Understanding, Not Indoctrination
By Michael Sells
Thursday, August 8, 2002; Page A17
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is being sued for assigning my book, "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," as required summer reading for first-year students. The plaintiffs charge that UNC indoctrinates students with deceptive claims about the peaceful nature of Islam, violating the separation of church and state. In fact, the book makes no general claims about Islam.
Some equate understanding an Islamic text with softness on terrorism. But well before Sept. 11, I had called for the overthrow of the criminal Taliban regime and warned of the danger posed by the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam being promoted in Saudi Arabia.
Behind the lawsuit is an old missionary claim that Islam is a religion of violence in contrast to Christianity, a religion of peace. In effect the plaintiffs are suing the Koran on behalf of the Bible. They cite verses that demand slaying the infidel -- case closed. But most Muslims interpret these in the context of early war between Muhammad's followers and their opponents. They no more expect to apply them to their contemporary non-Muslim friends and neighbors than most Christians and Jews consider themselves commanded by God, like the Biblical Joshua, to exterminate the infidels. Like some Christians who may see themselves as new Joshuas, some Muslims portray the West as equivalent to those who attacked Muhammad and his followers and call for jihad. But we can only identify and counter them if we avoid assuming all Muslims interpret the Koran in the same way.
The plaintiffs boast that Jesus never commanded his followers to kill the unbelievers but told them to leave punishment for the afterlife. But scriptures relate to violence in complex ways. During the Inquisition, killing a heretic was considered to be more compassionate than allowing him to lead others to damnation. Gospel passages that have helped inspire compassion have also been used to justify persecution of Jews. The Koran is read by the Taliban and by the Muslims who were persecuted by the Taliban. Verses that inspired Gandhi are cited by those who recently massacred unarmed Muslims in India.
Spokesmen for the Family Policy Network and Pat Robertson wave isolated verses of the Koran to prove their point that it commands Muslims to slay unbelievers. For them, Islam is clearly our enemy. How can we trust our Muslim neighbor or colleague, knowing that behind a gesture of friendship may lie an intention to kill? Shall we allow Muslims into the police or armed forces? If we cannot always tell them by name or appearance, shall we require them to wear some kind of sign? In Bosnia, such reckless notions led some Christians to attack defenseless Muslim neighbors. Yet many of those same Muslims held candles in solidarity with Christians after Sept. 11. They refused to lose their souls to a reflexive hatred of the Christian religion.
"Approaching the Qur'an" presents the passages that Muslims consider the earliest revelations to Muhammad, those with the most direct account of core theological ideas and literary themes. Similarly, in a college course on Western civilization, students are more likely to read Biblical passages from Exodus than the gruesome accounts of slaughter in Joshua. Do such selections present a deceptively benign view of the Bible? Only if they are used to make generalized claims about the Bible as a whole.
Joe Glover of the Family Policy Network criticizes the notion that we should be acquainted with the core theological ideas of the Koran. He demands we focus only on Islam and terrorism, a topic that already dominates bookstores shelves. His own inflammatory statements demonstrate that this complex issue is more suited for a structured class situation, with readings of primary texts and a range of scholarly work.
The Koran has been extremely difficult for most Americans to approach; the written "translations" in the bookstore are not what most Muslims consider to be the word of God or what they experience in their worship. "Approaching the Qur'an" explains why that is the case and offers an entry into the religion's core literary features and ideas. Reading it can only strengthen any subsequent discussion of Islam and terrorism.
The writer is a professor of comparative religions at Haverford College.