Storytelling from Sacred Texts

Article excerpt

To understand an Alaskan seal hunt or the reasons behind the uses of frankincense, one needs some knowledge of religion. To purge this knowledge from our schools is a loss to all concerned, and to approach it as 'myth' prevents the student from tasting the truth of the subject. When we fail to teach religion from the inside out, and present it merely as a list of characteristics or an historical manifestation at some place during some time, it is like teaching science with no labs, history with no first-hand accounts, psychology with no personal involvement in self-transformation. So we not only bore the students, but we lose both the understanding of cultures and the deep knowledge of the human condition that is contained in religious texts.

Also, if we are to move beyond just information, and grow beyond just tolerance, to a real acceptance of each other, we need to go into the feelings, mysteries and power of one another's faith. One of the best ways to do this is through stories. In a story - be it written, in films, or told - one can either believe or suspend belief, and follow the tale. A moral can be taught, a culture passed, without asking the listeners to accept or reject a creed.

In this brief article I would like to demonstrate the use of one sacred text, the Qur'an, in the teaching of social sciences: history, geography, sociology. I shall elaborate on one example of a method which I have employed quite successfully in the classroom and in making children's story books, involving 'fleshing out' the cryptic remarks of the Qur'an with knowledge of place and space, and alternately allowing the remarks of the Qur'an to direct the study towards some interesting digressions which the teacher can use to focus on many different areas of learning.

This example is the story of the Queen of Saba (Sheba), which is found in Q27:20-44. The tale has all the elements of fun and adventure one might need to write a romance, or an historical novel, and is a grand source for teaching children. To take it apart as a learning tool, it may be best not to tell the whole story first, but to keep some suspense as you go along. There is the story line, and there are multiple digressions.

Before beginning your teaching of the subject, I suggest that you engage is some useful research such as locating a map of the Mediterranean including Arabia and the Yemen. You will also need a map of old Jerusalem and several photographs or pictures of temples and other buildings. I believe another great sources for pictures and maps of the Middle East, can be obtained from the religion books by Time/Life or the like. You might also search for pictures of different kinds of birds and any useful information on kings & queens, medieval pictures of thrones, armor, etc. Anyone teaching about this subject should obtain a copy of the Qur'an in translation, preferably by Yusuf Ali or the Bewleys or A.N.Durkee (see note at the end of article).

As an introduction, you should mention that this is a story common to the Bible, the Torah and the Qur'an, but it is told a little differently in each. The Jews find their history in the Torah, and the Christians adopted most of it in the Old Testament. This story is repeated in the Qur'an as moral example but not as history. One can explain that most believers in the different monotheistic religions each consider their Book to be the Word of Allah/God/G-d, whereas for others it may be the collected best wisdom of a culture. Followers of Islam believe in all the old prophets of the previous religions, and they call all the followers of the earlier religions 'Muslim', which means surrendered to Allah/God/G-d. But they believe that the older books have been edited and altered, and that the Qur'an is the only one we have left that is wholly reliable.

Read the story yourself first. I try to read such a story in all the texts to get as much local color as possible, as long as they don't contradict each other. …