Teaching for Tolerance

I have been an educator for quite some time. My work usually focuses on youth education, specifically with high school aged students. Through the work that I do, I’ve had the great fortune to travel and teach in various contexts including Montreal (in French), Vancouver (in English), Kinshasa, and with an upcoming trip to Madagascar next month. In my capacity as an educator I’ve also carried out research on the concept of student voice, democratic education, and pluralism in education.

The students I teach are all young Ismaili Muslims. The Ismailis are a small sub-sect of Shia Muslims, numbering between 15-20 million total, that live throughout the world with concentrations residing in North American and European metropolitan cities as well as in the developing world in certain countries in Africa and Asia. What makes Shias unique is the categorical belief that after the death of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Talib, was chosen as his successor and functioned as the first Imam or spiritual guide. What further distinguishes Ismailis from their Shia brethren is the belief that since the Prophet’s death, there has been an uninterrupted chain of Imams starting from the time of Ali to the present day. The Ismailis are currently led by the 49th hereditary decedent of the Prophet, His Highness the Aga Khan.

In my teaching and research, the ethics and morals that I grew up with, ethics and morals that were wholly informed by my faith, guided not only the pursuit and deepening of my own knowledge but reinforced the belief that we also have a responsibility to share knowledge in a manner that shows respect to those we are reaching out to and the communities we find ourselves in. One of the most influential values I learned from my faith as a result of the guidance we received from the Imam is the value of pluralism and a cosmopolitan ethic.

Pluralism can mean many things to many people. My understanding of pluralism heavily borrows from the work of Diana L. Eck whose Pluralism Project at Harvard University elucidates cogently what pluralism is/can be. Prof. Eck defines pluralism in 4 ways (abridged here for brevity):

  1. pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity;
  2. pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference;
  3. pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments;
  4. pluralism is based on dialogue.

From The Pluralism Project – What is Pluralism? 

As a visible minority living in one of the most diverse countries in the world, the power of pluralism to bridge divides is a strong one. As Canadian legal policy, multiculturalism protects the ability of individuals residing in Canada to practice their cultural and religious heritage. This policy, brought into law in 1988, is predicated on two fundamental beliefs, that:

  1. All citizens are equal and have the freedom to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.
  2. Multiculturalism promotes the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in all aspects of Canadian society.

Ultimately though, while such policies create the necessary legal framework for a diverse society to thrive, it is necessary to create the social environment where a) engagement, b) understanding, c) encounter, and d) dialogue are possible. If societies do not create the necessary conditions for these things to happen, then no matter how strongly worded the law, the ability to preserve, enhance, and share our cultural heritage cannot occur. For democratic societies to thrive, there has to be the ability to exchange and communicate what we value with one another and to find places of mutual understanding across cultural, religious, and linguistic fault-lines.

I’m quite proud of the profession I’ve chosen. The ability to create the type of space mentioned above, one in which engagement, understanding, encounter, and dialogue can take place, is well within the purview of a teacher’s job. As an educator, I have the possibility of creating a safe space not only for self-disclosure between students, but I can also instill within that space the positive character development in students to face diversity not with aversion or distrust but with curiosity and openness. Our classrooms present the opportunity to not only open our students’ minds to new information or possibilities, but to also open their hearts to the diversity of people who inhabit shared social and communal spaces. After all, our classrooms are microcosms of the larger societies and neighbourhoods we live in and reflect the diversity of the people who make our communities what they are.

In the simplest of terms, and perhaps in a somewhat circuitous fashion, what I propose is that our schools and our curriculums emphasize the religious landscape and diaspora of our societies. While teaching religion from a doctrinal standpoint is highly problematic in secular systems (and this is not a position that I advocate for our schools), teaching about religion, about beliefs and practices, customs and traditions, both historically and in the contemporary world, can help us achieve the pluralistic society described by Prof. Eck and advocated for by our own policies. This is not only a laudable goal, but an achievable one as well.


The image is of a bridge stretching over the Bosphorus river in Istanbul, Turkey. The bridge spans the gap between Turkey on the European side with Turkey on the Asian side. It serves not only as a literal connection between two worlds but an apt figurative one as well, bridging two seemingly despondent yet entirely connected worlds.

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5 thoughts on “Teaching for Tolerance

  1. Alim, I would love to hear more about how educators can be attentive to the particular needs of Ismaili Muslims. I work for NYU so I am always looking for more resources.

    1. Hi Ariel, Thanks for reading and responding. I’m curious what you mean by “particular needs” of Ismaili students. Are we referring to learning needs, spiritual needs, intellectual needs, etc? I would say that the needs of Ismaili students are very similar to the needs or all students; the need to belong, the need to feel safe, the need to feel heard, etc. When it comes to this particular topic (i.e. pluralism), again, I think the need of having students more aware of the pluralism that is around us is applicable to all students, whatever their religious background and regardless of the types of schools they attend.

      My next post will likely focus on providing practical pedagogies that can have the benefit of starting a conversation around pluralism through poetics and music. Stay tuned in the next few weeks for this post.

      1. When I say particular needs, I mean needs of these students that are not being addressed by current Muslim student structures such as an MSA or an IC. Any thoughts on that?

        1. Thanks Ariel for honing in a little more on your question. Again, I think some of the answers I provided earlier also apply here, especially if what you’re asking is how can Ismaili Muslims find their place in MSAs or other associations (Muslim, multi-faith, etc). When you consider that Ismailis are a minority within a minority in the Muslim world and that they are often looked at as somewhat “suspect” by other Muslims, the need to belong, feel safe, and heard are all the more important. So advancing pluralism, addressing the diversity that exists within Islam, and providing Muslims (and non-Muslims) with the tools to think critically about collective similarities and individual uniqueness are ways that we can address not only the particular needs of Ismailis but the needs of many sub-groups that fall outside the “mainstream” when we use the term Islam or Muslim to refer to a community of over 1 billion adherents.

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