On the last day of classes, I asked my students: If you were to teach this course, how would you do it differently? Our discussion took us to the usual themes: topics, structure, readings, guest speakers, activities. But as we wrapped that discussion up, we wandered into the other questions: What kinds of Islamic education are there, and what kind do you really want?
There is the other kind of religious education – I’ve experienced it, and benefited from it – where you memorize Quranic surahs, master the correct recitation of the Qur’an, master the corpus of Hadith and jurisprudence, engage in devotions and prayer together. This is beautiful, and I hope everyone has that valuable experience.
But what about the academic study of Islam? We asked the tough questions. We agonized over what happens, and what can happen, when we engage in the academic study of Islam.
Students said they learned about diversity of perspective within Islam at American Islamic College. They heard a few of my graduate students express discomfort with the critical study of Islam and gender (no surprise there!). Other graduate students saw this study of gender as a lifeline for their faith. Students read books and heard opinions that seemed critical of key figures in the Islamic tradition. They saw, in other words, that this Islamic education wasn’t merely religious socialization or religious transmission.
Did that bother them? I asked. Was it a problem when the notions and knowledge they were raised with were interrogated, complicated, framed as one among many?
It was at times difficult, some of them admitted. But overall, they embraced the complexity. They accepted the possibility that instructors of certain courses might wish to personally approve the students who enrolled, ensuring they had the stomach for the interrogation involved.
At American Islamic College, I feel we have the best of both worlds. We interrogate and complicate, yes, but we explore and investigate as believers, ranging across the potential expanse open to us as believers. We do not identify with the secular dogmatism of much higher education. But we consume and sample secular studies of Islam, and we complicate those as well. We do all of this in a faithful community of scholarship, and we connect with scholars in academia broadly, Muslim and non-Muslim. There’s nothing black-and-white about this.
Between the two modes of confessional and critical religious education, my students seek a middle ground. It’s still a tight-rope. We’re still figuring out our trajectory as we step carefully into the wilds. Scholarship of all kinds is an adventure, and what kind of scholarship would it be if it wasn’t exciting?