Furor on World Arabic Language Day 2015

How do we teach in the face of outrage?
How do we teach in the face of outrage?

Friday afternoon my friend told me to look at the news, that Augusta County Schools in Virginia closed because of a huge volume of outraged callers. The outcry arose from a religious-studies assignment for students to try their hand at Arabic calligraphy by copying the famous Shahada or “Testimony”: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Here is the assignment:

From Madhyamam.com
From Madhyamam.com

This was a cruel irony considering the significance of that day. That same morning I received a text from my sister. She knows of my language love and texted me, “Happy Arabic Language Day!” December 18 was designated by UNESCO in 2012 as World Arabic Language Day.

How do we celebrate languages among those who feel threatened doing so?

A complicated issue

This is a complicated issue because of multiple facets, combining Arabic language, Arabic people, and Muslim religion.

Since this assignment came from a religion class, it focused on Islam. You cannot study Islam without the importance of Arabic language and Arab people. God chose to reveal himself in Arabic, according to Islam, namely, as a text, delivered by Muhammad.

This assignment made sense in that you cannot understand Islam without the basic confession of the Shahadah. Also, calligraphy stands as the primary artistic expression in Islam, replacing iconography.

I believe that everyone should know the Shahadah as the basis of belief for billions of people worldwide. I also think people should be taught the Nicene Creed of Christianity and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. It’s religious literacy. Memorize them—all of them—so you can carry on an intelligent conversation with people from the world’s major faiths.

Similarly, let everyone learn samples of major world languages. These words will help them connect with more people.

How do we celebrate language?

People benefit from learning about other languages and other religions. Many people of this Virginia school district were not delighted by knowledge, but threatened the school and the teacher.

If people feel that one language is enough or only one religion should exist, we must confront the resistance. The point is to teach the reality of our world in all its complexities, if we want our children to function among different sorts of people. Do not shy away from teaching Islam—or Christianity, for that matter.

I know Christian Egyptians (Copts) who can carry on an intelligent conversation with religious Muslims because study of the Quran was compulsory in school. The Copts happily hold to their Christian beliefs; knowledge of the Quran did not threaten their own religion.

Their grasp of the complexity of Arabic literature and poetry, though, enriched them. Study of the Quran and Islam strengthened their intellect and knowledge of their neighbor.

Introduction to Islam in US schools offers a great opportunity to teach about the Arabic language and people. Memorize the Shahadah—in Arabic. Teaching this important world culture, language, and religion will help our children navigate an increasingly complex world.

What do you think? Should we introduce Arabic language via religious studies courses?
What do we do if people object?

Photo credit: gideon_wright via Foter.com / CC BY

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10 thoughts on “Furor on World Arabic Language Day 2015

  1. A memory comes to my mind: my former colleagues mother was born around 1920, I think. She grew up as a member of a German-speaking minority in Bosnia. She wanted to be an elementary school teacher and studied in Sarajevo. Among her fellow students were Muslims, Jews and Christians. Her university required any student who wanted to become a teacher to study not only their own religion, but also the basics of the two other religions. This fervently christian lady died a few years ago, but even as an old woman she would recite the Al Hamdulilah to any muslim who would listen to her. The Al Hamdulillah brightened and old lady’s life in her last years. It seems like a small thing, but I think it was worthwhile. Refusing to let your children learn something is the most stupid thing you can do.

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  2. Saw a tweet the other day that went something like: “They’re freaking out about kids learning an Arabic word in school. Wait until they find out where numbers come from!” I giggle-snorted. But seriously, one of the big tragedies of the world is that we are taught to see difference as scary instead of as interesting. Learning languages is a way to plunge into difference. Thanks for all your posts.

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  3. Interestingly, I was discussing this topic with a friend just the other day. She’s studying to be a teacher, and in talking about *my* beliefs (she’s agnostic, with an avidly anti-theist father) we realised that we’d had no religious exposure at all in the state schools we went to. We learnt about ancient Roman gods, about ancient Egyptian “chaos”, but never anything about Islam or Hinduism or certainly not Christianity.

    There was a Malaysian family in our last few years, and the oldest daughter was in our class and wore hijab. We knew nothing. As we were discussing it the other week, we were saying how we wished someone had just explained to us the basics of Islam. All I knew was that Maisarah was probably the only other kid in the class who believed in God.

    I think it’s pure foolishness to remain ignorant about what others believe when you don’t have to, so if I hear or read something about a faith or people group, I go and research it – by reading what THEY have to say about it. But I don’t know anyone else who thinks like that.

    This friend was telling me she reckons kids in primary school should spend a few weeks at a time looking at major religions and faiths. That seems to be what’s happening to spark this all off in your post. I think it’s definitely a good idea. Once I got to high school, I had friends who were Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, and Hindu… and even another Christian. Even so, I didn’t know anything about what they believed and I’m pretty sure they didn’t really know what I believed.

    But I do have to say one thing – if that assignment were given to me, I’d hand it in incomplete and fail rather than complete the Shahada. (Mind you, knowing the precocious little twerp I was in primary school, I’d probably have worked out how to alter it to say “… and Jesus is His Son”). I have no problem with learning about other faiths and learning other languages, I even encourage it, but I would never let it compromise my own faith. I don’t believe Muhammad was a prophet, so I can’t, in good conscience, say it aloud or write it out.

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    1. I’ve got to add, having grown up in a society which eschewed anything religious at all, now living in the same society that has moved on to “accept diversity” as long as it’s absolutely not Christianity at all, I’m all for the teaching of religions and cultures in schools, but… don’t leave mine out. If you teach kids about Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism, you’ve got to teach them about Christianity, too.

      Actually, do one better than that – teach them about ALL expressions of Christianity. Including Eastern Orthodoxy. I mean, I’m a western protestant myself, but I’m getting seriously fed up with people not realising that there have been Christians in the near and middle east for two thousand years and their tradition has not changed a bit. Who’s for learning a little Syriac or Aramaic or Old Slavonic in primary school?

      (Come to think of it, we could all learn Greek. The Greek Orthodox form a significant minority in my state.)

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m all for learning Greek and Syriac, Rachel! I agree that it would have been really helpful to have someone explain Islam to you. (I should do that with my kids, as there are plenty of kids in hijabs at their school.)

    I think that we can consider it a Christian duty to learn the Shahadah by heart. As Trippmadam mentioned, above, this Christian woman was able to bring comfort to an old woman because of her knowledge of Islam.

    I believe that language and religion are deeply meaningful to human beings as the basis of their identity. For this reason, I like to speak to both when I meet people, especially those who are marginalized. When I talk to Somalis about Islam in (broken) Somali, their faces light up.

    For this same reason, I understand why Christians feel slighted when we don’t learn about Christianity in school. They want to be able to express that part of themselves in school, too.

    However, religions are not equal. Ask any Hindu 7-year-old in the US to name a major Christian holiday, he can probably do it. Has he heard of Jesus? Sure. But ask a 30-year-old US Christian who Krishna is or when Diwali is celebrated, and you will likely not get an answer.

    I think we need to learn about all religions–and languages. Moreover, we should think more about how we treat others and less about how we are treated.

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    1. I don’t mind learning the Shahadah, but I wouldn’t write it or say it. There are plenty of Islamic prayers I don’t have a problem with, but anything venerating Mohammed is out of the question for me. But then, I also wouldn’t say anything venerating saints to demi-godhood, or any other latter-day prophet like Ellen White, for that matter.

      I’d like to think a 30-year-old white Australian would probably know the answer, but that’s probably the upper age limit. It might be different in, for example, Sydney, where there are a *lot* more Indians and Bangladeshis, but where I live, most people could probably tell you what lunar year it was, but know basically nothing about Hinduism. (For what it’s worth, I do know that Diwali’s in early November, Chanukah’s in early December, and Lunar New Year is in early February – I also know our long holidays encompass all of them, but I think that’s mostly coincidence).

      I haven’t any problem with learning about Islam at all. I just know that I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying something I don’t believe, like the Shahada, so I think it should be approached with caution if children are saying or writing things they don’t understand. I wouldn’t expect Muslim children to have to write or say the Nicene Creed, because I know that they couldn’t agree to most of what’s in it, but I’d be thrilled if everyone at least knew what it was!

      (I think it might be slightly unrealistic to learn about all languages, though, given there are about 7000 in the world. Definitely we should learn a bit of the major world languages, as well as whatever the local indigenous language is – I frankly think it’s appalling that I know only three words of the language of the area I grew up, but that’s a discussion for another time).

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  5. Hi there. As a Muslim, I could probably relate to how these Christian parents were feeling. I do not mind learning other faiths, languages and writing but having to write the Shahada was something else totally. These shahada are the ultimate statements that represent our belief. You might not want to say it, if you don’t believe in it, what more write it one.
    As a Muslim, I wouldn’t want to do something similar of other religions, because I just don’t feel right about it.
    I guess they should have been more careful in selecting the phrase for the kids to write. The shahada could have just been shown to give example of beautiful Arabic calligraphy, but fir the kids to write, they can just choose any Arabic proverb that is not religious-based.

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    1. As a Christian, I’d be fine with that. Like I said, there are many Muslim prayers (and many other Arabic proverbs, for that matter, as you point out) which I’d be happy with, but I don’t agree with/believe half of the Shahada. I wouldn’t expect you to say the Creed, either. I hadn’t thought about how Muslims might feel about non-Muslims saying the Shahada if they don’t understand/believe it, though. I enjoyed your comment and it made me think.

      And I also agree with Trippmadam, who says that we should at least try to get on with our mutual belief in a single God. I’m pleased that the internet has allowed us to have a rational discussion here.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t (and did not) mean to offend anyone here, but I believe that God is only One, even if we call him by different names or have different prayers. Why not try friendly co-existence and mutual respect?

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