The reach of the Quran
Outrage over reported abuse of holy book reflects depth of reverence for text

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

For Muslims, the words of the Quran start and complete the day.

They are sacred and divine a revelation of God to the prophet Muhammad.

And they are considered spiritually uplifting and rewarding.

So a news report that the Quran had been flushed down a toilet as part of an interrogation at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba outraged Muslims around the globe.

The small story in the May 9 Newsweek was later retracted. The magazine said it could not substantiate it. But the allegation of the Islamic holy book's desecration sparked anti-American protests some of them deadly in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In Houston, the report spurred some anger in the Muslim community, said Rodwan Saleh, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, who fielded phone calls from offended Muslims of many observance levels.

"This truly shows that the Muslims, no matter whether they were secular or religious, they will always hold the Quran in the highest regard," he said.

Their regard for the Quran is based on its role for the faithful.

"It is not like picking up Shakespeare, Moby Dick or some great novel," said Iesa Galloway, executive director of the Houston office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It is the words of God. We are not asking other people to adopt that view. We are asking people to respect what is considered sacred."

Saleh compares it to how some Americans feel when they see their flag burned.

"What is the U.S. flag?" he asked. "It is a piece of cloth. But what does it represent? ... Burning it in public is considered to be offensive."

The holy book is a fundamental text of Islam, said Imam Waleed Basyouni of the Clear Lake Islamic Center. The Sunna, the sayings of Muhammad, is another key text.

The Quran "is the speech of God," he said. "In it is contained the main themes that are the message of Islam."

The theme that runs throughout the book is the worship of the one God, said Basyouni, an instructor at the American Open University, an Islamic University based in Virginia. But the holy book also describes God's attributes, how to worship Him, the reward for those who do, punishment for those who don't, and God's creative powers.

The Quran is said to have been revealed through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad beginning when he was 40. The words were received over the course of 23 years, while the prophet was in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The first revelation Muhammad is said to have received was "Read in the name of God, the one who created you."

"It is about learning," Basyouni said. "That is unique."

The prophet was illiterate, but he recited the words to his companions who wrote them down and, after his death, compiled the Quran according to Muhammad's specifications.

The holy book is divided into 114 chapters, or suras. The Quran is only sacred in the original Arabic. Translations often contain the subtitle: "Meaning of the Quran."

Before reading the Quran, believers often will perform ritual cleansing. Most scholars agree that one must be in a state of purity when reading it, Basyouni said. And it is forbidden to even take the Quran into a bathroom, he said.

Muslims don't write in the Quran, but they may take notes, for example, in a translation. It is not annotated by scholars. When Muslims carry it, they often wrap it in linen cloth, Galloway said. They don't put it in a dirty spot in the house.

There are also many Muslims who memorize the entire book, which is considered a blessing and has helped preserve the text through the centuries, Basyouni said.

Believers will often read or recite portions of the Quran when they wake up in the morning and before they go to bed.

Respecting the words of God is something that runs deep in Islam, and there is an illustrative story of Muhammad's careful treatment of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible.

Separating the book from the sacredness it contains and represents is difficult for Muslims, Basyouni said.


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