Many misconceptions have spread about Islam. Western media perpetuate the myth that Islam is violent and Muslim women are oppress. Films like American Sniper, which depict Iraq as a dusty, war-zone devoid of culture and history, are popular. Anxiety and fear manifest in Islamophobic acts like burning mosques and attacking people.
Ignorance is at the root of this fear. According to a December 2015 poll, 52 percent of Americans don’t know Islam. 36% of those polled also stated that they would like to learn more about Islam. It was interesting to note that those younger than 30 were 46 percent more likely have a positive view of Islam.
These statistics show an opportunity for educators. As an academic in Islamic art and architecture, I know that educators have worked hard over the past two decades to improve Islam teaching, both in high school history classes and college courses. However, the problem is that Islam’s teachings have restrict to its religious practice. Its effects on culture and the arts, especially in the United States, are rarely discuss.
What Islam Teachings Are Missing?
High school history books do not mention the intertwined histories between Europe, Asia, and Africa during the Renaissance and middle ages. Even less said about the time when art, literature, and architecture flourish.
The 10th chapter of a New York Public High School World History textbook includes the Muslim World section. It condenses a thousand years worth of history, from the seventh century to the 17th centuries. The focus is on the Arab armies, and the rise of early modern Muslim kingdoms.
This narrow focus overlooks the cultural exchanges that took place during this time. The Troubadour poets of medieval Spain borrowed their poetic beauty from Arabic, for example. From the 15th century, Arabic was the southern Spain’s court language. The 12th century Palatine Chapel in Sicily was similarly paint and gild according to the imperial style used by the Fatimids (the rulers of Egypt from the 10th through the 12th centuries). These exchanges are common because of the mobility of ideas and people.
It is important to understand the cultural history of Islam. The Byzantine empire, Roman empire and Sassanian empire (pre-Islamic Persian empire), all provide models for the story of Islam. These overlaps have continued through the centuries, creating heterodox and cosmopolitan communities.
The 19th-century term Middle East, which was use to describe the complex social, cultural and religious mosaics or religions that existed in the region most closely linked to Islam, is not accurate. The importance of the arts in explaining important connections.
What Can Educators Do To Increase Literacy?
My view is that a more complete picture of identity could be paint if it wasn’t limit to religion. Teachers could instead focus on cross-cultural exchanges across borders through the work of poets, artists, musicians, and architects. The important connections between Islam, other world histories, and the arts, both visual, musical, and literary, could illustrate in high school as well as university.
A class on Renaissance could help explain how Gentile Bellini, an Italian painter from the 15th century, was able to gain fame at the court Mehmet II, the conqueror in Istanbul. Mehmet II ask Bellini to create an imperial portrait, which sent to European rulers. His art is a beautiful example of the artistic exchanges between early modern cities like Delhi, Istanbul and Venice.
Students might find it helpful to learn that Rembrandt, a Dutch painter, collected miniature paintings from the Mughal Empire. The Safavid empire silks (the Iranian dynasty that ruled from 16th to 18th centuries) were so popular, Polish kings had their coats of arms made in Isfahan.
Age Of Enlightenment Islam
The exchange of art continued well into the Age of Enlightenment. This was a time when Europe was rapidly reorienting its ideas in science, politics, and communications. An Enlightenment class may show that Montesquieu and other writers turned to the Middle East in order to critique their own religious institutions.
An example of a poetry class that could show connections between Wolfgang von Goethe’s writings, Islam, and his poems is West-Eastern Diwaan, a collection of poems. This masterpiece of world literature was inspired by Sufism, a mystical tradition in Islam, and was modeled on classical Persian poetry.
These connections are easily seen by most students, even though it may require them to overcome their preconceptions about Islam. Students are often surprised when I tell them that Cairo and Fez are the oldest continually run universities in the world. It is difficult to separate historical fact from contemporary politics, and to better understand the culture, diversity, and history of a religion almost 2,000 years old.
A recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition titled Jerusalem 1,000-1400. Every People Under Heaven could be a lesson for educators. It shows how Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, borrowed freely from one another in the areas of art, literature, and music. Jerusalem was home of many people and the arts played a significant role in its religious and political life.
Muslims In America
It is not a matter of the past. These connections are evident today, in America where Islam is an integral part of the culture. It has been for centuries. The contributions of Muslims can be seen from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago’s skyline. Its complex rhythms and vocalizations included the rituals of Islamic devotion that many of them had to abandon. Architecture is no exception. The Sears Tower in Chicago is a classic example of American modern architecture, designed by Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Bangladeshi-American structural engineer.
Contributions of Muslims to architecture and art reflect not only the diversity of America but also the diversity in Islam. The rich diversity of American Muslims is reflected in their diverse ethnicities, languages, and cultures. This knowledge is especially important for young Muslim Americans who are often made to feel outsiders in a country.
This religious literacy is a vital role for educators, particularly in the arts and humanities. It helps students see the unity in diversity. The 13th-century Muslim mystic Rumi, who is America’s most famous poet, wrote these words. All religions sing the same song. These differences are illusions and vanity.