WHAT CAN ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS LEARN FROM ISLAMIC STUDIES? by Courtney Dorroll

cdorrollWhat has Istanbul to do with Constantinople?

Ever since Arab armies conquered vast swaths of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, replacing an Eastern Christian imperium with an Islamic one, Orthodox Christians have struggled to maintain their communal identity in Muslim majority societies. As minority populations, Orthodox Christians in majority Muslim societies have often been victims of the kinds of injustices that beset minority communities in every part of the world, ranging from social stigmatization to mass violence.

At the same time, Muslim minorities in Orthodox societies have often been met with the same kinds of difficulties. And due to their geographic proximity to one another, Muslim and Orthodox empires and nation-states have often competed over the same territory and resources. The history of relations between these two faiths has even included genocide and ethnic cleansing.

And yet, as is frequently the case in the history of multi-ethnic empires such as the Ottoman and Russian empires, communal relationships between these two faiths more frequently exhibit patterns of coexistence, shared lifeways, and parallel cultural development at both the elite and provincial social levels. Because of this complex history, a nuanced understanding of Islam and Islamic history may be particularly beneficial for Orthodox Christians, whether in the secular academy or the seminary.

My edited volume, Teaching Islamic Studies in the Age of ISIS, Islamophobia, and the Internet (Indiana University Press, 2019) can help address this need for understanding. This volume helps illustrate the current issues surrounding teaching about Islam in a Western context. Authors are all professors at Western colleges or universities, and range from those practicing Islam and teaching in Islamic seminaries with a theological perspective to those teaching at state universities and who are themselves secular and teaching from a religious studies perspective.

The volume is meant for anyone who wants to familiarize him- or herself with the main methodological and conceptual challenges in approaching this field. It provides a window into how teachers in this field understand their practice, the challenges that accompany it, and the strategies they use to meet these challenges.

The book outlines the struggles an Islamic Studies instructor faces in contemporary times where students, parents, and the public often come to an Islam class with preconceived assumptions or fears related to the religion at hand. Though Islamophobia is not unique to post-9/11 America, this volume deals with contemporary issues pertaining to Islamophobia and the struggles that the study and teaching of Islam face today.

In the years since 9/11, the rise of social media has coincided with the development of Islamophobia in American culture and politics, and the global spread of jihadist ideologies has been intertwined with both of these developments. These events have combined to produce even more challenging discourses and politics surrounding Islam in the West.

In this new pedagogical environment, this new volume tries to answer the following questions:

  • How can teachers introduce Islam to students when daily media headlines can prejudice students’ perception of the subject?
  • Should Islam be taught differently in secular universities than in colleges that have a clear faith-based mission?
  • What are strategies for discussing Islam and violence without perpetuating stereotypes? 

Answering these questions is crucial to not only teaching but also understanding Islam and Islamic history. The volume tackles the complex yet urgent question of understanding fraught topics in the digital age: when our exposure to a topic is so deeply informed by negative media imagery, what steps need to be taken to achieve understanding?

For teachers in Islamic Studies our task is to both contextualize the negative imagery our students are inundated with, and also to deal sensitively with the complex and traumatic situations often depicted in such imagery. The severity of the reality of terrorism depicted in media imagery, for instance, must be addressed. At the same time, its minute scale in relation to the larger history of Islam and the contemporary Muslim experience must also be explained if we are to communicate to students what Islam and its history mean.

Educating in the space between extremist actions and popular anxieties is the task of Islamic Studies today. The insights this volume provides will therefore be of particular interest to communities such as Orthodox Christians, who sometimes find themselves existing in this space with respect to Islam and Muslims. It is hoped that the volume will be beneficial to anyone wishing to orient her- or himself in the difficult but rewarding task of learning about Islam in the present moment, where understanding is both more urgent and more difficult than ever.

What Orthodox Christians can learn from Islamic Studies is how to approach Islam on its own terms, particularly with reference to the contemporary political and social context. Orthodox students, scholars, and teachers might even find surprising similarities in the historical experiences of these two faiths: both traditions are deeply rooted in the same parts of the world, and are both minority communities in the modern West. They have a shared history that Islamic Studies pedagogy can help uncover.

Teaching Islamic Studies in the Age of ISIS, Islamophobia, and the Internet can be ordered directly from Indiana University Press.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue publishes both book reviews and summaries. Check here for the difference between the two and their respective requirements.

Courtney Dorroll holds a PhD in Middle Eastern and North African Studies from the University of Arizona in Tucson. She is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and North African Studies and Religion, as well as coordinator of the Middle Eastern and North African Program (MENA), at Wofford College in Spartanburg SC. She is married to Dr. Phil Dorroll, who has also written for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

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