From: The New York Times
Mark Makela for The New York Times
Prof. Emran El-Badawi is part of an effort to establish an organization that will undertake scholarly exploration of the Koran.
By MARK OPPENHEIMER
In 2006, Sister Margaret Farley, a pioneering theologian now retired from Yale Divinity School, wrote “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” which contains approving words for masturbation, same-sex marriage and remarriage after divorce. Last week — six years later — the Vatican made public Cardinal William J. Levada’s letter pronouncing that the book “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”
Considering that Cardinal Levada leads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office known in the 16th century as the Inquisition, his words were fairly benign. There was no formal penalty attached to the letter. Sister Farley was not prohibited from writing or teaching. And while her book cannot be used in official Catholic catechism classes, it can still be used, even at Catholic universities, by its intended audience: graduate students, theologians, scholars.
So the Farley indictment is pretty ineffectual as a way of banishing “Just Love” — indeed, the paperback version has shot to No. 16 on Amazon.com. But the episode raises anew the question, always lurking in the cathedral, of who decides what we’re allowed to read, and how we’re supposed to read it. In religion, who controls the books?
In the Reformation, Protestants were persecuted for making the Bible available in vernacular translations, so that laypeople, in addition to priests, could read it. But translation was just one battleground in the war over who controls religious literature. And while the battles have been particularly fierce in the Catholic Church, they are not unique to Catholicism, or Christianity.
“The papacy was not the first to begin this idea of censoring books,” said John W. O’Malley, a Jesuit priest and historian at Georgetown University. “The indices of books that were prohibited, at the universities of Paris and Louvain and so forth, started in the 16th century. It all began with printing.”
In 1559, the papacy issued its first Index of Prohibited Books. “And ever since then,” Dr. O’Malley said, “the papacy has issued lists of books that were prohibited at various levels, either as heretical, or in this case,” he added, referring to Sister Farley’s book, “apparently not to be used for teaching.” The Index of Prohibited Books was abolished in 1966, although the Catholic Church still says which books are appropriate for Catholic instruction, and periodically makes a public case over a book that goes too far astray.
In Islam, there is no central authority like the papacy. But there are widespread, and passionate, disagreements about how to read the Koran, the religion’s central text. Although there is a long history of critical study of Islam, and there have been scholars and Muslim religious leaders who read many of its passages more freely or metaphorically, Muslim fundamentalists — like Protestant fundamentalists with their Bible — condemn any reading of the Koran that is not purely literal.
That stridency is surely on the minds of the scholars forming the Society for Qur’anic Studies, the first professional organization dedicated to critical exploration of the Koran. On May 29, the Society for Biblical Literature, the major association for Bible scholars, announced that it had received $140,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation to help it spin off this new society “to give the academic study of the Qur’an the attention it deserves,” according to John F. Kutsko, who teaches at Emory University, in Atlanta, and helped secure the grant.
In the Muslim world today, Koran scholarship often means memorization of the Koran. There are a growing number of scholars in the secular academy, particularly in the West, who study the Koran from a skeptical or academic position, exploring its philological and literary qualities, or using the tools of history and archaeology. But it is an open question how the wider Muslim world will receive this increasingly prominent scholarship.
“That is the million-dollar question,” says Emran El-Badawi, who teaches at the University of Houston and is co-director of the “consultation” (to use the academic jargon) planning the new society. “Since our press release came out, we have received no negative press in this regard, that this is against the faith. However, as this initiative receives more attention, the possibility widens that certain groups, let’s say within minority communities in Western countries, or in the Islamic world, might potentially have a problem with what we do.”
Dr. Badawi hopes that naysayers will attend the planned conferences, and read the new journal that he is helping to found, before adjudging that the scholarship disrespects the Koran. But some people, he said, will be tough to win over: “Prior to us really establishing ourselves, there will be questions.”
Plenty of religions have some notion of the forbidden text (or the text to be treated really, really delicately). Earlier in Jewish history, some rabbis taught that nobody under the age of 40 should study kabbalah, a collection of mystical texts. In Scientology, only people who have spent years in study, and paid thousands of dollars for the necessary coursework, are eligible for the highest levels of knowledge.
By those standards, Sister Farley’s “Just Love,” which can be had online for $27.95, is forbidden knowledge on the cheap. Even if it is, at least at Amazon, temporarily out of stock.