Islam in the Christian College?

Islam in the Christian College? July 6, 2015

(The conference mentioned below in this previous post has been funded and will take place on the campus of Gordon College on September 21, 2015. For more information, write to or go to

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?

(This post originally appeared on September 2, 2013. See top of post for information about actual conference.)

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