77 North Washington Street

TOBY Lester, the author of this month's cover story, "What Is the Koran?," about historical scholarship and Islam, has for a decade cultivated a deep interest in the Islamic world. He speaks Arabic. From 1992 to 1994 he served in the West Bank as a refugee-affairs officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, monitoring Intifada-related activity and, when possible, mediating confrontations between the Israeli army and Palestinians. Before that he served as a Peace Corps desk officer, a career that began in 1988 with two years as a volunteer in the Yemen Arab Republic.


"When I first went to Yemen," Lester says, "I was immediately struck by how often the Koran was used in daily life. It was quoted and referred to everywhere: in classrooms, at meals, in the media, on dashboards and bumper stickers, in shops, in government offices, on airplanes, in social gatherings. No text in Western culture exerts anything like the influence the Koran exerts on Islamic culture." It is remarkable, Lester adds, "that at least some study of the Koran isn't a mandatory part of higher education in America."

Islam was certainly not part of Lester's higher education (at the University of Virginia, from which he graduated in 1987). Nor was journalism much on his mind at the time. Lester came to The Atlantic Monthly, in 1995, more or less at his own invitation: he volunteered to work as an unpaid intern in order to learn the business. Lester's natural talents quickly became obvious, and he was hired as a staff member. He now both writes and edits articles for the magazine, and he is the executive editor of the magazine's Web site, Atlantic Unbound. His article "Secondhand Music" (April, 1997), exploring the emotional resonance of background noise, was recently given a different form on the National Public Radio program This American Life. "New-Alphabet Disease" (July, 1997) concerned language politics in Azerbaijan.

Lester offers a quick assessment of the issues that animate his cover story: "Most Muslims believe that every word in the Koran is the Word of God, but I found myself wondering if there weren't some scholars interested in critically examining the Koran and Islamic history. The very idea of such scholarship is troubling to many Muslims. But the fact is that yes, both non-Muslim and Muslim scholars have in recent years been quietly asking probing questions. This article is a survey of some of that work."


The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 283, No. 1; page 6.

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