If everything has an end goal, then what is the end goal of Islamic Studies? Some people believe that the goal is raise Muslim kids upon Islamic values. Others opine that Islamic Studies is to make them “into good Muslims.” Yet, some treat Islamic Studies as a way to absolve oneself of any responsibility. In this post, I will examine some of my perspectives on the end goal for taught Islamic Studies.
At the beginning of the academic year, and after establishing my classroom routines, I asked my students, “What is the point of studying Islamic Studies?” The answers were varied. Some said, “To be better Muslims.” Others chimed in and said, “To get good deeds.” Yet, some said, “Because we have to take it.” Either way, the answers given reflect the very theological and spiritual conditions many of our children and their families experience. To this day, many people are still unable to make much sense of what Islam is about. The proverbial “Islam is a way of life,” or, “Islam is a religion of peace,” are not only simplistically theoretical but also poetically tragic. Such statements reflect a genuine disconnect with the simple message of Islam – to worship the divine through servitude. Hence, when people fail to grasp what their spiritual formation means to them, you cannot expect much from teenagers or children. Occasionally, you will find a few students who say, “Islam Studies is to help us get closer to Allah and worship him.” But upon further inquiry, many students do not know how to translate it into action. Another example is within the question, “What does worship mean?” Most adults don’t know what this means. Some will say ritual prayer , or, salat. Back at my classroom, upon sensing that all of their answers were inadequate, my students eagerly ask me for my opinion.
1. Develop Critical Thinking – When one examines the annals of Islamic history, one finds numerous narrations documenting the deep thinking Muhammad (pbuh) undertook before his prophethood. Critical thinking is difficult upon many students who are eager to exercise plug and play theorems learned in other subjects. For the most part, the foundation of Islam, is not built upon practice but thought. Some might object to this definition and declare it to be faith. Before faith is introduced and understood, each person must reflect upon themselves, the world they live in and how it intersects with their desire to find eternal happiness. This mode of thinking will help students emerge from the dichotomous thinking they are accustomed to and shift them away from treating Islam as a “halal-haram” enterprise. Thus, a large part of what Islamic Studies is is to create a platform for students to make sense of what they believe in. This reverse education of making them think of what they believe will not only be challenging for students, but also difficult for the unseasoned teacher. Conversely, being able to make students think will prevent “taking it on faith students” from experiencing doubt in their later years of life.
Take for example, sira, or, Prophetic biography. Instead of treating it as a story book, teachers and parents must move away from the simplistic utilitarian aspect of “getting the kids to love the Prophet.” Sira is most often taught as a historical subject but must be connected back to the current contexts student live in. Students must be taught more than just the anecdotal themes of patience and sincerity in reference to Bilal bin Rabah. Importantly, parallels between his plight and slavery, discrimination, non-violent resistance, and human rights must be drawn. To elicit critical thinking, the issue of divine providence and the problem of evil must be brought into the discussion. At a higher level, comparing Islamic and Christian martyrology accounts would be useful. This ties into the question of, “How do social views of martyrs and passion narratives inform Christian and Islamic theologies? Both treat the passion narratives and martyrologies as inspirational stories. But martyrs are viewed by some Christian denominations as holy saints worthy of veneration whereas Muslims view them as phenomenal individual and not saints.
2. Setting Parameters – Too often do students and adults treat Islam as a religion of prescriptions and proscriptions. Instead, it is important to teach students certain foundational parameters to help them think. Parameters including textual proof, historical contexts, today’s contexts, gradual and prioritized application and other aspects are just a few to name. Giving students scenarios to think through will help students understand the given rulings in Islam. Take for example Islamic monotheism. How many students are able to provide textual proof on the monotheism? How many students are capable of providing cogent arguments supporting monotheism from a non-religious angle? Under no circumstance should a student resort to didactic argumentation to achieve this. Statements such as, “Well if you don’t believe in God, you will go to hell,” are completely missing the point and problematic. This kind of rhetoric only makes these kids turn into future nightmare community members spewing such rhetoric at those who disagree with them.
3. Preparation – If we want our students to become successful, we need to use the subject to inspire and not condemn. Taught Islamic Studies should be a platform for students to be inspired and find confidence in themselves. Students need to be taught that Islamic Studies is about who you are on the inside more than what you are on the outside. Students need to be shown that their mistakes will not be used to spiritually shame and cripple their self esteem. Students need to trust teachers so as to develop a healthy and balanced view of the human enterprise. Additionally, involving the students in projects that relate them to the issues they face is critical. Students do not need to be inundated with historical differences of opinion. Rather, they need to know how to behave in different circumstances. Giving them an Islamic perspective on evolution, gender relations, philosophy, and many other subjects will prepare them before they are exposed to these realms in college. To me, a student who is prepared in this manner is much better than the student who memorized the whole Quran unable to relate what he has memorized to the issues facing him or her.
If you’ve looked back on my previous post titled, “The Paradox of Islamic Schools,” this article is related to the issues of “Inquiry” and “Family Perception.” Because so many students and parents do not confidently and comfortably know what Islamic Studies serves, their line of inquiry is either incorrect or downright missing. If we understand these 3 aforementioned points, this will not only help teachers stay grounded and relevant, but it will help students think critically within given parameters no matter the situation.