Many years ago, traveling on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, one of us went into a bookstore in the Turkish sector. Then as now, his Turkish was terrible, but he wanted to improve it. So he requested a Turkish translation of the Quran.
No matter how hard he tried, though, he couldn't make the storekeeper understand what he wanted. So, reasoning that many Turks had at one time or another been "guest workers" in Germany, he repeated his request in German. Successful at last, he came away with an attractive Quran in Turkish.
Or so he thought.
Because, it turned out, the book was really an Arabic Quran, merely written in the Latin alphabet that English and modern Turkish share.
He felt defrauded. Soon, though, he realized that his book was a significant cultural artifact.
The Quran is often introduced as the Islamic equivalent of the Christian Bible, and the comparison is apt in many ways. But it also misleads, and the incident in Cyprus helps to illustrate the difference.
Bible translators never content themselves with merely representing the sounds of the original New Testament Greek in another language's script; Latter-day Saint editions of the Book of Mormon don't try to convey its English pronunciation in Japanese "kanji."
But that "Turkish" Quran was designed to enable a Turkish Muslim who didn't know Arabic — if he knew Arabic, he'd be able to read the Arabic script — to make the sounds of the original Arabic Quran. Similarly, we've stood among Turkish kids learning to recite the Quran and seen them pause to take a drink in mid-word, clearly suggesting that they don't really understand what they're reciting.
Why would they want to be able to recite the original language, even without understanding it? And why is this significant? Because the Quran, to Muslims, is more than just the equivalent of Christianity's Bible. Some scholars have even suggested — astoundingly but, in our view, plausibly — that, in a sense, the Christian counterpart of the Quran isn't the Bible, but Christ himself, the Word of God.
In the Muslim view, the Quran is literally the word of God.
But only in Arabic. Translations of the Quran into English, for example, often carry titles like "The Meaning of the Glorious Koran" or "The Koran Interpreted." This is because the revelation of the Quran was in Arabic; anything else is just a paraphrase.
Muhammad, Islam insists, was the conduit through whom the Quran came, but its words are not his. Luke and Mark, Isaiah and Jeremiah — conservative Christians regard them as inspired (perhaps even inerrant), but also allow that their personalities, backgrounds and cultures affected their writing, creating divergent styles. However, Muslims believe that the Quran is in no sense Muhammad's composition, even inspired. It's purely divine.
It is, in fact, God's tangible presence in the world. Thus, just as most Christians see Christ as God's "incarnation" (en-flesh-ment), Muslims, it could be argued, have tended to see the Quran as something like a divine "inlibration" (em-book-ment). Thus, Quranic recitation permits believers to become, in a sense, "one" with God, rather like the way partaking of the consecrated wine and wafer in Catholicism — the body and blood of Christ — offers "communion" with God.
We don't want to push this too far, and we're struggling a bit to express it. But — again rather like the sanctified "host" in the Catholic mass — the physical Quran itself is sacred to Muslims, who don't mark it up or put it on the floor.
Believers should be ritually clean when touching it, and sacred space and time are marked off before reciting it. (One of the authors once nearly launched a riot in Jerusalem when he took a Quran from a shelf in the al-Aqsa Mosque. The objection? He hadn't washed his hands before touching it.) Ancient Christians treated Bibles in the same way, as can be seen in icons showing people as they hold the Bible with cloth covering their hands.
Three centuries after the resurrection of Christ, delegates from across Christendom met at Nicaea to decide, among other things, whether the Son was co-eternal with the Father — that is, uncreated. Approximately three centuries after the death of Muhammad and following much debate, Islam concluded that the Quran, the divine word, was co-eternal with God and uncreated.
We're not justifying the recent violence in Afghanistan provoked by alleged desecration of the Quran (which, incidentally, most Afghans — being non-Arabs — can't read). But perhaps the reaction there, so very foreign to Western sensibilities, will seem a bit less incomprehensible.