The Danger of Studying Islam

A few weeks ago, my daughter’s sixth-grade history class began a unit on world religions. They started with Judaism, moved on to Christianity, and then worked their way into the Eastern religions. My daughter was fascinated, but also distraught: she wanted to study all the world religions. Islam was missing from the syllabus.

So my daughter asked her teacher about it. Impressed by my daughter’s enthusiasm, the teacher agreed to spend a few class periods on Islam.

I anticipated opposition from some parents. I did not anticipate that one would send a death threat to the teacher. I did not expect police to get involved. At that point, I realized how dangerous studying Islam could be. I had taught the subject myself numerous times in one of my university’s lower-level humanities classes with no pushback. On two occasions, I even invited the director of the Florida chapter of CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) to serve as guest speaker. My students were curious and interested. The problem in my daughter’s sixth-grade history class was the irrational response of parents brainwashed by right-wing media.

The teacher needed support. I fully offered it. After all, it was my daughter who convinced her to include the study of Islam in the world religions unit.

I sent her a handwritten note, encouraging her to stay strong and assuring her she was doing the right thing. I also composed an email for school administrators. Here is part of what I wrote:

“My daughter Mira is in Mrs. ___’s history class. I write in strong support of Mrs. ___’s decision to cover Islam in class.

The reason for my support is simple. The class is doing a unit on world religions. Islam is a major world religion. Therefore the class should cover Islam. This makes obvious and clear pedagogical sense.”

I added that opposition to such incontrovertible logic stems from ignorance. We tend to fear—and then hate—what we don’t understand. I concluded, “Now more than ever, it is critical that Islam is included in a unit on world religions.”

Let me anticipate objections. Yes, I believe Islam is a religion of peace. My primary evidence? The fact that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are peaceful and peace-loving. To condemn a religion with 1.6 billion followers worldwide because of a few is intellectually sloppy and morally uncharitable.

Studying the five pillars of Islam and the way in which the vast majority of Muslims practice their faith makes those sorts of generalizations less tenable.

But education is an open-ended endeavor: you never can know where the study of a subject will lead you. I concede that some who study Islam may conclude that its history and doctrines leave too much room for violence. (And I mean really study Islam—reading the Quran, understanding the faith from inside, and not from right-wing websites.) At that point, the student will wrestle with the nuances that attend scholarly inquiry and the questions that often snowball during intellectual investigations For example, if the history and doctrines of Islam seem to leave too much room for violence, then how do I explain the peacefulness of the vast majority of Muslims? What is religious fundamentalism? What does textual literalism mean? How does culture shape theology?

Engaging these sorts of questions from different angles is an antidote to the ignorance, fear, and hatred that characterize too much internet and cable-news discourse on Islam. And what better place to offer this antidote than during a unit on world religions in a sixth-grade history class?