Reading the Qur’an: Training Wheels

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

One of my favorite resources for teaching the Qur’an is Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an, which includes a translation of many of the shorter, more “poetic” surahs, together with helpful annotations — including an invaluable (and probably irreplaceable) section that guides you through listening to the recitation of certain surahs. It works well as an initial set of “training wheels” for reading the Qur’an in two ways. First, the ample commentary helps students to get a handle on the often enigmatic and fragmentary visions related in the surahs in question (mainly 81-114). Second, the translation is creative and subtle, conveying a sense of both the beauty and the strangeness of the Qur’anic idiom. Despite these benefits, though, I have found it to be a little hit-or-miss with students, whether because the commentary seems to leave too little to discuss or because the short surahs simply do not seem to provide enough for them to work with in discussion.

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Reading the Qur’an: Background work

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

The first week or so of my course (syllabus) is dedicated to providing background to the Qur’an. The constraint of using primary sources meant that I couldn’t assign a straightforward historical review, so instead I am using Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, which is the earliest systematic compilation aiming to cover all of the Prophet’s life. I paired a series of selections on his life before becoming the Prophet with some narratives from the Bible on the early life of certain prophets (Moses, Samuel, and Jesus — I wish I had also included David, because there is a close parallel to the part where David is out in the field because they assume he’s too young). The students were generally already familiar with the Bible, but even those who were not found it easier to read. That was in large part due to a unique feature of Islamic historiography, at least as far as it concerns the Prophet — they want to keep everything that has been handed down, even if they doubt that it happened (as Ishaq tactfully announces when he begins a story with “they allege…”). This is because the life and practice of Muhammad has a quasi-Scriptural character, hence they want to err on the side of caution lest they throw out a part of the divine revelation. We discussed how the existence of multiple versions, while confusing to the reader, is likely an indication of the importance of a story. We also agreed that many of the fanciful-seeming stories where Muhammad gets divine signs from a young age and everyone “already knows” he’s going to be Prophet express a desire to reconcile the apparent contradiction that Muhammad was just “some guy” until one day he was Prophet — in other words, they are a kind of “prequel” gesture to try to align his early life with his ultimate calling.

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Reading the Qur’an: Introduction to an Occasional Series

This semester I am teaching a course entitled “Reading the Qur’an” (syllabus) as part of North Central College’s Honors program, and I plan to blog about my experiences, approximately once a week. The first day of class was today, so there is not much to share yet. We discussed a selection of prayers from the Qur’an, Hebrew Bible, and New Testament, which provided some initial orientation for how Islam relates to the other monotheistic traditions and gave me the opportunity to introduce some basic expositional facts.

I have offered several classes on the Qur’an and taught selections in other classes (including an Introduction to Islamic Thought course). This is the area — aside from fine arts — where I have most expanded my teaching competence since starting at Shimer. The Qur’an presents unique challenges in a discussion-centered course. The first is the unwieldiness of the text itself, which is not organized in an intuitively logical way. I believe that over time I have arrived at a workable order of presentation that strikes a balance between the likely chronological order of revelation and the practical need to have a relatively compact selection each day (rather than jumping around constantly). The second is the text’s embeddedness in Muhammad’s life and circumstances, a problem that is especially difficult to handle given the constraint of using “primary sources” wherever possible. I have addressed this primarily by including generous selections from Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, the earliest full biography of the prophet.

Finally, the Qur’an takes up and transforms existing biblical narratives, so that many of its fragmentary presentations of the various stories are hard to follow unless you somehow “already know” the overall narrative. I have addressed this by systematically pairing Qur’an readings with important biblical parallels — much more thoroughly than in any previous iteration of the course. Indeed, in previous years, I was continually frustrated to find that I had made mistakes (for instance, assigning the passage from 1 Kings on the Queen of Sheba alongside the surah actually named “Sheba,” which, in typical Qur’anic fashion, barely mentions Sheba at all), and I spent a lot of time double- and triple-checking that I had lined everything up correctly. While I have not been absolutely exhaustive, I am very pleased with the parallels I have lined up (including less obvious parallels, such as the similarity of argument in Surah 2 and Romans regarding the foundational role of Abraham).

I also provided for some consideration of how the Qur’an has been taken up in later Islamic tradition, as represented by selections from the Anthology of Qur’anic Commentaries. In the past, I have included more feminist commentaries, but this time I was constrained (even beyond Shimer norms) not to use contemporary scholarly works. If I were offering the course again outside of the Honors setting, I would reintroduce that element. I did flag the issue in class today and offer to point interested students toward relevant resources for their final papers.

Aside from that gap in coverage, I am very pleased with how the syllabus came together and look forward to discussing the materials with my students — and with you, my dear readers.

Project for the TV criticism of the future

I know there’s probably not much audience for it, in part because it wouldn’t provide a lot of take-fodder, but I would love to see more TV and film criticism that didn’t hold the critiqued object up to an ultimately arbitrary standard and find it lacking. I feel like in every TV or film article I read, there’s a moment when the author “turns the corner” and expresses their disappointment that the work didn’t do something they wish it had done, either aesthetically or (especially annoying) politically. There seems to be a lack of clarity about what we actually expect a show or film to do. Do we want it to mirror our political views? But why do we need that? Do we expect it to educate other people in our political views? But why would the producers want to do that?

This really came to a head for me when Mad Men was on the air, and after a certain point, no one was talking about what the show was actually doing, only what they wished it would do. Why should anyone care what a random critic would do if they were in charge of the show? The one exception to this trend was a blog that did this amazing close reading of the wardrobe choices in Mad Men — what they would have signalled in that historical moment, what symbolism (e.g., color patterns) are emerging, etc. I felt like I actually learned something. Is Mad Men a perfect show with perfect politics? No. Did they always make the best possible decisions in terms of plot or emphasis? Obviously not. But it is extremely artfully planned and produced, and criticism that brought that to the fore was much more satisfying to me.

This style of criticism is somehow most exhausting to me when it comes from very smart people I respect. Take, for instance, Aaron Bady’s characteristically lengthy critique of HBO’s Watchmen, which presents the series as a series of missed opportunities. Angela and Lady Trieu should have teamed up to overthrow American white supremacist imperialism! The show somehow should have incorporated climate change even though it takes place in a world where that problem has been solved! And what’s most tragic is that the show was so close to fulfilling Aaron’s demands! (He is self-aware enough to be self-deprecating in the article itself about his tendency to read everything through the lens of climate change, so hopefully he won’t mind if I poke fun a little here.)

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The Problem of Christmas

I don’t like Christmas. I especially don’t like going home for Christmas. In fact, a couple years ago I cancelled a trip home at the last minute — a dramatic, and frankly hurtful and inconsiderate, action — because I just couldn’t bear it. The amount of emotional energy that goes into this aversion seems disproportionate at times. Is it really such a burden to visit home for a few days and go through the motions of a few traditions? Apparently, to me it is.

I have sometimes mentioned to my family that I don’t like Christmas, and the reaction is always: “Yes you do.” Talking to my dad after cancelling a couple years ago, I mentioned that Christmas was hard for me and cast a cloud over the two months proceeding. He was absolutely shocked. And I suppose they have a point, because Christmas was a very happy time for a long time. Continue reading “The Problem of Christmas”

Status anxiety

From most perspectives, I’ve lived a charmed life. I live in a city I love, with an amazing partner. And miraculously, I’ve somehow managed to be employed full-time in academia since finishing my PhD, despite graduating into the Financial Crisis, and as a result, I am now much more materially secure than I could have imagined during the dark days of grad school. I’ve had a really unique and diverse teaching experience, and I’ve had enough time to do the writing and research I am interested in. My writing has opened up a lot of great opportunities, including international travel (to the point where I may eventually be able to “get” every inhabited continent).

In short, I am living the life I want to live and have always wanted to live. My main source of legitimate anxiety is whether I can make it last for the long term. And that ties into another, possibly less legitimate anxiety — over status. On the one hand, I currently have more job security than most professionals in most industries. On the other hand, I am working in the one industry that purports to offer a select few near-total job security, in the form of tenure. That job security is, in the ideology of academia, tied very closely to professional status and prestige. Hence it is difficult to keep those two elements separate: the desire for tenure as one of the few forms of genuine job security in the world and the desire for tenure as a kind of earned recognition of my personal value as a teacher and scholar.

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