On the burning of the Quran: a historical note

Did you know that in 1529, Germany lay under the shadow of a possible Muslim invasion?  It’s not covered in many history courses, I find.  But it’s true: a Turkish army had conquered most of Hungary and besieged Vienna, and Vienna was the gateway to Europe.  Hysteria and prejudice against Muslims in Europe reached heights that would not be seen again until modern times.  Religious and political leaders called for holy wars, to drive the infidels out and destroy them, to protect Christendom–the reign of Christian governments.

It was twelve years after the Ninety-Five Theses, and the Reformation was in full swing.  So, when the horrified city fathers of Basel found that a printer planned to print a copy of the Quran, the holy book of Islam (sometimes spelled Koran), they banned it … and called on Luther to produce one of his vitriolic denunciations.

Now, Martin Luther was a great theologian, but he could also be viciously sharp-tongued, and he certainly had his prejudices.  We may say that Luther was much more progressive in many ways than most of his contemporaries or successors, and it is certainly true, particularly in his understanding of the place of women and sexuality.  However, he was still a man of his day, and so some of his writings make us cringe to read them, particularly his attacks on the Jews which were used to support generations of cruelty and violence.  He also lived in a time before the modern ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion were conceived.

What did this brilliant but caustic man say when the good fathers of Basel asked him about the Quran?  Martin Luther wrote back, saying that if they would not allow it printed in Basel, he would have it printed in Wittenburg, and wrote a preface to be printed with it.  Martin Luther was certainly no apologist for Islam, he believed Christianity to be superior, and he wrote suggestions for how to witness the Gospel to Muslims (in his parlance, Turks).  And he believed that it was right and just for civil leaders to go to war against the Turks in defense of their peoples and lands.  But even as Germany was threatened with invasion, he refused to sanction a Holy War against Islam, and encouraged a faithful and honest study of the Quran and Islam by Christian scholars.  He even went so far as to advise Christians living in Islamic-controlled territory to be good and faithful citizens, under his two-kingdoms theory.  (In the theology of the two kingdoms, Christians live both in the secular “kingdom” and the spiritual “kingdom.”  Both are necessary for life.  The secular kingdom was ordained by God for the maintenance of good order among all people.)

We today in America do not live under the threat of invasion.  There are Muslims living among us, yes, but for the most part we coexist peacefully, with them, with those of other religions, with those of no religion at all, and with far more diversity in Christianity than Luther would have believed even living through the religious fragmentation of the Reformation.  The good order of our secular kingdom depends on freedom of religion and freedom of speech, in order that we may coexist peacefully.  The threat to burn copies of the Quran on September 11th, besides being bigoted and hateful, is a direct attack on the freedom of religion of others, and hence on the maintenance of the secular kingdom.  Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center (was ever a church more wrongly named?) do have the right to do it, under the First Amendment (although I’ve heard it argued that this falls under the exception of shouting fire in a crowded room).  That does not make it right, or Christian.  If Luther in 1529 with the Turks practically on his doorstep could open a door for dialogue, so can we.

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