A Kinder, Gentler Koran

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The University of North Carolina is at the center of the Koran controversy

Homework is usually controversial only for the students who have to do it. But this summer the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which customarily assigns a book to its incoming freshmen, chose Approaching the Qur'an, a set of heavily annotated excerpts from the Muslim Holy Writ. Chancellor James Moeser reportedly asked his trustees, "What could be more timely?" And what could be more predictable than the brouhaha that followed: the rumbling overture on Christian websites; the brassy solo by Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, who compared the assignment to having students read Hitler's Mein Kampf in 1941; and the inevitable legal coda? The Virginia-based Family Policy Network, a Christian group, sued U.N.C., claiming the assignment amounted to state-funded promotion of a faith. The North Carolina legislature is considering pulling the school's funds for the project.

If the fifth-column treatment the school received wasn't warranted, its decision did invite second guessing. While critics slammed U.N.C. for teaching the Koran, the real problem may be that the school is not teaching enough of the Koran. Moeser says Approaching the Qur'an, assembled and translated by Haverford College professor Michael Sells, "was chosen in the wake of 9/11." But the book omits the verses in which the 9/11 terrorists might have sought to ground their actions. Subtitled The Early Revelations, Sells' book features scripture enunciated by Muhammad before the Prophet's takeover of the Arabian Peninsula, and so omits lines arguably forged in combat, like 9:5, the Sword Verse: "Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them." From such verses emerged the Muslim concept of holy war. Noting their absence, Family Policy Network head Joe Glover says, "Sells whitewashes Muhammad."


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"To approach the Koran as an assassination manual is an irresponsible attack on another religion," says Carl Ernst, the U.N.C. religion professor who first recommended the book. He has a point, but the hard fact is that Islam's relationship with war is what many non-Muslim Americans want to know about. As 2 million to 6 million (even population estimates are politicized) overwhelmingly peaceful U.S. Muslims look on in alarm, historians, preachers and anchorpeople weigh in on whether Islam has a bloody heart or has been, in Bush's word, hijacked.

Given the diversity of Islamic culture and history, that question is deeply flawed. It might be posed equally fairly about Judaism, on the basis of the Hebrews' God-sanctioned rampages through the Book of Joshua, or Christianity, which inspired the Inquisition. But this is Islam's American moment, and its cause might be better served by citing the Koran's ban on killing civilians rather than totally ignoring the issue of killing.

The assignment, now optional, is unlikely to be legally vulnerable. Says Duke University law professor Jefferson Powell: "It's pretty clear that this book has a secular nature," and few courts would see an attempt to establish Islam. But some undergrads do. "Three students from my hometown who were coming to Carolina decided not to because of the reading requirement," says sophomore Sean Godley. "I can't help but wonder what would happen if they had us read parts of the Bible, and see the public outcry." Incoming freshman Robert Sullivan says he's upset about the extra work, "but I also feel it's a violation of church and state making us read about a religion."

Fred Eckel, faculty adviser for Campus Crusade for Christ, differs. While declining to speak for his group, he says, "It seems to me that studying religions is an important thing on a college campus. It helps us begin to recognize that we need to understand other people. I hope it will lead Christian students in making an effort to better understand their own religion."

That sentiment, apparently foreign to people like O'Reilly, is strikingly similar to the free-market-of-ideas case expressed in verse 5: 48: "Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But ... (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works."