How to Teach About Islam and Not Focus on Religion

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 25, 2009 2 min read
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Teachers College released today a free guide for teachers “designed to enhance understanding of Islam and promote tolerance of Muslim students,” according to the press release for the guide (download it here). After all, about one in 10 of New York City’s students are Muslim, estimates Louis Cristillo, a research assistant and lecturer at Teachers College who developed the guide.

But the publication gives only tangential treatment to religion in favor of focusing on the culture and identity of Muslims. Lessons focus, for instance, on the history of Muslims’ presence in the United States, what contributions they have made to American society, and their diversity.

The guide doesn’t discuss, for example, the five pillars of Islam, the significance of Ramadan, or the differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

One of the most direct references to religion that I could find is a link to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life about the beliefs and practices of Muslims (search by “tradition”). But that survey tells you about as much about Islam as a religion as a survey of the beliefs and practices of Roman Catholics (search the same site as above by “tradition”) in the United States tells you about Catholicism. You won’t learn about what the seven sacraments are in Catholicism, for example, by reading the survey.

The guide is meant to be a companion to a publication by Teachers College released last year, “This is Where I Need to Be,” which contains oral histories of Muslim students in New York City’s schools. I wrote a post about that publication over at Learning the Language, and that became one of the top-10-most-visited posts on that blog. So the topic must be of interest among educators.

The guide is thoughtful in teaching about tolerance for Muslims or anyone. It features some excellent resources, such as the 2007 documentary “Prince Among Slaves.” That film tells the story of Abdul Rahman, an African prince and Muslim who was sold into slavery in 1788. I saw this film by chance one night on PBS, and it opened my mind to the fact that many slaves brought to the United States were Muslim. It was amazing to learn the story about a slave who knew how to read Arabic.

If I were a teacher, I’d turn to the guide for some interesting activities and unusual resources that aren’t likely to be in textbooks. But if I wanted to actually teach students about the religion of Islam, I’d turn to other sources.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.