Best Practices When Teaching Islamic Studies - Skills vs. Information

Best Practices When Teaching Islamic Studies – Skills vs. Information

“Who can recite Surah al-Kawthar?”

“What are the five pillars of Islam?”

When was the Battle of Badr fought?”

“Where did Muhammad pbuh go in the Isra and Miraj event?”

“How do you make wudu?”

What is missing here? You might have guessed it. The “why” question is missing. Being able to think critically is a key element in teaching. And this is fueled partly by how we as parents and teachers with backgrounds from the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia are taught. That generation was taught to soak in as much information as possible. The one who can recite volumes upon volumes of information is the most learned and qualified. Because so and so has read through the 6 books of hadith, topped with a memorization ijazah, therefore, they must be the most knowledgeable shaykh. Growing up, my parents believed that memorizing a book combining historical, scientific and language based short articles, known as, “100 Q&A’s” would be good. While this book did impart valuable information that helped me slide into 3rd place at my school’s geography bee, knowing the Northern Lights, or, “The Aurora Borealis,” did little for me. It was a source of pain, burden and anguish. Because I could memorize paragraph and recite them back out perfectly, I was viewed as “not as studious” when compared to my elder sibling.

When it comes to Islamic studies, memorization is but the most basic form of seeking knowledge. And because students have diverse backgrounds and varying levels in their understanding of Islamic Studies, teachers are more in favor of imparting “fact based learning” in Islamic Studies and not imparting skills to help them think critically. Teachers cannot be blamed for trying to teach in this way. Homework assignments are easier to make and grading becomes a quick flick of the wrist. The scholars of the past didn’t just memorize, but they pondered, compared, reflected and applied what they learned from the great tomes of Islamic scholarship. But instead of just memorizing, imagine if the students could understand the meaning behind Surah al-Kawthar and how it segues into their life and the application of the surah? Imagine if students could understand the difference in Belief in God as a pillar of faith versus Testimony in God’s right to be worshipped as a pillar of Islam? What a difference it would make to help students understand how and why miracles inform a Muslim’s belief in relationship to the Isra and Miraj event? Perhaps, wudu is not just taught as a physical act, but as an act of mental preparation and readiness for prayer communion. With this in mind, students can not only gain valuable information, but also make more sense of what is taught, connect it to their life and apply what they learned long after they’ve left the classroom or halqa (study circle). Therefore, what parents, teachers and educators need to do is to focus on both imparting information and skills. Here are two important  pointers on how Islamic Studies can be taught effectively:

  • Structured learning – This involves teaching students maxims and skills within Islamic Studies. In other words, instead of having students remember fiqh rulings, test them on how the scholars reached their respective opinions for any particular ruling. But more importantly, teach them the foundations of fiqh before you teach them fiqh. Teach them the sciences of hadith before you teach them hadith. Teach them the sources of knowledge and Islamic epistemology before you teach theology. Teach how to learn and understand history before you teach them sira. Teach them tajwid while teaching them the memorization of the Quran. But more importantly, long after they forget these nuggets of facts, they will retain the skills and be able to continue onwards wherever life takes.
  • Draw lines – For example find connections between theological and fiqh questions. There is a strong disconnect between how students view theology and fiqh. For them, Islam is a set of beliefs with a set of ritual instructions that begin with haram or halal. While it might be true at first glance, the fine interconnections between theology and fiqh can only be appreciated when one teaches in a structured manner and draws connections between the different Islamic subjects such as: Qur’an, Sira, Hadith, Usul, Aqida, Mustalah, Fiqh, Akhlaq and Adab. For every fact or story that you teach, invite students to reflect on how to apply the lessons from that story effectively and appropriately. Ask them share ways on how to apply those lessons in their own context.