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In the Company of the Heroes of the Sarajevo Haggadah – Imam Afroz Ali

In the Company of the Heroes of the Sarajevo Haggadah

The Florida- based Pastor Terry Jones may be completely unaware that part of his act of burning the Qur’an (or, Koran as he prefers to articulate the word) may be quite Islamic (which he claims to hate).You see, the Shari’ah injunction for disposing of spoilt, damaged or unwanted Sacred script is that it should be burnt. In his ignorance, he may be doing an unnecessary favour. God indeed works in mysterious ways, but ignorance of God can often lead one to miss the mystery.

Ignorance can be bliss, and Pastor Jones’s level of knowledge about Islam, amongst many other things, is one of blissful ignorance. According to a 10th August Gainesville District Court of USA deposition, his information about Islam mainly came from watching videos on the YouTube. Unfortunately that kind of point of reference differs little for most who hold and preach anti-Islamic sentiments. But the circus of burning books is not limited to anti-Islamists, but includes bigots from all walks of life hell-bent to preach hate in whatever form they can; for them how much they express their hate for the other is a proof of how much faith they have in “their” god. And, such flaming bigotry has not been limited to books; it has historically included libraries. Known as libricide – a term forgotten (even spell-check does not recognise it!) but not its ugly tradition – the burning and destruction of books as an assertion of self-righteousness over another religion or culture through acts of political warfare or religious repression is nothing new.

And so to counter the bliss of ignorance in many of us as well, it is timely to turn the pages of history to learn about the art of burning books, and libraries, that Pastor Jones has not aspired to alone, but also to reflect on some who transcended, with goodly courage, such unholy hatred.

First with some history of the art of burning books. In the year 50 AD, a roman soldier confiscated a Torah Scroll and publicly burnt it, which nearly caused a full revolt by the Jews against the largely tyrannical Roman procurator Cumanus, and quickly resolved by beheading the Roman soldier to appease the Jews.

Diocletian, another tyrannical Roman emperor, burnt Christian biblical literature as part of his increased persecution of Christians. One of the great heroes of the time, Saint Vincent of Saragossa who was a Christian deacon was executed by Diocletian for refusing to publicly declare the acceptability of burning the Holy Scripture. He is today warmly remembered in Catholic tradition as the one who preferred the preservation of the Scripture over his own life. In the 12th century, the great Cordovan Muslim geographer and descendent of the final Messenger of God, Muhammad (upon whom be peace and blessings of God), Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi, recorded in his travel logs about the shrine of St. Vincent of Saragossa in the Iberian peninsula, that it was constantly guarded by ravens and called it Kanisah al-Ghurabi (Church of Ravens).

A Muslim governor from Turkic background, Bikhtyar Khilji, quite a fanatic, burnt down an entire library of Buddhist scriptural literature in Bihar India in the 12th century. Minhaj as-Siraj recorded in his Tabaqat al-Nasiri, that Khilji not only burnt down the oldest library of Buddhist scholarly works, but also beheaded Buddhist monks for their religion. The library is said to have burnt for months due to the number of manuscripts in the library that fuelled the fire.

The most diversely catalogued library of the Islamic Samanids was burnt down by the invading Turks in 11th century. The great scholar Ibn Sinna (Avicenna) tried unsuccessfully to save the many manuscripts whilst the library burnt like an inferno.

One of the worst acts of libricide was the mega-destruction in the 13th century of one of the largest literary institutes the world has ever seen- House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) destroyed by the invading Mongols of Baghdad. The River Tigris was recorded as flowing in black ink due to the enormous amounts of manuscripts of Islamic Sciences thrown in there to be destroyed by the Mongols.

In 16th century, the Catholic Bishop of Yucatan burnt precious Sacred books of the Maya people. Similarly, the Bishop of London burnt William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in London.

In the 18th century, the Holy Roman Empire ordered a complete burning of the works of Johann Christian Edelmann due to, amongst others, his deistic opinions and assertion that Jesus, upon whom be peace of God, was a human and not the son of God.

Heinrich Heine, in his 1821 play Almansor, referred to the burning of the Qur’an during the Christian- led Spanish Inquisition, as follows:

Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.

Almost a century later, the Nazis not only torched his books but also a vast number of Jewish literature and sacred writings at the infamous Opernplatz on May 10th, 1933.

Many would argue that all of that occurred when it was the old archaic world, and so here are examples of the new 20th and 21st century world.

In 1981, the Buddhist-aligned Sri Lankan government officers and thugs burnt down the Tamil public library of Jafna, which held approximately 95,000 volumes of old Hindu scriptural works on paper and palm leaves.

In 1984, hundreds of copies of the New Testament were ceremonially burnt by Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Professor Israel Shahak of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in his book Jewish History, Jewish Religion:

“…. One can quote the precept according to which Jews are instructed (from the Talmud) to burn, publicly if possible, any copy of the New Testament that comes into their hands. (This is not only still in force but actually practiced today; thus on 23 March 1984 hundreds of copies of the New Testament were publicly and ceremonially burnt in Jerusalem under the auspices of Yad Le’akhim, a Jewish religious organization subsidized by the Israeli Ministry of Religions.

In 1992, the genocidal maniacs of Serbia burnt and destroyed the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Almost all the contents of the library were destroyed, including more than 1.5 million books that included 4,000 rare books and nearly 500 bound manuscripts.

In 1998, the Taliban ransacked, burnt and destroyed the Nasir-i-Khusraw Foundation’s library in Kabul, Afghanistan, which consisted of 55,000 books which included the unparalleled collection of Sunni and Ismaili Persian works, including a 1000-year old magnificently bound Qur’an.

As part of the Chinese government’s anti-Falun Gong campaign, it has burnt hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong scriptural literature.

Although nothing sacred per se’, the Harry Potter series has brought religious extremists of all kinds to bomb bookstores and hold Harry Potter book-burning events.

In 2003, USA and its allied forces targeted and destroyed one of the oldest standing libraries in the world, Iraq’s National Library in Baghdad. Some of the oldest and rarest manuscripts were destroyed, many not even able to be catalogued which is estimated to be tens of thousands of volumes of Sacred and scientific literary works. It destroyed the oldest records of the Ottoman Empire, as well as one of the oldest surviving copies of the Qur’an.

Burning Sacred books and writings does have a juridical approval for different reason- to properly dispose of them without desecrating them in rubbish piles. As mentioned earlier, Islam permits this and so too do, for example, the Sikh religion.

But under the veil of soot and smoke from so much burning, there is one story that transcends all this inferno of hate- the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

The Haggadah of Pesach is a Jewish Sacred Text that sets out the Passover Seder, or the order of one of the most important Jewish ritual feasts.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the oldest Haggadahs in the world, and the oldest Sephardic Jewish existent document in the world. Its origins and ultimate survival is surrounded by altruistic lives of Muslims and Jews co-existing in times of tribulation. It was authored by Jews during the Muslim rule of Spain, and free from Christian repression, in approximately 1350. It is written on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold following the traditions of the Muslim publishing of the time. It has 34 pages of illustrations depicting the time from creation until the passing of Moses, upon whom be peace of God. Today, its pages are stained with wine due to much of its use during many Passovers.

The Sarajevo Haggadah was quietly removed from Spain during the Alhambra Decree of 1492 by Spanish Jews. After the fall of Islamic rule in Spain – a time of peace, civilisational growth and inter-religious freedoms – the Catholic force of much pillage under the rule of the monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I issued an edict, called the Alhambra Decree, that required all Jews to either leave the now Christian kingdom of Spain, or convert to Christianity. The failure to leave or convert had only one punishment- death. Most Jews fled this new Spain, and amongst many places, some settled and still live in the Muslim region of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Similarly, the Haggadah had its own dangerous journey into the National Museum in Sarajevo by 1894, most likely for safe keeping. The Haggadah seems to have rested there in relative peace until world War II, when the Nazis went ferociously looking for it in order to destroy it.

They burnt many books there but were unable to locate the Haggadah, for the important reason that a Muslim, knowing its Sacred nature for the Jewish community, risked his own life and smuggled it out of Sarajevo from right under the noses of Hitler’s commanders. His name was Dervis Korkut (Dervis, for Dervish, who was most likely a learned Muslim cleric) who was the chief librarian of the Bosnian National Museum. When the Nazi commanders arrived at the museum, Korkut hid the Haggadah under his coat and quietly slipped out of the museum whilst the Nazi commanders and officers ransacked, pillaged and burnt other books. Korkut handed the Haggadah to a local Imam in Zenica for safe keeping, who hid it under the Mosque floor boards until after the war.

The dramatic chivalry behind the Haggadah did not end there. In the early 1990s, Serbian thugs and military officers broke into the National Museum and destroyed numerous Islamic manuscripts (Bosnia’s National Museum has one of the largest collection of Islamic literary manuscripts), and set the place on fire. The then director of the Museum, Dr. Enver Imamovic, broke into the museum with several brave policemen and amongst other manuscripts, again saved the Haggadah from perishing in the fire. He safely transferred it to an underground security vault for safekeeping during the war when Sarajevo was under constant siege by blood-thirsty Serbian forces.

As soon as the Bosnian war was relatively over, amongst the first accusations against the Muslim Bosnian authorities was that it had sold the Haggadah for weapons, given it was valued at around US$700 million. The first Bosnian President quelled such a rumour by presenting the Haggadah at a Passover in 1995.

Today, because of this heroic and sincere concern for the other by Bosnian Muslims, the Haggadah is affectionately known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, restored and in peace at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, safe from libricidal pyromaniacs and criminals against humanity.

The saving and restoration of the Sarajevo Haggadah entirely depended on people of courage, to stand against oppressive discrimination which were life-threatening. But the transcending nobility that was present in each of these cases was the fact that a person from a different Faith stood in defence of the safety and well being of the others and their religious treasures, without resorting to violence. Despite being surrounded by violence, the civilian heroes of the Sarajevo Haggadah resorted to doing that which was better than evil- to do good unto others as you would wish upon yourself.

This is faith in action, for God says in the Qur’an:

And those who are patient, seeking the countenance of their Lord, and establish prayer and spend from what We have provided for them secretly and publicly and prevent evil with good – those will have the good consequence of the final abode. [13:22]

And:

Repel evil with that which is best in goodness. We are well aware of what they describe [23:96]

And:

Those will be given their reward twice for what they patiently endured because they avert evil through that which is good, and from what We have provided them, they spend in charity. [28:54]

And:

Good and evil are not equal. Repel evil with what is best in goodness, and you will see that the one you had mutual enmity with, will turn around as if he were a close friend! [41:34]

Those who profess to have Faith in God shall respond with goodness in order to bring about peace, for peace is a means to God’s Providence. Pastor Jones from Florida may not know all this that Islam teaches, and maybe his pyromaniac plan is another mystery of God to open his heart to the ethics advocated by Islam. And so, it is our fervent prayer to the God of Mercy that he and his ilk have the courage to be in the company of the heroes of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

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One Response
  1. Anwar says:

    Nice article.

    Just a note. Although, I do not agree with burning the damaged or spoilt Mushaf, which I think is totally unacceptable even though it may be practised. I think there are better ways to go about it, methods which are also commonly practised. Because they are methods that respect the Qur’an and and the environment.

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