Deepening interfaith understanding

I had the opportunity to read some informal thoughts on Muslim schools and interfaith understanding by Ms Afeefa Syeed. She is a founding director of Al Fatih Academy, a community school based in northern Virginia, whose philosophy is integrated learning with an emphasis on civic education and participation. Through the school, she has helped develop the Peace Leaders Program to teach conflict resolution skills to elementary school students. She has also worked to initiate Kids Giving Salaam (Peace) to foster and inculcate the love of community service in children.

There appear to be some very real concerns about the place of studying other religions in faith-based schools; in this case Muslim schools. Perhaps these concerns may also apply to other faith-based schools.

For me, the reality is that my son, the Jibbers, is growing up in a family where not only is there diversity of cultures, but also diversity of faiths. If my husband, Josh, who is a convert to Islam, decided to isolate or just not teach the Jibbers about other religions, particularly Christianity, we in essence are denying him something of himself. My husband’s entire family is Catholic and while they may live in another state, we want our son growing up respecting them and their traditions.

From a sentimental perspective, the Jibbers is my mother-in-law’s only grandchild. It’s important for her to know that he will wish her a Merry Christmas, but it’s important for us to teach him that respect for his elders and extended family whether we share their beliefs or not.

The following are some very critical thoughts on interfaith curriculum in Muslim schools, by Afeefa Syeed.

Our children and our families are increasingly becoming more and more interfaith. Whether through conversion or marriage, or other circumstances, our children are living their personal lives interacting with other faiths. This alone should make the case for us to think of teaching and understanding other faiths as a priority. I am in no way advocating that we replace our curricula with only teaching about other faiths. Our children are not loosing their deen; insha Allah with the foundation we provide in our schools that nurture it, they are building on principles that will carry them in this complex, multi-dimensional, and sometimes confusing world.

1. Teaching other religions is the sunna: Prophet Muhammad (s) used the examples and stories of other religions to enhance the understanding of all aspects of our faith, besides setting up guidelines and best practices in inter-religious tolerance and acceptance. The Qur’an teaches us through these same stories, and asks us to not just get to know one another for the sake of neighborliness, but for growing as spiritual beings (deeper sense of l’ta’arafu).  Many of these examples are more about similarities than differences (ahl kitab, those who came before you, etc.)

2. We do not have to somehow drive forcefully the love of Allah and the deen into young children. They are born with this love, it is not teachable, it is lived. Deen and ibadah as well comes from practice and example, not textbooks and lectures. We can however, provide the atmosphere and resources (responsive teachers, inclusive curriculum) that helps nurture this innate tendency.

3. We should not fear that children will lose their Muslim identity if they learn about other religions. I’m not advocating that they have intense religious instruction and are asked to take allegiance with anything. This is about learning what others believe think, and practice. If there is anything good in that learning, it can only enhance their understanding of their own faith. An example from my life is knowing more khushoo in my salah after practicing meditation with my Buddhist friends when I was a teenager.

4. Let’s not underestimate our children. Just because they learn that Christians drink wine does not make them want to drink it also. And how in any possible way is it ok to tell them that their “Christian friends will not go to heaven”. They understand that differences are just those, but when we bring in judgmental language, then it alters their natural state of acceptance.

5. This trepidation at including inter-religious instruction because of what might happen is in some ways a sign of insecurity about our identity as Muslims. We do have Muslim schools to allow space for this identity to grow and be nourished. If we’re doing it right, then this added element of inter-religious learning will not effect negatively their Muslim identity. And if it comes in context of learning authentically from the practioners of that faith, they can better understand how they feel about what they do and believe.

6. As for phasing – I believe that this notion of learning other faiths/beliefs starts young, as part of the celebration of Allah’s creation. More specific, detailed information based learning can happen at an older age where there is room for discussion and comparison. One example was when our 5th graders went to a Catholic school and were part of a conversation about “sacred spaces”. Both groups talked about what this means to them physically and emotionally. At the end, smaller groups made up of both Muslims and Christians were given recyclable items to create a shared sacred space. The were creative and built beautiful structures respectful of each tradition’s preferences and some of them called them “murches” as in masjid and church together. They did not lose what they had from themselves, and gained the understanding that sacredness is universally felt.

7. We are always frustrated when others teach or talk about our faith in the public areas such as schools. But we don’t reciprocate the feeling when it comes to us learning about others. Our lives are so interconnected now, so inter-dependent in many ways with others who are not the same as us, that it just doesn’t make sense nor do I think it does justice to our children’s lives not to include this learning in our institutions and families.

I’d like to see our schools take the “interfaith dialogue” beyond it’s superficial level of talking about our own traditions, and instead learn about other faiths systematically and conscientiously. In addition to talking/learning, the best way to understand is, as with any other teaching, by doing. Service projects held together with other religious schools can be a way to do this, but must be done regularly, not one off for students to see its value and benefit.

The more I learn/experience in the area of spiritual connectedness, the more I realize that isolation or fear of learning/teaching is problematic, nonproductive, and not of our Islamic history or tradition.

Thank you Ms Afeefa Syeed for telling it like it needs to be. Authentic. Real. Genuine.

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~ by Omaira on December 24, 2012.

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