Rory Stewart

When Ali brought out his Koran I thought of Tony Blair. It was February 2002. The Taliban had retreated, having burned Ali’s village to the ground. Four feet of snow had closed the passes into Bamiyan and all the roads were laid with anti-vehicle mines. Ali opened the carved wooden box, kissed the bundle, unwrapped it carefully, said a prayer and opened the book. The fire had consumed one corner, exposing thin layers of oil-blackened paper, and as Ali opened it some ash fell from the binding.

‘If you want to understand the Taliban, look at what they did to our holy Koran,’ Ali said.

‘Can you read the Koran?’

‘No. In this village we cannot read or write.’

‘Did the Taliban take it out and burn it?’

‘No. It was lying in one of the houses that the Taliban burned when they attacked the village.’

‘So it was accidental.’

‘Yes. You see what kind of people the Taliban are.’ He meant, I imagined, that they were sacrilegious infidels.

‘How many people did the Taliban kill in this village?’ I asked.


‘Six,’ someone corrected him, ‘Hussein, Muhammad Ali, Ghulam Nabi …’

‘Six,’ agreed Ali.

‘From your family?’

‘Yes. My brother. His father. But look at the Koran.’

There was no Coca-Cola or Hollywood in this village, they had no electricity and had never watched TV; the only global brand was Islam. Ali did not think I would be interested in the deaths in his family. But he expected me to understand that anyone who burned the Koran, even accidentally, would be damned for sacrilege.

Tony Blair has paid a lot of attention to the Koran. On 20 September, he packed his Korans for his tour of the Middle East. Nine months earlier he had told an interviewer that he owned two different editions. Now, according to the Guardian, he had three. ‘Blair,’ it said, ‘now carries a copy of the Koran at all times for “inspiration and courage” – a habit he picked up from President Clinton’s daughter.’ He had encouraged Muslims to study their holy book before 11 September, telling readers of the Muslim News that ‘the concept of love and fellowship as the guiding spirits of humanity is so clear . . . if you read the Koran.’ On 7 October, he made a more specific pronouncement: ‘the acts of these people are contrary to the teachings of the Koran . . . it angers me, as it angers the vast majority of Muslims.’ And a week later: ‘I can’t understand how anybody who truly studies the teaching of Islam and the words of the message of the Koran can possibly justify the slaughter.’ George W. Bush joined in: ‘Islam’s teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith.’

Blair’s handling and discussion of the Koran was highly eccentric. In the first place, he claimed to have read it. He hadn’t and he couldn’t have done because he can’t read Arabic. Since the Koran, unlike the Bible, is thought to be the verbatim word of God, spoken through Muhammad in Arabic, a translation cannot really be the Koran. To translate it at all has at times been considered blasphemous. Perhaps because he didn’t understand its status, Blair handled his in a curious fashion. Ali carefully wrapped his Koran, kept it in a wooden box on a high shelf and approached it only after ablutions and with a prayer. He would have been horrified to see Blair thumb his translation on the plane. Blair was equally confident in his interpretations of the book. The dense network of metaphor, poetry and allusion is traditionally interpreted with reference to the Hadith and long traditions of legal and theological exegesis. Public pronouncements on the meaning of the Koran are usually reserved for the most learned and senior of mullahs.

Blair’s confidently casual handling of the text was not supposed to be patronising or presumptuous. It was meant to display his sensitivity to Islamic culture. Perhaps he thought the Koran was like the Bible, or the Bible as he sees it: a text no less sacred when in translation, open to interpretation by lay people and physically to be handled much like any other book. This may also be true of other Protestant commentators such as Bush. In November there was a photograph of the President casually dragging a Koran across the table with his unclean left hand, while the mullah who presented it struggled to smile.

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