The Syrian government has released a "new standard version" of the Quran, with President Bashar al-Assad getting his first look at the latest edition in a ceremony that was held earlier this week.
State media reported that Assad said that he had commissioned the revision of Islam's primary religious text — an act that some of the faithful might consider sacrilegious — in order to minimize the risk of misinterpretation. Though this suggests that Assad apparently had in mind the extremist militants of the so-called Islamic State who are among various groups fighting to remove him from power, the edition reportedly underwent some 27 revisions over the course of five years. That indicates that it was commissioned before the group expanded into Syria.
According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, Quranic letters in the new edition "are simplified and sketched with dexterity according to a set of accredited standards that scholars of Quranic science use." But the news report made no indication of changes to scriptural passages, nor did it acknowledge what misinterpretations the new text is meant to eliminate.
Assad justified the new text in remarks delivered at the reception on Monday.
"We truly need such acts at this critical stage of distortion and misleading when it comes to the Holy Quran and the teachings of Prophet Mohammad (Peace be Upon Him)," he said.
Photos of the event show Assad meeting with Syrian Minister of Religious Endowments Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed and Holy Quran Affairs committee members, who discussed the updated sacred book, which is expected to be the government's new reference volume.
Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect that is related to Shia Islam, runs a secular regime but receives considerable support from Iran, which has been helping his government survive. It is unclear what Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic Republic's clerical establishment will make of the new version. The Ministry of Religious Endowments is presently distributing the text to Arab and Muslim countries as well as the Al-Azhar University and mosque in Cairo, Egypt.
Islamic Studies professor Jon Hoover, who teaches at the University of Nottingham, told Newsweek that it was impossible to judge the significance of this edition without seeing the finished product.
"It is impossible to tell what the project has done with the Quran," he said. "As for a secular, Alawite president ordering and being in involved in a project like this, I would not give it too much significance."
Civil war has raged in Syria since March 2011. More than 200,000 people have died in the four years since, while the number of Syrians who have fled the country seeking refuge abroad recently eclipsed the four million mark.
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