Teaching Other Faiths About Islam

Over the course of the last century, we have witnessed a revival of religion and religious traditions, contrary to speculations about the gradual decline of religion in society. While in the fifties, the religious landscape of America was reflected in Will Herberg’s book, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew, in the sixties, theologians were talking about the impact of secularization on religion and theology. The dominant theories expected religion to decline, especially in the public realm, and thought that it should be marginalized, limited to private life, and the development of religion would be succeeded by science. Today, in American academia and the public sphere, we are witnessing the study of world religions, interreligious dialogues, comparative religion studies become part of the educational curriculum.

Religious education remains a core component of society’s advancement toward cultural competency when education requires us to look beyond our own faith traditions and into the interfaith domain. Although many faiths have a fundamental aspect of proselytizing to spread their truth to others, religious education in interfaith settings is often regarded as the indispensable work of a pluralistic society. There are extensive academic traditions of biblical literacy to narrate the stories and passages of the Bible, just as there are scholarly endeavors to learn the Hebrew Scriptures and recognize the early conceptualizations of faith and justice as recognized by Jews. These are earnest attempts to know others by knowing their faith traditions. It is through this legacy that I draw on my own motivations to teach the Quran to interfaith audiences of Christians, Jews, and others in the Howard University School of Divinity. In today’s context of religious illiteracy compounded with anti-Muslim sentiment, my work reflects a larger implication toward religious equity and justice in a pluralistic society.

Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD) is one of the oldest fully accredited (1940) theological schools affiliated with the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. As one of the 13 schools and colleges within Howard, it is the only African American theological school connected to a comprehensive category one research institution. Although Howard University is widely reflective of the growing significance of Islam in the United States and within its student, staff, and faculty composition, it was not until 2011, when the Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD) established a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Islamic studies and hired, for the first time in its history, a Muslim professor to lead the new initiative. It became the first of its kind among the Historically Black Theological Institutions (HBTI).

As the first Muslim scholar and the founding director of the Islamic Studies at Howard University, I understand the challenges are great and my responsibility is vast because my role is critical to the growth and trajectory of the entire program. Since I joined the HUSD community in 2011, my goal has been to implement the vision of the school to the best of my ability. This has placed students and faculty at the forefront of current events and intriguing conversations within the Christian, Muslim, and other faith communities. The program’s extensive course work and authentic, hands-on methodologies continue to foster critical thinking. The HUSD faculty has recently voted to include Islamic Studies courses among those required for the M.Div. and M.A. degree programs.

As I believe that humanity is one family, it is my goal to build bridges between the different religious, social, and cultural perspectives through genuine interaction and ta‘”aruf (the Quranic concept of getting to know each other). This has manifested itself in my teaching, scholarship, and helping my students prepare for lives of faithful witness and public service. The purpose of this paper is to discuss how I teach Islam in a rich pluralistic environment, what I teach and how I evaluate my teaching.

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