriting of history can erase these facts.
I hope that Islam can be reformed by religious moderates and truly become a religion of peace. It is still a young religion, and this is certainly possible. Christianity outgrew the Crusades and Islam can do the same. But I doubt if it will happen in our lifetimes. Unfortunately 21st century Islam is moving in the opposite direction. In my opinion, the current radicalization of Islam is a much more serious threat to democracy, religious liberty, and world peace than Soviet communism ever was.
But I am also a strong defender of religious liberty and tolerance, even when that tolerance is not reciprocated. Therefore Muslims – especially in our country - need to be treated with respect. Above all I am a believer in religious literacy. We must move beyond the religious stereotypes that infest the worldviews of both the political right and left in our country. If we encouraged more reading of Scriptures and less burning of them, our grandchildren would inherit a much safer world.