Mormons, Muslims get along by creating books, not destroying them

I have been added as the Mormon blogger to the roster at The Seeker, which is the religion blog of The Chicago Tribune, edited by its terrific religion editor, Manya Brachear. They have quite an impressive list of contributors, including Martin Marty, the foremost authority on American religious history. I was a little bit intimidated by that, but hey, I’m just a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. Below is my first offering at that venue. When I blog there, I plan to cross-post here. Obviously, these are written with a non-LDS audience in mind. They are also edited prior to being posted (the title for instance, was not mine, but I do like it). Enjoy!

The threat by Pastor Terry Jones to burn the Qur’an was all over the news. What if, instead of destroying Muslim books, we were actually to create them, by translating the classic works of the Islamic golden age into English?

That is the project Dan Peterson, a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University has been engaged in for more than a decade, a project that has built tremendous goodwill and resulted in many lasting friendships between Muslims and those of the Mormon faith.

This past Sunday evening, Peterson was in town as part of a BYU humanities outreach to give a lecture at the Mormon Church in Naperville on BYU’s Islamic Translation Series. Several hundred people were in attendance, including several dozen Muslim dignataries and guests.

Peterson recalled that when he was first appointed as a professor and began to teach a course in Islamic philosophy, he was chagrined by the lack of classic Islamic texts available in English translation. You can walk into any Borders or Barnes and Noble and find multiple translations of the great thinkers of Greece and Rome, but not so for Islam.

Some time later he was approached by Elder Alexander Morrison, a General Authority (central church leader) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the sponsoring institution of BYU. Elder Morrison wanted to discuss with Peterson ways in which BYU could reach out to the Muslim world in a gesture of friendship and respect.

Peterson came to that meeting prepared with a list of ideas, but the one that Morrison (a former academic himself) quickly seized upon was that for a translation series of classic Islamic texts. This idea was particularly appealing to Morrison because it would not entail us talking about Islam, but rather would let the great thinkers of the Islamic golden age speak for themselves–all we would be doing would be making their words available in English for those who could not read Arabic (including, as it turned out, many diaspora Muslims).

BYU hired Muhammad S. Eissa to cover Peterson’s classes as the project ramped up. As it so happened, Eissa had grown up around the Arabic printing houses in Cairo and had been editing Arabic texts since he was 14. he became the project’s Arabic editor.

With the success of the Islamic Translation Series, two other series of Arabic-language texts have been initiated: the Medical Works of Moses Maimonides, and Eastern Christian texts. All three series comprise the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative of the Neal A. Maxwell Insitute for Religious Scholarship at BYU. Just as scholars of these three traditions often worked cooperatively together in the Middle Ages, so now important works from these three Abrahamic traditions are being made available together for modern readers.

There is simply too much ignorance about Islam in the West. One way to begin to remedy that would be to actually read some of the classic works of the Islamic golden age. Try reading one of the following titles in the Series and see whether it does not change your preconceptions:

– Abd al-Jabbar: Critique of Christian Origins

– Avicenna: The Physics of The Healing (in 2 volumes)

– The Metaphysics of the Shifa’

– The Incoherence of the Philosophers

– The Philosophy of Illumination

-Niche of Lights

– Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory

– Mulla Sadra The Elixir of the Gnostics

– Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima

The latest volume in the series, at press now, is Classical Foundations of Islamic Education Thought. The volumes are distributed through the University of Chicago Press.

Some time ago, Peterson gave a presentation to about 200 Muslim men at a mosque in Australia. He happened to mention to the group that the next night he would be speaking at the local synagogue, and so about 50 of those men actually went to the synagogue to hear him speak again. The rabbi incredulously remarked that “it took a Mormon to bring us together in this gathering of friendship.”

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