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It Sounds Like Hate, but Is It?

Most sacred texts contain passages shocking to modern sensibilities. But experts say they need to be read in context.


This month's flap over whether Korans containing anti-Jewish commentary should be pulled from public schools underscores a question of growing prominence in today's pluralistic times: How do you make sure ancient scriptures mesh with modern-day sensibilities?

The prevailing answer among scholars: You can't. No scripture is politically correct--nor, many scholars argue, should anyone expect it to be.

New religious movements emerge precisely because the prevailing faiths are deemed flawed in some major way, says Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. So if their scriptures rail against others as arrogant sinners, unbelievers, idol worshippers and the like--well, that's their job, Firestone says.

"Scripture is a divinely authoritative way to prove the old systems are no longer proper and that there is a need for a new religious expression," he says.

Religious scholars say there is a plenty of political incorrectness to go around in virtually all scriptures. The Hebrew Bible trashes the prevailing Canaanite religion--and even calls for the wholesale slaughter of those regarded as idol worshippers. In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees, a group of particularly observant Jews, as hypocrites and "sons of vipers" destined for the "judgment of hell."

The Koran urges believers to slaughter infidels "wherever you find them" and not to befriend Christians or Jews. The Buddha criticizes the Hindu priestly caste known as Brahmans, and Sikhism founder Guru Nanak rose up to declare deficiencies in both the prevailing Muslim and Hindu cultures of the time.

"There are things in every religion that contemporary followers of that faith are embarrassed by, and should be," says Elliot Dorff, a philosophy professor at the University of Judaism. "The question for believers is: How do you continue to have faith in your own tradition, and nonetheless shape it to accord with modern sensibilities?"

Many Muslims believe that question was never fully--or fairly--vetted before 300 Korans were pulled from the shelves of the Los Angeles Unified School District last week. The books, a 1934 translation and commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a British Muslim of Indian descent, were donated to the district in January by the Omar Al Khattab Foundation in Los Angeles. On Monday, district officials said a panel of Islamic experts and other educators will review potential substitute translations.

Ali's English translation of the Koran's original Arabic text is the most popular among Muslims because it was one of the first. But his commentary offended some school district personnel with such passages as: "The Jews in their arrogance claimed that all wisdom and all knowledge of Allah were enclosed in their hearts. Their claim was not only arrogance but blasphemy."

Scholars say it is crucial to understand such passages in their historical context. According to Mahmoud Abdel-Baset of the Islamic Center of Southern California, Ali's commentary was not smearing Jews per se, but only describing the attitude of the Jewish communities in the Arabian city of Medina at the time, who rejected Muhammad's message and claimed themselves as the sole recipients of divine revelation.

Ali's pique at those who refused to accept God's message was no different, scholars say, than Jesus' railings against the Pharisees or even the Hebrew prophets condemning their own spiritually wayward people as an "unwanted vessel," a "ravaged vine."

Singling out the Islamic sources for criticism was "unfair," says Muzammil Siddiqi, religious director of the Islamic Center of Orange County. "Why not pull out all of the religion books, and take out books of English literature as well--Shakespeare, because of Shylock," he says, referring to the unflattering Jewish character portrayed in "The Merchant of Venice."

Jewish texts have been misunderstood as well, says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, chairman of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He said Talmudic exhortations to kill "the best of non-Jews," refers only to wartime. Statements that most thieves in the world were descendants of Ishmael--the progenitor of Muslims--referred only to the way rabbis saw their neighbors at the time--not any "essential truths" about Muslims today, he says. And Jewish tradition offers at least eight interpretations of why the seemingly vengeful "eye for an eye" exhortation is not to be taken literally, Adlerstein says.

On the question of what to do about politically incorrect religious material, responses are mixed.

Some people, such as Firestone and UCLA Islamic law scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, suggest taking care to choose material appropriate for today's climate of interfaith tolerance. Abou El Fadl, for one, favors a Koranic translation by Muhammad Asad, a convert to Islam, who sought to interpret the divine book in a universal manner.

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