Quranic MOOC

Left: One of the oldest surviving Quran manuscripts, perhaps late 7th century. Right: Opening of Sura 20 in 1924 standardized edition.

Left: One of the oldest surviving Quran manuscripts, c. 7th century.
Right: Opening of Sura 20 in 1924 standardized edition.

Course: Introduction to the Quran: The Scripture of Islam
School: Notre Dame via edX
Instructors: Gabriel Said Reynolds

This course will introduce you to various aspects of the Quran, including its basic message, the historical context in which it originated, the diverse ways in which Muslims have interpreted it, and its surprisingly intimate relationship with the Bible. By the end of the course, you will gain an appreciation for the perspectives of Muslim believers and academic scholars alike on the origins and the meaning of the Islamic scripture. No background in Islam or Arabic is necessary for this course.

Like many white-bread Americans, I have absolutely no idea what’s actually in the Quran. I’ve tried to read parts of it a couple of times, but got lost very quickly, and when it comes to religious texts of any kinds, it’s very difficult to judge the reliability of sources of information unless you have some overview of the playing field. So when I found out this course was available, I jumped at the chance to start understanding better. I’m glad I did; this was a highly successful project.

We started with an overview of structure of the Quran, the themes found within, and the process by which the text became standardized. All of this situated the verses in a time and context. I realized why I had so much trouble understanding it on my own: whereas the Bible is structured around a mostly chronological account of the Hebrews, the life of Jesus, and the Apostles – a story, with some philosophy thrown in along the way – the Quran has a different structure. Suras (chapters) don’t necessarily stick to one theme, nor is there a narrative in most cases. This gets particularly confusing as each Sura is named, but the name doesn’t necessarily refer to a theme, or even the most important aspect of the section, but rather to some distinctive feature.

The last two weeks of the course compared the Quran with the Bible, first with the Old Testament (Adam, Noah, and Moses) and then the New Testament (Mary, Jesus, and the disciples), examining the differences with an eye towards understanding why those differences appeared. I found these differences to be fascinating, and often quite beautiful.

What I appreciated most about the course was the clear distinction between what is in the text, and the interpretations of that text. This was most evident to me in connection with the “Night Journey” of Sura 17, the story of Mohamed’s mystical transport in the course of one night from Mecca to Jerusalem to Heaven and back again. We looked at several traditions of interpretation of the text according to different Islamic scholars and schools of thought, and how those interpretations are situated into more verifiable aspects of Mohammed’s biography and the history and geography of the period.

The course consisted of a weekly set of lectures (one of which was taped in Jerusalem overlooking the Dome of the Rock), which were clear and informative. We were also able to enjoy guest interviews with several academic and religious scholars of the Quran, and each week also featured a “response” video on questions and issues raise on the forums. A typical week would also include significant reading: two or three Suras, and a chapter or two from a couple of academic texts. I found some of these academic readings to be somewhat complicated, primarily due to my unfamiliarity with Arabic, even Anglicized Arabic (obviously, all material in the course was presented in translation, with occasional recitations in the original Arabic), and secondarily due to my newness to the terrain. But that’s what learning is, after all: expanding the landscape of what’s familiar.

Grading was on the basis of three multiple-choice quizzes; each week also included a very short (4 to 5 questions) ungraded quiz. I didn’t find these to be difficult, though in some cases I needed to refresh my memory, as so many new names, places, and concepts were piling in. There was a quirk I haven’t seen before: the final essay (analysis of a sura not included in the course material) was for verified students only, and was submitted by email for grading by staff. While staff grading is a fantastic feature, I was surprised there was no option for peer assessment, or even self-assessment.

Another feature I greatly appreciated was the detailed structuring of the discussion forums into the topics covered for a particular week. This minimized the deficiencies of the edX forums (which I’ve ranted about before), but on top of that, given the tenor of the times, discussions in this type of course could easily get out of hand. Every mention of posting questions or comments included the word “respectful” (sad that such a thing is necessary, but a welcome reminder) and the boards were well-monitored. I didn’t participate – a combination of time pressure and being too much of a neophyte to formulate an intelligent query, or much of a query at all – but I looked around and was surprised at how well-behaved things were, given the high level of activity and the different points of view being offered. The single troll I noticed went almost entirely unfed, which is pretty remarkable. Of course, it’s possible that things were cleaned up by moderators before I got there, but that’s pretty remarkable as well. In any case, I found it comforting that, as so many in the world seemed to be going crazy, there still are people who are able to wonder, question, and trade ideas in a rational way.

I can recommend this course for anyone who’s interested in taking a look at the Quran from an academic perspective, and understanding some of the interpretations it generates; yes, there is significant effort involved, but as one of my academic heroes says, if you’re taking an easy class, you need a different class. I’m at too low a level to know, but I think it’s effective as a multi-level course: that is, beginners like me find it a great introduction, but those with more depth of experience and understanding will no doubt find it worthwhile as well. I may take it again myself, to deepen my understanding.


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