Sunday, September 12, 2010

Reading the Koran

When I was a high school sophomore in the 1970s, the elderly nun who taught our religion class started each session by having one of us read a selection of our choice from the Old Testament. We went around the room, row by row. Oddly, I don't remember her asking us to say which book our passage came from.

Whenever it was my turn, I read from the Koran. I thought it was more inspiring — and better written — than the Old Testament. I have no idea why I did this, or how I got interested in the Koran in the first place. Perhaps a religion teacher told us it was a forbidden book, but it's just as likely that a teacher said it was good to read.  I was a curious kid, and I'd gotten a copy from the local college library, where you could check out books for months at a time. And so, about once a month, when it was my turn, I'd quietly take out my brown-paper-covered Koran and read away. It was beautiful, eloquent stuff. At the end of our passage, I believe we were supposed to say, "This is the word of the Lord."

More than once, I remember that nun looking at me misty-eyed after I'd finished. I'd snap the book shut afterwards, quickly put it in my desk, and whip out my notebook in imitation of an eager student. That way, when she asked me — in her most gentle, reverent voice — what I'd been reading, I could say something like, "Oh, Sister, I just chose something quickly. I think that was from... Isaiah?"

Although it's quite possible that I lied, introducing my Koran reading as coming from the Book of Ezra, or someone similarly obscure. I really don't remember what I said, but I wouldn't put that past me. Yeah, I'll bet I lied. What a sneaky, subversive but believable little schoolgirl I was.

I think it's also possible that in the spring semester we switched to reading from the New Testament, and I still kept reading from the Koran. I likely said my passages were from one of the more obscure Epistles.

I wonder what would have happened to me if I'd been caught. Probably very little; no one was afraid of Muslims in those days. I would have been exposed as a pretentious, dishonest but daring brat, that's all. But no one ever had the slightest idea about me; I was a fine actress. It's unfortunate that none of those daily readings had the effect of making me a better, more honest person.

I got away with this for a whole school year. Even educated nuns and religion teachers aren't all that familiar with the Bible. Let's admit it: neither Testament is uniformly inspiring or illuminating by a long shot. They can be dull, contradictory, confusing, annoying, ranting, and even obscene. And there would be plenty of Christians, including clergy, teachers, and other professionals, who couldn't tell the Bible from the Koran if a little Italian schoolgirl in glasses and a uniform jumper were reading.

But I can tell you from direct experience — no young Catholics were harmed by hearing passages from the Koran. Before you think about burning a book, read it. You might learn things.

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