Each day, I had a student or two present what they'd found online. Some of the stuff was good. But I told them the more unusual, the more bizarre, the better. Some of the stuff they found was way off base. Some of it was downright malicious. But as the semester wore on, the students were much more critical of what they were finding and could identify what the problems were."
The school is Rhodes College. The students, back in 2009, were taking a class called "The Qur'an and Contemporary Issues." At the head of the class was teacher John Kaltner. And in case you're wondering what could elicit the unusual, the bizarre, and the downright malicious on today's world wide web, let it be known that the Qur'an is also spelled K-O-R-A-N.
Based on that classroom coursework, Kaltner has authored a handy, informative, very readable guide to the Koran titled Introducing the Qur'an for Today's Reader, from Fortress Press.
Jihad. The veil. Heavenly virgins. Holy war. What do endlessly repeated phrases and widespread misinformation about Islam have to do with what's revealed in the Koran? What's been drawn from the Koran and equally endlessly misinterpreted by non-Muslims? What's been lifted out of context and used to deadly purpose by Islamic extremists? To answer those questions, go to the source. But what does the Koran say?
According to Kaltner — who spent a good part of the 1980s in Egypt studying Arabic and Islam, who's authored or co-authored several books on the Bible and on Islam, and who's taught in the religion department at Rhodes for the past 15 years — the Koran, much like the Bible, doesn't "say" anything.
"Readers have to interpret the Koran's content, and that's going to be a somewhat subjective exercise," he explained.
"We're always engaged in that process — giving meaning, creating meaning for a text. Two readers could look at the same passage, reach different conclusions, and each believe he or she is right. That's why the bin Ladens of the world can look at the Koran and see in it a legitimation of terrorism."
Kaltner doesn't mean in Introducing the Qur'an to migrate into politics, but he doesn't shy away from — in fact, he squarely addresses — what in the Koran is apt to go beyond the controversial to the offensive for contemporary readers.
"There are things in the Koran that are troublesome," he admits, and he points, for example, to Chapter 4, Verse 34 — a text that qualifies as "ground zero" in discussions regarding the Koran's view of gender:
"If you [husbands] fear antagonism from them [wives], admonish them, then leave them alone in bed, then hit them. If they obey you, do not mistreat them in any way. God is most high and great."
"That's a very disturbing text for any modern reader," Kaltner says. "No getting around it: The main sense of hitting is probably what's indicated. What do we do with that?"
Kaltner advises readers of Introducing the Qur'an, just as he advises students:
"In any ancient text, we're going to bump up against passages that remind us of our distance from the text. Not that we want to give the ancients a free pass on everything, but context does help to explain why those differences are there. As in the Bible, so in the Koran: The ancients saw the world differently from the way we do."
And as Kaltner recognizes: "The challenge is to get students to think more critically of their religious texts, whether it be the Torah, the Bible, or the Koran — not to change their faith but to allow them to think about what they believe and why, ask the important questions toward their becoming contributing members of society."
More such self-questioning nationally and maybe a brief but telling controversy in 2007 could have been averted: Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, reenacting his oath of office with his hand on the Koran, not on the Bible. Onetime owner of that copy of the Koran: Thomas Jefferson.
As Ellison stated at the time, the fact that Jefferson had the Koran in his personal library "demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran."
Or the Qur'an. Or the Koran.