Islam in the Christian College?

In a post 9/11 world, engaging Islam in the college classroom is more important than ever.  Unfortunately, too many evangelical schools are ill-equipped to meet the challenge.  For that reason, I am working on a grant application presently titled “Islam in the Western Classroom:  Challenges and Opportunities of Teaching about Islam in a post-9/11 World.”  If successful, the grant would bring a conference to Gordon College, where I teach, at some point in the academic year 2014-15 or 2015-16.  Below is the shape of my thinking so far.  I’d welcome comments and questions from readers.


The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the complexities of the “Arab Spring,” and ongoing unrest in countries such as Syria and Egypt have brought the informed American citizen into almost daily media contact with events in countries with a predominantly Muslim citizenry.  Since most of the coverage focuses on politics, foreign policy, and the immediate roots of violence, it is easy to ignore the deeper cultural and religious currents in the countries being covered.  What is more, because of longstanding prejudice against and misinformation about Islam in the United States and other Western countries, it is all the more easy today for even the reflective student to associate Islam with violence and its extremist manifestations—which is, of course, not to say that those extremist manifestations are any less troubling!  How then does one develop more nuanced, accurate knowledge?


I think evangelical/Christian colleges possess both assets and liabilities to answer this question.  As church-related schools, they instinctively take religion seriously as a category of analysis in human affairs.  They are not beholden to reductionist notions of “secularization” as the inevitable march of modern times nor are they given to explain religious behavior exclusively as manifestations of “deeper” socio-economic or political motivations.  However, since many Christian colleges are more homogenous in their student and faculty make-up than larger public universities, they often have few or no practicing Muslims on their campuses.  What is more, some schools are rooted in traditions whose past adherents (and, alas, some present ones) were more eager to refute or caricature before bothering to understand the religious Other—as fellow blogger Thomas Kidd has made clear in his excellent American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism, a book, I am proud to say, that began in part as a lecture at Gordon College.

For all these reasons and more, the conference envisioned would help us at Gordon, and at similar colleges, deliberate well and discern prudently how best to integrate accurate and fair knowledge of Islam, as both a religion and cultural force, into the general curriculum of a four-year liberal arts college.

To be sure, many questions are worth pursuing at such a conference.  But here are some that illustrate the types of inquiry and discussion that I hope might be fostered:


  • How should one teach about Islam in relationship to the other Abrahamic faiths?
  • What sort of “lenses”—historical, cultural, theological—do we bring to the category of “Islam”?
  • Given the violence across the Muslim world today, how does one responsibly teach about the Qu’ranic notion of jihad?  How does jihad compare/contrast with notions of “holy war” or “just war” in other traditions?
  • What are the implications of the Western/liberal notions of politics and religion (and their relationship) for teaching about the rise of Islamic states?
  • How can one help students distinguish between the various traditions of Islam?
  • How does one teach about the relationship between Muslim faith and the regional and geographic contexts shaping that faith?  How do American Muslims distinguish themselves from Muslims in Iran, British Muslims from those in Indonesia?  How should we teach students about these distinctions?
  • How does one teach about the various responses of Muslim thinkers and leaders to modernity/secularization/Western colonialism?
  • How do questions of gender, race, and class intersect with the study of Islam?
  • How do we teach about Islam in courses not specifically designed to engage with its entirety (history surveys or world religion courses, etc.)?
  • How do we teach students to responsibly and critically engage media presentations of Islam, and to participate in conversations about the Islamic faith in the public square?
  • What role should the categories of “Orientalism” and “Cosmopolitanism” have in instruction about Islam?


I would be curious to hear of other questions and lines of inquiry worth pursuing at such a conference . . .

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  • theriddles

    Huntington was famous for saying that “Islam has bloody borders” and pointing out the degree to which Islam and armed conflict are associated. A truly robust or ‘nuanced’ portrait of Islam cannot ignore this, as those inside the academy are apt to do. If you are suggesting that Islam is given an overly militant portrayal inside the Christian college, I might suggest you have a straw man. In almost no setting that I am aware, is the side of Islam argued by someone like Efraim Karsh given any significant hearing. The Christian portrait is much more affected by missiological concerns, which tend toward the “Abrahamic Faiths” thesis.

  • TexasRangersFan

    This is hinted at or even contained above but I believe there must be a presentation of contemporary political use of Islam as a means of altering the world. This is, in my opinion, at the heart of many of the militant/terrorist expressions today.

    Mark Sadler

  • jenny

    I am just wondering if there are Islamic Colleges teaching Christianity……here or in Islamic countries……And what would they teach about Christianity ?

  • Charlieford

    “the degree to which Islam and armed conflict are associated.” No doubt that needs attention. Will there also be a comparison between Islam and armed conflict on the one hand, and Christianity and armed conflict on the other? Because, when you actually add up the death toll on each side, it’s kind of surprising which religion appears to have spawned the most violence.

  • Jeff

    Emmanuel College is one of several seminaries and theological post grad institutions at the University of Toronto. They have a certificate in Islamic studies, though they are a Christian College (albeit a very liberal one).

  • Scott Waalkes

    Tal — I think this is a wonderful idea to have such a conference, and I know a few people who would be excited to present at or attend it. The premise makes sense, but I wonder about the assumption that Christian colleges need to “integrate” Islam into the curriculum. For some schools, it is already integrated. They might be able to provide models of what an “integrated Islam” would look like in a Christian college curriculum. For example, my colleague Greg Miller teaches both world religions and “Islam and the West.” I also taught a seminar for several years on liberalism (in the classical sense), Islamist perspectives on the state, and Christian views of war.

    Your lines of inquiry are very interesting and will provoke plenty of discussion in a Christian academic context. Consistent with your premise, they are generally directed toward Islam as an object of knowledge to be approached through rational scrutiny. Other than the first and second questions, they don’t involve as much reflection on how the Christian context affects how we approach Islam. In other words, what difference does a specifically Christian context make in how we approach Islam? Not just as an Abrahamic faith, but as a community committed to the particular gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, a question I would add is, How do Christian understandings of peacemaking shape how we approach violence carried out in the name of Islam? Related to this, how do pacifist traditions relate to Islam?

    Thanks for posting this idea. I hope it will come to fruition. Best wishes, Scott

  • The best approach, in my opinion, is a comparative religions course that covers, say, six main religions and explains what members of each of them believe and why. A standard “religious studies” course; it’s the best way to teach students understanding of other religions and how their adherents see the world.

  • Forgiven Sinner

    Islam is fundamentally opposed to the core beliefs of Christianity. It denies the deity of Jesus Christ, His death on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, His saving grace, and God’s plan for redemption. Islam is entirely and completely incompatible with Christianity. In regard to how Christians and Christian colleges should deal with islam, or any other faith, religion or philosophy that is opposed to Christian teachings – Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, as well as our enemies. That’s what needs to be taught in Christian colleges. We don’t need a grant or curriculum for that. We can cover that in 60 seconds at Freshman orientation.

  • Michael S. Jones

    I share your burden for this, Thomas. I was just talking to a friend of mine from Indonesia about how, in Muslim countries, Christianity (broadly conceived) is viewed as a violent and decadent religion, while in the West, Islam (broadly conceived) is viewed as the aggressor. And generally Western Christians respond to this by saying, “Well, it’s not MY type of Christianity that did those things,” completely unaware that peaceful Muslims can make a similarly nuanced distinction about their own version of Islam. I believe one problem is that we are much too unfamiliar with the “other” and much to quick to jump to ill-informed conclusions. We need to be both more careful and more nuanced.

    I teach a course on Jewish and Muslim philosophers wherein I show my students how many great theological and philosophical insights Christianity owes at least in part to our Jewish and Muslim intellectual forefathers. In this age in the West, it is Naturalism rather than competing versions of monotheism that is our most serious intellectual challenge, don’t you think? In some ways Jews and Muslims are our intellectual allies, are they not?