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On fire: issues in theology and politics – ii

[ by Charles Cameron — burning and blasphemy ]

The question here is a simple one: which is the more blasphemous? burning holy scripture — or burning oneself, a human being?

Now I imagine you think the answer to that’s quite obvious, and I do too. But there are people with the opposite opinion to mine — and when we burn their scriptures, even by mistake, even making apologies afterwards, they get enraged, and kill people. There may be many other factors that contribute to their rage, but this is the trigger, the religious sanction, the thing that pushes them over the top.

Someone tweeted the other day:

Souls are being burned alive in Homs & others riot over ink & paper. Where’s the logic?!

It is not my purpose to attack or defend anyone’s beliefs or opinions here — what I would like to do instead is to see through the rage and glimpse that logic: I would like us to avoid needlessly triggering it.

I want to bring what may at first seem utterly incomprehensible to us, a little closer to our comprehension.


In the Quran 5.32, we read:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

On the one hand, that sets an extremely high value on human life — the Jewish equivalent is found in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a — and on the other hand, it can be claimed that that high value is set not by humans but by their Creator in his revealed Word, the Qur’an.


What metaphor or analogy would allow me to understand that logic in terms of my own culture? Not the rage itself, not the killings — but the logic that potentiates them?


If you think, as the melancholy Jaques has it in As You Like It, that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players – and as Hamlet might think, pondering what more things might be in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy – why then —

How does one weigh the value of the life of a Jaques, or Hamlet, of one of us, one single human being – of whom Shakespeare, again through his Hamlet, said:

how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! ..

against the value of a single copy of the Works of one William Shakespeare – who then continued on, through that same Hamlet’s voice, to ask:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


Shakespeare, the First Folio, Hamlet?
God, the Scripture, you or me?


It is said the imperishable Quran is writ in heaven before time was, and there is a hadith of Tirmidhi that describes Allah reciting Suras 20 and 36, Taha and Ya Sin, upon hearing which the angels responded “Happy are the people to whom this comes down, happy are the minds which carry this, and happy are the tongues which utter this”.

I am not a literalist, I am a poet — so that makes poetic sense to me, the way Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” makes sense.

In reading these words, I see for a moment the beauty, the devotion that is possible towards this book, the fervent dedication.

I am not about to kill people in the name of Shakespeare or the Gospels — yet I can understand a reverence for that which is greater than I, for that which is more than we dream of, and for that which “comes down” from thence.


Suppose the body is a perishable scaffolding, and the book an eternal transcript written in the immortal soul…

And now recall what that eternal transcript says:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

The paradox here, surely, is that we are each of us the quintessence of dust – each of us more than is dreamt of in philosophy.


May the soul of Mohamed Bouazizi rest at last.

One Response to “On fire: issues in theology and politics – ii”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    From Imam Abdullah Antepli, Muslim Chaplain at Duke University:

    For any Muslim who believes the sacredness of the Quran as God’s final revelation to humanity, that very same Quran condemns and rejects such anarchy in many of her verses and teachings. First of all, the Quran invites us to respect and engage with her divine message more so than the actual physical form of the book that is found between two covers. Respecting a physical copy of Quran could be understandable, but violating its central teachings and principles–for example by killing innocent people–just because someone disrespected or insulted a copy of the Quran is unacceptable, barbaric and reprehensible. No physical copy of a holy scripture, including the Quran, is more sacred than the life of a human being. This is what the Quran and our beloved prophet, whom the Quran came through, teaches us over and over.

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