Va. H.S. shuts down over lesson on Islam

“I hold that it is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others’ religions as we would have them to respect our own, a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi.


The Muslim statement of faith, or shahada, on the flag of Saudi Arabia

Parents in a Virginia high school complained, in a sometimes-threatening way, when students were asked to copy some calligraphy that represents the Muslim statement of faith as part of a world geography class, and the school was shut down as officials acted “with an abundance of caution” Friday.

I don’t think there’s a parent alive in today’s world who doesn’t want their child to learn about different religious traditions, to study them so we can understand each other and live harmoniously in respect for each other. The Virginia Standards of Learning, in fact, require the study of world religions, as do the social studies standards in many states.

Yet there are some passages in the Bible or the Qur’an that I would prefer public school teachers stay away from when it comes to “sympathetically reading the scriptures of the world.”

As a teacher, I would not want students’ only view of Christianity to be gained from a cursory study of “Leviticus,” for instance. As a means of instruction, I would probably take them to the parable, told by Jesus, of the Good Samaritan, who helps a man on the road who has been left for dead, assuming I had a limited time to try to explain why Christians do what they do.

And in Islam, I would prefer students’ limited exposure to this religion held by about one and a half billion people today be from the Qur’an itself, not from anything resembling the political histories of the Islamic Empire that preceded the Mongol Conquest.

Islam made its entry onto the world stage when the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abd Allah (ca. 570–632) died in western Arabia, a fact that certainly must be included in any faithful study of this religion. But after his death, a series of “caliphs” asserted political, not just religious, authority over the Muslim community.

I would avoid dwelling on the time of the caliphate, unless students are interested in learning more about the history of Islam, since it has much more to do with the culture in sixth-century Arabia than in today’s America. I would rather the focus in religious education classes, which would be remiss not to discuss Islam at considerable length, focus on the parts of the Qur’an that show God’s mercy. These are more representative of Muslims today.

So, when a teacher in Virginia asked her students to write out Islam’s statement of faith in Arabic, which translates loosely to “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” in order to understand the artistry of calligraphy Muslims use to decorate their mosque walls, it could be a way of teaching American schoolchildren, most of whom, in this case, are Christian, that Muslims don’t use pictures of Muhammad or any prophet, including Jesus, like Christians do.

There are other ways, of course, to drive home this lesson besides having kids write something. Writing out a statement may be too close to the practice of a religious ritual.

When Christianity is taught, we don’t expect schoolchildren to engage in prayer, a practice that would be similar to writing out the shahada. They may study prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, or they may observe a Jewish temple service to learn about Judaism.

(I must confess, when I, as an adult, attended a service in a Jewish temple, I did wear a yarmulke. I figured, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Plus, the rabbi asked me to wear it and I felt it right and proper to honor the Jewish traditions.)

But in a public school classroom or field trip, wearing a yarmulke, engaging in prayer, wearing a hijab, and so on, are all “rituals” of a particular faith, and students in a public school cannot be compelled to practice these rituals as part of their attendance at the school.

A line needs to be drawn between “studying” other people’s religions, or as Gandhi said, “sympathetically reading the scriptures of the world,” and “practicing” other people’s religions by engaging in rituals of that religion.

I have no opinion about the Virginia teacher who asked students to try to replicate the calligraphy in order to teach them something important about Islam, and I’m certain parents overreacted when they sent hateful messages to school personnel, as did the school by shutting it down on Friday in response to the threatening messages.

But asking students to wear a hijab is too close to an actual ritual or practice of a religion, and public school teachers should probably avoid that as strictly as they avoid leading a prayer.

For further reading, Linda K Wertheimer quoted Gandhi, as I did above, in her book Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, which was published in August.

For further viewing, watch a 27-minute documentary entitled An American Mosque. It shows the struggle against intolerance in a rural California town, where a mosque was destroyed in 1994, probably the first hate crime against Islam to happen in the US. A farming community responds to hate through painful but positive discussions about the perception of Islam in America and our responsibility to defend everyone’s constitutional right to worship.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.