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Spirituality and Health: March/April 2003

Reflection: Assigning the Qur'an at Chapel Hill Proved a Fine Thing to Do
Carl W. Ernst

Last summer, 2,260 freshmen at the University of North Carolina, the oldest public university in America, read and discussed a lovely new partial translation of the Qur'an, Approaching the Qur'an by Michael Sells. As a professor of comparative religion and Islamic studies at the university, I had advised the summer reading program committee on its selection of the book. Before long, however, the university was being sued, and dozens of reporters were crawling over the campus seeking sound bites. As the debate worked its way from "Nightline" to the Comedy Channel, students wondered what the fuss was about.

The lawsuit, orchestrated by the conservative Family Policy Council, based in Virginia, charged that the assignment amounted to proselytizing and was an attempt to convert students to Islam. They accused UNC of violating the separation of church and state, although they made it clear they would welcome a reading assignment of the Bible. In fact, the lawsuit was an assault on the academic study of religion, going against established Supreme Court guidelines on teaching about religion, as opposed to teaching religion in religious communities. The lawsuit was dismissed for sound Constitutional reasons.

The controversy revealed a strong current of prejudice against Muslims. Despite President Bush's pronouncement that "Islam is not the enemy," many Americans don't believe it. This prejudice goes back to the Middle Ages, but has become virulent in the past two centuries. It has much in common with anti-Semitism and racism, although it is more acceptable in public today. Subsequent attacks on the Prophet Muhammad by Christian fundamentalist leaders indicate that this bias will remain a theme in our immediate future.

The Qur'an incident also revealed how dominant fundamentalist modes of thinking are, not only within major religions, but in the interpretation of other religions. The basic intellectual error of fundamentalists, Christian or Muslim, is the assertion that a sacred text has only one meaning, and that they know what it is. This is contrary to everything in the history of religion. The existence of thousands of Christian groups with major disagreements on central biblical texts should amply refute that conceit.

Now Christian extremists are turning their single-minded methods from the Bible to scriptures they despise. They take quotes out of context from antiquated and tedious 19th-century translations of the Qur'an done by missionaries who often had an ax to grind. These versions are now considered inaccurate in terms of both Arabic and Islamic history. If texts are to be judged by their most ruthless readers, no scripture is sacred.

By contrast, Michael Sells' translation, rendered in a flowing contemporary style, brings the Arabic text alive for English readers. More important, he demonstrates the ambiguities and difficulties of the text by providing up to three different translations of the same passage. His commentary also demonstrates some of the multiple interpretations of the Qur'an. The fundamentalists' indifference to these problems of translation and interpretation indicates how far they are from open-minded discussion of other people's religions.

One happy response to the tragedy of September 11 has been a thirst for knowledge of Islam. This summer reading program was a small step in that direction. As the Qur'an asks, "Are those who know the same as those who do not know?"