Teaching Notes III: Islamic Studies and “de-programming”

For those of us who teach or will be teaching an introductory course of Islamic Studies in the United States, there are a number of pedagogical challenges we uniquely face as instructors. In order to reach a deep and critical engagement with the texts, histories, aesthetics, narratives and politics at play in a course such as “Islamic Civilization,” a form of “de-programming” must take place.

I say “de-programming” because instructors are certainly not engaging with “blank slates.” Many students enter our classes having already developed an idea or opinion of Islam, Muslims and related terminology (such as shari’a, jihad, Islamic state, burka, etc.), and this is reflected in their questions and papers. Here’s a sampling of the questions I received through an exercise I conducted at the end of the last academic term:

“What makes Islam hate Israel?” “What is the burka?” “Do mainstream Muslims read the Qur’an?” “Is there such a thing as Islam without belief in God (Allah)?” “Should Muslims get the blame for human misery?” “Is a democratic and religious state possible?” “When do most Muslims visit Mecca (what part of their life)?” “What is the Muslim position on human nature?”

In general, I have found that some students conflated categories of place such as “the Middle East” and ethno-racial identities such as “Arabs” with Islam and Muslims, which means their study is problematically framed from the beginning. Other times, the term Islam occupies an undifferentiated imagined space (in which “Islam” – like Africa – is thought to be a country) and “Muslims” refers to a single, homogenous group of people. This is embedded in students’ language, which locates practices such as veiling “in Islam” or demands the collective to answer with a single authoritative voice when asking what “Islam says” about topics like homosexuality or interfaith marriage.

This leads to a difficult question for our community of scholars and teachers: Do we have an ethical obligation to engage in a form of “de-programming” and acknowledge the impact of public Islamophobia in the privacy of our classrooms? If so, what are effective ways of “de-programming” without taking away from substantial parts of the core syllabus in which we teach new and important material, particularly in an introductory course on Islamic history or Islamic literature?

Do you have students plunge directly into the details of history and/or primary sources with the purpose of having that close encounter be a source of new and better informed conclusions? Do you address big questions of modernity, nation state, culture, false binaries, imperialism, capitalism – and address the students’ questions at the meta level – by providing theory as a tool to reform and develop their questions when they approach primary materials on their own? Do you ever directly address frequently asked (problematic) questions such as “Does Islam promote the subjugation of women?” or define terms that are repeatedly used in a provocative manner, such as jihad or shari’a? If so, how do you avoid privileging Islamophobic discourse which provokes/enables such questions while also acknowledging them in an academic setting?

As I have described previously, the new spring course syllabus my colleagues used to teach Contemporary Islamic Civilizations shaped by Professor Hamid Dabashi included readings in post-colonial theory, history, politics, literature and cinema. The course was designed to give students tools – “corrective lenses,” as Dabashi would say, through which they could view critically the discourses that arise from civilizational thinking. The pedagogical goal was to get the students to develop better questions, critical thinking skills and media literacy when continuing to learn about Islam and Muslims in their world, particularly as non-specialists.

In keeping with the spirit of this new approach, I finally asked my students towards the end of the semester, “If you could ask one question about Muslim beliefs in relation to what Islam teaches, what would you ask?” As with previous exercises, they could respond anonymously. If we completed the class material early, I offered to try to address some of their questions.

Although the semester ended before I had time to address all the questions they submitted, I have continued to think about them over the last few months. I decided that if I had one more hour, I would not answer the questions but have the students engage in an analysis of their own questions. The students had covered most course materials and acquired shared critical vocabulary, which would enable a productive discussion. I would offer them five categories: “Questions based on a false premise,” “Questions of language and definitions,” “FAQs of religious studies, identity, and interfaith co-existence (i.e. Am I safe? Questions),” “Questions of law and ritual practice,” and “Questions of belief, theology and/or philosophy.” I would ask the students to file the questions under the appropriate category or categories and then encourage them to share their results.

What I found most intriguing was that even after challenged to think critically about civilizational thinking and to consider Islamic civilization as a collection of highly differentiated human communities, many students still submitted polemical questions reflecting anxieties about borders of identity and personal security. For instance, “What does the Qur’an have to say about interactions with non-hostile non-Muslims? Can there be coexistence within a society?” As you can see, many of these questions were asked through the language of interfaith coexistence, and can be productively flipped around to help students identify and explore the anxieties and concerns that are embedded in their own questions.

Of questions directly related to Islam as a religion, I did not find it surprising that questions about legal issues and ritual were of more interest than actual beliefs—let alone theology—because of continued public concerns of shari’a and visibility of Muslim ritual and praxis. In the end, the students had less questions directly related to beliefs and yet these few questions demanded a basic, elementary awareness of Islam as a faith-religion rather than an Islam defined as an ideological impulse that orders politics and civil society the result of which is imagined to be an Islamic state (which itself is a definition that has embedded within it a number of ideas that would need to be unpacked including ideology, nation-state and civil society).

I believe these exercises indicate that it is important for instructors to consider their pedagogical role in “deprogramming” the assumptions that students may bring to their Islamic studies courses. In my opinion, one of the most effective ways to do that is to allow the students to articulate their questions including the incredibly problematic; empower them with the tools and critical vocabulary to identify the embedded assumptions, false premises and misuse of terminology within their questions; and then give them an opportunity to discuss and analyze their own questions as a collective community.

About Sahar Ullah

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the continuities and transformation of the amatory prelude in thepost-classical Prophetic Encomia.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Notes III: Islamic Studies and “de-programming”

  1. That’s an excellent reflection — and I’ve been thinking about similar things this week. I had my students read a biography of the Prophet (Jonathon Brown’s “A Very Short Introduction to the Prophet Muhammad,” which incorporates a discussion of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira as well as issues of the legacy of the Prophet and his memory). I asked them to submit discussion questions about the book and I was saddened that so many of the questions were, well, a bit Islamophobic. Some of the student’s seemed to realize it — they would preface their questions with statements like “I’m not trying to be biased” or “I’m not trying to cause trouble, but” and then ask questions that were either ahistorical, extraordinarily presentist, or tried to directly link events from the Prophet’s life with, for example, the rise of ISIS/ISIL. I had a chat with them about what constitutes a ‘historical’ question and about the dangers of presentism overall, but it’s such a difficult thing to deal with.

    1. Replying to myself because we had a nice long discussion in class this week where we talked about how problematic it was to link events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad with groups like ISIL. A lot of students passionately decried such facile links and (seriously, without my prompting) compared linking Islam and ISIL with linking Christianity and the KKK.

      It made me pretty happy.

      1. Thanks Christine. Sometimes these classroom discussions can be difficult, uncomfortable — even disappointing. It’s great to hear you had a productive discussion with your students both about the material they were assigned to read as well as the discourse they are most likely hearing outside the classroom which they were able to view critically. It proves, to me at least, that it is important to make room for flexibility with our class agendas to intelligently respond to these concerns when they come up (which it seems like is what you did!).

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