DALLAS _ Almost daily, there's a new unconfirmed accusation that American soldiers or interrogators have mistreated Muslims. But what pushed thousands of Muslims into deadly demonstrations last week was a now-discredited report about the mistreatment of a book. The Newsweek account of a Quran flushed down the toilet was the final straw for many in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other mostly Muslim countries, some experts say. It was also an exceptionally large straw. "It's not like just knocking down a religious leader or a priest or a rabbi," said John Esposito, a professor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Muslim tradition holds that the Quran is more than a sacred book: It's the physical embodiment of the literal words of God that were dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel about 1,300 years ago.
The book is held in even higher regard by many Muslims than most Christians have for the physical form of the Bible. For traditional Muslims, a Quran used for prayer can't be written in, can't be placed on the floor and can't be put beneath other books. Particularly observant Muslims will keep it on a high shelf. It's never supposed to be brought into a bathroom. Reverence for the book itself is even higher for religiously conservative, illiterate Muslims, said Nazif Shahrani, an anthropologist at Indiana University who grew up in Afghanistan. The mystery of the unreadable Arabic gives the text an additional sacred aura, he said. "It's kept in the nicest place in the house and wrapped in the nicest cloth," he said. "The Quran is not a book. It's comparable to the body of Christ for Christians."