When I tell people that I study global Islam the reaction usually goes something like this:
“Ohhhhhhhh, that’s interesting.”
Two or three beats pass…wait for it, then the shoe drops: “You know, I actually have a question for you. I’ve always wondered [INSERT QUESTION, CONUNDRUM, OR NEWS SOUNDBITE HERE].”
Islam is, unfortunately, a very hot topic of conversation. Sometimes, I wish I studied the most boring, obscure, and esoteric religious topic so that when I told people what I study they would say, “how interesting,” not really mean it, and then casually change the topic of conversation. But that’s just not the case. The questions keep coming. The headlines continue to splash across our screens. My area of study remains relevant.
In truth, I relish the opportunity to talk to people about religion — especially global Islam. I learn much from my studies with Muslims and non-Muslims alike and enjoy sharing that with others via blogs, news pieces, and in the classroom. In that spirit, this semester I was honored to work alongside the legendary Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons teaching the UF Religion Department’s Intro. to Islam course.
At the end of the class I asked all of the students to reflect on three questions: 1) what is the single most insightful thing you learned this semester? 2) What is one thing you would tell someone who has yet to take this class? 3) What is one question you still have?
What follows is a break-down of the TOP THREE things that students learned and would share with others outside the class (there was significant overlap) and the TOP THREE questions they still had. These reflections help us understand what is most relevant to the discussion of Islam that is going on in politics, social circles, and places of worship and devotional practice across the world. Furthermore, they act as a catalyst for further conversations and questions to be answered — both here and in those confabs you and I might have sometime when I tell you that yes, indeed, I study global Islam.
“Oh, that’s interesting” you say? Let’s talk…
Top Three Takeaways:
1) Islam is a big, diverse, unique, and complex global religion
You can say that again. Multiple students reflected on how their image of Islam coming into the class was overly simplistic. However, as they left the class students mused that they learned “about the diversity of the umma — the global Muslim community” and just how “deep, beautiful, and informative Islam is.” That student further said, “there are just too many specifics to list, this class has really opened my eyes.” Finally, striking the same chord, another student shared, “the complexity and breadth of Islam is something I had not recognized before.”
As Shahab Ahmed intimated in What is Islam? the main challenge in interpreting Islam is coming to terms with the considerable diversity of beliefs, practices, and postures of global Islam while simultaneously appreciating that there are shared principles which act as a cri de coeur for Muslims across the world.
The uncomfortable truth is that essentialized conceptualizations that say "Islam = violence" or "Islam = peace" are insensitive to the alterations and negotiations that characterizes lived Islam in interaction with myriad Muslim constituencies and non-Muslim actors throughout the world.
An introductory class presents students with this complexity and invites them to capture not necessarily what Islam is or is not, but the many different ways that Muslims live, move, and believe in this world while learning to critically think about what this complexity means in the world we live in.
2) The basics are important
Even so, students also reflected that there is a unity that runs through the story of Islam since its inception in the 7th-century. Students appreciated learning more about Muhammad — the first Muslim and the living Qur’an, its history, the basics of the Qur’an and the Sunna — the traditions of the prophet, and foundations of Muslim theology, philosophy, and practice.
As students could readily appreciate this course could only whet their appetites to learn more. As one student shared, “I learned so much only to realize I still know so little. This can’t be the end of my exploration.” Amen.
3) Islam is not necessarily what you see/hear in the news or on social media
Overwhelmingly, students came away surprised about how the image of Islam presented in the public and in popular discourse is a distorted and inaccurate one. One student said, “I would invite people to learn more about Islam even if they think they know all about it from the news. The truth is — they don’t.” Some students made it personal and shared, “I didn’t know anything about this religion before I started” but “if you’re non-Muslim take this class to undue the popular ideas that are out there and wrong,” and “if you’re Muslim take it see how non-Muslims view your religion.” One student was unequivocal about this point and said, “don’t believe the media. The representations of Islam on social media are not accurate. Do your own research, take a class like this, and learn about Islam for yourself.”
As a member of “the media” and an active agent on sites such as Facebook and Twitter I take comments like these personally. While I am invariably impressed with the quality, and creative, content that religion newswriters are able to produce on complex topics, there are occasionally weak stories, missed opportunities or the need for more nuance or critical insight — especially when it comes to Islam and specifically when it comes to broadcast news.
My students tend to agree. I think we should listen. They spend a lot of time on those new-fangled-smart-phone-thingies and the way Islam is constructed, represented, and controlled via news and social media has significant implications for them Classes can help, but they cannot undo all the injurious images of Islam shared across media platforms.
Top Three Questions Lingering:
With everything students learned, questions still lingered. The top three were: 1) Where, and how, does ISIS/ISIL/Daesh fit in? 2) Is global Islam still growing? If so, is it trending toward “fundamentalism” or “progressivism?” 3) What can we do to end Islamophobia?
Behind each of these questions are real concerns. While students in this class felt they understood more about the religion as a whole they were still uncomfortable with how that matches up with the actions of Muslims who are part of ISIS, whether or not this is the future of the faith, and how others are going to treat Muslims based on popular misperceptions and media-fed monstrosities.
As I told them at the end of the class, they are now “scholars of Islam.” Although there is much more to learn and questions needing continual conversation (hey, you can’t cover everything in one semester and you need to get a basic hold of the foundations before you can tackle more complex issues), these students now know more than at least 70% of the population…if not much more.
Thus, the conversation must continue. We need to maintain the relevant discussion between people of multiple perspectives, faiths, and practices — Muslim and non-Muslim, in our local communities and across the globe.
I was personally awe-struck by the sheer caliber of the students who took this class this semester. Their passion for the topic, the candor of their questions, and the effort they put into learning the material and discussing difficult topics was humbling. I can only hope that they are a vanguard for these exchanges. I also sincerely hope their learning does not stop there and they become ambassadors for peacemaking and religious literacy in a world all to often torn apart by identity politics (“us” vs. “them” mentalities) and flat-out ignorance.
Now, to grade their finals…