Pastor Terry Jones, the leader of a small Florida church, made news last week by threatening to burn copies of the Koran, the Islamic holy book, on September 11. That day came and went without the promised blasphemy, for reasons that are as yet unclear. The threatened event provoked outrage, controversy, and publicity—which may have been Jones’s goal all along.

What, exactly, is in this book that Jones wanted to burn? Jones doesn’t really know—he admits that he’s never read it.

As it happens, I have read the Koran, and Jones might find he has some common ground with Muslims. Many figures central to the Christian Bible appear in the Koran, including Jesus, Lot, Abraham, Joseph, David, and others.

The Koran is considered by Muslims to be the word of Allah as revealed to the prophet Mohammed over the course of about 23 years, and contains the final, complete, and inerrant word of God. The Koran’s contents are far too complex to discuss in a short column, but in brief the book contains 114 chapters (called suras), many of them providing advice such as putting agreements in writing, giving money to the poor, denouncing adultery, keeping faithful to God, preparing for Judgment Day, interacting with magical creatures, denouncing murder, avoiding idolatry, and so on. As in the Bible, the meanings of many Koranic passages are obscured by poetry, parable, and metaphor. Much of the Koran is repetitive, and some parts are difficult to understand, even for scholars.

Pastor Jones feels that Christians are being persecuted by Muslims, and it is undeniable that parts of the Koran disparage non-Muslims. For example, Surah 98:7 states “The unbelievers among the people of the Book [Jews and Christians] and pagans shall burn forever in the fire of Hell,” and Surah 66:9 finds Allah telling Mohammed to “make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and deal with them sternly. Hell shall be their home, evil their fate” (all quotes from N. J. Dawood’s 2000 Penguin Classics edition).

Jones assumes that these passages are followed to the letter by most Muslims at war with Christians, but this is not necessarily true—any more than devout Christians refuse to eat shrimp, crab, lobster, and clams (which God specifically calls an “abomination” in Leviticus 11:9-12).

If Jones seeks scripture that could encourage and legitimize violence perhaps he should consult his own holy book; he might begin with Matthew 10:34, in which Jesus says, “I bring not peace but a sword,” or Exodus 15:3, which states quite clearly, “The Lord is a man of war.”

The fact is that both the Bible and the Koran contain passages and commandments that can be interpreted to justify a fanatic’s actions, and both Christianity and Islam have long and bloody histories of attacking those of other faiths. As Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

Photo: Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center speaks to the media, Sept. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)