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August 24, 2002
Column #1095

"Approaching the Qur'an"

     This week something very controversial happened in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

     All 3,500 University of North Carolina freshman gathered in classes of 12-15 with a professor on day one of freshman orientation week, to discuss a book they were assigned to read this summer called "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael Sells.

     Only hours before they met for a two-hour discussion of the book, The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond considered an appeal from a Christian group that had sued to stop the dialogue on grounds the discussions were "forced Islamic indoctrination." At 10 a.m. on Monday the court ruled the classes could be held.

     Stephen Crampton of the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy, who had argued the case, called the decision "a political correctness ruling. Post-Sept. 11, I think the academic police are falling all over themselves to uphold Islam in favorable light, which is precisely what this program was attempting to do."

     The North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill 64-12 that would deny financing to the university for the class if it did not give equal time to "all known religions." Rep. Sam Ellis said, "I don't want the students in the university system required to study this evil."

     Bill O'Reilly, the Fox TV host, was more blunt: 'We are forcing our students to learn or read the holy text of our enemies."

     This is nonsense. With 1.3 billion believers in 184 countries, Islam is the second largest religion in the world, outnumbered only by the world's 2 billion Christians. Should university students remain ignorant of this faith and culture? Are America's politicians, its commentators and religious leaders so fearful of Islam that they believe our youth will be swayed by one book and a two hour discussion to cast aside their years of training in Christianity or Judaism?

     "The whole idea is that this is the first step toward understanding a culture we don't know anything about and to get students to ask their own questions," said UNC Chancellor James Moeser. He began his own class saying he hoped for disagreement. "I'd be disappointed if there isn't."

     He need not have worried. In every class, students asked why the issue of jihad, or "holy war," was not mentioned by the book. Janice Rivero, who runs the United Methodist Wesley Foundation on campus, and led a discussion group, says she "personally wished the author had presented" that idea., though the book was published in 1999 before 9/11.

     Nevertheless, she thought it was a "bold move" for the university to assign the book which she found "extremely valuable." Why? "Students got a sense of some of the religious tenets that form the basis of the religion and were able to find some common themes Islam shared with their own tradition - justice, concern for the poor and the orphan and that there will be a day of reckoning" for every person.

     The book itself is a splendid introduction to the Qur'an, or Koran as it often spelled. In an Introduction, the author said his goal is "neither to refute nor to promote" Islam but to allow non-Arabic people "to encounter one of the most influential tests in human history in a manner that is accessible."

     He introduces the earliest revelations that Mohammad received, which ironically are at the back of the Qur'an. They are particularly poetic, even lyrical, and are memorized by Muslim children. One theme is that each soul will be asked by God on a day of reckoning, what it has given and what it has held back, what acts of generosity and justice it carried out or neglected.  Here are the opening words of Sura (or Chapter) 82, written as in the original without punctuation:

When the sky is torn
When the stars are scattered
When the seas are poured forth
When the tombs are burst open
Then a soul will know what it has given and what it has held back
Oh, O human being
what has deceived you about your generous lord
who created you and shaped you and made you right

     As I was writing this, I heard on the radio that Muslim terrorists in the Phillippines beheaded two Christians who had been held as hostages. On Monday a Nigerian woman who had a baby out of wedlock was sentenced to be stoned - but not the man who made her pregnant.

     Are such actions justified by the Qur'an? Most Muslims say no.

     But they speak very quietly, if at all.


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