Teaching Islam: Help!

Sorry- this will take a bit of explanation, but please know that I desperately want your feedback at the end, so bare with me!

Parents, I think this applies to hour we talk to our kids about Islam, too. Please pitch in to tell us how you talk to your kids about this sensitive subject.

In my class right now, we are studying Islam. It is part of the California Medieval World History curriculum for 7th grade. I was both nervous and excited to teach this unit this year. With Islamophobia at an all time high due to so much political debate about what to do about terrorists, I would need to embark on this subject matter with care. Although I could simply teach the history and founding of Islam during medieval times, which is arguably the intention of the state standards for this unit, I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the current plight of Muslims in our country.

Every year, I try to teach Islam in a way that undermines stereotypes and develops an understanding and empathy in my students towards Muslims. Every year I have the students read peaceful passages from the Qu’ran, learn some loving Hadith from Muhammad, and learn the true meaning of jihad- a struggle against the injustices in the world and, more importantly, the weaknesses in oneself. Yet somehow, every year, I think I accidently also reinscribe some stereotypes.

At the culmination of this project, students do professional presentations of what they have learned to a panel of peers, parents, and teachers. They dutifully tout the things I have taught them…”Islam is not a religion that, itself, subjugates women…” and I am proud. Then they continue, “however in most Muslim countries women don’t have the same rights as men. Did you know that in Saudi Arabia they don’t let women drive?” Sigh. Which part do you think they will remember next year and the year after? They are 12… They hate injustice. They will remember that Muslim countries sometimes don’t let women drive. And they are right, to some degree… There are many people, especially those in power, who interpret the Qu’ran to say that violence towards unbelievers is acceptable, that women and girls should be treated differently than men and boys in terms of rights, or education. I am blessed to have engaged students that are motivated to dig deep in their studies… But it is also sometimes a curse. They are able to find every media stereotype and every heinous crime committed by a Muslim with some clicks of a keyboard and somehow, although they believe me, my teaching does not have the power to supersede the mass media in their psyches.

So here we are in the last stretches of the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump periodically says he will not allow any Muslims into the country because they might be terrorists. I ask my students to write down everything they know about Islam on the first day of the unit. The lists say, “the country where the terrorists come from,” and, “it had something to do with ISIS.” And so I begin… Explaining to them that the media has controlled their thinking about Islam. “Where did you get theses ideas from?” “Are you going to let a few terrible news stories control what you think about all Muslims?” “Did you know 1.7 billion people are Muslim?” “Did you know it is a religion and many famous people you have even heard of are Muslim?” But I already know I won’t win this year, of all years… Unless I do something differently…

My thought is stories. Actually, I am always thinking about stories… and in this unit I tell the life of Muhammad in great detail, attempting to capture the students’ imagination about what an honest, kind, and good person he was. “Al Amin, they called him.’ I say. “The Trustworthy.” I talk about his wife, Khadijah, and how she was a wealthy, successful business woman, thinking this will undermine some stereotypes. These stories help me make my point… But clearly they aren’t enough. I need modern stories, I think. I need to help them connect with people in their world who can share with them modern interpretations of the Qu’ran and modern reflections on Muslim experiences in the US.

I would love thoughts and ideas about what stories these might be… If you have heard a story of a Muslim experiencing discrimination or doing something noteworthy that could capture the imagination of 100 12-year-olds, please kick it my way!

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