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Each year the University of North Carolina chooses one book as a required summer reading assignment for incoming students. Last spring, the selection committee chose my book: Approaching the Qur'an: the Early Revelations. The selection set in motion protests, a lawsuit, a bill in the North Carolina banning UNC from using public funds for the assignment, and a controversy that has now become international.

Most of those criticizing UNC have not read the book and their objections are based not on its contents, but on assumptions as to what it must contain. They charge the book is a bowdlerization of the Qur'an used to "indoctrinate" students into the false view that Islam is a peaceful religion. At the very least, argue the critics, the alternative view (that Islam is a religion of violence, presumably) should also be assigned, allowing balance. They also alleged that the assignment violates the separation of church and state by requiring students to read a religious text. They ignore, even after being reminded, the long practice of assigning selections from the Bible in required courses on Western Civilization or humanities.

The book makes no general claims about Islam or the Qur'an as a whole. I wrote it out of frustration with the gap between the way the Qur'an is experienced and appreciated within Islam and the way it is encountered in Western classrooms and bookshelves. In classical Muslim culture, the Qur'an is learned through oral and aural means, often before classical Arabic grammar. It is learned backwards: the passages at the back of the written Qur'an are learned first, memorized most often, and recited most frequently throughout a lifetime. Even young children recite it according to highly sophisticated rules of vocal performance that are as hard for native Arabic speakers to master as they are for non-native speakers.

Why are these standards of recitation important and the violation of them so immediately grating to the Muslim audience? The book demonstrates that the recitation of the Qur'an brings out vital nuances and shades of meaning that include: tenderness, subtlety, ambiguity, meditative calms, gender interplay, and a wide and supple range of emotion. It demonstrates that these characteristics are part of an inextricable link between sound and meaning. Without them, the full range of humanity reflected in Muslim devotion to the Qur'an becomes hard to grasp. Without them, Muslim belief that the language of the Qur'an is of a quality beyond the power of human expression seems peculiar at best. It is no accident that the stereotype of the Muslim is based precisely on the loss of this range of feeling and meaning in the translation of the Qur'an to another language and to very different manners of hearing and articulating it.

My book offers an account of what features are lost "in translation," to other languages and to a completely different mode of engaging the text. It offers an explanation of the interrelation of sound and meaning within the Qur'an, along with a word-by-word transliteration and gloss of some short passages, a CD with recitations in different styles, and a listener's guide. Finally, it contains new English versions of the "early revelations," those passages, largely contained in suras 81-114, believed to be the first revealed to Muhammad. These passages are accessible to those not grounded in the complex political history of 7th-century Arabia.

Students have told me that after hearing the recitations, their understanding of the debate over the central doctrine of the Qur'an, its "inimitability" was transformed along with their interest in Islamic civilization. After fifteen years of working on this method, I wrote it up in a book meant for an audience of interested, literate, non-specialists. The book is certainly a sympathetic account of these passages in this sense: it finds in them statements about the role of the human being in the universe that in their literary articulation are compelling, and involve a universe far beyond the question of slaying infidels to which the critics would wish to limit all discussion. But the book makes clear the place of these passages in the Qur'an and refrains rigorously from making any claims concerning the truth, authenticity, or peaceful nature of the text.

Yet the controversy over the assignment of this book takes on a life of its own. It has released a long pent-up debate. When political leaders say: "Islam is a religion of peace" they usually mean: "The majority of Muslims have a full life that has nothing to do with terror networks or mass violence." Religious leaders use the same expression to indicate that in their view these acts and the ideologies underlying them are not in accordance with a proper understanding of Islam and should, therefore, be condemned. But the sentence has also been used to deny responsibility or as part of missionary apologetics: "Our religion is a religion of peace, therefore accusations that members of our religion committed such crimes, or allegations that our religion could possibility be interpreted to justify them, are smears." I have hard this same argument from apologists in all the major traditions. My position as a scholar about whether a particular tradition or religion itself is more conducive to peace or violence is strictly agnostic.

The controversy has made it clear that millions of Americans do view Islam as an enemy. A public discussion of this question is essential. If these issues are not addressed, with a specific far beyond generalizations about religions of peace, and if another terror attack or significant military casualties occur, the subsequent reactive mistake could far exceed in gravity the one made in WWII with the internment of Japanese-Americans, and could help back Muslims who are not now enemies into a corner where they have little choice between anti-Islamic and anti-Western sides in a polarized conflict.

Michael Sells is Emily Judson Baugh and John Marshall Gest Professor of Comparative Religions at Haverford College, where he has taught since 1984.

Citation: Michael Sells, " From North Carolina, Heart of the Quran Belt," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2005]. Online:


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