Reading the Koran

With Pastor Marshall

The Class

Pastor Marshall offers this class on the Koran four times a year – usually in January, April, June and October. It meets on the four Thursdays in each month from 7-9 pm. Each of the four sessions discuss some 50 verses from the Koran – sizing them up from a Christian point of view – noting either their congruence or incongruence with historic Christian teachings.

In session I surahs (or chapters) 1-7 are discussed, surahs 8-21 in session II, surahs 22-40 in session III, and surahs 41-114 in session IV. Note that the surahs are arranged in the Koran with the longest ones first.

The purpose of this class is to become familiar with the contents of the Koran. It is not a class on the history of Islam. Nor is it a class on the interpretation of the Koran in its original Arabic text. There are three approved English translations of the Koran. We use the 1930 edition by M. M. Pickthall.

The class tuition is $50.00. This includes your own copy of the Pickthall translation of the Koran, study sheets on the selected verses and many handouts on features of the Koran to enrich your reading. Some of those handouts provide information from the magnificent international five volume commentary, The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, edited by J. D. McAuliffe. Others include Martin Luther's preface to the 1543 Latin edition of the Koran and Melanchthon's "warning" published in the same volume.  

 

 

The Teacher

Pastor Marshall has been a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) since 1979.  He is married to Dr. Jane L. Harty and they have three children, Susannah, Ruth and Anders.  Pastor Marshall graduated from Washington State University in 1971, magna cum laude, with a BA in Philosophy.  Upon graduation he was elected into the prestigious academic fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa.  In 1975 he graduated from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, with a Masters of Divinity degree.  While at Luther Seminary he published his first academic article, "God and Worship." In 1978 he received a Masters in Religion degree from Claremont Graduate School and was advanced into the PhD program. That same year he published his first academic article on Martin Luther, "Luther's Two-Factor Hermeneutic." He then began writing his PhD dissertation on the philosophies of religion in Wittgenstein and Whitehead, but never finished it.  

Pastor Marshall has published over 50 articles in academic journals and professional magazines, specializing in the thought of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). His essays have appeared in Touchstone, The International Kierkegaard Commentary, The Christian Ministry, dialog, The Ecumenist, Søren Kierkegaard Newsletter, Currents in Theology & Mission, Trinity Review, Pro Ecclesia, Lutheran Quarterly, Lutheran Partners, The Bride of Christ, Lutheran Commentator, Logia, Lutheran Forum and Word & World. In 2003 he published his acclaimed pamphlet, Making a New World: How Lutherans Read the Bible.

While at Claremont Graduate School, Pastor Marshall was a research assistant for Professor John A. Hutchinson, author of Paths of Faith (1969, 1991, 4th ed.) and Living Options in World Philosophy (1977) – for which Pastor Marshall worked on the index. His doctoral advisor was Professor John B. Cobb, Jr., author of many books, including Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (1982) and Transforming Christianity and the World (1999).

Pastor Marshall studied Islam and the Koran with Jamil Razzak and Abdul Mohammad from the Idriss Mosque in Seattle, 1420 NE Northgate Way.

Pastor Marshall is a conservative Lutheran – believing in and practicing the historic Christian creeds. So he is not a liberal and could not rejoice in Robley E. Whitson's classic study on world religions: The Coming Convergence of World Religions (1971, 1992). Pastor Marshall believes that significant differences exist between the great religions of the world and that these should not be smoothed over. Instead they should be respected, studied and understood.  

Students' Recommendations

"Thank you for an altogether exciting and enjoyable course in reading the Koran.  I appreciate that you are a meticulous and careful instructor.  But I really appreciate your ability to teach, inform, provoke, uplift, honor, engage, and inspire all in the same setting!  I learned a lot from this course about the Koran, and I learned a lot about the Gospel."  (2-3-2007)

"What a rich experience and if I may say, it was much more than I had anticipated when I heard of a class on the Koran being taught by a Lutheran pastor in West Seattle.  Your breadth and depth of knowledge of the Koran is formidable and I pray that opportunities for you to sit down and discuss with both Christians and Muslims will increase in the days ahead.  I also appreciate your example of faith in word and practice."  (2-4-2007)

"I have learned a good bit, though I know my knowledge to be meager. Thank you for taking ownership of offering the class. I do believe it is valuable, particularly in these times."  (6-26-2008)

"I compliment you on your years of study years of questioning and researching and dialoging with the local Muslim masters. I found the class to be challenging as well as enlightening. And even though I am smarter than I was four weeks ago, I still have a long way to go. However, you have given me a grand beginning."  (6-27-2008) "

"Thanks for listening and allowing me to speak unhindered in class. It's unbelievable how much you were able to get across to us in class in an often humorous but always totally focused way. I sensed a deep commitment in you to honestly help us understand the Koran. The background materials you provided were equally valuable, representing many different views that I would never have known how to gather on my own."  (2-1-2010)

"Thanks so much for the Koran course. I can't imagine spending the amount of time you have on the project, but you are to be congratulated for wringing those secrets out of the book. You have a fine teaching style, covering an enormous amount of material in such a short time span."  (7-30-2011)

"I found Pastor Marshall's guidance as a teacher helpful because the Koran can appear contradictory. He has Muslim religious leaders as friends, and strong convictions of his own personal beliefs. He teaches in a spirit of discovery and respect for both Islam and Christianity with his style of charm and occasional humor. In class he tries to build bridges between two religions that are not the same by exposing and respecting the differences. I certainly feel he did this well. I enjoyed the class."  (4-9-2012)

"I enjoyed the class very much. In addition to the value of learning some of the fundamentals of Islam, it helped deepen my understanding of Christianity as well much like taking a foreign language can help one better understand one's own language. I appreciate you sharing your impressive knowledge."  (7-27-2012)

"Once again, I absolutely loved the class! I learned a lot, even though I was taking it for the second time. And I would like to take it a third time and bring some friends along with me. I simply cannot believe, based on current world events, that this is not the most popular class in Seattle!"  (4-26-2013)

"This class gave me a whole different view of Islam. I liked that Pastor Marshall answered all my questions and took time to explain even the smallest details. President Obama should take this class! Now that I've taken it, I can talk to people about Islam. And I can explain to other Christians who Allah is."  (7-18-2013, by a 5th grader)

"Now I can begin. Begin to see linkages between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Begin to hear places of similarity and also of difference in our sacred texts and teaching. Begin to feel the heartbeat of the culture of my Muslim neighbors. Pastor Marshall is humble about the limits of his class, scrupulous in scholarly balance, delighted by the complexity of this material, generous in allowing students to grapple. He opens the door wide to make it easy to begin. He sends us out with paths for future learning. And, perhaps most important, he prepares us to talk with Muslims about the Koran with greater respect and curiosity, deepening the authenticity of our connection."  (5-1-2014)

Signing-Up for the Class

If you are interested in this class contact Pastor Marshall by email deogloria@foxinternet.com or by telephone 206-935-6530.  See also the video interview with Pastor Marshall on the West Seattle Blog, http://westseattleblog.com/blog/?p=7858

 

Saturday Workshops

Pastor Marshall also offers, by special arrangement, one day abbreviated versions of his class.  These are held on Saturdays from 10 am to 3 pm.  The cost is $10 per person, with a minimum enrollment of 20 persons.  Lunch is provided.  

 

 

TEACHING THE QUR'AN

HELPS UNDERSTAND MUSLIMS

 

By the Rev. Ronald F. Marshall  

I have been teaching the Qur'an – the holy book of Islam – in West Seattle at our church, over the past three years. It's a four week class wherein a schedule is provided to help the students read straight through the entire Qur'an in a brief time.

 The classes are open to the public. Some one hundred people from all over the Puget Sound area have attended my classes. The next four week session begins Thursday night at 7 p.m., April 20. I offer these four week sessions every January, April, June and October.

 Ever since September 11, 2001, people have wondered if the Qur'an teaches Muslims to kill people they disagree with. This is because the leader of those 9/11 terrorists, Mohamed Atta, included in his directions to the other eighteen terrorists, some twenty quotes from the Qur'an to inspire their dastardly deeds. (You get a handout on those quotes in my class, by the way, so you can see what Atta actually wrote down.) But did he have it right, or did he twist the Qur'an for his own evil purposes?

 Because this is such a sensitive and contested matter, it's better for you to find out yourself. So people have been coming to class to do just that.

 What I do is provide eight worksheets with some twenty-five questions on each one, asking about a particular verse from the Qur'an. So after completing the class you will have discussed some two hundred verses from throughout the entire Qur'an. What I look for are verses that either coincide with historic Christian teachings or don't. Both types are noted. That is because I'm a Christian pastor from a Lutheran church leading the discussion, and not a Muslim hoping you will take up Islam as your way of life.

 What I'm doing, then, is reading the Qur'an as literature, rather than as God speaking to us. I know how difficult this can be for some Muslims. They would rather wish for the Qur'an only to be read devotionally, with fervent faith in Allah and his prophet, Muhammad.

 When I was in a secular college and took a class on the Bible as Literature, I remember some Christians protesting the class. But I liked the class, even though I didn't share the professor's cynical and skeptical conclusions about the Bible. In that class I learned to see what the eyes of unbelief saw in the Bible – something I just didn't have. That class helped me learn how to talk to unbelievers about the Bible. Nothing wicked about that, I thought, despite what I heard other Christians on campus saying.

 I would hope Muslims could appreciate the same in my class. This month my class was scheduled for the first time to be taught through the continuing education program at South Seattle Community College . But because of the complaints of many local Muslims, the class had to be canceled at the college and transferred to my church. Too bad for us all.

 One of the surprises in my classes is that I find more verses in the Qur'an to agree with than to question – making my literary method more than simply negative.

 For instance, when Qur'an 2:45 says we should try to be patient even though it's hard to do, I say amen to that. No problem there. There are many other passages in the Qur'an like that one which I also endorse. But when Qur'an 4:157 says Jesus Christ wasn't crucified, I raise an eyebrow. I have serious questions there  

 

because historic Christianity  teaches that it's only through faith in the crucifixion of Christ that we are saved from our sins for all of eternity.

 Sometimes my students have been surprised that I don't let my disagreements with the Qur'an wipe away all the good that I see in it. But honesty forces me to avoid that. Even so, I still know that such a respectful selective reading of the Qur'an isn't always pleasing to all Muslims because Qur'an 15:91 stands directly against such a reading.

 But even so, my classes are still lead in a spirit of discovery and respect. For I'm against all hostility and ridicule of Islam. My classes aren't about tearing down the Qur'an. They're about learning the differences between the Bible and the Qur'an on a wide range of issues. As such many of my students have said they learned more about the Bible in my classes on the Qur'an than they ever imagined possible.

 So my class is about the difficult task of building bridges between two religions. I don't do this by saying the two books are the same. No, I do it by exposing the differences and respecting them all the same. In our tense, polarize climate, such simple fact-finding builds bridges, I believe.

 My class will not solve the big issues of the day, like the Israeli-Palestinian one, or the Iraq civil war. But it will clarify what divides us. By so doing the world will be a better place. For when there's clarity, there's less misunderstanding, and that makes for less hurt feelings. All that is to the good.

 But can you really learn anything from me about the Qur'an since I'm not a Muslim? Well, I've studied with Muslims over the last twenty years and they have helped me understand the Qur'an. I've also studied world religions in graduate school and that has helped. I've read a lot about the Qur'an in McAuliffe's five volume Encyclopedia of the Qur'an, as well as in the voluminous notes in Muhammad Asad's classic thousand page commentary on the Qur'an. These studies I'm glad to share with my students who usually haven't had the time or wherewithal to do it themselves.

 In my class I have some fifty handouts from other writers – many Muslim – to supplement my instruction. That also helps balance-out what I have to say. Twice I have had Muslims take the class which has also enriched my understanding of the Qur'an. Presently I'm talking with a Muslim teacher in the University district.

 As you can see this is just an introductory class on the Qur'an. I don't know the Arabic language of the original Qur'an. I don't know the entire history of Islam. I've never traveled to any of the Islamic centers of the world.

 At most what I can do is help you get started on a respectful understanding of Islam's holy book from an historic Christian perspective. I can help you ask informed, kind questions if you ever happen to chat with a Muslim about the Qur'an.

 From what my former students tell me, my class has actually help with just that – right here in West Seattle ! That makes all the extra hours I've spent teaching this class worth it. Wouldn't you agree?

 If you're interested in signing up for my class, call me at 935-6530 or email me at deogloria@foxinternet.com

 

 

(This article is reprinted by permission 

from the April 18, 2006 issue of the Federal Way News and the April 19, 2006 issue of the West Seattle Herald)

 

 

Why I Teach the Qur’ān

By Ronald F. Marshall

 

I might be the only Christian minister in America who teaches the Qur’ān on an ongoing basis. Since 2003 I have been teaching a four-week course on the Qur’ān, four times a year. I’ve invited people from outside of our church and hundreds have attended.

My goal is simply to help people read through the Qur’ān on their own. I’m told that many want to do this but are not able to finish the Qur’ān. That’s what my class does – I help people get through the Qur’ān.

Each two hour class session is based on worksheets I furnish that ask questions on about 50 passages from the Qur’ān. These questions are designed to get at the rationale of key passages in the Qur’ān and show how they compare and contrast with the Bible.

I’m not a theological liberal looking for a convergence of world religions. As far as I am concerned, there are irresolvable differences between Islam and Christianity that we shouldn’t try to explain away. I argue in class that differences can be and should be enriching – and that they can be noted in respectful ways. I won’t have any bashing of Islam in my classes – just because the Qur’ān conflicts with the Bible. So I defend the Qur’ān in class – even though I reject its central teachings. In class I try to show how one can criticize the Qur’ān without disrespecting it.

How did I get started on this class? As a life-long Lutheran I didn’t learn until I attended the seminary that Martin Luther was very interested in Islam, the young Ottoman empire – and the Qur’ān itself. He even toward the end of his life saw to it that a Latin translation of the Qur’ān was published in Germany – for which he even wrote the preface in 1543! That began my research into Islam and the Qur’ān.

Then in 1985 the first mosque was built in my town of Seattle with a hail of controversy over building permits. After its completion, I visited it and met its leaders, Jamil Razzak and Abdul Mohammad – who later came to my church to help me with a class I was teaching on Islam. This fledgling interest in Islam then skyrocketed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That’s when I started preparing my class on the Qur’ān – initially just for my church. In addition to what I learned from Jamil and Abdul, I also was helped by Tarek Dawoud and Ali Salaam – other imams in the Seattle area. On Tarek’s advice, I also started working through Mohammad Asad’s magisterial notes on the Qur’ān – published in 1980. From this study I produced a pamphlet of a hundred excerpts from Asad for each of my students. I also provide them with many other background materials from Islamic scholars, such as, Maurice Bucaille, Ahmed Deedat, Farid Esack, and Jane McAuliffe, to enrich their reading of the Qur’ān. I use these materials to keep my class in line with what Muslims believe the Qur’ān says. I cannot do that myself. The Qur’ān says at 3:7 and 17:45 that Allah wouldn’t allow me to do that even if I tried.

Nevertheless I still enjoy teaching the Qur’ān – and have no plans to quit teaching it. I like dispelling ignorance regarding the Qur’ān. No where in the Qur’ān, for instance, does it say that terrorist martyrs will have as a reward from Allah a bevy of virgins awaiting them in heaven.

But I also like studying what may well be the most important critique of my faith. And that’s precisely what the Qur’ān is in large part. Studying the Qur’ān is therefore like my college class on the Bible as literature that I took in the early 1970s from the skeptic, Dr. Palmer Hilty. From him I learned how the Bible looks to one who reads it carefully but critically – save for a few of its moral principles. As a young Christian that upset me. Some of my Christians friends even refused to take the class with me. But I hung in there and I’m glad I did.

What I’m doing in my class on the Qur’ān is similar to that class on the Bible as literature. I do not read the Qur’ān as God’s word. Nevertheless I still find much in the Qur’ān that is consistent with what the Bible says – albeit for accidental reasons in my view. What it says, for instance, about patience (2:45), endurance (94:1-8) and divine wisdom (77:39) is quite pleasing. But because it stands against the divinity and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the holy Trinity, and the Bible, I cannot abide by it. So I see the Qur’ān coming from a 7th century Arian community, rather than from God himself – as St. John of Damascus (675-749) intimated.

Even so I mean no disrespect to the over 1 billion people worldwide who currently believe – contrary to my faith – that the Qur’ān is God’s indisputable word. All I want to do is what Kent said long ago in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, King Lear: “I’ll teach you differences.”

(reprinted from a shorter version published on

The Lutheran Weekly E-Newsletter, March 10, 2009.)