It caught my eye one afternoon. Sitting atop the cabinet that houses our staff pigeon-holes. I reached up to grab a hold of the green leather-bound book, at the same time asking my colleagues, “What’s this doing here?” Turns out, it was our only copy of the Qur’an in its native language. To begin with, it had lived in the stacks, much like any other Library book. Then someone had complained.
Muslims have varying notions as to the status of the Qu’ran, both as a sacred text, and as a sacred object. But consensus agrees in the case of Arabic editions – where the text is literally the word of god. The Qur’an was published with its own instruction manual as it were, and imparts some direction as to how it should be handled, for example;
Non shall touch but those who are clean. (56:77-79)
The above passage is widely interpreted as meaning that those handling the Qur’an should be physically and spiritually clean. In Islam, this state is known as wudu. The Qur’an itself does not list any special considerations for its storage, but medieval scholars have stipulated numerous special conditions for the use and storage of the Qur’an. For example, the famous Imam and scholar Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Qurtubi wrote in the Tafsir al-Qurtubi;
[do not] place other books upon the Qur’an, which should always be higher than all other books, whether they are books of Sacred Knowledge or something else,
It is for this reason that many Muslims find the shelving of the Qur’an with other books to be offensive and disrespectful. Especially when, as in our case, the shelf they are on is particularly low to the floor. So our copy was moved to the back room where no one could touch it, and placed above eye level where it languished and attracted dust. While this solved the problem, to me it seemed a poor compromise. I’m neither an expert in Library policy, nor religious issues by any means. But I have been working in Libraries for several years now, and by a strange quirk of fate my undergraduate specialisation was in Religious Studies, so it’s safe to say I know enough to speculate on the issue. Moving the book to a place where it wouldn’t be seen or used didn’t seem to be aligned with our mission as a Library, nor particularly respectful to item in question.
The idea that the words of god, or even the name of god, become scared when inscribed is not new, or limited to Islam. In Judaism for example, there are a multitude of names and epithets for god, but any document containing one of the ‘seven names of god’ becomes a holy object. The Megillah details the many prohibitions when handling, or being the presence of, the Torah and the seven holy names of god. Specifically, the Torah is to be placed above other books (Megillah 27a). As in Islam, Jewish instructions for handling sacred texts go one step further – old and damaged items are to be disposed of with as much reverence as possible. For example, in the United Kingdom there is a growing need for the respectful disposal of Jewish texts, many of which are buried en masse in an approved landfill near Stansted. Sikh copies of the Guru Granth Sahib are also treated with special care. It is stored or presented on a throne (takht) and treated like royalty. When they become old or damaged they are given a funeral. There are also strict instructions for carrying and handling of the text; the person carrying the Guru Granth Sahib should be clean, and it is elevated above the head whilst being carried.
Given that Libraries are certainly subject to holding copies of sacred texts I thought it would be relatively easy to locate policies in place at other institutions. While I invest quite a bit of time attempting to locate professional guidance on this issue, after a protracted search could find very little that would help. And after reading through what I did find, I was more confused than ever. The guidance from the Museum Libraries and Archives Council for the management of controversial material makes a brief and vague mention of the issue on the very last page of the report;
5. Stocking of religious texts
5.1 Leicester City policy on the shelving of the Koran and other religious texts
Some libraries in Leicester have received complaints about the Koran not being placed on the top shelves in libraries. Some customers go along the shelves and place the Koran so it is shelved higher than other books. This action arises from the practice in many Muslim homes of the Koran being placed on a high shelf above commonplace things, as it is the word of God.
The authority consulted the Federation of Muslim Organisations in Leicester about this matter, and they advised that all religious texts should be kept on a top shelf together. This meant that no offence is caused, as the scriptures of all the major faiths are given respect in this way, but none is higher than any other.
Unlike the strong language in support of intellectual freedom elsewhere in the document, this section is purposefully vague. It’s not even guidance, simply a retelling of something that another organisation has recommended. I also have to wonder at the placement of this piece of text within the guidance notes. It’s literally on the last page, as if the insertion is piecemeal, or a token measure of inclusion. Further digging uncovered a list of responses to an enquiry about libraries’ practice in shelving the Qur’an and other religious books collated by The Network. Of the respondents, five had made special arrangements for the shelving of the Qur’an, and three had not.
Dissatisfied with the information and guidance I had uncovered, I wrote to the British Library and asked them what their policy on the storage of sacred texts, and if they had had any special precautions or measures when shelving or handling them. The British Library holds an impressive collection of religious materials, including spectacular examples of handwritten and illuminated manuscripts from faiths across the world. The response I received, while not especially helpful, was certainly interesting reading. The British Library does have special provisions for the storage of Sikh sacred texts;
“They are shelved in such a way as to avoid other works touching them or being over them, and are retrieved, installed and returned only by the curator.”
Additionally, anyone wanting to view the items in person, must first make an advance appointment with the Curator of North Indian Languages. This is probably a practical matter as much as anything else, because the Library currently holds the oldest known copy of the Guru Granth Sahib outside of India and it is both culturally significant and fragile – not to mention that digitised copies of these works are now available online. Other special provisions for sacred texts include categorically avoiding the use of pigskin to bind copies of the Torah or Qur’an “to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of those readers most likely to visit the Library to consult such works.”
While I can admire the practicality and in some ways the political correctness of such measures, I can’t say the same for the British Library’s reason for doing so – to avoid giving offence. People have the inalienable right to be offended, but being offended doesn’t make them right. Works of art and items of cultural importance deserve respect for their own sake, not for the fragile sensibilities of those who might one day be offended. Though on this point, I know that not everyone will agree with me – especially within the context of religious material.
However I would ask, what does it say about us as a profession that we’re unwilling to officially discuss this issue? I discovered very little in the way of guidance, discussion or debate on this particular topic. Meanwhile, we devote a whole week to celebrating banned books, and are willing to publicly criticise government web filters. When did information professionals become so timid? Is it acceptable for us as professionals to single out items for special treatment for no other reason than ‘someone might get offended,’? Would you be comfortable applying this policy to other works in your collections?
In my own Library our copy of the Qur’an was eventually moved. It now sits on the top tier of the reference shelf behind our circulation desk where it can be seen by patrons and is joined by works from other faiths, known as the ′Ahl al-Kitāb, or People of the Book.
By Laura Ennis