Rethinking Islam from Pakistan to Texas
Scholars emphasize viewing Islam in historical, political context
By Ryan Z. Cortazar
Two Harvard professors are spearheading a new initiative aimed at
defeating "a clash of ignorances," a clash, they affirm, that
perpetuates misunderstanding, prejudice, and fear between Muslim and
Western societies. Fueled by widespread global illiteracy about the
nature of Islam and Muslim civilizations, this clash has dangerous
implications for nations that are increasingly becoming multireligious
and multicultural in character. Traversing the world from Texas to
Pakistan and Boston to Kenya, Ali Asani and his colleague Diane L.
Moore are helping secondary school teachers recontextualize Islam and
provide new interpretations and understandings of the religion to
teens throughout the world.
"By empowering secondary school teachers with new insights into the
nature of religion in general, and Islam in particular, we aim to cure
the emerging generation of the cultural myopia that afflicts much the
world's current views on Islam and the cultures of the peoples that
practice it," said Asani, professor of the practice of Indo-Muslim
languages and cultures at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Moore is
professor of the practice in religion and secondary education at the
Central to the program is Asani's cultural studies approach. Instead
of viewing Islam merely through doctrinal texts, devotional practices,
or interpretations of the Koran, Asani stresses the importance of
drawing from a deeper well of historical, political, and economic
contexts to understand how Islam developed in the Arabian peninsula
and spread throughout the world, adapting to indigenous customs and
He points to the currently limited approach to Islamic studies as a
reason for common misunderstandings. "Among the world's great
religions, Islam is often seen as the exception, especially in terms
of scriptural interpretations," Asani asserted. "People cull the Koran
for inflammatory passages and immediately proclaim Islam a violent
religion and the source of terrorist violence, but the same doesn't
happen with similar bloody passages in the New Testament or Torah
because we understand these religions as phenomena occurring in a
broader culture. The idea that Muslims commit violence solely because
of their religion strips them of their history, their cultural,
political, and historical contexts, and ultimately leads to their
dehumanization. Part of this project is to help understand how
religion functions in Muslim societies and how it does not function.
Everything that happens in a Muslim majority society or that a Muslim
does cannot be naively attributed to Islam."
To this end, Asani has created a set of educational modules intended
to provoke new and innovative understandings of the religion. Starting
with lessons on the life of Muhammad and leading into Islamic
Modernism and its struggle to adapt to growing Western and
international influences, Asani provides teachers with readings,
contextual sketches, and discussion questions to lead groups
throughout the process. While Asani communicates with the teachers via
Internet message boards and visits each of the four international
sites to give lectures and elucidate readings through cultural and
artistic artifacts, the bulk of the study is done through independent
discussion groups moderated by the teachers themselves in a program
that typically lasts six months.
At the end of the program, Asani and Moore facilitate discussion among
teachers on how to craft their own curricula on the study of Islam and
Muslim societies that emphasize the new cultural framework as well as
a pedagogical approach that stresses educational independence and a
breakdown of the traditional teacher-student construction in order to
encourage a more free-flowing dialogue.
"In order for this system to really thrive, it must be a multilevel
conversation with students voicing their own insights alongside those
of the teacher," Asani said. "If this program is to have any success
on the future world's understanding of Islam, we must encourage the
next generations to engage in critical thinking on this topic to
stimulate conversation, not suppress it."
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