Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Diversity Matters: Read the Koran

An Ilkhanid Koran with Persian translation bet...Image via WikipediaI have been home sick lately with a ferocious cold. Unfortunately, this has lead to watching CNN and MSNBC far too much and one of the really frightening things to watch is news being interpreted by some of the people least likely to understand what they are reporting on. I am frightened by the lack of liberal arts education in the public sphere and the media. Okay, so you get the picture: sick, education guy descends into the depths of curmudgeonry as his fever goes up. I am stopping short of saying that education was better in my day because it wasn't. Knowledge of the Middle East in the 70's was a few notches above "Road to Morroco." It is obvious to me that by the surprise and befuddlement in the voices of the reporters and the inane questions they ask that they do not have even a basic grasp of Middle Eastern history or any acquaintance with Islam.

If you are in school, don't wait for the teachers. You owe it to yourself to get the education you need to make sense of the world. If you have graduated or never went to school, it is never too late. As unfashionable as this idea is, there are key books in western civilization and we are doing a great disservice to history and culture by not teaching them. For instance, reading the Bible and Ovid's Metamorphoses are essential to understanding art history. Without them, half of what a student is looking at is meaningless. Much of western art was created with shared texts, common cultural baggage. Although many in the Islamic world say that the Koran can only be read in Arabic, reading a translation in English is better than being completely blind to the fastest growing faith in the world.

So this is an education blog, why am I writing about the Koran? Because, like the world that inspires terrorism, the news is ruled by ignorance and fear. One of the goals of education is not just to provide information but understanding. Education should be about something. In order to think critically about what is happening in the world, we need the whole picture. A couple years ago, I read the Koran with a reading group at the Saltwater Unitarian church. We did this as part of a world religion study but also, I think, as a response to the fear and prejudice that has been growing about Islam in this country. The seventh principle of Unitarianism says that "we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." This is often interpreted as environmentalism, but I see this as cultural as well. Reading the Koran felt like a pretty subversive act given the reactionary mood of some in this country. We read from Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells which came highly recommended. It is a very clear and poetic translation that also comes with a CD of readings in Arabic with calls to prayer. These selections led many of us to keep on reading. There are a number of online editions as well:

  • The Online Quran Project. Readers can select multiple translations
  • The Qur'an. The The Center for Jewish-Muslim Engagement. This is a three translation parallel text.
  • ReadTheQuran.Org. This English translation also includes audio files of the original Arabic so you can actually hear the text as millions of people do around the world everyday.
  • The Holy Qur'an. A wiki version translated by Abdullah Yusif Ali, a popular Islamic scholar from the 30s.

Again, all of this needs to be put into context too, so I think it is important to read a history of the Middle East. And I mean, really, virtually any history at this point. You will be one up on almost all the the "experts" being interviewed on CNN. It is very important that we understand why people in the Middle East and especially North Africa are hesitant to accept our "help" with their political affairs. Peter Mansfield's History of the Middle East is a fairly detailed overview with useful chapters on North Africa. Again, no matter how you feel about what is happening in the Middle East, I don't know how not understanding their culture and history is going to help you.

If you have better suggestions or other favorites, please feel free to link them in the comments below.
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