Thursday, August 08, 2002
Read this or else!: UNC Chapel Hill is requiring its incoming freshmen to read "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations." This, of course, has caused an uproar. While the book itself may be informative, requiring it to be read by all freshmen is, well, something that they'd never allow if the book in question was Josh McDowell's "More than a Carpenter."
The author of the book has an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post where he defends his book as unbiased, scholarly and a good thing for students to read. With several thousand students being required to purchase his book, I'm sure he wants to make sure that the plan goes forward. Personally, if I were an incoming freshman, I would likely read the book, and dispute anything I disagreed with. In a college literature class, I was required to read Elaine Pagels' "Adam, Eve, and the Serpent" -- and after reading it, I ripped some of it to pieces.
After reading the author, Michael Sells, op-ed piece, I'm not convinced that his work isn't just some fluff PR for Islam.
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.
I certainly don't think that all Muslims advocate the murder of infidels. But I do think that the number who do is significant -- probably a majority worldwide. I'm sure that there are Muslims who are tolerant, accepting and non-homicidal when dealing with people of other faiths -- I just don't see them on TV or on the op-ed pages of major newspapers? Is this a distortion by the media -- or are there just too few Muslims who hold those beliefs?
"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.
Maybe Professor Sells has been spending too much time in the Koran and not enough in the Bible, but there's plenty of slaughter in Exodus too. The Passover, during which an angel (or angels) went through Egypt and killed the firstborn son of every non-Jew. The crossing of the Red Sea where Moses waited until much of Pharaoh's army was in the middle of the sea before closing it up and drowning them.
Students certainly may be able to get some valuable information out of Sells' book. But I don't think it should be required. I also understand that students, as part of the program, will end up discussing the book. I think this would be constructive, as long as those who challenge Sells' analysis of the "religion of peace" aren't labeled bigots or racists for holding contrary views.