Quranic Etiquette

Why my Egyptian doorman ate my homework.

Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff asserts that neither his magazine “nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Koran was going to create the kind of response that it did,” but it’s clear someone at the Defense Department realized some time ago that the treatment of the Muslim holy book was a very sensitive issue.A January 2003 Pentagon memo for “handling and inspecting of detainee Korans” said U.S. personnel must “ensure that the Koran is not placed in offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet, or dirty/wet areas.” So—if it happened—flushing a copy of the Quran down a toilet would certainly be serious, but as it turns out, there are a lot of ways to mishandle, mistreat, and desecrate the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation.

“Al-Qur’an” means “the recitation,” which Muslims believe came to Muhammad from God in parts by way of the angel Gabriel. Since the prophet was said to have been illiterate, it is unlikely that he wrote down what he recited. But others in the early Muslim community did, and some time after Muhammad’s death, as Muslim tradition affirms, variant editions were destroyed and one text was established. That version, many believe, is indistinguishable from the text we have today, a recitation contained in a book, or mushaf. And so it is both the book and the recitation that must be handled with great care. You don’t flush the book down the toilet, and you don’t recite it in the bathroom.

In the Quran itself, there is only one clear reference to how it should be treated: “None shall touch but those who are clean” (Sura 56). However, there is so much etiquette surrounding the Quran that a very strict scholar would perhaps argue that I have just desecrated the message. “It is the inviolability of the Quran,” wrote 13th-century scholar Imam Muhammad ibn Ahmad Qurtubi, “not to trivially quote the Qur’an at the occurrence of everyday events.” Citing the Quran for a piece of secular journalism is at least borderline trivial.

The major concern is that a person must be physically and spiritually clean when handling the Quran. This covers a wide range of situations and practices, including, among others, cleaning after sex, after going to the bathroom, and after touching a dog. There is some contention over whether or not women can handle the Quran while they are menstruating, but it’s a debate many women don’t seem particularly concerned with. I studied with three women in Egypt, none of whom ever avoided touching the Quran at any time.

Some Quranic etiquette is intellectual: One should pronounce each word correctly; one should seek to discover what difficult words mean. There are also prestige issues. For instance, one should not place any other book on top of the Quran. This last was a violation that my Cairo doorman Muhammad was ever concerned to root out. Once he had satisfied himself that I had not put the Quran under any other book or item in my apartment, he would instruct me to pour us both a glass of whiskey, after which he would not touch the Quran again until he was sober and had somewhat repented for a clear transgression.

Once, Muhammad discovered in my garbage an exam I had taken that tested knowledge of certain ayat (or verses) from the Quran, and he reproached me for putting the holy book in the trash. I said that it was not the Quran itself, but only words taken from it. His response was astonishing: “You can either burn your exam,” he explained, “or do this …” At which point, he tore off a verse, rolled it up, put it into his mouth, and swallowed it. I note that Muhammad was a doorman and not a scholar, but apparently in this particular instance, there was no problem if the Quran was to wind up in the toilet presently.

Perhaps the most decisive episode in Islamic history suggests that interpretation and context play a role in deciding what is licit and what is forbidden. At the Battle of Siffin in 657, the forces of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, were close to defeating Muawiya when one of Muawiya’s commanders ordered his troops to hoist copies of the Quran on their spears. The ploy worked, stopping Ali and his companions in their tracks. Whether or not Muawiya’s tactic was profane or Ali’s forbearance foolhardy is debatable, but eventually Ali was murdered, his followers became the Shiites, and Muawiya went on to establish the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus, the first Sunni dynasty.

No book should be desecrated. Muslims don’t like it when the Quran is mishandled, and we in the West don’t like to see other books violated, whether it’s Nazis burning them or Muslims demanding the death of an author. The book is the secular West’s sacred object, because it represents freedom of speech.

At any rate, it is dangerous to invest artifacts with too much metaphysical significance. The fact that many Muslims regard the Quran as the literal word of God, as we have frequently been reminded over the last week, poses an enormous problem. Without reinterpreting or recontextualizing a sacred text that suited the exigencies of an ancient Arabian community, it is going to be difficult for 21st-century believers to get along with non-Muslims on a very small planet.