A day in the life of a professor
December 7, 2010
It is getting towards the end of the semester, and, as might be expected, books sit poised in precarious piles on my kitchen table, and there is a stack of students’ papers that needs to be attended to, though my aging body tells me to sleep. When I am able to summon up the willpower, I do attend to them. Not surprisingly, those papers that are most poorly written take the longest to read, and are the hardest to evaluate — for example, although it seems clear that so-and-so actually found an essay written by someone else in another language and applied Google Translate to it and handed me the results as though it were her own work, and, even so, didn’t really follow the assignment, nevertheless, I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt and give her a C for this paper; particularly since her grade for the semester is already close to failing, and I don’t feel like pushing her over the edge.
Today’s class was a particularly difficult one to teach, but I think I got through it okay. We are at the point of talking about Islam. It is a subject upon which I have very mixed feelings. Having spent last Wednesday talking about Muhammad and his personal history, I spent today talking about the origins of the caliphate, and the phenomenal early growth of the Islamic empire that, within a century of the death of Muhammad, spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus Valley. The question was inevitably raised, whether Islam is a religion of the sword. The textbook we are using, Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions, states categorically that it is not. I tried to point out that the question is not so simple, that there are different passages in the Koran that lead different Muslims to interpret their own religion in different ways; one passage (Sura 2:256) states: “There is no compulsion in religion”; another, later passage (Sura 9:29) commands Muslims to fight against the Peoples of the Book (i.e., Jews and Christians) “until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled,” that is, become “Dhimmi.” Pagan Arabs are given the simple choice of death or conversion. (“Slay the polytheists wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, let them go their way; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate”) (Sura 9:5). So, I said, it seemed to me that different Muslim scholars, by laying emphasis upon one or another of these passages, arrive at different interpretations of Islam’s relationship to the non-Muslim world; some do see it as essentially militant, others do not. There are a couple of Muslims in my class; I asked them if they thought I was misrepresenting the religion; one of them said no, the other answered as though I were asking about religion in general, and protested that people ought simply to be nice to one another and not make religion an excuse for their differences. The first student then added that religious violence is not an exclusively Islamic problem, and I agreed with that. But by this time many students in the class were showing signs of feeling uncomfortable, and, as I am sensitive to the limitations of their patience and attention spans, I moved on as best I could to speak about other things.
Were I an ideal professor, I might provide my students with answers to all questions: to the Arab-Israeli conflict, to thirteen centuries of Christian-Muslim antagonism, etc. But I am not an ideal professor, and I do not know the answers to all questions. I know that, as a Christian, I cannot accept the claim that God does not have a Son, or that Jesus did not really die upon the cross, claims which are taught by the Koran and which plainly conflict with the teaching of the New Testament. But also, as a Christian, I cannot simply watch fellow human beings be treated as subhuman. St. John, in his first epistle, says that the one who denies the Father and the Son is antichrist (1 John 2:22). I take that warning seriously. But I do not think it gives me, or anyone else, a license to hate.