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:
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
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?