Burning Defaced Korans: Islam-Approved

Two weeks ago the U.S. military burned a number of Korans at the Parwan Detention Facility, co-located with Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. Parwan is the largest U.S. prison facility for Islamic militants, eclipsing even Guantanamo. It held some 1,700 prisoner as of Summer 2011, three times as many as were held there during the Bush administration.

According to a recent New York Times article on the topic, in mid-February officials at Parwan began to suspect that prisoners were using library books to send messages to one another and even to plan potential uprisings. Some 1,600 books, including Korans, were examined by Afghan-American interpreters (presumably fluent in both Dari and Pashtu) then removed from the facility’s library and sent to the base incinerator. Local Afghan workers and Afghan military personnel got wind of the plan and raised a ruckus, stopping the burning and raising alarms with the Afghan public.

In the aftermath, at least 36 people -- including six U.S. military personnel -- have been killed in Afghan Islamic rage at the burning of the Muslim holy book. President Obama has apologized and Afghanistan’s Ulama (Sunni clerics) Council has been demanding that those responsible for burning the books -- not the subsequent murderers -- be tried.

In reality, it is not against Islamic law to burn Korans, as two of the following three points make clear.

First, and most importantly: authoritative fatwas exist legitimizing the burning of Korans in situations such as prevailed at Parwan. Exhibit number one is this Saudi fatwa, which spells out the conditions for disposing of Korans by either burying them or consigning them to the flames, “thus imitating Uthmaan,” the third caliph:

  • If it has torn pages;
  • If it has pages or suras (chapters) out of order;
  • If the printed text is somehow amiss with errors or typos;
  • If any of the pages are missing.

The “Online Islamic Academy” SunniPath adds: "One should not write within the Koran nor highlight it.” Taken together, these Sunni sources clearly declare that writing in a Koran is tantamount to “corrupting” the Islamic holy book and that disposal of the corrupted book by burning is perfectly acceptable.

Second: the aforementioned fatwa adduces Uthman, the third caliph of Islam (644-656 AD), because he is well-known in the Islamic world for having burned “Korans.” During his reign there were several different collected versions of Muhammad’s “revelations” circulating in the various urban centers of the rapidly expanding (by conquest) Islamic empire. According to Islamic sources, Uthman ordered a council held in Medina where any extant written or oral sources were consulted in order to create the authoritative Koran, after which he ordered the caliphal armies to burn the now-passé “Korans” wherever they might be found. Granted, these were not copies of the “true Koran” according to Muslims today. But even Saudi muftis adduce Uthman’s actions, presumably because even these false Korans contained some elements of the Muhammadan “revelation.” So the torching of obsolescent scriptures was legitimized in Islamic history by the leader many Sunnis consider to be second in prestige only to Muhammad himself.

Third: the U.S. military can hardly be accused of any degree of special prejudice against Islamic holy writ when that same military has burned Bibles.

In the spring of 2009, an unknown number of Bibles printed in Dari and Pashtu were shipped to Bagram Air Base by an unspecified American church group. The American command promptly seized the Bibles and burned them. The United States is three-quarters Christian, and the U.S. military is overwhelmingly so; another 2% or so of Americans are Jewish. Muslims make up less than 1% of the American population. Yet the American military command exhibited no hesitation whatsoever in consigning to the flames the Holy Scripture of the vast majority of Americans, and the civilian leadership of our nation never apologized for them doing so.