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Advice for Taking a Course on Islam in the West?

Advice for Taking a Course on Islam in the West?


Salaam alaikum. Do you have any advice for a university student in the West that is planning on taking an Islamic course? Perhaps one that is being taught by a non-muslim? Any special preparations I should have?

Wa alykum as-salaam,

To be honest, it really matters what course you are taking and what professor is teaching.

I have read and heard many Muslim public figures who have criticized non-Muslim professors who teach Islamic subjects and issues, and to that I have a few comments:

First, the major reason why non-Muslims are teaching Islamic courses is because Muslims, especially in America, have not encouraged their children to study Islam outside of weekend courses or informal learning at the Mosque, and have told their children that they can only be doctors and engineers. Please do not feel bad if that is your area of study, be sure to do your best, I started as an engineer (typical, right?).

However, we have no place to complain when we do not allow our children to get PhDs in Islamic Studies, and the few who do, they are not teaching at universities, instead, they are teaching only at those weekend courses, so what does that say about us?

How can we complain about non-Muslims not knowing about us, when we are not the ones who are making the effort to speak for ourselves, which allows those who hate Islam and Muslims to have a bigger platform to speak?

Second, there has been this idea that has spread throughout Muslims thought, and this is a distinctly Western Muslim conception, that if someone learns about Islam in a “secular” institution that their knowledge will be “different” to the knowledge from a “religious” institution of Islam.

Er. What?

Sure, if you wanted to learn about Islam from Bernard Lewis, you’d have a problem. However, my experience with non-Muslim professors of Islam, especially those who would be involved in PhD programs, they are inclined towards being pretty sympathetic to Islam, which is unsurprising, because they’ve dedicated their life’s work to Islam, even if they aren’t Muslim, this is impressive. In fact, it is even more impressive.

Furthermore, when we talk about what are Islamic “religious institutions” we are generally speaking about institutions which trained people (primarily) in what is a “secular” function: someone who graduated from Al-Azhar back in the day, did not spend his life telling Muslims that they should be wary about gelatin in skittles, he was a lawyer or a judge, and was working on court cases about murder, theft, divorce, and economic issues. So the “secular” and “religious” binary is not just removed from traditions of Muslim thought, but within the institutional structures themselves.

However, what is even more worrying is that we are now using the language of the Western tradition. Now, I find that funny because the people who make this “secular/religious” binary are the same people who say that Muslims must be different in every way to non-Muslims, but by making this “secular/religious” binary they are being more Western than anyone, because they are inculcating the base assumptions of non-Muslim thinking.

Look, as Muslims we do not create a difference between what is “secular” and what is “religious,” that is a distinction that was made in the West as a result of the particular historical experience in Europe. The Muslim experience is one that distinctly dismisses that one can separate not just the knowledge of what is deemed “secular” or “religious,” rather Islamic thinking underlines that they are one-in-the-same.

The fact that The Final Revelation, given to The Prophet, for the world, is not a purely theological text, should be the ultimate proof of this: we are to learn about our world, not simply because it benefits us, but because it is the way we may ascertain the signs of God. That is not my opinion, that is what is in The Qur’an.

So, I would highly suggest we stop creating this binary of “secular” and “religious,” and we should be sure to keep it away from our religion, because that conception is truly not Islamic, and if we want to “be different” to other religions, this is a central assumption that we must be aware of.

Third, and this is what is the most disheartening, for me at least, is that many times non-Muslims know more than Muslims do about Islam. Without a doubt, there are those from Al-Azhar, Al-Karaouine, Az-Zaytouna, etc who have tremendous knowledge, but many times they either do not have their works translated, or they do not have their work accessible to the Muslim who does not have research grant. That is why Sheikh Sharaawy was so special, but that’s another issue.

When you look at someone like Noah Feldman, whose work “The Fall and Rise of The Islamic State,” which is an incredible work, or the impact that Karen Armstrong has had upon public perception of Islam and The Prophet, or if you look at the effort of John Esposito, John Voll, and Johnathan Brown (all from Georgetown University) and the fact is that these people are the ones who preserving Islam’s history and traditions. Granted, Dr. Brown is Muslim, and there are increasingly more Muslim perspectives, the reality is that the number is still very small.

What is more sad is that it seems that in terms of understanding how Islam worked, historically, non-Muslim scholarship in the West surpasses Muslim scholarship. By “how Islam worked,” I mean how it worked in the time after The Prophet and the immediate period after his passing, which is the time period we obsess over, when truly, our practices, perceptions, and actions are many times influenced in greater levels by our cultures, socio-political histories, economic structures, and various other factors which Muslims seldom if ever discuss at the Mosque, let alone at weekend courses which are usually dedicated to “how to get married the Halal way, lawlz.”

It is sad, but it seems increasingly true, that the only access Muslims have to this information is by being a doctoral student; we are cut-off from true Muslims sources and the tremendous archives of our history because the institutions that have this information (Al-Azhar, Al-Karaouine, etc) have been marginalized by the political forces in their country, for various reasons (that’s a PhD dissertation in itself) and that the only people who have the tenacity to go after that information, it seems, are non-Muslims. It’s easy to research about Ali or Uthman, much harder to research about the impact of ethnic Albanians upon the political structures and Islamic thought in Egypt.

I realize that this was a tangent, but, I felt that this issue was important to understanding my perspective, and I also used your question to answer other questions which I have been asked which are related to your question.

From this point, I think the best thing you should do, and you really should do this with any course you take on any subject, look at the education and experience of the instructor and compare that to the course they are teaching. The more advanced the course, the higher the bar you should have for this professor.

If the class is about the impact of Al-Ghazali upon Muslim thinking, for example, you’d hope the professor can read/write Arabic, and in fact, if this course is something other than “Islam 101: Islam Isn’t Evil, Let’s Talk about how Salam means ‘Peace’” class, you really should be expecting a professor who has proficiency in Arabic, or, if their research was on certain periods, Persian or even Ottoman Turkish.

If you find yourself in a course, and the professor is saying things that you don’t agree with, that’s fine. I did that with the vast majority of my professors, and I wrote papers that generally just tore apart whatever we were reading. Even professors who find me particularly annoying (which were many) did not care, they wanted to see my proof, and that is what is most important.

What is important here is that, just because you may be taught something that you disagree with, doesn’t mean you cannot learn from it. Use this opportunity to learn the arguments that are used against your position, know them, and know them well; proceed to poke holes in them, find ways to undermine them. This should not just be a way to prove your point by disproving the other side (which is highly effective, especially if you want to be a lawyer) but you should also use this as an opportunity to learn about what you believe, to discover where you may be mistaken, and to solidify your core values.

So, look through the syllabus, see what you are going to read, and see what the reputation of the authors are and the general idea of the reading material, which will give you a much better idea of what you are getting yourself into. Also realize that many times professors will assign books that they do not like, and they will give it to their students so that they can not only listen to students bashing their rivals (this is how professors trash talk) but also so that the students can see why certain perspectives are flawed.

However, if your professor is teaching that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the authority on Islam, you clearly are going to have problems.

Just because someone is non-Muslim does not mean they are going to be antagonistic to Islam, indeed, the majority of professors who dedicate their lives to studying Islam, tend to be pretty sympathetic to Islam. Again, the best advice I can give you is to realize that every experience is a chance to learn, it is up to you whether you want to take that chance or not.

Insha Allah, I pray we can all take that chance.

I hope that answers your question, and if you, or anyone else, has a question on this, or any other subject, please do not hesitate to ask; also, if you want to ask my opinion on specific books or authors and/or if you want sources to refute or support certain positions, please do not hesitate to ask, I will respond as soon as I can, insha Allah.

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