Nation & World

Rethinking Islam from Pakistan to Texas

4 min read

Scholars emphasize viewing Islam in historical, political context

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 Divinity School.

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 cultures.

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.”