09/13/2010 05:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Quran Burning, Past and Present

People have been burning the Quran since the early days of Islam, but they haven't always been its enemies.

The third caliph, Uthman, became famous, or rather infamous, for Quran burning. Distressing reports had filtered to him from battlefield generals who were fighting against the Armenians and other nations on the edge of his burgeoning Islamic empire: different versions of the Quran were overheard being recited.

Caliph Uthman had a bold idea. He made a new edition of the Quran and demanded that all other editions be surrendered and burnt. Not everyone liked this. After all, Uthman was not one of the four people Prophet Muhammad had said Muslims could trust to issue the Quran. Ibn Mas'ud, on the other hand, was. He refused point-blank to surrender his collection of the Quran, which he claimed he got directly from Muhammad.

Ali, the famous one who was Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law and the soon-to-be fourth caliph, at first refused to surrender his Quran to the flames. He finally gave in under pressure, but he was not pleased.

Some claim Ali's displeasure led him to participate in the assassination of Uthman -- staged while Uthman was reading his new version of the Quran. One report has the assassins dramatically screaming, "You changed Allah's Quran!" as they plunged knives into the fading caliph's body. Ali's followers, who became the Shiites, to this day feel that Uthman tampered with the Quran to deprive Ali's family of the hereditary right to lead Islam.

Caliph Uthman's bonfire dealt a blow to textual criticism of the Quran. Fortunately, some hidden pre-Uthmanic manuscripts survived and have slowly come to light, although access to them has been limited: their very existence goes against the party line that the Quran has never been changed. We know that Ibn Mas'ud's version was different from the modern Quran. For example, it did not include the important first sura, known as the "Fatiha."

The fact that the chief religious and military leader of Islam in his day, Caliph Uthman, burnt the Quran does not mean that he established a tradition that we should follow. The Topkapi Secret, my novel released in September 2010, has an example of the profound hurt modern Muslims feel when seeing the Quran burn. According to strict Muslim tradition, the Quran should be revered not just because of its message, but as an object, to the extent that the believer's hands must be clean, and the unbeliever's hands should not even touch it.

In America we have the freedom to make mistakes. We may be allowed to burn the sacred books of others, but how does that reflect on those who burn them?

American aid workers were thrown out of Morocco this spring because an inspection found non-Muslim religious material on their premises, and health-care workers were shot in Afghanistan this August largely because one of them had a Bible. Granted, Quran burning is much less aggressive than these injustices, but shouldn't Americans behave better than the communist and Muslim nations that ban and burn religious texts on a daily basis?

On the other hand, we do have the precedent of Muslims burning the Quran themselves, set by Caliph Uthman, as well as present-day Muslim apostates who, disgruntled with Islam, want to destroy their Qurans. Here's a suggestion to Christians who would burn the Quran: let only the hundreds of former Muslims won over by your godly character and loving message burn their own Qurans.

For references, see