Should College Kids Be Required to Read About the Koran?

Culture Watch

Mr. Cole is professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan and author of Sacred Space and Holy War (I.B. Tauris, 2002).

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assigns three books to incoming students every year. This year, one of the books, by Michael Sells of Haverford College, is about the Koran. Amazingly, the assignment of the book has sparked controversy and now a lawsuit.

The legal action by three anonymous students is supported by a right-wing Christian organization, the Family Policy Network. It alleges that the students' first amendment rights are being violated by a form of religious indoctrination. The lawsuit further alleges that Sells's book translates only the early chapters of the Koran, leaving out the later, more militant verses that were quoted by the al-Qaida terrorists.

Since the title of Sells's book is Approaching the Qur'an, Early Revelations the last charge may presumably be acknowledged from the outset. The book was never intended to be a holistic overview of Islam or even of the Koran. Students at UNC do not even have to read the text, and can simply hand in to the professor a 300 word essay on why they declined to do so.

Robert Kirkpatrick, a UNC professor of English who was among the faculty members who made the decision to adopt the book, says he knew nothing of the tenets of Islam before reading this book. Bill O'Reilly (July 10) brought up in an interview the"indoctrination" issue. Kirkpatrick said,"No, it has nothing to do with that. It's a text that studies the poetic structure of the Koran and seeks to explain why it has such an effect on two billion people in the world."

O'Reilly riposted by comparing the class reading of a book about the Koran now to assigning Mein Kampf or a work about Japanese emperor worship during World War II. He let slip his reasoning, saying,"But I'm telling you, these are our enemies now. I mean, the Islamic fundamentalism is our enemy"-only catching himself with the second sentence.

How non-Muslim professors could indoctrinate students into Islam is unclear. Moreover, as Sells points out, Bible texts are routinely read in university classes on Western civilization. In response to this argument, Joe Glover of the Family Policy Network said on Hannity & Colmes (July 26) that he would be equally opposed to the assignment of a book by Jerry Falwell on the Gospels"because I wouldn't expect them to get that right either." Glover claims a knowledge monopoly such that he and those who think as he does"get" everything, including the Koran,"right."

In fact, the Koran grew up in the early 600s in a multicultural Arabia and approves of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It says that"Chistians are closest to Muslims in love," and that righteous Jews and Christians have no fear of hellfire. The phrase in some renderings commanding that Muslims should not take Christians and Muslims as"friends" is a translation error. The text refers not to friends but to"patrons." It was a custom in Arabia for weak clients to adopt powerful protectors, but it gave non-Muslims the leverage to make newly converted Muslims leave Islam.

Sells's book is about the early phase of Islam, when the Muslims were persecuted by powerful pagans who violently rejected its message of monotheism and its praise of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mary. The later wars of the Muslims were against an aggressive Mecca determined to wipe them out. Why it is wrong for the Koran to urge the destruction of battlefield enemies but not for the Book of Joshua, Donald Rumsfeld, and Jerry Falwell himself to do so is unclear to me. On the other hand, the Koran forbids naked aggression.

That merely having American university students know something serious about the Muslim scriptures should be controversial suggests that our society is not as informed or tolerant as we like to think. President Bush has been careful to insist that the enemy of the U.S. is not Islam or Muslims, but a fringe of terrorists. Those to his Right disagree with him, and wish to demonize all Muslims as enemies of America. Likening the Koran to Mein Kampf or banning it from U.S. classrooms may have the unfortunate effect of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Paul Ferrino - 1/16/2004

Given that slightly more than a billion people are Muslims, then it certainly seems logical to at least cosider assigning study of the Koran. If nothing else, then a reduction of euro-centrism would be of
benefit to our young people, as they are likely to be the ones to have to deal with what may be more conflict in the future.

Kenneth Patricio - 12/10/2003

I think that David makes a great point, though perhaps strays a little off the target I was hoping for. I am one person, and the Muslims I have had any contact with constitutes about 1 billionth of a percent of their total population.
Who is to say that anyone's opinion is not valid? I would agree with Heather, that my experiences have all been positive. I was relieved that Riva's comments were based upon experience too and not heresay. What stance is correct? I would argue both. It is hard not to stereotype, but we must take each individual experience as just that - individual. I would hope that in the past year, Riva has learned that large portions of the Muslim world is very interested in learning about Western cultures. On that same notion, I hope that Heather understands that there also plenty of Muslims who care little to form an open heterogenous society.
True knowledge can be the only cure to these world issues facing us today. The same incident can easily have multiple slants, the true one we will rarely know. It is our job as citizens of the world to have informed opinions and to qualify them for what they are worth. That's no easy task, but no global issues are.

Betul - 11/2/2003

I came to this page by chance. When I read Myron Ernst's view about Koran, I really felt unhappy. Actually, there is no need to comment on this view.

I am writing because I just want to say that, everybody should respect to others beliefs, especially if they are holy.This is a very sensitive issue and harms sensitive feelings. You may like Koran and believe it by all your heart or you may find it as a "paranoid tirade" in your own words. However in both circumstances, nobody can attack each others religion and holy books. Aggressive manners does not help gaining any tolerance or understanding between people. Your religion is yours and I respect this and my religion is my mine and I wait other people to respect this.

As I believe that, respect to each other is a crucial thing nowadays. Everybody can find something to criticise about others but it is better to behave nicely. Don't you think so? If you ask my opinion about budism..etc. I can tell you my ideas but those ideas should not harm budists.

There are lots of words to say. I guess there is no need to write so long. Thank you.

David - 10/21/2003

Why do you minimize Riva's experience? Because it doesn't conform with your worldview? And what is your worldview based on that makes it so legitimate?

The truth hurts sometimes, but don't deny his experiences, which probably are not isolated ones.

For my part, I believe you Riva. Your testimony jibes with what I also know to be true.

David Battle - 10/21/2003

Let's face it. Being assigned a book is not the same as choosing a book. It basically amounts to indoctrination. Let me explain.

When I sign up for a class, I basically tell the professor to pump my mind full of the material of his choosing. I have given him permission to do so, and that's fine. But assigning reading material to students who did not choose to study Islam is a whole nother story. It reveals a bias on the part of the university administration, and forcing that bias on the student is indoctrination.

The "out" that let's a student submit a 300 word essay instead of reading the book is completely lame. Few impressionable and insecure college freshmen (freshpersons) will want to get on the professor's bad side, not to mention peer pressure.

C'mon academia. How about some honesty?

Taunya S. - 11/23/2002

Mr Vance,
Thank you kindly for sharing your views-I've been enlightened.


Maleeha - 9/15/2002

Wonderfully said, couldnt agree with you more. the ignorance of some people is just painful to watch.

Heather McMurray - 8/14/2002

How unfortunate that you judge all Muslims by your experience, which is not the universal experience. You make the same mistake as those that hate all Americans based on a bad experience or stereotypes. As someone who has spent the last 4 summers working in the Middle East as an archaeologist, I have yet to experience the closemindedness that you claim is the norm. Whether I was making conversation in the markets or talking to local workers on the dig, everyone I encountered was open and inquisitive about America and me personally. The hospitality there is exceptional.

Riva Freifeld - 8/12/2002

My evidence to support the claim that students in the Middle East do not study Judaism or Christianity?

I was educated with Muslims in a European school. I knew more about their religion from NEVER having studied the Koran than they will ever know about Christianity or Judaism. Why? They were supremely uninterested in the rest of the world, tolerance, understanding, etc. in contrast to the students from other parts of the world. They had no interest in America, or even Europe, except as places where they could run away to to get away from the repressive and repressed societies they grew up in. As for studying Judaism or Christianity, are there actually courses at Arab universities where they have to read the Bible? Or does teaching the "blood libel" count as studying Judaism?

William H. Leckie, Jtr. - 8/10/2002

Ralph Luker is right on point about the fact of the matter--students were not required to read the Koran, and not only that there was no academic requirement to read a history of Islam or sanction--such as a failing grade--if they did not do so. He is also correct, replying to another comment (to the effect that if Middle Eastern students would read "western" sacred texts, UNC's summer reading assignment would be okay)that apparently the reader expected the US to become as closed as undeveloped societies. I do find, though, that students from the developing world have a wider range of knowledge about the universe beyond their nations than most business or education majors in this country. Even on the European periphery, the general citizen seems to be more civically engaged and has access to much more diverse public--not niche--media; last time I was in Athens I counted a dozen Greek dailies plus, of course, the International Herald Tribune. My impression is that corporate and GOP nitwits with power and money want to run the country with One Great Big Texas Schoolbook Commission and the scowling, reactionary civics of Charles Krauthammer. You could call it--after Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s famous phrase--"market totalitarianism," but the same distortions corrupt the marketplace of ideas in this country as they do in the market for equities.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 8/10/2002

Just the fact that this discussion--nationwide and in the media--is taking place is an instance of the extreme parochialism of US society and especially its elites, and the extent to which well-funded "conservative" groups and the media have exploited this Know-Nothing populaism after September 11 would be a hoot if we weren't bombing defenseless people, restoring anarchy to Afghanistan and contemplating an insane attack on Iraq. That said, I'm absolutely fascinated by way our right wing has been orchestrating post-Cold War enemies--the first effort was to diabolize, as it were, the Chinese. That effort, to establish unity and order, went nowhere. Now the same cast of characters, from Perle to Ledeen, is at the top of a heap rendering Islam as an enemy religion and culture (taking their cue I suppose from Huntington on the "culture-not-ideology-anymore" front) prone to expansionism and violence. Myself, in conversation with such nutcases I enjoy quoting the more belligerent passages of the Old Testament, and pointing out that desert monotheisms have much in common! My auditors fail to see either the irony or its humor. So what?

Porthe Montague - 8/9/2002

Using excerpts from the Qur'an to promote discussion is hardly pushing the Qu'ran. In fact, it may well help to lighten some of the profound ignorance of the American people. These days, it's America or nothing; we hardly seem to even get by with our Old World allies, who also happen to be our progenitors, rather like spoilt teenagers. In the swing of things, that is what America remains; a relatively young country with more power than it deserves in its tumultous adolescence.

It made me smirk to read your comment about 'endorsing the very people who are determined to destroy it' - what does that have to do with the Qur'an and Islam? This is exactly the point made earlier by Alistair - you do not have a clue about the tenets of this religion, which are geared predominantly toward the proclamation of peace. Osama bin laden is not a real Muslim - he is the Islamic equivalent of any extreme Christian cult that bends the teaching of a holy book to suit his own ends.

And by the way, the Qur'an, which you speak so distantly of, is really not that different from the Bible, bar the fact that it is written in Arabic. There are all the same books (Genesis, Adam and Eve, Revelations), and a few additional teachings, just as there are in the Jewish Torah. The principle distinction is that Jesus is not seen as the son of God, but a prophet - fairly sensible a point, I'd say.

With your reasoning, it would probably be better to say that our children have no business being assigned to understand religion - look at where it gets us anyhow; the [AVERAGE] American is famed for being ignorant, not to mention backwardly conservative, and less intelligent than the average person from anywhere else. Except for the small percentile that end up in higher education - though I often wonder sometimes - I can see that most of the population is just like this; Kletus the slack-jawed yokel of The Simpsons fame is one of the most accurate portrayals of many Americans, but racism and arrogance seem to prevail more in the outside world than on that more idyllic television show.

Raymond Green - 8/8/2002

Ironic isn't it? The same liberals that bash God in public schools and demand absolute separation of Church and State endorese the very idea of comingling the two, as long as it isn't Christianity.

Student's parents had to file a lawsuit in California demanding that their child not be forced to learn about Islam in public school. You know, the same California in which the words "under God" were declared unconstitutional.

Entirely contradictory to the initial movement that would entirely separate Church and State, we are learning that it only applies to Christ - not Mohammed (sp?).

The religion in schools should be limited to the foundation that built this country, not endorse the very people who are determined to destroy it. Osama bin Laden would die laughing if he could only see our reaction to his attacks - maybe that's the plan. Come on, let's rid of this ultimate liberal guilt and be realistic. Our children have no business being assigned to understand the Quran - if they choose to on their own, so be it. But it isn't our responsibility to transform our public institutions into a social battleground. If you want your child to learn more about Islam instead of history - than try homeschooling, it's a better education anyway and it's no wonder - instead of teaching real subjects we are pushing the Quran.

Alastair S. Robinson - 8/8/2002

I commend Heather on some points well made, but the
profound obviety of these points saddens me no end; that she should have to had make them in the first place makes me wonder at the lamentable state of ignorance under which a great deal of fellow Americans labour.

Riva is proponent of a generalised view that serves well to demonstrate a common lack of objectivity among my peers, and I am genuinely worried at how easily accepted a view it is.

Your average Joe is aware that there have been major problems associated with 'militant Islamic groups' - practically an oxymoron, as these groups greatly distort their interpretations of the Qur'an to meet their own needs and are not representative of Islam at all - but it is easy for Joe to believe that such people are entirely representative of the religion. Why? Simply put, because he is ignorant. It is more simple for him to grasp the words of any fanatic denouncing Islam than it is for him to ponder the finer details of what is fact and what is hateful propaganda, that is, if he even has access to that kind of information. Unfounded generalisation thus becomes distorted into a pereception of universal fact.

It is terrible that opinion-based misconceptions of the world should be propagated in this way.

My personal experience of having been raised an expatriate, among Christian students at a Muslim school in a Muslim country is one entirely of open understanding, and not simply tolerance, but acceptance.
Theistic or atheist, we were, as a matter of curriculum, taught by Islamic scholars that the God of the Christians, Muslims and Jews was one God, but a God who is worshipped in different ways by myriad different peoples, and that these differences were to be celebrated. I can only wish that things were so liberal in the United States, especially among the backward communities where anything other than Christianity is perceived as being 'wrong', as opposed to being an entitled choice.

I am not foolish enough to presume that such liberal views prevail in all communities (of any religion), but the fact remains that in many places they do. There are plenty of Middle Eastern students who would happily, and do, learn about Christianity and Judaism without the tit-for-tat reasoning offered by Riva.

I was under the impression that life as an Academic involved the pursuit of knowledge; I did not choose to do a Ph.D. simply because others do the same, I chose to do it because it was the best avenue through which I could better my own understanding; if reading and discussing an interpretation of the Qur'an is part of the UNC syllabus, then it can hardly be contested other than by those who thrive under the maxim 'Ignorance is bliss'.

The individuals who have taken rare exception to it are probably not the pick of the academic bunch, and so it comes to pass that another ridiculous lawsuit has been filed over the failings of trivial minds.

PS. To these same students, may I point out that eating fast food as a staple diet will inevitably result in obesity.

MYRON ERNST - 8/7/2002

I think it is scandalous that the incoming students at the University of NC are in some manner , obliged to read "ABOUT"
Islam--"ABOUT" the Qur'an. Micheal Sells, an American "feelgood" peddler of an utopic, Walt Disney interpretaion of Islam should not be permitted to ladle out his "peaceful Islam" propoganda to credulous, open-mouthed freshmen.Credulous but intelligent,, quite capable of making judgements about Islam by themselves., without any help from the Islampushers.Be told "about" the Qur'an? NO!Read the Qur'an, from the first to the last page?YES, BY ALL MEANS !
I mistreated myself (twice) to the distinct displeasure of reading this obsessive/compulsive, paranoid tirade called the Qur'an. You know what, for more than a week, after the first reading,I needed to take sleeping pills.
The very last thing the pushers of "peaceful"Islam want is for these students to read this tirade ON THEIR OWN, allowing them to first interpret it FOR AND BY THEMSELVES.Come on , Mr. Michael Sells, let the students alone,take your ladle back to the kitchen where it belongs.

If any who read this think I am a raving crank, then please DO read the Qur'an--I beg you.The translation I read (ISBN--0-8041-1125-1 "The Koran" paperback at Barnes and Noble $7.00 approx-is both a bad and a good translation. Bad, because the poetry has been removed, so have all the euphemisms; good, because with all this window dressing removed , only the meaning remains. I checked this translation against versions available on the web.
Please Mr. Sells, don't talk to me about poetry--when I want poetry, I read Wallace Stevens and WC Williams.

Well, I've got to go now, a friend of mine has made an appointment to talk to me ABOUT the French novel "Madame Bovary"-
no wait--I've just gotten a great idea!! I think I'll read "Madame Bovary" first and then I'll talk "ABOUT" it with my learned friend.

Thank you very muvh for giving me this opportunity to expressmy views.

Myron Ernst
889 Jensen Road
Vestal, NY 13850
Tel: 607-729-6664

MYRON ERNST - 8/7/2002

I think it is absolutely scandalous for an apologist of Islam to
force his "feel good"analysis of Islam of Univ. of North Carolina Students.

The following is my view. NO APOLOGIST for Islam, Michael Sells included, EVER

Heather McMurray - 8/6/2002

Ms. Freifeld,

Please present your evidence to support that students in the Middle East do not study Judaism or Christianity. The fact that Islam includes figures in both Jewish and Christian tradition makes them far more informed about those two religions than you or the vast majority of Americans. I have found many Arabs, be they Muslim or Christian, to be quite educated and open to intelligent discussion. To attempt to reduce this issue to essentially a "turn about is fair play" situation totally misses the point of this discussion. Universities exist to educate not to coddle and reinforce our stereotypical views of the world. I suggest you read Edward Said's book Orientalism in order to learn about the insidiousness of such closeminded Western fundamentalism.

Rev. Dennis Vance, Jr. - 8/6/2002

What is so pathetic about many of the comments against Mr. Cole's article and the entire issue is that obstensibly in defense of all that is right and good and holy, some people would trample down all three. I fear that Mr. Cole may be correct in that many people come to college to just get a job--many of them bright, energetic, but sadly, myopic young people. Higher education should not just be something that should enable one to get a job (a technical school education can do that for you quicker), but something that opens the horizons for thought and discourse with others, to help us think critically and logically and to help us see our own biases. Based upon what I know about this controversy, the people at UNC-Chapel Hill had these things I mentioned in mind. It is sad that this view of higher education gets lost in the conflict of cultures we have in this country.

As for the three hundred word essay requirement for those who do not want to read the book, I think it is a good idea. I think people should have to justify why they are going to a major university only to remain ignorant. When I went to college, I had no idea of what to expect. I had no idea of how much work I would have to do. But the thought of suing a university over required reading, over the very thing a university was designed to do...preposterous. I hope those who feel this way are a bare minority, because if there are more than these few who believe this way, to exclude from the public sphere and education that which they do not like, I fear for the future of this country and higher education.

The reality is that Islam is one of the major religious systems in this country and in the world, and has and is shaping the world in many different ways. We should study Islam in some form and fashion if for no other reason than to be aware of those who believe in Allah, to recognize that Muslims "are people too," with hopes and dreams just like the rest of us. To put at equivalency the Koran to Mein Kampf as Bill O'Reilly did (quoted in the Cole article)is not only ludicrous but demeaning, to say nothing of indiscriminate demonization of whole groups of people without just cause.

In case anyone wonders where I come from on this, I am an evangelical, Christian, American Baptist pastor. I am unashamed to proclaim "the faith once delivered unto the saints," and I believe it is the right faith. But being a Christian does not mean being willfully ignorant, but rather living in understanding of one's own faith struggle and respectful of the faiths of others, even if you don't agree. In my view, being a Christian means that one is always learning and serving God, not living to be confirmed in our worldview. That is exactly counter to education and free expression of thought. What these three sincere young people (along with their patrons) have done is to give more ammunition to those who think Christianity is for idiots, and given more ammunition to those who want to shut down debate in the public sphere, rather than to open debate. How sad.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/3/2002

Ms. Phillips seems to be unaware that students were not required to write an essay about their beliefs. Do she also think students should not be exposed to texts which do not hold that Jesus is the Son of God? That would keep them from reading a great many books!

Ralph E. Luker - 8/3/2002

The logic of Ms. Freifeld's comment is that because some near eastern societies are largely closed to outside influence ours should become so. So much for higher education; so much for the city set on a hill ...

Riva Freifeld - 8/3/2002

If I thought for a moment that college students from the Middle East would accept being assigned the Old Testament and New Testament with the goal of furthering their understanding, appreciation, and tolerance of Judaism, Christianity, the West, etc. I would have no objection to American students being assigned the Koran. Sadly, that is not the case.

Leila Phillips - 8/3/2002

I do not object to the book itself, but just as other religious studies are elective this should be as well. No student should have to write an essay on their beliefs. They should just be able to refuse. To say that the Koran supports Jesus is in error anyway. The Koran only recognises Jesus as a prophet; not as the Son of God.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/2/2002

Clayton Cramer's analogy is inappropriate. The students were not asked to read the Koran, but an interpretation of it. More importantly, education is learning about both those things which we believe are foundational to one's own traditions _and_ those things which we believe are not. Finally, we will be less inclined to repeat crusading slogans out of ignorance if we manage to think of the Koran as one of those "underlying documents of Western Civilization."

Clayton E. Cramer - 8/2/2002

Imagine the reaction if, for example, the University of California required all incoming freshmen to read the four
Gospels in the interest of understanding the underlying documents of Western Civilization. The ACLU would be filing suit faster than you can imagine (assuing that UC even did
something like that).

Comparative religion is a good thing. But that's not what assigning a single book about the Koran is, is it?

Michael Myers - 8/1/2002

Unfortunately, the lawsuit to prevent a student reading Sell's "Approaching the Qur'an, Early Revelations" obscures even more issues, all of which threaten the very nature of higher education in this country: the content of syllabus: the thrust of a liberal education, and, as Cole's article points out, the reality of tolerance in the United States (not the rhetoric of tolerane which is very high).

At the elementary level, the basic premise of the lawsuit requires that students have the legal authority to choose the content of their classes, essentially placing the syllabus in their hands. That the plaintiffs argue separation of church and state and violation of the first amendment is mere legal smoke (and of course there are enough lawyers in this country willing to blow smoke, good for business). With this as a legal precedent, what else could be immune from such "violations": evolution and/or genetics from biology, how about black holes and the "big bang" in astronomy, pagan, not to mention other Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, or other non-Christian sacred or secular literature, and universities should just as well dump their entire anthropology departments. Underneath the convenient waving of the consitition, the lawsuit essentially represents an updated version of the Scopes Trial.

Very likely, these three students are dupes to more sinister aspects of the christian right or the liberal left or, possibly and, are very likely to perform very poorly at the university anyway - they see university liberal arts education as merely a method not to expand their intellectual and experiential horizons, a more tolerant and pro-active citizen, but merely as a way to confirm their adolescent fantasies, biases, and prejudices, even hatreds, as they seek the law to protect their ignorance, if not naked stupidity. Most likely, they don't want education, they just want a job.

American culture has a long tradition in the rhetoric of tolerance - it's even in the constitution. But of course, American society has just as long a history of intolerance and racism - that's even in the constitution also. Academic culture, however, does seem to be, and increasingly, at odds with popular culture. It is not that academic culture is more tolerant than popular culture, it's just that the two have different spheres of intolerance. The biggest difference is that academia is much better versed in the use of rhetorical camoflage, using banners such as "diversity" and "academic freedom," to hide their intolerance. And being chic, able to use bigger words, insulated, and self-perpetuating promotes a sense of superiority over popular culture. Popular culture at least is a bit more honest in its intolerance, although shy to admit it, and often too proud and ready to advertise its prejudices. So in this case of Sell's valuable work and whether students should read it as a required part of the syllabus or voluntarily, the heart of the conflict lies not in constitutional rights or the purity of humanistic education but rather in the clash of increasing antagonistic cultures, heretofore separated, fighting over turf.

Harry Watson - 8/1/2002

Thanks for your supportive report on the controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the selection of Michael Sells' "Approaching the Qur'an" as this year's book for the Carolina Summer Reading Program. I was a member of the selection committee along with Prof. Robert Kirkpatrick, who was quoted in the article, and both of us have spent a lot of time lately explaining the choice. But I think the really big story is the dog that didn't bark: most students, parents, faculty members, trustees, legislators, reporters, editors, church leaders, and so on in this state seem to understand and support the idea of exposing students and faculty to Islam's holy book. From where I sit, deeply hostile critics are a small though conspicuous minority.

One small correction: We only assign one book to incoming students, not three. The Carolina Summer Reading Program has ben existence for four years now, so we have assigned a total of three books in the past three years.

Harry Watson
Professor of History

Arthur Goldschmidt - 7/31/2002

Right on, Juan Cole! The bigotry of the Family Policy Network is incredible.