The Qur'an from ashes to ashes
BASED ON THE VOLUME AND INTENSITY of recent press coverage, it might be surprising that the first recorded burning of Islam’s holy book was not in a Florida church’s parking lot. The now-infamous pastor Terry Jones was preceded in history by the 3rd Caliph Uthman’s order to burn multiple copies of the Qur’an around 656AD.
The tradition of burning books is an old one and is certainly not limited to religious texts. The Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all philosophy books and history books from states other than Qin — beginning in 213 BC. The emperor emphasized his point further by burying alive a large number of intellectuals who did not comply with the state-enforced dogma.
Renowned historian Flavius Josephus relates that, in about the year 50, a Roman soldier seized a Torah scroll and, with abusive and mocking language, burned it in public. This incident almost brought on a Jewish revolt against Roman rule, similar to the revolt that broke out two decades later. However, the Roman Procurator Cumanus appeased the Jewish populace by beheading the offending soldier.
The New Testament reports how early converts to Christianity in Ephesus who had previously practiced sorcery also burned their scrolls: "A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas" (Acts 19:19). The Roman Emperor Diocletian issued a decree to burn Christian books in 303 as part of his demand for an increased persecution of Christians.
The repeated fires in the library of Alexandria, Egypt, are also tragic stories. The library of the Serapeum in Alexandria was trashed, burned and looted in 392 at the decree of Theophilus of Alexandria, who in turn had been ordered to do so by Theodosius I. One of the largest destructions of books ever occurred at the Library of Alexandria in approximately 640. The precise date of the fire is unknown, and historians are not certain whether the fire was intentional or accidental.
Unlike the Florida case, the first burning of a Qur'an was intended to snuff out, not stir up, controversy. Muslim source materials report that at least four different versions of the Qur’an existed before the political order was given to have them burned (Al-Tamhid 2, 247). People who knew Muhammad personally wrote those four versions, each one unique. The differences in the texts were serious enough to divide Muslims of that day. The Islamic source "K. al Masahif” reports that the disagreements led one Muslim group to label another group heretics.