Teaching Islamic Law in a Red State

If you teach Islamic law, chances are that your students are more cosmopolitan than those at the University of Oklahoma, where for thirteen years I have been teaching courses on Islamic law, Islamic theology, the Qur’an, and broader topics in religious studies. My greatest struggle has been bridging the gap between the questions my training has taught me to ask and answer, and the utterly incommensurate questions that most of my students bring with them into the classroom.

Some bring comparative questions. That’s fair. Half of them come from some kind of Christian background, and their study can’t help but be comparative; none of us can or should try to interpret new data in terms of anything but our prior knowledge and experience. But how does one answer a question such as “Is the God of the Qur’an the same as the God of the Bible?” or “Is Islam compatible with Christianity?” Questions of that form simply aren’t susceptible of historical investigation.

Others bring evaluative questions, usually posed in a politicized binary form: “Is Islamic law tolerant and liberal, or is it violent and oppressive?” “Is it or is it not compatible with democracy?” Many of them are already pretty committed to their own answers, and take the class mainly to reinforce their preformed conclusions. Many come from homes, towns, and churches where Muslims and Sharia are viewed as an insidious threat, and come to college determined to find out that the opposite is true; others are just back from a tour of military service in the Middle East and are hoping to ground their negative impressions in more authoritative facts. The handful of Muslim students in each class often seem more intent on promoting their own conceptions of Islam than on learning anything new.

Above all, my students’ questions are essentialist and presentist. They want to study the Qur’an—which I had never thought to include in a syllabus on Islamic law—because that, they believe, will tell them what Islamic law really is, or at least what it should be. Few of them find classical fiqhas fascinating as I do—unless it confirms what they already knew all along about Islam, or disproves what modern apologists say about it. Many would rather discuss what Sharia means here and now—here in Oklahoma, where voters overwhelmingly approved anti–Sharia legislation just a few years ago.

Our readings often disappoint them. The experience of actually reading the Qur’an (I now assign sura 4), some hadith (on menstruation), and a fiqh manual often proves to be rather disorienting—at least for those who really pay attention, rather than just assimilating everything to their preformed conclusions. It is not until we get to Sharia in practice here and now (I caved and gave them a book on Islamic Divorce in North America), and hear Khaled Abou El Fadl struggling to make sense of tradition in the modern world (Speaking in God’s Name), that the law becomes for them a lived and open-ended human reality. Even then, some of them insist that “This is not Islam.”

My own goal is not for them to learn a detailed history. I can live without that. But I want them to think of religion historically, as a human construct that is continually being reimagined in multiple ways. Not so that they will become good historians, but so that they will take other human beings seriously, as epistemic and moral agents on a level with themselves, to whom they owe a debt of genuine attention and sacrificial listening.

If my Southern, Midwestern, Southwestern American students desperately need to learn to listen to others—well enough to let those others disrupt the preconceived ideas that my students have such a stake in preserving—then I need to listen to my students well enough to let them disrupt my ideas about teaching, history, and what counts as a good question.

As I have slowly let go of what I feel most qualified to teach, and have allowed myself to entertain my students’ questions, I have found that they are not shallow. Indeed, their questions are usually bigger and more important than mine, and though I may not have scholarly answers for them, the guiding moral impulse of my scholarship—my commitment to listening to other human beings for their own sake rather than for mine—can support and discipline my students’ efforts to understand themselves and their place in the world—which is really what their questions are about. The question “Is Islamic law compatible with democracy or not?” is really a question about how I should relate to and imagine my Muslim neighbor. That matters; and good scholarship—good listening—is part of the answer.

I do hope that my classes eventually help my students to take their focus off their own existential concerns and start giving their attention to the concerns of others. But that starts with me paying attention to them.

Photo by Rythum Vinoben. Used by permission.


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