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Incorporating Information Technology into Courses on Islamic Civilization

Corinne Blake

STUDENTS IN MOST COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES in the United States have access to the Internet and other information technology, either through campus computer labs or their own personal computers. While sitting at a desk, students can “travel” to a wide variety of Internet sites to access vast amount of information about Islam, Islamic civilizations and societies, and contemporary issues in the Muslim world. Students can click to an Internet site in Britain to read the Quran in Arabic or English, jump to Japan to read translations of Persian poetry and literature, and go back to the United Kingdom to go to hear different Quran recitations. They can check out the latest news from the Iranian news agency, read hadith in translation at the University of Southern California, view pictures of mosques and historical buildings in Isfahan, read perspectives on the veil [ḥijāb] written by Muslims in different countries, jump to Turkey to read Sufi poetry in translation, then return to the United States to view pictures of Islamic miniatures, calligraphy, and carpets.

Internet material can enrich undergraduate courses on Islamic religion, history, and civilization by providing students with access to primary sources, multimedia, and research material that is often unavailable at smaller institutions. Through the Internet, students can gain exposure to the perspectives of Muslims and Muslim governments on contemporary news events. Students who have never had the opportunity to talk with a Muslim suddenly have access to a global community where different points of view within the Muslim community are expressed and debated. Professors can use material located on the Internet to develop assignments that encourage students to think critically and allow them to pursue their particular interests within the general theme of the course. The purpose of this chapter is to provide faculty interested in using information technology with ideas and suggestions about how to locate relevant material and incorporate it into courses.

Locating Relevant Material

A number of different types of material are available on the Internet. Perhaps the most useful material for courses on Islamic civilization is translations of religious texts and literature. One can locate at least eight different full text translations of the Quran, as well as translations of hadith collections such as Bukhari, Malik’s al-Muwaṭṭa’, and hadith qudsī in complete text and partial collections of Muslim and Abū Dawud. A number of legal texts have been put on-line, including selections from al-Maqāsid of Imam al-Nawawī, al-Shāfi‘ī’s Risālah, and numerous Shi‘i texts. There are translations of documents, including the Pact of ‘Umar, various edicts [farmān], and nineteenth-and twentieth-century treaties, as well as selections from manuscripts such as Busbecq’s Turkish letters, Ibn Battuta’s travels, Usmah b. Munqidh’s Autobiogra-phy, and al-Tanukhi’s Ruminations. One can find full text translations of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman literary classics, such as 1001 Nights, The Perfumed Garden,the Gulistanof Sa‘di, the Shahnameh of Firdausi, and the Book of Dede Korkut. There is also poetry: the Hanged Poems, Ghazels by Hafiz, poetry by Jalal al-Din Rumi, etc. A wide range of full text and selections from the writings of twentieth-century authors such as Sayyid Qutb, Taha Hussein, and Ayatollah Khomeini can also be found. While the translations of these texts vary in quality, in my view, most are adequate for use in survey undergraduate courses such as “Islamic Civilization.” Professors interested in using this material for more specialized upper-level courses can, of course, point out problematic passages.

In addition to massive amounts of translated primary source material, other useful material is available through the Internet. A number of Middle Eastern scholars have posted articles at various sites. There is a good deal of multimedia material: Quran recitations, music from various Islamic countries, poetry recitation, and photographs of Muslim art, architecture, and modern cities. Reference material such as detailed contemporary and historical maps and systems to convert Gregorian and Hijri dates can also be found on the Internet. For courses that deal with the contemporary era, news sources with detailed news written about and by Islamic countries and governments can be very useful. Students can access thousands of pamphlets and articles written about contemporary issues from various points of view.

The most time consuming part of using information technology for teaching is searching the Internet to locate material valuable and relevant to one’s course. By now, most people have a favorite search engine that they use to search for specific topics and subjects on the Internet; popular and established search engines include Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com), Dogpile (http://www.dogpile.com), AltaVista (http://www.altavista.com), and Google (http://www.google.com). Since search engines may locate thousands or even millions of mostly useless sites, this approach can be frustrating. A search of “Turkey” on Google in March 2002 yielded 6,810,000 responses (some of them with recipes for stuffing!), “Shiite” produced 37,300 responses, and “Quran” produced 399,000 responses.

Unless one is looking for a very narrow topic, I suggest beginning at one of the large Web pages that act as gateways, organizing links to sites related to Islam. There are many excellent gateways; those listed below are established sites that can act as a starting point to find links with other gateways as well as specific sites.1 The Internet Islamic History Sourcebook (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook.html) is an invaluable Web page that contains links to a large amount of material useful for courses on Islamic history. This site, which is drawn from the Ancient, Medieval, and Modern History Sourcebooks, includes links to material about Islamic religion, art, culture, and history from pre-Islamic Arabia to the modern period. There are links to articles by prominent scholars, as well as extensive translations of primary source material. There are also links to Quran translations, hadith collections, and historical maps of the Middle East.

To find useful material about virtually any topic related to Islam, Islamic history, the Middle East, and Middle Eastern countries, try looking at a well-organized site maintained by Columbia University (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/libraries/indiv/area/MiddleEast). This site, which is organized by region, country, and a wide range of topics—religion, language, literature, minorities, food, music, water, political violence, electronic journals and newspapers, etc.—serves as a gateway to massive amounts of information about Islam and the Middle East. The Middle East Center at the University of Texas also maintains a comprehensive site (http://link.lanic.utexas.edu/menic) organized by country and topics, including business/finance/ economics, government/country profiles, and oil/energy/natural resources.

A site at the University of Georgia entitled “Islamic Studies, Islam, Arabic, and Religion” (http://www.arches.uga.edu/~godlas) contains links to numerous sources for Islam, Islamic law, Sufism, Muslim women, Islamic art, Shi‘ism, etc. and includes annotations about most sites. It also includes a collection of articles about the events of September 11, the Taliban, and Osama bin Ladin, as well as links to other large gateways. An article I wrote entitled “Teaching Islamic Civilization with Information Technology” (http://www. albany.edu/jmmh, click on “past issues,” then “Vol. 1, 1998”), published in an on-line journal, Journal for Multimedia History, also contains numerous links to sources relevant for courses on Islamic civilization. The Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project (http://www.al-islam.org/organizations/dilp) and the Shi‘ah Homepage (http://shia.org) are good places to begin searching for information about Shi‘ism. In addition to the wealth of information available over the Internet, another option is to use some of the CD-ROMs published with sources on Islam and Islamic civilization. There are numerous CD-ROMs with translations of hadith and Quran and recitations of the Quran. A CD-ROM entitled “Alim,” for example, published by the ISL Software Corporation,2 includes the Quran in Arabic and in three translations, with simultaneous translations for comparative purposes, 30 hours of Quran recitation, and Syed Mawdudi’s introductions to the surahs. It also includes complete texts of hadith from Bukhari, Muslim, and others, biographies of Muhammad’s companions, and a chronology of Islamic history. The Islamic Computing Center in London (http://www.ummah.org.uk/icc/) carries a Windows and Mac product on disc entitled “Islamic Law Base” that contains volumes of fiqh about different law schools and translations of other legal material. They also have a CD-ROM entitled “WinSeera” that includes translations of four early biographies of the Prophet that can be searched chronologically or by theme. To find other useful CD-ROMs, try linking to the Islamic Computing Center or some of the on-line Islamic bookstores from one of the pages mentioned above.

The problem with CD-ROMs is that it can be difficult to discover what is available, and then they have to be purchased. It can also be problematic to make CD-ROMs available to students. They can be put in the computer lab, but it may not be convenient for commuting students to come to the lab, and the CD-ROM could be lost or stolen. One CD-ROM is not adequate for a large survey class, and it may be expensive to purchase more. At some universities, it is possible to put CD-ROMs on a universitywide server, often through the library, but not all companies allow their CD-ROMs to be networked and others charge high fees. Because of these problems, I tend to assign students material from the Internet and list CD-ROMs (available through the computer lab) as a backup for students who are having difficulty accessing sites.

Internet Assignments and Assessment

Once relevant material has been located, the next step is to decide what to use and how to use it. Locating material on the Internet can be time consuming, but the real challenge, as always, is deciding what to use and creating assignments based on the texts. Since most of the material listed above is primary source material, it can be used as any printed texts. With the Quran translations, for example, students could read specific surahs and note what they reveal about Islamic concepts such as the nature of God, Heaven and Hell, prophecy, righteous behavior, either in class discussion or in an essay. Students could be required to read specific hadith, or translations of Arabic, Persian, or Ottoman poetry or literature, and asked to discuss the material in class or respond to questions about what they read. Students could read articles written by Middle Eastern scholars on the Internet, instead of in-class handouts or library reserve. They could read several pamphlets on contemporary topics and compare the authors’ views. There are a number of sites on women in Muslim societies, for example, with numerous pamphlets that could be used for this type of assignment.3 In other words, any assignments that one would use with printed primary, secondary, or reference material can be used for material found on the Internet.

Some of the Internet material—chronologies, maps, biographies, photographs, etc.—can be assigned as reference to enrich students’ understanding of topics treated in class. After learning about Sufism, for example, students could be asked to explore one of the Sufi sites and write about or discuss what they learned. For a class on the Quran, students could listen to Quran recitations, look at the Quran in Arabic, or read Mawdudi’s introductions to surahs. For other classes, it may be appropriate to have students listen to Middle Eastern music or view photographs of Islamic art, architecture, and/or cities, then discuss or write about what they learned. Students could also be asked to look at historical maps and discuss or write about the expansion of the early Muslim empires.

The advantage of using the Internet in these cases would be ease of access, for both the professor and the student. Instead of ordering several books, finding tapes of Quran recitation or music, putting books and articles on library reserve, and/or laboriously photocopying a course packet, professors can simply type the links into the course syllabus.4 Students don’t have to buy translations of the Quran, Arabic or Persian literature, or expensive translations of hadith collections. They do not have to depend on library reserve or photocopied course packets; they do not have to listen to tapes in a lab. Instead, they can read or listen to assigned material on their computer at home or in the lab. Another advantage of using the Internet is access to material that is not available in the libraries of many smaller colleges. Most libraries have translations of the Quran and classics such as 1001 Nights, but they may not have translations of hadith collections, Persian literature, Islamic legal texts, newspapers from Muslim countries, contemporary pamphlets, etc. Learning about the wide variety of web sites related to Islam also encourages students to become lifelong learners. I had cynically assumed that once my students finished the course, they never looked at these sites again. After the terrible tragedy of September 11, however, several former students approached me to let me know that they had accessed some of the sites to gain a broader perspective on the events. One student said that he had directed friends who wanted to learn more about Islam to sites where they could read the Qur’an, newspapers from Muslim countries, opinion pamphlets, etc.

Using the Internet provides more than ease of access, however; it also allows professors to create assignments that give students more flexibility to pursue their own interests. Students can be directed to a site with news about a particular country, for example, and asked to read whatever stories they find interesting; they can be sent to a site with lots of opinion papers and choose papers on subjects of their interest. They can search hadith collections to find information about a topic of their choice. Students can be directed to a site with translations of many classics of Persian and Arabic literature, where they can choose to read whatever looks interesting to them. The whole class could read the frame story to 1001 Nights, then each student could be assigned to read a different story within the text. This individualized approach serves to enrich class discussions, as students in the class contribute different perspectives and approaches gained from reading a variety of materials on a common topic.

With the Internet, professors can also design assignments to develop critical thinking that would be difficult or impossible to complete with printed material. All the Quran translations and hadith collections on the Internet, for example, have search functions. Instead of using a concordance, which may not be available in the more affordable translations or in the library, students can use the search function to find passages about an assigned topic or a topic of their own choice. Since several hadith collections with search functions have been put on-line, students can be asked to locate hadith from two or three different collections about a particular topic, or a topic of their choice, then compare what they read. A site at the University of Southern California (http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran) enables students to compare different translations of the Quran easily. When students click on a surah, it comes up verse by verse in three translations: M. H. Shakir, Yusuf Ali, and Marmaduke Pickthall.

Using the Internet also allows students to compare material about specific topics from different sources. Students could choose one pillar of Islam—prayer, fasting, hajj, etc.—or any other topic and search for relevant passages in the Quran and hadith about that pillar or topic. They could then write an essay or engage in a class discussion about how hadith material compliments and elaborates on information from the Quran. Or one could pose a legal question and have students search the Quran, hadith, and other legal material to find relevant information and write their own fatwā. Similarly, students could be assigned or pick a legal issue and asked to search Sunni and Shi‘i hadith collections and other legal material to compare approaches to their issue in Sunni and Shi‘i traditions. In addition, there are a number of Internet sites that offer translations of the Bible with extensive search functions. Students could search for particular stories or prophets—Adam, Noah, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, etc.— mentioned in both, and compare Quranic and biblical approaches to these stories. They could also compare recitations of surahs by different shaykhs.

Some of the material on the Internet takes the form of sites dedicated to a particular topic—Sufism, Islamic art, Muslim women, contemporary news, opinion pamphlets, etc.—with extensive links. Students could be asked to develop answers to specific questions, using material from this site, or they could be directed to “explore” the site, that is, follow a specified minimum number of links. The question here is how to assess students’ work, how to determine whether they perfunctorily followed one or two links or thoroughly examined the site. One approach is to have students submit notes which include a record of the links they followed and any comments or reactions to the material. If students need to explore a number of sites, it may be easier to have them record comments and reactions in an Internet journal that is submitted periodically. Students could also discuss the site in class or prepare a formal presentation about it for the class. For a more formal assessment, students could be asked to write critical reviews of assigned sites. In addition to writing about their comments and reactions, the review could include analyzing who sponsored the site and wrote the articles, checking references cited, assessing biases, etc. This assignment is particularly useful in terms of encouraging students to approach information from the Internet critically.

Some professors use a listserv for their courses—private e-mail discussion groups available only to students enrolled in the course—-for assessment. To set up such a list, contact Academic Computing or the webmaster at your college. These lists are useful for recording information about any changes in upcoming assignments; they can also serve as a “discussion section” for the course. Students are required to check the list regularly; they are also required to participate by submitting material to the list. Students can be asked to submit questions and comments about printed, CD-ROM, or Internet material, for example, on a regular basis. Students can be asked to explore different sites about particular topics—each student could look at the web pages of a different Sufi order, for example, or each student could find news from different Muslim countries—and write to the listserv about what they found. Students could also read different sections of a large document—large literary works such as 1001 Nights, Shi‘i legal texts, etc.—and submit critical reviews of what they read to the listserv. Students could then engage in an e-mail “discussion” about the topic, using the wide variety of material provided by the whole class. Students can be graded on their contributions to the listserv, in terms of quality and, perhaps, quantity. If using a listserv seems too technologically challenging, of course these assignments could also be given as the basis for in-class discussion or as writing assignments.

Web Pages and Problems

I have tried to demonstrate that there is a lot of material about Islam and Islamic history available to students through the Internet. When I first began using these materials, I directed students to the various sites by typing web addresses in the syllabus. Students often had difficulty reaching the sites; they would not understand all the symbols, type the address incorrectly, and, in general, became very frustrated. A better approach is to develop a Web page for the course, with links to the required readings or sites. From this page, which can be a complete on-line syllabus as well, students simply click to reach the sites.

Developing a Web page used to be a complicated process that required knowledge of HTML. With the Web-authoring programs available now, anyone who can use a word processor can author a Web page. Links can be created on word processing programs such as Microsoft Word by clicking “hyperlink” under “Insert,” then typing in the Internet address. When the rest of the syllabus is complete, the document is saved as an HTML file. Many faculty members also have access to Netscape Navigator or other easy-to-use programs for writing Web pages. The truly technically challenged can hire student workers. Once the syllabus is complete and saved as an HTML file, the students need to learn how to access the syllabus. Most colleges and universities put on-line syllabi either in department Web pages or in a section for faculty Web pages.

In my experience, most students react positively to Internet assignments: with a few clicks of the mouse, they can access material that would take hours to locate in the library. Nonetheless, relying on technology can present problems. Even with the help of a course Web page, it is still sometimes difficult for students to access sites; the university’s system could be overloaded, there could be problems at the site itself, or there could be a traffic jam on the Internet “superhighway.” Students, especially those using computers at home that are not hooked up to high-speed modems, may become frustrated waiting for large sites with photographs and other multimedia material to download. Links that worked when the syllabus was first put together could be changed or even gone by the time students need to complete the assignment. Students at some colleges have difficulty accessing computers and have to wait in long lines, especially during midterms and finals.

Not all of these problems can be solved, but it is possible to avoid some problems and provide alternative solutions for students who are having difficulty. Check the links, of course, the week before the assignment is due. Advise students where to find additional open computer labs in the engineering school, the library, the business school, their local library, wherever. When the same material is available at several sites or through different entry points, as is often the case, put links to alternate locations in the syllabus to improve the chances that at least one of them will be working. There are a number of sites that include Quran and hadith translations, for example, and many literary classics are available through different sites. News about Muslim countries and contemporary pamphlets are also available at several locations. A CD-ROM with some of the material could be put in the computer lab or on the library server for backup. If the material is available in the college library, put copies on reserve for students who are having trouble accessing the sites. If the material is not available in the library, consider printing it out when writing the syllabus and putting it on reserve. In addition to providing backup in case of computer failures, students who dislike reading on a computer screen or prefer to read the material in print will benefit from having access to printed copies of the material.

The unreliable nature of technology and the problems discussed above can give students more—or at least different—excuses not to complete assignments. Some students may view assignments from the web as optional supplementary assignments rather than as required reading. I learned this the hard way when I gave an in-class writing assignment based on an Internet text, and 28 out of 35 students tried to claim that they had not read the material because their computer was “down.” In addition to providing alternative sites and paper copies of assigned material, giving written assignments, as always, helps ensure students actually complete the reading. Students also can respond in different ways—in a journal, a formal essay, or a submission to the listserv. They can also be assessed through writing short paragraphs in response to the material in class or through class discussions and presentations.

In conclusion, using information technology in undergraduate courses on Islamic Civilization—or any other subject—requires an initial commitment of time to locate relevant material, create assignments based on the material, and write an on-line syllabus. In return, students have access to primary sources and other material that used to be available only at larger institutions with developed research libraries. They now have flexibility to choose topics and explore their own interests related to the assigned subject, and they can continue to access this material even after they graduate and move away. Through written assignments and class discussion, they learn to approach the material critically and analytically and develop their ability to think critically. Students not only gain access to massive amounts of information about Islam and Islamic history, but they also become aware of the wealth of information (and misinformation) about almost any topic that can be found through the Internet.

NOTES

Some portions of this article were published in an on-line journal entitled Journal for Multimedia History at http://www.albany.edu/jmmh

1. Because of the ephemeral nature of Internet sites and addresses, I have included only a few sites that have been stable for several years. If the address listed becomes out of date, try to find the site with a search engine, putting the title of the site in quotation marks.

2. Their phone number is (800) 443–3636.

3. One of the most comprehensive and established sites is the Muslim Women’s Homepage, at http://www.jannah.org/sisters.

4. See below for more information about on-line course syllabi.

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