Views on teaching Islam

I was once asked to write an article of a Muslim periodical referring to my views and experiences of teaching Islam. It wasn’t far removed from the events of 9/11 but far enough to have some further perspective. Some of my thoughts are slightly dated, but it is still interesting:

I began teaching in 1997 with little or no background in Islam. I had grown up in a town with one family of Muslims, I went to University where I did one unit of work which to be honest was fairly forgettable and that was about it. The experiences that had taught me most about Islam were based around my two years work as a Christian missionary in, of all places, Scotland. I spent many hours debating doctrine and theology with ordinary Muslims in their home. This taught me more than any “book learning” could ever have hoped to do. I began to appreciate the relationship with God that Muslims had and the reverence in which they held the Prophet Muhammad. I realised that I didn’t have to agree with Islam to appreciate the faith of the Muslims I met. What was more interesting for me was that I shared a number of values with Muslims. For example I don’t drink alcohol because of a religious prohibition, I fast once a month for 24 hours, I reject all forms of pornography. In today’s world it is good to find allies in the way that we choose to live.

Thrust into a classroom situation I began to teach the “chocolate box” view of Islam. What I mean by this, is the sanitised bare facts- the Five Pillars and the ideal of how a Muslim should live. I perhaps would have continued along this path had it not been for the events of September 2001. I walked into school on 12th September to be faced by a colleague who announced that he was no longer going to teach about Islam, and throughout that week a number of Islamaphobic comments from students. After challenging these individually I was asked by the school to meet with each year to discuss the events of the past few days. Some of the comments I made are below:

Due to recent tragic events, comments in the media, and even comments within school it is felt that it may be appropriate to say a few words about the religion of Islam.

 You may have heard the terms ‘Muslim terrorist’ or ‘Islamic Jihad’ as you have listened to the news. It is possible that the terrorists who carried out these evil acts were Muslims, but their actions do not reflect the attitudes or beliefs of individual Muslims or the religion of Islam as a whole.

 Islam is a religion that teaches peace and brotherhood. Unfortunately, some people have interpreted certain beliefs to mean that they can kill and terrorise people. This is far from the message of Islam that most people would accept.

 Just as it would be wrong to blame a whole class for the actions of one person, so it is wrong to blame a whole religion for the actions of a few people. Last week, we saw in the news so called Christian people in Northern Ireland, shouting at or throwing things at schoolchildren- does this mean that all Christians support this act? – Of course not.

 These acts of terrorism were evil, but we must make sure we do not add to the suffering by blaming innocent people. We must treat each other, irrespective of religion or colour, with respect and tolerance.

I also quoted from St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love; …where there is injury, pardon; …where there is doubt, faith; …where there is despair, hope; …where there is darkness, light; …where there is sadness, joy; O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek …to be consoled as to console; …to be understood as to understand; …to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; …it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; …and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 These thoughts have implications for all of us, regardless of faith.

However, these events meant that a chocolate box view of Islam was no longer enough either for me or my students. There were real controversies that needed to be discussed or they would not be able to understand the basic message of Islam and what a positive force it could be. They would be left to the newspapers to find out what a negative force it can be. This was not acceptable to me. Now, when I teach Islam I tackle the issues head on. Sometimes I get complaints- some from Muslims that I am not truly representing Islam. I accept this but in teaching the Islamic view of women I have to build on the traditional stereotype to challenge it from the Qur’an and the Hadith. If I don’t include the negative- I am glossing over it. I will always teach that it is a minority view and out of step with Qur’anic teaching but sometimes that is not enough.

My school holds an annual Iftaar meal- a couple of years ago I heard a speaker talk about fish and chips being a Muslim food, about jeans being Muslim clothes. Making the point that accepting some of the existing British culture does not oppose Islam, and can make a person more prepared to face the challenges. These are the voices that need to be heard in the classroom. Teaching Islam post 9/11 is not the easiest task in the world and just as I learnt most in conversation with Muslims so will the wider community. In 1988 the World Council of Churches declared “doctrine divides, service unites”. Doctrinally there are lots of areas that I disagree with Islam about, but I admire the individual practice of some Muslims. It is important that people of shared values work together to promote a better society and world for everybody. I would ask that more Muslims become involved in this important task- both in schools and other places so that the negative view of Islam is challenged, not by teachers who “have to” but, by Muslims who will reflect the true essence of Islam in their conversation and actions.