At the birth of a Muslim child, verses of the Koran are recited into the ear of the newborn, signifying a blessing and a hope that the holy book will resonate strongly in that child's life. From then on, the words of the Muslim scripture structure and shape that life. The child learns Arabic in order to read the Koran in the original language, perform the five daily prayers, repeat key phrases before all significant acts and events, and make it the guide for daily living. "In a way, the soul of the traditional Muslim is like a mosaic made up of phrases of the Quran," writes renowned scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr in "The Heart of Islam." For one-fifth of the world's population, those scriptures are the literal word of God, revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel (Koran means "recitation"). "It is as close as you can get to the transcendent.... To use one analogy, the Koran is to Islam what Jesus is to Christianity," explains John Esposito, university professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in an interview.
That begins to explain the intensity of street protests last week in several Muslim countries after reports (later retracted) that US military interrogators had desecrated the Koran. It was a reaction that, to American sensibilities, may seem puzzling. But Dr. Esposito says that is due partly to Western secularization and a lost sensitivity to degrees of sacredness. "While we've become a more religious nation in one sense, we have also become, in our sense of the sacred, less sensitive and aware," says the author of "What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam…" While most Muslims don't take to the streets, they are pained by the disdain for Islam any desecration would entail. "The potency of the Koran for Muslims worldwide can't be denied," says Arsalan Iftikhar, legal counsel for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR.) Part of the problem, he says, is that Muslims sense that many Americans still haven't distinguished between extremism and mainstream Islam, and that they fail to recognize it as one of the world's great religions, treasured by millions. (MORE)