Spring 2004

Leftovers / What to Do with a Worn-Out Koran

A question of disposition

Michael Cook

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

Say you’re a Bible-reading Christian, with the result that eventually your Bible is in tatters, and it’s time to replace it. Getting a new one is no problem. But what are you to do with the old one? There are no generally accepted rules about this in mainstream Western Christianity, so you could perfectly well dump your old Bible in the trashcan. But you probably don’t feel comfortable with this option, and you no longer have room for the dog-eared volume on your bookshelf. For lack of anything better to do, you very likely end up putting it at the back of a closet, where you can at least forget the problem till the next spring cleaning. At that point you could maybe pass the buck by donating it to the Salvation Army.

Even if you are not a Bible-reading Christian, or any kind of Christian, you should have no difficulty sensing that there is some kind of dilemma here. But our modern Western culture does not address it. Some other cultures, by contrast, have their acts together on this issue.

Koran frontispiece fragment, ca. 8th century, from the Great Mosque in Sanaa, Yemen.

A few years ago, the British Library acquired a collection of 13 birch-bark scrolls containing Buddhist texts dating from the first century of our era, together with a large clay pot in which they had reportedly been found.[1] The provenance was unknown, but it would be a good guess that the cache came from Afghanistan. The peculiar thing about the scrolls was the way they had been assembled. Rather than containing a single continuous text, a typical scroll consisted of a patchwork of fragments taken from a variety of original scrolls—and fragments that must have derived from the same original scroll would show up in several different scrolls. Fortunately the Buddhist monks who assembled these scrolls left us with a clue to what they were up to: here and there could be found annotations, in the same language and script as the original fragments but in manifestly different hands, describing the texts as “all written” or the like. In other words, these were texts of which new copies had been made, and they were now being marked as ready to be discarded. The monks must have had to go through this process quite often, since birch bark is a fragile material once it dries out, far weaker than paper. It seems, then, that the fragments of disintegrating manuscripts were made up into scrolls more or less at random and placed in clay pots, presumably for burial (suggestively, we also find pieces of human bone in such pots). So this appears to be a Buddhist solution to the problem of manuscripts too damaged to be worth keeping but too sacred to be treated as garbage. But this can only be inference, since the monks who assembled these junk scrolls have left us no explicit record of their intentions, and parallels from elsewhere in the Buddhist world are scarce.

A few centuries later, the Jews proved more helpful. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud cites two views on the disposal of a worn-out Torah scroll. One 4th-century rabbi states that it may be buried with a scholar; another, more in line with our Buddhist monks, says it should be put in a clay pot. Such practices were to have a long history in Jewish communities, but they have not attracted much attention except in one very unusual case: the Cairo Genizah, a vast trove of Jewish texts dating from around the 11th century of our era. Here the materials to be disposed of were not buried or otherwise dispersed, but deposited in a room in a synagogue, whence they eventually reached the hands of modern scholars. What makes the collection particularly valuable is the fact that the texts are not exclusively scriptural. They range from religious literature of various kinds to personal documents and letters—anything written in the Hebrew script seems to have been regarded as fair game. The result is to give us a unique window onto the everyday life of the medieval Near East.

Unfortunately for historians, medieval Muslims did not have a comparable concern for the Arabic script, and tended to confine such protective practices to the disposal of worn-out copies of the Koran. With this limitation, we possess at least two bodies of early Islamic material reminis cent of the Cairo Genizah. One was discovered in a small building in the courtyard of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus in 1893; the texts found there, overhelmingly Koranic, were taken by the Ottoman authorities to Istanbul, where they form part of the collection of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. The other cache came to light in a closed-off part of the roof-space of the Great Mosque in Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen, in the course of repairs to the building in 1972. This material remains in Yemen; it has been studied by a group of German scholars, though as yet they have published very little about it. In the nature of things, such material does not have much to tell us about everyday life. But it promises to interest scholars concerned with the history of the Koranic text, and in this respect the earliest fragments from Yemen are reported to display some significant archaic features, such as divergent orderings of the chapters of the Koran.

For us, the interesting thing about the Muslims is that they have much more to say about the problem of disposing of worn-out scripture than the Jews, let alone the Buddhists. A small treatise on the subject by Güzelhisari,[2] a Turkish scholar of the late 17th century, sums up the methods already discussed by earlier Muslim jurists: burning the material, burying it, washing off the writing, setting the texts aside in a clean place where impure hands would not touch them (as in the cases of the collections from Damascus and Sanaa), or some combination of these procedures. Güzelhisari himself favors burning. But it becomes clear from his account of the various choices that none was felt to be entirely satisfactory. Burning, as one scholar cited by Güzelhisari argues, implies disrespect—indeed it was the kind of thing one did with heretical books. With burial there are two problems. One is that the text may be defiled by contact with the earth (so it should at least be wrapped before being buried). The other is that people may tread the ground above with their feet. Washing writing off works well enough with parchment, but try doing it with paper; even then, there is the problem of disposing of the residue of inky water left behind by the departed scripture. We are not told what was wrong with putting the text aside in a clean place; perhaps, like the back of your closet, it seemed too much of a stop-gap solution—had it found general favor, we would surely have come upon many more such collections hidden away in the older cities of the Islamic world.

These problems have not gone away. In 1997, the Taliban banned the use of paper bags in the part of Afghanistan under their control, for fear that they might contain recycled Koranic texts that would then be defiled. Two thousand years after the Buddhists had assembled their junk scrolls for disposal, in a land in which Buddhism was now utterly forgotten, the old concern of the monks was still nagging at the hearts of true believers.

But what exactly is this concern? Just what is it that stops you dumping your worn-out scripture in the trashcan? It might be a purely subjective anxiety—you could feel that it wouldn’t do God’s word any harm, but that it would nevertheless be disrespectful on your part. Or it might be an objective concern—you could think that you would do damage to God’s word by defiling it, whatever the precise nature of that damage might be. Since people don’t generally address this issue, it’s hard to know what they think, if indeed they think anything at all. But we can perhaps say one thing. The more directly you identify the book on your shelf as God’s very word—as opposed to, say, a copy of a translation of a version of God’s word—the more likely you are to think in terms of an objective process of defilement independent of your own attitudes. And such direct identification is strongly present in orthodox Islam. For Tabari, a famous scholar in early 10th-century Iraq, the Koran was God’s uncreated word however it was written or recited, whether in heaven or on earth, whether written on the celestial “guarded tablet” or on the mundane tablets of schoolboys, whether inscribed on stone or on paper, whether memorized in the heart or spoken on the tongue. Whoever said otherwise, he added, was an infidel whose blood might be shed and from whom God has dissociated Himself.

But there is always the possibility that modern technology is heralding the dawn of a new era. If you call up virtual scripture on your computer screen, and then close the file, what is there left to burn, bury, wash off, or set aside?[3]

  1. See Richard Salomon, Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara: The British Library Kharosthi Fragments (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), chapter 4.
  2. See Joseph Sadan, “Genizah and Genizah-like Practices in Islamic and Jewish Traditions,” Bibliotheca Orientalis, vol. 43 (1986), cols. 36–58, with further material from numerous sources.
  3. This article is an expansion of a couple of paragraphs in my book The Koran: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 60–61.

Michael Cook is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He has worked on various aspects of the history of Islam and the Islamic world, and has recently published A Brief History of the Human Race (W. W. Norton, 2003).

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