According to a Pew Research Center study published last Wednesday, while Americans seem to be more open and warm to multiple religious groups than they were three years ago, they “still feel coolest toward Muslims.” On a scale from 0 to 100, Americans polled in the study rated their warmth toward Muslims at 48, two points higher than atheists, but nearly 20 lower than highest-rated Jews.
Like many experts, West Seattle Lutheran pastor Ron Marshall, who has been studying the Koran — the Muslim holy book — for 30 years, points to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as a turning point in the attitudes of Americans toward Muslims.
“It wasn’t until 9/11 that it (interest in the Koran by non-Muslims) really blew up,” he said. “I had wanted to teach a class on the Koran since I started studying, but no one was interested. But after 9/11, the church actually asked me to teach classes on it. Everyone wants to know if it is a terrorist manual.”
It was with this in mind that Marshall, who holds two masters’ degrees, one in religion and one in divinity, began teaching month-long classes four times each year to teach about the Koran and its similarities to and differences from the Bible. He stresses that the classes are not inspired by a want to converge world religions or to “bash” Islam, but merely to dispel ignorance and show that just because the Koran is different from the Bible does not make it inherently bad.
“As far as I am concerned, there are irresolvable differences between Islam and Christianity that we shouldn’t try to explain away,” he writes on his class webpage. “I argue in class that differences can be and should be enriching — and that they can be noted in respectful ways. I defend the Quran in class — even though I reject its central teachings. In class I try to show how one can criticize the Quran without disrespecting it.”
He will offer the class on Vashon on Thursday nights during the month of March.
Islander Will Forrester — with the help of Vashon Lutheran Church and the Vashon Ecumenical Book Club — brought the class series to the island after taking Marshall’s class over the summer.
“I found it very informative and challenging. As Islam becomes ever more a household word and dinner party topic, I believe it behooves us all to have some familiarity with the Koran to constructively inform our engagement with the Muslims in our region. This class is a good way to start,” Forrester said.
Marshall said those who take the class will read the Koran in four sections, and readings will be guided by worksheets. The readings will allow students to compare and contrast the Koran and the Bible, which both center around the same characters (Jesus, Abraham, Mary, Joseph, etc.) and talk of Judgement Day, condemning gratuitous murder and preaching patience. But Marshall said the Koran is inherently a “frontal attack” on orthodox Christianity in that it is written as a re-telling of the Bible, fixing serious mistakes that Muslims believe were made when it was written.
When asked how he deals with those differences as a Christian pastor, Marshall said he believes “all meaning comes through contrast,” in that he believes Christianity can’t be fully understood until witnessing what those on the other side are saying as well.
“At the end of the class, I give a list of commonalities and differences. In my view, there are more similarities than differences, but the differences are more significant,” he said.
He says many of the statements from the Koran that have made headlines due to a violent or terroristic connotation have been taken out of context.
“If you have come to discover if the Koran is a terrorist book, you will discover it’s not. It’s a peaceful book,” Marshall explained.
And he is intimately familiar with Islam and Muslims as he has studied the Koran under four mullahs — master teachers — he met at Seattle’s first mosque, the Idriss Mosque. In an interview last week, he explained that securing permits for the mosque, which opened in 1985, was an issue because the Muslims wanted to build a traditional mosque and imitate the architecture in Saudi Arabia, not the West.
“Finally, the city granted the permit, and it opened in 1985. I went to the opening because I thought they should be able to build as they want,” he said.
Since then, he has become friends with multiple members of Seattle’s Muslim community and has read Muhammad Asad’s “The Message of The Quran,” which he bases his class on.
“My mullahs told me its important not to teach your own ideals,” he explained. “They’d ask, ‘What do you know about the Koran? You’re a Christian minister. Why would you go to a Christian minister to find out about the Koran?’”
Marshall’s answer is simple: “I’m seen as safe,” he said. “Taking this class doesn’t mean you have to become Muslim. It’s all about dispelling ignorance.”
Sign up information
“Reading the Koran,” a class with First Lutheran Church Pastor Ron Marshall, will take place at Vashon Lutheran Church from 7 to 9 p.m. on the first four Thursdays of March beginning March 2.
The cost is $50, which includes a copy of the Koran, worksheets and numerous handouts.
To sign up, call First Lutheran Church at 935-6530, or email Marshall at
For more information about the class, call William Forrester at 567-4548 or go to flcws.org and click on “Reading the Koran with Pastor Marshall.”