My career as a history teacher began in 1970. Scholars at that time viewed medieval through modern history through the prism of technological progress, the evolution of democracy, and the struggle between the competing ideologies of capitalism and communism.
By 1990, the curriculum was changing. Communism had collapsed and a new world order was emerging. The West, led by America and the European Union, felt affirmed by history in the success of globalization, capitalism, communications technology, and democracy.
By 2011, the teacher has had to make further adjustments. The West has awakened to the fact that there is more at play in the world than their brand of values. One of the new realities that plays itself out in the world and in our neighborhoods is the arrival of Islam.
When I started teaching in 1970 there were reportedly 1,335 Muslims in British Columbia. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (www.pewforum.org) claims that in 2010 there were 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, a number that is anticipated to rise to over 2.2 billion by 2030. In Canada and the United States, the Muslim population in 2010 numbered 940,000 and 2,600,000, respectively. By 2030, it is anticipated those numbers will rise to 2,700,000 (Canada) and 6,200,000 (United States). These facts suggest the growing global presence of Islam.
The question for educators in Christian schools is this: Will our students know about Islam and how it has shaped the history of the world since the sixth century? Are our students aware that the Muslim presence will continue to grow and take on a more public face in Canada and the United States?
A Muslim family and in some cases a mosque and a Muslim school may be coming to a neighborhood near you. I live in metro Vancouver where that is the new reality. So my suggestion to teachers at all grade levels is to become informed about Muslim belief and practice.
Daily, the media draw attention to global and local events and issues that have a Muslim component. Very often the message is fearful and condescending to the Muslim religion. David W. Shenk, a pacifist by conviction, takes a respectful look at Islam in this very perceptive and helpful book. In the process, he makes it clear where fundamental differences exist between Islam and Christianity. Christian teachers should be encouraged to read Shenk’s book for a compassionate, factual account of Islam and a comparison of the beliefs of Islam and Christianity. His Anabaptist (Mennonite) perspective comes through, but it does not overshadow what he sets out to do. I have read a number of books on Islam, and this one is rich in details. His comparisons help the reader to understand the worldview differences between Islam and Christianity.
Shenk has spent a lot of time living and communicating with regular Muslim folk and academics. The stories he tells are fascinating and compelling. The conviction of devout Muslims to their religion, beliefs, and duties, remind us that there are many people in the world for whom this religion means everything. Shenk also makes clear that Islam intersects in surprising ways with stories found in the Old Testament and the Gospels.
The fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity are many. One difference of special note is how Jesus is viewed. Although Jesus (‘Isa) is revered in the Qur’an and his miraculous birth is accepted, the idea that Jesus could be God (Allah) is considered blasphemous. Shenk excels at showing how this key component of Islam has shaped Muslim history and culture.
Another difference Shenk explores is how the Muslim idea of ummah compares with that of church. The ummah in the past and still today has a territorial and political dimension, while in Christianity the church, at least today, has no direct political power. Although Christians can point to a time when the church had political power, this apparent advantage compromised its mission. The ummah, however, feels comfortable living with political power. For example, Mohammed, the final prophet, was both a prophet and a political leader.
Some readers may be surprised by Shenk’s gentle approach. Among Christians there is often a suspicion of anything Muslim. This book certainly brought back a balance to my understanding of the Muslim people. Across the street form my home lives a conscientious Muslim family originally from Pakistan. In a development not unlike that of many Christian families that I know, the children sometimes adopt the duties of the Muslim religion as they grow up, while others are more attracted by secular society.
Seek out your Muslim neighbor and inform yourself of their religion. Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist Fundamentalism get a great deal of attention in the media, who have tainted our view of this community. There is much more to our Muslim neighbor than our media reports on.
There are other books worth the attention of Christian educators. For example:
- Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their religious beliefs and practices, Third edition, Routledge 2005.
- Mateen Elass, Understanding the Koran Zondervan 2004.
There are also some interesting YouTube sites that allow the teacher and student to hear and see readings from the Qur’an in Arabic with English subtitles. This may enhance an appreciation for the Qur’an, a book very unlike the Bible in terms of content and structure and therefore sometimes difficult for us to access. For example, there is no narrative structure to the Qur’an, which is believed to have been written in Arabic by Allah through an angel to Mohammed. The original Qur’an is in heaven.
There are countless websites that display beautiful mosques, Muslims at prayer, and images of the Hajj (pilgrimage).
The Christian Teachers Association of British Columbia hosted an all-day conference for high school teachers on February 25, 2011 on Muslim beliefs and practices and how they affect our world today. I encourage all teachers to make it a matter of their own professional development to become better informed about Islam. This book would be a good place to begin.