Thursday, September 09, 2010

My Rosh ha-Shana Talk about Burning the Qur'an

Driving to Hillel this morning, I came up with the following, which I said during this morning's services (Thanks Lisa for letting me have my moment, and this is an approximation of what I said off-the-cuff):

Shana tova and chag sameach. Gut yuntif and gut yor. Because Jews and Muslims both use the moon to mark their calendars, there is a wonderful convergence this week, a convergence of dates which does not happen very often. While we Jews were marking the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading up to the New Year, Muslims were marking their sacred month of Ramadan. While we Jews celebrate the beginning of our New Year, Muslims are celebrating the end of Ramadan, culminating in a day's time with Id al-Fitr, the joyous end of the month in which Muhammad received (according to Muslim tradition) his first revelation from God. Those revelations continued throughout the rest of Muhammad's life, and were gathered together into a book which Muslims call the recitation, or in Arabic the Qur'an.

Also, in a random bit of coincidence, this Saturday is the ninth anniversary of a day that has seared itself into American memory, what was a "clear blue Tuesday" morning nine years ago when I opened my 9:55 Intro to Islam class with an image from the internet of the North Tower billowing smoke. I told my class I didn't know much about the burning tower, but I announced that the course would be quite different from what I had planned.

This Saturday, a crackpot minister from Gainesville, Florida plans to gather together a number of Qur'ans and set them on fire in the parking lot of his church. He says he has been told by God that Islam is the devil's religion, and he has been commanded to burn the devil's book. Everyone has condemned what he is planning to do. Yesterday Hilary Clinton condemned it, and General Petraeus has said it will endanger our troops in Afghanistan. This morning President Obama condemned the planned bonfire.

Now every one of the holy books has verses that can be interpreted one way or another. Our own Bible has verses that calls for the slaughter of God's enemies. And the New Testament has verses that heap scorn on those who do not accept Christ as Savior. And the Qur'an too has verses that attack Christians and Jews. But I wanted to read to you one verse from the book that Pastor Jones plans to burn on Saturday, which goes like this:

قُولُوٓاْ ءَامَنَّا بِٱللَّهِ وَمَآ أُنزِلَ إِلَيۡنَا وَمَآ أُنزِلَ إِلَىٰٓ إِبۡرَٲهِـۧمَ وَإِسۡمَـٰعِيلَ وَإِسۡحَـٰقَ وَيَعۡقُوبَ وَٱلۡأَسۡبَاطِ وَمَآ أُوتِىَ مُوسَىٰ وَعِيسَىٰ وَمَآ أُوتِىَ ٱلنَّبِيُّونَ مِن رَّبِّهِمۡ لَا نُفَرِّقُ بَيۡنَ أَحَدٍ۬ مِّنۡهُمۡ وَنَحۡنُ لَهُ ۥ مُسۡلِمُونَ

Say: We believe in God and in that which has been revealed to us, and in that which has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and in that which has been given to the prophets from their Lord - we do not make any distinction between any one of them - and to Him do we submit.

This is one of my favorite verses in the Qur'an (2:136). The simplicity and beauty of its ecumenical message is undeniable.

There was a German man of letters who lived about a century before the Nazis came to power in Germany. Heinrich Heine is famous for the quote:  "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." And it wasn't just the Nazis who burned our Jewish books and fulfilled the premonition - before the Nazis there were the Inquisitors of the Middle Ages, about whom Heine wrote. So we here in the Jewish community know better than anyone else what book burning portends. And because of that, we should all reach out to our Muslim brothers and sisters on campus, at the bayt al-salaam, and offer them our support and our friendship in this time where they must be feeling enormous pain.

But there is another side to the story which complicates the picture. Two years ago in the predominantly religious Israeli town of Or Yehudah, Christian missionaries provocatively distributed hundreds of copies of the New Testament to the homes of residents. The mayor of Or Yehudah organized a mass gathering of the New Testaments and they were then burned. And not long ago some Muslims around the world rioted over a Danish cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, and before that a very few Muslim religious authorities issued a death sentence against an author who wrote a less-than-complimentary portrait of Muhammad.

We are living in a time where the crazies of all three faiths are burning each other's books. It is so sad and disheartening. So here I am, the liberal college professor of religious studies, begging you all to be open-minded and open-hearted, and do whatever you can to stem this tide of insanity. We Jews more than almost any other group know what this madness can lead to. Reach out to your friends who are feeling the heat of this fire of intolerance. Shana tova, and `Id mubarak.

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