Many thanks to Thomas and his class at the William Penn Charter School – an educational institution built on Quaker values, for inviting me out to speak on Islam again. I have spoken before at William Penn and am always impressed with Tom’s class. This term, Tom was teaching a class centered around the theme of Peoples of the Book. The main text they were reading for the class was Karen Armstrong’s piece.
I spoke on the concept of the People of the Book, namely Jews and Christians, and how they were spoken of in the Qur’an and mentioned in the Sunnah but I also elaborated on the cultural knowledge of the pagan Arabs and what they knew of in terms of stories from the Torah or the Bible. A great deal of Orientalist scholarship has tried to paint the Arabian peninsula as being more isolated than it was. More recent scholarship counters that despite paganism and idolatry being a prevalent practice amongst the Arab tribes of Arabia pre-7th Century, the narratives of Moses, Jesus and Abraham, just to name a few, were known to these Arabs and thus were relevant to them. We also examined how not only is Islam seen by other religious traditions but more importantly, how does Islam see itself in the context of the People of the Book.
Continuing about the legacy of Biblical stories in the Arabian peninsula, without their cultural familiarity of these stories the Qur’an’s relevancy would have been greatly dimmished, hence giving rise to new and alternative scholarship that suggests the Arabian peninsula was more connected to its neighbors, primarily through trade, than has been previously suggested.
I also fielded questions from a number of students, with topics ranging from 9/11 [a perennial question] to how do Muslims negotiate marriage with non-Muslims. We also discussed the role that religion plays in informing social and cultural participation in religion. One of the students, whose family hails from a historical Muslim country, described his family dynamic which consisted of three generations in his household: his grandfather, his parents and he and his siblings. The grandfather still practiced, praying 5 times a day and so forth with the student’s parents being more lax in their religious consistency and finally the student, who said that he didn’t not think much about religion at all. All three generations seemed to function under one roof but more to the above point about culture, we had discussed whether or not, if his family had stayed in their country of origin, would he have been more apt to have had some form of communal practice. By coming and staying in America [i.e., his identity forming here] and his parents not being full-time practitioners, their religious practice tapered off to reflect their environment, where there were no secondary or tertiary enforcements to inform his religious consciousness.
We also discussed the phenomenon of Islam in the Blackamerican community. As a case point, illustrating the mass familiarity Blackamericans have with Islam, one of Blackamerican students in the course stated his grandfather was a Muslim. A brief talk was given to the unique status that Blackamerican Muslims hold as an indigenous American community, whose door is [currently] open to Islam and Blackamericans can freely choose to be Muslim without having to sacrifice anything in the public sphere.
I look forward to going back again. I congratulate Tom on running such an informative course for his students to learn about the many religious traditions we have in America.