Religion in the Academy and in the Public

As naive as it may sound, I thought that I could learn more about Islamic Studies and history at university than at “Saturday” school on the weekends while at the mosque. The mosque lessons about Islam were often watered down and unorganized. My parents eventually pulled my siblings and I out of the Saturday school. My late father would gather all four of us kids up on a Saturday, sit at the dining room table, and teach us more about Islam. We prayed as a family, fasted together, and celebrated holidays together. But, my parents also wanted us to actually know why we were Muslims and engaged in such praxes, hence the Saturday lessons.

I learned Arabic at the University of Florida and majored in it. It was the University of Florida that helped me learn what the Qur’an actually meant since I accumulated a great vocabulary. My Islamic Studies professors at my undergraduate university received PhDs from prestigious universities in Arabic and Islamic Studies. Most of them were practicing Muslims, too. I took a class on The Qur’an as Literature, African American Islamic History, Animals in Arabic Literature, and Islam in Europe. I was introduced to the word “hermeneutics” as a freshman in my Qur’an as Literature course. It was a sophisticated and critical understanding of religion and a new world that opened up to me.

Academicians often theorize and it may be easier for them to say that interpretation is essential to textual studies of religions. From my academic study of religion at the undergraduate and now graduate level, I was taught that there is no one Islam nor Christianity nor Judaism, but islams and christianties and judaisms. It is a plurality of ideas and interpretations that are included and welcomed. Diversity of thought is (mostly) appreciated. Citing multiple exegetes in the Qur’an, for example, is the norm, if one is writing about Qur’anic exegesis. Writing ample footnotes to cite sources and offer deeper reflection is appreciated in academic papers. In other words, the academic study of religion seems to favor plurality and multiple interpretations. It encourages critical thinking and constant questioning of sources. In one class I’m taking now in graduate school, the class operates on the assumption that traditional sources of Islam cannot be trusted, and so the historian/religious scholar must look to non-Islamic sources like Christian and Jewish sources that talk about Islam, or coins and archeology. It makes more than 1,400 years of a tradition, Islam in this case, easily dismissable. As a believing Muslim, this dismissal bothers me. Western scholarship, Orientalism, is more laudable than what the Qur’anic exegete compiler al-Tabari wrote hundreds of years ago, even though he was closer to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. At the same time, this class has made me a more critical thinker about sources and has asked me to expand source material. One can engage with coins (numismatics), archeology, and maps, for example, in addition to “text.”

The public understanding of religion, however, seems to see religion much more homogeneously. Public understanding often relies on movies, media, pop culture, and literature. In my Introduction to the New Testament class last year, my professor joked with us about CNN’s quiz on “How much do you know about Jesus?” and even that answers that the quiz considered correct could actually be wrong or more nuanced. Unless you are taking religious studies classes or actively want to learn more about others, your Jewish next door neighbor’s Menorah or seeing the Dalai Lama on YouTube may be a very small way to learn something about another tradition. And that is only one level of someone’s tradition. And yet that is all that most are exposed to.

At a time when Islamophobia is the norm and accepted, the media and culture can hurt the public’s understanding of a faith. I feel like everything that the media reports on Islam has to constantly be countered with fact-checking and correcting. It is dangerous because it scares people into hating another group and allows hate and bigotry to foment. It was Malcolm X who said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Right now, I have the power of my pen and the ability to keep seeking knowledge from my university. I am grateful for an analytical mind, but it’s a constant challenge to be an objective academician too when your faith is portrayed as public enemy number one.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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2 thoughts on “Religion in the Academy and in the Public

  1. Nora, thank you for your very thoughtful piece. I experienced something similar when doing academic study of the Bible. It severely challenged my faith, but at the same time renewed the possibilities of re-discovering faith in a nuanced, holistic way that embodied my soul and my mind. I’d love to explore further the possibilities of using academic scholarship of our holy texts to foster faith and respect of each other’s faith traditions. I have a piece in mind on the “Sturdy Faith of Doubt” that I’d be interested in discussing with you.

  2. Thank you for this post Nora. As a Christian who first learned about the Christian faith through church (including Sunday School) and who has spent the past 5+ years studying Christianity in academic contexts, much of what you say resonates with me. I’ve also been challenged to think about the historical, biblical sources of my faith tradition and to see the reality that there are many Christianities and not just one monolithic Christianity. Often, I find myself wrestling with the gap that sometimes exists between the academic study of religion and how it is practiced on the ground. I sometimes wonder: if more “regular” Christians and churches were able to see (or at least, get more glimpses of) the complexity of biblical exegesis and our faith tradition, could it produce more humility not only in regards to how we view ourselves but how we view Muslims and those of other/no faiths?

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