“They are Us:  Teaching the Koran on the

U.S./Mexico Border”

 

by

Robert A. Wren, Ph.D.

University of

Texas at El Paso

Western Cultural Heritage Program

 


 

 

 

 

I fell into teaching in the University of Texas at El Paso’s Western Cultural Heritage Program in 1990.  I did not set out to work with the program, but found myself teaching in it though accident, misadventure, and what more than one colleague has described as a puckish sense of humor.  Imagine the arrogance of attempting to teach courses built around the study of texts ranging from Hammurabi’s legal code to Stephen Hawking’s musings on  time.

Therefore, of course, being a decently trained professional academic, the first thing that I determined to do was to add to the reading list for the courses.  In this paper, I will discuss but one of those additions, the reasons for the addition, and how that addition has affected the appreciation of my students, 80% of whom are Hispanic/Chicano, for their own subculture and the larger western culture of which it is a subset.

The news in the fall of 1990 featured CNN operatives and pundits giving us news about the deeds, misdeeds, and evil intentions  of Saddam Hussein and his minions.  This information inspired conversation and comments from my students which informed me in frighteningly certain terms that they knew nothing of Islam and less of Muslims.  They routinely thought of Islam as a foreign faith, well outside the parameters of Western Culture.  Therefore, that fall, my colleague, Dr. Larry Johnson, and I added the Koran to the texts studied in the Medieval/Renaissance Western Culture course.   Our intent was to impress upon our students that Islam was not only well within the broad parameters of the idea sets that can be identified as comprising “western culture,” but that Islam, and specifically the Koran as a text, has influenced ideas and perceptions usually associated with “the West.”

First, let me make it clear that I am not a believer.  Muhammad would not like me very much.  He and St. Paul would reach fundamental and total agreement about the danger I pose to the world.  In fact, I think the teaching of texts popularly identified as religious, is facilitated by being taught from the perspective of the unbeliever.  I have noted, on several occasions, the kind of misinformation and misconception promoted by teachers who “believe.”  I teach focusing on those ideas and events which we CAN know as opposed to presenting either the Gospel of Mark, or the Koran as historical fact.  Separating that which we know from that which we believe is critical in teaching texts which have acquired religious status in the cultures and subcultures that shape the assumptions my students are prepared to make, and, all too often, insist upon making.  

By the spring of 1991, the Gulf War insured that my students had a high interest in the Koran, and that part of the course devoted to its study became very intense as current events underscored the importance of knowing something about “the enemy.”

Concerned by the demonization of Muslims and Islam, I set out to let my students in on the pervasiveness of Islam not only in Medieval and Renaissance Western Culture but also in the social and political ideas which they regarded as uniquely their own.

The process began with continuing the discussion of the Koran in light of the Poem of El Cid (a form of the Arabic Al Sayyed [ the Lord]).  There we studied the associations of Rodrigo de Vivar with allies who, despite the pervasive language of Christian Crusade provided by Bishop Jerome,  faced Mecca when they prayed.  We even studied the language used by Myo Cid himself in prayer and discovered forms and motifs that were surprisingly Muslim. 

For example, after El Cid has committed fraud to secure enough gold to sustain his 60 retainers in the first part of the story, he prays and in the prayer admits his sin, but not does not ask for forgiveness.  Instead, he says, “Thou knowest what was in my heart” (a phrase used repeatedly in the Koran as testimony to Allah’s omniscience).

Later in the poem, when posed with the problem of supporting fellow Christian lords who plan the murder of a Muslim friend and ally of Myo Cid, Rodrigo opts to support his ally and frustrate the plot of his fellow Christians.

To be sure, The Poem of the Cid[1] reflects the values and ideas of Muslim Spain, a fascinating atypical cultural experience when contrasted with the predominant warp and woof of Medieval Western Culture. 

But what of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy?  What could that text have to do with Islam?  Does not Dante put Muhammad with promoters of schism where he is sliced and diced for eternity?

Whilst eagerly I fix on him my gaze,

He eyed me, with his hands laid his breast bare,

And cried; "Now mark how I do rip me! lo!

How is Mohammed mangled! before me

Walks Ali weeping, from the chin his face

Cleft to the forelock; and the others all

Whom here thou seest, while they lived, did sow

Scandal and schism, and therefore thus are rent.

(Dante, The Divine Comedy:  Inferno, Canto 28, ll. 33-40)

 

My students are not surprised to find Muhammad in Dante’s Hell, but they are confused by his placement.  Promoter of Schism?  That implies that Dante sees Islam as derivative from Christianity—not its opposite,  but its bastard child.

          Their confusion is further confounded by Dante’s knowledge of Ali and his part in dividing Islam into Shia’a and Sunni.  Dante’s awareness of the outlines of the history of Islam adds to the mystery posed earlier in the text by the presence of Saladin “the fierce Sultan” and the Muslim philosophers Averroes and Avicinna in the Palace of Just Pagans (see Canto 4 of The Inferno).   How is it that these worthies are fit to keep company with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, and Electra?  The Palace of Just Pagans is meant for those “who lacked but baptism.”  They are in hell through historical accident—they were born and died before Christ.  Yet these three Muslims could most certainly have been Christian, if they had so desired.  They were exposed to Christianity and could have converted.

          In short, Dante is my accomplice in getting my students to see the continuing influence of Islam on Western Culture.

          All that is left is to drive it home.  For this, however, we must change course and consider what we study in the third course in our Western Cultural Sequence,  Modern Western Culture.

          In this course, we study texts written subsequent to 1660 and, in my sections at least, the last five texts of the total of fourteen are written by folks who still happen to be alive.  It is in this class that we confront and analyze the culture that is closest to my students’ hearts and minds.

                   Allow me to call upon the services of Clio the muse of history at this point.[2]  In studying the career of Napoleon, my students are drawn to the events known popularly as “The Peninsular War”—the clash between the armies of Imperial France and the people of Spain, aided and abetted in their resistance by the dour Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.

          Indeed, it has been eerie teaching this course over the last year in that we discuss how Napoleon had determined to effect a “regime change” on the poor, terrorized peasantry of backward Spain.  The Emperor desired to drag Spain into the light of the 19th century, giving them modern institutions and efficient, modern government.  The emperor expected to met by flowers and sweets.  Instead, he was confronted by a ruthless guerrilla war—a war not sanctioned by a state, or king, but promoted and executed by the people of Spain led by priests.  Indeed, The Spanish people resisted the French in a “holy” war—but the resistance was closer to a jihad than a crusade.  The resistance was not led by knights and bishops.  Local leaders, some religious, few powerful or important, fought not for the old government of Spain; they, untrained peasants and artisans,  fought against the Godless French revolutionaries.  They claimed to fight for the church, but the nature of the warfare they practiced, certainly a form of warfare we would now call terrorism, suggests other, more deep-seated cultural motivations.

          This kind of grassroots resistance is far from typical of Christian countries.   The form and style is in conformity, however, with Jihad as understood in the time of Saladin, the first and most successful Jihadist.

          I suggest to my students that the resistance to Napoleon was motivated and sustained by social and religious concerns that have more than a loose affiliation with the idea set identified as Muslim.

          To further complicate things, I then have them consult the history of the 1810 revolution in Mexico, its symbols and the affinity that revolt had with the struggle of the Spanish against the French.  Ah, the delightful tangle of discussing the revolt of Mexicans led by Father Hidalgo who fought for “La Virgen y la Raza” against the Spanish Grandees and the simultaneous and similar struggle of the Spanish people against the rule of the French makes for some interesting discussions.

          The result is that my students become aware of their sub-culture and its complex relationship with the larger culture of which it is a part.  In the end, they come to see that the phrase “Muslim” terrorist” has about as much validity as “Baptist Shoplifter.”  They come to see that “the other” is not so other after all.


 

[1] Most of my students are prepared to see The Poem of the Cid as the first expression of Spanish nationalism.  They see in him a Hispanic hero, and as such, they expect him to be more Catholic than the Pope.  Seeing El Cid interact respectfully and for mutual gain with Muslims is disconcerting and confusing to them. 

[2] One of the great virtues of UTEP’s Western Cultural Program is that the core texts are drawn from multiple disciplines.  This diversity of discipline is most pronounced and most useful in the final course in the sequence where students are exposed to texts identified with political science, literature, science, and history.