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Getting the holy word out
Americans curious to crack the mysteries of Islam are about to delve by the thousands into the challenging text that inspires Arabic calls to prayer, worldwide pilgrimage and jihad: the book known to Muslims as The Holy Koran.

Almost 4,000 people have jumped at an offer from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to send a free copy of Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation of the Koran (also spelled Qur'an) to whoever wants one. Publisher Amana Publications stands ready to ship as many as 25,000 starting this week.

The campaign comes intentionally on the heels of deadly riots that followed a faulty report last month of interrogators flushing a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The campaign has stirred debate among Muslims, says organizer and CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper, because some say it invites further desecration or misinterpretation.

Yet for organizers, potential benefits outweigh the risks.

"We're trying to get Korans into the hands of the American public because we believe that's the best way to educate people about what Islam really stands for," Hooper says. "Prejudice against Islam goes up when you have lack of information."

Handing out sacred texts is hardly new; Christians have for centuries encouraged readers to find Jesus in the Bible's pages. Donors to the Koran project likewise do so with CAIR's encouragement to "give the gift of faith to your neighbor."

In this campaign, however, the primary goal is to help readers learn for themselves rather than always rely on news media reports, says Omar Barzinji of Amana Publications.

"By no means is somebody going to pick it up and say, 'Yeah, I understand everything now,' " he says. But the Koran is in the news, "so it's important that people who are hearing criticism of the Koran have an ability to open it up and look at it."

Not everyone regards the project as harmless education. "There is concern (among Christians and Jews), but what can we do about it?" says a California-based Coptic Christian who wrote the 2003 book The Islamization of America under the pseudonym Abdullah Al-Araby because he fears Muslim reprisal.

"It puts a responsibility on the rest of us to educate others that, although you have a Koran and can open it and read it, beware. Beware of what's written there because the Koran is full of contradictory messages." The core problem, as he sees it, is one of sanctioning an Islamic tradition of violence.

Readers unfamiliar with Islam are apt to find the terrain bumpy at times. The Koran blends genres; stories, such as those of Noah's flood and Jesus' birth, are interspersed with poetry, parables, principles and codes for living a holy life. Topics change often. Within a few short lines, for instance, the text covers public punishments for sex crimes, respect for elders and the nature of God. So first-time readers often come away with an impression of incoherence, says Koran scholar Mustansir Mir of Youngstown State University in Ohio.

"There seems to be a lot of repetition," Mir says. "You read 10 pages and you come up with the same ideas, the same phrases even. This repetition jars on the ears and minds of ordinary readers. But in order to make a distinction between the so-called superficial repetition and the deep underlying variety of structure, you have to pay close attention to the text in all its aspects."

Those placing orders have varied reasons. In Hilliard, Ohio, police detective Charles Scalf ordered a Koran to learn about the beliefs of his city's growing Muslim population. "You hear so many different things about what the Koran says, I thought, 'Why don't I read it myself?' "

Jerome Wolfson, a non-practicing Jew in Miami, ordered a copy in part to learn about Muslim views of Jesus, whom the Koran describes as a prophet.

Major Christian denominations have thus far welcomed the campaign, although not all local churches have. Pastor Creighton Lovelace of Danieltown Baptist Church in Forest City, N.C., in May posted a sign saying "The Koran needs to be flushed!" but later apologized. The Southern Baptist Convention released a statement saying it is committed to "respecting the rights of others to have free expression of their faith." The United Methodist Church regards sharing sacred texts as "a time-tested way (to) learn more about each other," spokesman Stephen Drachler says.

Roman Catholics have been encouraging knowledge of other religious traditions since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, says the Rev. Francis Tiso, adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on interreligious affairs.

"The best way to pursue peace is to get to know your neighbor a whole lot better than we do now," says the Rev. Thomas Martin, a retired Presbyterian (U.S.A.) minister in Powell, Ohio, who ordered a Koran. "If I'm going to know my neighbors, I need to know something about their faith."