As Marcia Macy chatted with her dog walker in the driveway of her Wheaton home Thursday, a young Muslim man passed her and hooked a plastic bag containing a Quran on her doorknob.
Unlike most religious solicitors, the man didn't try to speak with her or engage her in debate. He simply left her a 378-page paperback English translation of the holy book of Islam.
"I'd read it just to see what it says, but I believe in Jesus, not Allah," said Macy, a longtime Christian. "They have a right to do it . . . but I feel pretty strong in my faith."
If Macy reads the text, she will have fulfilled the goal of the Book of Signs Foundation. The Addison-based Muslim organization says that since July it has distributed more than 70,000 free English Qurans to homes in the Chicago area and another 30,000 around Houston.
The Christian stronghold of Wheaton is the group's latest stop. The foundation spent the previous three weeks in Chicago's Hyde Park and Jackson Park neighborhoods.
Organizers said their aim is to help people develop their own opinions about Islam instead of being misled by common misconceptions about the faith that have been especially egregious since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We're just trying to be honest brokers of information," said Wajahat Sayeed, founder and director of Book of Signs, which also is known as the Al-Furqaan Foundation. "You make your own judgment."
Distributing free scripture is not new, of course. Many Christian groups pass out Bibles; Gideons International distributed almost 450,000 in September in a weeklong " New York Bible Blitz." And other Muslim groups have given away free Qurans. Lake County's Ahmadiyya Muslim Community reports distributing more than 1,000 since 2005, with a boom in requests for Spanish-translated Qurans in the last year.
But the Book of Signs' long-term goal is particularly ambitious: that each household in the U.S. possess a Quran, even if the residents are not Muslims.
On Thursday, two teams—each with two walkers and one person driving a minivan full of books—crisscrossed the manicured neighborhoods of Wheaton.
Their chosen approach is non-invasive. Walkers don't hand the books directly to residents or engage in debate. Some people who were out walking their dogs or planting annuals said they assumed the men were passing out newspapers or delivering advertisements.
The book includes a phone number where people can leave a message if they have questions or comments, and Sayeed checks those messages daily. He said about 30 percent are appreciative. Another 30 percent are indifferent and request that someone return to pick up the book. The rest are often expletive-laden.
"It is not pleasant to hear that after all the effort you made," said Sayeed, who works full time for the foundation after leaving a job as a strategy consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Some callers ask serious questions, such as "What does Islam say about the Virgin Mary?" or "What does Islam say about Jesus?" One woman called to ask general questions about Islam because she was planning a trip to the Middle East.
The books being distributed include a foreword that urges readers to treat the text with respect, asking residents who don't want it to call for pickup or give it to a local mosque. Paid workers who distribute the Qurans don't make the rounds in the rain and never leave books on the ground.
In Wheaton on Thursday, one woman said she didn't know what a Quran was and didn't know what she was going to do with it. Most others said they would read through it.
"I've read literature about the Quran, but never read the Quran," said Kevin Ritchie, 46. He said he would read the book but remain skeptical about the religion. "I think they've got a right to pass them out, but I'm pretty much set with my religion," Ritchie said.
Muslims believe the Quran to be the word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Experts said reading the Quran can be difficult for the average non-Muslim because it's not written in chronological order and requires some context about the period in which it was written.
Sabeel Ahmed, director of outreach programs for the Islamic Circle of North America, said the Quran project is a good first step. However, he notes that follow-up meetings or additional reading material would be helpful.
Sayeed said the foundation chose a translation that Americans can easily read.
"The general sense will be clear," Sayeed said. "Islam teaches peace."