Two weeks ago in this space, I wrote about common challenges teachers face in getting students to work productively with primary sources. One of those challenges is getting students to do more than simply repeat what the author said. Granted, even that can be quite difficult when we’re dealing with sources written in unfamiliar or archaic language. Still, we’re aiming for more than reading comprehension assessments. We want our primary sources to engage our students with a genuine thinking task: interpreting thinkers from other times and places — or, in 4QM-speak, answering Question Two. 

In that last post, I offered general advice for getting students past the activities of paraphrase and summary. This time out, I’m sharing a case study. 

Ninth Graders Interpreting the Qur’an

My class recently finished a mini-unit on the origins of Islam. Our main source for the story (Question One) was a chapter of Tamim Ansary’s book, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Once we had the story down, we practiced together on a chapter (Sura) from the Qur’an. For this modeling activity, I chose a Meccan Sura, composed (or recited) when Muhammad and his small Muslim community were vulnerable to attacks by the tribal merchants Muhammad’s new teachings threatened. (Some of those merchants, his own uncles, would soon plot his assassination!) Here’s the text: 

Who speaks better than someone who calls people to God, does what is right, and says, ‘I am one of those devoted to God’? Good and evil cannot be equal. [Prophet], repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend, but only those who are steadfast in patience, only those who are blessed with great righteousness, will attain to such goodness. If a prompting from Satan [the Devil] should stir you, seek refuge with God: He is the All Hearing and All Knowing.

The Qur’an 41.33-36

Paraphrase First, Then Interpret

Our first task after encountering the text was to be sure we all knew what it said. So we paraphrased. We saw from our paraphrase that the Qur’an is praising people from calling others to God and telling them to avoid retaliating against those who oppose and condemn them. We observed that the passage associates the urge to fight back against opponents with a “prompting from Satan” and that the highest praise is reserved for those who are “steadfast in patience.” 

Why does the Qur’an say this? This “why” question inaugurated the interpretive stage of our inquiry lab. At this point, we were ready to move beyond the letter of the text to its author’s purpose in creating it. 

I reminded my students of the tools we’ve used to perform this interpretive task in the past. These tools are all variants of Question Two. In the case of our current inquiry, here’s how they sound: Why does the Qur’an say this, exactly? Why this and not something else? And why say it in this way and not in some other way? Why, in other words, did the author make the choices we see on the page? 

The point of these probing versions of Question Two is to cultivate in our student-readers what we call the “author concept.” We want our students to see actors in history as real people making real choices, expressing genuine meaning and purpose. Their default tendency — and ours, too, often enough — is to reify both events and artifacts. In a flat world, events just “happen,” without people to do or drive them. Texts just state things, without an author whose meaning and purpose is expressed there. Interpretation, on the other hand, is how we respond to texts when we recognize that real people are speaking to us through them. It’s what people mean, I think, when they talk about active reading. 

How’d They Do?

So, what did my students make of this passage?

Working in small groups and then together in a large one, with coaching from me in both locations, here’s what they came up with: in pre-Islamic Arabian society, the tribal code led people to retaliate against opponents. The Qur’an, by contrast, is teaching the followers of Muhammad to adopt a different code, one that cuts against the grain of their upbringing. To fail to respond aggressively to an insult is both ignoble and hazardous in a tribal society. But that, it turns out, is what this Sura is admonishing Muslims to do.

In the course of our deliberations, one of my students pointed out that we actually knew an example of exactly what this Sura was promising, that an enemy “will become as close as an old and valued friend.” The reference, he suggested, might be to Omar, who Ansary says was an implacable enemy of Muhammad and his followers, but then became one of Muhammad’s most stalwart allies. (Omar eventually become the leader, or Caliph, of the Muslim community.) 

So, why was the Qur’an encouraging Muslims to adopt this new, decidedly nontribal practice? Perhaps being “steadfast in patience” was simply a sensible survival strategy for a vulnerable community. Or, perhaps the overriding interest of this early community required such a strategy: recruitment. Unlike the tribes, the Muslim community, or Umma, depended upon conversion for growth. Maybe the passage is encouraging Muslims to find more Omars.

By the end of 45 minutes of reading and talking, we had an interpretive claim on the table: one goal of the Sura was to encourage early members of the Umma to overcome their pre-Islamic dispositions and to focus on the long game: the recruitment of new members through patient persuasion. 

Kids Won’t Think Harder Than We Do

This workshop took a lot of planning on my part. I selected the Qur’an passage myself, and made sure it fit the story we learned together. (I repeated this workshop with a later Sura as well, one from Medina, when the Umma was much stronger. Practice!) And I did what we always tell teachers to do in our workshops: I asked and answered the questions for myself. There really is no other way. Our students won’t think harder than we do about a text. And they won’t think well about it unless we show them how.