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- by daya dissanayake
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The image was of an open book over a flame, defying the flame and remaining unscathed. A closer look showed the book to bethe Holy Qur'an. The image could be interpreted in many different ways. Fire has been worshipped by man, probably ever since he discovered it. And fire has always had a major place in most religious rituals. This picture could have symbolized such a ritualistic scene, or it could have been an attempt to show that the Islamic religion, or any religion for that matter, could survive any attempt at destruction, that the holy book and the word of God cannot be destroyed by mortal man. 

The riots in Bangladesh last year, at Ramu, were reportedly sparked off by a photo on Facebook. Unfortunately it was given a different interpretation, and it became a catalyst to begin an explosive reaction, because it was considered an attempt to burn the Qur'an, to destroy the Islamic religion. Most of the people who were involved in the riots, even those who incited the others to riot, to attack and destroy other sacred objects and places, may not have seen the original image that had appeared on Facebook. In Bangladesh there are only 3 million Facebook users, which is just 2% of the population. Among these 3 million, how many would have seen this image, and how many would have just glanced at it and moved on? If not for those who incited the riots, this would have gone unnoticed by almost the entire Bangladeshi people and the rest of the world. More importantly the question also comes up about the Facebook users in the remote southeast region of the country, and because it is now believed the Rohingya Muslim rebels from Burma had instigated the riots, which show a hidden hand behind it. It is not known who originally posted the image on Facebook, but the youth, who is still in hiding, was only tagged in the photo. 

There was also the incident reported from Pakistan in August 2012, where a young Christian girl suffering from Down's syndrome was accused of burning or tearing pages off a Holy Qur'an. But the Islamic cleric who made the accusation was later arrested for planting torn pages of the Qur'an in her bag. The girl has been found innocent. In Egypt there has been a spate of accusation of young Christian children for blasphemy against the Prophet and the Qur'an.

If indeed the youth had posted this image on Facebook, then he was not the first to act in such a manner. According to Flavius Josephus in 50 CE a Roman soldier had burned a Torah scroll in public. But the Roman Procurator Cumanus had been able to appease the Jews before they broke out in revolt, by punishing the culprit.

The earliest recorded book burning was 2800 years ago when Jehoiakim, the king of Judea had burned a part of Prophet Jeremiah's scroll. Books have been burned throughout man's history of ‘so-called progress of civilization. At some time or other, not only sacred books of 'rival' religions, but also those of 'rival sects' within the world religions, libraries and sacred places have been destroyed. The German poet, Heinrich Heine wrote, "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings".  Human beings were burned alive in the name of religion and sometimes for the love of God. Alexander is reported to have burned the Avesta after defeating Darius III in 330 BCE. Emperor Qin Shi Huang had ordered the burning of all philosophical and historical books in 213 BCE, and buried alive many of the intellectuals. In 168 BCE Antiochus IV had ordered the burning of all Jewish Books of the Law found in Jerusalem.

In Sri Lanka, long before we burned down the Jaffna library in the north, our ancient kings have burned down the sacred books of the various Buddhist sects, with King Mahasen even destroying the Mahavihara once. Before that, during the time of Mahanama, an invader by the name of Urdulan Niavelandu had destroyed the library in the Munamura caves where the Buddhist monks of the Yaksha tribe had all their books including the Buddhist scriptures. The Kelaniya Temple was first destroyed by Kalinga-Maga in 1213 and then again by the Portuguese barbarians in 1575, led by the infamous Diego de Melo. When the Wijayabahu Pirivena at Totagamuwa was destroyed by Thome de Souza Arronches, they also murdered 30 Buddhist monks who were trapped inside the temple at the time of the attack.

Fellippe de Oliveria had destroyed over 500 Hindu temples in Jaffna and built several churches over some of the destroyed lands. The Muslims burned down one of the oldest universities in the world, Nalanda, and burned down the entire collection of Buddhist scriptures in the library during the invasion of 1193. It was almost during the same period that Buddhist temples, and the Buddhist scriptures in Maldives had been destroyed. Library burning had come down to us as a fad, ever since they reportedly burned down the library of Alexandria, though Plutarch said the burning down by Julius Caesar was accidental.

In 1526, Cuthbert Tunstal, then Bishop of London is reported to have ordered the burning of the English translation of the New Testament by William Tynsdale. The burning down of different versions of one's own scriptures continued, as Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible was burned down by the catholics in Germany. This was followed by the burning of all Protestant Bibles and books in 1731 by Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, Archbishop of Salzburg. The Nazis burnt most of the Jewish sacred books they could collect. The Nazi youth burnt down even books by Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, and Karl Marx. Burning down of religious scripts probably spread to the Americas from Europe. The sacred books of the Maya along with sacred images were burned down in 1562 on the orders of Fray Diego de Landa acting Bishop of Yucatan.

The first recorded burning of the Qur'an was in 650, on the orders of Uthman ibn 'Affan, in order to preserve the authenticated Quran, and later by the unholy Spanish Inquisition. More recently in 2008 the New Testament was burned by people in the city of Or Yehuda in Israel. In 2010 Terry Jones threatened to burn the Qur'an publicly in Florida. Though he gave in to public pressure and stopped the public burning, he is reported to have burnt a few copies in a secluded place.

In February this year, the U.S. Army was accused of burning a few copies of the Qur'an which had been included in a collection of 1652 damaged books from the camp library which were to be incinerated. The ensuing riots resulted in the death of 23 human beings, and many more wounded. Yet among the Sikhs' sacred books which are badly damaged or rejects from printing houses are cremated in a ritual called Agan Bhet.

On the facade of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, is a bas-relief by Giovanni Battista of The Burning of Heretical Books. What is holy to one person could be heretic or even blasphemous to another. People had sacrificed their lives to protect their holy scriptures, like Saint Vincent of Saagossa, who was executed because he refused to burn the Scriptures.

We should look back into our history, not to repeat our mistakes and evil deeds, but to learn from them. Nothing is permanent in the universe. Even the holiest of holy scriptures, even if carved in stone, or etched in gold would some day come to an end by erosion, corrosion or decay. What is written on more fragile and perishable material like parchment, ola leaf or paper too would turn into dust. Or once they become too illegible to be read, would end up in a store-room to rot away or even be burned intentionally.  

We can burn books, but we cannot wipe away the collective memory of humanity. We cannot wipe off the eternal truth told us by founders of the great religions. All attempts at such destruction have always failed. Since all religions teach man to be peaceful, to love one another and all life on earth, they all teach us to be humane. And because we have got the power to think, to talk and to discuss, we should be able to resolve all our disputes, rivalries, and competition according to our faith, but with tolerance towards all other faiths. Let us all be peaceful, in the name of God and in the name of Dhamma.

was published in November 2018
    Flash Fiction
    Short Story
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