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How Religions Handle Disposal of Religious Texts

Afghans jointly read Islam's holy book "Quran" during a celebration to mark the anniversary birthday of Islam's Prophet Mohammad at a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 4, 2012.
Afghans jointly read Islam's holy book "Quran" during a celebration to mark the anniversary birthday of Islam's Prophet Mohammad at a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, February 4, 2012.

Guidelines on how religious books should be handled once they are worn out vary by religion and sect

A perfect Quran should not be destroyed. Jews may bury Torah scrolls in graves or a special storage room. Roman Catholics can bury Bibles, while Evangelical Protestants do not have specific guidelines.

The three major Abrahamic faiths have different rules for when and how their religious texts can be discarded. Here are some of the traditions:

  • Islam: A Quran may be discarded if there is an error in the text or if the volume has worn out. In that case, religious scholars say there are two preferred ways of doing it - wrapping it in cloth and burying it, or washing away the text with water.
  • Roman Catholicism: Catholics can bury a Bible when it needs to be disposed of, though there have been instances in the Middle Ages of incineration done in the form of a burnt offering.
  • Protestantism: Protestants do not have special prescriptions about disposing of religious texts, since they view the inspired message and not the physical text as divine.
  • Judaism: In Judaism, any text that contains God's name should be buried when it is no longer usable, or placed in a dedicated room known as a "Geniza." Jewish cemeteries often have special graves for sacred texts. Some American rabbis recently ruled that recycling is also appropriate.

Scriptural religions - those based on texts believed to be the word of God - have different rules for when and how those texts can be discarded. But what they have in common is a reverence shown for such texts, with practices such as kissing it or never placing another book on top of it.

In Afghanistan, deadly violence broke out after U.S. military servicemen disposed of several copies of the Quran by burning them.

Rizwan Jaka of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society near Washington says he accepts U.S. explanations that the burning was inadvertent. He notes that the Quran itself teaches Muslims to "repel bad with good."

Sarah Thomson, spokeswoman for the Islamic Society of North America (http://www.isna.net/home.aspx), says the proper way of responding to the desecration of Qurans is by donating new ones or teaching about respect for the book.

She says the only reason a Quran may be destroyed is if there is an error like a misspelling, a missing page or an inaccurate translation if it's in a language other than Arabic.

"You wouldn't destroy them because they are old," she says.

In those cases, Thomson says the consensus among Muslim religious scholars is that the proper methods for disposal are wrapping it in clean cloth and burying it, or immersion in water.

However, some scholars say if those methods are not possible, a Quran may be burned if done in a respectful way, preferably at a mosque.

Many Jewish cemeteries have special graves for Torah scrolls and other documents because anything that contains God's name should be buried when it is no longer usable. It can also be placed in a dedicated room known as a geniza. In 1896, a geniza was found in Cairo, Egypt, with hundreds of thousands of Jewish texts dating back to before the ninth century including marriage contracts and legal and financial documents.

Rabbi Paul Drazen of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism says that several years ago the movement's rabbis ruled that recycling is also an appropriate means of disposal.

Drazen says the burning of Torahs has an emotional component in Judaism. "Throughout generations Jewish texts were burned as part of the torture of individuals and it also preceded the Holocaust," he says.

Muslims and Jews have ways of showing respect for holy texts. Muslims will wash themselves before reading from a Quran, while Jews read with a silver pointer so as not to touch the parchment of a Torah scroll.

Hindu texts can be disposed of in water, by burning them or burial. However, Arumuga Swami, managing editor of Hinduism Today, says that often "the issue doesn't come up" because a whole category of Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, is memorized.

Christian guidelines vary according to denomination. For Roman Catholics, "the bottom line is that Bibles should be buried out of reverence for the sacred text," says Monsignor Kevin Irwin, who teaches liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America.

Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, don't have specific guidelines, largely because it is the inspired message rather than the physical artifact that is considered divine, according to Greg Wills of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

"Paper and ink is perishable but the word of God lives forever," Wills says.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.
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