My Koran Problem

A Muslim woman asking for protection from black magic inside the shrine of Abba Ruwais, a Copt saint, Cairo, Egypt, 1997
Abbas/Magnum Photos
A Muslim woman asking for protection from black magic inside the shrine of Abba Ruwais, a Copt saint, Cairo, Egypt, 1997

In the summer of 2015, I was asked by the directors of a university political science program to lecture about Americans’ attitudes toward Islam. I asked at the beginning how many in the audience (of about eighty students and faculty) had read the Koran. Four hands went up. Later, at lunch with faculty members, I was asked if the small number of politics students who knew the Koran surprised me. I had to answer, “Yes and no.” Yes, because 1.6 billion people live by this book, try to memorize it, quote it against each other as well as against the outside world. And now we are engaged in tense—potentially hostile—engagements with Muslims around the world. It made sense in dealing with Germany before World War II or with Russia during the cold war for serious people to have read Mein Kampf or Das Kapital. Yet many of those fighting for Germany or Russia had themselves not read Mein Kampf or Das Kapital. The same cannot be said of Muslims and the Koran.

But I could not feign surprise that others had not read the Koran, since I was slow to begin reading it and even slower to work at less inadequate readings of it. Not long after President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was asked by a friend if I had ever read the Koran. I was embarrassed to answer her, “No.” I have spent most of my life studying in one way or another both Jewish and Christian texts and practices. It was ridiculous that I would remain completely ignorant of what a quarter of the world’s people not only believe in but live by (in different ways).

Jointly the two leading religions, Christianity and Islam, number over half the inhabitants of the globe—2.2 billion Christians (31 percent of the population), 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent of the population). By 2050 the numbers will be roughly equal.1 Yet few Christians know or care about the Koran—a fact to which I bore melancholy testimony. And even now my reading of it continues to be uninformed on many levels. How, then, can the two most believing communities in the world communicate over such a high wall of ignorance? That would not matter if you believe (as some still do) that religion is not important in world affairs. This can, however, be a perilous attitude, as we found out in invading Iraq with little or no knowledge of the Sunni–Shia divide there. George Bush and Dick Cheney had clearly not read the Koran, or any of the traditions (Hadith) of Islam. But can the rest…

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