Scriptural Eggshells

Click for the Qur'an article. (Caligraphy of Surah 1 in Sardar, Z., Malik, Z. A., 1999, 43.)
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds!
The Compasionate, the Merciful!
King of the day of reckoning!
The only do we worship, and to thee do we cry for help.
Guide thou us on the straight path,
The Path of those to whom Thou hast been gracious: - with whom thou art not angry, and who go not astray.

(Rodwell, 1909, Surah 1 [VIII in this historical order edition], 28.)
In the name of God, the most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace: All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds, the Most Gracious, Lord of the Day of Judgement! Thee alone do we worship; and unto thee alone do we turn for aid. Guide us to the straight way - the way of those upon whom Thous hast bestowed Thy blessings, not of those who have been condemned [by Thee], nor of those who go astray.

(Sardar, Z., Malik, Z. A., 1999, Surah 1, 43.)
The caligraphy above and two translations from the Arabic are of the opening Surah. Reverend Rodwell attempts to produce an accurate but recognisably religious text, and the Muslim authors also show thees and thous if otherwise a more modern form. They heavily criticise the Penguin edition of the Qur'an translated by N. J. Darwood as having "distorted" "violent and sexual overtones" (p. 47).

Reading from divine material for discussion can be a no-win situation and can clash with principles of critical education and gender equality.

As part of my subject knowledge bridging, which so far has included aspects of Sikhism and Islam, I looked at three sources regarding the Qur'an. First there was a very good well laid out believers' summary of the Qur'an, Muhammad and Islam in Introducing Muhammad (Sardar, Z., Malik, Z. A., 1999). The second source was an introduced, prefaced, and rearranged into historical order, Qur'an by a Christian Reverend J. M. Rodwell (1909). The third source was a recent paper discussing the impact of finding ancient Qur'anic fragments in the Yemen (Lester, 1999), microfilm copies of which are now in Germany and so have become available for study beyond the reluctance of the Yemini authorities.

What I want to do is tackle some of the issues raised in perhaps introducing a Qur'anic text for discussion in an RE class.

Now I cannot introduce the issues involved here without a very basic overview of the Qur'an, but you can see the evidence of my rapid study on my website in the Learning - Religion section. This is where I put religious topics as I see and understand them, whereas this paper is in the Learning - PGCE section. It's, and as a matter of diversion the website title is named after my religious outlook.

The Qur'an is unlike any other religious scripture in that it has been, other than for a short period, orthodoxy to regard it as consisting of perfectly transmitted words from God to humankind through Muhammad, God's prophet. Muhammad, it is claimed, was illiterate, and so this is truly a miracle, in that he then spoke these words perfectly to a group of scribes and family and friends, some of whom kept these texts written, and some of whom remembered them. The miracle is such because well after his death the memories and fragments were gathered to be perfectly arranged into the Qur'an, and even then, to solve arguments, one Qur'an was decided upon, read out, and the six copies were transmitted to different parts of the rapidly expanding Muslim empire, with all other versions scrapped.

Therefore it is something special to find the Yemeni fragments which show a different text order, and it is also something quite against Muslim orthodoxy for a Qur'an to be rearranged historically and translated into English as was my second source. This is because the Qur'an is in no particular order at all, except the larger suras come before the smaller ones, and so Muslims say it has an interlocking lattice structure where not one dot or comma can be rearranged. Plus Arabic is the unique language capable of receiving the purity of God's word. There are none of the arguments here about language being a barrier to the purity of God, as heard in Christianity for example. Therefore children learn the Qur'an off by heart, cover to cover, in the Arabic, and in an Arabic often not otherwise understood.

When Muhammad first received the revelations in 611 CE, it is said from the same angel Gabriel who visited Mary the mother of Jesus, they were in a highly poetic style and of religious ideals. Later they became more about the operation of the new Muslim society and how people were to behave. They are all very God centred and make quite a distinction between the believer and the unbeliever. These visions went on until he died in 632.

So here is a dilemma as regards Religious Education: how do we present this because it seems to me we tread on eggshells from the very beginning. We have the very problem set up in the Qur'an itself, between the believer and the unbeliever, and using a text source in one way when it is intended by the community's orthodoxy to be considered in another way, and by its children.

I raise these questions straight away before coming to a couple of readings to consider. First, is Religious Education what education should be - critical and examining, or is it a reciting of what believers believe across religions, rather as we get in those rather dull inter faith meetings where each representative gives their own account of their faith and everyone else nods. Secondly, is Religious Education about suggesting that there is real religious experience to be gained, which is itself open to question, or is this only possible in the churches, moques and temples of the religious people themselves, that is not in schools, or not much. Thirdly how can we speak of truths, if we should at all. And fourthly, how are we to practice gender equality when faced with certain religious texts, which are given unique divine importance?

I'm going to introduce two readings that children might look at for groups or class discussion (and possible appreciation). It is actually quite easy to find topics for discussion in the Qur'an, but not, in my view, for pure uncontroversial devotion, which raises that experiential question regarding one role of RE, of course.

If you look further at these two readings you will see how the subject matter jumps around, as is common in the Qur'an, specificaly they both are close to issues of inheritance. But being a little more focussed I am looking at different parts of the same Surah where one part considers the position of women and another part considers right belief. Both topics are in Surah 4 [C in the historical order] which is a later more regulatory Madinah Surah:

This comes from verse 28 to 43:

Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them. Virtuous women are obedient, careful, during the husband´s absence, because God hath of them been careful. [by providing a home and protection of a husband]. But chide those for whose refractoriness ye have cause to fear; remove them into beds apart, and scourge them: but if they are obedient to you, then seek not occasion against them: verily, God is High, Great!
And if ye fear a breach between man and wife, then send a judge chosen from his family, and a judge chosen from her family: if they ate desirous of agreement, God will effect a reconciliation between them; verily, God is knowing, apprised of all!
[40] Worship God, and join not aught with Him in worship. Be good to parents,´ and to kindred, and to orphans, and to the poor, and to a neighbour, whether kinsman or new-comer, and to a fellow traveller, and to the wayfarer, and to the slaves whom your right hands hold; verily, God loveth not the proud, the vain boaster,
Who are niggardly themselves, and bid others be niggards, and hide away what God of his bounty hath given them. We have made ready a shameful chastisement for the un-believers,
And for those who bestow their substance in alms to be seen of men, and believe not in God and in the last day. Whoever hath Satan for his companion, an evil companion hath he!
But what blessedness would be theirs, if they should believe in God and the last day, and bestow alms out of what God hath vouchsafed them; for God hath taken knowledge of them!
(Rodwell (1909), Surah IV, [C], p. 415)

Now suppose we introduce this for a topic of discussion. Can you imagine how Muslim pupils might be concerned or offended? The discussion must of course bring in the replacement of patriarchy as a bond with a religious bond in the Qur'an, the right for women to own property, choose partners, divorce, necessary abortion, and sexual satisfaction. Yet using this text does introduce problems, not just because of the obvious issue of inequality, which goes against school ethics, but because the Qur'an is being discussed as any other document might be: that even if you were to point out the progressive elements as improvements to their day, that in itself denies the absolute and divine nature of the book for the believers. This book remember is the basis for divine Sharia Law.

The argument in Christianity is usually put: if in the Bible a statement was progressive in its day, therefore we can be comparatively progressive in our day. But the Qur'an cannot be argued in this way if it is accepted that it is pure and absolute. To argue even this is to step on eggshells.

More so children are consumers of the media and media images today are quite unfriendly towards Islam, even if they have checked this. So it seems to me that discussion has to be managed.

The second reading is one regarding religious difference. We know that the Qur'an has a partially gnostic interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus, that he did not actually dies on the cross, and it also tackles the Trinity from verse 169.

O ye people of the Book! overstep not bounds in your religion; and of God, speak only truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only an apostle [prophet] of God, and his Word which he conveyed into Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from himself. Believe therefore in God and his apostles, and say not, "Three:" (there is a Trinity) - Forbear - it will be better for you. God is only one God! Far be it from His glory that He should have a son! His, whatever is in the Heavens, and whatever is in the Earth! And God is a sufficient Guardian.
The Messiah disdaineth not to be a servant of God, nor do the angels who are nigh unto Him.
And whoso disdaineth His service, and is filled with pride, God will gather them all to Himself.
And to those who believe and do the things that are right, will He pay them their due recompense, and out of His bounty will He increase them: but as for those who are disdainful and proud, with a grievous chastisement will He chastise them;
And none beside God shall they find to protect or to help them.
O men! now hath a proof come to you from your Lord, and we have sent down to you a clear light. As to those who believe in God and lay fast hold on Him, these will He cause to enter into his mercy and grace, and along the straight way unto Himself will He guide them.
They will consult thee. SAY: God instructeth you as to distant kindred. If a man die childless, but have a sister, half what he shall have shall be her's; and if she die childless he shall be her heir. But if there be two sisters, two-third parts of what he shall have shall be theirs; and if there be both brothers and sisters, the male shall have the portion of two females. God teacheth you plainly, that ye err not! God knoweth all things.
(Rodwell (1909), Surah IV, [C], 428-429)

So we see a sudden change of subject at the end of this Surah, which covers matters presented much earlier. I just include this bit to illustrate how the Qur'an changes.

Now I'm not suggesting particularly that this might be presented as a reading, because as let's face it children are not up to the finer points of doctrinal differences. Nevertheless, there is an issue here for RE professionals that has to be confronted of comparative truths. What is being presented here, again right there in the text, and would also take some introducing, is the difference of beliefs. The teacher if using this might refer to the Trinity in the previously discussed Christianity part of the syllabus, for example, in which most Christians are said to believe, and then contrast it with this reading. I can see a lot of parents breathing down a lot of teachers' necks!

Then of course we have the situation where a pupil will ask "What do you think, sir?" or "What do you think, miss?" at which point the ball must go swiftly back into their court.


Rodwell, J. M. (1909), The Koran: Translated from the Arabic, Everyman Library, London: J. M. Dent and Sons

Sardar, Z., Malik, Z. A. (1999), Introducing Muhammad, Cambridge: Icon Books, previously Muhammad for Beginners (1994).

Lester, T. (1999), What is the Koran? The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; Volume 283, No. 1; pages 43-56, The Atlantic Monthly Company, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed again August 31, 2002, 02:00]