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Lesson Plan:
The Fundamentals of Islam: Debunking Stereotypes & Misconceptions

Chrystie Swiney
The College of William and Mary

Introduction & Objective:

For some Islam is a religion. For others it is a political ideology. And for still others it is a culture, a civilization, a group identity, or a historical phenomenon. For most Muslims around the world, Islam is some combination of all of these things. In fact, Islam, the world's fastest growing religion with over a billion adherents worldwide, is many different things to many different people with many different perspectives in many different parts of our increasingly globalized and interconnected world.

Perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty about Islam is that it is extraordinarily diverse. As the author of one of the primary course texts used in this lesson plan (Reza Aslan in No God but God) aptly states: "God may be One, but Islam most certainly is not." As such, understanding the diversity of Islam–the various faces, forms, expressions, manifestations, and interpretations of Islam–will constitute the core theme and objective of our class's quest to understand Islam.

Needless to say, it is impossible to speak and, even more, to teach, about one singular Islam. Islam, as a multiple, eclectic, and exceedingly multi-faceted phenomenon, eludes categorization or simple characterization. What Islam is and how it is practiced depends on whom you ask, in what corner of the world you stand, and a variety of other unique contextual characteristics. More importantly, how Islam is understood depends, first and foremost, on whether such an understanding is derived from original sources (the Quran and the hadith) or from empirical reality (the history books). Complicating things even further, texts from the classical era provide one view of Islam, while texts drawn from the modern era provide another; Islamic texts from the Arab world differ from Islamic texts produced in Europe; and texts written by believing and practicing Islamic scholars differ from texts produced by non-believing non-Islamic scholars, or non-practicing but believing Islamic scholars. Needless to say, to study and understand Islam can be an arduous, confusing, and, at times, conflicting experience.

For this reason, the journey into understanding the fundamentals of Islam is a circuitous, occasionally dizzying, and perhaps even contradictive adventure. The goal of this course is to capture and understand the extraordinary diversity that is Islam (not to define or encapsulate a single Islam). With this goal as our guide, one is able to embrace the nuance, the flexibility, and the incredible diversity that is Islam, while simultaneously embracing the core elements that unite all Muslims and underlie the Islamic faith worldwide.

I. Understanding the Fundamentals of Islam

Islam is perhaps the most misunderstood and misconstrued topic in America today. Muslims are often depicted in a homogenous, singular way and defined by the acts of a violent, anomalistic, minority; while Islam as a whole is often conflated with the negative images of Islam that dominate the media. In order to assess the veracity (or lack thereof) of the prevailing stereotypes about Muslims and Islam, it is crucial to understand the fundamentals of Islam. This section will help students learn the basics of Islam, in all its diversity and complexity.

Required Reading:

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. Random House, 2002.

Aslan, Reza. No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Random House, 2005/2006.

Ramadan, Tariq. In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Sonn, Tamara. A Brief History of Islam. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Assigned Podcast:

"Why the Prophet Muhammad Matters," Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders, Wisconsin Public Radio. May 12, 2010.

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. How do our authors' conceptions and descriptions of Islam differ from those prevailing in the media and among the general public?
  2. 2. How can we help to better educate the public about the true fundamentals of Islam?
  3. 3. Are there any kernels of truth to the existing stereotypes of Islam? If so, are there counterarguments that exist within the faith to oppose those stereotypes?

II. Islam & Violence

This section will explore, discuss, and dissect the prevailing stereotypes within the media and among popular culture in the post-September 11th era that portray Islam as a violent faith. The section will also examine how Islam is depicted in the media, movies, and popular culture, and juxtapose those depictions with the fundamentals of Islam as explored in Section I.

Required Reading:

Carpenter, Scott & Soner Cagaptay. "What Muslim World?" Foreign Policy, June 2, 2009.

Esposito, John and Dalia Mogahed. Who Speaks for Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think. Gallup Press, 2007.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Spiritual Significance of Jihad, Traditional Islam in the Modern World. 1987.

Pape, Robert. "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism." APSR, vol. 97, no. 3, August 2003, pp. 343-361.

Sageman, Marc. "Understanding Terror Networks." Foreign Policy Research Institute, November 1, 2004. [Speech summarizing his 2004 book, Understanding Terror Networks.]

Pew. "Little Support for Terrorism Among Muslim Americans." 2009.

Homework Assignment/ In-class Activity:

Have each of the students ask 10 people what one thing immediately comes to mind when they hear the word "Islam." Have the students write down and tabulate the responses. All of the names of participants should be kept anonymous, so that they will be encouraged to be honest. In class, write down all of the responses, recording the number of people who chose the same word to describe Islam. Likely the prevailing description will include terms such as "violent" or "misogynistic," or people will simply not know anything about Islam. Discuss how these opinions reflect common perceptions of Muslims.

In-class Documentary Viewing and Roundtable Discussion:

This is the documentary version of the assigned book, Who Speaks for Islam. Watch this together as a class, then hold an open roundtable discussion on the documentary allowing the students to freely offer what they found interesting, disturbing, illuminating, etc. Go through each of the chapters of the book to frame the discussion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. How does the book version of Who Speaks for Islam differ from the documentary version? What are the virtues of both? What are criticisms of both?
  2. 2. What stereotypes are debunked by the Gallup Study that informs both the book and the documentary?
  3. 3. What beliefs underlie the stereotype that Islam is a violent religion? What arguments exist within Islam to debunk these stereotypes?
  4. 4. What does Islam say about jihad? What is jihad?
  5. 5. What are the causes of terrorism? Does it have religious roots, or are there other ways to explain this global phenomenon?

III. Women in Islam

In this section, we will explore the fundamentals of what Islam has to say about the status of women, as well as the prevailing stereotypes and (mis)conceptions about Muslim women. The class will engage in an in-depth discussion about how the stereotypes match up with these fundamentals, and the ways in which an extremist minority identifying itself as Muslim uses Islamic theology to justify the mistreatment of women. This section will reveal how the fundamentals of Islam are entirely opposed to the prevailing views within popular culture of Islam's treatment of women.

Required Reading:

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University Press, 1993.

Ali, Syed. "Why Here, Why Now? Young Muslim Women Wearing Hijab." The Muslim World, Volume 95, Issue 4, October 2005.

Erlanger, Steven. "Burqa Furor Scrambles French Politics." New York Times, August 31, 2009. [For fun, explore the links within the article, as well.]

Esposito & Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam?, Chapter 4 ("What do Women want?").

Gallup. "Arab Women and Men See Eye to Eye on Religion's Role in Law." (2012).

Glazov, Jamie. "Atta's Rage Rooted in Islam's Misogyny." www.FrontPageMagazine,com, October 12, 2001.

Pasha, Kamran. "Lifting the Veil on the Debate over Veils." The Huffington Post, July 2009.

Stacey, Aisha Tahira. "Women in Islam: Oppression or Liberation?" www.islamreligion.net.

Wadud, Amina. Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. Preface, Introduction & Chapter One. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Watch in Class:

CNN. "French Niqab Ban Debate between Hebah Ahmed and Mona Eltahawy." April 23, 2011.

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. How does Stacey's characterization of Islam's view toward women differ from Glazov's ?
  2. 2. How can both of these views co-exist within one faith?
  3. 3. What do the fundamentals of Islam say about the status of women? What do existing stereotypes about Muslim women say about the status of women in Islam?
  4. 4. What are the arguments for and against the veil? What arguments exist within Islamic theology for and against the veil?
  5. 5. How is the status of Muslim women changing in the modern world?

IV. Islam & Democracy

Modern culture and prevailing stereotypes suggest that Islam, and the Muslim world, is against the principles of democracy. This section explores the veracity, or lack thereof, of this stereotype. It will engage the students in a debate on this topic, having them examine what the key theological sources (the Qur'an and the hadith) say about Islam's relationship to democracy, as well as what current realities within the Muslim world say about this relationship. The students will also explore the explanations surrounding the lack of democracy in parts of the Muslim world, and whether religious Islam is to blame. In so doing, they will explore the key political and social explanations that help to explain the lack of democracy in those parts of the Muslim world where democracy has been the exception rather than the rule. Students will also read the work of Muslim scholars who argue passionately for the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

Required Reading:

Council on Foreign Relations. "Middle East: Islam and Democracy."

Esposito, John and John Voll. "Islam and Democracy."

Hassan, Riffat. "Are Human Rights Compatible with Islam?"

Huntington, Samuel. "Clash of Civilizations." Foreign Affairs, 1993. [See here for additional background.]

Islamic Declaration on Human Rights. 1981.

In-Class Activity

Have the students divide themselves into two groups. Assign one group to study the arguments that Islam is incompatible with democracy and assign the other group to the arguments that Islam is compatible with democracy. Have the groups engage in a formal debate by allowing them to take turns presenting arguments, then giving them the opportunity to defend their arguments and debunk the other side's arguments. After the formal debate, come together as a class and have a round-table discussion on how the debate unfolded, highlighting that those arguing that Islam is incompatible with democracy are focusing on realities on the ground, whereas those arguing that Islam is compatible with democracy are focusing on theological sources and arguments. Discuss what these differences in argument style say about whether Islam is truly incompatible or compatible with democracy.

V. Conclusion: Future Prospects & Obstacles

Wrap up the class by discussing how current opinions differ from the fundamentals of the Muslim Faith. Examine current statistics on prevailing opinions, key theological arguments, and what Muslims actually say and believe about the topics explored in this course. Also, examine the ways in which these stereotypes and misconceptions can be rectified. Conclude the course by discussing the diversity that is contained within Islam and Muslim communities around the world.

Required Reading:

Obama, Barack. Speech at Cairo University. June 4, 2009.

Bowring, Philip. "Islam's Diversity." New York Times, June 9, 2009.

Pew. "The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity (2012)."

Pew. "Controversies over Mosques and Islamic Centers Across the US (2012)."

Pew. "Religion and the News: Islam and Politics Dominate Religion Coverage in 2011 (2012)."

Gallup. "Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West (2011)."

Council on American-Islamic Relations. "The American Mosque 2011: Report Number 1 from the US Mosque Study 2011."

Research Paper

Have the students write a research paper juxtaposing the fundamentals of Islam and the contemporary polls on Islam/Muslims. Have them choose among one of the topics explored in this course–Islam and Violence, Islam and Women, Islam and Democracy–and explore in depth what polls say about these topics, as well as what Islamic theology and Muslim public opinion have to say about these topics.

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