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Published in Print: April 28, 2004, as Reporter's Notebook

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Private Schools Take Crash Course In Teaching in Depth About Islam

The Rev. James R. Squire would like to see educators move beyond simply telling students about the five pillars of Islam when they teach their students about that religion.

The chaplain and chairman of the religion department of the Episcopal Academy in this Philadelphia suburb believes that many Americans have a narrow, stereotypical view of Islam because of their reliance on news reports that focus on the role of Muslims in such current events as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

James R. Squire

So to help educators teach more deeply about the religion, Mr. Squire and others organized a crash course on Islam held at the Episcopal Academy here April 16-17, which was free for attendees. Some 230 people—mostly religion, history, or social studies teachers from private schools—attended the sessions.

When its sponsorship of the seminar became public, Mr. Squire said, the Episcopal Academy was criticized as inappropriately "promoting Islam" by some community members. But, he said, it is fitting for Episcopalians to encourage "interfaith dialogue."

Many educators at the conference said they’d had little formal education about Islam and were hungry to learn more.

For instance, the Rev. John Harvard, an Episcopal priest and a religion teacher at the 480-student Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., said his knowledge of Islam very much needed to be updated. Most of what he knew about the religion before arriving at the conference came from Spanish classes in college in which he learned about the Moors’ governance of Spain, he said.

"I want to be more precise in what I say about Islam," Mr. Harvard said. "I know only the most rudimentary things about it. I don’t know much about Islam in the United States."

A recurring theme throughout was that Muslims are very diverse in their religious views and culture.

"Islam is not a monolith," said Roger Allen, a professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. "There are varieties of Muslims as well as Christians and Jews, and it’s our task to learn about that diversity."

Mr. Allen explained the history of the split in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites, which involved a controversy over who succeeded the Prophet Mohammed after his death in 632. Mr. Allen noted that the 7th-century split is still the basis for identification of major Muslim groups, and he outlined where those groups live now in the Middle East.

In the case of Iraq, Mr. Allen argued, the British made a mistake in drawing boundaries for that country in 1920 that forced three distinct groups of Muslims—Kurdish Sunnis, Sunnis living in and near Baghdad, and Shiites living in and around Basra—into one nation. Tensions between those groups today attest to how the boundaries haven’t worked, he said.

Presenters, who included two Muslim doctoral students at the University of Pennsylvania, also gave teachers ideas for resources about Islam. Mr. Allen, for example, recommended novels by the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, that have been translated from Arabic into English.

For insight into Muslim women’s issues and Islamic law, a couple of speakers recommended "Divorce Iranian Style," a documentary film by Ziba Mirhosseini and Kim Longinotto.

Some high school teachers at the conference said they were already using the book Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, by Michael Sells, a religion professor at Haverford College.

Michael Sells

The book has been controversial in some education circles.

Mr. Sells, who was a speaker at the conference here, said he was invited to explain the intent of his book on various radio and TV programs after it stirred debate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Three UNC freshmen and a Christian group filed a lawsuit charging religious discrimination after university officials required the book as summer reading for its incoming freshmen in 2002. The university won the suit, but in the end, the school permitted freshmen who found the assignment objectionable to write an essay instead explaining why they opted out, according to a UNC spokesman.

At the conference, Mr. Sells said his detractors claimed the book provided an "artificially saccharine-sweet view of Islam." Critics also accused UNC of "pandering to Islam and following a path of political correctness," he said.

Instead, said Mr. Sells, "my book was about what are the deeper values in the Quran that Muslims relate to and all people can relate to but people don’t seem to know outside of Islam."

He said the book includes translations, for example, of passages revealed to the Prophet Mohammed early in his leadership that appear toward the end of the Quran. In contrast to the texts that appear at the beginning of the Quran that give instructions for fighting wars, those passages are the texts first learned by children and speak of love and tenderness, he said.

Mr. Sells said he also wanted to convey to people who bought his book the importance that Muslims place on the oral recitation of the Quran, so he included with his book a compact disc with sample oral recitations.

During a question-and-answer period, Christian Bitteraut, a religion teacher at the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, Wash., told Mr. Sells he had used Approaching the Qur'an in his classes this school year. Mr. Bitteraut said his female students were particularly interested in the recitation of the Quran by a woman; he wanted to know more about the role of Muslim women in reciting from the holy text.

Mr. Sells said the practice varies across Muslim countries. In some Asian countries, such as Indonesia, he said, it’s not uncommon for women to recite the Quran; however, it’s not common in Persian Gulf-area countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where a cultural reticence exists toward women’s making their voices heard publicly.

Sensitivities among Muslims about women’s recitation of the Quran, Mr. Sells said, are similar to those among Christians about whether a woman should be a priest or minister.

"It’s that kind of subtlety that exists in the Islamic world," he said.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 23, Issue 33, Page 14

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